Every remarkable individual possesses an origin story. Whether it's Bruce Wayne witnessing his parents' tragic demise in a dim alley behind a theatre, Peter Parker getting bitten by a radioactive spider during a school outing to a cutting-edge laboratory, or even Percy Spencer inadvertently melting a chocolate bar in his pocket while attempting to construct a radar set, ultimately leading to his invention of the microwave oven – a factually accurate account, by the way.
My own origin tale, however, strayed from such narratives; it leaned more towards the authentic experiences of everyday life. The allure of working with wood had captivated me since my early days, whether I was tinkering in my father's shed, fashioning items from old furniture, or that memorable instance when anger drove me to put my foot through my sister's door. Woodworking had become an intrinsic part of my being. This affection to wood ran through my blood, originating with my grandfather whom I never had the chance to meet. He would carve regimental crests from wood for army friends, during the war, sending them as heartfelt tokens to their loved ones back home. After his return from active duty, he took to fashioning intricate horse-drawn caravans from my lolly sticks and my grandmother's curtains (she loved telling me this story, and I loved her telling me) – one of these ornate creations now graces my dining room, serving as a testament to his craftsmanship.
Hence, one could say that my expertise and ability were inherited from him – a truly beautiful legacy. However, my affection for woodworking didn't take actual shape until I embarked on a three-month residency of Australia to visit my brother in his new home just outside of Brisbane. It's worth noting that when people say "just outside" in Australia, they actually mean a bloody long way.
His property sprawled across vast area. A five-acre expanse enveloped his home, complete with a gated driveway, a four-car garage with additional workshop space, and even a proper swimming pool next to the house. Not a flimsy plastic pool – a genuine one with concrete steps and an accompanying small shed for the electrical bits. Surrounding the pool stood an aged, unsteady fence, which had to be dismantled in accordance with Australian pool fence regulations, replaced by a new, sturdy metal fence equipped with the “to code” gate and locking mechanism. This alteration aimed to stop unsupervised children from wandering into unsecured properties and inadvertently falling into inadequately fenced pools.
The question remained: what to do with a substantial stockpile of premium Australian timber that was destined to be reduced to ashes? A thought materialised – why not make something! I mean, my brother possessed an extensive array of tools, procured before departing the UK. Brand-new tools that had never been subjected to any real work, still covered in the factory protective wraps and sheets to prevent rusting. Accompanying these tools was a treasure trove of woodworking magazines, particularly the American woodworker, for those that still remember it.
I was the proverbial pig in… well let’s keep this family friendly. The prospect of using tools I had never encountered before was somewhat daunting for a 16-year-old. Even now, there are grown men who shy away from using a router due to its intimidation factor. So, in a manner that might be considered entirely rational, I dived into the unknown, reading the manuals and learning to wield each tool properly, all in the spirit of not causing myself undue harm. Okay, perhaps my approach wasn't that restrained, but my philosophy was founded on learning through hands-on experience and embracing learning opportunities as they arise.
Subsequently, several days were immersed in magazines, absorbing knowledge about half laps, the intricacies of crafting side tables, and even the humble dovetail joint. Amongst the plans I read, a particular table design caught my fancy – a design I was adamant on creating. Conversations with my brother led to a visit to the local store to procure a new dovetail saw, which I happily paid for, considering I would likely be its sole user. The excitement of starting my creative journey overwhelmed any minor financial consideration.
Armed with my new saw and the table plans, I embarked on the task of selecting timber from the impressive assortment sprawled on the driveway – that same sprawling driveway connecting the veranda and the four-car garage, if I hadn't mentioned the size yet. My daily ritual commenced with a cup of coffee and a serene moment on the veranda, observing the sun's ascent over the seemingly endless scrubland. As the sun's rays gradually roused the concealed kangaroos, prompting them to stretch out in the morning light before finding new spots for their early siestas, I couldn't help but marvel at this spectacle – an image forever etched in my memory.
With the effects of caffeine setting in and the tranquillity of the Australian sunrise having its intended effect, I would begin the process of dragging tools from the spare room to the veranda. Fortunately, I could work in the shade, as temperatures quickly soared into the high 30s and low 40s degrees Celsius. Setting the radio's station to triple J, I would embark on my table-making venture. Reflecting on my experiences, I've always advised aspiring woodworkers to commence with hand tools, gaining experience before amassing a collection of equipment. Regrettably, I didn't heed my own advice; I delved straight into the project – after all, who wouldn't?
Planning the wood to achieve a flat surface and squared edges was my initial step. This was followed by sessions with the thicknesser and table saw, aimed at refining each piece. I unveiled tools I had never encountered before, diligently following the instructions outlined in my woodworking magazines – YouTube wasn't around back then to provide visual guidance. The magazines were my go-to resource.
As dusk settled, my brother would return home, and together we would wander around the property. We would tend to the chickens, pluck ripe strawberries, or take a refreshing dip in the pool – an icy plunge that jolted us awake. We would then sit and discuss my newfound knowledge and the progress of my project. Looking back, I suspect my brother's main relief was that his tools and home remained unscathed. I still recall the mixture of expressions on his face when I managed to jam a router bit using the wrong collet, requiring a fair bit of effort to remove the bit, subsequently destroying it at the same time.
After days consumed by the joy of crafting a remarkable furniture piece, I reached the completion of my project. The hours and diligence dedicated to crafting dovetail joints could have mistaken me for a serene monk, embodying tranquillity, and harmony. In reality, my heart raced, and butterflies churned in my stomach like those found in the halls of London's Natural History Museum. Despite this, the finished product stood as a labour of love, igniting a passion for both hand and power tools, as well as the art of woodworking.
Upon my return to the UK, this love was curbed. In the throes of adolescence, I took up a role in a media office, an uninspiring path that had me glued to a desk, verifying news headlines and enduring conversations that no 17-year-old should be subjected to. Amidst this monotony, a yearning persisted, prompting me to eventually request a meeting to tender my resignation. With barely a hint of prior notice, I had already booked a flight to Australia, a decision I'd scarcely shared with my parents until it was all set-in stone.
In hindsight, the wisdom that comes with hindsight often casts a clearer light on our choices. I should have pursued woodworking education at a local college, embarking on a career that would allow me to remain on the tools I loved. Alas, that was not my calling in life. In truth, the primary motivation behind my move back to Australia was an ache to be with my brother once again. Now a year older, I found myself back on his expansive property, fashioning more extraordinary pieces of furniture. Immersed in a vibrant community of individuals and set amidst a picturesque landscape, this chapter ignited a profound love for handcrafted works and the artistry of woodworking.