Woodworking Life – Part 1

My first memories of a woodworking shop were of my grandfather’s shop in Glasgow, Scotland.

He was Lithuanian. His name was Mathius Balaiki and he fled to Scotland with his brother, Brankus, to escape from Germany sometime during the 1930’s. Their names were later changed to Mathew and Branky Blakey.

My grandfather had a very small piece of hand-made cigarette stuck to his bottom lip as a permanent fixture on his face. On closer inspection, you could see burn blisters on his lip – maybe he fell asleep with this cigarette still lit and it stuck to his lip. Anyway, it was always there, the same size, about half an inch long. Wondering how it would stay in place used to fascinate me.

Grandfather’s shop was under a stone-built Victorian railway arch that led to Glasgow Central Station. There were quite a few businesses housed under those old arches. I remember them as being very dark, with wet dripping stonework, damp and cold inside – but then again, it was Glasgow and everything was cold and wet. My mum used to take me to the shop and leave me with these two old grumpy men from another country with limited ability to speak English. I guess my mum was working and we had no babysitters.

I loved them and being in the shop dearly – the smells of freshly sawn wood and animal glue are locked in my head forever because of that experience.

Once I started school, I would visit the shop whenever I could. I’d stop by when coming home, maybe around the age of nine or ten.

My main job (designed to keep me busy and out of trouble) was to break up big slabs of horse glue into little pieces so we could fit them in the glue pot. The glue pot was a kind of small pot that fit inside a bigger pot filled with heated water so the toffee-like glue could melt and then be spread on the wood joints. This was laborious work and kind of stinky when the glue started to melt. I’d watch that pot boil for many hours while I stirred that glue.

The shop workmen made chairs – every kind, but not the real high-end Chippendale stuff. Just regular, everyday types of chairs. They made chair frames and sofa frames to be upholstered and I remember stacks and stacks of these frames piled high upon each other. It seemed like everyone in the shop was kept pretty busy.

The primary wood used was European Beech, which was hard as iron. The joints in the frames were mainly doweled. The glue was spread by a brush into the holes and then the dowels were knocked in and the joints were assembled and clamped. It was all done with a practiced skill and things went together very fast.

The only machine in the shop was a huge bandsaw. I was never allowed near it and, as a result, it fascinated me. It was enormous, all cast iron wheels and spokes, and had a huge blade. I can still picture it in my mind’s eye.

The floor and most of the bandsaw were always covered in red sawdust from the beech. The smell of that damp pile will forever be with me – it was glorious! I loved to run my hand through that dust just to pick it up, smell it and feel it run through my fingers. I still do the same thing today in my own shop. Back then, there was no dust collection system, though I don’t remember it being particularly dusty. Maybe the damp air kept the dust down.

Sometimes the workmen would let me spread the glue on the ends of some rails, drive some dowels into the holes, and then pass the rails to them. Maybe this helped the system along, but it’s more likely that I was given the task just to make me feel important.

Around the age of fourteen or so, I asked them for some wood to make a little fold-down workbench. Boy – that wood was heavy! I got some rails and some flat boards and I took them home.

We lived in an old Victorian tenement with shared toilets on the outside stair landing. There were about three families on each landing. The apartments were very small with one kitchen, one living room, with recesses in each room for a small bed. There was a closet/cupboard in the small entry hall and I decided to make a foldout bench top behind that closet door.

I had a little saw and an old chisel and I made my first dovetail on those rails to make a frame for the top of the bench. I then hinged it to the back of the door and screwed the top to the frame. I then got a little hobby vice that attached to the top of the workbench with a clamping screw and I was all set. It took a bit of effort and thought to get it all to work, but I finally completed my first workbench.

I loved that bench. Every day I came home from school, got little bits of wood, and cut out stuff. I remember getting a “Hobbies” fretsaw and little fretsaw table that I clamped to the bench and I started fretting out all sorts of stuff such as little Alpine musical jewelry boxes and cuckoo clocks. I’d usually use Balsa wood and then paint it, or sometimes finish it with different colored veneers or stained wood. Every weekend I would go to the Hobbies store and buy another project plan and a wee bundle of balsa.

This continued until I was sixteen. That’s when I started a full time apprenticeship. But that’s another story.

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