For a year now I have been dreaming of working once again with wood. A twenty-year carpentry gap is quite enough. In June the perfect excuse arrived and it has shaped my summer. My wife’s birthday was at the end of the summer, and it was an important one too – her seventieth. In June we discussed possible presents and she suggested I might make her an owl nesting-box. I agreed but privately decided that the box would not be enough and so, in addition, would make her a coffee table. Later, and if I had time, there would also be a pair of bedside tables.
Building the owl box was always going to be straightforward. It could be made in pine and without fancy joints. Guided by advice from the Internet, the box, painted holly green, was made in my makeshift workshop in a few weeks.
The tables presented a greater challenge. They would have to be in a hardwood, ideally oak, and when finished look professional and for that I would need help. I discussed the project with Jean-Yves, our local menuisier – a carpenter-come-furniture-maker – and he agreed to help. Moreover, he suggested that in the venture, notwithstanding my being the designer, I would work as his apprentice. His proposal was a dream come true.
Three years ago I had been an apprentice to our mason, Jean-Claude, and together we built a stone wall [The apprentice’s tale, 14 May 2012]. My job then was very much hands-on, involving for example carrying stones, mixing concrete or grouting joints. The experience was wonderful and I had always hoped that one day I might recreate the same experience with Jean-Yves, although with him I knew I would be more of an observer. But to an extent that was the same for him. For the modern carpenter many of the physical skills of yesteryear have now gone, replaced by mechanical planers, routers, jointers, moulders, sanders and a multitude of saws. At our first meeting, Jean-Yves set out three conditions: first, that I provide the wood; second, that I draw up detailed plans for the various pieces of furniture; and third, that I should be on time.
Finding the wood was difficult. Even the gigantic local wood yard, with its five vast hangars, couldn’t easily meet my needs. Nor could I get hold of enough suitable wood by cannibalising beds or wardrobes at local second-hand furniture yards. Then I learned of a precious, quasi-secret hardwood stash in the basement of Bernard, our painter. He had inherited it from his uncle years before and it had stayed essentially untouched since. After some negotiation I was offered one plank; with the understanding that there would be more if I used this one wisely. The chosen plank measured four metres by one metre and was so grubby, and its surface so rough, that it was impossible to know what wood it was. But whatever its type, it would have been felled some fifty years earlier and was almost certainly French.
Designing was great fun. For the coffee table the details of the top – the overall dimensions, shape, joint types etc – were easy. The legs – and thus the table’s stability – were a much greater challenge. Ultimately the problem was resolved when over coffee with some friends I noticed, in front of me, an art nouveau table with the perfect leg design.
I presented Jean-Yves with the wood and after some scraping and sniffing he declared it to be oak. For him, using French oak with its pale golden colour and fine grain was a rare treat. In eight and half hours the coffee table was made and, after a close inspection by Bernard, I was permitted to buy the second instalment; one plank of oak and another of ash with its wide, watery grain. Already the two bedside tables are close to completion.
Being an apprentice to Jean-Yves was a privilege. Watching his hands and craftsman’s mind at work as my designs were transformed into furniture, proved an inspiration. I witnessed his closeness to and respect for wood, his care and precision, and his complete understanding of process. In this, he employed an array of tools from the very crude, metre-long clamps to ensure tight gluing, to the fine, rotating chisel-heads to make the tongue and grooving. Throughout our time together he talked, explaining what he was doing and why, questioning exactly what I wanted and sometimes suggesting alternatives, and joking when he almost made a howler. Here was an artisan and a gentleman.
By the way, Rohan loved both the table and the owl box, and I was late just once for work. Jean-Yves looked at me sternly but I was forgiven.