The Greatest Mistake of My Woodworking Career

When I was starting out as a furniture maker, one of the people I went to for advice and mentoring was a furniture maker called Alan Peters. Alan had a wonderful workshop in Kentisbeare not an hour away from where I now live and work. When I first met Alan I was in London trying to work out how to do this, and he had what I wanted. He had a workshop in the countryside he had two exceptional makers, he had a market for his work and had a reputation as a furniture maker of contemporary furniture of quality and integrity. And all of this I wanted.

When I first met Alan I went there on a one-week course that he was running during the summer. He invited about four or five of us into his workshop during the summer months when his staff were on vacation. He prepared materials for us and we made a small cabinet doors and a drawer. Firstly I was stunned at how much we achieved in such a relatively short time. That was later I think explained by the fact that this was a professional workshop not really a teaching workshop. Allan was used to speed and efficiency in his making, he did it himself, and he expected it of others.

I remember being a royal pain in the backside during that week. I was the first one in the morning scratching on Alan’s workshop door at seven o’clock and the last one out at locking up time. I saw the tiredness in his eyes but I still kept on pumping. I had someone in front of me who knew everything I didn’t and I wanted to get at every syllable of that knowledge.

I could say that Alan was patient and kind which he was especially with someone he felt was worth the effort. But to be honest he could be abrasive and short tempered. He had little time for incompetence and more than once told me “to stop faffing about, cut it once then leave it”. But his speed and competence with hand tools left a major impression upon me. This man knew how to make things and make them fast. He didn’t need machines to cut a straight line, as I did, and he could work in the silence of the bench shop without screaming machines and dust laden air to ruin his day. He hated the scream of a router in the bench shop, it visibly upset him.

Alan Peters taught me during that week and subsequent times that I worked with him most of the really important things I now know about woodworking. But the one thing I didn’t really listen to was his advice on timber. Alan Peters had stacks and stacks of different species of hardwood. He poured money and time and energy into that resource because, like me, he didn’t know whether he would be making a cathedral door or a jewelery box next. I saw this investment of time and money and thought I won’t do that. I will be smart and buy in kiln dried material as and when I need it. When I know I needed 12 foot ash boards for the cathedral door I will go and buy them.

Big mistake Alan. Because of his resource of stacks of air dried material, you always had hand Oak that cuts like hard cheese and Ash that would plane to finish from the blade. My mistake has been to condemn my makers to work with material that has been killed in the drying process. Kiln dried stuff you have to fight with, you get there in the end but it’s a fight. It doesn’t give you the results like air dried stuff will if you just approach it properly with a sharp edge knowledge and a respectful manner.

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