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The Apprentice by Peter Hyde

1 of 4


South London, 1959...

My apprenticeship began with a company making pre-cast concrete architectural components.  I was not really learning much so I applied for a transfer to another company.  My request was granted, and I transferred to a small company who had a 2 man shop.  Here, I was quickly broken into the life of “the boy.”

The shop was in Wimbledon and the 3 of us, and a labourer was left pretty much alone.  My 2 mentors were both in their late 50’s and had the standard joiners’ tool chests stowed under their benches.  Both chests had a hidden compartment that had a sprung release mechanism which when activated disclosed a collapsible top hat.  It seems this was a side of the joiner’s craft that is pretty much unknown as the hats were used when participating as pall bearers for the client in the coffin you had made to measure.

Both joiners had Norris smoothers and shoulder planes and a good selection of Disston saws.  Both also had a large collection of assorted moulding planes that were stored on a long shelf at the back of the shop and were for everyone’s use.

My first 6 weeks was spent with cabinet scrapers and sandpaper cleaning up Honduras mahogany door frames.  They had 6” x 3” jambs and headers and were for floor spring mounted swing doors.  I was 17 and came home crying to Mum with huge blisters on my thumbs from the hot scrapers and was told in no uncertain manner that it must have been my fault, and I had to be thankful I was learning a trade!

After a few months I was given my first small job.  It was a small hollow core door covered in masonite with the top at an angle to fit a cupboard under the stairs.  I was instructed to be careful and not forget to allow for edgings of pine on each edge.
I did everything by hand and used half lap joints in the internal rails and stiles.  On the day I finished it, I proudly presented my work for approval.  What I got was, “It’s a good job we have already made this as you forgot to allow for the edgings and in the time you took we could have made 10.”  Then my pride and joy was smashed up before my eyes! Humiliation was complete and utter.

Some time later we moved to a bigger shop in Wandsworth and I experienced my first building site.  The company had acquired property that consisted of an old 3 storey house and behind was a courtyard with a side entrance.  On the right hand side there was a long 1 storey windowed building and at the back was the the building we were to renovate for a shop.

The shop was a pretty run down building that had been a cinema or theatre at one time.  The ceiling was a semicircular vault, and one wall was entirely wood French doors with transom lights above.  The shop area was around 60’ x 30’ and about 25’ high in the centre of the arched ceiling.

My first duty was to learn how to make tea in a bucket over an open fire out in the yard and then to make saw horses.  All the work was done with hand tools as we had no electricity available at that time, or indeed even any electric tools!

First we installed a wood boarded floor on sleeper joists bedded in tar, and then did repairs to French doors and windows.  A wood stove was installed and a sink and tea making area.  We also made some forms for casting concrete leg frames for the 12” radial arm saw that was placed on an end wall.  The 20’ bench for it was slotted to allow saw dust to fall through.

I remember being instructed on the use of a water level and plumb bob and how to work from level and plumb datum lines.

In the yard a 20’x 10’ plywood and timber storage shed was built.  It had a pair of framed, ledged and braced doors at each end which were site built by me.  Pine and 16’ x 5’ sheets of block board and Baltic plywood stored in that shed were cut to rough length with handsaws before being carried into the shop.

All of the pine we used was called Archangel pine because it was shipped from the port of Archangel in northern Russia.  We purchased “Deals” (A length of square sawn softwood 2-4 inches thick, 9-11 inches wide) by the “Standard” (165 cubic feet = 1 Petrograd Standard).  In Britain “Deal“ has now become a generic term for softwood.

Normally an agent arranged the transaction and we picked up our order from London Docks. Sometimes we got pine that was salt water damaged. It had been a deck load and during a storm the load shifted and the ship keeled over to a crazy angle so that the load was immersed.  Needless to say this pine was stickered and left to dry for quite a while before it was used in low class work. Quite often we would get shrapnel and bullets embedded in some of the pine.

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