Later in the morning, I will usually get a visit from Jon, or Ed, who are supervising my work.
It’s a lovely day and I drive into the workshop. Devon is a such a beautiful county of England and one of it’s most attractive features are the winding lanes with high banks, and leafy fields, on either side. I rent a room shared in a house with one other student so we share the car journey, usually getting in around 8.45 in the morning. The tutors have already been here from about 8.30 and one or two students are already here making cups of coffee and getting started with their work.
Im nearly three months into my 50 week woodworking course now and I’m well on the way with what is one of the main teaching projects in the first half of the year. We started off learning how to use planes, saws and chisels and how to sharpen each of these tools. Jon, Ed (depending upon who is supervising) took us through a whole series of exercises cutting mitre joints and dovetail joints and planing to achieve exactness. All of this made me feel much more confident with how to use a bench plane and how to sharpen and use a set of bench chisels.
It seems to be all about accuracy; planing; cutting; marking; to a very high degree of precision and, slowly, I’m getting the hang of it. I’m now making a cabinet maker’s workbench which will be the best cabinet maker’s workbench in the world. The top is Maple, the legs are Iroko, and it will be made to professional workshop standards. In fact, everything done on these woodworking courses is to professional standard; starting off with simple stuff then moving on to more tricky stuff when we have got the hang of it. I’ve spent the morning in the machine shop; Daren is very hot on safety and has repeatedly shown us how to safely operate the planer, table saw, jointer and the band saw. Later on in the course he will show us how to use the spindle moulder, though I’ve not got that far yet.
I’M NOW MAKING A CABINET MAKER’S WORKBENCH WHICH WILL BE THE BEST CABINET MAKER’S WORKBENCH IN THE WORLD
10:30 is “Dimblebie” time and everyone gathers in the workshop during the tea break. There are five bench rooms in the workshop and the Dimblebies take place in Daren’s work area, where there is a video projector for showing things like diagrams or video clips. Sometimes it’s David giving a short lecture, though he is retired he still comes in and helps. Sometimes Daren, sometimes Ed doing the Dimblebie. Daren talks about the technical, and practical work such as veneering, sharpening a saw or turning a burr on a scraper. Each Dimblebie will be specific and exhaustive. They usually last only about 15 or 20 minutes, though, when people ask questions, they can go on a little bit longer.
THIS IS A VERY SHORT YEAR, BUT IT IS VERY FULL. WHAT WE GET OUT OF IT I THINK DEPENDS A LOT ON WHAT WE ARE PREPARED TO PUT IN
Later in the morning, I will usually get a visit from Jon, or Ed, who are supervising my work to ensure it meets the standards expected of a professional woodworker. Today Jon and I spent about ten minutes talking about how I was going to joint these two pieces of wood together to get a perfect joint. This is a butt joint, but quite a long one, over six feet, and the edges of these two boards have to perfectly match up. They’ve come off the machine ok, but Jon wanted me to finely fit the joint with a hand plane, explaining how to slightly hollow the boards in the centre to get a perfect fit. Sometimes he’s with me for ten minutes, sometimes less, sometimes there are a group of us around a drawing and he’s with us for a couple of hours. Jon or Ed seem to keep an eye on me and see what it is I’ve got to do, then talk me through the process. Ed generally works here in the afternoons, or all day if there are short woodworking courses running. If I need further help later I usually go off and find one of them, though I don’t always have to because there’s usually another student who’s started their woodworking course only three or four months ahead of me and their knowledge of doing similar processes is pretty fresh so I can often ask one of them.
Daren and Duncan are both around all week but they both tend to work with the students in the second half of their year. This is when we get on to doing our own designs, I see Daren developing process lists and helping make sure the project is going to work out.
ONCE WE’VE DONE THE FEW KEY TEACHING PROJECTS THEY HAVE HERE, WE ARE ENCOURAGED TO MAKE WHAT PIECES OF FURNITURE WE WOULD LIKE TO DO
The workshop officially closes at 6.30, and the machine shop is shut at 6 o’clock, but there always seems to be students here working late most evenings and most weekends. The arrangement is that we are allowed to use the facilities of the workshop unsupervised, provided no machines and power tools are employed. The staff all get cross if they comes in on Monday morning and all the milk has been drunk and nobody has swept up, but as long as we treat the place properly, like our own workshop; keeping it clean and lock up; we’re able to get on with quite a lot of work outside of normal workshop hours.
One of the things I like about these woodworking courses is that, although the first few months are fairly structured, we are allowed to work at our own pace, either going faster or slower than the people we started with. Once we’ve done the few key teaching projects they have here, we are encouraged to make what pieces of furniture we would like to do. Daren or Duncan gets more involved then; usually in one to one meetings, helping students design furniture that will help to develop skills that they would want to learn and taking account of what else is happening in the workshop. I think the thing that makes this place different for me is that it’s not just a teaching workshop; there is usually furniture being made here that is really inspirational.
THIS IS NOT LIKE A SCHOOL OR A COLLEGE, IT’S MORE LIKE A REAL WORKSHOP, WORKING FOR 50 WEEKS A YEAR…
I came here wanting to see whether I could be more creative. Ed runs an Art class on wednesday afternoon and Phil takes us through basic design and using CAD on the computers.
We are looking forward to the new art rooms that are being built now where there will be a purpose designed life drawing room, a photography set up permanently with background and lights, and a CAD teaching space with all the terminals to allow a small group of four or five to work though the projects.
Phil Mayne is the Digital Artist at Rowden he runs a “basics” arts class in the early weeks. This is usually an hour or so at the end of the day . He follows this up later in the year with more advance presentation drawing instruction and finally working with CAD Computer Aided Design. This is a long course or several weeks with small group of four or five using Rhino CAD. It looks amazing.
Jonathan from Bark Furniture comes in once a week to talk with us either in a small group or on to one about what we are doing AFTER Rowden. I am hoping to stay here, they have a “post grad” studio for four small businesses and Jonathan and Duncan both help mentor and advise these students how to set up small businesses and take products to market.
Angie Taffs is the other business advisor. She runs a six week course later in the year. A lot of the advice she gives is repeating the work of Jonathan Walters but from a slightly different perspective, good, practical, how to survive information.
This is a very short year, but it is very full. What we get out of it I think depends a lot on what we are prepared to put in. This is not like a school or a college, it’s more like a real workshop, working for 50 weeks a year, not 3 short ten week college terms. A year is a very short time to learn all of the things involved with making furniture, but Daren and the rest of the staff are here to help us make the best of our time in a very full and, hopefully, very productive year.