John Gainey

Jan 292016

Editor’s Note: The following blog series, ‘Chips from the Chisel’ is John Gainey’s experience as a carpenter and joiner apprentice on the Cardiff Docks in South Wales from 1955-1960. John’s garden woodworking shop was featured in the November 2013 issue of Wood News Online.

CLICK HERE to read Part 1.

CLICK HERE to read Part 2.

CLICK HERE to read Part 3.

After expressing my opinions on the “old time” use of hand tools, I hope I’m not misunderstood. I am not advocating we should go back to the days of the saw pits with the frogs and sweat. I haven’t got a misplaced romantic view of hand tool use. Today’s machines are wonderful and well into the price range of all. There is nothing like having the stock on the bench, machined accurately to the required sizes, all square and true and ready to be worked on.

I remember being on site, working on a hardwood threshold sill. At the time I was using an electric hand planer to reduce the stuff. Even that was hard work. The gaffer or boss came along, an entrepreneur type (camel hair coat, cigar in mouth) with his hands in his pockets who said in a derisive tone “I don’t know what my grandfather would have said about using electric tools to do your work today.” My reply to that was “I would think he would have been overjoyed to own this and any other tool that eased up on the back-bearing jobs we sometimes have to do. It would have reduced wear and tear on his hand tools and his poor body if they were available in his day.

The changes I saw and have seen have had a profound affect on the craftsman’s life even then. GWR became BR (British Rail) affecting pay and conditions. Diesel engines replaced coal fired engines, which equaled job loss (no need of firemen). Ship containers on dockside equaled job loss (less dockers). The electric drill became widely used and was part of the tool kit. It changed the whole aspect of working tools, which equaled more speed and proficiency.


Sadness at Times

There was a sadness at times with the old timers and their tools. Every second hand shop contained wooden moulding planes for sale for 5s. Any bead (ovolo, round, or hollow) could be purchased when needed. They were examined thoroughly. The blade not pitted, the wood not split or worn down, and the name stamped on the heel. As they were held, thoughts of “I wonder who he was, what conditions did he work under?” It was always tinged with sadness.

Also, each second hand shop contained a number of carpenter’s tool chests. These were no doubt put in by his window. Perhaps he hadn’t returned from the war. Perhaps he had no son and heir. Or perhaps she just needed the money.

I always felt I was trespassing and had no right to be in his box when the shopkeeper opened the lid and exposed all of his tools and bits of pieces of the craft for all to see and for me to choose a tool I needed at the time.

Then one day they were all gone. Americans came over and bought every moulding plane they could find for the antiques market.

There was also sadness when an old timer was retiring. The tradition was to give each apprentice a tool from his box to help us in our career. I had a dovetail saw given to me that I used for many, many years and always thought of the craftsman every time I used it.

Sadness too was when one day, as I was employed as a maintenance carpenter on a housing estate, I saw lying in the roadway gutter a wooden jack plane that was sadly without its wedge and iron. I picked it up and looked for the name stamp and was so surprised to see the name on the heel. It belonged to an old-timer, Ted. I had worked with him as an apprentice. I could not believe it, what a coincidence. How did it get there? What happened to Ted? Why was his plane lying in the road? It was so sad.

In Conclusion

Yes, the workshop was full of self respect, pride of work, traditions, skills and methods, knowledge and experience.

Unwritten laws that were duly kept:

  • Do not touch another man’s tools without permission.
  • Do not work on his bench without permission.
  • Do not open his tool box without permission.
  • A place for everything and everything in its place.
  • No matter what the job, do it well.

We apprentices learnt them and obeyed them without question, and then passed it on to the next new apprentice.

The skilled craftsman is an artist and artisan still waiting to learn. A patient and tolerant man set apart from other men by the nature of his skills, with a great material he is using, steel or wood, glass or clay, iron or copper. The tools he uses become part of him, old friends. The shape, the size and weight, familiar to his hands.

To be able to answer the question sometimes asked “what do you do?” with the words “I am a carpenter and joiner” still makes me feel so proud. To be a carpenter seems the most natural thing in the world to be.



Jan 222016

Editor’s Note: The following blog series, ‘Chips from the Chisel’ is John Gainey’s experience as a carpenter and joiner apprentice on the Cardiff Docks in South Wales from 1955-1960. John’s garden woodworking shop was featured in the November 2013 issue of Wood News Online.

CLICK HERE to read Part 1.

CLICK HERE to read Part 2.

The Yard and Workshops

The workshops overlooked the commercial dry dock where ships came in for repair, cleaning, and painting.

The building was an old stone victorian type. At the start was the top office. Underneath that was the timekeepers office where we collected our brass discs or checks for time in and out, and our wages. My first number and one of many obtained through life was 806, with which I collected my wage of 2 pounds, 17 shillings, and 6 pence.

Next was the plumbers and tinsmiths. Then the electricians. Next were the stores with ladders and heavy equipment. Next to that were the bricklayers (jokingly referred to as failed carpenters to us). Next the painters and decorators and special crew called scruffers. These men worked in the dry dock and red-leaded the side of the ships using long handled brushes to reach the underneath and sides with the red lead paint. At the end of the day, their boots, clothes, hats, and faces were all red with paint. There were no showers or baths, so they went home like that.

Then there was the mill, the carpenters shop, and the wheelwright shop.

The Mill

The mill contained the basic machines. A very large circular saw that took two men to lift out the blade for sharpening, especially done when a nail or sometimes a bullet from the war was deep inside the timber and the teeth were damaged. Also within the mill were a large bandsaw, small circular saw, tenoner, planer, and an old iron lathe that was run with a wide belt that clanked noisily. On it we turned chisel handles made from old hickory shunting poles discarded by the railway men but still usable by us. Then the cattle pens, blacksmiths, and patternmakers shop.

The Sawyer

All blades and saws were continually kept sharp and true. Floors were swept clean at the end of the working day. As to the jobs, he only accepted mortising if it was authorized by the carpenter. All apprentices had to chop out their own by hand, large or small, but he would reluctantly put stuff through the saw and planer for us. The occasional packet of cigarettes was a good bribe now and then to have a mortice chopped, but not too often.

The Characters

One old character was Mr. George. He was quite a small chap and wore an old suit (very shiny from age), an old cap, and an off-white scarf around his neck.

The wheelwright’s shop was down in the yard and was overlooked by the carpenters shop. Often it was enveloped in blue smoke pouring out of the doors and windows. Then the cry of “George has missed the hole again” was given by an observer. What that meant was that George,  when repairing a cart or sack, would have to bore a hole for a long bolt, first through one end then through the other, as the bit was not long enough to go right through. But George would occasionally miss joining the two holes. So he would put a poker in the fire til’ it was red hot, then burn down the hole until it made contact with the other hole. This enabled the bolt to go right through, but as was noted, resulted in much smoke pouring out of the work shop, leaving George glassy-eyed, coughing, wheezing, and gasping for breath. But still with a smile on his face!

During lunch time, we apprentices would go down to see him and to hear him tell us the tale of working life when he was strong and healthy; and how colorful it was too!

Another character was a man called Mr. Jack. He was a laborer. A very, very quiet man. In fact, during all the time I knew him I never heard him speak. He was, I presumed, traumatized from his experiences in the war. He always wore the same old shiny suit with no shirt, just an old jumper, and an off-white scarf around his neck. My attention was drawn to him when I had just begun my apprenticeship.

I was told that if I needed help timber carrying I could ask Jack “Snot” to assist. This name seemed to me derogatory and insulting to call him, as I was brought up to not be disrespectful to people, especially adults. The reason for the derogatory name was that Jack always had a perpetual dewdrop positioned on the end of his nose that always looked about to fall (and at times did) on the job that was being worked on. Some would say he timed it to fall on the shove halfpenny board when it was his turn and always won the game. But I think that was an exaggeration made up by a poor loser. He was always very helpful to all of the apprentices.

Jack lived in a district called Tiger Bay and cycled to work on a very old upright bike. But what was so unusual was his means of lighting. The obligatory front lamp was a lit candle in a jam jar tied on to the handlebars. The rear light was a glowing cigarette held behind him, so he would draw and hold, draw and hold, all the way to the workshop. I often think how I would have loved to have heard his story, but at the same time as a young man I didn’t pursue it, much to my regret.

All of the men in the workshop were characters in their own right. They all had pride in their work from carpenters to laborers, from painters to shipwrights, they all had respect for each trade and the material being used. There was plenty of banter (what new apprentice hasn’t been sent to trundle all the way back to the stores to ask for a skirting ladder or a bucket of sky hooks??), but never anything malicious and they always shared a desire to teach the apprentice. They were willing to pass on their knowledge, skill, and experience, and I am grateful for that!

To be continued…

Jan 152016

Editor’s Note: The following blog series, ‘Chips from the Chisel’ is John Gainey’s experience as a carpenter and joiner apprentice on the Cardiff Docks in South Wales from 1955-1960. John’s garden woodworking shop was featured in the November 2013 issue of Wood News Online.

CLICK HERE to read Part 1.

Workshop Furniture

The workshop contained everyday items for general use, namely long seating benches, small stool benches, saw horses, trestles, bench hooks, clamp blocks, mitre box, mitre block, and of course not one but two shove halfpenny boards, one of oak and the other of greenheart- french chalked.

Each man’s bench was his own personal domain or world of work (his bench was sacrosanct). It was never worked on by any other person except by permission. Some old timers would not even allow anyone to sit on the bench as this was considered bad manners.

The Glue

The glue was toffee like slabs known as hoof glue. The apprentice would wrap the slab in an old piece of sacking and break up the slab by hitting it with a mallet until it was as small as possible. Two pots were on the stove, one contained water that was brought to a boil and the other was inside the large pot and contained the melting glue. The smell could only be remembered and described by those who have used it…

When gluing up a job, speed was essential, as was accuracy of squareness using rods from corner to corner. Even to this day I still think I have to work with speed during a glue up, in case the glue goes off (of course hot glue is no longer used in the modern workshop).

All of this work was for a wage of 12 pounds for a 40 hour work week!

The Apprentice

There were 5 apprentices in our workshop. The wage was 2.17 pounds for a junior apprentice and 5 pounds for the senior apprentice, with one whole day and one evening at technical college.

Handmade Tools

The first thing to make was the tool box (mine is now a stained and waxed blanket box in the bedroom). Dovetailed, brass handled, GWR stamped into it, box lock, trays and mitre skirting, and lid with beaded edging were just a few highlighted features of the box. It stood on the bench when finished and was looked at with such pride and accomplishment (only to be told to get it down to the paint shop to be painted black).

Next was the mallet, ash or beech, and was used with a tapered handle for removing if need be. The head was angled and the cheeks rounded to avoid bruising the job at hand. The shape and size was a matter of personal choice. The apprentice usually followed the advice of the craftsman.

Next were the planes: rabbet plane, scruffer with horned handle, and grannie’s tooth.

Finally, the oil stone box. Morticed with hinged lid and a nail snipped off on the bottom to prevent sliding. All of these were carefully made. Skills and knowledge were acquired by the minute from the pool of experience around each apprentice.

Tools were bought with due care and attention was only given to the best brands used: Spear and Jackson, Marples, Mawhood, etc.

I made a ghastly mistake of purchasing 3 wood chisels from Woolworths and brought them to the workshop. The craftsman took one look at them and said “they are not going down on my bench” so I threw them away and from then on always bought the best, even though it took time to save the money to get them.

The Work

The range of work was extensive including desks and drawers for the draughtsman’s office, pontoon decking, and doors and windows on the dock buildings.

Warehouse doors were framed, ledged and braced 18ft by 10ft with tongue and grooved boards. When assembling, the tenons were coated with prime paint and then wedged and dowelled. They were then lowered down to the mill through two trap doors in the middle of the workshop, into the paint shop, and then taken to the site for hanging on iron sliding shoes. The door was placed in position. A rope was attached and the laborers would pull the door upright for the carpenter to fit it on the metal shoes and slides. The warehouses are still there to this day and are now used by a well-known timber dealer.

There were trestles to be made for the potato warehouse. Sizes ranged from 4 feet to 15 feet for the wooden chutes or trays to rest on and the sacks of potatoes were sent down them to the waiting lorries. They were well-made with sawn timber used for all of the edges and the corners were chamfered. Pride of workmanship was always found in these projects.

The walls of the workshop were lined with templates. Patterns and clamps of every description.

The diminished style door, or gunstock style door, was artistry of the craft. A combination of window and door for maximum light, with fielded panels and bolection moulding.

The apprentice practiced making joints to acquire the skills necessary to learn the differences between a haunch and franking, a muntin and mullion, the style and the jamb, the tails and pins, fox wedging and dowels, the mortise and tenon, just to name a few. The books obtained were Carpentry and Joinery (Volumes 1, 2, and 3 by Caxton Press). Volume 2 contained the mystic of the steel square.

The knowledge and discipline of the craft had to be learnt and followed.

To be continued next week…

Jan 082016

Editor’s Note: The following blog series, ‘Chips from the Chisel’ is John Gainey’s experience as a carpenter and joiner apprentice on the Cardiff Docks in South Wales from 1955-1960. John’s garden woodworking shop was featured in the November 2013 issue of Wood News Online.


I stood at the top of the stairs and looked down the long workshop. I saw workbenches, men’s faces, and white aprons. It was 1955, I was 15 years of age and just left school. I was nervous and shy.

One of the men in a white apron beckoned me over to him. I walked to his bench and there I started my career as an apprentice carpenter and joiner…

I got the job because my mother was an office cleaner for the Great Western Railway. (GWR) The Docks and Inland Waterways, and The Pierhead Building at Cardiff (which is now a museum). This entitled her to two free tickets a year on the railway and any member of her family was able to work at a trade for the GWR. There were a number of trades I was offered, including carpentry and joinery.

The Workshop Benches and Furniture

The workshop was above the mill on the first floor. It contained every day items for general use, namely long seating benches, small stool benches, saw horses, trestles, bench hooks, clamp blocks, mitre box, and of course not one, but two shove halfpenny boards (one of oak and the other of greenheart-french chalked).

The shop consisted of nine workbenches, double sided, each approximately 12 feet long with metal vices and some wooden vices at each end. The well of the bench contained loose boards that could be lifted out to hide personal work from the foreman’s notice. There was also a drawer on each side for the tools used that day. The tops of some of the benches were chipped and gnarled from years of use. Underneath was a shelf containing offcuts of different jobs and woods of every kind.

Each man’s bench was his own personal domain or world of work (his bench was sacrosanct). It was never worked on by any other person except by permission. Some old timers would not even allow anyone to sit on the bench, as this was considered bad manners.

The Men

The men were either carpenters and joiners, qualified to wear the white apron as a badge of their trade, or just carpenters. The carpenters were unqualified and so they did the rough work on the docks such as lock gates, pontoons, coal tips (which lifted the coal wagons and tipped the coal into the waiting ships). These men wore the blue overalls of the GWR workforce. Hanging above their benches on the wall were various tools used daily: an adze, crosscut saw, and large auger bits with a hole at the end for a wooden handle, which ranged in size from 2 to 4 inches. I remember being allowed to use the adze on a piece of greenheart for a lock gate. The edge had to be rounded over; the men joked that it would be safer to stand with your feet in 2 buckets to avoid cutting the toes off.

At each bench was a large, black wooden toolbox with white initials painted on the front, which no one would go into without permission (an unspeakable crime if done so). Billy cans and enamel mugs were stored in a small cupboard hanging on the wall by each bench containing tea, sugar, and a tin of condensed milk. A small mess room for eating meals was at the end of the shop, but was rarely used as the men preferred to eat at their benches and stretch out on top for a snooze at the dinner hour. Woe betide the apprentice who made a noise during that sacred hour.

The Tools


Each man’s tool chest contained his saws (the rip, panel, dovetail, and coping saw), chisels, hammers, mallet, screw drivers, moulding planes, squares, and gauges, wheel brace and drills, Stanley ratchet brace, and bits protected in a bit roll and the wings kept sharp. The bits ranged from a quarter to one and a quarter.

A rare piece was the sight of an expanding bit with a single spur and moveable wing for larger holes. No electrical drills were seen or used, no electrical tools of any description were seen on the benches. Holes in the wall were made by hitting a rawlplug chisel with a hammer (and the occasional knuckle).

Saws were sharpened by the craftsman himself on the saw horse, especially after the terrible misfortune of hitting a nail secreted in the timber or a slotted screw joint when reducing a table top. When that happened then a groan would go up from all who heard it and felt it as happening to their own saw. Then a saw set was brought into action, the spring type with a dial for T, P, I.

A file went along the length to even the teeth height. Then one side sharpened, then the other, avoiding what was called ducks and drakes, meaning large and small or uneven teeth.

No matter what kind of saw, the same loving care was taken on the joiners personal saw. Then they were oiled and stored in the tool chest on buttons attached to the under side of the lid.

Of course the most desired or prized saw was the Henry Disston of Philadelphia, USA. The combination of Philadelphia steel and the expertise of Henry Disston who served his time with Spear and Jackson of Sheffield, England, made it the most sought after and prized saw to be obtained.

The tool chest contained moulding planes of various shapes and sizes. The bead, ovolo, round, and hollow (no routers then) were all carefully stored in a safe position for the cutting iron. Also in the tool chest were the Sash Fillister (or plough) with its brass tipped ends, spokeshaves (wooden and iron), wooden jackplanes, wooden smoothers, all stamped with the craftsman’s name. Although most men desired and had the metal jack and smoother planes made by Stanley.

The oil stones, both rough and smooth, were encased in a mortised out box and lid, lovingly protected and cleaned. Slip stones for gouges and moulding plane irons were all stored with oily rags covering them from damage in the safe drawers of the tool chest.

Paring chisels, firmer, mortise and bevelled, cleaned and edges protected in the drawers. They were always used with a mallet, never hit with a hammer. That was considered to be the wanton action of a botcher and a sin to the joiners code of conduct. A craftsman was assessed by the condition of his chisels. A splintered top on a chisel handle was a sure sign of mistreatment and the sign of a botcher.

To be continued