New Zealand Herald – 5 Nov 2014
Peter Calder: Life lessons – David’s got it nailed
Retired teacher says his old-world carpentry classes give skills that will see young people right in modern times
If my old woodwork teacher is reading this, I want him to know I’m sorry. I never meant to cause him such pain by being so teeth-grindingly, soul-corrodingly incompetent.
I knew where to put the apostrophe in English classes; I positively enjoyed Latin. But making the three pieces of a simple wooden pedestal that would become a table lamp completely defeated me.
The teacher (now a furniture maker of some repute so I won’t sully his name by mentioning it in the context of my craftsmanship) would gather us boys around his workbench to show us what we were meant to be doing.
We would then imitate – or, in my case, make a complete pig’s breakfast of – what he had just done.
If woodwork were music, he played The Well-Tempered Clavier. I then played Chopsticks, starting with my fingers in the wrong place.
Occasionally, I would approach him for assistance – when I had cut the wrong bit of wood off and left the wrong bit of wood on, for example, or when I had sawn my thumb. He would take the situation in, heave a silent sigh, shake his head. I fancy his eyes sometimes filled with tears.
So when I turned up at David Mead’s woodworking school, I had a challenge for him: to teach me to do a dovetail joint that did not require the application of large amounts of plastic putty to fill gaps you could lose the car keys in. Easy, he said.
The website for the Auckland School of Woodworking describes it as dealing in “old craftsmanship as food for the soul”, which probably sounds less romantic to people who have mastered the art of hitting a nail all the way home without once striking their thumb.
Mead, who’ll be 70 next birthday, set up the school in the basement of a nondescript Onehunga building, beneath an auto mechanic’s workshop, because he wanted to continue in retirement the vocation he had practised at Selwyn College and the erstwhile Penrose High School and Auckland Technical Institute.
He’s an enthusiastic apologist for the craft: in an upstairs room, sealed off from the workshop’s dust, hundreds of books and periodicals line the shelves.
He can extemporise at length on the reason itinerant joiners developed mullions (to stop their tool chests from splitting) and the rise of the celebrity cabinetmakers such as Chippendale and Hepplewhite.
But his mission is teaching a craft that he says cultivates perseverance, attention to detail and pride in personal achievement, which he believes young people in particular are in need of.
Student Mike Woodhead, a mobile crane operator, says he has spent “something between 60 and 90 hours” under Mead’s guidance, making a handsome chest of drawers in American oak and Fijian kauri.
“It would have cost me thousands to buy one as good,” says Woodhead, who had previously made nothing more elaborate than a saw bench. “And now I can show people what I’ve made. I get a real buzz out of it.”
On another bench are two pieces of wood – a eucalypt called saligna and American ash – and I embark on the process of cutting a simple through dowel joint. Mead does it, and I copy him, just as it happened at school, except my teacher then couldn’t (or perhaps couldn’t bear to) supervise me one-on-one.
He shows me how to mark the waste wood before cutting, rather than discovering what it was after I’ve cut. He teaches me to hold the saw in a relaxed grip, rather than with teeth clenched as if hanging on to a lifeboat gunwale.
He waves frantically, like a cop directing traffic, to make sure I keep the saw vertical (straight lines were never my strong point) and shows me how to tilt a chisel just so, so it moves away from the gauge line as I tap it.
I have to restrain him at times – once a teacher, always a teacher, I suppose – from taking the tools from my hand to finish things off.
But in the end, I have a joint that, he says, would get 7 out of 10 in what we used to call School Cert. I think he’s flattering me or himself or both of us, but it does serve to erase some of my teenage shame.
I ask Mead whether there are people who have woodwork’s equivalent of music’s tone deafness – those who cannot be taught.
“No,” he says, forcefully. “If you are prepared to put in the time, you can learn.”
Enquiries can be made to David’s email: firstname.lastname@example.org