I’m kicking things in a slightly different direction today, and interviewing good buddy, tool maker, and community minded woodworker Bern Billsberry (maker of the invaluable, and now infamous, Nut Saver).
This will hopefully become a regular feature on the blog, so if readers think know of any other makers who have an interesting story to tell, or who deserve more exposure, please do let me know. But for now, let’s meet Bern.
You’re a professional woodworker, right? Can you tell us about how you trained?
I’ve been a self-employed carpenter and joirner for nearly 30 years having trained with my Dad who had a joinery & cabinet making shop. He carried out work for the National Trust, as well as work on listed buildings and restoration work for the antique trade, so I had a varied grounding which covered many aspects of the trade. His joinery shop was full of big old cast iron machinery – Watkin, Wilson, Danckaert and Elu power tools.
Once I had completed my training with my Dad I then ventured out on my own, I was in my early twenties.
Following on from question 1, what does an average day in the workshop/ on site look like for you What sort of work do you commonly do?
Work can vary quite a lot, I’ve spent most of my time working on domestic properties. General carpentry and joinery including cut roofs, dorma extensions, wndows, doors, staurs, kitchen fitting and also small building work – extensions and conservatories. Sometimes I would have the opportunity to make built-in furniture like alcove cabinets and wardrobes.
I would now like to focus on working more in my workshop and therefore trying to reduce my commitment to site work. Toolmaking, cabinet work and joinery is the path I would now like to go down, but finding it much harder to earn a living from it so I am still carrying out some site work at the moment to top up my wages.
My working day in the workshop is a long one, I usually start around 8am and don’t finish until around 8pm. With site work I aim to arrive by 8:30am and more often than not will be home by 6pm.
You are a man of many tool chests, including an Anarchist’s Tool Chest, and a David Barron chest. But the most fascinating chest is the travelling bench/ chest you were using on the first New English Workshop course. Tell us about this chest.
Like my Dad I have always been fascinated with tools and tool chests.
The travelling bench/ chest came about when I worked as part of a two-man team for a small window installation company back in the 90s. The company van would be loaded up with all the tools we needed, but my work partner would always have to leave the job site for on reason or another, taking with him whatever tools were still left on the van. There was always something I needed and I would have to struggle o, so I came up with the tool bo that would hold all the essentials I would need to carry on with the job and it could also double-up as a bench, hop-up, saw horse and door buck. Jim Toplin’s Tool Box book was a big help and inspiration, and still is.
Most people will know you as the maker of the Nut Saver. Where did the idea for the Nut Saver come from, and how did the design develop from the original concept?
I attended one of the 2014 New English Workshop classes taken by Chris Schwarz, to make the Anarchist’s Tool Chest. We were advised to use pliers to tighten the brass collets on the Veritas skew rebate plane fence, as then tended to slip in use. My plane was brand new and I didn’t want to damage it with pliers, but there was no alternative. I wasn’t happy to keep causing this damage and was keen to come up with a solution to the problem.
I remembered a tool that I had – a strap wrench back from around the time of the Second World War made of cast iron with steel reinforced braided webbing. After a little research on the web, I found it was an RAF tool for aircraft maintenance. This tool worked a little too well as you could quite easily over tighten and cause damage to the threads, so I needed to come up with something that would tighten with just the right amount of torque.
I decided to try out leather in place of the webbing as I felt it had all the right properties and is a pleasing combination with timber. Leather is a great natural product that is easily worked, and readily available, with the right amount of flexibility and grip to be gentle on the brass. Having a love of wood it was an easy decision to replace the metal parts with timber and I also wanted it to be something that fellow woodworkers could make for themselves. With this in mind I kept the tool uncomplicated and it took only three prototypes to perfect the design with just small tweaks between each one.
The Instagram community has obviously only been around for a short part of your career, but you’ve really become a mainstay of the online community. Can you tell us about how community between craftsmen has changed (or evolved) over the course of your career?
You never stop learning in this career and now with social networking it is a lot easier to gain information from really gifted craftsmen and women that love their work and are willing to share their knowledge. In the past it was rare for craftsmen to invite you into their workshop and tell you the secrets of the trade. Now sharing information is the norm and this will help to keep the arts alive for the future. I try to pass on some of the knowledge I have gained over the wears and help new woodworkers out whenever I can, but just like them I am also still learning, especially with my keen interest in traditional hand-tool skills.
You’ve made dovetail markers, the nut saver, and I’ve also seen some mitre jigs on Instagram. What is the next tool you plan to build?
I’ve been working on some shooting boards and the mini-bench, and would really like to make some wooden planes. I have a few new ideas which are still in the early stages of development and need more evolving. All will be disclosed if and when they are a success!