Exactly 10 years ago today I started woodwork for the very first time. I remember it clearly, because it was the first day of term at the Totnes School of Guitarmaking. As a former historian, I like dates, and I like origin stories. The tenth anniversary of my time in Totnes seems like a good opportunity to revisit my own.
I had finished law school, and decided to take a year out before starting work at the Leeds office of an international law firm. Totnes was the ultimate destination for that gap year, although first I worked in the construction industry for seven months to save for the lutherie tuition fees. In hindsight, a guitar building course was probably an unusual destination for me – although I’d grown up watching my maternal grandfather building all manner of things in his shed, I’d never had much inclination towards woodwork myself at that point. And although the secondary school I attended had a brand new craft, design and technology block including several well appointed workshops, there wasn’t actually any shop class being taught when I was there. I imagine that is the same for schools across the country. So I didn’t have anything in the way of experience, or even a long standing interest, in woodwork prior to starting at Totnes. What I did have though was a deep fascination in the mechanics of how stringed musical instruments worked, partly from having played violin for many years. Also, the husband of my music theory teacher was a violin and viola maker, and every Wednesday evening when I would go round for music theory lessons I would see rows of violins and violas in various states of completion hanging in the front upstairs window. So building musical instruments was something I knew people actually did.
The experience of seeing those partially built instruments came back to me years later, as I finished law school and tried to decide how I would spend the next twelve months. Totnes is renowned as being one of the best places in the UK to study lutherie, and I very happily signed up to the 2007 summer class. I knew the course would be rewarding and challening in equal measure. What I did not anticipate when I took my first steps onto this path, where it would lead. That twelve week class was an incredible immersion in handtool work (and you can see the course photos here), and a mindblowing introduction to lutherie. Designing your own instrument, starting with only a pencil and paper, then building it by hand, is almost indescribable. But more than that, it sparked a passion for making things with my hands that if anything, is even stronger ten years on.
When I look back at past ten years, what really surprises me is the breadth of my woodwork experience. If I’m being brutally honest, I always thought I’d have built a lot more guitars by now. But that is more than offset by the other experiences I’ve been lucky to have. Embarking on the class at Totnes, my focus was purely on the guitar before me rather than any wider view of woodwork. But in the years that followed, furniture projects started to catch my eye, and then I stumbled upon the wealth of historic information published by Lost Art Press. I’m still at heart a historian, and furniture building offers a synthesis of history and craft which satisfies both the hands and the mind. Although far from my mind when I first went to Totnes, woodwork has since become the main outlet for my interests as a historian. Nor did I expect woodwork to result in a writing career, either with Furniture & Cabinet Making, or the John Brown book with Lost Art Press. I suppose that what I’ve learned is to be alive to opportunities and to know when to say yes.
But when I think about what I’ve gained most from these ten years on the path, it would be the ideas of self sufficiency, and community that have been most important. Being able to (slowly) furnish my home with long -lasting pieces I’ve made myself, and also the strength of community I have enjoyed. The woodwork community has been a great source of friendship, encouragement, and inspiration. And so it feels very apt that only a week after my tenth anniversary of starting woodwork I’ll be flying out to Iowa for Handworks 2017.
Looking back, I’m very glad that a nearly-25 year old me took that leap in the dark down in south Devon. Because that first step has enriched the past ten years, introduced me to many wonderful people, and to ideas which continue to shape the way I try to live on a daily basis.