I set myself the project of making a chair from a tree without the use of electricity or machine tools around a year and a half ago – and recorded some of my thoughts as I did so. Since joining LJs, I felt that others might like to read my ‘story’ of the non-electric chair. The story is still ongoing; additional video clips and images can also be found here
A DAYDREAM, A TOOL CHEST AND A BLUE SHED
I don’t remember which came first – the fantasy or the tool chest, but the shed came later.
Maybe the tool chest came first. It’s a cabinet maker’s kit of tools from around 1890 in a tool chest which is specially designed. I bought it from a customer and restored it and its contents a couple of weeks later – but more about the tool chest later.
Perhaps the idea came to me while I was involved in this and daydreaming while the paint stripper took effect on the outside of the chest. Perhaps paint stripper has more to it than it says on the tin …… anyway I started thinking again about islands.
Islands are intriguing and if you have read a bit about them you may, like me, have mixed feelings about living on one. I suppose islands first came to my notice when there was one sitting right in front of me. I left school when I was 17 and joined the New Zealand Shipping Company as a Deck Cadet on MV Rakaia; a Cadet Ship.
We usually sailed from The Royal Albert docks in London. The Rakaia got priority treatment in the Panama Canal as we were usually carrying Royal Mail and, after steaming for another week or so, we would arrive at Pitcairn Island in Mid Pacific and drop off their mail.
The Rakaia would sit off shore, drifting slowly with engines off and eerily quiet without the pounding of the pistons, while we were rewarded with a grand stand view of the island. We (the cadets) were not allowed ashore by the islanders. We were given various uncomplimentary reasons for this by our superiors, but I decided that as no-one was allowed ashore, whatever was supposed to be wrong with us applied equally to the people higher in the pecking order on board. Only the two deck boys were lower than us. One of them on one occasion sat for an hour or two in a life boat on the boat deck clutching a condom on the understanding that, yes we would get ashore and, yes there were Polynesian women there with grass skirts.
The islanders came out in their open boats – tanned, raggedy, chattering and shouting to each other – and bare footed; the only people in the world with webbed feet, according to one of the London Dockers. Their boats were loaded up with bananas and pineapples which they exchanged for household goods and Seventh Day Adventist Tracts which they handed out freely (these probably floated back to land on the next tide). They also had carvings of flying fish and birds, which they made from wood found on neighbouring Henderson Island. Each of these had a stand with the name of the carver stamped on it – Made by someone Fletcher or Christian reminded you that this was where the mutineers and some Polynesians landed up after dumping Captain Bligh and his colleagues (1787). The mutineers fell out when they arrived here – murder and mayhem ensued and the Bounty was burned, before things settled down and the islanders found out about growing fruit and vegetables, keeping bees and selling stamps worldwide. Little was heard of them until recent revelations emerged about dark doings in this small community which we don’t even want to think about.
Pitcairn is very fertile, it’s a tiny rock in mid-Pacific and by its sheer insularity it attracts all nearby clouds and gets more than its fair share of rain. They can get several crops each year.
As the engines started up again, the remaining tracts went over the side and our banana eating competition would have started and, although these are not big bananas, 32 small bananas is still quite a record to beat without stopping. We didn’t give a thought to the mutineers as they first made landfall a couple of hundred years before and to the arguments that were to take place, despite the idyllic setting.
There are lots of tales about Westerners going to faraway islands and falling out but Robinson Crusoe just had to get on with it, at least until Man Friday came along.
Robinson Crusoe is the archetype and I could just picture him discovering a tool chest like mine as he strolled along the beach one day. There it would be; washed up on the sand – a complete set of 19th century cabinet maker’s tools. It would have been protected from the sea water by a covering of tarred canvas, otherwise many of the tools would have been ruined…… or maybe it would be conveniently attached to some floating spars that had come adrift before the boat broke up. Anyway, just imagine his delight as he goes through the trays and discovers the range of tools; lifting them out and laying them carefully on the sand, muttering excitedly as he realises the possibilities. These tools are very robust and if they had been carefully used and maintained by the “chippy” (ship’s carpenter), Mr Crusoe could have been using them right away.
So one thing led to another and soon I thought of my current shed at Lethenty Mill and its relative isolation amongst the trees, its leaky roof and lack of electricity – suddenly these things become attractive. It’s not on an island exactly but it is on a spit of rough ground with carefully tended agricultural land on either side (land that produces grain that was once milled at Lethenty Mill).
The more I thought about it, the site is bigger than a garden (2-3 acres) and smaller than Pitcairn but it is similar to an island, bounded on one side by the Lochter Burn. The burn provided the motive power for the water wheel which drove the machines that ground the grain at Lethenty Mill.
An ISLAND, a TOOL CHEST and a SHED (that needs to be extended and reroofed); not a bad start for a project about making a chair from a beech tree stunted by lightning and using only hand tools – well away from the temptations of a fully equipped workshop. What would it be like to make furniture with the tools from the tool chest with no electricity – only my own motive power?
-- Allan Fyfe, Lethenty Mill Furniture, http://www.lethenty-mill.com