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Mu

16 May

In honour of  Mental Health Awareness Week I give you a scoop. Carved from a branch of Rowan over about 2 hours, it represents pretty much everything I do to stay mentally healthy.

Work with the grain, keep going, pare away everything that isn’t helping, use a tool  correctly, repeat.

If I get it the process right, I end up with a nice tea caddy scoop (I only use leaf tea, and drink a lot of tea) and everyone is happy. If I get it wrong I end up with a pile of shavings and a rough stick to beat myself with.

Everyone who has been diagnosed with a mental illness will recognise some of these elements.

Work with the grain:

A measure of mental health is the ease with which we ‘fit’ in socially. Taking meds, applying behavioural strategies, listening carefully to other people are like working away with a tool on a piece of wood – keeping sympathetic to the direction of the grain and the nature of the wood. My natural instinct has always been to go against the grain.

Keep Going:

Mood disorders like Bipolar Disorder are inherently destabilising. For no reason at all I can become depressed and lose function and motivation. It happened today, so instead of working on a big (valuable) commission I made a small piece for a client wanting a towel hanger for her bathroom. I just kept going, trusting that eventually my dark mood would lift.

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Pare away everything that isn’t helping:

In order to make the piece above, I had to turn a large disc of walnut, turn it further to make an annulus, then carve the annulus into a ‘shamrock’ aperture to hold the towels. This process involves removing material in different ways to leave the desired shape. Paring.

I do this with my behaviour. I am not the same person I was before I was diagnosed with manic depression. I edit myself – though constantly tempted to perform, be funny (puns), be clever, witty, inventive, or judgemental. I pare these impulses back, where I can, by avoiding meetings, audiences, attention seekers, the terminally needy, focussing on facilitating, rather than being facile.

Use a tool correctly

My sharpest tool is my intellect. But just because you have the capacity and can perform to a high level does not mean you should do it. I park my intellect where I can do most good. Take it out when it is needed, confident that it will work to solve an appropriate problem, and help me and others when needed and not before.

Repeat

When you are feeling well, it is easy to become complacent.

Just as the diabetic must monitor her or his blood sugar levels constantly, I need to monitor my emotional state and act to stabilise it all the time. Woodwork is all bout cyclical repetitive strokes of a tool, not taking too much off, because you can’t put it back. So I keep taking the tablets, keep listening, keep walking away when something makes me feel uncomfortable, and keep being honest.

Mu means ‘without’, or ‘not have’ and it is the condition ‘before creation’ implied in Lao Tzu’s Tao te Ching. It is central to Zen Buddhist philosophy.

It is a condition I try to move towards – the best way to describe the feeling I get when I am in the midst of making. Not have, not there, no thing.

I introduced a visitor to my studio to spoon making at the weekend. Sung Jin is an architecture student who has been visiting my studio as part of his learning journey. I asked him about the concept of ‘mu’ in Korean culture, where it is represented as 무.

“Same idea” he said “‘mu’ means not have”

He then went to the trouble of breaking down the ideogram for mu for me using the Japanese symbol 無 

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I was rather amazed by his pictographic analysis.

You can’t get more ‘not have’ than a crematorium.

You cannot be emotionally more ‘not have’ than when you are profoundly, suicidally, depressed and intent on ending up in the crematorium.

For me, woodwork is a meditation, a state where the ego disappears.

It is ‘not have’……yet.

Delayed gratification, keeping going until the end, not seeking the end.

The mind is so powerful, it needs to be taught to be still. There are many ways to achieve this, iterative movement and listening/feeling are the ways that work for me.

‘Mu’ yields stillness of the mind.

It is the emptiness of the scoop which gives it utility.

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Waterfall

11 Apr

 

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Dad and Mam 1960

Memory is fickle. It is bad enough that we cannot always be sure of our senses (spending time in a psychiatric hospital will profoundly shake one’s faith in reality) and the store of impressions, knowledge and experiences we call memory can be most troubling.

My wife and I cared for and supported my Mam in the last years of her life as her memory gradually unravelled due to vascular dementia. Her condition was compounded by macular degeneration and a bone headed refusal to adapt. When she finally agreed to be cared for professionally, Clare and I uncovered archeological layers of unread sticky labels and notes in her house amidst mountains of hoarded stuff, written to remind Mam of where the other note was to indicate the location of the marmite (12 pots), disinfectant (20 bottles filled with water??) you get the idea. She even hid money in black socks – throughout her wardrobe.

“Look Henk! A Dobby sock!” Clare, my lady of the wicked mirth, referring to the JK Rowling elf character in the Harry Potter books.

Living on her own. Mam must have been slowly becoming more and more lost in her own maze of the Minotaur, walking through a thickening fog without any string.

At the end what was left of her memory were the deepest associations and very revealing. During her last 18 months in care she constantly called me ‘David’ my dad, her ex husband’s name. During this time I realised just how much she adored him despite belittling, criticising and disrespecting his name in all the years prior and since their divorce in 1966. I did not correct her.

This is Grace and I am humbled by it’s Memory.

When my Dad was alive, he and I used to love going on road trips. We would invent a spurious reason, jump in the car with a hold-all each and head for the hills. He used to say “Got some loose change in your pocket? A pair of clean underpants and a vest? Right-ho, we’re good to go!”

Take Dad anywhere and there would always be a tale, a funny association with his own memories and experiences and a riotous adventure.

Take, for example, the time we went to Ireland in his old Ford Sierra, travelling to Waterford to trace his mother, Annie Wilde’s roots, all the way up to Dublin. We found no trace, but a great deal of mirth – in a bar in Dublin we were drinking beer and eating a big meat pie each when onto a crude stage wafted a vision in electric blue taffeta. An aged chanteuse plugged the hammond organ in, switch it on and proceeded to sing.

“It’s Margarita Pracatan!” my dad declared.

The eponymous singer was regular guest on Clive James’ chat show during the 90’s.

I nearly choked on my pie.

Landscape, architecture and movement have always flowed like a waterfall for father and son.

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A rush of pure association, comedy and utter delight.

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This piece is called ‘Waterfall’ and was commissioned by a couple who have that rare gift – they have kept their curiosity alive through mutual love and affection all the way to retirement.

They had discovered this timber – English Yew – in a small local woodyard near Hillsborough in Sheffield (Albion Timber), the mill owner, David Smythe had put them on to me as a someone who might be able to make them something useful from them.

It was the wildness of the waney, or live edges that excited them. They couldn’t know what lay under the rough sawn, blood red surface of the six boards.

Now, the problem with having an ‘unquiet mind’ (manic depression) is that there is never any shortage of ideas. Almost anything can set my brain haring off like a collie after a rabbit.

So I was grateful that my clients were quite specific in their requirements – a set of shelves with a small cabinet.

It was an artist friend, who said “It’s a waterfall” as I was completing it in my studio. Aye, lad.

During a family reunion, on Christmas Day in Devon with my dad and I were paired up for a word association quiz

Dad: “A Lake, ‘like you are not son’.”

“Placid”, I said.

We were unbeaten. My memory was sound.

The ravens had returned, to Odin.

 

 

For the giver of the Dobby Sock.

HL

 

Cowboy

7 Jun
The lone cowboy sitting astride his steed travelling the vast planes in search of Gold. Well, astride a Stokke kneeling stool anyway.
In the Spring of ’83 my mother exchanged her beloved portable typewriter (a very collectable Olympia) for this huge electric contraption so that I could finally complete my Ph.D. thesis.
We were living in Moss Side, Manchester and I was struggling to comprehend how I could finish my studies with no job prospects having just become a dad and come to the end of my research grant.
In hindsight, I realise I might have been suffering from my first serious bout of depression.
Over the years that followed and following my eventual diagnosis with Manic Depression (or Bipolar Disorder) in 2001, I developed a robust method of sensing when depression was about to strike.
Only last week our first ever, and most loyal customer to our cafe, Tea with Percie took his own life.
He was a gifted artist and beloved by many for his depth and sensitivity. In the end he lost his fight with depression, or the  The Black Dog as some would call it.
Last week I felt the Black Dog leave the artist’s house with the undertakers and the police as they moved his remains from his home.
Clare, my wife, was very upset, she really liked him, and his good friends too were distraught.
I knew I had to do something, because the manner of his passing was too close to home for me. The Black Dog loomed.
I went in to my studio and carefully took apart a distressed but beautiful old Parker Knoll reclining chair, cleaned up all the joints and rebuilt it with a bit of Love. I find this the best glue.
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 I find that if I am quick enough to take action – particularly through making, or repairing – I can usually short circuit the negative thoughts and the looming cloud of depression. Perhaps because focus is needed to make, or repair something with manual skill requires, which requires concentration. This focus allows the black thoughts to slink away.  Depression feeds when the mind is unfocussed – it is why work is so important to us, and unemployment so destructive.
I like to think of it as using the ‘mental floss’ method of escaping the accumulating plaque of depression – just like Cowboy Henk might do:
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Cowboy Henk is the maverick creation of artist Herr Seele and writer Kamagurka. He is a big Belgian Cowboy who finds solutions to life’s problem which invariably involve action, are often absurd rude and somewhat offensive – and always funny.
In the old Southwest of the USA ‘maverick‘ was a word coined to describe  an unbranded steer which had become separated from its mother. Because the calf could not be muzzled (feed from its mother) it made a lot of irritating noise.
James Garner played Bret Maverick in the eponymous hit 60’s TV show.
in which the main character always has an answer to every problem.
Not surprisingly I admired this character greatly as a young man.
Nowadays the word ‘maverick’ has come to mean a lone dissenter, an intellectual or an artist, a dissident – a free thinker.
Other synonyms include – nonconformist, individualist, loner, lone wolf.
I suspect Mavericks are particularly prone to the Black Dog, because they invariably tend to be self reliant, rarely seeking help because they are usually effective at finding their own solutions.
I have been called ‘maverick’ in the pejorative sense many times, not least by close relatives. I am, in some people’s eyes a cowboy, a rebel and a loose canon.
For example;
A few years after I finishing my Ph.D. on that monster typewriter, I was working as a postdoctoral research assistant at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne in a laboratory studying insect vision. It fulfilled the important criteria of giving my daughter and her mum a safe place to live and grow in a lovely city and provide a reasonable standard of living.
Two years in to a three year research contract there I was invited to give a talk to the annual Science and Engineering Council’s annual conference in Edinburgh.
The chair of the session in which I presented my paper was a Professor to whom I had just applied for a new job. At the end of my lecture, which was well received, he drew me to one side and said
“You are nothing like I imagined Dr. Littlewood. Perhaps you need to be more careful whom you chose as a referee.”
I was a bit bemused.
He kindly gave me a copy of the reference written about me by my boss at Newcastle University for the fellowship in the Professor’s lab.
The letter began:
“Dear Sir,
Dr. Littlewood, is completely un-housetrained, he is a maverick…………” and carried on in the same vein.
Needless to say, I was not interviewed for the position, and I began to wonder how many other applications had gone awry because of similar derogatory references.
What I had done to draw this ire?
I had developed a novel brain research technique which allowed neurophysiologists to visualise the connections between nerve cells – the synapses under the electron microscope. At the time my boss’s wife (also a neuroscientist) was applying for a Royal Society fellowship & wanted to put her name to my paper.
I refused as she had not contributed. This is not how to play the game, Henk.
Cowboy Henk.
In addition to the poor references, my contract came to an abrupt end that very Christmas. My boss and Newcastle University ‘let me go’.
I was out on my uppers with a six year old daughter and no roof over our heads – because our accommodation was tied to the job.
As it turned out, this sequence of events was a blessing, because that was when I first started making furniture seriously using the woodwork skills drawn from me by my teacher, Mr Paulson all those years ago and encouraged throughout my life by my father.
I was offered a small corner in an artist’s studio at The Cluny Warehouse, Newcastle upon Tyne and I made a number of pieces of furniture for kind and encouraging paying clients.
Action will always put a smile on your face even if you are screaming inside folks. Turn a bad situation to your advantage by letting your hands pull you free,
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Esme McCall on spoons                                  Cowboy Henk on wagon wheel.

Dues

28 Jan

Henk working

If you want to do something interesting in Life, you’ve got to pay your dues.

This is called experiential learning. I have huge respect for autodidacts (my Father), bodgers, make-do-and-menders, the makers of happy mistakes – in other words those humans with a pioneering spirit.

Too much formal education leads to closed minds in my experience.

Way back in January 2002 I went to see a specialist careers advisor-come-psychometric consultant in London seeking help for a new career direction.

I was asked to send in my curriculum vitae. At the appointment the first thing the consultant said to me was: “Looking at your resume I would say that there is a cyclical pattern occurring over about a three year period throughout your career. You seem to start a new job, be very productive for a while and then, sooner or later you torpedo everything and move on. I’d say you were probably manic depressive.”

I was a bit shocked to be honest.

“Funny you should say that” I said, ” but I have just been diagnosed with Manic Depression.”

I had recently been discharged from a Psychiatric Hospital with a prescription for Lithium carbonate, regular cognitive therapy and ….no bloody job. I was facing some hard decisions about how I was going to make a living. The psychiatrist had advised me that teaching (my erstwhile job) was the worst possible thing I could do – because of the particular pressures experienced by all the people in a school. A person with MD (Bipolar Disorder) is under constant emotional stress (because of the lack of an internal ‘governor’) and therefore finds it difficult to maintain psychological stability.

I had to accept teaching was off the menu.

“But I can’t do anything else!” I wailed to Clare, my wife, to which she responded:

“Don’t be so stupid, Henk! You can do anything you want with your brain you wally.”

 

Impressed by my wife’s pithy rebuke and the  insightfulness of the consultant I asked what job I might be suited to other than academia or teaching.

The careers consultant said “What do you really like?”

I rambled on about challenges, problem solving, team working, communicating and so on and so forth…

She said “This is not a job interview, what do you really like to do?” A tough question because I did not like anything about myself.

So I thought about it long and hard and said:

“I like being outside and I like making things with my hands”

“Well why don’t you think about environmental conservation? You’ll never make much money, but you will get a lot of job satisfaction. With your background knowledge of Natural History, your experience as a teacher and your woodworking skills you should fit right in”

So I did some research and found out that the only way to get into conservation work is by volunteering.

The way you pay your dues in Conservation is by giving your own time for no pay to learn the trade – it sorts out the committed from the merely curious. Since the majority of conservation jobs involve working with and managing enthusiastic volunteers you have to have been one to earn any credibility in this trade.

This made perfect sense to me, and after a little bit of searching I discovered a voluntary position with the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (now TCV – The Conservation Volunteers) in Wirksworth, Derbyshire as a Biodiversity Officer.

I flogged my motorbike – a beautiful Honda VFR –

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to learn about billhooks, biodiversity action plans, tool talks, brewing tea with a storm kettle, endless hacking away at rhododendron bushes, how to drive a mini bus, tow a trailer… and in return was able to contribute my carpentry skills to making and hanging gates, wooden bridges, styles, steps and all manner of access barriers – all in the glorious Derbyshire Peak District with a lovely team of young volunteers – project officers and TCV staff. Outdoors, working with my hands.

Fresh air and friendship. The best head juice I know.

Very slowly it began to dawn on me that I could be happy perhaps for the first time in decades.

The door that was opened in my mind by this Zen-like slap to my forehead has led ultimately to me returning to my boyhood passion, via a joyful 10 years as a countryside Ranger. Believe what everyone says, it is the best paid job in the world.

It is remarkable to me that, through great good fortune I now find myself hosting an enthusiastic young carpenter/artist who is paying her dues to the traditions and practises of a road less travelled.

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Esme McCall, December 2017

“Two roads diverged in a wood and I – I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”   Robert Frost

 

 

 

Memoriam

4 Jan

IMG_6709.JPGDavid Stuart Littlewood, 21.03.1930 – 25.12.2017 surrounded by his apprentices.

From the left, yours truly, Dad, Nathan, Simon and Tim. Abi, our sister, sadly passed away in 2008 so the picture above is incomplete.

A couple of weeks before Dad’s passing we were all able to get together in Devon to celebrate each other’s connection through David Stuart Littlewood. He made a big effort, coming down from his bed to sit amongst the grandchildren and share our good humour, providing the strong glue that binds us. He was a bit somber at the start.

The remarkable turnaround in my Dad’s mood was largely down to our youngest brother’s insatiable appetite for life. His enthusiasm for pickles, meat pies, a full English Breakfast, long striding walks over the Devon Moors and an encyclopaedic knowledge of beer, old architecture and woodwork was just the ticket. Simon always brings his ‘A’ game to a family gathering.

As you know I believe in Alchemy.

A week before Christmas I was feeling low, and, yet out of the Blue, a young artist/maker contacted me for help. She wrote a mature and erudite email introducing herself and expressing a need to develope her woodwork hand skills. We agreed to meet in my studio in Sheffield.

After some initial hedging around by me, I agreed to let her spend a little time in my workshop, so that I could gauge her quality.

I found the timing of her arrival both fortuitous and perplexing, so I asked my father (as I always do) for advice.

I quietly approached him and asked him if he needed ‘owt.

“Aye, lad, cup of tea”

I brought him a cup of tea – strong one sugar, and as he was sipping it I said:

“Dad, I’m thinking of taking someone on, do you have any advice?”

“Is it a lad?”

“No, its a lass”

“Oh, well, get her to make something and if she’s shite, bin her off”

These were the last words he spoke to me before he died.

I was his first apprentice. He never binned me off. Ever.

There is now a young carpenter honing her craft in my studio, bringing her art and skill to enhance our ‘A’ Game.

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The fish carving was the first piece of ‘wood art’ I made for my gaffer, Mr Poulson, at 11 years of age.

‘A’ is for Alchemy.

Paulo Coelho The Alchemist.

Opa

11 Apr

I never knew my father’s dad, grandfather Arthur Littlewood. He died fairly young having served his country in the First World War as a tank engineer and worked hard in the mills of Huddersfield all his adult life. Thus my role model for grandfatherhood has to be my mother’s father, Jhr Cornelius Abraham Van de Poll and my Opa pictured here in Noordwijk in 1984.

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Here is my daughter Polly – aged 2 – being entertained in the arms of her overgrootvader way back in 1986.

Opa came from a very large family. Physically very strong, handsome and charismatic he loved fast cars, speedboats and football. He came from a large extended family pictured here in 1959 in the back garden of his eldest brother Jan in Arnhem. I was introduced to them them as a nipper in 1959. Mam, Dad and I are 4th, 3rd and 2nd from the right (I’m the one in nappies).

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Opa was a bit scary, but a lot of fun. He could eat vast quantities of pannekoeken  (pancakes) in one sitting, stick a large yoghurt spoon (the size of a ladle) in his mouth, and loved to go on all the rides at the fun fair with us. He taught me to play chess, although I was never able to beat him, and as a result, the first lathe project I ever attempted as a budding woodworker was a chess set I made for him when I was 11 years old.

He was a survivor of the Burma Railway Line, having been a taken prisoner by the Japanese Imperial Army in Sumatra in Indonesia during the 2nd WW, and my first real Hero. His most impressive trick was his ability to screw wood screws into bare timber with his thumb nail. It took me until recently to conclude that he must have concealed a screwdriver in his hand to pull this off, the old bugger. One of many of his clever jokes.

And so now I am an Opa.

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Here is my grandson: Joseph Leon Seaton Howden, photographed here by his dad Alan Howden. Joseph was born to my wonderful daughter Polly Howden on Tuesday 28th March 2017.

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Joseph’s Dad, Alan Howden is, like me, a craftsman, and he knows how to capture the very essence of his subject by combining patience, infinite care and obsessive attention to detail. Like this telling and very natural portrait….

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Opa can now contemplate the multitude of wooden toys, treehouses, dens, sailing boats, go-karts, aeroplanes and kites he can build with Joseph and his parents, the pancakes we can eat together the fun we can all have as he grows to manhood. For, as we all know, Joseph was the carpenter of carpenters.

Thank you dear Polly and Alan, for making a Joseph and an Opa.

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P.S. Thanks Vanessa Boddye for Joseph’s hat

Trinity

12 Nov

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Yggdrasil – the World Tree of Norse Mythology – traditionally a gigantic ash, is the tree upon which Odin hung in his never ending quest for wisdom. He drank from the stream which courses beneath the roots of the great tree and he lost an eye in payment. Mimir is  literally ‘The Rememberer’.

I made this bed as a commission for the generous and thoughtful mother of a beloved daughter and her partner as the seal upon their hard won quest to design and build their own home. The bed frame is made from a very old and spalted Fraxinus excelsior or European Ash, and the posts and book matched laths of the head board are derived from a huge yew tree which had languished in a stack of 4 inch boards in a builder’s garage in Beighton for many years.

When I consulted the family of three, the daughter requested that I carve a celtic knot – also known as a Triquetra – in the foot board.

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The triquetra has a well known modern Christian resonance: Father, Son and Holy Ghost, and in ancient Celtic and neo-pagan traditions representing the Sacred Feminine – the three ages of woman: Maiden, Mother and Crone.

My Mam a single mother in the 1960’s and 70’s used to say that together, she, my brother and I were invincible because we were a ‘three’. She believed that the number 3 had immense power.

Pythagoras taught that 3 is the first true number because it forms the first geometrical figure, a triangle. Odin’s valknut, a symbol of three interlocking triangles is a symbol of great power and significance in Viking Folklore. This one is carved on the Stora Hammars Stone on the Swedish Island of Gotland and it is intimately associated with the All Father.

valknut-stora-hammars-iIn the words of historian H.R. Ellis Davidson, “Odin had the power to lay bonds upon the mind, so that men became helpless in battle, and he could also loosen the tensions of fear and strain by his gifts of battle-madness, intoxication, and inspiration.” She and others interpret the Valknut, with its knot-like appearance, as a symbolic expression of this idea (Ellis Davidson, Hilda Roderick. 1964. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. p. 147.).

To carve a Triquetra, one has to first draw three interlocking circles to form the outline these are also known as ‘Borromean’ rings (after the Italian family Borromeo’s coat of arms)

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And then you can get down to the business of carving…

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…which involves repeatedly stabbing vertically along the outline of the motif and then gouging into the wood toward the stab line. This takes a lot of concentration, especially when one has already made the foot board as a single modular piece.

Carving directly onto a completed piece of furniture requires concentration and what we might call ‘bottle’ or courage. I learned from my client that her daughter and co-owner of the bed is a hand surgeon – I can think of no greater need for bottle than when working to repair that quintessentially primate character, the hand. The hand is my instrument, my means of expression and so I decided to go for broke and carve straight into the finished head board out of respect for my clients.

Speaking of bottle my younger brother Simon who lives in San Francisco and is both a master carpenter, music maker and brewer of fine Pale Ales might approve of this Trinity – it is perhaps quite apposite for us Littlewood brothers.

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It appears on an American IPA, Ballantine and is of 7.2% alcohol by volume – potent!