Tag Archives: making

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.

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!

 

 

 

 

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Berserker

13 Mar

Berserker

When I am making I like to think that I am ‘at one’ with my materials and tools – that I am in a calm zen-like state of grace.

I was smartly disabused of this rosy notion whilst talking to a very talented artist colleague who makes the most divine wedding attire in her pristine studio. I was having a convivial cup of tea with a bunch of artists from Exchange Place Studios, when Debbie Carlisle described to me how she had looked in through the window of my workshop door out of curiosity.

What she saw was a man with a fearsome grimace on his face, gnashing his teeth, whilst forcing a screaming machine through a gigantic piece of wood. I had been routing a piece of oak in the process of constructing these enormous gates.

Oak Gates

She mimed my teeth gnashing stance with vivid skill.

The Berserkers were Odin’s wolf or bear skinned warriors who were capable of working themselves up into such a mighty warrior frenzy that they would gnaw the tops of their shields and howl like demons. Probably scarring bejesus out of their foe.

As a man I do experience the emotion of pure rage. Usually when I am in my van (much to my wife’s irritation) and when I am confronted with unkindness toward others.

I have come to accept that it is probably a product of too much ‘juice’ or testosterone. Having taught at a boys school years ago I learned early on that plenty of physical exercise in the form of rugby, PE, hiking, running around and yelling rendered boys quite teachable.

Much is said about the problems associated with uncontrolled male aggression and most of it is true. Brutality towards those unable to defend themselves is inhumane and unacceptable, so can it be controlled?

Without our fathers we men find it difficult to make sense of the Berserker in us. It is only from a paternal figure do we learn to play the long game, patience, kindness, gentleness and courtliness and grace.

In my studio I will continue to be Berserkr (literally – ‘wearing the bear skin’) for it in this transformed state that I can focus my all my energies in honour of the old gods, releasing the demons away from polite company.

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Shed

29 Nov

Shed

Every man should have a shed. In my case courtesy of Yorkshire Artspace I now have a very fine studio, suitable for woodworking, teaching future woodworkers, thinking and making, developing my business.

Various factors made me chose to install myself here in this lovely Art Deco pile below the old Castle Market in Sheffield. My small business has expanded to the point where I need to process timber more efficiently and have several projects ‘on the go’ at any one time. I realised that working within a community of artists and makers was potentially very beneficial, and much safer, and serendipity was involved in it’s discovery. Wes Hedge, a woodworker friend, gave me the heads up a couple of months ago and hey presto – a perfect super duper shed.

The studio has high ceilings with skylights allowing natural daylight in; it is on the ground floor with easy access to a proper load bay and it is an annex to the main building. This means I can work safely and make a bit of noise without annoying my artistic colleagues and neighbours.

Clients can visit and see their commissions taking shape in a generous space which gives them room to think, and they can view finished pieces and stock.

I feel as if I finally have a head space fit for creating rustic, fine and lovingly crafted wooden pieces.

The acoustics are awesome too – my old Dual CS505 LP player and NAD amplifier sound better than ever…. to find me:

www.henkswoodwork.co.uk

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Dads

12 May

This weekend the  Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust  organised a cornucopia of smelting, forging, green woodcraft, lace work, spinning, iron work, free machine embroidery, and leather work down at the Industrial Hamlet under the guise of  twitter.com/galvanizefest. The quality of the maker’s skills and the atmosphere was rich, restorative and inspiring. Even the inclement weather did not dampen the mood.

Dadliness

I invited Katie Bevan to help me make a cleft oak and rhododendron rustic gate at the Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet today. Here she is boldly sawing off a redundant branch from one of the gate pieces using a very sharp arborist’s saw. I was struck not only by the confidence of this young maker, but by the patient ‘hands off’ parenting of her Dad and the silent observation of her proud Grandfather.

Both these gents exhibited what is, in my daughter’s vernacular supreme ‘Dadliness’. The wisdom to stand back and let your child explore the world around her with all it’s excitement, wonder and risk whilst standing quietly in the background and just being ‘there’. It is a rare skill.

And, to be honest, it is your kids that teach you how to be ‘Dadly’.

Poll n H …and the lessons are easier to swallow over a pint.

 

Thanks to a helpful daughter I managed to finish my gate:

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…. and be Dadly.

Gouge

24 Mar

I thought I would try writing this piece on my iPod – small taps of the finger to achieve a sentence or two feels like trying to whitewash the coal shed with a tooth brush, but it resembles the best approach required to carve hard wood.

Tempting though it is to select the biggest gouge in the drawer to carve a chair seat, belting the tool with a big mallet will only result in pulling out deep scars in the grain, uneven working and the need to keep sharpening your chisels often. It is better to start modestly and build up a rhythm of small even cuts, testing the behaviour of the tool against the wood. In this way, shaving away many fine curls of wood over time ‘reveals’ the shape you desire more surely than heavy handed hacking. There is no way to rush this process, nor should there be.

When we draw something or, write prose, we make constant reference to the subject – a frame work or a theme. Erasing sketch marks and redrawing, editing and re-editing sentences achieves the same refinement as careful carving. Image, meaning and form arise when constant reference to a pattern guides incremental work. Just as drawing is governed by rules of perspective, writing by grammar, style and syntax, woodworking is controlled by the properties of the timber and the behaviour of the tool in our hands.

Think of it as a meditation: many small cuts to remove a large volume of wood, multiple pencil cross hatches to render solidity and depth, words discarded before succinct prose is discovered.

VLUU L200  / Samsung L200