Carpenters

Surely the most enjoyable job on the new houses was carpentry. Open-shouldered work, using big, sweet smelling materials, quickly cut with sharp saws and nailed vigorously with a fine swinging of the arm. I always enjoyed watching the carpenters fixing their heavy floor joists and then nailing the floor boards with crudely sheared cut-nails. The men never seemed to mind a couple of small children tching through a window, examining everything they did.

The carpenters arrived when the bricklayers had finished building the walls. They climbed the scaffolding and began creating the roof. Rafters were cut to standard lengths, with the end joints set at the correct angles with bevels. It was a pleasure to see them cutting so accurately to the thick pencil lines with cross-cut saws. No machinery. There was not a power machine on the site. In 1925, almost everything was done as it had been done a century before. Of course they no longer squared their roof joists with an adze, or sawed them with two-handed saws in saw pits. Those practices had gone out long before. Joists arrived at the site already sawn to width and thickness by power saws; floor boards came machine planed; skirting boards were machine moulded, but from then on everything was cut by hand. No small electric saws or planes. No electric sanders. These small tools were still far in the future. When the ridge beam was in place, with the raking corner rafters, the rest of the rafters were cut and nailed in place. It looked easy, but cutting the correct angles every time took years to learn. Last they nailed in place the eaves boards, ready to take the gutter brackets.

Each man had his tools in a circular 'straw', a shallow bag of strong canvas, with two large handles on the rim. Presumably they used to be made of straw and the name had stuck. Tools were always laid back on the straw, so that they would not be scattered and lost. Then, when the carpenter was ready to move, the two handles were pulled together, slipped over the shoulder, the straw tucked under the arm and carried off. It was large enough to hold the longest saw safely and still fold over to protect the ends. At five o'clock each night we children saw dozens of men walking home and could pick out the trades by the different tools they carried.

Tools were guarded jealously. A labourer would be told sharply, "Don't touch that saw. You're not a carpenter." Carpenters were skilled men who had served their apprenticeships and did not welcome untrained men. Nor did one carpenter use another's tools. Great offence could be given that way. Each man's tools were marked, burnt in, or deeply stamped, so that there was no chance of the mark being obliterated. When tools had odd initials, there was always a story attached. "From the wife's deceased father"; -"Picked up in Caledonian Market for next to nothing"; - "Bought from a pawnshop window when I was an apprentice." Many of these stories had been polished by telling, repeated on site after site, and no doubt some acquired truth by the same process.

 

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