For this post, I’d like to share details and thoughts around what I’ve been doing for work and employment over the past year. It’s something I don’t often talk about as I’ve rarely been someone who enjoys or looks forward to spending five-days of their week in one situation, with only two days to then rest and recover before starting again.
While I write this, I’d like to make it clear that I am not writing with any intent to discredit any of my employers or co-workers, past and present. These are merely my views and experiences of how I have reacted and felt in certain situations.
I began the year as I had ended 2017: working for a small packaging company/case manufacturer in the local area.
I’d only started this job nine-months earlier, having left a larger packaging firm (a competitor, even) after spending six-years there, covering a variety of roles. Just for reference: six-years is the longest period I have spent in any one company and I’ve now done that with two companies, having been working now since 2002.
This wasn’t a bad job at all. Being me and the way I am, I found it very challenging socially, working with such a small group of people, where I’d previously been accustomed to larger firms with a greater variety of personalities and an increased likelihood that I would encounter one or two people who I’d get along with particularly well. My own mental health issues began to surface with this and my reaction at times was to avoid work altogether, without warning and without contact. It was never because of the job or the people there; it was because I was struggling within myself.
I would have the occasional ‘bad month’ where I’d miss a number of days – and, to his credit, my boss was understanding. I began 2018 with a succession of good months… Until I had a week off in June (with a plan to walk The Ridgeway long-distance trail)… My plans for those five-days didn’t quite happen, although I genuinely enjoyed my time and the sense of time, space and freedom discovered. As soon as I arrived home on that Friday afternoon, I crashed. My mood plummeted and I fell in to a very dark and difficult place.
Basically, I didn’t return to work the following week. I couldn’t even drag myself out of bed or draw back the curtains of home. I resigned from what was otherwise a decent job. I struggled with it socially and with the large amount of downtime, allowing my mind to wander too far.
Oh, about the job itself…
So, I was mostly responsible for making flight cases from scratch. Cutting materials, checking and maintaining stock levels of all parts. Working from cutting sheets. It was a familiar role, having done something similar with a previous company. If I could add one thing though, I’d say that the standard and quality of work was higher and perhaps more efficient. Other duties would involve generally picking and packing items for delivery and working with polyethylene foam… Which was either machined to profile on a CNC router or cut to size and glued to line the interior of a case. Also, not pictured, I would assemble cabinet-type units made from laminate-faced MDF that would later be fitted out with electrical units.
Come the end of June, I was officially unemployed for the first time since September 2010. I had no real plan at this point, other than to take some time out, possibly seek affordable and professional help for myself and, if I could brave it, think about where I would go from here.
To be honest, I had a trip to Snowdonia planned, booked and paid for in July and then another long-weekend away in August with a group down in Cornwall… Between and surrounding this, I didn’t really get a lot done and I did want a thorough break from all thoughts of ‘work’. Each day, if I couldn’t brave going for a walk (which I would do quite often), I would sometimes hide away, living with the fear and stigma of being ‘jobless’… I made no attempt to sign-on or claim benefits for similar reason, as a large hole began to form in my bank balance (I live and rent alone).
Working with Reclaimed Timber
It was in late August that a surprise opportunity arose, through the powers of social media, to work with and for a local small business-owner who spends his days designing and making chunky-style furniture from salvaged materials.
(At the same time, I applied for a full-time job with a furniture making company in Bristol who were looking for a wood machinist… But I never heard back.)
While I did like the idea of working with reclaimed timber and bringing new life to something old and discarded, I wasn’t fully passionate about it and, while I was interested to see what it was like, it was never an opportunity that I saw as a long-term option.
Officially, I was still unemployed but being paid cash on a weekly basis, after creating and sending an invoice. It was almost as if I was self-employed – a frightening experience that I have often wondered about, while many others, knowing what I can do, question why I haven’t gone down that road. For law-abiding purposes, I did register for a self-assessment tax return and will have to respond to that at the end of April.
When I met the owner and we talked about what he did and what he wanted from another person – the previous ‘assistant’ had been with him for two-years but was now going to college (the same furniture making course that I did between 2007 and 2010) – I went in to it with a clear idea that ‘one day’ I would be able to use this space to make my own stuff…
Very early on, I learned that I barely had the time to make the items that customers had ordered and needed to go out ASAP.
Unfortunately, I found the experience generally to be very similar to something I went through in 2006, when I began working as a ‘trainee’ for a local carpenter towards the end of my final year at college (this was my first stint there, studying Carpentry & Joinery). It wasn’t until 2012 that I realised I was the victim of verbal and emotional abuse in that role, coming directly from my employer. While I made mistakes early on and took longer than intended to complete jobs, I was directly referred to as ‘useless’ among other less-pleasant names. Because of my age (21) and lack of worldly experience, I went on believing this. I ‘had to’; he was ‘the boss’. He was ‘always right’…
To this day, I am still sensitive to someone telling me I’m too slow. Although, as I have recently demonstrated, I am more confident in standing up for myself and telling people that I will not rush a job just to try and make ends meet. So, with my more recent experience of working with used scaffold boards and old fence posts, I disliked the emphasis on time, even though I could see where he was coming from as a businessman. I don’t enjoy working with wood when I have to hurry and can’t take the time to appreciate what I’m doing. For me, this was another experience that perhaps the line of a self-employed maker isn’t one that would suit me.
A few of my specific struggles in this role:
Having previously committed six-years of my time to college courses and many hours making and creating it what was once my own workshop, I do find it difficult to settle in to someone else’s work space, regardless of its size. That possibly says something about me in life generally; I sometimes have a specific way that I prefer to do things. Although, I know that’s not always the case. But I do know A LOT about making furniture and working with timber, tools and machinery in general.
He had a way of working that meant there was no workbench in the workshop, traditional or otherwise. Each day, I’d have to set myself up on a pair of sturdy trestles – sometimes, I’d have to do this several times in one day – before I could pull boards out from storage, match them up for gluing, clean them up a bit, biscuit joint them, put the clamps on, sanding, cut to size with a track saw…
I felt as though I was working on a building site every single day. My experience of site work as a carpenter is quite minimal, although I have never enjoyed having to move tools to and from a vehicle each day and then set yourself up before starting work… And then to reverse that process at the end of the day! I prefer the stability of a workbench in ‘my’ working area.
Due to the simplistic nature of the designs, everything we made was screwed and glued together with a preference for the butt joint. All of this is fine, of course. But as someone who has again, been through college, I found it frustrating not to have freedom to cut a mortise and tenon or a set of dovetails or something… It is for these reasons that I feel my most passionate woodworking should only ever be a hobby. I always had reservations about screwing certain joints, where it was clear that expansion and contraction issues had not been considered.
Around the time that I started, key elements of the machinery on-hand were upgraded. Although this still meant working with one of those portable mitre saw stands – where the piece you cut is often too short for the telescopic supports, meaning you have a balance it carefully and hack together your own form of length stop… Or measure and cut each board individually, crossing your fingers that they’ll end up within 2mm of each other by the time you’ve finished!
I had thoughts about making something from plywood to at least infill that dead space offering no support. But I could never find the time.
Adding to the building site mentality; extension leads ran all over the place. It was almost a necessary evil, working in a former cow shed without only a small handful of electrical outlets fitted to two of the four walls. Having to unplug, plug-in, untangle and dance over these hazardous lines; I never felt at ease – and that’s without mentioning that the workshop is UNHEATED through the winter. I do know that the “snakes” situation has improved a bit since my departure.
I am pleased to say that I never suffered a serious injury in my short time there, even though my trousers will never recover from the many miles of polyurethane glue. I got to make a replacement push-stick from plywood after the owner saw the supplied plastic aid shatter upon contacting the table saw’s blade.
We would mostly work on tables, desks and benches. On one occasion, we built this unit measuring 3.7 metres in length!
Just to close on this one; I was not employed by him or his company. I am not intending to sound critical of him or his business. I took responsibility for my own health and safety, as if I was self-employed. I’m just looking to share the things I struggled with, in the hope that I’m not alone and that many people don’t just shut their eyes and ‘get on with it’.
I even bought myself a pair of new drills in preparation for this role. I mean, when you stumble upon an offer for a Makita impact driver and combi drill at £265 with two 18v 5.0Ah batteries and a charger… You have to take it, right???
While I don’t currently have any photos from my current workplace, only a couple of weeks in to the job; I’m working for another local company in the production of office furniture and screens. Once again, I’m on the woodworking side of things; allocating my time between machining sheets of plywood, MDF, chipboard and softwood; or being on the bench, gluing and stapling the framework together, which then gets passed on to another person who’ll cover it with foam, upholstery and more.
It’s a role within a company of thirty-to-forty people and they’re constantly busy moving forwards (I like being busy and struggle with downtime). This isn’t somewhere that I’ll be able to use my full range of furniture making skills but it will keep me occupied for now and, as with a job I left in 2017, I will always have Friday afternoons off, which is a huge bonus in the quest for a better work-life balance.
I wouldn’t like to be here ten-years from now and I might be surprised if I stick it out for another six. But it is too soon to say ‘how long’ and I currently have no long-term plan towards any tentative steps in any other direction. I think that, having qualifications in both carpentry and furniture making, I have always put a pressure upon myself to say ‘I must do that’… Yet, I know a number of people with university degrees in all manner of subjects who’s career paths have veered off along a different course. I may spend the rest of my working life moving from job-to-job and it might be okay to do that. I think the age of the ‘Company Man’ is fading.
As far as the workshop goes… In July 2019, it will be five-years since I vacated my previous space. I still have an intention of finding somewhere for my own personal use (not as a full-time business) but a more immediate priority for me is to find a new home. I don’t like to openly admit that I still don’t have another workshop, after almost five-years and I know too well that there are seven-thousand people now following me on YouTube, potentially waiting for that day… Or losing patience in the process.