The cost of student life

After 2 weeks at college and starting work on my first project, it appears that this year, we have to pay for our own timber. Because I have worked in the timber trade since last October, I am able to say that I know the value of timber. Worried that each project might end up costing me a fortune, I decided to start straight away by aiming to keep my costs as low as possible by using, for my first project, … plywood!

So some of you might think it is a daft idea. I am learning furniture making, and most of my fellow students are going on about all the wonderful and unusual timbers that they may or may not use for their projects. American Black Walnut, Teak, Rosewood, Ebony, Mahogany, even good old Oak which, despite it being widely available, is very expensive.

But someone told me recently that a lot of the time, furniture designers will put the emphasis on the timber/materials rather than the method/technique. Any design idea should be feasible with simple timber. And I have chosen plywood because it is simple and easy to find. I also thought that it would be cheap too but unfortunately, the best ply, as all timber, isn’t the cheapest one. Birch ply is the best but therefore also the most expensive. I had a look at cheaper plys and really, it isn’t the sort of thing that you would be willing to spend money on to make a good quality table.

My design will need 2 sheets of 1.22 x 2.44 m ply which cost £43 each. So immediately, the cost of the table I am making shoots up to nearly £100. Then I have to add the labour and cost of all other materials. I am guessing that the table will end up costing nearly £300.

This timber purchase worries me. I hadn’t planned on that when I registered for this year.

On top of this, I have now resigned from my job at the saw mill as I had reached a stage where I felt sick at the idea of commuting there 3 days a week. I remember the days of working in London, when having to get up at a given early hour, and be at work at another given hour, became a total drag.

A few days ago, I almost fell asleep at the wheel during my commute. That woke me up (no pun intended!). Just like when I worked in London, I decided that I couldn’t keep a job that had become so tiring that my health was becoming at risk. A heavy commute (1:30 hours a day) plus long hours (9 hours a day) plus a very physical job (carrying loads of timber and other heavy materials most of the time) which, all added together, gives me a very good reason why I am tired.

In fact, it has come to a point where I am no longer going to karate twice a week. During the summer, I went only once a week. I had my regular 3 days a week job at the saw mill, and then the workshop 2 days a week. I had a very busy summer working, taking only 4 days off to visit my dad in France. After the rush in June to finish the end of year project, it meant that I never had a proper break. My body started to rebel last week when I got a cold which, for me, means that I must slow down.

So when, 2 weeks ago, my sensei announced that he was closing the dojo because of lack of students to sustain the class, I took it as a blessing in disguise. There is another class I could join, but I decided to make the best of the moment: I will resume karate when I have found a new and more local job.

In the meantime, I am home every evening after college, and I am enjoying that tremendously. I love the feeling of finishing college and knowing I have the whole evening to look after myself, catch up with my personal admin, work on my design and learn CAD which I need for my course.

I now have some free time during the week until I find a new job, and you can bet your bottom dollar that I am making the most of it. Between my search for a new job, my homework and my paintings, I am wondering how I ever managed to fit in a job in my timetable as well.

I have a speech to give at my local Art Gallery to present my paintings along with a bunch of other artists and I have sold more paintings this year than usual. Therefore I have decided to invest money into my website to develop it to something more professional and easier for me to control rather than having to pay someone to do it for me.

So although I no longer have a regular job, I feel on top of the world regardless because I can feel myself riding a wave of positivity. I want to make the most of it while it lasts. I don’t know how long it will last, perhaps next week everything will be going wrong… but in the meantime, it all feels good and positive and encouraging, so off I go on my positive wave…

… up up and away…

Back to school

So I am back at college since last Monday, and it is so wonderful! It does feel so warm and cozy in my college. Well, it is all relative, really… Warm and cozy inside of me when I am there, because the actual building isn’t particularly warm and cozy!

Anyway. We already know what our projects are going to be. First of all a storage unit. So I am working on what I have decided to call a “TV watching unit”, for storing all the bits and bobs that you need for watching TV: remotes, mugs, magazines, newspapers. The young lads in my class were loving the idea of that unit and so began to give me ideas for extra gimmicks to add on it, such as a bottle opener, so that one can pop a crate of beer near the couch and then open one’s beer in comfort whilst watching TV, without having to get up to go to the kitchen because they forgot the said bottle opener. I suddenly realised I was creating a boy toy! Someone suggested a USB socket, an IPod docking station, and even a wine bottle opener.

“How the hell will you be able to open a wine bottle like that?” I asked

“Well, put the unit on little wheels, twist your bottle in the opener and then spin the table round to open the bottle!” came the answer…

Ah, to be young and full of creativity and imagination…

Another lad came along and suggested that since I am creating a boy toy, my table should be redesigned in the shape of a clenched fist!

After the storage unit, we will be creating a chair. Then the end of year assessment piece, which I believe will be a plant stand. Bit boring, but this course is a machining course, and so the final piece will encompass all the machining techniques that we will need to know by mid next year.

This is all very exciting stuff. And I am really looking forward to it.

However, I am now finding it just as scary as last year when I started in September, which is odd as I thought I would be more confident by now.

Last week, I went to see my apprenticeship boss to discuss a new timetable. He showed me the door they are making for someone and he was obviously very happy and excited about creating it, being very chatty and eager to explain to me the process to create it. He showed me the plan and all the different joints that are needed for it, and explained the reason why each one was chosen. I was completely overwhelmed by it all. I listened to him but felt a slow wave of panic rising inside of me.

By the time I left the workshop, I felt so completely belittled by the amount of things I still don’t know that I got myself all depressed and tearful. I drove back home wondering what the hell I am doing in this place, in this life, working so hard and moving on so slowly.

These people have about 20 years’ worth of experience in carpentry and cabinet making. I am 43 years old and I am still learning how to rip timber and plane it properly. My boss still doesn’t trust me to work on actually preparing ripped timber for assembly. I have a part-time job on minimum wage and an apprenticeship one day a week which doesn’t even pay the minimum wage.

And to top it all, I am just now reaching the conclusion that I need to quit my job at the timber yard because it is so far a commute that it is leaving me tired and broke. I now dread driving 90 minutes a day to go there and back; and every time I fill up the tank, I hurt to see how much it costs me. I not only want a more local job, but I also want a job that’s more to do with creating with timber, rather than selling it.

So it’s tough. Just when I thought it was all making sense, after getting my first year certificate in Furniture Making, after being on a high because I got a distinction, I am hitting very low low because there is still so much to do, to learn, so much money that will be needed …

But then again, I have a cold right now. I don’t feel very well, so I see everything in black and white. I must remember that last year, I hit a few wobbly moments and every time, my kind and supportive teachers reminded me that they are here to teach me. I am here to learn and I am only starting, so progress is bound to be slow.

I have progressed since a year ago. Slowly but surely.

And money was found, also slowly but surely. Never a lot, but always enough to ensure I was never in the red, never in debt.

And there is bound to be another job for me, something more in line with what I want to do, something to do with antiques, something local.

So many things to do… so little time…

The end of summer term

It’s back to school tomorrow Monday and I am VERY excited about it! So much has happened over the summer it feels that it lasted 6 months instead of just 2 months.

I found an apprenticeship in a furniture workshop for the 2 days that I wasn’t at College or at work, and that worked a treat. I have learned to use power tools and machines, and got myself into the heart of what it is like to work in a workshop environment. I found it interesting, fun, useful and fulfilling.

I continued my job at the sawmill’s shop as an assistant which is still interesting, challenging and varied, but this year, things are going to change. Because I‘ll be going to college on Mondays and Wednesdays as opposed to Thursdays and Fridays like it was last year, it meant asking for my working days to be changed. Unfortunately, what I didn’t predict is that they have decided to reduce my number of working days from 3 to 2 because of a drop in sales due to the economic climate. That was a bit of a shock when I heard the news as I really wasn’t expecting it. It means losing a third of my salary. I wasn’t earning masses of money up until now, so I am sure you can imagine that it is kind of a bit of a crisis for me at the moment.

There is a chance that they might ask me to help in the sales team when needed, but I am not holding my breath. I had that discussion with my sales manager before summer: working extra days doing other jobs throughout the company, but nothing came out of it.

However, what is interesting about all this is this: I am worried and anxious, but not at all panicky like I was when I was made redundant 3 years ago. It is starting to dawn on me that this may be an opportunity to get what I really want. I never had any intention of making a career in that job. It was just a handy way of making money and learning about timber. My intention is, of course, the furniture and antiques’ business.

My apprenticeship boss has offered that I come and work with them that one day a week that I am losing at the company. He won’t be paying me much: less than the minimum wage. But it is the job I want, in a location I love, with people I get on well with, and learning what I want to learn.

So why not? I have a couple of meetings coming up to discuss all that. The first one with my manager at the mill, to discuss what other jobs I can do in the company. The second one with my apprenticeship boss, to discuss how I can continue to work with them. I know I can’t trust the mill to give me the working hours I would need in doing other jobs, and I also know I won’t enjoy it much. So I think I might as well go where my heart lies: accept my apprenticeship boss’s offer, and try to make some money in other more creative ways.

I now have a proper studio for painting, and I am planning on overhauling my website in order to be more attractive to customers and more competitive too. A bit of investment in this direction might prove very fruitful.

I also want to find a proper workshop space in order to start working on restoring furniture. My boyfriend already has the machines, so it is only a matter of finding a place to install them. Easier said than done, I am sure, but at least I know what I want, and I think I am on the right track as long as I am careful in my final decisions, as long as I take the time to consider all aspects of the situations, problems and potential answers, before making any decision.

And in order to show you how my final decisions can be fulfilling and heart-warming, here are a few pictures of the finished mahogany table that I restored during August, at P & T’s workshop.

Who wouldn’t be proud of achieving something like this? My first restoration job: a success!

The mistakes

Being an apprentice isn’t easy. I naively thought that after getting my Furniture Maker certificate, finding a placement would be the most difficult, and that everything would go swimmingly well thereafter.

How wrong I was. Silly me! I only have the experience I acquired at college over a period of 10 months. The three people I work with 2 days a week have a combined experience of about 60 years! And I can feel the difference acutely when doing simple things.

Ripping timber: Timber needs to be ripped, i.e. cut from raw boards before being planned to size. For that, we use a circular saw with a fencing system to make sure the timber is maintained into place while cutting. My job is to push the timber through the saw while following the guiding of the fence. Sounds easy doesn’t it? Not! There is huge room for error in this method as you need to push the timber down and to the right to keep to the fence, and the longer the timber is, the harder it gets. It starts to wobble, is heavy to maintain in the exact same position, and at the end, you need a partner to catch it before it falls off the machine. That partner mustn’t pull or push, just maintain it in the same position. The slightest change in hand position, or even foot position, can lead to a shift in the position of the timber against the fence and therefore result in the cut being wrong, not straight, jagged, unacceptable. Extreme focus and precision is demanded.
Of course when I ripped a thin board of MDF, I ended up shaking against the fence, going a bit too much on the right, then a bit too much on the left, and when my boss took my place to finish the cut, I was suppose to catch it, but ended up being shouted at because I wasn’t just holding it, I was pulling a bit… The cut ended up not being as neat as planned…

Cross cutting timber: Timber needs to be cross cut to the correct length using a rotary blade moving horizontally back and forth on a rail (and I just realise I can’t even remember the name of that saw!). So you just place the timber on the flat surface, pull the handle towards you and the saw does its job. Sounds easy doesn’t it? Not! The cut needs to be precisely where it needs to be. So measurements need to be done accurately. Measure the timber first, place it under the saw and do a first small cut of about 10 mm. Switch the saw off and leave it in the timber so that it is stuck there and can’t move. Measure again. If all fine, place a “stop” block on the far right hand side: a piece of MDF to be screwed on the side fence so as to block the timber to a certain length which will allow for accurate cutting thereafter. Then cut the timber needed. My problem is to get the measurements right, as I have been known to cut boards at 750mm instead of 775mm!! No idea why.  I must have been tired and cross eyed that day. Then the handling of the saw can be challenging as it can slip through the timber rather faster than wanted and result in the timber cut being jagged. So my apprenticeship boss said: “hold the handle like a small bird: not too tight that it will kill it, but not too loose that it will escape”. Very wise words, but easier said than done. I lost count of the pieces I cut that look jagged. And the scares I gave myself when the blade skidded towards me out of control because my handling is too loose. But don’t worry, there is a block so it won’t reach me. Still, it is worrying to see that rotating sharp blade sliding towards me at top speed and then stop… suddenly…

Making drawers. I didn’t have much to do. Just assemble a drawer with the pieces of MDF already cut, grooved and drilled. Yet, the one drawer I assembled completely turned out to be all skewed. I couldn’t reach the last holes to put the last screws. So I lifted the drawer off the workbench and placed it at a funny angle just to put 2 screws in. But precisely because the drawer was no longer on a flat surface, it ended up being screwed at a funny angle. My boss was not happy when he realised that. He is very good though. He just got on with fixing it, telling me what I had done wrong. I later thanked him for his patience and he mentioned to me, smiling and not resentful that I may be costing his business some time, that I really must observe what he does because there is always a reason for it. After the drawer episode, I didnt’ do the last one. My boss promptly put me onto painting all the drawers already made…

Agreed. So that’s what I do mostly. Observing. And making mistakes. Lots of them. It is said that he who doesn’t make mistakes will never learn from them. Well I can predict that I’ll soon be master in my own trade, with all the mistakes I am making!!

It’s back to College next week, and I can’t wait to be back in my cosy world of learning, manually and intellectually. I can’t wait to have my mates around me, my teachers, and my workbench.

I am on the look out for a workshop. Not sure yet how much that will cost me, but all businesses must start somewhere. I already have a project I want to work on, and I will probably end up doing it in the garden, on the garden table. I can’t let the lack of workshop stop me from following my path.

So many things to learn, create and do. So little time…