Most of the students at the Chippendale International School of Furniture in East Lothian are bent on making a living from the skills they learn on the intensive one-year course. However, every year there are one or two students whose careers are already complete and are looking for something new to do in retirement. This year, Charlie Clark – a retired doctor whose career has spanned surgery, hospital administration and public health – shares his Chippendale experience.
‘Shortly before my retirement, I was in a small English market town and came across one of those newsagents with an absolutely vast array of magazines, covering every topic under the sun. Looking for something to read on holiday, I picked up a copy of Woodturning. After a couple of days I was hooked on the idea.
‘A few months later, a colleague offered me a lathe that had belonged to his father. So I became the proud possessor of a Myford ML8, a legendary piece of British engineering produced from the end of the war until the 1980s. Mine was “only” 50 years old and ran as if it was new. I simply bought a book, taught myself how to do it, went to a few woodworking shows and saw how real turners did it. I was hooked.
‘Once you acquire one piece of woodworking machinery, it is easy to find the need for some others and in next to no time what had been a garage had turned into a small workshop. Then, quite by chance, I came across a young man exhibiting his furniture at an arts festival in Fife. I was completely astonished by the quality of his workmanship and the huge variety of work he had on display.
‘”How did you manage to get all these skills?” I asked, thinking that he must have served a long apprenticeship to some master of the craft. No, he explained that he had learnt it all in the space of a year somewhere deep in the East Lothian countryside near Edinburgh.
‘I was intrigued by the fact that all those cabinet making skills could be learnt in just a year, so I visited the Chippendale School and was bowled over by everyone’s enthusiasm. I signed on the dotted line and haven’t looked back since.
‘When I started, I didn’t have a clue how to get from a plank of wood to a finished product, neither in terms of design and planning, nor in terms of the practical skills involved. I had never used a machine shop – many of the big machines seem terrifying at first.
‘The Chippendale School is a very interesting learning environment. It has much in common with the process of building knowledge, skills and experience that I was familiar with as a doctor. You learn from the masters, you learn from those who know a bit more than yourself and you learn from the other students. There’s a minimum of formal teaching, some exercises, but mainly the learning is built around the practical experience of conceiving, designing and making pieces of furniture.
‘For 21 students there are four tutors and Anselm – a high student to pupil ratio. You can always find someone to ask a question. And if you are not sure if you like the answer, then you can quickly get a second opinion.
‘From day one the emphasis is on practical skills. After introductions and the inevitable, but, in the workshop environment, highly necessary safety and fire lectures, it was straight into the first of a long series of bench skills tasks, while at the same time, coming up with ideas for a first piece of furniture. By the Friday of that first week we had all produced a model of our first term’s piece of furniture. The following Monday we began to learn how to take a plank of wood and mill it to the shape and size we wanted.
‘The second term is all about learning special skills: stained glass, wood carving, gilding, veneering and marquetry. I made a mirror frame in the form of a carved and gilded knotted scarf, and a reproduction of Charles Rennie Macintosh’s Ingram Street chair.
‘The pace is up to you but there are always deadlines set by the school. Throughout the course we do what are known as student “stand-ups”. Any doctor will instantly recognise these brief presentations of ideas and problems to one’s peers as the “case presentation”. They provide an opportunity to bounce ideas off each other at the design stage and during the process of construction, and to get back ideas in return.
‘I had designed a revolving library bookcase with carved tree trunks on the outside, inspired by Paul Nash, a First World War artist who went on to become a key figure in the English School of Surrealist and Impressionist Art. During the process of my presentation, others commented that I had combined these inter-war concepts of art and design with classical imagery in other parts of the design, and that these two elements did not work well together. Well, I have yet to see if I can successfully reinterpret David Hockney’s vivid Yorkshire landscapes in decorative wood…
‘This illustrates yet another feature of the Chippendale ethos; it isn’t just about making furniture. It’s about making pieces of furniture that push the boundaries of what is possible, drawing on traditions both old and new.
‘A crucial part of the course is furniture restoration; a key part of any furniture making business. I’ve restored a couple of chairs and a friend’s Victorian medicine cabinet, which smelt of calamine lotion like an old fashioned chemist’s. It was the restoration tutor who discovered a secret compartment for keeping the arsenic in.
‘As a retired man on a pension, I don’t have to make a living out of what I am learning but I do have children, grandchildren and friends, so it’s not difficult to come up with an internal market. The last thing I want is a full order book – it would ruin my retirement.
‘One interesting experience is that I have lost count of the number of friends and acquaintances who have expressed envy at what I am doing. And they are right to be envious.
‘The Chippendale School furniture course is an enormously fulfilling thing to do in retirement for anyone with the time and energy to learn something new. Learning to work in new ways with your hands is a fabulous experience. I have acquired a whole set of skills that will keep me happily occupied for the rest of my lifetime and in the process have made valuable new friends and had a hugely enjoyable year.’
Find out more about the school at www.chippendaleschool.com