Author of the Sturmtaucher Trilogy

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Workshop tales

Or, The Cabinetmaker

From an early age, I watched my dad tinker with woodworking, and would always visit my grandpa’s workshop in Rose Street Foundry when we were on holiday in Inverness, where he was a pattern-maker, crafting full size templates in wood that would be used to cast the iron for anything from large engines or pumps to the chairs that hold rails onto railway sleepers. It instilled a fascination for carpentry in my young mind that has never left me.

Rose Street Foundry, Inverness

On the other side of my family, my inspirational Granny Stephen was an unlikely collector of antiques, despite living in a high rise flat in the notorious Red Road estate in Glasgow. It gave me an appreciation for well made furniture.

Original GKN Nettlefold box of screws, c 1960, inherited from my dad

It wasn’t until I got married, and we moved into our first home, that I had the chance to start making and restoring our own furniture. I made a simple bed, and a coffee table, but they were cruder than I would have liked, with some questionable construction elements (the table had about a hundred screws holding it together, which could only be seen from underneath, fortunately.) On the positive side, I used reclaimed wood whenever I could, whether it was from a local skip, or donated as part of a piece of unwanted furniture.

We lived in a small village in south-west Wales and, once a month, there was a sale of furniture and bric-a-brac in the village hall, mostly from house-clearances of larger houses whose occupants had down sized, and I purchase a wardrobe and a dressing table for four pounds, only to discover that it had been sent to the sale by our next-door neighbour. All that lugging about hadn’t really been necessary, but it made a nice Welsh dresser once it had been converted.

Welsh dresser, 1985

Since then, I’ve gradually tackled more difficult projects, helped by the fact that in 1990, when I started up my veterinary practice, I had a spare shed next door to the surgery which I turned into a proper workshop, installing a second-hand crosscut saw, and making long benches which I still use today.

When I started writing, my love of woodworking and playing football became the backdrop to my first crime novel, The Cabinetmaker. I’d have loved to have been the master craftsman he was!

The Cabinetmaker
A little nod to our Street Cabinetmaking at Bloody Scotland!

I retired last year when I was 60, and in doing so, I lost my workshop beside the surgery. Since then, I’ve been searching for a building to use as a workroom but could find nothing close to suitable. A chance conversation with a friend of mine led to me renting a barn he had surplus to requirements and, after the final edits of The Turn of the Tide had been completed, and I waited for the proofs to come back from the printers, I threw myself into converting the empty shell into a suitable workshop. I was to have half the barn downstairs, but I could see that it was probably enough for my requirements and, anyway, I’d spotted a solution to the additional storage I’d need for all my reclaimed wood and salvaged pieces of furniture.

There was a large roof space, and it was ideal as a wood storage loft, but the rafters were unsupported, and would not have taken the weight. Steel beams and pillars were ordered to support a floor, and erected with some difficulty, with the help of a local agricultural contractor and his tele-handler.

In the year since I’d retired, I’d been spending 12-14 hours a day sitting at my desk, writing, editing, making video trailers and designing covers, and this sedentary lifestyle had led to me being the heaviest I’d ever been, so it was good to be doing some physical labour, lifting and laying forty plywood sheets for the loft floor, and dwanging all the beams (a Scottish term for infilling the beams to support the joints in the flooring). Climbing up and down ladders all day was a great workout, and I lost around a stone, and felt the better for it.

Beams, flooring and dwangs

There were no lights, and only two sockets at the supply board, so I rewired the whole barn, upstairs and down. An electrician checked the final connections, just to be safe, and we were up and running with light and power.

It was cold, working in the barn over the winter, but Lia, one of my beta-readers, took pity on me and crocheted a wonderful pair of fingerless gloves, with a hat to match. Despite protesting that they were far to good to use in the workshop, she insisted. They do make quite a difference!

Essential PPE

I installed the benches and the crosscut saw from my old workshop, and a swathe of racking I’d picked up at a reasonable price on Gumtree. I’d hoped to pick up a staircase somewhere as well, but with nothing coming up, I set about making one. Never having tackled it before, it took me a while to get my head around the angles but, with a home-made router jig, I cut out the rebates on the stringers and cut the steps to suit. With a bit of trepidation, I hoisted it up into position. Amazingly, with only a few minor tweaks, it fitted, with one small compromise.  Due to the size of the ‘hatch’ in the loft floor, you have to duck to get up the stairs. Still, it is far better than the ladder I was using before!

The Staircase. Remember to duck!

I salvaged some old steel beams and cut them to make a frame for a half ton hoist, my friend and fellow lifeboat crew-member, Luciana, a trainee welder in a shipyard, welded it for me. With its own hatch, it allows me to lift heavy items, including furniture, up to the loft.

With all the excellent storage facilities, I’ve been able, for the first time, to have my workshop organised the way I want it, with all the tools in racks for better access, and everything easy to find and get to, it will be much easier to work in.

A number of years ago, I’d rescued an old table saw from being thrown away – its motor didn’t work, but a few months ago, I managed to find a suitable replacement. With new electrics fitted, it is now up and running, as is the wonderfully named Dominion Elliot Minor, a vintage combination woodworking machine, with planer, thicknesser, morticer and tenoner that I found on Gumtree. I had one or two issues setting it up but it has now been restored to its former operational glory.

The ‘Dominion Elliot Minor’, with table saw behind

With the new machinery, it will be much easier to do the projects which have been on hold for the last five years. This includes a new kitchen for the house, which her indoors has been desperate for, and a conversion of my van into a modular camper van. She has been very patient, bless her. I now have no excuses. 😊

So that’s it. Here’s a gallery of some of my furniture I’ve made, restored and converted over the last forty years.

Bedside Cabinet, Spalted beech
Dining stool, whisky barrel oak & distressed steel
Bookcase (Sacred heart School) and shop drawer chest (old hardware store)

Snooker table, my first attempt at French polishing
Coffee table, reclaimed oak
Wardrobes, beech, with spalted handles

I like to think it is done to a reasonable standard, but when I was asked on my retirement if I was going to take up cabinetmaking as a new career, I had a quiet laugh to myself. I take far too long to make things – any realistic charging for my furniture would be impossible. I admire cabinetmakers who do it for a living – they must work significantly faster than I do!

I have too many interests, I know, and it’s sometimes hard to fit it all in, but each has its own wonderful qualities, and planning a piece of wood, watching the paper thin shavings curl from my grandfather’s old jack plane is still up there with the rest.

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The RNLI and me

I’ve been an RNLI member for a long time – as a yachtsman, I knew that I could always rely on the organisation if disaster struck, and my crew or myself were in danger at sea, but I’d never considered joining the crew of the local lifeboat – for almost half my working life, I was the sole vet in the practice and was on-call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, so it wasn’t really an option. By the time the practice expanded, and I began to get some time off, I thought I was too old. I knew that 55 was the cut off, and I’d just passed that landmark.

Snowgoose, Sound of Jura

But out of the blue, not long after I’d started writing the Sturmtaucher Trilogy, the local lifeboat operations manager contacted me to see if I would be interested in being a Deputy Launch Authority for Girvan lifeboat, or DLA for short.

The job is not onerous – the on-duty DLA responds to a request from the coastguard for the launch of the lifeboat and passes the information on to the boat’s coxswain, and gives permission to launch the lifeboat on service.

Silvia Burrell, Mersey Class, Girvan lifeboat

I accepted, and started popping down to the station during Monday night practices, watching the crew head out on our ALB (All Weather Lifeboat) of the Mersey class, and learning all about the station and the lifeboat from the other DLA, Ian McClymont, an ex crew-member.

Girvan Lifeboat Station

When asked if I’d like a trip out on the boat, I jumped at it, and was suitably kitted out on one of the training nights. When they told me the maximum age for being on the lifeboat had been raised from 55 to 65, I didn’t look back.

My Yellows

Within a couple of weeks, I had converted from DLA to rookie crew member. Some of my experience on yachts was helpful – the navigation side of the training is very similar. Just getting used to navigating at 15 knots rather than the sedate 5 knots that I was more familiar was the only issue, and all the ropework was the same. And the support from everyone at the station was incredible.

It was a steep learning curve though, especially when the senior crew suggested that I should go on a navigator’s plan once I’d worked my way through my crew plan. In the meantime, I’d been on my first shout and the sense of satisfaction of being part of a team that had rescued someone at sea was intoxicating.

I attended a couple of courses at the RNLI training College in Poole, an amazing experience – the Crew Emergency Procedures course involved several scenarios where we were dumped in the pool, with waves, rain and darkness to make it more realistic, having to get into life rafts or right our inflatable boat while the ‘sea’ raged around us.

Fresh out of the pool at Poole

The long-range radio course gave me a commercially endorsed radio operator’s licence, should I ever consider a second career at sea, but it was vital for the effective communication that keeps lifeboat crews safe, and is critical in coordinating every rescue, often with two, three or more agencies involved. No sooner had I passed out as a navigator, the senior members of the crew persuaded me to start training as a coxswain, and put me nominally in charge during a routine exercise. By this time, we had a new boat, the Gertrude and Elizabeth Allan, a Shannon Class, which has a top speed closer to 25 knots, using water jets rather than propellers, and cutting-edge electronics that control everything on the boat, from the navigation and radar systems, to fire-control, bilge pumps and the engines. Each crew member has a job to do, but each seat can take function of any of the main screens, so the radar operator may also control the charts, if the navigator is busy doing something else, like caring for a casualty.

Elizabeth and Gertrude Allan, Shannon Class, Girvan Lifeboat [photo: Nigel Millard]

It has two computer servers on board, either of which can run the boat if one fails, and each crew member’s workstation is a computer in its own right, all connected by a ‘bus’ system which means that all the computers talk to each other. A route set by the navigator not only shows up on the helm screen, but is also superimposed on the radar screen, and ‘targets’ selected by the radar operator show up on the chart screen at the navigator’s seat.

Girvan lifeboat, glazing covered during a blind navigation exercise

The coxswain can rotate around everyone’s screens on his own workstation, making sure the crew are doing their jobs while also coordinating the rescue, and making decisions of a life-or-death nature, for the crew and the casualty. Getting to grips with this, as well as learning how to handle the boat for berthing, and for coming alongside other vessels, was a time-consuming but extremely rewarding task, though splitting my time between writing the Sturmtaucher Trilogy, working through my coxswain training, and carrying out my duties as a full time vet in my practice was tough, and a few compromises had to be made – I didn’t put my own boat in the water, and sailed only once or twice a year with friends during the five years I was writing the books. And furniture making, which I’d always done, also took a back seat during this time.

But it was worth it, and two years ago, I passed out as an RNLI Shannon coxswain. It was one of the proudest days of my life, and I was only sorry my dad wasn’t there to see it – he was a lifelong supporter of the RNLI. It also saddened me incredibly that Ian McClymont, so helpful to me at the station, and also a very enthusiastic beta reader of The Sturmtaucher Trilogy, passed away last year. He’d become a great friend.

The coxswain pass-out

I’ve now been the coxswain on over half a dozen shouts, and for a raft of training exercises. Despite the cold sweat and the hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach that always accompanies the pager alert when I’m on-call coxswain, I genuinely enjoy every time I’m in charge of the boat. I know it’s an incredible responsibility, and honour, to be handed the keys for a two-million pound vessel that has to go out in the most horrific conditions, if needed, and that the the lives of the crew and those we are out there to rescue depend on the decisions I make, and I don’t treat it lightly. If I ever feel that I’m not up to the job, I’ll walk away, as I won’t put anyone at risk just because I don’t want to give it up.

I’m hoping, though, that I have a few years left at sea with the RNLI before I have to hang up my ‘yellows’ for the last time, and become a DLA again, perhaps, or help with the fundraising team, to help keep the RNLI’s lifeboats afloat.

On that final note, it would be great if you could find a way of contributing – The RNLI is the only emergency service that relies entirely on charitable donations, and its volunteers depend on the public’s generosity to keep them safe at sea. Check out Girvan lifeboat’s Facebook page for the countless ways you can help.

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