Sometimes I can’t move for boats, I just shimmy in between them. At this time of year, I get more and more varnish work. It’s a bit like dipping boats in amber, all high-shine, high gloss varnish.
I used to build scenery, but everything used to go in a skip at the end of a show. I wanted to do something that lasted longer, that involved more craftsmanship. I walked past a boatyard in Richmond upon Thames, and soon I was working with the owner, Mark Edwards MBE. I was one of those nerdy teenagers... I recognised the place because I’d seen a documentary about Mark building a submarine out of wood.
There’s magic in boats. They have spirit to them, and they’re just immensely sculptural, curvaceous things. If you get books on woodworking, they describe what tools you should have and what woods you should use… boatbuilding does all the things you should probably never do with wood.
I started working on hundred-year-old skiffs. No-one can build like they did then, with the speed and the skill. There’s a tradition of building here which is slightly broken but there are still old boys you can pick up fragments of information from.
There’s nothing like someone showing you something through sleight of hand. You can show someone with a gesture something that, if you tried to explain it in words, it might take hours to figure out. It’s wonderful if you get the chance to work alongside other people who know what they’re doing. We’re interested in preserving objects, but we should also think about preserving methods.
You never earn a lot of money as a boatbuilder, so you don’t have impressive tools. Most of my boatbuilding life I’ve relied on a decent paring chisel and a block plane. You often have to modify tools. It’s painstaking, there’s a lot of carefully prying things apart so there’s a bit of abuse of chisels, using them for levers and things, and my best secret is my bicycle spoke drill bit.
I’ve always worked next to a waterway. I probably think about water in a different way to a lot of people. It amazes me that people don’t think about where their drinking water comes from, that fresh water is a finite resource. At the end of the day, when you’re a child you’re 80% water, when you’re an old crinkly you’re 60-70% water, so I’m 70% constituent River Ouse.
I take a walk every morning along the Bevern, which feeds into the Ouse. There are seals that come up to the high tide mark… sea trout travel about 30 miles upriver to spawn. Eels come here as elvers from the Sargasso Sea. You have this overlap between the sea and the land which is just tremendous. You might not see these things, but they’re there, and the more you walk around here, the more you’ll spot.
There’ll never be a boat that’s more attractive than a tree. I do love my work, but perhaps the natural world is always best.