If a person is asked to describe what it is that they do, it can be very useful to have a label to answer with. The problem with labels is that they can be very vague. To say that you are a doctor doesn’t really help to describe what you do. That could mean that you are a podiatrist, a heart surgeon or it might mean that you have a Phd in literature. The label needs to be specific and give an accurate picture.
So when I tell people that I am a woodworker it can be a bit misleading. For some, a woodworker is a person with a big shop and lots of noisy, dangerous power tools. That doesn’t describe me. To others a woodworker is someone who works only with hand tools, using exotic wood to create elaborate pieces that are steeped with historical references and nuanced with obvious influence from the great masters. That doesn’t describe me either. To some a woodworker is a person who programs a CNC machine to create parts for whatever it is they are making. That certainly doesn’t describe me.
Green woodworking is a term that was I believe originally credited to Jeannie Alexander. She reintroduced the world to the idea that chairs were made from wood and wood comes from trees so in fact it is possible to make a chair directly from a tree. Revolutionary I know. At that point in time furniture was made with kiln dried wood and heaven help you if you tried using anything that didn’t have a moisture content below 6%. Who knows what the wood would do otherwise.
Green woodworking says, “Look we know wood moves, we know wood shrinks, let’s not be scared of that, let’s use it.”
This is what I do and who I am. I harvest a tree from the woods around my house and I turn it into furniture. There’s no need to truck trees from the forest to a mill where it is sawn into convenient dimensions with no regard for the direction the grain is running. The lumber created in the mill is then “cooked” in a kiln. This may force the moisture from the wood and make it more stable but it also permanently alters the structure of the wood, making it much less fun to work by hand and very difficult to bend. Green woodworking avoids all this by going directly from the woods to the shop. (We will look at some of the myths surrounding the dangers of using unseasoned wood at another time.)
With any speciality there is always a unique set of vocabulary that one must learn in order to sound intelligent and in the know. Chairmaking is not immune from the infection of jargonese. In fact because it is such an old craft the myriad of strange words is legion. Reaming, riving, scorps and adzes. Rails and stiles, rungs and spindles – which is which?
Perhaps one of the most beloved of these strange words is the term – bodger. Getting a decisive definition is an impossible task but Rachel Reynolds does an admiral job in her article “A Bodger is not a Botcher”. While the term has murky origins it seems in recent years to have adopted a modern meaning that may stick for a while. It now refers to green woodworkers who use pole lathes to fashion items out of wood, often chair parts.
As fascinating as word origins may be I need something more to really get excited about a word. Bodger is one of the words that I can get really excited about because I discovered I have a personal connection with it. That’s right. I’m about to add another layer of mystery to the word. My last name is Godber. Godber is an old Anglo Saxon name with deep roots in the British Isles. If you were to rearrange the letters in my last name one of the combinations you would arrive at is bodger. That’s right. My name is actually an anagram.
Godber-bodger. Now the question must be asked is bodger not perhaps an anagram for Godber. Or were my ancestors perhaps part of a secret guild of green woodworking chair makers who hid their true identity behind a clever anagram. I like the intrigue of that idea. I also like the idea that I am once again shouldering the mantle of a green woodworking, pole lathe using chair maker. Sometimes a name just makes sense!