Stephen Howard Woodwind - Repairs, reviews, advice, tips and tales...
Haynes woodwind maintenance manuals
Notes from a small workshop - anecdotes & musings from the workbench
Haynes woodwind maintenance manuals

Notes from a new, larger workshop



It's always the way, isn't it?
Just when you've got yourself comfy, just when you know where everything is and where everything that isn't where it ought to be is and you finally settle down for spot of well-deserved feet up, life comes along with the metaphorical hoover and asks you to lift your feet up.
So it was a few months ago when I was handed my notice to quit my workshop.

It seemed that time had moved on for the owners of the country estate where the workshop resided, and what with the children having long since grown up (and their children too) there was no longer a need for a 'family seat' - and so the estate was to be put on the market...and it was deemed that the property would sell better without any tenants.
Naturally, I was disappointed - but more than that, the thought of having to move 14 year's worth of accumulated clutter filled me with a creeping dread.
I was surprised too inasmuch as it was fate that led me there in the first place.

I've been very lucky with my various workshops, I've never really had to 'go looking' for them, they've all popped up out of the blue - and with the sort of timing that a Hollywood scriptwriter uses whenever the Cavalry is needed.
I found the workshop (or rather, it found me) in the closing months of my time at the London shop. I'd already made the decision to move out of London and had taken up residence in Hampshire. As the closing date drew nearer I printed up some flyers for my regular clients, informing them of my move and giving new contact details for future repair work. I handed one such flyer to a regular client who took a look at it and recognised the local phone code. It turned out her family lived in a neighbouring village, and when I asked her if she knew of any suitable workshop premises in the area she told me there was an ideal building in the grounds of the house.
And so that weekend I found myself driving through the gates of Broadhanger House in Froxfield, little knowing that I'd spend the next 14 years there.

To say I was thrilled would be something of an understatement, but it wasn't merely the fact that I'd found a workshop - it was more the fact that it wasn't a basement. I'd spent years working in gloomy basements, and the chance to feel the sun on my face as I sat at the workbench was a prospect I was very much looking forward to.
As it happened the thrill soon wore off - I found the sun didn't just shine on my face, it shone right in my eyes...and I quickly discovered that natural light coming in through the window reflected off the shiny surfaces of the instruments and made it extremely difficult to see what was going on. So I put a blind up. Typical.
As you might imagine I had more than a few amusing incidents happen to me during my tenancy.
Some clients may have availed themselves of the "rural comfort interface" - AKA the outside loo. Ah, what simple pleasure it was to sit upon the throne of a sunny morn, the door slightly ajar, feeling the sun's tentative rays upon my knees. Such contemplation was to be had there...until the day the horse in the adjoining stable pushed its head through the rotten fibreboard wall.
I've heard of people being caught out by assorted spiders, or interruption due to an incautiously unlocked privvy door - but it's not every day that you're hassled by a horse whilst perched on the thunderbox.

And it wasn't my only run-in with horses.
Being something of a night owl I often found myself waking up in the wee small hours, and having nothing better to do I used to get an early start in at the workshop. On one such occasion I arrived at the workshop to find that a couple of horses had broken out of the paddock and were idly wandering around.
Of course, I couldn't just leave them - so I attempted to chivvy them back to the paddock. I managed to grab one by whatever it is a horse wears around its face and made to lead it back to safety - but the horse clearly had other ideas and simply stood there. We were at a Mexican stand-off...half a ton of best quality dog food...and ten stones of me. I looked around for a stand-offish Mexican to assist me, but couldn't find one.
I tried a few stern words. Not knowing any horsey terms I used 'dog language', and taking into account the apparent stubbornness of the animals I pepped it up a bit with a few choice oaths and curses on the basis that any animal that big that's that uncooperative is bound to understand swear words.
They weren't having any of it though, and being mindful of copping a hoof in me ear with no prospect of assistance until daybreak I resorted to jumping around and waving my arms in the air. If this worked (which it did) it was probably because the horses had had enough entertainment for the morning and decided to wander off home for a kip.

I also had my closest brush with lightning at the workshop.
Being quite high up geographically, the village seemed to be quite the magnet for electrical storms. More often than not the power would fail, and it was often the case that it was best just to give up the moment the thunder started and go home - rather than wait for the inevitable to happen.
I rather foolishly waited out a particularly fierce storm once, and listened with mounting trepidation as the huge bangs of thunder got ever closer and louder....until there was the most almighty flash and bang that fair had me jumping right out of my shoes.
Showing the sort of courage that made Britain the nation it is today, I dived headlong under a bench. It was only when I got there that I realised it was all pretty pointless and very much after the event...the lights had gone and there was a dreadful fizzing noise and flashes coming from outside. Turns out the local overhead power cable above the workshop had taken a direct hit and been blown apart, the trailing cable now thrashing around on the wet ground outside, blue sparks flashing over the puddles.
My poor ears were ringing, but even in the midst of all that chaos I took comfort in the fact that if ever I was going to get struck by lightning there was no way I'd know anything about it...unless I survived, of course.

Then there was the winter where I found myself completely engrossed in the restoration of a late 18th century clarinet. It's rare that I'm ever that captivated by my work - what with frequent trips to the kettle, the phone, the computer, the radio etc. but the job was going great, and was fascinating work.
I must have started it around midday, and it wasn't until around 4pm when I raised my eyes from the workbench and looked out of the window. There was a good inch of snow on the ground.
Now, that doesn't sound like much to some of you - but in terms of British weather an inch of snow is enough to send us back to the dark ages.
Traffic stops, trains stop, the telly goes off and Vera Lynn is wheeled out to sing songs about birds and coastline features. Not only that, but I had to negotiate a short but viciously steep hill on my way home. I knew I could get down it...I just didn't know whether I'd be able to stop when I got to the bottom, and I knew for certain that I'd never get up it again the next day. I also knew that sod's law would dictate that another vehicle would appear coming the other way when I was halfway down.
It didn't though - and I managed to stop the sliding car quite effectively by steering it into a grassy bank.
To add insult to (vehicular) injury, there was a witness to my predicament. Seems to me that the more isolated a place you choose to live and work in, the more likely it is that you'll be caught in a compromising position by a passer-by. I shouldn't complain, I've done it myself - winding down the car window and shouting "It's always the way, eh?" as I've passed someone taking a sneaky wee behind a tree.

So it was quite a sad day when I took to the task of boxing up my life at the workshop, but it proved to be an illuminating experience. I've always been something of a hoarder (as clients will attest) and it was quite a surprise to note that out of about 70 boxes of assorted bits and bobs, barely ten of them contained the actual tools and materials associated with my work.
Clients who visited during the course of the great pack-up nearly always said that I was sure to find lots of things I didn't know I had - but you know, I found just one item that had slipped my memory...a lead for a laptop modem card (I KNEW I had one somewhere!). More importantly (to me at least) I found very little to throw away.

As I got down to the last knockings, with just a few shelves to dismantle and a big pile of stuff that couldn't be easily categorised earlier - which ended up in a collection of boxes marked 'Misc.1..2...3..etc' (a policy I came to rue a few weeks later when I started to need things out of boxes I'd long since forgotten the exact contents of) - I found a slightly grubby old greetings card that had fallen down the back of a stack of shelves. It seemed familiar, so I opened it and read the inscription.
It was a 'best wishes' card given to me by a chap called Lew when I last moved workshops, from London to Hampshire, over 14 years ago.
Lew suffered from severe depression - or at least that's what 'they' told him. I'll admit that he could often be a bloody miserable sod, but even then he seemed to have a very down-to-earth and clear view of the world. One might almost say that he was cursed with being too sane...
He had what his psychiatrist called 'an unhealthy obsession with death'. Lew didn't see it quite like that and always maintained that it was good to have a hobby. It wasn't the 'act' of death he was interested in, more the notion of it, the folklore, the mystery. I think most of us are, in some fashion or other, though it's the kind of thing you're careful not to think about too much lest you tempt fate.

I think what really unnerved the shrink was that Lew had a skeleton for a friend.
Yep, a real one apparently. I think it was called Dot, or Dotty..or something like that, and Lew would drape it over the sofa of an evening and they'd watch telly together.
Well, it makes less mess than a dog, and eats less than a cat...
I remember him coming into the shop one day in a foul mood. He never really got angry, more frustrated - and he'd just come from a visit to his shrink. It seems Lew had landed, after a very long time without employment, the most perfect job for him - as an assistant in a crematorium...
This didn't go down at all well with the shrink - but neither Lew nor I could see anything but sublime logic in him doing this job.

He only ever gave me two cards - he never really went in for 'that sort of thing'. One was a Christmas card that played a tune when you opened it, complete with a twee rhyme. Inside Lew had written, with characteristic dourness, 'F***ing load of old b****cks'. I loved it, and I loved it all the more as the battery slowly drained and the little electronic music box began to drift even more out of tune than it already was. I think I still have it too.
The other card was that 'best wishes' card I mentioned earlier. I must have placed it on a shelf when I set the workshop up and left it there, to be found some 14 years later. "With all best wishes for what happens next", he says.
I dusted it off and rested it on a window sill. I'll put it up in my new workshop, where perhaps it'll stand for another 14 years.

First though I had to find that new workshop.
Rural workshops are quite hard to come by as a rule - or at least workshops that meet my needs.
There's a trend these days to convert old farm outbuildings into commercial premises (given that small-scale farming is on its arse over here), but these tend to be quite posh, and expensive, and I really wanted something quite isolated. You'd be surprised how important it is to have quiet when you're setting up an instrument...you can tell a lot about what's going on with a horn from the sound the action makes and the 'pop' the pads make as they close. I also didn't want to have to travel too far. It's not that it's a problem out here in the sticks - with the lack of traffic few people think anything of driving 30 miles or so to find a particular shop - I just felt it was worth making the effort to find somewhere local so that my travelling to and fro didn't make too much of a dent in environmental terms (something we're all going to have to think about very soon indeed).

A local resident had very kindly made a couple of portable buildings available - the sort of thing builders put up on large construction sites.
It would do for temporary accommodation, but I really didn't relish the thought of spending a winter working in what was really just a steel box. I'd almost resigned myself to it though, as none of my efforts to find a new place had came to anything...and then the phone rang.
It was a local client, her child's saxophone needed a service.
As it happens I'd been recommended to give her a call by the secretary at the local primary school - the client owned a farm, and there was a chance that there might be some workshop space up for grabs. I mentioned as much to the client, who said they'd seen my advert in the local parish magazine, and although there was some space on the farm she and her husband weren't really sure whether or not it would be suitable...and it needed some work doing to it...and it was full of rubbish..and...
Well, I'd stopped listening by then - I had a feeling that it would be worth my while popping round to have a peek...which I duly did a few days later.

She was right, it did need some work doing to it, quite a bit in fact - and it was also full of rubbish, and the farmer said that if I still felt I could make use of it he could probably have it cleaned out in about three months' time when the farming work eased off. I said I'd move in Monday.
And I did.
The farmer popped by a week or so later to help clear out some of the rubbish. It was mostly old paint pots and general builder's tat - and I was quietly pleased to note that the farmer and I appear to have that magpie streak in common.
With every paint tin I handed him he'd glance at the label, give it a shake and say "Ooh, there's a bit left in that one, I'll keep it...just in case - might come in handy, no sense in throwing away good paint" - and every now and again as I handed him a rather strange-looking bit of twisted metal he'd say "Blimey, you can't get these anymore - better put that to one side".
I think we're going to get on just fine.

It's a little larger than my last workshop, which was the largest I'd had so far - and best of all it has a very substantial and large workbench built on four steel legs concreted into the floor.
This is quite an attraction - in most workshops you end up working facing a wall, simply because you need to build the benches against them for the support they give - but this bench sits slap in the middle of the workshop. This means that the centre of the workshop won't fill up with clutter...it'll have to go against the walls, or nowhere at all.
It also gives me the opportunity to set up dedicated workstations...no more shoving bits of dismembered instruments about to make space when an 'OTS' (on the spot) job comes in. In fact, the bench is so large that I reckon I could get four bass saxes on it, and still have room to put me feet up.

I still have much to do before the workshop is fully functional - and I have yet to catch up on the work that had to be put aside whilst the move was underway - but I'm getting there, slowly. There's only so much time out I can take before the clients start pleading for me to take on their work, so I'm currently swapping roles between woodwind repairer and general builder in an effort to get the workshop into shape and keep the clients playing.
And if you're wondering just how busy that makes me...it's taken me two months to find the time to write this article...

Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015