Jason Goodwin: ‘My carpentry depends largely on heavy leaning and a few nails and it works’

Our Spectator columnist tells tale of his carpentry skills and why one's children should conceal their superior skills until long after one is gone.

I’ll say this much,’ the chippy admitted, surveying our homemade bookshelves. ‘You’re a good bodger.’

Seldom have I been more pleased. A bodger, technically, is a skilled woodturner who works in the woods around High Wycombe, but it has come to mean someone who uses whatever comes to hand and makes something of it. If he was right, it’s because, over the years, I have learned that inertia is as powerful in construction as pegs or screws. My carpentry depends largely on heavy leaning and a few nails and it works.

‘You want your children to excel, but it might be more tactful if they hid a few rays of their light under a bushel’

A big Modernist architect once confessed to me the terrible truth about his first housing scheme, on which he’d forgotten to provide any form of tie between the roof and the walls. Once he’d realised his error, he became hollow-eyed from lack of sleep, but, over time, when the roofs stayed put and nobody complained, he began to relax.

variety of carpentry tools on wood planks with copy space

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The 1987 storm gave him a restless night, but, basically, the weight of the roof kept it safely clamped to the building underneath. I could have told him that.

As for our bookshelves, it was our friend Alastair who showed me how to build a simple stepped bookcase, using pins, planks and a length of quarter-sawn dowelling. I’ve churned out bookcases modelled on the original ever since.

Alastair lives in a beautiful house that began life as a kit bungalow, designed for reassembly by Edwardian tea planters in Kenya or Assam. Somehow, it got built on the side of a beech hanger in Hampshire instead.

It’s a testament to high-grade bodging. Alastair’s father-in-law embellished it by putting on a second storey. Later, he lined the whole place with oak panelling he had rescued from skips in Farnham after the war.

Old worn homemade wooden bookshelf

In those days, it took someone with the heart of a bodger to see that yards of fine Georgian panelling was worth saving. Skips provided the strings and steps of a handsome staircase, too, and Alastair’s model bookcases line a room at the back of the house.

The bookcases, if you’re interested, are 3ft wide. The base is 9in deep and 32in tall with either two or three shelves. The upper bookcase is divided into five shelves and is 4ft 6in tall and 6in deep. The two cases stand one on top of the other. They are easy to move about empty and, because they’re all the same, with a small shelf a third of the way up, they can be pushed together to fill any size of wall. Sometimes, I set two wide apart and fill the gap with more shelves at the same height. They always look well.

We had run out of room to put up any more so, at the weekend, Izzy and I built a new outcrop of shelving, springing from and around the existing bookcases to create a properly book-lined room, with shelves all the way up to the ceiling. They even run above the doorway as they do in Parisian apartments.


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A post shared by Jason Goodwin (@jason.goodw1n) on Jan 27, 2018 at 3:48am PST

Izzy is a better carpenter than I am and uses a measuring tape and a spirit level. You want your children to excel, but it might be more tactful if they hid a few rays of their light under a bushel, at least until I’m dead.

We used all the old floorboards, offcuts of ply and lengths of nail-studded skirting we could find in the shed. Normally, I would have painted everything white, but Alastair always paints his woodwork in that special matte brown that big houses used below stairs and in the attics and I think he’s right. Being too impatient to undercoat and matte, we filled the plain wooden shelves instead with those books that, as the saying goes, do furnish a room. You might call it driftwood style. That’s bodging.