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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Famous Woodworker of Kilburn

The modern workshop in Kilburn

In James Herriot’s Yorkshire, we learn of the first time the famous veterinarian of Thirsk met the equally famous woodworker of Kilburn.  Robert Thompson brought his dog to Skeldale House for a consultation, and Helen showed him into their dining room.  When James entered, he found the man gazing at their sideboard of French fumed oak, a piece of furniture from Helen’s side of the family.  Robert Thompson “bent and stroked the wood reverently.  ‘Beautiful, beautiful,’ he murmured, the gentle, white-mustached face illumined by the great passion of his life: oak.”

Herriot’s work often took him through Kilburn, and he must have visited Thompson’s shop regularly.  He and Helen fell in love with the man’s signature style and started a “Thompson box.”  They purchased a coffee table.  Then Fate stepped in, and their “Thompson box” became a “Baby box.”  Later, after his children grew up, and especially after the royalties from his books flooded in, the couple were able to purchase all the furniture they wanted.

I wasn't surprised by the router, but the tank top and shorts threw me.
Then again, it was warm that day in June.
Imagine that: a warm Summer day in England!

Robert Thompson passed away in 1955, but his family continues on with his work.  Stacks of long, thick Oak planks tower above visitors outside the showroom and gift shop.  These wood planks can take up to four years to dry out, as the staff opt to not force the moisture from the wood via some mechanical process.  While Robert Thompson worked with hand tools, today’s employees aren’t afraid to mix traditional methods with modern power tools.  The wood is still fumed with ammonia instead of stained, and tabletops bear a wavy, honeycomb pattern from the adze. 

As a woodworker, I can appreciate the quality of construction, as well as the artistry of each piece in the showroom.  The Arts and Crafts style is popular and functional, and each piece gleamed, reflecting the overhead and natural lighting.  I’m not wild about the fuming process, as it necessitates that a piece be waxed regularly in order to retain its health and beauty.  I’ve restored several pieces of furniture, and even built a quilt rack, yet I never get around to performing maintenance.  Still, that’s a minor quibble: when and if I get back into woodworking, I’ll have to decide how to finish what I make.  As with everything in life, there are no perfect solutions.  Everything is a tradeoff. 

"Beautiful, beautiful."
"Hey, you there!  Stop that drooling!"

I don’t think we’ll be buying furniture from Robert Thompson’s Craftsmen Ltd anytime soon.  Remember that fumed sideboard that the woodworker drooled over in James Herriot’s dining room?  The firm sells their own beautiful sideboards for a little over five thousand pounds after tax.  After adding in the cost of shipping halfway around the world, and a sixty-percent increase for the exchange rate to dollars, I don’t think we can afford one right now.

And no, we haven’t started a “Baby box,” thank you very much!

Still appreciating fine furniture,
Dragon Dave

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