Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Nuts for an Acorn, Heft in my Hands

I had just ridden home from playing down at Gardiner's Creek, and there in the gutter was a bluish-brown crumpled bit of thick paper. It was five quid. A fiver. No-one that I knew ever had a fiver. Except grown-ups, but they didn't count.

When I was nine, five quid (Five Australian Pounds before decimal currency here) was a heck of a lot of money.

Nine year olds back then might be tempted to look at a sum like that in terms of the number of liquorice blocks you could buy (4 a'penny, that's 48 per shilling- that's 360 per Pound. That's 1800 liquorice blocks or 50 chock-wedge ice creams). Unthinkable wealth.

But in those days people had this old-fashioned thing called honesty...it used to be quite normal. So my mother took me to the Police Station and I handed the money into them to be claimed by the poor sod who lost it.

It wasn't altogether easy, but I did it. I had a powerful force for good behind me, so I can't claim much of the credit. My Mum wasn't a saint, but she would have given plenty of them a good run for their money. Even I knew she was more about goodness than grandness.

Ten days later (the legal time period) a nice person at the Police Station called us and said that since the money hadn't been claimed, would we please come down and collect it for ourselves. I can still remember that glorious day, rocking up to the Constabulary in our Austin A60 (licence plate HHS878), Mother at the wheel, me wriggling and fidgeting with anticipation, and the trip home with the prodigal five pound note planted firmly in my pocket.

The thing was, I was overcome by the importance of it and the liquorice block thing had lost it's magic because if you suck and chew long enough they are all gone. I wanted a serious tool for working some wood.

1949-50 McPhersons catalogue

I already had a few good tools (another story), but a plane would make real wood conversion possible, or it would in my young imagination, because a wood plane looks like serious kit. It has cast bits and knobs and is terribly adjustable, so if you set it to cut deep you can take great swathes of wood off and make very thick pieces quite thin. 

It had a blade.

But, (you see) Mr Wenbourne down at the hardware store was hard work. Grey coat and cynical eyes, he was an anal-retentive storeman who would be deliriously happy counting inventory, but absolutely terrifying with young customers, and I was always making something and wanting a dozen of this and a packet of that, and he would tease out the process into details that I had difficulty imagining. A bag of Plaster of Paris. Glue size, Whiting, balsa wood strips for arrows and aeroplanes. I was an endless headache for the man.

Hello Mr Wenbourne may I please have a shilling of nails? Flat or bullet head, he wants to know. Flat. Galvanised or bright he asks tersely. Bright I say. How long? he demands. An inch and a half I offer. What gauge? You would't have a clue...All right he says, shuffling off to the big drum with his galvanised shovel thingy, tipping nails into a brown paper bag until the weight is right. The brown paper bag was the only part of the transaction I ever enjoyed (until I got home) because if you squeezed it you could feel the nails inside, and it made special brown paper bag noises.

desirable things and modern marketing

 I used to buy pine wood one  foot at a time to make skateboards for local friends. They'd supply the old roller-skate wheels and I'd shape the board and fit them, and we'd all fall off together. But  buying the right wood was a bit of a process at our shops and I thought, without having the words for it, that the transformative power of a plane would allow me to make whatever he had into the shape I wanted. But I knew not to ask him for a plane. McPherson's somehow entered my imagination. How it did is one of the few things I have no memory of. The problem was, I understood that McPherson's was in the city and I was only little.

Somehow, I was allowed to go by myself, on the train to the city. While I have no memory of the trip, I do recall quite vividly being at the counter and learning that I could not afford a Stanley Bailey plane, or a Record, but there was a number four made by Stanley and marketed as an 'Acorn' that would fit my budget, and it had the advantage of having red paint on the inside of the castings and a lovely transfer sticker on the top of the rear handle. Golden Beech handles under glossy varnish and a very purposeful brass knob, all packaged in a grey cardboard box with a label at one end. I had my tool. Even Dad didn't have one of these. The box had heft. For the thirty-five minutes on the train this little slip of a boy had heft. I'm still a slip, and I still love a bit of heft.

At some point about 15 years ago I finally threw out the cardboard box- and I have regretted it ever since, but I still have my Acorn Number Four. The first in a life-long love affair with planes, cardboard boxes, brown paper bags and heft.


  1. Oh wow. Yes, I recognise that boy. My woodworking started with being asked to prepare the kindling from the old orange boxes that the groceries were delivered in. My first tool was an axe, or hatchet, with a rather blunted blade used only for splitting the very easy to split flimsy side laths of those boxes. I managed to half sharpen it enough to split the split the thicker end pieces of the boxes.
    I moved on from that to building 'trolleys' from old pram wheels and planks, and my woodworking hobby started.
    Once I left the Merchant Navy and settled into my own house, the first tool purchased was a Stanley Bailey No.4.

    1. Those boxes you refer to (which I gathered from the greengrocer's back alley) were the makings of my first boat and first billy cart. They never made it off the driveway, but I was only 4. Thanks for your comment Momist, lovely to hear from you, and to think we probably have some shared memories of the times. 'Course I'm wondering if you still have your Number Four....(reminds me of the Ripping Yarns episode where our hero is obsessed with shovels (Spear and Jackson Number Three, I think) and precipitation (spoken with a very broad Yorkshire accent)

  2. For your information, your 5 pounds in 2105 would be worth $134 - quite an amount, even for that time! Check any amount here: http://www.thomblake.com.au/secondary/hisdata/calculate.php

  3. Hi Robert,

    This is great writing! You bring me right back there. Thank you! Memories of first trips to the local hobby shop, hardwood store, times on my paper route dreaming of what I'll do with that 45 minutes of time in woodshop class between roll call and clean up, and my first finger plane, shaped like a whale, that I got as a combination birthday/Christmas present.
    All the best, Scott

    1. Cheers Scott, I always appreciate your contribution. Maybe those memories of yours should be teased out and written down too- what was unremarkable to us when it happened suddenly looks like a very different time once we get a bit of age on us!