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  • Roger Waterhouse

Spin and Spinners


A couple of weeks ago I had an email from a person who identified himself only by his first name, which I didn't recognise. He just asked how big a piece I could turn in my lathe, and gave me dimensions of something he needed turned for a project. I read it as being from a fellow turner who wanted to borrow my lathe for a commission.

My big lathe is a VB36 which in theory can turn anything up to a 95" diameter - it is bolted to the floor and I have a freestanding toolrest. So I replied that my lathe could cope with what he needed, we established he was relatively local, and fixed a time for him to come over to discuss his project.

What he brought with him was this.

He had mentioned that he had just acquired something to do with the nose of a Spitfire, which had interested me, since my late father-in-law served as a Spitfire pilot in the second world war, and ended up as a squadron leader. He had joined the RAF as a trainee engineer in his mid-teens, had served in it all his adult life, and when he was forced to retire went to work for the newly established RAF Museum in Hendon where he was primarily concerned with researching acquisitions. So I was fairly familiar with pictures, diagrams and bits of Spitfires he had lying around over the years. I imagined that my woodturning contact would turn up with the boss of a propeller assembly in which somebody wanted to install a clock, and the problems would be the steel pins which went all the way through.

I was quite wrong. First, my customer was not a woodturner, but a designer. He didn't want to borrow my lathe, but for me to use it to deliver his commission. Second, the wooden structure he brought had never been part of a plane, but was a spinner, which, as any pattern maker would know is a former for metal bashing. I should have known because I was commissioned to make a (small) spinner for someone a couple of years ago. But also because as a lad in the 1950s I went more than once round the (then thriving) steel works in Sheffield and found the pattern makers - who worked in wood - shop one of the most interesting bits. Though they were not into bashing metal, but making moulds.

So really all my designer friend wanted me to do was to clean up the nose spinner (which in the interim had been used as a base for a coffee table or some such) so he could use it as a base for an aluminium model of a Spitfire. Its importance was its authenticity. So the challenge was to remove evidence of its intermediate life - the heavy wax coating etc - without making it look new and inauthentic. It wasn't difficult to do. In fact the most difficult bit was getting such a weight centred in the lathe in the first place. Fortunately he was there to help.

He was pleased with the result. Chatting to him I realised this was not a casual project that had just come his way. He was deeply into the RAF, the Second World War, and spitfires in particular. I could understand that, because, apart from my father-in-law, I had a very good friend who was by day a very successful quantity surveyor, but by night the author of dozens of books about particular squadrons and even pilots in the second world war.

I should have told my designer friend that the example of my father-in-law had inspired my grandson (who is not related by blood) to become a pilot. He is currently training at the French Civil Aviation Authority in Toulon.

The episode just made me reflect upon the meaning of things. Or the meaning we give to things. What mattered about this spinner project was the authenticity of the object. The designer had even arranged for it to be signed by possibly the last remaining person in Britain - a woman - to have flown Spitfires during the war. It was the real thing.

It's something I come across a lot of the time in working with wood. People have a favourite wood. They want something made of yew. Or birch. Or oak... Or more often they have a favourite tree. And when the tree dies, or has to come down, they want something made from it. It has a meaning. It has memories embedded in it. It has a feeling to it. And that's what makes it special to particular person.


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