Story by Angela Hawn
Tick tock, tick tock. In an era where much time is spent lamenting how little time we have, woodworker Glen Finch seems to have all the time in the world on his hands. Quite literally. While the rest of us buzz through our days at the speed of light, helplessly watching the minutes fly by, this 69-year-old artisan spends every spare second putting together elegant housings for the very instrument we use to measure this elusive and much-valued phenomenon.
“I probably put in three to four hours a day,” he declares, proudly showing off a workshop located just beyond Rawdon Township’s western border and smiling with satisfaction at the numerous clocks ticking away in glass-fronted cupboards Glen built himself. “But I can’t really give you a true answer as to why I got started.”
Yet, surely at least some of Glen’s affinity for wood can be traced directly back to his dad, a mason by trade who also dabbled in carpentry work. Glen started working with him when he was still just a kid, helping out with odd jobs like chimney construction. Thirty-five years tackling maintenance projects with Ontario Hydro followed.
“We worked on turbines and dams,” says Glen, “and there was certainly some carpentry involved in that.”
But Glen’s real passion for the art of woodworking didn’t really take off until he retired about 20 years ago. And he’s been going hard at it ever since.
“I started with lots of smaller projects like jewellery boxes and baskets,” he notes, pointing to a couple of fine examples on a nearby workbench. “But after a while I started on clocks.”
Made from plans Glen orders by mail from an Iowa-based company, the clocks appear both massive and delicate at the same time, some standing over three feet in height. To the best of his knowledge, Glen figures none of his clock buildings match up with an actual life-sized monument found in the world at large, but that doesn’t make them any less fascinating. Their ornate and gingerbread-like exteriors evoke memories of an era long past. It’s not difficult to imagine an entire miniaturized community coming to life in Glen’s workshop once the woodworker shuts off his tools and retires for the night.
So what does it take to create this charming, tiny world? Glen lists a variety of wood, from mahogany to cherry, and gestures to some woodworking instruments of choice: the wood planer, tablesaw, bandsaw, scrollsaw, joiner and drillpress. A great deal of time and effort goes into each beautiful structure before Glen deems a piece ready to host its own German-made clock.
Using thin sheets of wood purchased in 5x5 size from a nearby lumber supplier in Peterborough, Glen first saws his materials down to manageable pieces. Chuckling, the craftsman acknowledges the staff at the lumber store makes the first cut.
“Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to fit it inside my vehicle,” he laughs.
Once the woodworker carefully glues the blueprints to his wood, the real nitty gritty begins. Using the scroll saw to cut out and design the finest details, Glen makes everything from tiny cedar shingles to elaborate dormer windows and curlicued balconies.
But working with wood can be tricky. Glen speaks respectfully about his preferred medium as though it has a mind of its own.
“Wood is always moving,” he says softly, noting a piece he originally cut for one complex project buckled and warped when he left it for the night. “But when I started cutting, something in the process released the pressure and the wood got back its shape.”
Sometimes the plans Glen brings to life come straight from his imagination, often inspired by just a touch of his own personal history. With pleasure Glen opens the tiny door on a scaled-down replica of the very school house he once attended in the 1950’s. The real thing still stands about a kilometre or so up the road. No longer a school, this fine old building has since evolved into a contemporary home. But in Glen’s eyes, its former existence as a place of education and maybe, even just a little bit of fun, lives on. Peer through the model’s small windows and you’ll see orderly rows of tiny chairs and desks at the ready, awaiting yet another day of learning the 3 Rs.
This is the kind of time-consuming and finely detailed work Glen lives for. Once briefly a member of a local Lathe Club, Glen quickly decided wood turning was not for him. Too messy.
“You come out from working on a lathe looking like you’re covered in a snowstorm,” laughs Glen, though he admits the craft produces some beautiful bowls. “I like woodworking - it’s a nice clean hobby.”
Not a surprising admission from someone who seems to take as much pride in keeping a tidy workspace as he does in the work itself. Neat and dust-free, Glen’s immaculate workshop easily doubles as a display room for his finished wares, as well as a few antiques he’s acquired over the years.
There’s a place for everything and everything is in its place. An old gas pump dating back to the 1950’s stands sentry in one corner and rows of antique bottles line a series of shelves. Glen has even managed to get his hands on various vintage wood-working tools, though their fragile state gives them “display purposes only” status. Out of sheer practicality, Glen sticks with modern instruments of the trade.
“I don’t know how they used those old planes anyway,” he laughs, pointing out a couple on a high shelf. “You need brute strength.”
A lover of history, Glen proudly calls himself a collector and his collections are neatly stockpiled and displayed everywhere. Aside from pop and milk bottles, Glen also once turned an eye to beer trays and antique porcelain ashtrays, the kind with the name of the business it advertises embossed around the rim. Next to a set of vintage wood planes, a six-pack of untouched classic coca-cola holds centre court.
“I don’t know what I’ll ever do with it all, but I feel like if I don’t buy it, it will all just disappear one day,” says Glen, pointing out an old CN bucket, as well as an antique railway adze he once purchased at a yard sale for five dollars.
He’s even gotten to know a couple of guys who work at the local landfill down the road. Familiar with Glen’s tastes, they keep an eye out for items they think he might like.
Somewhat sheepishly, Finch confesses to being a bit of a packrat. Yet he’s managed to keep all of his collectibles in order. Despite the quantity of items he’s acquired and/or made, both Glen’s house and workshop give off the minimalist air of someone who has an eye for the best and discards the rest.
“My dad always said it doesn’t take any longer to clean up a mess than it does to make one,” chuckles Finch. “I can’t stand working in a mess; never could.”
No wonder Glen turned to the type of fine work performed with a scroll saw. Proudly, he shows off one of the most challenging items he’s created so far: a large but intricate cut-out of a Tiger Butterfly. Glen shakes his head as he puts it back on the bench, declaring that particular piece made him a little stir-crazy.
“I had to take a break and go back to it,” he smiles. “It can be pretty tedious work sometimes.”
And yet, the hobby has certainly taken hold. For years he and a group of wood-working pals made toys for the Salvation Army at Christmas, stopping only when regulations governing the types of donations the organization could accept became too onerous.
“They had to be careful about so much like whether or not certain paints could be toxic,” says Finch, wondering out loud if the wooden cars and trucks he once made would pass the kid-litmus test these days.
He points out a couple of solid-looking little vehicles on nearby shelves. They look like the sort of thing baby-boomers might scout out at craft fairs.
“It’s a new generation and kids today are more interested in electronics,” he muses, miming a gamer thumbing the controls of a hand-held device.
Glen admits he much preferred long ago simpler times when life moved at a slower pace and everything seemed less complicated. He reminisces about childhood Christmases when he and his brothers felt lucky to receive one tin toy truck between the five of them.
“I feel we’re too advanced now,” claims Glen, the appeal of a bygone era evident in his wistful tone of voice. “I’d like things to go back to the way they used to run long ago.”
Nowadays, the woodworker still likes to donate items he’s made to charity. Every year he gives a hand-made piece or two to the Cambellford Community Care golf tournament for its silent auction.
“I never sell anything,” says Finch, declaring the era for making money at this kind of craft long over. “But I exhibit at the Campbellford Fair every year and I generally get some compliments.”
He also takes first prize every single time, a situation modest and low-key Glen attributes strictly to the fact no one else in the area does what he does. In a class of his own, this particular artisan has hopes the fair organizers might open up the category to include similar types of woodworking crafts.
“I’d like to have some competition,” muses Glen. “It would make it more fun.”
In the meantime, Glen offers some advice to would-be woodworkers out there. He figures anyone who wants to learn the craft can do it.
“You just have to be patient and like what you do,” he says, recalling how much his daughter impressed him with her own set of wood-working skills when she produced a beautiful kayak paddle in Glen’s workshop on a recent visit home. “Not much point in doing it otherwise.”