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With Gift of Tools Came Love for Woodworking


Samuel S. McWilliam died three years ago at age 93, leaving behind for grandson James D. McWilliam a legacy in the form of old hand tools and an unwavering love for woodworking.

The 16 tools are displayed in grandson McWilliam's office at Brea-Olinda High School, where he taught a woodworking class for 14 years before moving to his current position as a career guidance specialist.

"When I get the opportunity, I like to talk about the tools my grandfather used when he built cabinets and did other work on the Titanic," said McWilliam, a Cal State Long Beach graduate who received his vocational credentials from UCLA.

His grandfather never mentioned to him that he had worked on the ill-fated Titanic.

"My dad was the one who told me he worked on the ship," said McWilliam, who continues to work with wood at a home shop and often wanders through his former classroom. "After I asked him about it, my grandfather told me he didn't think it was anything special or anything out of the ordinary."

But his grandfather did tell him about how the shipbuilding company asked him to make eight screwdrivers for other workers like the handmade one he used.

"He was proud of that," said McWilliam, who pointed out that the 25-inch screwdrivers were used to reach deep into the bulkheads of the ship.

The handmade tools in the display include an old chisel, a level, the 25-inch screwdriver, 200-year-old molding planes from Ireland and a marking gauge. Some of the tools are stamped with his grandfather's name, a trait of many of the old craftsmen.

Besides having the display as a reminder of his grandfather, "I want people to see the tools that were used years ago," said McWilliam, who graduated from Brea High School in 1963. "People in their type of craft have to have some recognition."

McWilliam said he often would show the tools to students in his woodworking classes to explain how work with wood was accomplished without mechanization and to discuss the problems of the rights of workers as compared to today.

"In those days workers like my grandfather didn't care about workers' rights," he said. "They just had a job to do and they did it."

Besides their abilities with wood, McWilliam said, craftsmen of yesteryear, including his grandfather, had a way with words and thoughts.

"I went into teaching instead of contracting partly because of a statement he made to me," McWilliam said. "He told me, 'Don't get into this (woodworking) full time. It will make an old man of you real quick.' "

McWilliam's father, James S. McWilliam, 72, a salesman who did not know much about woodworking but supported his son's yearning to learn about it, urged him to become a teacher.

"I guess I always had an inner feeling I would do something with wood," the younger McWilliam said. "I just chose to do it as a teacher."

McWilliam said that when he was teaching high school woodworking, he would explain to students and those in adult classes that woodworking is a skill that can be learned.

He also said that 99% of the people who try can learn to do it properly, noting that "the more you do the better you get."

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