“How would you describe yourself? Cabinet Maker? Artisan?”
“Artisan?” Bill Daly spits the word back at a tremulous SevenStreets.
“That’s just a fancy word for someone who makes things. Arrrrtisan! Ha! I hope you have better questions than that.”
It’s a battle of wits, and round one goes to 94-year-old Daly, as he shows us around his Wallasey workshop. A cabinet of curiosities in itself. Shelves, sagged and warped with time, groan beneath tiny sets of meticulously dovetailed drawers; one marked, enigmatically, ‘eyes’.
“You’re a fool if you throw anything away,” Daly says, blowing dust from a felled forest of laminates. “They don’t make laminates like they used to. I’ll find a use for these one day…”
Much of Daly’ booty is salvage. Boardroom tables saved from the scrapheap, panelling hewn from decommissioned ocean liners, huge screens rescued from a ‘modernisation’ at the Adelphi – all hauled onto the roof rack of his trusty (wood-framed) Austin Traveller.
We think we’re the generation who invented upcycling? Daly’s yellowing photographs show otherwise: wood liberated from funeral pyres, now standing tall as fitted bookcases and display cabinets in swanky west Wirral homes.
“Young people don’t know what they’re looking at. But it’s not your fault. You’re sold rubbish, so you expect rubbish. Modern furniture?…” he pauses. “Crap.”
We settle on ‘antiques restorer’ for a job description – it comes with none of the fancy lexicography so evidently out-of-favour with the nonagenarian wood turner. And, as he’s still handy with a chisel, who are we to argue?
“I’ve had five apprentices. They’re all dead now. There’s a lesson in that…” he says. It comes off somewhere between a territorial threat and Count Arthur Strong braggadocio.
Daly – ‘born in the slums of Toxteth’ – moved to Wallasey 60-odd years ago, shutting his Great George Street showroom and settling into family life. “I married a Wallasey woman. The best thing I ever did. Her family had an indoor toilet.”
His wife died 50 years ago. Since then, Daly hasn’t sold a thing, nor has he wanted to. He works to bequeath pieces to his family and because, as he says, he loves the feel of ‘the living wood’ beneath his hands. Of coaxing the grain into an exquisitely scalloped side table, a flamboyantly pedimented wardrobe, or casing for a Grandfather clock.
What do you work in? We ask, tentatively.
We get that look again.
“There is only one wood. Spanish mahogany. There’s nothing that comes close,” he purrs. “But I can only manage an hour or so these days. And my eyes are no good for fine carving.”
We’re not so sure. Daly shows us another piece he’s working on – a gargoyle set to adorn an old bevelled mirror. Its features delicately carved out. Its eyes sparkle with devilish intent. With life.
Who could he have modelled it on, we wonder?
Photography by Jane MacNeil