David Russell obituary

Other lives: Author and collector of woodworking tooks

My friend and colleague David Russell, who has died aged 82, had a lifelong love for antique woodworking tools that drove him to amass one of the finest collections in the western world. He also published the book Antique Woodworking Tools: Their Craftsmanship from the Earliest Times to the Twentieth Century (2010).

His collecting began with a Norris smoothing plane bought at a Sunday antiques market in the Lake District, but it was only after a successful career as a housebuilder and developer that he was really able to pursue his interest in woodworking tools.

When he bought and oversaw the restoration of a farmhouse near the late stone-age site of La Madeleine in the Dordogne, his skill with a gouge was evident in the animal-shaped finials he carved atop the posts of his staircase. The displays at his French home showed that he had an instinct for gathering vintage tools of great beauty or that were milestones in functional development.

An enthusiastic bird-lover, he also built up collections of antiquarian bird books and 20th-century bird paintings.

Born in the village of Burneside, Cumbria, to Albert Russell, a worker at Cropper’s paper mill, and his wife, Alice (nee Mason), David left Kendal boys’ grammar school at 15 to serve as an apprentice to the Kendal cabinet-maker and joiner Albert Benson, in whose workshop his older brother, Rodney, was already employed. He met Eileen Wray, who later became a teacher, when they were teenagers at the Burneside church youth club, and they married in 1959.

David Russell bought this Israel White three-arm plow plane at an American auction in 2002.
David Russell bought this Israel White three-arm plow plane at an American auction in 2002. Photograph: James Austin/Courtesy of the David R Russell estate

After national service in what is now Malaysia, David went into the building trade, first in Bournemouth and then in London for George Wimpey. Back in northern England, in 1961 he and Rodney set up a partnership called Russell Brothers (Kendal). In response to an economic downturn in the early 1970s they diversified into running caravan sites, joinery works and building boats.

By the 80s, however, the housebuilding business was flourishing. The firm’s high-density scheme at Webster’s Yard off Kendal’s Highgate was singled out by the Architects’ Journal as “by far the most adventurous” development in Kendal during that time.

Following a heart attack, David sold in 1989 what had become Russell Armer to the Dyke Brothers, a Lake District firm. He retained an advisory role with his old management team and in 1991 the team initiated a management buy-out of Russell Armer.

I first met David in 2006, when I advised him on his book, and eventually published it. To be told by David in his Lakeland lilt that you had “got the makings” was more than a compliment; it was an exhortation to step boldly out and realise an ambition he felt was within your grasp. Such iron-willed determination is evinced in his own life.

Eileen died last year. He is survived by their children, Craig, Claire and Anne, and 10 grandchildren.

John Adamson

The GuardianTramp

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