When I was at school pre-O levels one of the elements of the scholastic week that I really enjoyed was our time in the Woodwork shop.
Overseen by a reliable older teacher dressed in a long brown workshop coat – probably with a breast pocket full of triangular pencils – I forget his real name but I think we all called him “Sid”. I suspect he was a retired carpenter who wasn’t there to teach as any form of an academic subject. His role, at which he was unassumingly brilliant at, was to impart the wonders of working with wood and in so doing he sparked a life long affection for this beautiful material.
The Woodwork shop had a vaulted glass ceiling that echoed to the whirl and clatter of a series of old electric lathes, I say “old” as they probably pre-dated me by thirty plus years making them nearly over forty in the late 1970’s. We’d be taught to centre the wood on a spike which had a back plate that we screwed into the wood making it firm for turning. We’d be shown how to sharpen chisels to achieve a desired cut. After the Master has placed the blank in the lathe we then be shown how to rest the chisel and work it to cut into the timber. There was minimal Heath & Safety input but we probably had perspex glasses borrowed from the Chemistry lab.
Sometime around half-term we be the proud owner of a four and a half inch diameter freshly beeswaxed bowl which our Mother’s would then fill with peanuts and offer them at drinks parties to admiring friends who’d remark on the quality of the bowl.
Aged 14 I came top in the year end exams in two subjects, Woodwork and Religion. Shrugging off the suggestions of a Second Coming, to this day I have loved wood, particularly turned wood, and have sourced all manner of examples including spindles for chair back, table legs and stair bannisters.
What I have never attempted is to operate a manual lathe – indeed until recently I didn’t know that they existed but exist they do and they are seeing a revival in the craft of Traditional Turning one of its best exponents is a very engaging chap from Sheffield named Robin Wood – yes, seriously!
Robin, who holds an MBE – awarded in 2014 for services to Heritage Crafts and Skills – is a master wood turner who for the last 20 years has been making wooden bowls, plates and utensils on a simple foot powered lathe. His products, if respected and treat with some care last and age beautifully. His extensive studies have influence his design and techniques.
Fuelled by a simple mantra of “Never to do a day’s work he did not enjoy” it was the experience of working close to nature with the National Trust that introduced Robin to traditional woodland crafts and ignited his and he started to make spoons and bowls bringing “a little quiet beauty into everyday life”.
Robin was inspired by the work of George Lailey, who died in 1958. He was last person in England to make his living turning wooden bowls on a foot powered pole lathe. Seeing the great beauty in the simplicity of the craft Robin sought to revive the technique. His first task was to learn how to create the cutting tools required which involved him training as a blacksmith. It has become a source of some pride that no sandpaper is used and the smoothness of the finish is achieve by the sharpest of tools.
Clearly evangelical about the simple pleasure and satisfaction to be achieved from wood turning Robin teaches and also, in addition to hang his own tools, make tools for others help others learn to carve.
Robin has assured us despite the bitter weather that he is hard at work restoring his stock of bowls – but it will take some time. So for those wishing to make a purchase please be patient. Please complete the Contact section of our site
In this film, Robin can be seen at work in his idyllic outbuilding/studio. Enjoy!