Wednesday, 30 December 2009

making a bowl on a pole lathe, the Guardian slide show

A nice slide show of me making a bowl on the pole lathe done by Jon Henley at the Guardian.

This is part of a series Jon is doing on craftspeople. I would recommend having a look at some of the others here

Freeman College an inspirational visit

2 days before Christmas I had the privilege of a most inspiring visit to Freeman College in Sheffield and a tour by Helen Kippax the principle.

Freeman college is the most recent of three colleges run by Ruskin Mill Educational Trust  which for a quarter of a century, has pioneered a unique, holistic and student-centred approach to the education and care of young people who fall between the cracks of mainstream provision. In 1984 Aonghus Gordon discovered that when such students work with craftspeople in natural environments on real-life, purposeful tasks, their personal, emotional and social skills, behaviour and health improve dramatically.

Part of the ethos of the founders is to work with skilled craftspeople and the regional specialist crafts so in Sheffield the new college curriculum centres on metalwork and cutlery. The first project new students take on is forging a copper spoon from a solid billet. This board shows the process.

 But perhaps this is more telling as this is work in progress by current students.

Here are some finished pieces of cutlery. bear in mind that these students have struggled in all other educational environments and there are a high proportion with autism, asperger's and other issues.

The key to the process is that the teachers are not teachers but highly skilled craftspeople who the students have respect for. I can understand that respect, in charge of spoon forging is George who worked for 25 years as a silversmith and another 5 making surgical instruments before working at the college, he clearly knows a lot about metalwork at a very practical level but he is also clearly great with the students. 

George has 3 students at a time hammering away at their copper billets and then refining the form by filing and finally polishing.

After copper students that enjoy hand forging can progress to working with silver. I personally think this is pretty impressive work and great to see folks working from a raw billet, I can imagine the sense of achievement they must get.

I have been spreading the idea for some time that I would like to see every Sheffield schoolchild given the chance to make a piece of cutlery as a way of learning about who they are and where they come from. I would also like to see children in Stoke make a bowl they could take home and eat their breakfast from, children in High Wycombe make a simple piece of furniture, in Luton a hat and so on. It was sharing this vision at a Sheffield City Council culture meeting recently that put me in touch with Helen and Freeman College because this is exactly the vision they have for their students. After experiencing hand forging they also get to work in a more typical production workshop.

The "whittle tang" workshop was set up and is run by a chap who's name I am afraid I forget but he again had 25 years experience working in the industry running various commercial cutlery workshops. I asked how he found the difference working with the students and if it was difficult coping with the health and safety issues with challenging young people. He actually said it was no different to working in industry where he would have to train 16 year olds when they first came into work and they had the same issues of struggling to get out of bed in the morning and having bad days when they had fallen out with the girlfriend, it was his job to be sympathetic to that but also to make sure that when in the workshop they could focus on the task in hand and work in a safe way.

The idea here is that students get to work using machinery and produce useful goods for sale. This is the start of the process where the raw sheets of metal are stamped out as spoon blanks.

The blanks are then pressed using hand operated fly presses which put the bowl shape into the spoon.

Each piece is then hand finished and polished on the buffing wheels before silver plating. Knives get wooden handles which are all sawn and shaped by students from recycled wood.

This is all just fantastic and shows what can be achieved. It is great that these facilities are available and fulfilling a very specific need of the 70 students a year at the college. I hope that in the future that such rewarding work experience will be a possibility for every schoolchild as part of their mainstream education.

More details on Freeman College here
and Ruskin Mill Educational Trust here

Finally in 2008 RMET published an excellent research paper by Dr Aric Sigman looking at "The benefits and mechanisms associated with a craft based curriculum."

This research noted that.

"While the effects of a practical curriculum have been valued and noted (LSC, 2008; Ofsted, 2007), research in cognitive neuroscience and psychology continues to find surprising and previously unrecognised benefits that are conferred upon pupils. Moreover, the mechanisms behind these benefits point to the urgent need for greater incorporation of such practical elements into mainstream  education. Beyond the cognitive and neurological aspects of the craft-orientated curriculum are secondary processes such as mentoring through apprenticeship. These produce further benefits that aid the development of the pupil into a more socially viable and employable young adult. The findings of this report are applicable to pupils with or without learning difficulties."

It is an excellent paper for anyone with an interest in how people learn and the broad benefits of working with the hands.

The ethos of RMET is based on a blend of the teachings of John Ruskin and Rudolph Steiner yet the outcome is remarkably similar to the theory of educational sloyd which was developed by Otto Salomon in Sweden and became quite mainstream in the 1920's eventually developing into city and guilds and school woodwork teaching in the UK. Sadly what started as a system of education where the products were not as important as the change in the student has gradually changed into current "resistant materials" teaching in school which seems to be primarily aimed at training in design and industrial processes.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

The Heritage Crafts Association seeks input from craftspeople

 I know many of my blog readers are signed up supporters of the Heritage Crafts Association and will have received this message by email but for those that have not....

The Heritage Crafts Association’s aim is to support and promote heritage crafts as a fundamental part of our living heritage. Since the HCA website went live earlier this year, we have attracted hundreds of supporters all keen to help ensure a sustainable future for traditional heritage crafts.
The Heritage Crafts Network
Going into 2010, we are looking to consolidate this support, building upon our advocacy work with politicians and representatives of key agencies. In order to achieve this, we would like to complement the huge amount of anecdotal evidence we have gathered to date with a statistical analysis of our supporters’ opinions and experiences. To that effect we are asking as many traditional craftspeople as possible in the UK to fill in a simple survey.

The survey consists of ten questions and should take no longer than fifteen minutes to complete. To do so, please go to

We would also be very grateful if you could forward this notice to as many of your craftspeople friends and colleagues as possible, and, if you work for a crafts organisation, to post it in your newsletters and email circulars.

Many thanks in advance for your continuing support.
Robin Wood, HCA Chair.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Trevor Ablett Sheffield pen and pocket knife maker

On Friday I visited Trevor Ablett one of the last of Sheffield's pen and pocketknife makers. Trevor is on the left with Reg Cooper bowie knife maker on the right.

I have visited Trevor a few times now and bought quite a few of his knives. I tend to give them as gifts when we visit folk on behalf of the Heritage Crafts Association. He rarely pauses in his work and clearly very much enjoys what he does. His knives are not fancy collectors pieces but simple working pocketknives.

The key to his production speed as with most traditional craftspeople is small batch production. This is a batch he was working on when we visited, he will work on maybe 20 knives at a time fist making the parts, cutting and soldering the brass bolsters onto the liners, then roughly assembling the knives as a trial fit. Adjustments are made so that the blade sits properly at this stage.

Note the temporary steel pin holding the parts together.

Grinding a touch of the base of the blade here lets the blade sink a little further into the handle when closed.

When the blade sits correctly he removes the temporary steel pins and replaces them with brass ones which are cut to length and riveted over holding the whole knife, blade, spring and scales together.

Trevor has lots of different hammers for different parts of the job and this sweet little one is perfect for riveting. He has put a spare spring into the gap in the open knife to stop it closing up whilst he is riveting.

This one ended slightly too tight so a tap on either side of the blade loosens it up.

Now the knife is basically finished but still has very square rough scales and bolsters, all this is rounded off and polished, 

I visited with Nigel Townshend who is going to be doing some voluntary work for the Heritage Crafts Association and we were both able to do a bit of our Christmas shopping. From Trevor's finished knives table.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

article in the Guardian today

Here is a link to a nice article about my work in the Guardian today by Jon Henley. Its in the "work" section.

In the week there will be a slaide show showing the processes of making a bowl, I'll post a link when it is up.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

two nice craft slideshows

I have just been sent these two links and thought folks would enjoy them.

First Mike Turnock the last sievemaker, a nice slideshow of all the stages in producing garden sieves from Jon Henley of the Guardian. Amazing to think that a craft like this could survive as a viable business without any subsidy since medieval times and yet could be lost in the 21st century.

Next one of my blog readers sent me this slideshow of steam bending a Haida cedar canoe. It looks a fantastic community event and no doubt is the culmination of a huge amount of work.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Portland Works deadline for objection this Thursday

In March I posted about Portland Works a rather wonderful piece of Sheffield history. This was the first purpose built cutlery works in Sheffield and the first place in the world where stainless steel was made into cutlery. It has been in continuous use by various metalworking and cutlery trades since it was built and despite being grade II* listed is currently under threat of being developed into flats and the existing tenants businesses evicted. We have just 3 days to object.

My previous post with pictures of the works here

Portland blog here

Details on how to object here, you don't have to be Sheffield or even UK based

Saturday, 28 November 2009

last sievemaker in the Guardian

Jon Henley's article on Mike Turnock the last sievemaker is in the guardian today and online here.

As always it is a really nicely written article and there will be a slide show showing all the processes of making a sieve on Tuesday next week, I'll add a link when it is up. The photo of Mike is not very flattering though.

Jon and I visited Mike just short of a year after my first visit, see this blog post for lots of pictures of Mike's workshop.

That visit was the very first step towards creating the Heritage Crafts Association and it is difficult to believe how far we have come in a year. When we visited last year it looked certain that Mike would be the last sievemaker, through the HCAs work his business has had a lot of publicity both locally and nationally including being discussed in the House of Commons. The good news is that he now has a few folk interested in taking the business on when he retires and has even had a potential trainee up to make a sieve. Perhaps this could be the first craft that HCA has helped save from the brink of extinction.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

traditional crafts in the Guardian

Guardian readers might have been enjoying Jon Henley's series of articles on traditional craftsmen in the Saturday edition. I spent yesterday with Jon first at the workshop of Mike Turnock the last sievemaker and then in the afternoon at my own workshop. The feature on Mike will be in this Saturday's edition and the one on me in 2 weeks time. Here is Mike posing for the photographer with a stack of sieves. I was suffering serious camera envy as Chris the photographer had not one but 2 canon 5ds with some beautiful lenses, I suspect the photos will be great.

As for me I have just decided to upgrade my 6 year old 300d camera to a second hand 40d. Camera equipment does not make good photos though, and to be fair I don't aspire to do anything other than snap and show craftspeoples work in the best light I can. This morning just before eating my breakfast I noticed how beautiful the morning sunlight was and took a quick snap of my breakfast. Bowl by me with home made paint and natural pigment, spoon by Wille Sundqvist, kuksa by me and Nicola. Home made meusli.

On Monday I spent the morning in the workshop and the afternoon in Sheffield contributing to a working group looking at Sheffield's new culture strategy. The current strategy barely mentions either steelmaking or cutlery yet these are the reasons Sheffield is where it is, the things that make it a name known around the world and both are deeply ingrained in the history of mast Sheffield families. There is a strong feeling that the future lies in new technology and moving away from these old industries almost as if folk are embarrassed about the associations, it feels similar to the way in the 60's ideas about redevelopment meant buldozing the past and rebuilding new forward looking concrete buildings. Now we try to redevelop more sympathetically taking the best of the past and building on it for the future.

I was talking with Jon Henley about the future of traditional crafts and the danger of them being seen and presented as some rustic hangover from a mythical bygone age with no relevance to today or the future. We decided the best model was the way traditional food production has been transformed over the last 15 years. No one today views a small scale smoke house or specialist butcher or farmhouse cheesemaker as being something that has no relevance today when we have mass production of cheap food and supermarkets. I believe that traditional crafts can have a similar future as viable businesses and that publicity for those that are succeeding is a good way to promote it.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

traditional crafts at the V&A

I am sure folk who have been following the progress of the Heritage Crafts Association will be delighted to know we have been offered use of the V&A for our press launch and forum in March. Mark Jones director of the V&A is as concerned about the loss of hand skills as we are. On a personal level his daughter wishes to train as a blacksmith. We hope to take a range of crafts and working craftspeople to show off to journalists and politicians to highlight the wonderful skills we have in the UK and the fact that many of them may not be passed on to the next generation.

There really could be no better venue in the UK to put traditional crafts in the limelight.

More details to follow, just excited and wanted to share.

Now back to work planning carving course dates for next year which are overdue, we should be sorted tonight though and on the website early next week.

Monday, 16 November 2009

traditional crafts on Radio 4 Farming Today

Rural crafts are being featured this week on Radio Four's Farming Today Program and for those who are not up at 6am to listen you can listen online using BBC iplayer
Just click the link then drag the slider to 9.25 when the feature starts.

We hear quite a lot of press on good stories in the traditional crafts at the moment though most are in conservation or building crafts. The Heritage Lottery Fund has put nearly £10 million into these crafts over the last 5 years through their bursary scheme.

HLF is a reactive rather than proactive funder and in part it has been the fault of the smaller traditional crafts themselves not having an organised voice to campaign for support that has led to them being left out. We look forward seeing support and promotion for the basketmakers, potters, weavers and urban crafts such as Sheffield cutlery in the future.

Thanks to my blog Reader and HCA supporter Julian for pointing this one out to me.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

crafts in the Telegraph

We get second hand copies of the Saturday Telegraph from my mother in law, the weekend section sometimes has nice craft stories. From yesterdays paper I spotted a separate magazine called "Telegraph Luxury" and on the cover it announced "The exquisite craft of the cobbler, the jeweler and the trunk maker." That sounded like a fine article to me, no less than 8 pages with full colour pictures.

How disappointed I was then to read not about craftspeople but about design and marketing businesses. The first was the best because at least the marketing was based on craftsmanship. Hermes riding boots from £1290 a pair "the jumping boot is made neither in-house nor even in France, but instead by an artisan bootmaker in the North of Italy near Venice." There are some lovely pics of him I would rather have had an article about him, or better still an article about an English shoemaker.

The other articles were even further removed from telling us about exquisite craftspeople. Another attempt to relaunch the Faberge name as a very high class jewelry brand and Luis Vuitton bags. "The principles of the trunk-making craft, of which Luis Vuitton was a pioneer, are the same today as they were 150 years ago." This may be true for the hyper expensive Asnieres workshop that produces just 550 bespoke orders a year though we learn little about the process, the people, or how things are made in the 15 Vuitton factories.

Flicking through the Telegraph magazine I came across a section called the new-to-do list. "you don't have to climb a mountain to realise your potential-just doing something new can make a difference."

Down below I spotted "learn basketry" how wonderful what a good plug for the basketmakers association....but "According to fashionable sources, contemporary basket weaving is the craft du jour. Fans of this ancient eco-art claim it's every bit as therapeutic as knitting. Learn now and by Christmas you could be magicking up bags, or-for the truly adventurous-boats."

I have no idea what that is about.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Monty Don Mastercrafts on the BBC

Back in February the Heritage Crafts Association were contacted about a new BBC TV series on traditional crafts. Mastercrafts fronted by Monty Don is now on its way and details are on the BBC website here

Here is a trailer

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

traditional crafts and government policy

Yesterday I spent in London talking to as many people as possible trying to pass on the message that traditional crafts in Britain need a little help.

At present they fall outside the remit of all government departments and all public agencies. This means no funding and no support.

The Landscape has Natural England as lead body.
The Built Heritage is supported by English Heritage.
Then there is the Museums, Libraries and Archives council.

We need a strategic lead body with equal standing for living heritage.

This was one of the key points I was making in London yesterday.

First stop was the Guardian offices to meet Jon Henley, a lovely chap and great supporter of traditional crafts. He has been doing a great series of articles on traditional craftspeople which you can see online here.

Then it was down to Westminster, this is Chris Rowley one of the Heritage Crafts Association committee, an ex TV executive who set up the Hand Engravers Association

I always take a range of craftwork with me to discuss. Politicians must spend their lives in boring meetings with folk who want them to do something they don't have the money for, handling a bunch of nice craft objects and seeing pictures of the people that made them seems to bring the whole issue to life. Here are some of our objects in the House of Lords.

First meeting was with Baroness Sharp and Baroness Garden for the Lib Dems, both very enthusiastic although realistic about how much they could help. Then it was over the road to Portcullis House (left background) to meet Ed Vaizey shadow arts minister. We hope this will be the start of a dialogue and he was keen for us to offer a written paper on how we think heritage policy could be changed to help support these crafts.

A dash across town took us to the Art Workers Guild a group with common interests and a wonderful history. Past members of the guild have included CR Ashbee, Edward Johnson and William Morris. They are very supportive of the work the Heritage Crafts Association is doing and we hope to work on colaborative projects in the future. Their hall has a most wonderful collection of rush seated ladderback chairs by various makers dating back to Philip Clissett who taught Gimson.

Last stop of the day was back to the Lords to meet Lord Tony Young a frined of Chris Rowley's and until recently minister for aprentices. He was very entheusiastic about our craft stories and particularly about potantial employment given a little government encouragement. He was taken with a small pen knife made by Trevor Abblett of Sheffield and since it was the last visit of the day and I have more at home we gave him the knife, he was delighted. This photo is in Westminster Hall a most magnificent building with an astonishing 14th century hammer beam roof.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

off to London again

On the train to London again tomorrow for a meeting with Dr Jo Reilly, Head of Participation and Learning at the Heritage Lottery Fund. We are hoping she may be able to help us with some funding for the Heritage Crafts Association. Saturday is HCA committee meeting day so I stay in London, back home for Sunday then down for more meetings on Monday this time amongst others with Ed Vaizey shadow minister for culture. Jeremy Hunt (blog) gave a very encouraging speech last week link outlining the conservatives position on heritage and we are hoping that they will consider including policies for the safeguarding of the craft skills that are our living heritage too.

I shall also be meeting Jon Henley at the Guardian, he has been writing a nice series of articles on traditional craft here.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

traditional crafts on the web and around the world

Since I became aware of the web every few months or so I scan around to see what happens if you look for traditional craft on the web. I have always been hugely impressed and inspired by the things I see going on in other countries and rather saddened by the lack of information on British traditional crafts. The situation is improving slightly though. When I first googled "traditional crafts" most of the sites that came up on the first page were about Japanese crafts, mostly government funded sites written in English, I wonder if one day we will have a traditional craft site funded by our government written in Japanese.

Today we get a number of links to British work on the fist page, four of which are a direct result of the Heritage Craft Association's work.

Taking a look around the world Japan is still the centre for the promotion of traditional craft. Here is a map of some traditional crafts.

And here is a brief section explaining the ethos of government support for traditional crafts in Japan.

"The crafts represented in this site are the 198 craft industries recognized by the The Association for the Promotion of Traditional Craft Industries, an organization affiliated with the government Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI).

METI's efforts to promote traditional Japanese crafts is done in the hope that the Japanese people as well as the people of the world do not forget the quality of handwork and keep a place in their hearts for the unassuming and innocent products of direct human effort as well as the products of contemporary technology. Handmade objects are not a thing of the past, however economic factors may increase their market price, but are our contact with something basic and profoundly precious. In recognition of this, and to help protect the traditions, the nonprofit Association for the Promotion of Traditional Craft Industries was established in 1974. The Japanese Cultural Agency also has an independent program of promoting crafts that complements the work of the Association."

Sweden puts a huge amount of effort into preserving and promoting traditional crafts. This is their National folkcraft school, a wonderful inspiring place, I have taught courses there a few times and would highly recommend a visit.

Their links page has links to the Swedish Handcrafts Association and the 50 or more "handcraft consultants" these are located in each region and responsible for promoting handcraft by supporting makers, holding exhibitions and events, encouraging teaching in schools and also helping foreign craftspeople who are interested in Swedish craft.

This is the French organisation for recognising exceptional skill in traditional craft.

Living National Treasure scheme in Korea

Lacemaking in Russia

Heritage crafts in Norway


And North House Folk School an inspiring and quite new initiative in the US.

Last 2 links The UNESCO 2003 convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage this page is the section relating to craft.
This ahs been signed up to by 116 countries but not the UK.

And for anyone new to my blog the Heritage Crafts Association, our new organisation promoting traditional crafts in the UK.

I am always interested to know of other initiatives that we can learn from so please if you know of others that are not linked to here post a comment with a link.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

David Bedford hand Engraver

Yesterday was a day of meetings in London, Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust were very supportive of the work we are doing with the Heritage Crafts Association, the advisor on heritage issues at DCMS had some useful leads and the highlight of the day was meeting Mark Jones director of the V&A who as well as being an advocate of modern design is passionate about skills. One thing we discussed was the confusion between innovation and excellence. We have just come through a period where innovation and the incessant quest for the new and novel has been rather popular but perhaps now we are seeing a change and people are becoming less interested in innovation and more interested in excellence.

One man whose work certainly exhibits excellence is a hand engraver who we visited in the morning. Due to my late train it was sadly a short visit but David Bedford's skills were a joy to see.
Hand engraving requires a good eye, steady hand and mastery of technique. The design is laid out and the outline of the letters lightly marked then repeated cuts gradually deepen the letter to finish with a crisp sharp result.

The tools of the trade are very simple, most of the work is done with a simple square sectioned tool sharpened to a triangular point. You can see the colours on the one in the foreground from where David has re tempered it as he was not happy with the way it held it's edge.

I was interested in the way both hands were braced together and the tool pivited around the rigth thumb. I could see how this gave excellent control though I could barely credit the level of control David is capable of. One of his more famous commisions was to engrave the wording inside the wedding rings for the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall. This copied their own handwriting and all done inside the width of the narrow ring.

Whilst he is clearly a master of his craft David is very down to earth and enjoys just as much working on run of the mill projects such as engraving initials on silver spoons or names on trophies as the grander projects.

Despite his mastery of his craft David Bedford does not appear on google, he trades as JJ Bergin the company he came into years ago. Most of his work is brought to him by local jewelers or occasionally private commision. One of the nicest thing to hear was that through the Hand Engravers Association he has been passing his skills on to others.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

making plates and London meetings

I always wanted to find a job which combined working with body mind and soul, this week has got a pretty good balance. Yesterday I cut up part of a big beech tree, this is my raw material for making plates. Much of the day I was working in the rain which made me appreciate the afternoon sun all the more.

I have not managed to source the right tree for quite a while and have been out of stock of plates which is a shame as they are one of the things I enjoy using most. Today I turned a nice set to add to others on the drying rack I turned last week. They will be ready in about a month so if you are on the waining list for plates, they are on their way.

Tomorrow I put on the suit and head to London for meetings representing the Heritage Crafts Association. First stop is the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust who have supported many traditional craftspeople with grants. Next is a meeting with the adviser on Heritage matters at the Department of Culture Media and Sport and last is a meeting with the director of the V&A. It should be an enjoyable and hopefully useful day, then Thursday it will be back in the workshop, bit of a contrast.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Ben Willis greenwoodworker

Last craftsperson from Lincre woodland festival this is Ben Willis. He was an apprentice with Mike Abbott 3 years ago and is a very competent pole lathe turner. He is also a freelance journalist and has written for I think he said the Telegraph and Guardian on environmental issues. At Linacre he was turning rounders bats out of the gorgeous straight ash grown on site.
First it is split with a froe.
From this position you push forward with the knee and back with the froe handle to lever the wood apart.

Then chop off the excess with an axe, however much I think I have learned about green woodworking I can still pick up tips from others. I love Ben's chopping block. I have seen folk use blocks like this before with three branches giving a very stable block and the twisted wood where the branches meet being very resistant to splitting but the third leg here is morticed in an removable for flat packing, very ingenious.

Then a few quick strokes on the shave horse has a roughly rounded billet.

Ready for turning on the lathe.

A finished bat and ball

And a couple of nice chairs.