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.

John Richardson rush seated chairs

Another fine craftsman at Linacre was John Richardson chairmaker. He makes fine ladderback chairs in the arts and crafts tradition. John lives on a narrowboat in Leicestershire and has a second boat as a workshop, this keeps his overheads low and his chairs are very reasonable though he is really semi retired now and does not make so many. I love rush seating, the colours are equally beautiful when first woven and when old and mellowed. Here he is rushing an old chair for a client.

The trick with rush seating is to twist it well and pull it tight. A good tight weave will last for years without sagging. I think there is a certain beauty in old craftsmen's hands worn through years of tough work.

And here is the finished chair, I feel you should never judge a chair before sitting in it and I can assure you this one is very comfortable.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Patterson's spade mill

I first heard about Patterson's many years ago whilst I was still working for the National Trust as a forester. It was an unusual property for the Trust to take on because it was relatively modern industrial heritage.

On Tuesday I finally got to visit. I was in Northern Ireland partly to work on the forthcoming National Occupational Standards for Craft and partly to meet traditional craftspeople there to find out if they are facing similar issues to those this side of the water and to see if the HCA can be of benefit to them. Tuesday morning was my only free time and I was very disappointed when I discovered it was the only day of the week that Patterson's was closed. Tom Mahon opened up specially for us though and gave Joe Kelly, director of Craft Northern Ireland, and myself the VIP tour.

The current guide book introduces the property by saying in the mill "are represented elements which are intrinsic to the culture and heritage of this part of the world..The craft was carried out by the fifth generation of a family, the last remnant of an industry, which was once widespread. The industry produced a product that was pervasive in Irish culture, an essential part of agricultural life, illustrating the diversity of countryside and custom, and enshrined in the vitality of language and phrase, in song and in literature."

Perhaps what is most special about Patterson's is that it is not just a static museum the Trust have continued spade production. Not at a commercial level perhaps but at least at a level that means that the skills must be preserved and passed on and the machinery maintained.

I had no idea that a spade would be forged from a single smal block of steel 3"x4" as seen on the right here.

The shoulders are forged first then a spike is pressed down into the near white hot metal to open the slot where eventually the handle will go. This hole is then filled with ash and closed up whilst the spades blade is forged out. Before finally being reopend at the end.

The place is full of big boys toys (sorry tools) like this big hammer.

For me though the highlight of a visit there must be the tilt hammer. I have worked in the forges at Abbeydale industrial hamlet in Sheffield where they have 2 old inoperative tilt hammers but I have never seen one working. A tilt hammer is simply a huge hammer fixed on a pivot near the end of the giant handle, a cam on the driveshaft from the waterwheel hits the end of the handle downwards which flicks the hammer up in the air and it then falls under it's own weight. I had always imagined it would be enormously noisy, clattery and difficult to control but actually it was somehow quite soft gentle and controllable whilst still having a lot of power. I can imagine how much a skilled man could produce in a day working on such a tool. Tom told us that during full production in the past the mill would produce an average of one spade per man per hour.

Handles are cut from locally sourced ash and rounded in this huge pecil sharpener like machine.

This copy lathe makes the handle tops.

When the handle is fitted it gets rolled in this roller which presses the metal flanges into the wooden handle so they are smooth to the touch.

Tom could talk about spades all day, today most spades are pressed out of a single thickness of plate but a forged spade can be thick where it needs extra strength and thin and light where it doesn't. The "spring" is important, I know a clogmaker who uses exactly the same term to mean just the same thing. It is the bend in the blade, that means that when you have cut the spade into the ground you can use leverage to lift the soil, it is particularly important in clay soils where you need to break the suction of the clay.

Tom said they have recorded over 150 different types of spade all slight regional variations to suit the local soil conditions.

So how much does a quality forged spade cost? About £65 which has to be a bargain for the amount of work involved. On this trip I couldn't bring one home with me but I will be back.

HCA in Craft and design magazine

Nice article out today in the September issue of Craft and Design magazine. The editor Angie Boyer has been very supportive of the Heritage Crafts Association and following this article we hope to run a series on traditional craftspeople with one featured each issue, so if you know of someone doing a traditional craft that could do with a bit of extra free publicity do let us know.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Libby Purves on making stuff

I have long been a fan of Libby Purves, midweek presenter, author and Times columnist.

This article I just came across written in the Times on 27th July really struck a cord.

Full article here,

Here are a few extracts.

"To feel good about your work, as an individual and a society, to be
both emotionally satisfied and economically safe, you have to make
stuff. Put things together, improve them, sell them to admiring
customers. Ask any caveman rolling his first wheel; ask any small
child trotting home from school with an eggbox model. Then ask the
same child ten years later how satisfied he or she is with what passes
for physical creativity in the modern risk-averse classroom: the
desktop-published folder of design and technology, chronicling a
project never actually made; the “food-tech” folder with cutout
pictures of flans and lists of cooking temperatures, which somehow
never led to an actual pizza."

Mr Reece speaks to my soul. Just as Tony Benn did in 1990, when he
said that Thatcher’s Britain had “an utter contempt for skill. If one
talks to people who dig coal and drive trains, or to doctors, nurses,
dentists or tool-makers, one discovers that no one in Britain is
interested in them. The whole of the so-called entrepreneurial society
is focused on the City news that we get in every bulletin ... Skill is
what built this country’s strength, but it has been treated with

"No, to hell with avatars and iPhone apps — bring back the moving
parts, the beauty of machinery; bring it to every level of education
and national awareness; celebrate makers, enthuse a generation to
solid creativity."