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