Saturday, 27 February 2010

mastercrafts blacksmithing, fancy a go?

Smith is the most common surname in England because every village used to have a smith, all other crafts come to the smith for tools. I have been forging for 20 years and think it is something that everyone should have a go at, particularly if your name is Smith.

There is a lot of mystique about blacksmithing and whilst like most crafts it takes many years to master the full range of skills it is easier to get to grips with the basics than most folk expect. Steel whilst cold may be hard and unforgiving but get the temperature right and it turns into plasticine and can easily be played with. A simple forge is very easy to create in minutes, I have forged steel using a charcoal barbecue with a simple foot pump to blow the air connected to an old tent pole to take the air into the fire. Google "simple forge" for lots of info on making better versions. For those that like to learn themselves and do things on the cheap a good book is Weygers "The Complete Modern Blacksmith"

For those wanting some help then it is always a great experience to go on a craft course with someone who knows what they are doing. I hope that others will add links to blacksmiths running courses but here are a couple that I know of

Dave Budd
Owen Bush

For anyone who would like to look more seriously at training in hot metal bashing Hereford College is a good course

The lead association is the British Artists Blacksmiths Association, cheap to join then you get to go allong to "hammer in" events where you can see some of the best smiths in the country at work and have a go yourself.

They also have a great page of links to training courses

So having been inspired by watching other folk why not book on a course and get forging yourself. Feel free to add links to other courses or organisations that may be helpful to folk in the comments box below.

Let's finish with links to Don Barker
and the mastercrafts book available for just £14

Friday, 26 February 2010

Tanya Harrod joins HCA committee

We are delighted to welcome Tanya Harrod as a new HCA committee member. Tanya is the author 'The Crafts in Britain in the 20th Century' Yale University Press, 1999. Trained as an art historian Tanya has been a Visiting Professor in the Department of Design History at the Royal College of Art since 1999 and is a co-editor of the Journal of Modern Craft.
A moment on google would show how modest the above biography is. Tanya brings a depth of knowledge and understanding of the craft world to the committee which will  be tremendously helpful.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Lawrence Neal chairmaker

Folk who enjoyed the mastercrafts episode on chairmaking should watch this video and see exactly where those skills have been kept alive. It is a good example of the way in which tacit knowledge has been passed down from generation to generation and is now being spread more widely using modern media and the knowledge used by a great many modern chairmakers. It is also a lovely example of a well made youtube craft video.

Everyone in the craft world is familiar with "Gimson" style chairs and many chairmakers make them. Ernest Gimson was an architect and designer heavily influenced by William Morris his furniture designs are his most lasting legacy inspired by the best of the past redesigned for the present and the future. ‘I never feel myself apart from our own time by harking back to the past, to be complete we must live in all the tenses – past, future as well as present’.

Gimson saw chairs made by Phillip Clisset at the art workers guild. I showed those original chairs on the blog a while ago, Gimson spent a few weeks working with Clisset, and learned the basics of the craft before setting up a workshop making his own chairs. He eventually took on the young Edward Gardiner as a partner in his chairmaking business who in turn passed the skills on to Neville Neal who was still working rushing seats when I visited Neville and his son Lawrence at their Warwickshire workshop around 1998.

So the old country chairmaking knowledge of how to make strong joints in a green wood chair had been passed down from generation to generation. In the early 1990's Mike Abbott author of the highly popular "Green Woodwork" visited Lawrence and learned how he made the chairs. Up to that point Mike had primarily been working in and teaching the Windsor chair tradition. With Mikes second book "Living Wood" and through his many courses the techniques of these special joints have become much more widely known and practiced.

The vast majority of chairmakers today however make a few chairs, and mix it with teaching or other income. Lawrence is perhaps unique in making all his living from making green wood chairs and he still uses Edward Gardiner's shave horse to create Gimson's designs. His chairs cost no more than any other hand made chair (in fact they are a lot less than most) and I would highly recommend them, they really are a piece of British craft history. He is not over run with orders at the moment so will be glad to hear from you, you can buy one here.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Prof Edward Collins becomes a Patron of HCA

HCA are very pleased to welcome Professor EJT Collins as a patron. Prof Collins major publication "Crafts in the English Countryside" is the most in depth recent research into traditional crafts in the UK and is highly recomended reading. It is available free online here.

One of the key recommendations of the 2004 report was "the establishment of a Vernacular Crafts Council to compliment the fine arts and contemporary crafts remit of the Craft Council, and to serve as an umbrella organisation for all crafts operating in the heritage sector."

The report was widely welcomed and publicised in the press but the key recommendations were not taken up by government. It was the lack of action on this point that led to the setting up of the Heritage Crafts Association and perhaps in some ways it is better to have an organisation formed by and for craftspeople themselves rather than a government quango.

London meetings Jeremy Hunt, CCSkills and the V&A

One of the key jobs of the Heritage Crafts Association is what we call advocacy. It is largely about meeting as many influential people as possible and letting them know about what is going on the world of traditional crafts and what they may be able to do to help.

Yesterday was a good example of our Advocacy work, HCA vice chair Patricia Lovett and I first met with James Evans research manager at Creative and Cultural Skills. We have a lot of anecdotal evidence to say that there are certain problems in the traditional crafts, particularly with some crafts only being done by a few people who have not managed to pass the skills on to the next generation. We would like to explore the "skills gap" with some well defined research which could then be used to argue the case for funding. A good example of the way this can work is research undertaken by HLF the National Heritage Training Group with Construction Skills which led in turn to the the HLF bursary scheme with many new apprentices in the building crafts.

Then we met with Jeremy Hunt shadow Culture Secretary, he was receptive to our message and having spent 2 years in Japan has seen how traditional crafts can be valued and also marketed as part of a tourism package. They will not be closely defining their heritage policy before the election Jeremy said that would appear a little like measuring for the curtains before you have bought the house. But we hope he will give us a nice quote about traditional crafts being a valuable part of our heritage.

Last meeting of the day was at the V&A with Glenn Adamson head of graduate studies and Edward S Cooke Jr professor of history of art at Yale. Together with Tanya Harrod they are editorial team of the Journal of Modern Craft. The name modern craft may put some traditionalist off as the name Heritage crafts may make the HCA sound very old fashioned or backward looking. Nothing could be further from the truth. Glenn and Ned have a tremendously deep understanding of all aspects of material culture and are every bit as much interested in the traditional as the innovative. One area that we all three felt was of particular interest and has been overlooked is the industrial crafts. HCA have been a bit of a lone voice highlighting the plight of crafts such as the Sheffield cutlery trades and it was a great pleasure to share this interest with others.

With all these meetings we never know what the long term outcomes will be. I guess the whole thing about advocacy work is just getting the message out, telling as many people as possible about the issues facing traditional crafts in the UK and discussing potential solutions. The more it is talked about the more likely we are to find solutions. I guess all our HCA supporters and facebook friends are doing their own bits of advocacy by passing HCA details on and sharing messages,It all spreads the word and there really feels to be a head of steam building which must have an effect down the line.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

BBC mastercrafts woodland workshop with Guy Mallinson and Monty Don

If you watched the program and want to find out more about this sort of craft and where to learn here are some links and resources. If you missed it and are in the UK you can see it on iplayer here.

The BBC are not allowed to link to "commercial sites" so the first link must be to Guy Mallinson's website here and if you want to keep him at his computer and out of the woods you can chat to him via his new blog and facebook page.

For those that want to learn more about these techniques without going on a course the best resource is the forum of the Association of Pole Lathe Turners and Green Woodworkers. I answer technical questions there Mike Abbott and Guy post there too as well as most of the top green woodworkers in the country and a fun bunch of amateurs too, recommended. There is a section on courses there information about tools, raw materials, everything you need to know.

I have no doubt Guy's courses will be filling up fast for this year but there are other folk around the country running similar courses in chairmaking in the woods. Probably the best known are Mike Abbott and Gudrun Leitz
Other folk you may want to check out are
Ben Orford
Steve Tomlin
Sean Hellman
Robin Fawcett
David Saltmarsh
Alun Heslop
Peter Wood
And if anyone fancies building a coracle you want to see Terry Kenny who was in the program and I blogged about last year.

Whilst making a chair in the woods is a great holiday course very few folk keep going with it at home because it requires a lot of commitment in terms of space, very specific raw materials and time. This is why I prefer to teach other green wood crafts particularly spoon and bowl carving which fit much better into today's busy lifestyles. They are the most popular courses in Scandinavia but are only just taking off in the UK. Having said that my courses are nearly full this year.

Monday, 8 February 2010

the pros and cons of accredited training systems in craft

Acredited training systems in craft have a very long history having their golden age with the medieval guilds when it was impossible to practice without having been through a rigorous training and being a fully signed up member of the guild. William Morris was a huge fan of the medieval guilds and there were various attempts to resurrect some semblance of the system during the Arts and Crafts movement. Some feel that today we lack any marker of quality to differentiate between a highly skilled and trained craftsperson and someone who did a few weekend craft courses then set up in business and that the answer is proper national qualifications.

This entertaining video aims to highlight the importance of hand skills in all our daily lives and to show the poor state we would be in without them.

The video is produced by ZDH the German guild organisation. Fellow greenwoodworkers will know of the German system of apprentices, journeymen and masters, we often get visits from traveling journeymen in their traditional costume and they tend to be highly skilled and a good advert for the system. There are pros and cons to this sort of regulation however and pros and cons of our unregulated craft world. I would like to discuss these issues and would welcome others thoughts in the comments below or on the HCA facebook page.

First lets get an overview of the German system form a friend Michail Schutte who was an apprentice then journeyman and is one of the most skilled woodworkers I have met.

"ZDH stands in the tradition of the medieval guilds, not unbroken though. guilds had been abolished in germany in 1871 or so, and then reinvented by the nazis in the 1930 s - that s when the now ZDH will have it s roots...basically its a huge lobbying group, protected by special guildlaws. that has pros and cons, among the pros is the education and apprenticeship system it provides, which sets standards for for apprenticeship schemes, which are not bad, but could also be better. apprenticeships normally happen in a masterworkshop, the aprentice working for three years in a workshop, going to college one day a week, and then passing a central test called gesellenpr├╝fung. after working for three years as a geselle, one can go to materschool for about a year, and then start setting up one s own business and taking on apprentices. while one gets a small pay doing the apprenticeship, and then earns a proper wage working as geselle, all fixed by the unions, one has to pay something like 10,000 euros to do the masterschool."

The cons are as that there is a huge bureaucracy involved in running the system. Those that have paid to be part of this expensive club are very keen to protect their interests. I for instance would not be allowed to work as a turner in Germany despite 15 years experience as I have not done the ZDH training. If I wanted to work there I would have to do the training involving years producing set designs working on electric lathes even if that was not my end goal. Twelve years ago I encountered the same system in Romania where craftspeople have to be registered with the government in order to be recognised businesses, first you have to go to art school and learn things utterly unrelated to your chosen craft. In Romania most traditional craftspeople were simply outside of the system. In Germany the guilds are much stronger and anyone setting up business that is not in the guild is liable to prosecution.

The question is does this system benefit the craftspeople and does it benefit the buyers of craft? Certainly wages are protected within the union though there is considerable expense starting with the nearly £10,000 to gain your master qualification, effectively buying into the club. Quality is presumably better under such a system though value for money may not be since the customer pays for this huge infrastructure.

Back in the UK the National Heritage Training Group have succeeded in getting qualifications through in the building crafts where soon it will be a requirement to have a card showing that you are suitably qualified before you are allowed to undertake repair work to a listed building. I talked this week to blacksmiths setting up a scheme here NHIG at the moment any metal bender and welder can undertake "restoration" work on complex old ironwork which really requires specialist skills. The idea of NHTG and NHIG is to make these trades like gas fitting where you can not do certain types of specialist work without being a fully signed up card carrying member.

So looking at pros and cons of the current system where anyone can set up in business we very much have the onus on the customer to ascertain the quality of the worker and I would argue that it is in part down to the worker to help the customer by clearly showing the quality of work we are capable of, there is always the danger that a poor craftsman but good salesman can pull the wool over customers eyes. There is certainly a wide range skill levels out there to choose from. I have seen many professional craftspeople producing embarrassingly poor quality work, some of it selling to seemingly happy customers who were as unaware of the lack of quality as the craftsperson that made it. There is also incredible quality work made by folk with 20 years dedicated experience which is a joy to find.

The benefit of the current UK system is that it is very, very good for small sole trader businesses to run with low start up costs, low overheads and compared to our friends abroad low regulation. Sole traders are the mainstay of craft business, the building crafts are an exception where larger companies are more common, but within the smaller crafts the vast majority are sole traders or less than 5 employees.

Accreditation can take two forms either like the German system or the NHTG system it can be backed by law and mandatory, or like the organic food system it can be optional and left to customer choice. The problem with the latter is it takes a huge input to advertise a scheme sufficiently before customers understand the difference and choose an accredited system over another. Looking at the food sector we have freedom foods, organic, LEAF and all manner of other more minor schemes all having overheads and no benefit to customer or producer until they are widely recognised and understood, 

I am not sure there is a good answer to this one. Would you like to see some sort of training and accreditation system or do your customers know the value of work without having someone else say it is OK?

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Alastair Simms cooper in the press again

January 2009 saw a bunch of press articles about "the last master cooper"I put links to some on them in my blog post here. 

There was clearly something about a craft which everyone had heard about being potentially endangered that struck a raw nerve and warranted a lot of news coverage, all good news for traditional crafts and shows the public interest in this part of our cultural heritage. The news stories last year were all about how Mr Simms felt the craft was dying and how he didn't have an apprentice. Well he is back in the Telegraph this weekend and the story is now that Wadworth are committed to taking on an apprentice and employing a cooper after Mr Simms retires. The Photo that accompanies this new article is my favourite cooper photo and is by Paul Felix who I wrote about last week.

"Rural England was once a hive of industrial activity as traditional craftsmen such as bodgers and coopers plied their trades. Then their craftsmanship fell out of favour with the modern world. With a little luck it might just make a comeback."

"Last year, Simms thought his trade was dying out. "I'm going to keep working as a master cooper until I'm dead," he said, "but I am keen to pass on my knowledge to another generation. I have loved my career and have no regrets except that no one will carry it on." Since then the brewery has announced that it hopes to appoint an apprentice as a long-term replacement for Simms. Head brewer Brian Yorston is upbeat about the future: "We are currently trying to get funding to take on an apprentice. Our long-term aim is to follow Alastair on with an apprentice.""

 The last HCA heard was that they were struggling to find a suitable funding scheme that would pay for the apprentice to learn from Mr Simms. This is often the case as craftspeople however skilled are not accredited training providers and so not eligible for funding. Here we have a case where the craftsman is willing to pass on the skill, the company are guaranteeing future employment, following last years press there were over 1000 people wrote asking to become apprentices so there is no shortage of demand.  All we need to find a way of getting funding to cover the instruction time that skilled craftspeople give to the next generation.

This weekends Telegraph article here 

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Mastercrafts with Monty Don

Over the last week I have been looking over prooofs of the book that accompanies the Mastercrafts series.

I guess the first thing folk will want to know is "is it worth buying" and I would say if you can pre-order it at £14 it looks like a bargain. It's a lovely looking coffee table book with nice photographs and well designed and presented. Each of the 6 crafts covered starts with a section about the craft then has a biography of the mastercraftsperson followed by another section on the "tradition" of the craft. There is plenty of background information though I think it would have benefited from a bit more time in the production process, no doubt it was a rush to hit the deadline. I found the "craft" and "tradition" sections rather difficult to pin down and not clearly defined or structured, they pull references from traditions all over the world and throughout the ages where I think a tighter focus may have been more productive. The strongest sections I thought were the portraits of the craftspeople and the montages of photos of the apprentices.

For folk that are interested there is quite an active facebook group run by the publishers D&C and they are clearly committed to future publications in this area.

It's just over a year since the Heritage Crafts Association were approached by Richochet TV who were developing the program which first airs Friday 12th 9pm BBC2

Will it be good for the crafts? or is it just one more production to satisfy our seeming insatiable desire for reality tv programs?

When I first heard that they were going to put apprentices with top crafts people and film the learning process it sounded fantastic. If you film a skilled craftsperson at work you do not see the tacit skills involved, generally complex actions which took years to learn are so internalised that they happen without being noticed. Having a semi skilled learner alongside teases out these skills so we can see what is involved. It is a technique used by my wife Nicola in her PhD research into the transfer of tacit craft knowledge.

I imagined that the apprentices would be there for at least a year with filming over time maybe a little like the Victorian farm program and that we would see the skills gradually develop. Actually three apprentices worked with each craftsperson for just 6 weeks and at the end there is some sort of judgment as to who did best. At first I thought this was very sad, almost as if the producers did not believe that the material would be of sufficient interest without introducing the circus that is standard fodder of reality tv programs. Maybe it will be handled more sympathetically. My views have changed now though, this sort of tv show is the medium of our time and people of all ages will watch this and be inspired.

I remember as a child watching and being inspired by "The Good Life" which was all about entertainment not message. I wonder if dedicated campaigners for a self sufficient lifestyle at the time complained that it dumbed the message down to put it in a sit com. That was the medium of its time and I thought it was a good one. Anyway back to Mastercrafts I shall be watching on Friday as Guy Mallinson takes on 3 apprentices and they get to grips with the basics of green woodwork. I expect everyone who runs green wood courses to get a lot of hits on their websites next week, mine are all pretty well full for this year already but I have no doubt it will generate new interest and take what has been a rather alternative activity more mainstream.

So what do folk think? Is it going to be great for crafts or is it sad that they had to do the reality tv show format?

Monday, 1 February 2010

Dorothy Hartley a remarkable woman

Dorothy Hartley was born in the 1890's and spent most of her long life traveling the country and writing about old craft skills, country ways, old recipes and such like.

There are many books of that type and most are pretty much like modern day local journalism, it is clear the writer stayed long enough to get the basics of a story and was gone inside the hour. Dorothy Hartley was very different and it comes through in her remarkable books.

When writing about coppice workers she would stay in the coppice for a couple of days to get a full picture of the work. She did her own lovely drawings and got a deep understanding of the different crafts. She was paid £8 a week which did not pay for B&Bs so she "never bothered much with camping equipment" and "when I say in the book I cooked over an open fire, it's true I did." She used to sleep in the hedge. "One can make a fire and boil a billy of water within 20 minutes, I could do it on a wet Irish bog if I had to." Twigs and logs were "so much more convenient" than messing about with stoves.

Her descriptions of lobster pots come from deep understanding having been out overnight on the boats and seeing them working, everywhere in the books you can almost feel the textures in her descriptions and there is always a deep reverence for the knowledge and skill of the old countryfolk. I really wonder what they made of her, an educated woman mixing with gypsies, laborers and craftsfolk and sleeping in the woods in the 1930's, remarkable.

Top of my suggested reading list and an absolute classic would be "Made in England" and Tthe Countryman's England" and "The Land of England" are a bit more twee for the general reader. Her "Food in England " is also a classic study of old country recipes which she collected all her long life. Each one is recorded with the story of where she first saw it prepared.
Couple of nice biogs here  and here
And here is a link to buy Made in England second hand. Currently one available for £5 delivered.

Any other fans out there?