The making of rakes with wooden teeth, heads and handles.
|Historic area of significance||UK|
|Area currently practised||UK|
|Origin in the UK||Unknown|
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required||21-50|
|Current no. of trainees||Unknown|
|Current no. of skilled craftspeople||6-10 (possibly more if part-time makers and leisure courses are taken into account)|
|Current total no. of craftspeople||11-20 (see ‘Craftspeople currently known’ for further details)|
There is no real record of the origins of rake making, but wherever agriculture has thrived so has rake making. Rake making became more industrialised in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, taking over from the individual makers who were usually seasonal makers.
Hand rakes were once an essential piece of farm equipment, used for collecting hay ready for loading into wagons, combing and straightening the sides of ricks, combing thatch etc. Until 1930, the hay harvest was a vast communal affair, and hay rakes were in considerable demand – and wherever there was suitable coppice wood, there would be a rake maker’s yard. Between c.1930-1965 the harvest was greatly mechanised and hand rakes were only required in limited quantities. By 1965 the demand was so low that it couldn’t occupy one craftsperson fully for a year – many makers gave up or developed secondary occupations making clothes pegs, hurdle and tool handles.
As hay rakes were primarily used at harvest time, it was a seasonal market with customers mainly buying April to July, and production was also seasonal (for example, Rudds Rake Factory used to employ a lot of people seasonally to meet the demand). Today the main outlet just isn’t there and people are using rakes for other purposes and buying all year round. Because the rakes are used less intensively, they tend to last for longer.
Today, production in any quantity is the reserve of Rudds Rakes Factory in Cumbria, who make about 5000 rakes a year, and small manufacturers such as David Wheeler in Norfolk, who makes about 100 rakes a year. The last full-time rake maker in the south of England was Trevor Austen of Smeeth, Kent, who died in 2010. Some members of the Association of Polelathe Turners and Green Woodworkers make the occasional rake, and there are several courses run across the country in rake making. There has been a noticeable rise in interest in traditional rakes and rake making due to the resurgence of interest in scything, and the rising popularity of green woodworking.
A rake is a simple tool in its structure – the skill lies in selecting suitable timber and knowing the best orientation of grain to make the strongest possible tools that will last for several seasons. The skill also lies in knowing what a rake user needs and the conditions and environment in which they work, paralleled with recognising the best sources of wood and understanding the seasoning process.
A combination of hand tools and machines are used for batch production, including such items as a traditional tine maker, shave horse, and a rounding machine for producing handles more quickly.
Variations in the use of local materials and deviations from the standard can help identify regional types. The most common designs are the split handle or ‘swallow tail’ rake and the larger and heavier ‘bow’ rake.
The design and materials varied across the country: handles were short in Yorkshire and long in Hampshire; heads were usually at right angles but in Glamorgan they were at a 45 degree angle to cope with sloping fields; and in Hampshire tough springy willow was used whereas ash was used in Wales.
In northern and western Britain, where the grass was short and springy, the rakes were usually small and well-constructed, with the heads supported by braces and bows – they were expected to last for many years (bow rake). In southern England where the grass was lush, the rakes were much large and less well-constructed, with the butt end of the handle sawn along the centre to provide a pair of split ends morticed into the head (swallow tail rake) – these rakes were not expected to last for more than one season.
- Scythe handle making, also known as ‘snath making’, is directly related to rake making
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
Market issues: Lack of demand because modern equivalents made of plastic and steel are predominant in hardware shops or garden centres.
Supply of raw materials/market issues: The demand on ash as firewood and the impending Chalara Fraxinea (ash die-back) are pushing up the price of timber so the price of wooden rakes tends to become uncompetitive.
Supply of raw materials: Ash die-back is also leading to a shortage of materials and alternatives might have to be sought.
Market issues: However, an upsurge of interest in scything is leading to an increased interest in using traditional rakes.
Craftspeople currently known
Other known makers include:
Rudd’s Rake Factory – based in Dufton, Cumbria. Make around 5,000 rakes a year. Make far less then 50-60 years ago, but production has evened out in the past 5-10 years. Today John Rudd and his son Graeme Rudd work full time to make rakes.
David Wheeler – based in Suffolk. Makes around 100 rakes a year.
Status: The APT&GW believes this craft to be at risk of dying out – but John Rudd doesn’t believe the craft will die out in the foreseeable future.
Rake making is a good foundation for learning the basic woodworking skills that can be developed into more advanced skills in woodworking.
It is believed that the chair industry in the Chilterns is directly linked to the technology, tools and methods used in rake making.
Jenkins, J. Geraint, Traditional Country Craftsmen , Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1978, pp.70–78
Arnold, J. The Shell Book of Country Crafts , John Baker (Publishers) Ltd., 1977, pp.91-93
Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading (MERL houses a film of Trevor Austen at work and rakes made by him)