|Historic area of significance||UK|
|Area currently practised||UK|
|Origin in the UK|
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required|
|Current no. of trainees||0 commercial turners / 51-100 hobby/amateur turners (see ‘Other information’ for further details)|
|Current no. of skilled craftspeople||30-50 commercial turners / 201-500 hobby/amateur turners (see ‘Other information’ for further details)|
|Current total no. of craftspeople||30-50 commercial turners / 201-500 hobby/amateur turners (see ‘Other information’ for further details)|
The history of turning wood can be traced back many thousands of years, and wood turning has been used to produce a wide variety of items, including turned items include domestic utensils, farm tools, handles, furniture, musical instruments, and sports equipment. The earliest lathes being those rotated in a reciprocal motion such as strap lathes, bow lathes and pole lathes. The first record of a mechanical continuous revolution lathe is in the form of a sketch by Leonardo da Vinci, c.1480. – and this may have already been an established piece of equipment. The industrial revolution led to the development of high-output machines to meet the ever-increasing demand for turned wooden items. Today many of the items which were traditionally turned from wood are no longer needed, or are made from alternative materials. (For a full history of wood turning see the BWTA website).
Today’s wood turners can be divided into two groups:
Industrial/commercial wood turners who earn their living from wood turning. While many of these turners will use a copy lathe to produce large volumes of high quality, high definition pieces, hand turning on a hand turning lathe is used for one-offs, prototypes, very small batches, large components, or patterns, and there are some items that cannot be turned by machine.
Hobby/amateur wood turners, who turn pieces on a much smaller scale and do not make a living from the craft.
For more information about commercial turning and the work done, see the BWTA website.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
Market issues: The market is shrinking all the time – many companies have closed over the past 20-30 years.
Foreign competition/Market issues: Cheap imports from abroad (from both Eastern Europe and the Far East) are the biggest challenge/threat to commercial hand turning.
Market issues/recruitment issues: There is very little money in the trade of commercial hand turning so very few people want to go into it.
Market issues: It is also very hard to make a living from hand turning on a hobby/amateur basis – the cost a piece will sell for does not equate to the time spent making.
Market issues: Tool handles have not been made by hand in any volume since the 1920s/1930s – firstly due to mechanisation, then to the introduction of plastic handles, and then the remaining hand turned wooden handles were affected by foreign competition.
Ageing workforce: Most of the skilled commercial hand turners are in their 60s or older.
Training issues: Hand turning is a very difficult trade to learn – even in the 1970s, very few people who started learning stuck to it. There is no one learning the trade commercially today.
Training issues/recruitment issues: Lack of woodworking, metalworking and exposure to craft skills in schools.
Changing tastes/Market issues: Turned items always come in and out of fashion, affecting demand.
Automation: Automation has become part of the trade and has taken over much of the hand turning trade – although hand turning is still required for one-offs, prototypes, very small batches, large components, or patterns, and there are some items that cannot be turned by machine.
Wood turning is largely practised as a highly skilled leisure activity – however leisure time is under threat from many other pressures.
Dilution of skills: Many of the courses for hobbyists/amateurs are run by people with very little experience.
Craftspeople currently known
The British Wood Turners Association maintains a list of members, which outlines what area of wood turning each craftsperson/company specialises in.
Number of trainees: The British Wood Turners Association estimates that there are probably 0 trainee commercial/industrial hand turners. The Association of Wood Turners of Great Britain estimates that there are probably 50-100 trainee hobby/amateur hand turners.
Number of skilled craftspeople: The British Wood Turners Association estimates that there are probably 30-50 highly skilled commercial/industrial hand turners. The Association of Wood Turners of Great Britain estimates that there are probably 201-500 highly skilled hobby/amateur hand turners.