The Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts

 

Wood turning

 

The craft of hand-turning wooden items on a mechanical lathe. See the separate entries for bowl turning and pole lathe turning.

 

Status Currently viable
Craft category  Wood
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)

 

History

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.

 

Techniques

 

Local forms

 

Sub-crafts

 

Issues affecting the viability of the craft

Commercial/industrial turning

  • 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.

Hobby/amateur turning

  • 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.

 

Support organisations

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.

 

Other information

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.

 

References