|Historic area of significance
|Area currently practised
|Origin in the UK
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 still used for batch production, one-offs, prototypes, large components, or patterns, and there are some items that cannot be turned by machine.
- Artistic and sculptural turners who make purely aesthetic pieces.
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.
Turning is almost always done in wood, though metal, plastic and resins are also turned. Cutting tools are used (almost always a chisel or scraper) on wood which revolves on a lathe powered either by electricity or by a foot treadle.
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: There are many more artistic turners these days than ever before, and production turners are increasingly getting into the art world, but that is difficult as turning has not been widely recognised as an art form on its own.
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.
- Market issues: The closure of joinery companies and kitchen makers.
- Changing tastes / market issues: Turned items always come in and out of fashion, affecting demand.
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: Although commercial turning of massed produced items has few if any trainees, the different turning associations encourage new entrants through young people’s training programmes and demonstrations by professional turners at woodturning clubs; and through the Certificate in Turning offered by the Worshipful Company of Turners.
Training issues / recruitment issues: Lack of woodworking, metalworking and exposure to craft skills in schools. However, when children are exposed to it either through shows or youth training events they are invariably interested.
- Ageing workforce: Most of the skilled commercial hand turners are in their 60s or older.
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 widely practised as a highly skilled leisure activity – however, leisure time is under threat from many other pressures.
Covid 19 has hastened the retirement of some of the older professional turners. The craft has also seen an increase in new entrants and hobby makers.
Craftspeople currently known
- The Register of Professional Turners represents the 200 or so turners assessed by peers as offering the highest quality of skill.
- 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 Register of Professional Turners includes 200 highly skilled professional turners. 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.
Training: The Register of Professional Turners is launching a Diploma in Woodturning in late 2018.