The making of timber ladders.
|Historic area of significance
|Area currently practised
|Origin in the UK
|Current no. of professionals (main income)
||6-10? (in two businesses)
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees
||1 (see ‘Other information’ for further details)
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required
Until the 1960s wooden ladders were widely manufactured in the UK. With the introduction of aluminium ladders the wooden ladder trade declined. There was still demand for the wooden type, but it was cheaper for customers to purchase on the second hand market – a supply that was plentiful with so many users converting to aluminium.
Today, Network Rail and many UK electricity companies will only use timber ladders as no other material does the job, ensuring that there is a market. Timber is non-conductive and is nicer to user in adverse weather than glassfibre (also non-conductive), and timber ladders are more economic because they can be easily repaired (rather than having to be replaced).
Films showing the process of making a wooden ladder, along with technical drawings, can be found on the Heritage Crafts Association’s Wooden Ladder Making project website.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
There is a strong and stable market for timber ladders. Network Rail and many UK electricity companies will only use timber ladders as no other material does the job, ensuring that there is a market. Timber is non-conductive and is nicer to user in adverse weather than glassfibre (also non-conductive), and timber ladders are more economic because they can be easily repaired (rather than having to be replaced).
Craftspeople currently known
- Stanley Clark, Northampton, now retired. As part of a Heritage Crafts Association training programme, Stanley passed on his skills in a workshop and there are now several people with the basic skills to make bespoke wooden ladders completely by hand.
Crafts businesses that employ two or more makers:
A Bratt & Son Ltd
, founded in 1895. Make timber steps, ladders and platforms (as well as glassfibre, aluminium and steel ladders). Make timber ladders for the electricity industry and for fruit picking, as well as specialist ladders for bespoke commissions. Have 12 people in the factory, 3-4 of whom specialise in timber ladders, and one trainee. Make timber ladders to British Standard kitemarks.
, Gloucestershire. Make some timber ladders, as well as aluminium and steel ladders.
It is believed that there are also one or two companies who repair timber ladders.
Number of trainees: A Bratt & Son Ltd have one trainee who will learn all aspects of the ladder making trade (including timber, glassfibre, aluminium and steel). In 2014, 10 experienced woodworkers took part in a workshop to make a wooden ladder with Stanley Clark, a retired timber ladder maker which was recorded. While this was only a short course, the basic skills have been transferred.
Until the 1960’s many wooden ladders were made in the UK, one of the largest makers being John Ward and Son Ladder Makers, where Stanley learnt his craft. Overnight with the introduction of aluminium ladders the wooden ladder making trade died. There was demand for the wooden type but it was cheaper for these customers to purchase in the second hand market – a supply that was plentiful with so many users converting to aluminium.
Fifty years later there is still demand for wooden ladders, from historic buildings, open air museums and heritage craftspeople such as thatchers. However, the supply has now dried up as the old ones reach the end of their lifespan and no new ones have been made. The issue was highlighted last year when BBC TV wished to film a ladder maker for their Edwardian Farm program but none were to be found. At the time we launched this appeal, we knew of no practising ladder makers in the UK (but read more below).
But, the knowledge and experience still remains with at least one man, and he is willing to help. In 2014 HCA will organise a two day workshop so Stanley can pass on his skills to professional woodworkers. The workshop will be filmed and an instructional film produced so that these rare skills can be disseminated further via the internet. Stanley has also produced a series of paintings and written on the subject which we would publish to further preserve the craft for the future.
We are aware of other crafts which need support, and welcome donations to continue this work.
Looking for craft products and gifts? Visit our dedicated crafts directory The Makers to browse an array of beautiful and functional craft products.
Gifts for those hard-to-buy-for people or a treat for yourself
Support Heritage Crafts by buying our DVDs or greetings cards.
Gilding the Gingerbread DVD
Two fortunate trainees, Ellen Wood and Tony Hassett, learn the traditional craft of gilding on the Cutty Sark in Greenwich. Master craftswoman Rachael Linton demonstrates the skills and explains the processes and techniques of oil gilding, currently classified as endangered on the Red List of Endangered Crafts.
This film was made with the generous support of The Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths. With special thanks to The Royal Museums of Greenwich and Campbell Smith and Co. £15 + £1.50 post and packing (UK only).
Trevor Ablett – Little Mester DVD
Trevor Ablett was one of the last of the Sheffield cutlery industry’s ‘Little Mesters’, working up to 70 hours a week to produce high-quality pocket knives, right up to his death, in 2015, at the age of 73. The Little Mesters were involved in forging, grinding and finishing the edge tools and cutlery that Sheffield became famous for around the world.
This film was made with the support of the Prince of Wales Charitable Foundation to commemorate Trevor’s life and work. £15 + £1.50 post and packing (UK only).
The Laddermaking DVD – featuring Stanley Clark
Stanley Clark, master wooden ladder maker shows how wooden ladder are made from start to finish.
£15 + £1.50 post and packing (UK only).
Heritage Crafts Association Greetings Cards
Support the Heritage Crafts Association by buying one or more packs of greetings cards promoting traditional crafts. At £10 + postage of £1.50 (UK only) the cards make a great gift and are ideal for those hard-to-buy friends and relatives.
Thanks to Claire Borlase and Paul Felix for use of images on the HCA Crafts Cards. The pack of twelve cards has 2 each of 6 designs, with notes about the craft featured on the reverse.
The cards are blank for your own message, are A6 in size and come with ivory envelopes. They will be sent out in a transparent plastic sleeve and then in a stout cardboard envelope.
‘Keeping the Crafts Alive’ t-shirts
Premium 100% cotton t-shirts in indigo and chestnut colours screen printed with exclusive ‘Keeping the Crafts Alive’ design in metallic gold and black, by acclaimed sign artist David A Smith (see website). Chestnut version modelled by Sharif Adams. Limited quantities available!
- Small – SOLD OUT
- Medium – available in INDIGO only
- Large – available in INDIGO and CHESTNUT
- X Large – available in INDIGO only
- 2X Large – available in INDIGO and CHESTNUT
£15 each + £1.50 post and packing (UK only).
Heritage Craft Training Case Study – Lawrence Neal, Richard Platt and Sam Cooper
Bringing a craft back from the brink
The Gimson ladderback chair is a classic of the Arts & Crafts Movement, made by an unbroken line of craftsmen. Gimson was inspired and taught by the village chairmaker Phillip Clissett, born in 1817, and the skills were handed down through Edward Gardiner, Neville Neal and then to his son Lawrence Neal. In 2018, master craftsman Lawrence was approaching retirement age and, as the last in the line of chair makers, his skills and this important lineage were in danger of being lost. Hugo Burge of Marchmont Ventures became aware of this and commissioned a film, The Chairmaker, to tell his story. From this, and the attention that the film attracted, the idea of recruiting an apprentice was formed.
The apprenticeship opportunity was promoted through the HCA’s social media and other green woodwork networks. Two talented young makers, Sam Cooper and Richard Platt, were selected and began their eighteen months of training with a focus on equipping them with the practical skills to make rush seated ladderback chairs to a very high standard. They were supported financially by Marchmont Ventures during their training which covered their living and accommodation costs.
Spring 2020 saw them move to the newly equipped Marchmont Workshop, Berwickshire, where they will build their business. This exciting opportunity will enable them to develop a sustainable business using locally sourced materials from the estate and surrounding area. The workshop is one of seven units for makers and creators with an aim to create a community of highly skilled makers at Marchmont. Hugo’s aim, through Marchmont Ventures, is to invest in arts, crafts and early stage businesses that support sustainable creativity.
Sam and Richard are optimistic about their future making rush seated chairs and developing new complementary products. The apprenticeship has been hugely positive and constructive with both apprentices becoming highly skilled in a valuable heritage craft. As Lawrence says: “It’s a credit to Sam and Rich that they were able to grasp the craft in such a short period of time”, and it is evident that the commitment shown by Sam, Richard and Lawrence, combined with a realistic level of financial support through Marchmont, has been the key to the success of this project. The traditional skills and lineage of the Ernest Gimson and Phillip Clissett chair now have every chance of surviving and thriving in the stunning surroundings of the Scottish Borders.
“We’re very thankful to both Hugo and Lawrence for giving us the opportunity to learn the craft and the rich history it carries, as well as trusting us to continue such an important legacy. We can only hope that our story inspires other makers and their supporters to ensure endangered crafts are not lost.”
- Length – 18 months
- Qualifications gained – No formal qualifications were gained as it wasn’t considered necessary
- Financial support – Supported and funded by Marchmont Ventures
- Payments to apprentice – The apprentices were employed throughout their training period by Marchmont Ventures.
- Recruitment process – Advertised by the Heritage Crafts Association. Recruited through an application and interview process by the HCA, Hugo Burge and Lawrence Neal.
Photo © Hugo Burge
When: Saturday 9 March 2019, 10am registration to 4.45pm
Where: Cecil Sharp House, 2 Regent’s Park Road, London NW1 7AY
When the Health Secretary starts to recommend ‘prescriptions’ for art and craft sessions instead of pills, you realise that at last other people are waking up to the value of making. Those of us involved in making know how it can calm the mind, give a focus, and cut out the rest of the world if only for an hour or two.
- Jay Blades, BBC2 The Repair Shop – Good Making is Passed On
- Celia Pym, Woman’s Hour Craft Prize finalist – Damage and Repair
- Mike Jenn, Men’s Sheds – Making Good and Good Making
- Daniel Carpenter, Research Manager – Red List of Endangered Crafts
- Mary Lewis, Endangered Crafts Officer – Supporting Endangered Crafts
- Celebration of Excellence – National Honours and Heritage Crafts Awards
- Katy Bevan, aka The Crafter
- Rachael Matthews, author of The Mindfulness in Knitting
- Will Beharrell, Turquoise Mountain
- EJ Osborne, Money for Nothing, Hatchet and Bear
- Gilding the Gingerbread, HCA-led project funded by the Goldsmiths’ Company, presented by Ellie Birkhead
- The Chair Maker, film about Lawrence Neal making rush-seated, ladder-backed chairs, followed by questions with Lawrence Neal with his apprentices Sam Cooper and Richard Platt