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Ladder making

The Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts


Ladder making


The making of timber ladders.


Status Endangered
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



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.


Local forms




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).


Support organisations


Craftspeople currently known

Individual makers:

  • 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.
  • LFI, 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.


Other information

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.



Save our Skills Appeal

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.

An update on wooden laddermaking, August 2014.  In part as a result of taking this project forwards, we are now aware of several people who make pole ladders ‘for fun’, and several companies who continue to make standard leaning ladders from timber, timber stepladders and timber loft ladders.  We are also aware of one company making pole ladders, LFI ( – although they do not appear to offer the bespoke laddermaking which is one of the advantages of wooden ladders.


Lawrence Neal, Richard Platt and Sam Cooper

Lawrence Neal, Richard Platt and Sam Cooper

Heritage Craft Training Case Study – Lawrence Neal, Richard Platt and Sam Cooper


Bringing a craft back from the brink


Marchmont VenturesThe 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.”


Apprenticeship Structure

  • 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

Making is Good for You – The Heritage Crafts Association Conference 2019

Making is Good for You – The Heritage Crafts Association Conference 2019

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 ShopGood Making is Passed On
  • Celia Pym, Woman’s Hour Craft Prize finalist – Damage and Repair
  • Mike Jenn, Men’s ShedsMaking Good and Good Making
  • Daniel Carpenter, Research Manager – Red List of Endangered Crafts
  • Mary Lewis, Endangered Crafts Officer – Supporting Endangered Crafts
  • Celebration of ExcellenceNational 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

Chair seating & caning

Currently viable crafts


Chair seating & caning


The making and repair of chair seats using cane, rush, willow, straw or cords.


Status Currently viable
Historic area of significance
Area currently practised
Origin in the UK 17th century



Chair seats can be made from a wide variety of materials. The primary material within chair seating is cane, but other materials such as rush (from the common bulrush), straw-wrapped rush, seagrass, and Danish cord are also used.

Rush seated chairs, either ladder back or spindle back, were produced by wood turners for common use in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in many parts of England. The tradition was strongly associated with the southern counties and home counties, in particular Buckinghamshire, with chair making centred in and around High Wycombe. The North West (Cheshire, Lancashire, Cumbria) produced great quantities in the of rush seated chairs in the nineteenth century. Regional variation in style could identify the place of origin of a particular chair. William Morris, founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, produced the Sussex range of rush seated chairs for many years through his firm Morris and Company.

Rush seating was considered a lowly trade, and in the nineteenth century was carried out by itinerant workers. Prior to that the seating was undertaken by home-based workers.

Chair caning 

The first evidence of chair caning in the UK is in London, shortly after Charles II married Catherine of Braganza from Portugal in 1661. Caned Furniture was evident in Portugal before the rest of Europe and many references state that Catherine brought caned chairs with her to London – but there is no evidence for this. The first caned chairs appeared in London around 1660 and quickly became fashionable, encouraged by the demand for new furniture after the Fire of London in 1666 and use by royalty. The craft was initially undertaken by basketmakers, but as demand increased chair caning developed as a distinct craft. Basketmakers used rattan (a waste material used as ‘dunnage’ to stop cases of tea moving in the hold of ships during their long sea journey from China to London) as a cheap alternative to willow as it had similar characteristics. The ‘cane’ used by chair caners is obtained from the rattan palm tree, a climbing tree growing only in the rainforests of the Far East – primarily Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.

This first phase of fashion for caned chairs existed until around 1720 by which time there were many chair caners in London. The first chair caners initially established themselves around St Paul’s Church Yard, London and then in adjacent locations within the City of London. Later on there was a large industry and activity around Commercial Road in East London, where much furniture was made, and the London College of Furniture had good training sessions in their furniture making curricula for chair caning, both cane and rush.

In the early-19th century the craft moved from London to High Wycombe due to a combination of improved transport links and exploding demand from the industrial north. This move to High Wycombe took advantage of a plentiful supply of beech trees for frames and skilled labour experienced in making Windsor and other designs of chair frames. The first chair caning in this location was a ‘cottage industry’ undertaken by females, but in the mid-nineteenth century activity transferred to workshops in the area due to increasing demand.

Very little chair caning of new furniture was undertaken in the UK other than initially in London and then High Wycombe. However there were itinerant chair caners (both male and female) who moved from town to town throughout the UK until the early-20th century re-caning chairs outside homes. Caned new furniture was controlled by fashion and the periods of demand were 1670-1720, 1790-1830 and 1850-1920. The only caned furniture made after this was mainly in Denmark when architects and furniture designers developed new patterns and frames

The interest in, and demand for, new caned furniture had all but disappeared after the First World War due to changing fashions. Between the First and Second World Wars, injured soldiers and visually impaired adults e.g. at Henshaw’s Institute for the Blind in Manchester and other similar bodies in various UK locations, were taught how to re-cane chairs (and other crafts) as occupational therapy. But they did not teach their successors and so the number of skilled chair caners progressively declined. After the Second World War there were virtually no skilled chair caners, but now there is a small number who still practise the craft, mainly in the south of England and thinly spread across the UK.

The craft was taken by immigrants to USA in late 17th century and grew to be a very major industry in 18th and 19th Centuries.  In Europe the main centres were Germany, France and the Austro Hungarian Empire where Thonet built large factories from 1860 onwards producing vast quantities of caned furniture exported around the world.




  • The rush is dampened and allowed to mellow for a few hours.
  • Strands are twined to give coils of even diameter, which are then worked in sequence over and under the seat rails to form a solid seat.
  • The pockets which have formed on the underside are stuffed with dry rush.
  • Straw-wrapped rush
  • There are some rare examples of chairs where the rush coils have been overwrapped with straw. This is worked simultaneously with coiling the rush.


  • Seagrass is wrapped around round a frame to form the warp.
  • The weft is woven – there is a variety of patterns.

Danish Cord

  • The warp is worked from front rail to back rail, and is held on the inside of the rail by ‘L’ shaped nails.
  • Double strands of cord are woven from side to side through the cords already in place on the seat frame.


Cane is available in different widths and there are guidelines on the correct width to use based on the spacing of holes around a panel. The cane is woven (by hand or machine) to create a pattern. The hand-woven material uses holes around the panel and the machine woven material uses a groove around the panel.

There are three chair caning techniques:

  • The traditional technique of weaving a single piece of cane through a series of holes around a panel to achieve a pattern, known as the 6-way pattern. This pattern is used for virtually all caned furniture, but there are other patterns.
  • Close caning where various patterns are used but where there are no gaps between the individual strands. This technique is not used very often.
  • Using a machine-woven sheet of cane with the 6-way pattern, locked into a groove around a panel. Again, the 6-way pattern is used almost exclusively, but there are other patterns available.

Local forms

Cane variations

The basic pattern is the 6-way pattern, used on virtually all caned furniture worldwide. However, in the late-19th century, chair caners in High Wycombe developed other patterns e.g. ‘Victoria’ (often used on commodes), ‘4-way’ and ‘5-way’. Additionally, when cane was used on chair backs, as well as using the 6-way pattern other patterns were devised e.g. ‘Rising Sun’, ‘Spiders Web’.

In the late-19th century patterns were devised in USA for use on what they term ‘wicker furniture’ which probably has its origin in mainland Europe and was taken to the USA by Immigrants. In the 1970s another group of patterns was devised. However none of the patterns used in the USA were adopted in the UK and mainland Europe.



  • rush seating
  • seagrass seating
  • straw seating
  • whole willow seating
  • skeined willow seating
  • Danish cord (paper cord) seating


Issues affecting the viability of the craft

  • Market issues: Rush seating has an area of demand with the scope of furniture restoration, and currently ‘brown’ furniture is not popular.
  • Market issues: There is the question of the cost of repair weighed against the value of the finished article, and unless the item has a certain amount of sentimental value the restoration can be deemed too expensive.
  • Market issues: There is, however, at the moment, an inclination towards re-cycling and a degree of willingness to try to repair rather than discard. More modern furniture is now coming up for restoration. Along with a current trend which favours ‘natural’ materials, there is a slight increase in the demand for chair seating skills.
  • Market issues: A job can be considered uneconomic when the cost of transport or carriage costs are factored in.
  • Skills issues: The matter of finding a craftsperson with the necessary skills within a given area can be frustrating, but searching online is a great advantage here.
  • Perception of the craft/Market issues: As is the case with other crafts, the skill of chair seating is undervalued, and generally the hourly rate poor.
  • Training issues: There are no accredited courses for teaching chair seating. A few tutors are listed by the Basketmakers’ Association, but workshops are few and far between, and those learning the skill are most likely to be working on a one-off piece of their own.
  • Training issues: There are few tutors, and in order to learn chair seating a keen student may have to seek out tuition on a one-to-one basis, or be willing to travel a great distance to attend a shot workshop.
  • Training issues: Chair seating could also be considered a category of upholstery. In the past there have been instances of chair seating being taught as part of Adult Education evening classes, but very much on a ‘one-off’ basis with the student having one project to complete and no interest is extending his/her study to a more advanced level.


  • Market issues: Today, the craft of chair caning in the UK is almost entirely centred on restoration i.e. the re-caning of existing furniture. No new furniture using the traditional hand-woven technique is currently made, other than very specialist experimental work by literally one or two cabinet makers. The reality is that the activity of re-caning barely provides a living wage and is mainly practised in conjunction with some other activity or some other source of income to achieve a living wage.
  • Market issues: There is certainly a market for the re-caning of furniture, which falls between two extremes of value – items with no value but which have a sentimental (family) association where there is a wish to retain the item, and unique historical items of high value often by historically eminent makers which through use, or age, need re-caning to restore the item to use again. Most furniture for re-caning comes between these two financial extremes.
  • Supply of raw materials: There has been a problem with the quality of cane due to an embargo on exports imposed by Indonesia in 2011 which is seen by some to be a difficulty, but in reality the supply market has adjusted to this. The cane quality is not as good as it was pre 2011 – but is adequate.

Support organisations

Craftspeople currently known

A list of chair seaters can be found on the website of the Basketmakers’ Association


Other information

Current number of trainees: There are no accredited courses for teaching chair seating. A few tutors are listed by the Basketmakers’ Association, but workshops are few and far between, and those learning the skill are most likely to be working on a one-off piece of their own.

Current number of skilled craftspeople: Information gathered from the Basketmakers’ Association membership list would indicate those currently practising falls into the 101-200 category, but very much at the lower end of the range. Of this group, the numbers who run a business or undertake commissions (and are therefore the assumed to be more skilled) falls into the lower part of the 51-100 range. For skeined willow seating, the number of skilled craftspeople is probably in the region of 1-5, with the proviso that this type of work has not been undertaken recently.

Total number of craftspeople: It is difficult to separate those practising the stated varieties of chair seating, whilst excluding those who also practise chair caning. Chair caning could be looked upon as the ‘primary’ chair seating discipline, and many chairs eaters are able to undertake a variety of disciplines. Based on the numbers who do rush seating the total number is just over 100. Some rush seating may also be carried out by basketmakers who use rush.



  • Johnson, Kay, Elton Barratt, Olivia and Butcher, Mary, (1988) Chair Seating – techniques in Cane, Rush, Willow and Cords (ISBN 0-85219-736-5)
  • Holdstock, Ricky, (1993) Seat Weaving (ISBN 0-946819-46-7)
  • Broan, David and Freda, (1981) Cane and Rush Seating (ISBN 0-900873-41-8)
  • Widess, Jim, (2005) The Complete Guide to Chair Seating (ISBN 978-1-57900-613-9)