Gillian Stewart, bookbinder and fore-edge painter
A coppersmith, a withy pot maker and a disappearing fore-edge painter are among the recipients of the latest round of grants awarded to help safeguard some of the UK’s most endangered craft skills.
The Heritage Crafts Association (HCA), which has begun work on the third edition of its groundbreaking HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts, has awarded a further five grants from its Endangered Crafts Fund, which was launched in 2019 to increase the likelihood of endangered crafts surviving into the next generation.
This round of the HCA Endangered Crafts Fund has been offered with support from Allchurches Trust and the Swire Charitable Trust. The five successful recipients are:
- Lizzy Hughes, from London, to develop her coppersmithing skills to include joinery, so that she’s able to make objects constructed from multiple parts such as buckets, watering cans and funnels, and to teach the craft.
- Sarah Ready, from Devon, to develop her practice as a withy pot maker, producing pots for her son to fish with off the Devon coast, and to document the craft.
- Gillian Stewart, from Glasgow, to expand her bookbinding practice by training as a disappearing fore-edge painter, and to teach the craft.
- Alex Ward, from Shetland, to develop his furniture making business to incorporate the production of moulding planes for fine furniture making, and to teach the craft of plane making.
- Lois Walpole, from Shetland, to publish a book on the critically endangered craft of kishie basket making.
Alex Ward’s moulding plane
These five projects follow 13 awarded in previous rounds, covering endangered crafts such as scissor making, sail making, damask weaving, boot tree making, cockle basket making, folding knife making, neon bending, coracle making, fan making and swill basket making.
As usual the fund was oversubscribed, and this was only compounded by the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the sole traders and micro-businesses that make up the heritage crafts sector. The HCA hopes to work with many of the unsuccessful candidates to identify other funding and support opportunities.
HCA Endangered Crafts Officer Mary Lewis said:
“No-one could have anticipated the impact of COVID-19 at the beginning of this year, not only on craft businesses, whose selling, teaching and supply chains have been curtailed, but on the craft skills themselves, many of which were on the brink even before the pandemic hit. We passionately believe that these skills have lots to offer a post-COVID future, as productive and fulfilling tools with which to rebuild a sustainable economy.”
The Endangered Crafts Fund has been funded through generous donations from organisations including Allchurches Trust, The Swire Charitable Trust and The Radcliffe Trust, as well as individuals who have donated sums from £5 right up to several thousands of pounds.
Paul Playford, who heads up the heritage grants programme at Allchurches Trust, said:
“We hope that our funding will help enable these talented craftspeople to further develop their skills, as well as to hand them down to future generations and share their craft with new audiences; potentially opening doors to new funding opportunities in these challenging times. We feel privileged to play our part in telling their story, raising awareness of ancient practices that are so important to preserve for future generations and hopefully inspiring others to follow their lead.”
The HCA continues to seek further donations to save even more of Britain’s most endangered crafts from oblivion. Donations are welcome at any time – for more information visit www.heritagecrafts.org.uk/ecf.
Read the full press release
The making of hand planes for woodworking.
|Critically endangered (see ‘Other information’ for further details)
|Historic area of significance
|Area currently practised
|Origin in the UK
|Current no. of professionals (main income)
|6-10 (see ‘Other information’ for further details)
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
Historically, tradesmen would purchase irons from a blacksmith and fashion their own bodies. The first documented professional maker of wooden planes was reportedly Thomas Granford in the late-seventeenth century.
Timber is carefully selected for grain direction and seasoning. It is dimensioned and marked out. The mortise is then chopped out and detailed using traditional plane makers tools, and a wedge is cut and made to fit the mortise. The cutting iron is made from steel, and the then the iron and wedge are fitted to the body so they are a perfect match. Depending on the type of plane there may be a handle or additional fences added. The plane is then tested and chamfered and details.
In terms of making individual or very small batches, wooden planes are typically easier and quicker to produce than infill planes, and as such are priced accordingly. Both can be made either using only hand tools or with a mixture of machine tools and hand tools, but it is more advantageous to use engineering machinery for infill planes because of the resistive nature of metal. Industrial planemaking on a larger scale is carried out by casting the body from iron or bronze and subsequent machining operations before a final assembly of all machined components. Very little handwork is involved in this scale.
Some wooden hand planes are made on machinery by splitting the body down into individual components, forming various geometry that make up the planes function before gluing the body back together into a single piece. The better quality wooden hand planes have their internal geometry morticed out from a single solid block using chisels and specialist plane makers edge tools called ‘floats’. This is superior because their inherent strength is not dependant on glue.
Infill planes are called so because of their construction. A metal shell is formed from thin steel, brass or bronze before being ‘infilled’ with an exotic wood, which supports the blade and forms the ergonomics of the tool. These metal plates are joined to one another via dovetails, which are cut either by hand or more typically on the milling machine. When the two sides are jointed to the sole (bottom) the entire shell is permanently fixed by peening the dovetails, a type of cold forging. The wooden infills are held in place by rivets. This method is superior to casting for longevity because if done correctly, hardly any distortion will occur in the shell, whereas a cast body will invariably warp as it seasons over a century or so.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
Business issues: There are lots of issues which affect all small businesses, such as the inability to buy in bulk, and new legislation regarding pensions for all employees.
Market issues: Demand for traditional handmade tools is very limited in the UK.
Market issues: There is definitely a market for high quality hand-made tools. Woodwork is a favoured past-time for people of high net worth with stressful jobs, and there are only half a dozen or so people worldwide making super high end infill style planes.
Market issues: The new, bespoke and high-end handtool market is growing rapidly, particularly in the USA where there are many makers. We have also noticed a decline in the demand for high end vintage/antique hand planes in favour of new ones. This is great but If this trend takes a dive, demand will fall too and some of the makers will fold as a result.
Training issues: There is no structured learning for the craft in any one place. The internet is the best resource but it takes many years of research and practice to properly learn the craft. It depends on what Is being made too on how varied the skill set needs to be – making a handmade wooden plane is completely different from making a handmade infill plane, as is making a cast production plane etc. In reality, every maker is self-trained, or has previous relatable experience that can be utilised.
Market issues: Plane making isn’t very well paid. Bespoke toolmakers agree that they do it for the love of the craft, not the pay check. Customers don’t appreciate the sheer number of hours of incredibly skilled labour that must go into production in order to have a product of that quality, and the investment in materials, machinery and running costs.
Craftspeople currently known
(Philly planes) – traditional 18th-century wooden-bodied woodworking hand planes, using beech and Sheffield high carbon steel. Full time maker.
Thomas Flinn & Co
, Sheffield – there are four skilled craftspeople in the plane department, but this is geared to industrial, factory-style production.
- Theo Cook (Robinson House Studio) – won the 2019 won Future Icons Award for accessories for his collection of hand planes.
- Alex Ward, Shetland Fine Crafts – recently received a grant from Heritage Crafts to make wooden hand planes
- Karl Holtey
- Richard Arnold
- Bill Carter
Status: 30 years ago plane making was nearing extinction but since then there has been more interest in the craft, helped by the internet and a resurgence in the interest of use for hand tools.
Number of trainees: Thomas Flinn & Co has one trainee, although they are not currently specialising in plane making.
Total number of craftspeople: There are two full-time plane makers plus three plane makers at Thomas Flinn & Co which took over the Clifton brand, although they are geared towards industrial factory production. There are also approximately another five or so hobby makers who are capable of practising the craft but do it occasionally for fun in their spare time rather than professionally, The internet has been great at encouraging hobby makers, and knowledge is gladly shared and published to help people make planes.
- Goodman, W L, (1978) British Planemakers from 1700