A block printer, a trainee rake maker and a reverse glass sign artist have been awarded grants to help safeguard some of Sussex’s most endangered craft skills.
Heritage Crafts and the Sussex Heritage Trust have awarded the grants through the Heritage Crafts’ Endangered Crafts Fund, which was launched in 2019 to increase the likelihood of endangered crafts surviving into the next generation. The successful project joins six previous Sussex recipients funded through the partnership between Heritage Crafts and Sussex Heritage Trust, including a trainee millwright, two flint wallers, a brick maker, a trug maker, a wallpaper maker. Nationally, 50 projects have now been funded through the Endangered Crafts Fund since 2019.
The three new recipients are:
- Sarah Burns is a textile block printer and natural dyer from West Sussex. Her craft is founded on the use of seasonal natural dye colours that are foraged from the hedgerows and fields around her – fruitwood prunings in winter, hedgerow cuttings in the spring, fruits and flowers in the summer and warm oak tannins in the autumn. She will use the grant to install two large dye kettles to increase her output and make the business more sustainable whilst upskilling her apprentice.
- Kevin Copeland is Woodland Manager at Veterans’ Growth, a charity in Westfield, East Sussex, dedicated to helping ex-service personnel who are suffering from mental health issues by offering horticultural therapy and support. Kevin will train in traditional wooden rake making in order to pass these skills on to service users and the wider community. Rakes are useful to the charity, as they hand collect the hay from their meadows, and to others in the area who are interested in farming and managing land in a more traditional and sustainable way.
- Eddy Bennett is a reverse glass sign artist from Brighton who uses acid etching to create the distinctive patterns recognisable from Victorian-style advertising signs of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His grant will enable him to purchase a plotter to cut vinyl etching stencils and provide custom stencils to other reverse glass sign artists in the region.
In 2021 Heritage Crafts published the third edition of its groundbreaking Red List of Endangered Crafts, the first research of its kind to rank the UK’s traditional crafts by the likelihood that they will survive into the next generation. The report assessed 244 crafts to ascertain those which are at greatest risk of disappearing, of which four were classified as extinct, 74 as ‘endangered’ and a further 56 as ‘critically endangered’.
Mary Lewis, Heritage Crafts Endangered Crafts Manager, said:
“The current energy crisis means that our craft skills are at more risk than ever before. We are delighted to be working in partnership with the Sussex Heritage Trust to address the specific challenges to endangered skills and knowledge in Sussex, a region renowned for its craftsmanship and material heritage.”
A further five grants from the rest of the UK are due to be announced in the coming days.
The making of rakes with wooden teeth, heads and handles.
|Historic area of significance
|Area currently practised
|Origin in the UK
|Current no. of professionals (main income)
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required
There is no real record of the origins of rake making, but wherever agriculture has thrived so has rake making. Rake making became more industrialised in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, taking over from the individual makers who were usually seasonal makers.
Hand rakes were once an essential piece of farm equipment, used for collecting hay ready for loading into wagons, combing and straightening the sides of ricks, combing thatch etc. Until 1930, the hay harvest was a vast communal affair, and hay rakes were in considerable demand – and wherever there was suitable coppice wood, there would be a rake maker’s yard. Between c.1930-1965 the harvest was greatly mechanised and hand rakes were only required in limited quantities. By 1965 the demand was so low that it couldn’t occupy one craftsperson fully for a year – many makers gave up or developed secondary occupations making clothes pegs, hurdle and tool handles.
As hay rakes were primarily used at harvest time, it was a seasonal market with customers mainly buying April to July, and production was also seasonal (for example, Rudds Rake Factory used to employ a lot of people seasonally to meet the demand). Today the main outlet just isn’t there and people are using rakes for other purposes and buying all year round. Because the rakes are used less intensively, they tend to last for longer.
Today, production in any quantity is the reserve of Rudds Rakes Factory in Cumbria, who make about 5000 rakes a year, and small manufacturers such as David Wheeler in Norfolk, who makes about 100 rakes a year. The last full-time rake maker in the south of England was Trevor Austen of Smeeth, Kent, who died in 2010. Some members of the Association of Polelathe Turners and Green Woodworkers make the occasional rake, and there are several courses run across the country in rake making. There has been a noticeable rise in interest in traditional rakes and rake making due to the resurgence of interest in scything, and the rising popularity of green woodworking.
A rake is a simple tool in its structure – the skill lies in selecting suitable timber and knowing the best orientation of grain to make the strongest possible tools that will last for several seasons. The skill also lies in knowing what a rake user needs and the conditions and environment in which they work, paralleled with recognising the best sources of wood and understanding the seasoning process.
A combination of hand tools and machines are used for batch production, including such items as a traditional tine maker, shave horse, and a rounding machine for producing handles more quickly.
Variations in the use of local materials and deviations from the standard can help identify regional types. The most common designs are the split handle or ‘swallow tail’ rake and the larger and heavier ‘bow’ rake.
The design and materials varied across the country: handles were short in Yorkshire and long in Hampshire; heads were usually at right angles but in Glamorgan they were at a 45 degree angle to cope with sloping fields; and in Hampshire tough springy willow was used whereas ash was used in Wales.
In northern and western Britain, where the grass was short and springy, the rakes were usually small and well-constructed, with the heads supported by braces and bows – they were expected to last for many years (bow rake). In southern England where the grass was lush, the rakes were much large and less well-constructed, with the butt end of the handle sawn along the centre to provide a pair of split ends morticed into the head (swallow tail rake) – these rakes were not expected to last for more than one season.
- Scythe handle making, also known as ‘snath making’, is directly related to rake making
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
Market issues: Lack of demand because modern equivalents made of plastic and steel are predominant in hardware shops or garden centres.
Supply of raw materials/market issues: The demand on ash as firewood and the impending Chalara Fraxinea (ash die-back) are pushing up the price of timber so the price of wooden rakes tends to become uncompetitive.
Supply of raw materials: Ash die-back is also leading to a shortage of materials and alternatives might have to be sought.
Market issues: However, an upsurge of interest in scything is leading to an increased interest in using traditional rakes.
Craftspeople currently known
- Rudd’s Rake Factory, Dufton, Cumbria – make around 6,000 rakes a year. They make far fewer than 50-60 years ago, but production has evened out in the past 5-10 years. John Rudd passed away in 2023 but his son Graeme continues to make rakes.
- David Wheeler, Suffolk – makes around 100 rakes a year.
- Mark Allery
- Peter Jameson
- Ian Barnett, Amberley Museum
The Coppice Products website has a list of rake makers in the UK
Status: The APTGW believes this craft to be at risk of dying out, but John Rudd doesn’t believe the craft will die out in the foreseeable future.
Rake making is a good foundation for learning the basic woodworking skills that can be developed into more advanced skills in woodworking.
It is believed that the chair industry in the Chilterns is directly linked to the technology, tools and methods used in rake making.
Jenkins, J Geraint, (1978) Traditional Country Craftsmen (Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd) pp. 70–78.
Arnold, J, (1977) The Shell Book of Country Crafts (John Baker Publishers Ltd) pp. 91-93.
Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading (MERL houses a film of Trevor Austen at work and rakes made by him)