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Nine more grants to help save endangered crafts

A thatching spar maker, a pigment maker, and a boatbuilder are among the recipients of a new round of grants to help safeguard some of the UK’s most endangered craft skills.

Andy BashamHeritage Crafts has awarded the grants through its Endangered Crafts Fund, which was launched in 2019 to increase the likelihood of at-risk craft skills surviving into the next generation. Six of this round’s grants are funded by the Sussex Heritage Trust, the Ashley Family Foundation for Wales, and the Essex Community Foundation and were ring fenced for crafts practitioners within those areas.

In May this year Heritage Crafts published the fourth 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 259 crafts to ascertain those which are at greatest risk of disappearing, of which 84 were classified as ‘endangered’ and a further 62 as ‘critically endangered’.

The nine successful recipients are:

  • Andy Basham from Essex, for himself and others to learn to make thatching spars from the last spar maker in East Anglia, and equip himself for production from his hazel coppice.
  • Will Holland from Carmarthenshire, to develop his arrowsmithing skills and master the reproduction of historically forged arrowheads, and to teach the craft to others.
  • Charlotte Kenward from West Sussex, to train and equip herself to offer traditional reverse gilded house numbers and signage to heritage properties.
  • Lucy MayesLucy Mayes from London, to purchase equipment to produce a range of innovative and sustainable pigments from processing construction waste.
  • Gail McGarva and the team at Building Futures Galloway, to equip a community workshop on the Solway Firth with tools needed to teach young people traditional wooden boatbuilding.
  • Rob Shaw and team, from North Yorkshire, to equip the new coach trimming workshop of Embsay & Bolton Abbey Steam Railway, offering a space to train more of their volunteers.
  • Travis Smith from Hampshire, to train in hand hewing of timber and apply his skills to the restoration and reconstruction of historical building and the construction of new ones.
  • Stephanie Turnbull from Newport, to trial the use of alternative types of limestone and other stone substrates for lithographic printing, and to publish her findings.
  • Jessie Watson-Brown, Matthew Bailey and Jamey Rhind-Tutt from Devon, to equip a new tannery to produce traditional bark-tanned leather from wild deer skins.

Gail McGarvaThese nine projects follow 57 others awarded in previous rounds, covering endangered crafts such as coppersmithing, Highland thatching, sailmaking and many more. Previous funders have included the Radcliffe Trust, the Pilgrim Trust, the Dulverton Trust, the Swire Charitable Trust and others, as well as individuals who have donated sums from £5 right up to several thousands of pounds.

As usual the fund was oversubscribed, and Heritage Crafts hopes to work with many of the unsuccessful candidates to identify other funding and support opportunities.

Mary Lewis, Heritage Crafts Endangered Crafts Manager, said:

“The survival of endangered craft skills relies on the people who make a positive choice to learn, make and teach these crafts. These projects will provide future generations with opportunities that they might not otherwise have, to become productive and healthy members of our shared craft community and to safeguard this important part of our national heritage.”

View the full list of the 66 grants awarded to date 

Spar making

The Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts

 

Spar making

 

The making of cleft hazel spars and liggers for use in thatching. See also thatching and coppicing.

 

Status Endangered
Historic area of significance UK wide
Area currently practised UK wide (but concentrated in areas with remaining viable coppice and a high concentration of thatched properties such as Hampshire, Sussex, Wiltshire, Dorset etc.)
Origin in the UK Modern thatched buildings date from the 13th Century but there is evidence of thatch being used since the Bronze Age.
Current no. of professionals (main income) 1-5 full-time spar makers

(Based on a survey carried out by the NSMT in March 2023)

Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
21-50 part-time spar makers

(Based on a survey carried out by the NSMT in March 2023)

Current no. of trainees Not known

All thatching apprentices will learn to make spars for their own use, but will not necessarily go on to make spars.

Current total no. serious amateur makers
Current total no. of leisure makers

 

History

Thatching and coppicing are two heritage crafts that have ancient origins and have become interdependent. Wooden spars cut from coppiced hazel are used to fix thatch to existing coat-work, creating multiple layers of thatch. Spars are pointed on both ends and twisted to form a ‘staple’ that is driven into the thatch to secure it in place. Liggers are split hazel rods of various lengths which are used to hold the outer layer of thatch down near the top and often laid in a decorative pattern.

All thatchers will know how to make their own spars but most will source hazel spars from a local coppice worker. Traditionally spars are one of a range of cleft coppice products, including hurdles, fencing and charcoal, which are produced by coppice workers in order to make a viable income.

In the 1990s the remaining spar makers were almost all older and retired or semi-retired and making spars at a low price as a supplementary income. As a result of this thatchers did not expect to pay more, or weren’t prepared to pay more, and younger makers were consequently not interested in taking up the craft. As spar makers retired, supply became less reliable and the gap was filled by more reliable imports that at the time were approximately the same price. Many thatchers started relying on these pre-twisted spars and some who have started thatching since may not have used or even twisted fresh English spars.

This decline in the market for UK produced spars in addition to a decreasing demand for hazel hurdles has led to a decline in the amount of hazel coppice in active rotation. Neglected coppice will not produce hazel of a quality suitable for making spars and it takes a number of rotations to restore a coppice. Many are now being restored for their biodiversity value but this is a slow process and cannot readily respond to the current demand for spars.

During the Covid pandemic in 2019-20, the supply of spars from Poland dramatically declined and thatchers are now looking to UK coppiced hazel for spars again. This has led to an increase in the price of spars and demand is outstripping supply.

Steel rods and wire ties are now often used in place of spars and liggers. In some cases plastic spars are also used, but these are not considered as adequate replacements for natural fixings.

A survey carried out but the National Society of Master Thatchers (NSMT) in 2023 found that the average use of spars per thatcher is around 40,000 a year. There are currently around 800 thatchers and so the NSMT have put a conservative estimate of around 25-30 million spars a year needed to maintain a sustainable supply.

 

Techniques

Hazel is grown and harvested on a 7 year rotation to produce a sustainable crop of straight poles which are used to make the twisted spars and liggers that secure the thatch.

Spar gadds (hazel sticks cut to length for spar making) are split into multiple spars using a billhook and pointed on both ends.

Speed and accuracy are the key to successful spar making and a full time skilled spar maker can make 1000 spars a day.

 

Local forms

There are various regional styles of thatch but most long-straw or reed thatched roofs in the UK will use spars.

Highland thatch also uses hazel for spars and other fixings.

 

Sub-crafts

  • Ligger making – Split hazel or willow rods used to form a decorative pattern on ridges and around the edge of long straw roofs.

 

 

Issues affecting the viability of the craft

  • Supply of raw materials: Decline in the demand for spars due to imports led to a decline in the active management of coppiced woodland. Hazel spars and liggers are often replaced by steel, wire or plastic fixings.
  • Decline in skills: Competition from imported spars led to a rapid decline in the number of spar makers in the UK.
  • Market issues: Whilst demand is increasing, there may not be a sufficient supply of good quality coppiced hazel to meet demand.
  • Training issues: There is a lack of training for coppice workers to make spars.
  • Market issues: Established relationships between thatchers and coppice workers have been broken and some thatchers are not able to secure a reliable supply.
  • Small business issues: It is difficult to make a viable income solely from making spars.

 

Support organisations

  • National Society of Master Thatchers
  • National Coppice Federation
  • Thatch Advice Centre

 

Craftspeople currently known

  • Chris Cowell, New Forest Coppice Products
  • Ivan Parsons
  • Charlie Potter

The Coppice Products Database gives a list of coppice workers who make spars.

 

Training providers

There are currently no formal training opportunities to learn spar making.

Apprenticeships and on-the-job training

The National Society of Master Thatchers offer a Thatching apprenticeship scheme which is supported by a mentoring scheme. Apprentices are employed by an experienced NSMT member and will be trained to have the skills and knowledge required to become competent in their craft, including spar making.

Short courses

Chris Cowell, New Forest Coppice Products offers short courses in spar making.

 

Other information

 

 

References

  • Marjorie Sanders and Roger Angold, Thatches and Thatching: A Handbook for Owners, Thatchers and Conservators, Crowood Press 2012.

Oar, mast, spar and flagpole making

The Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts

 

Oar, mast, spar and flagpole making

 

The making of wooden oars, masts, spars and flagpoles.

 

Status Endangered
Craft category Wood; Vehicles
Historic area of significance Cornwall, Thames Valley
Area currently practised Richmond, Windsor, Oxford, Cornwall
Origin in the UK
Current no. of professionals (main income) 11-20

There is only one full time wooden flagpole maker

Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
10-30
Current no. of trainees 1-5
Current total no. serious amateur makers
Current total no. of leisure makers
Minimum no. of craftspeople required

 

History

The crafts of making oars, masts and spars go hand in hand in terms of skills and techniques. While there is only one dedicated flagpole making firm (the Wooden Flagpole Company Ltd) some spar makers might produce the occasional flagpole as a sideline, as the skills are complementary.

 

Techniques

Laminating timber into a long rectangular block, then shaping using lathes and hand planers all finished with sanding and then clear varnish or white gloss paint. Flagpoles are made using solid lengths of timber and then joined together using scarfe joints

Local forms

 

Sub-crafts

  • Flagpole making
  • Oar making
  • Mast making
  • Spar making

 

Issues affecting the viability of the craft

Oar, mast and spar making:

  • Market issues: There is still a demand for hand made wooden oars – either for new boats or to replace existing hand-made oars. While some companies machine-make oars, the International Boatbuilding Training College (IBTC) still teaches the craft of making oars by hand.
  • Market issues: There are still people willing to pay for good workmanship, but profit needs to be less if final price does not frighten people off. Firms which make machine made oars, spars and masts can absorb some costs in the handmade sector, but overheads are generally high. Individuals can make oars in their sheds in Cornwall, but they will not be able to charge labour rates that would make a living. A hand crafted Cornish gig oar will retail at £350, whereas a pair of machine made, hand finished, straight oars will cost about £70.
  • Market issues: The restoration side of the craft is dependent on the continuing interest in classic boats, both from individuals and groups.
  • Training issues: Trainees, including apprentices are being taken on, but skills are not always good enough from college outputs, and there is often a lack of business awareness, including the need for work to be completed quickly to make a profit. It is difficult to find the right partner course – one firm has taken on an apprentice via a cabinet making course.
  • Supply of raw materials: Most materials are imported from British Columbia in Canada, where the slow growing sitka spruce is ideal for the work. There is no threat to this source at present.
  • Market issues: Whilst ‘hobbyist’ oar makers do not seem under threat, the danger is that small and medium sized firms will, in the future, not be able to keep handmade prices within reason and the buyers will only be the very wealthy.

Flagpole making:

  • There is only one dedicated maker (The Wooden Flagpole Company Ltd), producing 10-20 flagpoles a year, although some spar makers might produce the odd one or two as a sideline.
  • Training issues: Individuals may do a short course and make their own flagpole, but then would not make any more. Serious training would not be relevant due to the very small market.
  • Market issues: Although they do not last as long, aluminium and fibreglass poles are much cheaper to produce.
  • Market issues: The market is 50 per cent historic buildings/restoration and 50 per cent for individuals’ houses. The future market will depend on the degree of authenticity seen to be important in historic buildings, and whether individuals will continue to pay high prices for traditional materials and craftsmanship.

 

Support organisations

  • Cornish Pilot Gig Association

 

Craftspeople currently known

Crafts businesses that employ two or more maker:

 

Other information

 

References