Woodcarver Tom Ball has won the second annual Woodworker of the Year Award sponsored by Axminster Tools, including a £2,000 prize and trophy awarded at a special presentation at St George’s College, Windsor Castle on Wednesday 15 November 2023.
Heritage Crafts was set up 13 years ago as a national charity to support and safeguard heritage crafts skills, and has become well known for its Red List of Endangered Crafts, the first research of its kind to rank traditional crafts in the UK by the likelihood they would survive the next generation.
Now in its second year, this award sponsored by Axminster Tools celebrates a heritage craftsperson who has made an outstanding contribution to the field of woodworking over the past year. It recognises a contribution that is far beyond the ordinary, based on a proven dedication to a particular woodworking skill.
Woodworker of the Year Award carved by 2022 finalist David Robinson
Tom Ball is the de Laszlo Lead Woodcarving Tutor at City & Guilds of London Arts School, and in 2021 was awarded the Master Carver Certificate by the Worshipful Company of Joiners and Ceilers. Recent projects include restoration of Grinling Gibbons’ carving at Trinity College Chapel, Oxford, and carving the canopy columns for Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee.
Global suppliers of woodworking tools and machinery, Axminster Tools has spent 50 years building their family business into the renowned organisation it is today. Working together with makers and creators at all levels, from trade professionals through to craft enthusiasts, their commitment to supporting woodworking skills fits perfectly with the ethos of Heritage Crafts.
Judges for the new award were Alan Styles (Managing Director of Axminster Tools), Sarah Goss (a traditional woodcarver who featured as one of the experts in the recent Prince’s Master Crafters: The Next Generation programme on Sky Arts), and Jonathan Hill (luthier and Woodworker of the Year 2022).
The three other finalists for the 2023 award were marionette maker Oliver Hymans, woodcarver Yichen Li and furniture maker Andrew Watt. Read more about Oliver, Yichen and Andrew here.
Heritage Crafts and Axminster Tools have announced the finalists of the second annual Woodworker of the Year award, including two woodcarvers, a furniture maker and a marionette maker.
This award celebrates a heritage craftsperson who has made an outstanding contribution to the field of woodworking over the past year. It recognises a contribution that is far beyond the ordinary, based on a proven dedication to a particular woodworking skill.
The four finalists for this year’s award are (in alphabetical order):
- Thomas Ball – Tom is the de Laszlo Lead Woodcarving Tutor at City & Guilds of London Arts School, and in 2021 was awarded the Master Carver Certificate by the Worshipful Company Of Joiners and Ceilers. Recent projects include restoration of Grinling Gibbons’ carving at Trinity College Chapel, Oxford, and carving the canopy columns for Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee.
- Oliver Hymans – Oliver is an award-winning puppetry artist who has worked across four continents, designing and making puppetry for theatre, opera, film and music video. In 2023 he worked tirelessly to bring the puppetry sector together to get marionette making listed on Heritage Crafts’ Red List of Endangered Crafts to ensure the craft gets passed on to the next generation.
- Yichen Li – Yichen gathers aged carved wooden panels, which have hundreds of years of history, from the remnants of demolished ancient architecture. She meticulously restores, grinds, polishes, and colors them before combining them with contemporary wood carving techniques to form new spatial and architectural forms. In 2023 she completed her Masters degree at the Royal College of Art as a scholarship recipient.
- Andrew Watt – Andrew has worked with Method Studio for over six years, and in that time has risen to the position of lead cabinetmaker, running the workshop, making their most important pieces and inventing their way out of complex problems. He has developed and crafted stunning works for the likes of The Glenturret, Burberry, The Macallan, and Vacheron Constantin.
The winner will be announced on Wednesday 15 November at a Winners’ Reception at Vicars’ Hall, St George’s House, Windsor Castle. A Young Woodworker of the Year will be announced at the same time.
Heritage Crafts is the national charity set up to celebrate and safeguard traditional craft skills as a fundamental part of the UK’s living heritage. It launched its partnership with Axminster Tools last year, when luthier Jonathan Hill won the inaugural Woodworker of the Year Award. The company has spent 50 years building its family business into the renowned organisation it is today. They work with makers and creators at all levels, from trade professionals through to craft enthusiasts, to support woodworking skills.
The winner will be selected by a panel of judges made up of renowned advocates of craft skills:
- Jonathan Hill – stringed instrument maker and 2022 Woodworker of the Year.
- Alan Styles – Managing Director of Axminster Tools.
- Sarah Goss – traditional woodcarver and expert on Sky Arts’ Prince’s Master Crafters.
Image of Andrew Watt by Shannon Tofts
About Axminster Tools
Axminster Tools has established itself globally as a trusted seller in the mail order tools and machinery industry. They offer a friendly and personal service to many thousands of customers ranging from trade professionals and businesses to amateur DIY and craft enthusiasts.
Axminster Tools is a family business run by industry professionals and passionate craftspeople. Their knowledge is accessible to all, via regular tutorial videos, live streams, project plans and woodworking tips that are completely free to access.
As a British retailer, Axminster Tools supports British design and quality. They work with a number of UK suppliers in celebration of the nation’s skills and craftsmanship. What’s more, they design and manufacture an increasing number of own branded products in their Devon-based engineering facility, including bringing manufacturing back from overseas in many cases.
Heritage Crafts and Axminster Tools have announced the finalists of the inaugural Woodworker of the Year award, including a woodcarver, a furniture maker and a musical instrument maker.
This new award celebrates a heritage craftsperson who has made an outstanding contribution to the field of woodworking over the past year. It recognises a contribution that is far beyond the ordinary, based on a proven dedication to a particular woodworking skill.
The three finalists for this year’s award are (in alphabetical order):
- Jonathan Hill – Jonathan is a maker of historic and modern stringed instruments including the viola d’amore, lira da braccio, violin and viola families. Following training at West Dean College, he worked for a master violin maker in Yorkshire, and studied instrument making in Turkey with a master traditional oud maker.
- Robin Johnson – Robin is produces tailor-made joinery, furniture and metalwork from his workshop in hastings. In the past 12 months he has designed and built the furniture for a Gold Medal winning main garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, and been featured on TV shows Kings of the Wood and Salvage Hunters: The Restorers.
- David Robinson – David is a self-taught woodcarver with 30 years’ experience, and the Master Carver’s Association’s most recent inductee. He works largely with chisels he made himself from old penknives and bits of old Land Rover spring.
The winner will be announced on Monday 30 January at a Winners’ Reception at the House of Lords.
Heritage Crafts is the national charity set up to celebrate and safeguard traditional craft skills as a fundamental part of the UK’s living heritage.
Axminster Tools works together with makers and creators at all levels, from trade professionals through to craft enthusiasts.
The carving of designs into wood or the carving of objects out of wood.
|Historic area of significance
|Area currently practised
|Origin in the UK
|Current no. of professionals (main craft)
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main craft)
|Current no. of trainees
|11-20 (there are currently 17 British Woodcarvers’ Association members aged under 25 who are learning the skills)
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required
Wood carving dates back to when we learned how to make sharp tools. The earliest examples are lost to the decay of the material. Some may consider that wood carving achieved its pinnacle in the UK in the late-17th century with the naturalistic style of Grinling Gibbons and his contemporaries. There have however been exceptional carvers in all the periods between then and now.
Wood carvers today fall into two groups, amateur and professional. The amateur or hobbyist carving group is thriving with many participants taking it up in later life. This group depends solely on their own enthusiasm. The professional group has been in decline in the early-21st century.
The art or skill of wood carving can be simply put as the removal of surplus wood using variously sharped hand tools. Woodcarving is usually done using a knife (one hand) or a chisel (two hands), and results in a wooden figure or figurine, or in sculptural ornamentation of a wooden object.
There are regional variations in the styles of carving. These are generally considered the difference between metropolitan and rural carving within any given style. There are exceptions of specific objects such as Welsh love spoons etc.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
The professional group of woodcarvers has been in decline in the early-21st century. This is due to:
Changing tastes: The lack of decoration required for the current vogue in interior design and the collapse of the general antiques trade; the former being a major source for new works and the latter that for restoration. Both areas (new work and restoration) amongst others such as ecclesiastical or heraldic carving are still active but to a lesser degree and so support fewer craftspeople.
Foreign competition: Much of the basic repetitive work is now carved overseas in places where incomes and the cost of living are low. This proves problematic when considering training and having the confidence that the volume of work will be consistent to employ the trainee.
- Foreign competition: Outsourced work, even when copied, is inevitably influenced by cultural interpretations; ‘English Chippendale’ becomes Indonesian, Indian, Chinese or other, much as ‘English Chinoiserie’ differs from the original Chinese style it was based on. This muddies the understanding clients have of what they are buying into.
Training issues: The apprenticeship regime broke down and disappeared in the 1960s. This had been of seven years duration and had included tuition in drawing and modelling. The term ’improver’ was applied to apprentices. Apprenticeships are being re-introduced but are far shorter, three years at most, and leave the apprentice with much experience to be gained before they can be fully considered a professional carver. The Master Carvers’ Association (MCA) and other interested parties formed the National Working Group for carving under the auspices of the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB). This group developed the National Occupational Standard (NOS) for carving in both wood and stone. At the MCA’s request Cskills Awards (CITB) now offers a level 3 NVQ Diploma for carving. This is presently the first and only in-work qualification for carving.
Cost: Hand-carved decoration can be expensive and time is money.
Lack of awareness: Sponsors have limited knowledge of the workings of woodcarvers versus current technical innovations. Potential clients have poor understanding of what is possible, e.g. decoration being designed out of projects because the designer is unaware of the skills available.
Advances in CNC routing and latterly 3D printing.
British Woodcarvers Association – has just under a thousand UK members, of which 90% are hobbyists. There are 31 regional groups (the minimum number of carvers for a regional group is 6). There are currently 17 members under the age of 25 who are learning the skills; the majority of members are over the age of 50. Note: the BWA website is not currently available – last checked October 2022.
Craftspeople currently known
- Master Carvers Association