Meet Robin Wood
Woodturner and medieval woodware specialist Robin Wood has been making plates, bowls, spoons and one-off pieces at his Hope Valley workshop for nearly 20 years. Inspired by the beauty of the natural material, as well as its historical role in the domestic setting, Robin has crafted bowls for the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace and Ridley Scott’s ﬁlm Robin Hood, using only hand-forged tools and a simple foot-powered lathe.
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As a child, I loved the outdoors and was always watching wildlife and collecting everything from feathers to fungi. I wanted to be a potter or a gamekeeper. While travelling in my twenties, I met lots of people who had interesting careers. I decided that I would never do a job I didn’t enjoy; I wanted to use my head, heart and hands.
I was working in conservation forestry for the National Trust. We were reintroducing medieval management practices to ancient woodlands, but the smaller-diameter timber being produced had no commercial market, so I started looking into the old crafts that used that type of wood. Then I heard about George Lailey, known as the “last bowl turner”, whose tools are now the centrepiece of the Museum of English Rural Life. He died in 1958, leaving no one who could turn bowls using his techniques.
What appealed to me about Lailey’s work was that he could cut one bowl inside another, so from one block of wood he could create up to five pieces, rather than turning the inside into shavings. To do this, he had to forge his own specialised tools, so my first task was to learn the blacksmithing skills to make them. I produced my own charcoal and made tools from recycled car springs, then I built a lathe and began learning to turn. It took more than ﬁve years to be able to cut nesting bowls as Lailey did, but they are very special, as the grain runs through the whole set.
All of my wood is supplied by local tree surgeons, including 70-year-old Mr Anderson, whom I have dealt with for 17 years. I look for particular trees, such as old sycamore and beech, that are free from knots and twisted grain, as straight, clean wood is best for functional pieces. I know exactly what I want and I take time choosing, because I will work with a single tree for several weeks or even months, making hundreds of bowls or plates. Trees vary and I get a feeling from the first turns of each one as to how it may work. Some are simply a joy to use, while getting a clean cut from others is a continual struggle.
I love old dairy bowls, but medieval designs are my real passion. From 600 to 1600AD, everyone in Europe ate from wooden bowls; they are wonderful, humble and functional, and also personal, as people tended to use only their own bowl and spoon. There is a particular Tudor piece I saw when it was first excavated in Southwark, close to the site of the Globe Theatre. It’s called a porringer and has two small handles. I have made hundreds of bowls inspired by it, and I eat my breakfast cereal from one every day.
Wood is a natural insulator, so it keeps food warm, and it has a soft natural feel, which makes mealtimes more peaceful, as you don’t hear the noise of metal on hard porcelain. A good homemade soup, porridge or pasta served in a wooden bowl creates a kind of harmony that doesn’t occur with china. Not many people have experienced eating from wooden bowls and plates, but those who do quickly form an attachment to it.
I start by selecting a freshly felled tree, which I store for three to six months before cutting it into bowl blanks (roughly shaped blocks of wood). I put one of these on the lathe, then press the treadle and, while it turns, start taking cuts – I once counted 1,356 cuts to make a small bowl. The bowls are signed with my maker’s mark and then stacked on shelves for six to eight weeks to dry. For finishing, I often use a straight cold-pressed linseed oil, or sometimes a homemade paint; or I will scorch the wood to give a smooth, darker finish and a more contemporary look.
I try to mix things up. I will spend a while packing up mail-order bowls and dropping them at the post once before heading to the workshop. Turning is physical work, so I can only do three or four hours a day. The rest of the time is spent cutting up wood and making and sharpening tools. Usually, I work alone, but very occasionally I’ll have folks in to help. Each evening, I spend at least a couple of hours doing voluntary work for the Heritage Crafts Association.
The part of my work that means the most to me is receiving letters and emails from buyers who have eaten from my bowls for years. I also enjoy experiencing different woodcraft cultures – I’ve worked with teahouse builders in Japan and helped to build a Viking longboat in Norway.
I have shared my knowledge online, uploading films of the process on YouTube and posting on my blog, and I also teach courses. Passing on traditional skills is important and, with 78 per cent of craftspeople self-employed, we need a means of training others to work for themselves, too. If not, we will lose skills and viable businesses as craftspeople retire.
Robin runs three-day courses, from £195. Contact 01433 670321, robin-wood.co.uk.
Photography/ Alun Callender