Robin Wood 8 January 2009

Robin Wood is a pole lathe turner so he brought his lathe with him this evening andSee Robin's Photos it came as quite a surprise when I walked into the room to see the size of it; this is no ordinary pole lathe, it is a very rustic one which he built himself, to be transportable. It consists of half a tree trunk, approximately six feet long, split down the middle, for the ‘bed’ with four logs for legs. There are two thinner logs on the top, one at each end, held together with a long piece of 2” x 1” at the top and they have bungee cord stretched between them. Robin explained that where the bungee cords are there is normally a very long, flexible pole which is approximately the width of the room and he only uses the bungee cord when he is using the lathe in a situation where there is nowhere to anchor the pole. A leather strap was attached to the cords with the other end attached to a piece of wood on the floor, which acts as the treadle. The head and tailstock (head and tail poppets) are two chunky pieces of timber mounted through the base, each with a long piece of timber coming from them – the one at the head stock end at a ninety degree angle and the other at a forty five degree angle so they crossed each other – these formed the toolrest. Hammered into the bottom of the head and tailstock are two chunky pegs which hold them in position. To the right of Robin is another toolrest with all his tools laid out on it and on the floor a block of wood on which he stands so the work effort is distributed evenly between his legs and his hips aren’t held at an awkward angle. All his tools, which are very chunky, are traditional tools which he has made himself, with logs for handles. (See photos RW01 and 02 below).

Before starting his demonstration Robin told us a little about his background and explained that all the things he makes are for daily use rather than the art end of the market. He and his family eat their meals from the bowls and plates he turns, using the spoons they carve as a family.

He started the demonstration with a block of beech he had cut this morning, mounted onto a mandrel and put onto the lathe between centres. From this he turned a porringer (a small dish for porridge or soup), based on one that was found near the site of the Globe theatre in London. The blank had already been cut to the rough shape so he didn’t have to waste too much wood by turning the sides away. He turned the outside of the bowl quite quickly then turned it round on the lathe and turned the inside, leaving the centre piece where the mandrel was attached. He then made a rim on the edge and tidied the inside, making it thicker nearer the rim and towards the centre but making the sides thinner, he explained that this gives the bowl nice acoustics when it is being used. He parted it off using a hook shaped tool that is quite thin at the top; this left a ‘button’ in the middle. To finish it he moved to a workhorse which he sat astride and removed the button with a spoon knife then shaped the handles using an axe. At this stage Robin leaves his bowls to dry thoroughly then oils them with linseed oil – he has a deep fat fryer containing the oil which he heats and dunks the bowls into. After passing it round the room for everyone to look at he went back to the workhorse and used a home made tool, fashioned from an old car spring, to tidy the inside and the foot and finished the handles with a sharp knife. (See photos RW03, 04, 05, 06, 07 and 08 below).

The next thing Robin made was a plate which is a copy of one found on the Mary Rose. He started with a piece of beech cut roughly to shape and, before mounting it on the lathe, he used an adze to hew out some of the centre. He fixed the mandrel to the inside of the plate, mounted it onto the lathe and turned the underneath. He then turned it round on the lathe and worked on the inside, refining the outer surfaces first, before taking the bulk out of the middle, to avoid it flexing and chattering. Then he undercut the core to part it off – he leaves a small ‘button’ of core, roughly the size of a pound coin, which he snaps off. He finished it by hand using similar techniques to those on the porringer. (See photos RW09, 10, 11 and 12 below).

After the break Robin talked about making nesting bowls; in December 2008 he made a commemorative set of four bowls based on work done by George Lailey who was the last person in England to make a living turning wooden bowls on a pole lathe and who died exactly fifty years earlier, aged 89. For the purpose of the demonstration he said he would make a set of two bowls so he mounted a 10” bowl blank onto the lathe, this was in spalted beech and had been roughly cut to shape. He turned the outside, explaining that when you turn a base on a bowl it always looks smaller on the lathe than it does off the lathe so he suggested it is better to turn the base of a bowl quite small. After turning the piece round on the lathe he worked on the inside of the rim, getting the shape right before he turned away the wood down the inside edge of the bowl, taking care not to turn away the wood in the middle as this would be needed to make the second bowl. Having finished the side he used a curved tool with a point to turn the base, under the core, taking great care to ensure he got a clean cut because once he has snapped the middle off he cannot do any more turning on the inside of the bowl. As he got further round the bottom he changed to a tool with a bigger curve to reach to the middle. When he had parted it off he had a 10” bowl with a 6” bowl blank from the core. (See photos RW13 and 14 below).

Working on a pole lathe is quite tiring so, to give himself a break, Robin moved off the lathe for his next project and turned his hand to carving a spoon from a silver birch log. He started by splitting the log down the middle with an axe then, still using the axe, he roughly hewed it to a shovel shape, refined the shape with a spoon knife and finished the inside of the bowl with a hook knife. The finished spoon was only a rough shape which he will leave to dry and his wife will then finish it for him with fine tooling. Robin explained that he doesn’t make spoons for a living as it would not be economic for him to do so as it takes longer to carve a spoon than it does to turn a plate but, obviously, people wouldn’t want to pay as much for a spoon as they would for a plate. However, Robin and his family carve spoons for a hobby and will often spend winter evenings sitting round the fire carving spoons together. (See photos RW15, 16, 17 and 18 below and photo RW19 shows how the spoons will look when his wife has finished them).

For his final project of the evening Robin turned another bowl from the core of the one he turned earlier; a scaled down version of the earlier one. (See photo RW20 below).

This evening’s demonstration gave us an insight into the life and skills of a bygone age and it was very interesting to see the old skills put to a practical use. (See photos RW21 for a selection of the items Robin makes).Top of Page

Lorrie Flannery

SWC club member