Woodturner Robin Wood goes with the grain
Long Reads 20.10.2017
Words Richard Benson
Photographs James McNaught
Styling Tamara Fulton
The aptly named Robin Wood practises bowl-turning skills that date back to Medieval times: but he’s no luddite…
Robin Wood is a peaceful and placid man, but he gets annoyed about restaurants. That’s all restaurants. Well, all restaurants that use plates, anyway. ‘British restaurants frustrate me,’ he says, taking a break between working at his lathe and inspecting the mellowing wood in his yard in Edale in the Peak District. ‘In Japan, the owner of a quality restaurant would never dream of serving quality food off industrial ceramic plates.’
Wood thinks of ‘industrial ceramic’ as you might think of polystyrene. ‘They work with local potters to develop tableware suited to the food they are serving. But in the UK, you go to Michelin three-star restaurants and are served off industrial ceramic. To me that’s all wrong. It’s bizarre.’
If you have never considered this bizarre aspect of restaurant tableware before, you are not alone – just, in Wood’s view, accidentally complicit in the long-standing neglect of a tradition that began with the industrial manufacture of cheap glazed pottery in the late 17th century. Wood is a bowl turner, a craftsman producing wooden bowls whose lineage goes back to Medieval times. Between 600 and 1600, as he points out, all of Europe’s tableware was wooden, much of it a different and more meaningful kind of ‘possession’.
As he writes in his book, The Wooden Bowl, ‘Today, society seems to judge our success by how many ‘things’ we accumulate, but it was not always this way. Throughout the Medieval period in Europe most people had very few possessions, but almost everyone would have owned the clothes they stood up in, a knife, a spoon, and a turned wooden bowl. This bowl would have been a very personal thing… often so valued that if one split after many years of use it was mended by drilling holes either side of the split and binding the wood together.’
He has been turning bowls for 20 years now, starting out in the 1990s, and taking five years to become proficient on the traditional pole lathe that he uses. Always interested in nature and ecology, he had returned from travelling in his early 20s determined to find meaningful work that ‘used head, hand and heart.’
This led him into a career as a National Trust warden, as which he helped to manage the ancient medieval hunting forest at Hatfield. In the course of that – he was looking for markets for the coppiced wood – he came across the work of George Lailey, a celebrated wood turner who worked at Bucklebury Common, Berkshire.
Lailey, known in his lifetime as the ‘last bowl-turner’, died in 1958. He used a foot-powered pole lathe that allowed him to cut several nested bowls of diminishing size from one piece of wood, and, as was common at the time, forged his own tools. The lack of waste in his practice, and the sense of a ‘whole process’ spoke to something in the young warden in Hatfield. After visiting Reading’s Museum of Rural Life, where Lailey’s tools are now kept, he acquired a lathe and began the long process of learning to use it, and to forge his own tools. (Such is his diligence, by the way, that he not only learned smithying, he also burned his own charcoal in order to carry it out.)
Since then, Wood acquired an eminence in the world of woodturning that has continued to grow since its renaissance in the early 1970s. He was Artisan of the Year in 2009, and chairman of the Heritage Crafts Association. Having started out publicising himself by taking the lathe to craft fairs and demonstrating, he has sold thousands of his bowls, cups, plates and spoons, and continues to sell, mostly direct from his website. (He has had several approaches from restaurants. Sadly they ‘usually baulk at the price’ of £60 a plate.)
Even if you are unfamiliar with his work, you may have seen his replicas in York’s Jorvik Viking Centre, Hampton Court and The Irish National Heritage Centre. In Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, the cast used his vessels. Cate Blanchett (Maid Marion) washed her feet in one of his large bowls, which is not something every craftsman can say.
The bowls are his passion, partly because of their individual beauty, and partly because of the sheer pleasure of using them (‘Too few people know the pleasure of eating from wood. It’s quiet, soft, warm and somehow compatible with good natural food, in a way that hard ceramic never can be’). He is also clearly inspired by the idea of an emotional involvement with the object that was taken for granted in the pre-industrial era. He embodies the same involvement in his widely-admired technique, and has ‘a very close relationship’ with the wood he uses.
Whereas most woodworkers just buy ‘as-it-comes’ dry boards from a commercial yard, Wood works with a tree surgeon in order to obtain felled trees – mostly beech and sycamore – from streets, hedgerows or gardens. These are older and have more character than their commercially-forested counterparts, which tend to be cut down at about 70 or 80 (‘the equivalent of a teenager, really’). This yields the bland, creamy stuff that, say, wooden spoons in Tesco are made from. Wood prefers the 200-250-year-olds, who will have streaks of dark brown, purples and other colours, and more complex, particular textures.
‘I always get asked what my favourite wood is,’ he says, ‘But that’s like saying what’s your favourite race of people, as if every beech or sycamore tree is the same. I don’t think in those terms at all. I think in terms of individual trees.’
The process of making is more straightforward than you might expect – if you know nothing about woodturning, anyway. Most of the time taken to produce a bowl is in the preparation. Having collected the wood from the tree surgeon on his trailer, he brings it back to his yard in Edale (a beautiful place in the Peak District’s Hope Valley, about ten miles outside Sheffield), and stores it outside for between three and six months, to let it mellow. Every now and then he wanders around the yard, taking lumps from the mellowing woods with an axe to see how they’re coming along, and to choose which he will work on next.
When he has chosen one, he slices it up with a chainsaw, cuts each block to a circular shape, then takes them into the low-beamed, shaving-becarpeted, stone-walled workshop to put one on the lathe. The turning takes about half an hour, the thickness of the bowl being judged by hand. Once the bowl is cut, there is just the matter of removing a small, outward-navel-like blob left where the wood was attached to the lathe. This is done with a curved knife, because there is no sanding. Wood has no truck with sandpaper. ‘I rely on a nice clean cut with the tools,’ he says. ‘That cut finish is the best possible surface if you’re going to use woodware; a much better finish than a sanded finish, because when a sanded finish becomes wet it tends to fluff up and go into amushy, fluffy surface, whereas a cut surface gets nicer and nicer as you use it.’
Finally he adds his maker’s mark, and leaves the bowl to dry for about six weeks. When dry, it is dipped in a blend of organic palm oil and beeswax heated in a deep fat fryer to 190 degrees centigrade.
Wood often refers to his interest in the whole process of making the bowls from raw material to finished object, and to an interest in nature. I ask if this owes anything to upbringing. As a child he lived in various locations in the Midlands; his father was interested in self-sufficiency, feeding the family on vegetables he grew himself. For a time, Mr Wood senior had a primitive brickworks, which produced handmade bricks, and this instilled in Robin an interest in industrial manufacture to complement a connection with the natural world. ‘I was always out there making stuff, and collecting stuff… I worked my way through Richard Mabey’s Food For Free when I was in my teens, learning all the local, natural foods. So I suppose trying to understand stuff right from raw material was always an interest.’
The juxtaposition of industrial culture with nature and a rural setting is interesting, and something Wood finds himself discussing in his work for the Heritage Crafts Association. He points out that because of the influence of Morris, Ruskin and the Arts and Crafts movement, the idea of ‘craft’ in Britain tends to be seen as ‘rural’, or at least opposed to industry. Morris was unfamiliar with industry except for the weaving mills, and assumed all industrial labour was de-skilled and unpleasant. It wasn’t.
‘If you look at the Sheffield tool industry, for example, it was effectively a collective of highly skilled individuals working collaboratively on the tools they were making. It wasn’t industrialised to the extent that it de-skilled the job. They were incredibly skilled craftspeople, but the fact that they were working in town-based, industrial circumstances blinded people to that.’
This continues to blind people: some of them people of power; which is ill-used as a result. Wood mentions a Sheffield council culture plan that in its 90 pages gives steel only two mentions, neither of them positive. We may have learned to value and preserve our industrial buildings, but in Sheffield there is precious little interest from the authorities in the remaining cutlers whose trade stretches back centuries. It is, as Wood says, like Stratford-Upon-Avon deciding to ignore Shakespeare. Why should craft, even if it is carried out in industrial settings rather than a smithy beside a village green with dancing maidens, be any less a part of life and culture than the arts?
‘When I go round the workshops,’ he says, ‘I get these people who are intelligent problem solvers – that’s what craftspeople are – and I’ll say, I want to make this, and they go, “hmm… I wonder how that’s been made, I wonder if we can do this… we could try this, we could try that…” and they work it out. That intelligent problem-solving is a very human thing. To me, it takes you right back to a monkey poking a stick at something to get some food; that link of hand and brain. It is part of what it is to be human.’
There’s no arguing with that, though we are perhaps talking about a different idea of human-ness than that posited by contemporary consumerism. A better idea, all told: the nation’s restaurateurs should take note.