vol 7, issue 9

Why do we no longer value woodcraft?

17 September 2012
By Tony James and Abi Grogan
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The Shakespeare Globe Theatre

The Shakespeare Globe Theatre, restored by McCurdy & Co

Filing dovetails

Traditional skills, such as woodwork, are slowly dying out among students in favour of more academic subjects

The recreated hull of the Germaine

The recreated hull of the Germaine, made out of sawn oak

Crafting in wood is part of our national heritage, but traditional woodworking skills are undervalued by modern industry.

Using traditional woodworking skills is still a niche industry, but many areas have seen a recent revival, both through demand from consumers requesting authentic wooden commissions, and also from college-age students who are looking to trades as an alternative to a £9,000-a-year university education.

There is a growing awareness that antique wooden structures, ranging from furniture and boats to heritage buildings, are gradually becoming fewer and therefore need to be looked after more carefully, with more regard to authenticity and originality.

But partly thanks to current college career advice advocating academic learning over hands-on apprenticeships, traditional skills are still slowly being lost. "Despite our best efforts, physical, hands-on crafts are still being viewed as a career option for those who are, shall we say, less gifted," Nat Wilson, managing director of the International Boatbuilding Training College (IBTC), says. "But this is not the case, you need to be of a fairly intelligent stature to qualify as a skilled craftsman."

The IBTC, a Suffolk-based college, teaches students traditional skills in the craft of wooden boatmaking. The aim of the organisation is to help preserve our nation's maritime heritage, but other students also go on to work on cabinet-making, green-timber frame-making and carpentry. "There has been a decline of wooden boatbuilding and therefore of the people who can do this work, but we and other colleges are producing students who can fill this gap if the financial inducements are made sensible," Wilson says. "In days of old, a master boatbuilder or a stonemason was a person demanding much respect and a really good salary; today not so much. The trades are skills associated with those less academic than students who might attend university, which is simply not true."

He says the importance of having skilled professionals working within this area of restoration is paramount; replacements must be carried out using techniques that are sympathetic to traditional boatbuilding techniques, and as a result in most cases finished projects are a fairly authentic representation of the original structure. "Most of the projects we are commissioned to do are one-offs," he says. "The majority are restorations - an aspect of our work is taking boats that are falling to pieces and replacing those worn parts, but quite often there is not a lot left of the original to work with. Sometimes modern materials are applicable, and can help preserve the longer-term life of the vessel, but we will use those judiciously."

Most modern glues and mastics, for example, didn't exist during the construction of some of the older vessels, so the IBTC will use these during restorations to create lightweight and stronger structures. Modern mastics help to make the vessels watertight, preserving the longevity of the boat. There are a number of ways of working on older boats, some methods modern, some methods traditional, but it all depends on the actual vessel and her historic value.

The IBTC is currently involved in around 30 projects, both in restoration and replica boatbuilding. One completed vessel is Germaine, a 44ft Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter replica. The original Pilot Cutter had suffered rot damage and was considered beyond repair, so there was very little they could do with the original other than use its structural lines. This replica was recreated in sawn oak, ensuring the grain of the wood was running in the same direction as the shape of the hull to create a strong and solid base in the traditional style to create the remaining features of the boat.

Building a replica, or restoring a wooden boat, is a complex task. Organisations such as the IBTC attempt to use techniques that are as faithful to the original methods as possible, which by today's expectations can take much longer than modern boat building.

The first stage of creating a replica wooden boat is lofting, followed by the production of a full-scale technical drawing of the boat. The ballast keels are the first area of the boat to be recreated, using a reverse mould in the shape of the keel to cast a replica in lead or iron. The backbone comes next, with the loft-floors being taken from the shape of each of the ribs. There are various techniques to create the ribs, one of which involves sawing the timber to shape, and another is steaming.

"Steaming is a traditional method used to bend wood, usually employed on smaller boats," Wilson explains. "The timber used is often oak or ash as it responds well to steam. The wood is placed in a steam box on a gas burner, with each piece in the steamer for an average length of half an hour per every half-inch of thickness of the timber. When it's been cooked for long enough it's very malleable and springy, you could tie knots in if you wanted to. But it cools very quickly, so you must get it into the position required almost instantaneously."

When the ribs are completed the sides of the boat are planked up and then the decking, in whichever timber creates the most faithful replica. The interior is then filled in, using traditionally skilled cabinet and furniture makers to ensure the interior is in keeping with the original. The spars are then created from large pieces of timber, components of which include the mast and the boom.

Recreating the Globe

When it comes to using traditional woodworking skills to recreate historic landmarks it doesn't come any more prestigious than the project to rebuild Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. The Globe Theatre is an open air, polygonal playhouse, where over 1,000 people sit in three covered galleries, with a further 500 standing in the yard. The 'Wooden O' measures 100ft across and 54ft to the top of the stage and would, if uncoiled, represent a building of over 400ft long. This major reconstruction project, completed in June 1997, used timber from more than 1,000 English oak trees.

"The work on the recreation of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre represented perhaps the most challenging, exciting and at times probably the most frustrating timber framed project on site in the UK," Peter McCurdy, owner of McCurdy & Co, who rebuilt the theatre, explains. "The particular challenge was the lack of real detailed evidence of what the theatre actually looked like or how it had been built. For us this is always the vital starting point for any project and normally involves months of research in order to build up a picture of what an historic building might have looked like."

A further difficulty was that the original Globe Theatre, built by master carpenter Peter Streete in 1599, burned to the ground within 14 years, after a spark from a canon being used during a performance ignited the thatch roof. However, a similar but slightly more elaborate theatre was rebuilt on the same foundations and stood until 1642 when it was closed by the Puritans and pulled down with all the other theatres of the period.

"By analysis of an illustration by Hollar, showing London with the second Globe from the top of Southwark Cathedral, scholar John Orrell was able to propose the theory that the overall diameter of the theatre was 99ft," McCurdy says. "Consulting with our own knowledge of carpenters setting out procedures of the day, a final dimension of 100ft was established.

"Secondly, by looking at illustrations of the similarly dated Swan Theatre and Norden's view showing the first Globe, some idea of the interior arrangement of three levels of galleries and a stage with a projecting roof began to emerge. Some of these features, such as courtyards and timber frame galleries, can still be seen in surviving coaching inns, which were forerunners of the open air playhouse."

By studying other buildings of the same period in London it was possible to gain an understanding of the methodology, carpentry techniques and other skills in use during this period. McCurdy visited more than 50 other buildings, making survey drawings and recording sizes of timbers and jointing arrangements to build up an overall picture of the sort of timber details being used at that time by Peter Streete and his fellow builders in London.

McCurdy's work on the tyring, or stage house, and stage canopy involved trying to find similar examples of how to span the vast distance of more than 40ft, which is similar to that of Hampton Court Great Hall. The design and construction of the polygonal building presented interesting challenges in terms of the setting out of the constructional details at key connections.

McCurdy selected oak timber for the first two bays of the frame, some of which came from the famous Forest of Dean. "As the Globe reconstruction is a long-term monument, compared with the original which was built as a speculative building for entrepreneurs, it was agreed that the timber frame should be entirely of English oak, although the possibility of using softwood for some seating and other secondary elements was discussed," he continues.

Once felled the wood was converted and delivered to McCurdy's workshops in Stanford Dingley where the first sections of the theatre were set out full size.

"As experienced by Peter Streete and his carpenters back in 1599, we were working with unseasoned, green timber which was not square," McCurdy says. "Carpenters have evolved systems for setting out their buildings and for marking joints which take account of the fact that they are working with material which is not square, this being one of the principal differences between timber framing and cabinet making. Every scribed joint is unique, identified with a carpenter's numeral."

For practical and cost reasons, most operations were undertaken using modern tools, although virtually everything is finished by hand. The company also has a policy of setting out and dimensioning the structure using 'rods', both in the workshop and on site, which as well as being the traditional method is also least likely to cause errors in reading measurements.

"The primary timbers of the structure were erected and positioned using modern technology such as tower cranes and scaffolding," McCurdy says. "This was to ensure that the building would be put up as professionally and safely as possible without compromising the final result. Our historic knowledge was vital as there is an implied sequence in the way that a complicated structure must be fabricated and erected.

"This also dictates the way that things go together. However, this ideal sequence was complicated by the fact that the programme of work had also been dictated by other factors such as funding and the timing of events to mark Shakespeare's birthday."

Dearth of traditional skills

Whereas traditional boatbuilding may be an industry still managing to stay afloat, traditional furniture and fitting building, including traditional bench joinery and fittings such as period sash windows, are important heritage skills that are slowly beginning to fade away.

Partly due to burgeoning energy legislation, and partly due to an inability to keep up with fully automated furniture and fittings operations in regions such as Poland, many traditional joinery companies are finding it difficult to generate business.

The traditional joinery aspect of Footprint Building, a Bristol-based sustainable construction company, has been a casualty of this downturn in demand, recently announcing the closure of the entire department. Director Alasdair Doggart says that despite the multitude of period Georgian and Victorian houses in Bristol, demand for traditional fittings such as sash windows has waned in recent years.

"We've just had to announce the closing of our joinery department simply due to lack of workflow, which is a real shame," he explains. "Traditional bench joinery in furniture building and restoration tends be a dwindling industry. On a smaller scale, there are lots of one-man-bands, which is where the traditional crafts and skills come into their own, but bigger outfits like ourselves are finding it difficult to support larger ventures. When you start stepping up in scale, that's when you come head to head with firms outside of the country that are providing services on a much cheaper rate."

Doggart says these are organisations which do not put the onus on honing traditional skills, but on the mass market, achieved using automated supply chains which cut, glue and assemble copies of traditional products. "Robots are used in place of humans and cutting and gluing products which is partly responsible for this loss of skills: we can't compete with this automated method of fabrication."

Meeting energy legislation

The other hurdle for the traditional wooden fittings industry is the expanding portfolio of energy legislations that they must adhere to. On the construction side of things building performance is key, meaning all products need to meet targets on thermal and acoustic performance. Footprint Building's last joinery project was the development of a new replica sliding sash-window, a very common area of reconstruction in period houses, which addresses a problem of poor thermal retention common in Georgian and Victorian designs.

The replica window is aesthetically identical to a period sash window, but features double glazing in a warp-resistant softwood frame, with air-tightness detailing to meet legislation on heat and energy targets. In the mechanism of a sliding sash, two windows meet a window rail and typically the corners feature a parting bead where air can escape. Spiral balances were included, which meant the void of the surrounding box could be adequately insulated and research was done into brush placement around this area to fill in the nooks and crannies, which are inherently weak for airtightness, a technical fault that is responsible for poor levels of heating in Georgian and Victorian houses.

Doggart says that using modern solutions to create authentic and faithful replicas of traditional fittings may be the saviour of this industry. "We need to improve on existing designs, as when you're upgrading heritage fittings you need to make an improvement on its performance.

"Although we replicate the horn details and the mouldings of traditional products, we are also beefing up the whole unit and filling in the boxes with insulation, as well as using slimline double glazing in conservation areas. You will always need that bespoke supplier, but I think it's a real niche, and possibly not an area you can support an entire business on. There simply isn't enough demand to warrant it long-term."

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