James Ryan is the Designer and manager at the Edward Barnsley Workshop, after joining the workshop in 1992 as an apprentice furniture maker.
The Frederick Parker lectures are an annual event held by The Furniture Makers Company in London and in March this year, James was invited to give their annual lecture alongside Emma Slocombe from the National Trust.
After the lecture, James took part in a Q&A session and was asked a particularly relevant question relating directly to the core values of the Edward Barnsley Workshop.
Why advocate and teach the use of hand tools in fine furniture making?
One key benefit is that they give a direct understanding of the material in use. Using hand tools helps people to gain a more immediate, connected, understanding of the way a cutting edge and the wood interact.
The simplest way to experience this interaction is by using a sharp hand plane blade on solid timber. By immersing oneself fully in this process one very quickly understands the difference between a blade that is sharp and one that is blunt. This in turn impacts on the ability to control the tool and the resulting accuracy and finish of the surface of the wood.
Timber grows with a grain direction that can be seen. By hand planing wood one becomes better at reading the grain direction and knowing in which direction to guide the cutting edge.
This same knowledge can be applied by a machine operator who needs to ensure that the machine blades are sharp and that the feed direction of the workpiece is optimised to get the best surface finish.
Put most simply we want to train furniture makers who are equally able to use sophisticated hyper accurate digital machinery or basic hand tools to achieve a similar result. It is about instilling first-hand knowledge of good outcomes being achieved by both methods. Obviously, there are considerations in terms of efficiency, time, consistency and cost which will vary from situation to situation and make one approach more suitable than the other.
A simple example of this is the process of flattening boards of rough sawn timber. A well set up and sharp surface planer will flatten rough sawn timber in seconds. The same task would take hours, days even, by hand. Given this, why would you ever hand plane a piece of wood? Well, our surface planer has blades that are 410 mm wide, so this is widest board we can plane safely on our machine.
We recently made an oak table top using the two widest boards from an oak log. These boards displayed rather spectacular grain and were in over 600mm wide. These boards were too wide to machine plane, so what to do? We could have ripped the two 600 mm boards down the centre to get four 300 mm boards and then processed them by machine. We could then have re-joined the split halves with gap-free joints but because of the nature of the grain we would have been able to tell that they had been split and re-joined. This would be unsatisfactory as displaying the spectacular boards in their natural form were a key element of the table design.
In our workshop we had another option which was to hand plane the boards flat. It was hard work and time consuming, but this was allowed for in the budget for the table. Planing the boards this way ensured the appearance and integrity of the boards were retained to full dramatic effect.
Another example where the ability to hand plane is valuable is at the assembly stage of a solid wood piece. Many of our projects might take weeks from initial timber preparation to the final glue up and during this period some solid timber can react by subtly distorting due to adjusting to its environment. Surfaces that had once been flat and true may no longer meet without an unsightly gap. Because of this it is fairly normal that joints will need subtle adjustments prior to glue up the fine adjustment required is not something that can be easily undertaken by a machine. Instead, the workpieces require a more precise, targeted treatment. By putting the joint together and establishing where it can be improved, surfaces that require adjustment can be identified. These small adjustments can be carried out by planes or chisels to create well-fitting joints.
These are but a few examples of the benefits of a thorough grounding in material, tools and techniques, there are many more!
An Edward Barnsley Workshop furniture making Apprenticeship provides a thorough practical training in a commercial environment. In 1924 Edward Barnsley engaged his first apprentice. Today, the tradition of high quality training continues, supported since 1980 by the Edward Barnsley Educational Trust (EBET). The training of more than sixty people has been supported by the EBET. So far, nineteen of them have gone on to set up their own furniture-making businesses. Of the others almost all are working successfully as furniture-makers. For the first three months our Foundation Apprentices use only hand tools, here are some examples of their work.
The foundation apprentices start by hand carving a coin tray from Ash:
They are also required to create an Octagonal Breadboard, completely by hand:
The Tall Stool is also an apprentice piece but requires a great deal of accuracy in joint cutting:
You can learn more about the apprenticeships at the Edward Barnsley Workshop by visiting our website here.