Editor’s note: The following account was written by Robert Wearing, the author of “The Essential Woodworker,” which is one of the best modern books on handwork. Period. End of story. In this entry, Wearing recounts his woodworking training after World War II and his connection to Edward Barsnley. “The Essential Woodworker” is available in our store for $23 plus shipping.
— Christopher Schwarz
After World War II, the British government offered to ex service personnel a Further Education and Training grant for those whose training had been interrupted by the war. Mine had not been but an exception made in the case of teaching. There was an acute shortage, since many teachers had been killed and young men were conscripted before they could go to college.
Wondering what to do with my life after being demobbed from the forces I made a visit to my old school. My old headmaster, looking through my old reports said, “You excelled in woodwork. Why not consider craft teaching?”
He sent me to see one of his craft teachers who said, “Go to Loughborough, nowhere else. They will make a craftsman of you.” So I applied.
I was sent a drawing to make and bring. It was a teapot stand, a rather elaborately jointed mitred frame, holding a 6” x 6″ ceramic tile. I made this in a little garden shed workshop with what tools I had and little knowledge and went for interview. It was accepted and I was in.
Before arriving I was to make a dovetailed tool box to a standard design. Three boxes were fitted under each bench.
Loughborough College in those days was three-quarters engineers and one-quarter teachers, half of the teachers were craftsmen and half were physical education.
Almost the entire entry to the college at that time were soldiers, sailors or airmen. The college (now a university) had no experience of so many mature students, having only had schoolboy entrants before, but treated us very considerately, so we had no complaints.
Our first job, from a drawing supplied, was a small book rack in agba, an African hardwood. I still had that until my house and contents were sold.
Subjects studied in the first two years were Ancient and Medieval History, English Literature, Education (with teaching practice in schools) and teaching handicraft as it was then called, also Technical Drawing.
Nothing was very formally taught, we just got on, working to our approved drawings. A tutor wandered around and could be consulted. Each workshop also had a very competent cabinetmaker, who maintained the equipment. He was a mine of information and was always most helpful. That was Mr. Finch, who was always referred to as such. Nowadays he would be a technician of varying quality.
After the book rack I made a small side table with a drawer in mahogany. The principle on which the college ran was “Training on Production.” Contacts were made with industry and orders were taken and made.
The engineers, particularly the mechanical engineers, could do this; but the craftsman teachers on their own individual work, could not. So we made furniture for the library that was proposed when building and timber restrictions ended.
During the war and for several years after timber of all sorts was rationed and difficult to buy. We students often resorted to going to auction sales, hoping to buy a large dining table with extending leaves and massive rails. The large legs would be cut up for turning. Such a piece in Cuban mahogany was indeed a good buy. This made a paneled bookcase with sliding glass doors.
I found a source of of thick oak, being the bottom of railway wagons destroyed by bombing. For years they had carried coal, the dust from which was deeply embedded.
When I took some pieces to the college sawmill, I was rudely sent away to first plane off the top charred 1/4″ – by hand. The boss later relented and agreed to saw and thickness them as the last job before the saw and blades were sharpened. In fact it proved to be quite nice material, out of which I made several nice pieces in the garage of my hall of residence, including a small circular table, which I still have. Also a small wall hanging bureau. Having sold off the rest when I left college, I was not much out of pocket.
Handicraft students had to opt for woodwork or metalwork. After one year I and a fellow student were allowed to study both.
With regard to the tutors, they were all former Loughborough students with the exception of Cecil Gough who was a former foreman of Gordon Russell of Broadway, Gloucestershire, working similarly to the Cotswold School. He left when the firm went into manufacturing, no longer making single handmade items.
Russell designed the war-time Utility Furniture, which was well designed to make the best and most economical use of the timber in very short supply.
Ockenden, the head of the department, trained at Shoreditch College, who might be termed rivals of Loughborough for the top position.
Edward Barnsley, an outstanding designer craftsman with his own business in the New Forest, Hampshire, employing a few highly skilled men, gave a few lectures. He also discussed and advised on their designs with students. On his death a trust was set up to maintain his workshop as a high-quality training establishment.
There were very few machines in the workshops but there were machines of course in the sawmill. If you wanted 3/4″ material you planed it down with a jack plane, from 1″ boards. Strangely my workshops had a band saw. The cabinetmaker/technician seemed to spend a large part of his life sharpening this. There was a woodturning lathe, little used, but no circular saw. A small one would have eased our labours greatly, without lowering the quality.
My oak sideboard final project, planed from 1″ to 3/4″, was very heavy work which went on for a long time. There was a grindstone, which was pedal driven and very tedious and slow in operation, particularly when grinding the thick blades in wooden jack planes.
There were no “stock” projects. All the work was designed by students and advised by Edward Barnsley. The exception to this was the library furniture made as production work. This was designed by Barnsley.
Looking back to 1947-50 I do not see how the practical training could have been bettered. There is no training of this quality now in any college. Only in the Barnsley workshops.
— Bob Wearing