Interview with a woodworker: Robin Wood

Image used courtesy of Robin WoodImage Credit: Image used courtesy of Robin Wood
Published Thursday 09th October 2014

This week, International Timber sat down with veteran woodworker Robin Wood to find out more about his craft and the revolutionary approach he's taken to bringing back ancient woodturning and carving crafts to the UK. 

From his workshop in Derbyshire, Robin creates lovingly-made bowls, plates and various other kinds of hand-crafted woodware using traditional methods that haven't seen use in the UK for nearly half a century. 

How did you get into woodworking and where did your interest stem from? 

I used to work for the national trust doing woodland management conservation management specialising in ancient trees and managing ancient woodland. I started doing wood turning and wood carving as a hobby. 

Why did you go down this route instead of contemporary woodworking? 

My inspiration came when I started researching reintroducing medieval management practice to woodlands and that produces particular types of timber for which the market has mostly gone – small diameter timber. The market for timber nowadays is much larger trees. We didn't have the market for smaller diameter trees and I started researching what those trees were used for in medieval times and woodland craft. I heard about a guy call George Lailey who worked until 1958 near Reading. He was a bowl turner and I went to see his lathe at the museum of English Rural Life in Reading and saw that there was no one else doing that. [Lailey used] a foot-powered pole lathe and he made bowls on that and it seemed a real shame no one was doing it anymore, so I took it up as a hobby initially and then gradually gave up the day job. 

What types of material do you work with? 

I use all locally-available English hardwoods, but over the years I've used pretty much every English hardwood. Mostly, for my production work, I use beech, sycamore or alder. 

Do you have any favourites among these? 

People often ask that and the implication is that all trees are the same. If I was to tell you that I love sycamore trees, it's kind of like saying 'I love all Frenchmen' - every tree's different. Occasionally, you find a sycamore tree or a beech tree that works absolutely beautifully, then you'll spend years trying to find another one that works just as well. But they all have their own character and that's part of the joy of traditional woodwork. 

What's the main difference between traditional hand tools and modern devices? 

I would say that I'm not anti-machine. I use chainsaws, I use a band saw, but there are some machines that are nice to use and some that are not nice to use. And there's some machines that in my mind remove the character form the timber. So when you work with simple hand tools, like axes and knives, then it's a very simple experience. I think that most people nowadays that are doing woodworking are doing it as a hobby and our l lives tend to be so complicated that to use very simple tools and to really connect with the raw materials at an elemental level fulfils that need much more than working with power tools does. 

Have you undertaken any particularly complex or challenging projects? 

Normally, once a year or so, I like to take myself away from my workshop and work on something completely different. That's involved things like building a timber frame barn, and I worked with others to build a replica of the dover bronze age boat, which is the oldest seagoing vessel anywhere in the world - and we built that using bronze age tools. I also spent a week in Norway helping to build a replica of the Oseberg Viking ship, which was great, and then most recently, this June, I went to the states and spent three weeks building a birch bark canoe. 

What tips would you offer newcomers looking to get into woodturning or carving? 

Don’t follow the crowd. There are many, many, many old woodworking crafts that have become obsolete and many of those are right for being brought back. Te market is very open for it at the moment. So concentrate on one thing and do that one thing very well. If you stick to one thing, within a couple of years you can become the best in the country and in today's world that's much more valuable than being just one other person making whatever it is. 

What Next? 

Many thanks to Robin for his great insights into a relatively niche area of woodworking. If you want to learn more, or check out some of the great pieces he produces – take a look at his website

And if you're looking for quality timber to use in craft projects, or larger scale jobs don't hesitate to get in touch with us today.