• Roger Waterhouse

Names, Signs and Letters

In 1993 we were living in a small house in St Mary's Gate in the centre of Wirksworth, but looking to buy somewhere in the Derbyshire Dales. Our requirements were, somewhere traditional, big enough for us and our two children (aged 11 and 8 at the time), and a large garden. We ended up buying Demonsdale Farm, Ashover.

It was not ideal. Essentially it was a two-up two-down traditional farmhouse in good repair but with only a small garden. We needed three bedrooms; there were only two. So for two years our son's bedroom was a caravan out the back, which appealed to the 11 year old in the summer, but caused relocation to the sitting room sofa when the wind blew in the winter. The plusses were, a lot of derelict outbuildings. And the garden may have been small, but there were 9 acres of field. So, over the years (many years) we have turned it into a well appointed smallholding with room for my workshop, Jacky's loom room, and plenty of grazing for horses, sheep, geese, chickens etc.

But this is about signs.

When we came the only way to get to us was through a working quarry, up a lane past derelict cottages, and over a spur of the Ashover light railway. Beyond us there was a private track to the historic Overton Hall, which at that stage was an old people's home. And we inherited this sign.

I never liked the script, which I thought inappropriate to a modest dwelling at least a couple of hundred years old (we have no idea why it was called 'Demonsdale'). But the sign was adequate for a while, and not top of our priorities when we had no central heating, not enough bedrooms etc.

However, we began to experience a problem with our address, which persists to this day.

Our postal address had always been, Demonsdale Farm. Fallgate, Ashover.

However, 'Fallgate', historically was an area, rather than a road. But things like Google Maps needed to know what every road was called. So 'Fallgate" came to be the road which led down the hill, past the quarry and round to the Miners Arms.

Our lane, , which led through the (now closed) quarry acquired a signboard which said 'Jerting' Street. Locals who had been born here objected, and said that if anything it was 'Jetting Street'. I don't think that Google maps have yet caught up with the nimble North East Derbyshire District Council when it comes to naming. Check your satnav.

Whatever. Demonsdale Farm is not on the street called 'Fallgate', nor upon the lane now called 'Jetting Street'. It is upon the historic bridleway called 'Abraham's Lane'. Which neither the Post Office nor Google recognise. In the great scheme of things this doesn't really matter because there is no longer any other property on Abraham's Lane which either Amazon or the Post Office would need to deliver to. But that doesn't help the east European delivery guys who are just trying to do a good job. It reminds me of Tony Kaye's problem - but that's another story.

Anyway, after we had been here a few years, and the painted sign was rotting and falling off its post, I decided to make a new one. It's surprising how many people cannot distinguish between carpentry, wood turning and wood carving. Old friends will still ask me occasionally how the woodcarving in going. I remind them that I'm a turner. Carving is quite a different skill, though one I have experimented with in the past. I decided a carved oak sign would be in keeping with the property' so I did my best.

We don't know how old the original building was at Demonsdale, but it was probably one-up one-down from the early eighteenth century, maybe seventeenth. So I didn't want my carving to be a modern font. At the time my father was still alive and living with us, and every Saturday morning I would take him to visit childhood friends of his who lived in Norton, Sheffield. Whilst he was there I had an hour or more to kill. I've known Norton since I was a boy. Even though it is now surrounded by suburban Sheffield it still has its mediaeval village church and a classic graveyard. So i browsed the graveyard for the stone cut fonts of old Norton. I chose one I really liked, photographed it and back home made templates of the individual letters, which I adjusted to the size I needed.

There were two problems. My gravestone had no letter 'M'. I solved this by inverting a 'W'. The other problem was spacing. Aesthetically it only worked if there was some overlap between the letters. So I overlapped, even though that presented a challenge in cutting the fine ridges between some of the letters.

Given that I could only afford an hour or so each weekend to work on it, the sign took me several weeks to complete. But I was well pleased with the result.

I hung it from a branch of a tree at the top of our drive.

Time passed, and my sign weathered well. But the tree kept growing and putting leaves in front of it. And there was a holly bush in front of the tree which kept getting bigger. So apart from in the winter months, the sign was usually obscured by leaves. We decided a new, lower, more prominent sign was needed.

In Tansley, which is just over the hill from us, there is a family called Cross. We've known them for over 25 years. Lorna ran a landscape gardening business and nursery. Her sister Josie sold 'Lots of Pots' and other things, including some of my bowls. Josie moved to the Outer Hebrides (Lewis) about 18 months ago. Lorna, unbeknownst to me until very recently, is a stonemason. When i went to buy my usual Christmas tree from Lorna in December we had a discussion about whether she could reproduce my carved oak sign in stone. She reckoned she could. And she did! The eighteenth century stonemasons of Norton would have been proud of her. And I think flattered that we had so appreciated their original work.

But the final credits in this story must go to Christian. He is the man of many talents who set it in the wall. Really he is a tree man. But one of those rare people who not only likes a challenge, but grows with every one he successfully meets.

And Tony Kaye? He lived at April Cottage in the same little village we did on the Suffolk/Essex border. There was one street, appropriately called 'The Street'. Tony was made redundant in his 50's. He was a keen amateur painter but reckoned he could eke out his meagre pension by framing pictures. So he needed business cards to promote his new business. He reckoned that 'April Cottage, The Street, Ashen' didn't sound professional enough, and seemed to remember that when they had bought the cottage in the 1950s it had a number - number 22. (None of the houses in The Street carried numbers). So Tony went into the main post office in Sudbury to find out whether they would recognise number 22, The Street as April Cottage. The postmaster looked at him indulgently and said "If you want it to be number 22 Mr Kaye, it's 22".

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Frequently Asked Questions


Where do you source your wood?


People often ask me where I source my wood. My answer is, from a tree. And I'm not just being silly. 

If I want to turn  bowl of a size appropriate for salads, or for fruit, I can't just go down to the local woodyard and buy the right chunk. Most woodyards sell timber for construction, or cabinet making. It is planked, and the maximum thickness you are likely to find is 100mm. That is a shallow bowl at best.

Then there is the type of wood. Twenty years ago, or even ten, a local woodyard would probably have some locally source fruitwood in a corner, or a stack of local oak, or chestnut. Not any more. They will have some oak, but it will be kiln dried and likely French, or American. 

So you need to go to a specialist dealer. In every region there are those who will source you ash, or lime, or maple, or exotics. But again these are usuallly planked for purposes of seasoning, and again are meant for cabinet work or the like. And often they are imported. 

Nationally, there are a few dealers who specialise in selling wood for turning - usually bowl blanks, or square sections for reduction to cylinders. The wood is usually sold 'semi-seasoned' which usually means kiln dried but not guaranteed not to split. 

In the meantime, your neighbour is having a yew cut down to make way for their kitchen extension, or an apple tree because it's ceased to fruit well, or an oak, because it's shading the garden.

That's where to source your wood, and where I source mine. And providing you return to them a bowl, made from the wood of their tree, they are often happy to let you have the rest for little or nothing.



How do you choose the wood?


Well, it all depends what you want to do with it. If you want to make a perfect bowl, then you choose a piece of trunk which is straight grained, no branches or shoots, and no faults. You rough turn it green, let it dry out, put it back in the lathe, and finish turn it to the perfect object, 

That's not what I do. I choose a piece which is going to have an interesting figure. The crutch , where the branches split, will have two diverging sets of growth rings and probably some flaring, where the wood has been stressed. Or there is a place where a branch has been cut or broken off. The wound has healed, but the figuring will be there in the grain, and probably some natural staining. Or the wound hasn't healed, and a fungus has invaded, making spalted patterns.

But then you have to choose the cut. 

Many people assume that because the trunk of the tree is round, and the bowl is round, that the bowl is made from a horizontal slice of the tree. You can make bowls this way and you can easily recognise them by the concentric rings they have, just like the tree. But they are weak, particularly if they have any size. That's because as wood dries, it splits. and it splits down the grain, not across it. So to  make a robust bowl, you take a section of the tree, halve it vertically, turn your halved section over to the horizontal plane, and draw your bowl circle from above. In other words, when you cut the bowl, you are cutting it into the cross grain.

And if you have chosen a piece of the tree with an interesting figure, this is what will come out as you cut into the cross grain. It's a process of exploration, and never totally predictable.

And no rule says that you always have to cut on the vertical or the horizontal. You can cut on the diagonal. and what does that do to the patterns in the grain?




How long do you leave the wood to season?


As soon as the living tree is felled the wood starts drying out. But mostly it dries out up and down the grain, not across it. Most of the living cells in a tree run up and down the trunk or a branch. When a tree is cut horizontally, most of the cells in the trunk are severed and bleed. Meanwhile, the bark is waterproof, and doesn't lose moisture.

The sapwood, at the exterior of the tree, has much more moisture than the heartwood at the middle, so it shrinks more. Look at any wood pile of firewood, and you will see this radial shrinkage where the cracks radiate from the centre, getting wider towards the edge.

If you cut a bowl from a newly felled tree ('green wood') it will dry differentially according to the moisture content of the different parts. So if half the bowl was heartwood and half sapwood one side will shrink more than the other.

If the bowl is turned cross grain  in half the trunk, the shrinkage is predictable. The shrinkage across the grain will always be more than the shrinkage along the grain. so viewed from the top, it will become oval. But viewed from the side it will be boat shaped because the lateral shrinkage has pulled the sides down. 

So to answer the question - it all depends! A small bowl, thin turned , of say pearwood might have dried out completely in three weeks without splitting. A piece from the same tree, turned large and thicker, could well take 3 months or more, and even then be at risk of splittting. Left in the trunk, without rough turning or planking, could be three or more years drying out, and would almost certainly split in the process, though different species vary greatly.



How long does it take you to make a bowl?


As long as a piece of string, is the only sensible answer.

It obviously depends on the size of the bowl, the type of wood, whether it is green or seasoned, straight grained or twisted, etc etc. 

But the actual shaping - the fun part- can sometimes be quite quick in relation to the total process.

Think about it. You need to cut down a tree, and cut out a section of it with a chain saw. You need a flat surface on which to inscibe the circle which is the rough outline of your bowl. You then cut a parallel flat surface on a bandsaw for the base of the bowl. Back to the bandsaw and cut the circle as best you can depending upon the thickness of the wood and the breadth of the blade. 

Now to the lathe, and you need to secure the wood in the headstock, probably by screwing through a faceplate and mounting the plate in the lathe. For a large bowl you may well need help in lifting the woodstock whilst you fasten the plate. 

You rough turn the outside. For a small bowl it might take 20 minutes. For a large one it might take 2 hours. Then you have to reverse the stock to turn the inside. so you have to hold the base in some way. Centring this is crucial. If the turning centre for the inside is different  from that of the outside the bowl wall will be thick in one part and thin in another.

Then you turn the inside, which is the trickiest part since twice on any revolution you are turning against the grain and in a bowl of any depth you will not be able to see what you are doing. But you carry on, stopping frequently to judge the thickness of the bowl wall, until you are satisfied with the inner profile, as well as the outer. Anywhichway, it takes longer than the outside did.

Then you take it out of the lathe, rough finished, and set it aside to dry out. 

After a few weeks, or months, when it is dry you put it back in the lathe to finish it, first by cutting, then by sanding. Depending upon the finish you want this could take little time, it could take lots. If the bowl has warped quite a way out of true (the most interesting ones) you will have to hand sand the irregularities. You may even want to do some carving at this stage to accentuate the structural irregularity.

Then you need to consider whether to give a matt or polished finish, whether to apply oil, or wax,or some other finishing product to give the correct sheen, as well as surface durability. And how many applications, and what depth of colour.

Apart from all that, it's quick and simple, unless you hit snags in the wood. Which you usually do.

String is more straighforward.

And none of the above takes account of workshop and tool maintenance. Which takes time, and costs.



Do you have a favourite wood?


The short answer is , No.

There are woods I like to work with. Certainly ones I prefer. And others I wouldn't seek out. 

I guess that over the years I have worked with most English hardwoods and know their characteristics. In fact I can recognise quite a few just by their smell!

But for me part of the joy of turning is discovering the particularity of an interesting piece of wood. Some turners visualise the ideal bowl they want to create and search for the perfect piece of wood to realise that vision. I am the opposite. I start with a lump of wood which looks interesting, and I open it up. I don't know, until I start working it, even what the shape is going to be. I follow the wood. It is a process of discovery, every time. 

So it is with different woods. Recently someone gave me a piece of turkey oak. It is not native to the UK but to southern Europe (though this piece was Staffordshire grown), and I had never turned it before. It had a distinct contrast between the heart wood and sapwood, so it intrigued me to turn one bowl heart-centred and one sapwood-centred. And since they were turned green, I'm still watching how differently they behave as they dry out.

But to go back to the drift of the question, I love turning yew, I love the colour, the dramatic contrast between the orange heartwood and the white sapwood, the way in which it mellows with age, the natural oiliness which makes cutting it a pleasure, the convolutions of the bark, the intricacies of new buds in the grain. But no way would I want to work it all the time. And as with many woods the colour  varies greatly from tree to tree.

I would want to contrast it with the open, coarser grain of ash, with its olive discolourations. Or with the smoothness of sycamore with some spalting, or the drama of spalted beech. I never thought I would take to an open grained poplar until I revelled in its lightness. And that's before we get on to the fruitwoods.

One of the most enjoyable pieces I turned in recent years was old hawthorn, which was heavily spalted, and if anybody offers me holly I'll be round like a flash. Now damson - you can really get some colouring in that. Apple I always enjoy, and it varies so much. But I now draw the line at araucaria (monkey puzzle to you). Ask me why when you see me...

But my most recent discovery was what Jacky calls the understated elegance of maple. The field maple we had cut down last autumn has produced some stunning, albeit small, bowls. Admittedly I choose the patterning carefully, cutting through crutches to get knots and stress wood, but green turned it has behaved very well ,with few cracks and only modest deformation. But finished, the result is pure satin, both to look at and to touch.  I now have my eye on another tree...