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5th March – Charles Ash

8 March, 2018

Our Visitor tonight was Charles Ash, of Touchwood Crafts.

TouchWood Crafts was established about 10 years ago by Charles in his rural Oxfordshire workshop.

He makes chairs and other furniture in the traditional way of green wood working using no power tools. As recently as 50 years ago, bodgers would buy a “stand” of suitable trees in a wood and convert them in situ into spindles for chairs. A chairmaker would buy the spindles and complete the chairs in his workshop. The wood was often beech but other wood was also used, like ash and sweet chestnut. At that time the trees were hardly mature when the stand was sold making them easy to fell and process on site single handedly.

Charles showed us how he would split a log of chestnut with a relatively blunt axe. This splits the log along the grain. The log halves are split and split again into pieces of triangular section. The next stage is to refine the shape into a roughly round section using a draw knife. This is done by sitting on shave horse on which the wood is clamped so that the top surface can be shaved. The clamp arrangement is foot operated and can be quickly released to reposition the wood. The resulting rough spindle is now ready to be turned.


This is where the pole lathe comes in. Made of wood, there are just 3 metal parts, the pointed tailstock and headstock and the clamp nut and bolt for the tool rest. Course adjustments are made by moving the sections along the bed and clamping with wooden wedges. The head and tailstock points are then pushed into the ends of the spindle using the metal screw thread. The spindle revolves on the pointed ends with a little oil for lubrication. (Old bodgers were said to have used spit.)


Before positioning the spindle between centres, several turns of the drive rope are wound around it. The drive rope is attached to a treadle underneath the lathe and a cord stretched between 2 springy vertical wooden rods above. By operating the treadle the rope turns the spindle towards the operator and when the treadle is released the rope springs back spinning the spindle in the opposite direction. Cutting is done on the downstroke with tools held against the rest. (Such a lathe in the woods would have been operated in the same way but the return stroke effected by means of the rope attached to a bent, springy sapling).

The gearing can be changed by altering the diameter of the spindle where the rope goes round it. A smaller diameter gives a faster rotation but requires more force to be applied by the leg operating the treadle. If this sounds easy remember that it involves standing on one leg for hours whilst pushing the other leg up and down, simultaneously guiding a cutting tool in synch with the direction of rotation. The fastest recorded time for making a pair of legs from a log is 8 minutes!


Charles uses mostly Ashley Iles carving gouges and chisels on the lathe. He sharpens these by hand with a wet stone and Veritas honing compound, touching up with Emery cloth from time to time in between. In the traditional way Charles does not sand the spindles; they are used straight from the cutting tools.

Bowls can be turned on pole lathes though Charles did not demonstrate this. A cylindrical wooden mandrel with metal teeth is hammered into the bowl blank for the rope and the bowl is turned both sides without remounting leaving a central post which is snapped off and the bowl surface cleaned up with a carving tool.

After an extended tea break during which Charles was surrounded by people eager to know more details, he took a look at the 14 items on the members’ gallery. Always interesting to get a different point of view from a visitor, Charles remarked on the fine detail of some items which would not be possible to achieve on a pole lathe. Also how thin some of the end grain bowls were, with the core of the wood retained. This would cause disastrous splits when turning green wood on a pole lathe and would always be avoided.

Take a look at the website for some lovely examples of traditional furniture and the courses you might be tempted by.

Dave Gibbard

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