Page last updated at 22:29 GMT, Monday, 29 March 2010 23:29 UK

Last craftsmen fight to save their trades

By Joanne Babbage
Business reporter, BBC News

Robin Wood at his lathe
Robin Wood thinks there is no incentive for sole traders to take on trainees

Robin Wood from Edale in Derbyshire is the last professional pole lathe bowl turner in the UK.

Mr Wood gave up his job as a National Trust forester in 1995 to become a professional woodworker, making traditional bowls and plates from local timber using a foot-powered lathe.

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The last professional pole lathe bowl turner before him, George Lailey, died in 1958 without passing on his trade.

Mr Wood went out and researched the techniques of, what was then, a dead craft skill. He even had to learn how to make the tools he needed as none existed outside of a museum.

He calls himself a "self-directed learner" and says it is how many professional people in the crafts sector learn their trade.

Mr Wood does not want to see his craft die again, but as he operates as a sole trader there are not many incentives for him to take on an apprentice.

"In the first year the trainee would be a serious liability to my business. In the second year they would start to hold their own, but it's not until the third year that they would be useful to me. But then they'll probably leave to set up on their own," he says.

On the job training

The problem of finding new people to take on traditional crafts is not limited to the countryside.

There are three skilled workers at Ernest Wright & Son, a scissor making firm in Sheffield, all of whom are in their mid 60s.

Scissors being made at Ernest Wright & Son
There are only two companies left in the UK that make scissors by hand

They have told Nick Wright, who is the fifth generation of Wright to manage the company, that they can work for him for another five years but then they will retire.

Mr Wright cannot afford to take on trainees and keep paying his staff. He fears the company will fold if he cannot find replacements.

No apprentice schemes exist for scissor making. Mr Wright says the National Apprenticeship Service suggested he offer an engineering apprenticeship, but he thinks that would be unfair as that is not what the job entails.

Ernest Wright & Son is thought to be one of only two companies in the UK that make handmade scissors.

"It's a trade you learn on the job with the experts. And the three men working at Ernest Wright & Son are the experts," says Mr Wright.

The longer you can spend with a craftsman the better you will become yourself
Alastair Simms, master cooper, Wadworth

Mr Wright thinks people should be offered the opportunity to pay to learn a skilled trade.

"In the past, people used to pay a company to be taken on as an apprentice. People pay to go to university so why not to do an apprenticeship?" he says.

"And it would mean they would be committed to the career so won't leave after five years having been trained up, leaving me with the same predicament."

Race against time

The problem of finding new people to take on traditional crafts is not limited to small firms either.

Alastair Simms, 47, makes wooden beer barrels for Wadworth & Co brewery in Devizes, Wiltshire.

Alastair Simms making a barrel
Alastair Simms is England's only master cooper

He started as an apprentice on his 16th birthday. He is England's only master cooper.

It took Mr Simms 15 years to earn the title of "master" which in England means he has successfully trained an apprentice.

Mr Simms wants to pass on his skills but time could be running out.

"I'm 47 now so it's the right time to take on an apprentice. It takes four and a half years to train an apprentice but they will need a total of 10 years working with me to learn the trade properly," he says.

"The longer you can spend with a craftsman the better you will become yourself."

A coopering apprenticeship does not exist and the company has been told to offer a joinery one instead.

Craft skills

"There clearly seems to be a problem," says Felicity Woolf, director of UK operations with Creative and Cultural Skills, the sector skills council that looks after crafts.

Robin Wood's handcrafted wooden bowls
Robin Wood makes bowls on a foot-powered lathe

"If companies and individuals were able to apply for a more generic "craft apprenticeship", and then work out what specific areas of training are needed for their specific craft, then that would be more flexible."

Creative and Cultural Skills is also launching an apprenticeship training service in April that promises to help small businesses in the sector cut through the bureaucracy of taking on a trainee.

"Less than 10% of people working came through an apprenticeship route. The vast majority are self-taught and most come into the sector aged between 25 and 30," says Robin Wood, who is also the chairman of the recently launched Heritage Crafts Association.

It works with agencies in the education and learning sectors to identify and support ways to making sure skills are passed through the generations.

A recent survey carried out by the HCA points out the training concerns of people working within the many industries that make up the sector.

Need more information?
Heritage Crafts Association: find out about heritage crafts
Creative & Cultural Skills: the sector skills council

Training provision for those who want to make a living through crafts or improve their skills seems to vary widely across the board.

For example, there are short courses and workshops for basketmakers, but little in the way of formal or structured learning, whereas City & Guilds and NVQ level qualifications are available for stoneworkers.

And those working in pottery and ceramics said degree courses in Scotland had already disappeared and that the rest of the UK was heading in the same direction.

Dying trades?

The survey also suggests that 54% of people working in the sector feel the skills within their craft are in danger of dying out.

The HCA feels that the crisis faced by many traditional craftspeople is largely due to the fact that their crafts fall outside the remit of the current support agencies.

In England, for example, the Crafts Council supports contemporary crafts, whilst English Heritage's remit is to protect the nation's buildings and monuments, not knowledge and skills, Mr Wood argues.

The lathe belonging to Mr Wood's predecessor, George Lailey, takes pride of place in the University of Reading's Museum of English Rural Life.

"Whilst the last guy is working the skill isn't classed as heritage, but when he dies it becomes heritage. Surely it's far, far, cheaper to keep the skill alive rather than trying to set up a facsimile of it in a museum."

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