Mystery of the Moor; 4000 years of woodturning

The collection of artefacts could be one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the last 100 years


  The original discovery      

In August 2011, an early Bronze Age 4000 years old cist (A small chamber made of thin stone slabs) burial was discovered on Dartmoor. Inside were the cremated remains of a female, and, almost uniquely for this period were well preserved grave goods including 4 lathe turned ear studs (labrets).

Stuart King image Oct 2013,  (12)

The old and the new

Analysis has established that these studs are turned from spindle wood, a small shrubby tree that still grows on the Moor.

Stuart King filming BBC doc re 4000 BC  Bronze Age  cist burial,  Dartmoor, Oct 2013--



Studying high resolution images confirmed to me that these artefacts were turned rather than carved, but the question that was put to me by Andrew Brown of de facto Films who was Producing a BBC documentary was how were these exquisite items turned on a lathe, and what sort of lathe? These objects are no more than 2½ cm diameter so I ruled out the use of a traditional pole lathe, much too heavy for such delicate woodturning. As the invention of the crankshaft was at least another 1500 years away, possibly more, the only options were some form of reciprocating apparatus, and this left me with the bow lathe or ‘strap’ lathe.  

Filming BBC doc, Mystery of the Moor, Stuart King with presenter Mike Dilger image Oct 2013,

Stuart King with One Show presenter Mike Dilger.

This was to become an intriguing archaeological experiment. I set up a piece of ‘round wood’ spindle tree between two points and with a bow in one hand and a chisel in the other it was clear that with a little practice progress could be made, coordinating the bowing and holding the tool using a separate hand for each and only making a cut as the wood revolves forwards is tricky at first. Perseverance proved that it could be achieved and I did indeed produce a passable ear stud, and so down to Dartmoor for the filming.

Stuart King filming BBC doc re 4000 BC  Bronze Age  cist burial,  Dartmoor, Oct 2013-- (2)

In deepest Dartmoor

The location was perfect, in front of a recreated ancient round house. The lathe was set up, the presenter was Mike Dilger of the ‘One Show’ with Dr Richard Brunning, wood expert in attendance. Using my set of Bronze Age tools, notably a socketed bronze chisel and a small round nose scraper I bowed away, slow but sure. I then suggested that if Mike put a cord around the work piece it would free up both of my hands and this would allow me more control, this made a great difference with both the speed of turning and the accuracy of tool use. More speed, more torque, more accuracy, quicker production, this had to be the method used. Indeed, this form of turning proved so efficient that multiples could be turned, pointing possibly to the earliest form of mass production?

Stuart King image Oct 2013,  (10)

Bronze Age chisel alongside neolithic flint chisel

The original studs were so well preserved that one could see evidence of final finishing on the some of the side walls, as if the turnings had been rubbed on a course stone to remove the uneven surface where the studs had been finally parted from the main stock, possibly with a knife. This was my first encounter with spindle wood and I was amazed at the fine finish that was achieved directly from the bronze skew chisel.

Stuart King image Oct 2013,  (9)

Within a couple of hours I had taken woodturning back another 500 years to the early Bronze Age. My next challenge is to take woodturning back to the Neolithic!


ear studs bronze age

The forthcoming BBC2 TV Documentary will be broadcast 28th February 8.30 pm then on iplayer for a while 



Mary Rose Comb

Back in Time, Mary Rose visit  Mary Rose Comb by Stuart King 2013 (9)

Henry the Eighth must have been gutted when on the 19 July 1545 at the Battle of the Solent, His flagship the Mary Rose sank because it was top heavy while leading the attack on the French invasion fleet. Five hundred sailors perished watched by a horrified King Henry from the shore.

Between 1979 -1982 the ship’s contents are excavated by divers and more than 19,000 artefacts were brought to the surface. The wreck of the hull was raised in 1982 and now after years of pioneering conservation work the whole story of the Mary Rose, her crew and much of Tudor life is set out in a brand new, state of the art Museum.

It is calculated that it would have taken about 16 hectares (40 acres) of woodland, more than 600 large oak trees to construct the great ship, but in many ways it is the small, sometimes tiny and personal items that really enthralls. Rosary beads, fine toothed nit combs, wooden bowls, pomanders and eating spoons, the preservation of all these artifacts is truly amazing.

I recently visited the new Mary Rose museum at Portsmouth. What a fantastic job they have done. I was so taken by the sailor’s boxwood hair combs that it was straight to the workshop, I just had to make a couple, one a basic Jack Tar example and another that I envisaged Henry commissioning for him self.Mary Rose Comb by Stuart King 2013 (3)

Making these combs using onlMary Rose Comb by Stuart King  July 2013 (3)Mary Rose Comb by Stuart King  July 2013y hand tools is the only way that a craftsman can have an insight into the skill of the Tudor and earlier specialist artisan.Mary Rose Comb by Stuart King  July 2013 (10)

Henry, your loss is our gain,Mary Rose Boxwood combs by Stuart King, July 2013




                TV-TimeTeam-Stuart King with Phil Harding and that two gallon Wassail bowl-Sutton Courtney -

Wassailing is an ancient English tradition that is said to go back as far as Saxon and Viking times. The word ‘wassail’ comes from the Old English “Waes hael” meaning “Good Health”, to which the response would be “Drinc hael, and drinking was at the heart of wassailing. The tradition has always varied from manor to manor, from monastery to guild and street to street where wassailing latter became part of house to house carolling during Christmas tide. Continue reading

Moroccan bow lathe turner

This young woodturner can be found plying his trade in the medina of old Marrakech. With just one tool (a skew chisel) he turns a chess piece on a bow lathe that would have been a familiar sight in ancient Greece or the Pharaohs’ Egypt.

Stuart wins Strictly Woodturning

Strictly WoodturningOn the evening of Friday 23rd October 2009, attended by 170 guests, delegates and turners, Axminster Tool Centre hosted the Strictly Woodturning event.

Similar to the BBC’s popular Strictly Come Dancing, this was a competition in which the 12 turners competed against each other at the lathe.

They were tasked with creating items such as a vase, goblet and lidded box in an incredibly short eight minutes. Continue reading

History of the Lathe: part one – reciprocal motion

Chinese pedal latheAll lathes by their very nature rely on a revolving work piece. To capture and impart this motion, to devise and create the required force has challenged mans ingenuity back into pre-history. Man has been using the momentum provided by a spinning weight for tens of thousands of years in the form of drop spindles for spinning wool. The potter’s revolving ‘wheel was almost certainly the first machine used by our ancestors. It maybe that the reciprocating bow drill and pump drill in it’s many forms was the first mechanical hand tool, Certainly it could be used to create fire as well as bore holes and with a profiled cutter fitted could be used to produce buttons, counters and beads. Continue reading

History of the Lathe: part two – continuous rotation

French giant wheel latheThe wheel is probably man’s most important technological discovery.  A Sumarian pictogram dated 3500BC is the earliest reference for the wheel. By 2000BC man was making spoked wheels yet the earliest pictorial reference we have of a wheel driven lathe seems to be from the 15th century.

The great advantage of a wheel driven lathe is that continuous and controlled rotary motion is possible. This was not an automatic benefit to every aspect of woodturning though, as is illustrated by the continuing use of the reciprocating bow, strap and pole lathes. These ancient, simple lathes could still compete and perform efficiently in certain specialist areas such as small spindle and bowl turning. Continue reading

History of the Lathe: part three – mechanical power

Electric power drillFrom classical times man has harnessed wind and water to work heavy machinery, to relieve him of hard physical labour and to speed up production. A Roman settlement C.200AD in southern France boasted sixteen water mills for grinding corn. It may be that this form of motive power was used to drive lathes also but if it was there seems to be no record of the fact. If this were the case, it would have probably have been the exception rather than the rule.

It does appear that the woodturners of old were content to continue with their tried and trusty traditional methods long after other sources of power were available to many of them. There were good economical reasons for this. No advantage was to be gained by expensive investment when the simple reliable technology of the strap, bow, pole and latter wheel lathes was usually just as efficient and more reliable. Continue reading

History of the Lathe: part four – the machine takes over

Man has always tried to find ways of making manual tasks easier and the businessman methods to reduce manpower, speed production and lower operating costs. A good illustration of this was the manufacture of rifle butts. Hand held firearms have existed since the Middle Ages and virtually all these weapons incorporated a hand fashioned wooden butt. Making rifle butts was a highly skilled and time-consuming occupation and in time highly protective guilds were formed and prices kept at a high level.

This was just the sort of situation where a machine solution would be welcomed by firearm manufacturers, and in 1820, an Englishman, Thomas Blanchard designed a ‘reproducing lathe’. Blanchard’s lathe was capable of making two rifle butts an hour and it was not long before he had built one capable of producing ten or twelve in an hour. He went on to devise other reproducing lathes to manufacture shoe lasts and axe handles. Continue reading

Bone up on Bobbins : the craft of lace bobbin making

Lace maker

‘Yon cottager, who weaves at her own door,
Pillow and bobbins all her little store;
Content though mean, and cheerful if not gay,
Shuffling her threads about the livelong day,
Just earns a scanty pittance, and at night
Lies down secure, her heart and pocket light.’

Lines written by the poet William Cowper (1733-1800) describing the plight of lace makers in his hometown of Olney, north Buckinghamshire. For the most part lacemaking was an occupation of the poor, mainly women and children, and although the financial rewards were low it often made the difference between independence or the workhouse. Continue reading

The International Turning Exchange

Stuart King at the International Turning Conference

There is nothing parochial about the International Turning Exchange (ITE); this is born out by the number of residents who have participated from many parts of the globe over the last ten years. For me an indicator of the programme’s great success was the number of past residents who chose to return to Philadelphia to repeat the experience. I see the ITE as a ‘melting pot of artistic creation’; dare I say, as unique for its time as was the 19th century English arts and crafts movement or the French impressionists! A prime mover in the world of wood-art. Continue reading

How I built Leonardo Da Vinci’s lathe

Leonardo's lathe and its modern reconstruction

How long has man been turning wood? Almost certainly longer than we have evidence for! What did the first lathe look like? We are not sure, but we can come to a reasonable conclusion bearing in mind the materials and technology available. There are just a few early illustrations that give us some insight plus the continuing use of simple technology in parts of the under-developed world. Continue reading

Chair Turnings

Roman chair from NaplesWoodturning has played more than a supporting role in the history of chair making. From the ancient Egyptians, who used the lathe for turning chair parts, to the latest computer-controlled copy lathes man has endeavored to decorate his furniture and solve the practical turning problems that arise.

Some of the earliest evidence of turned work in English chairs date from the twelfth Century where a chair of state is depicted in an illuminated manuscript written by Eadwine, a monk from Canterbury.

Continue reading

German Toy Town

German wooden toysForget Lapland and Father Christmas, cease searching for Gusepie’s fictional workshop where Pinocchio was created. The real ‘toy-land’ is alive and well in old Saxony, This beautifully rural East German region encompasses the Erzgebirge mountains that shares a border with the Czech Republic. This whole area is dotted with small medieval towns and villages with half-timbered buildings that would be quite at home in any European fairytale. In fact when I reached my destination, the toy-making village of Seiffen, I had to suspend belief that this little community was part of a Disney film set. Continue reading

Making a Wassail Bowl

Wassail bowl by Stuart KingThe height of wassailing could be said to have occurred during the 17th century, at a period when magnificent bowls elevated on a stemmed foot graced many a magnificent table. Wassail bowls were traditionally turned from Lignum Vitea, a newly discovered timber from South America. The function of a wassail bowl is to hold ‘wassail’, a hot punch like beverage of which there are many recipes, most will contain amongst other ingredients, Wine, Ale, Ginger, Apples, Honey and beaten egg whites. ‘Wassailing’, the tradition of drinking wassail took many forms.’ Wassail’ is a corruption of the Anglo-Saxon phrase waes hael, a term often used as a toast meaning, be hale or good health. Continue reading

Green wood inspiration: turning with wet wood

Swamp maple gobletThe ‘greenwoods’ of the Chiltern Hills have been a source of inspiration to me. I enjoy them in all seasons and all weathers, I’ve experienced the ever-changing ambiance that misty mornings or shafting sunlight can bring, and that mysterious period just after the sun has set. It’s from these greenwoods I’ve known from childhood that my raw material comes from. The Chiltern Forests are renowned for their Beech but it’s Sycamore, an interloper of recent centuries, that I use for much of my turned work. Not only is my timber from the ‘greenwood’ but I also turn it ‘green’ – working with ‘wet’ wood is both pleasurable and a challenge. Continue reading

The Chair Bodgers of Buckinghamshire

Reg Tilbury as a young manThe old chair bodgers of Buckinghamshire are now relegated to history, the last few of them doggedly clinging on to their traditional way of life until the late 1950s. I have been privileged to know some of these craftsmen from the Beech-clad Chiltern Hills and have spent many a cosy hour by their firesides and in their disused workshops sharing their old tales and dry sense of humour. They are all gone now but their legacy is every where. You are supported by their craftsmanship every time you sit in an old Windsor chair. Every leg, spindle and stretcher contains the spirit of these men, the essence of the Beechwoods is still there and if those turnings could talk they would speak of spring Bluebells, red Squirrels and autumn winds. Continue reading

Cooking up colour: Stuart King’s turned wooden pots

Ash token pot with rafia tiesVessels come in all shapes and sizes and most lathe artists try to achieve a silhouette that first and foremost appeals to the eye. A beautiful form, balance, a pretty profile, outline is just one part of the whole.

Choice of material is usually of major importance. It must of course be fit for the intended purpose whether this is to exploit an example of highly figured grain or a plain wood that will allow the viewer to concentrate upon the form alone.

Finish is another consideration and to many this will mean polish to enhance some beautiful grain and to give a smooth surface.

Continue reading

The Bucklebury Bowl Turners

George LaileyWhen things are commonplace they are often taken for granted but when the ‘everyday’ nears extinction we sit up, take notice and begin to realise the value of what has become unique. This was in some measure the story of George William Lailey (1869—1958), bowl turner of Bucklebury Common, Berkshire. Both George Lailey’s father and grand father (both named William) were bowl turners producing bowls of various sizes, plus a few platters, bread boards and handled scoops from the local Elm. Although Elm predominated occasionally other local timbers were used such as Chestnut, Sycamore and Beech. Continue reading

The Forgotten Turners of Kings Cliffe

William BaileyThe Doomsday Book records the Northhamptonshire hamlet of Clive (Kings Cliffe) as, ‘standing in 4 acres of meadow with a wood a mile long by half a mile broad’. In medieval times the village was one of the ‘Twelve Forrest Villages’ within the 250 sq. miles of Rockingham Forrest, originally owned by the crown and used exclusively for hunting.

One of the earliest recorded woodturners was Nicholas Baylye who married in 1597 and there has been an unbroken succession of Baylyes (Baly, Bailey) employed in woodturning right through to the 1940s. Continue reading