Carpentry comes back

Bedales school library today (courtesy Bedales school)

Thirty years ago the skills associated with carpentry almost disappeared wholesale from Britain. Only a dedicated, small group of carpenters kept the craft alive, who have since witnessed it’s mushrooming popularity in the intervening decades. Beginning with Bedales, the well known arts and crafts school, this piece traces the path of this resurgence up to the present day and to two of the best known carpentry concerns which have blossomed since carpentry’s return

Edward Barnsley was one of a handful of furniture makers who, remarkably, maintained the living thread of the 19th century Arts and Crafts movement through the course of the twentieth century. He died in the 1980’s, but today the Edward Barnsley Trust continues this tradition with apprentices learning the skills of furniture making in the very workshop high above the Hampshire town of Petersfield, on a verdantly leafy outcrop of the Southdowns, that Barnsley occupied for so many years.

With his father Sidney, and uncle, Ernest, and their long time architect partner, Ernest Gimson, Barnsley is also known for another project which has stood the test of time down through years. In 1919, immediately after the First World War, all four worked on and built the beautiful timber frame structure known as the Gimson Memorial Library at the independent, one-time progressive educational movements school, Bedales.

Eighty-five years on, stepping inside the brickclad library with its great oak timber frame, amply visible joists, beams and timber posts, still brings on a sense of peace and restfulness, made very evident by figures such as these almost disappeared towards the latter years of the twentieth century, but not quite; In the last twenty-five years the sensibility informing timber frame buildings such as the Gimson library has been making a recovery, and quietly and with the minimum of media attention there has been a remarkable re-emergence in Britain of timber frame construction.

Houses, homes and non-domestic buildings have been built increasingly using oak and other indigenous wood such as chestnut and larch. At the same time, skills involved in this craft tradition, which stretches back over six hundred years, have been re-learnt by a small band of like-minded individuals from the generation who came of age in the nineteen seventies; re-generating the skills base which was near to extinction only a decade before. The story is a complex mixture of people searching out the old ways of timber-frame building, combined with other key elements in the timberbuild grid,“ including palpable leaps in applying both contemporary engineering and new technology to timber. This affiliated timber engineering movement has fused with timber or heavy wood carpentry along with a surge of interest and rediscovery in the public mind for actual timber-frame building. Together, all of this, has provided the work and experience for the found skills of this small group of carpenters to apply and passed on to an ever wider net of trainee carpenter crafts-people. And in a sense a significant part of the story leads back to Bedales and the immediate Petersfield region.

The Bedales library building as was, interior and exterior (courtesy Bedales school)

The library’s timber frame under construction and completed (courtesy Bedales school)

Bedales pupils beginning the new theatre build (Charley Brentnall)

A young John Russell working on the Sotherington Barn
project (Charley Brentnall)

In 1995 the school decided to build a new theatre, which would be both a contemporary expression of a timber-frame low energy structure, and a counterpoint to the oak-framed library, turning this tradition around to face the approaching twenty first century.

In so doing they turned to a young oak-frame carpentry company, Carpenter Oak and Woodland (acronymously COWCo for short) to build the frame, alongside the well known environmental architects Feilden Clegg, who had designed the building.

Returned in fact because Carpenter Oaks founder, Charley Brentnall had been involved in an earlier building project – the Sotherington barn which Brentnall and a small if enthusiastic bunch of pupils moved from a site in Selbourne and rebuilt within Bedales schools grounds in 1981.

This was just when Brentnall – who originally trained as a ceramicist – was getting Carpenter Oak & Woodland off the ground, Brentnall being among a handful of people who in the early seventies became immersed in the intricacies of timber frame construction; and he learnt a fair amount of his skills from his contemporaries including John Winterbottom and Paul Russell. Russell returned from France, where he had sought out a surviving French Guild or ‘Campagnons’ school of craftspeople to acquire still extant jointing techniques.

These techniques had disappeared from Britain by the early nineteenth century, but not across the channel, and included ‘plumb and level’, and datums in timber – where the levels on timber are measured and cut with accuracy, however mishapen the wood.

With Russell, techniques such as these were re-imported and transmitted back to some of the small group of incipient carpenters in Britain. At the time, Brentnall says, it was only a handful who started re-tracing and re-learning this lost knowledge; and although at first those involved were not aware of it, soon it was recognised there was a ground-swell of interested people, who “began popping out of their rabbit hole’s” and realising that they weren’t alone. Brentnall recalls it as “re-inventing the wheel”, re-creating the secrecy of Guild knowledge amongst the first wave of carpenters about their self-taught knowledge.

Brentnall went on to set up Carpenter Oak and Woodland, one of the most respected heavy wood carpentry companies in the country. Today they are based between Bath and Chippenham, down a woody lane in the middle of countryside. Much of the timber framing is done either on site or in their yard and sheds and transported to site. It is a reassuring experience to visit the yard with long stacks of timber sitting waiting to be used, open sheds with frames half completed, and master carpenters crafting sections of buildings for use in the near future.

Carpenter Oak & Woodland have been involved in many of the most exciting of the current generation of timber buildings and structures; from the Bedales theatre,  and at Doncaster’s Earth Centre the spectacular Solar Canopy timber space-frame, to completing a balloon frame design for the Inverness Maggies’ Centres cancer care centre. Alongside these public buildings, Carpenter Oak & Woodland continue to be commissioned to construct private domestic homes, including a recent crucible shaped cruck frame structure in Scotland.

If the proximity and transmission of the architectural side of the Arts and Crafts movement embodied in two buildings from the two ends of the century’s hundred year spectrum isn’t enough, just down the road in Rake is Carpenter Oak & Woodland’s  younger peer, the Green Oak Carpentry Company, making the area, either by synchronous or incidental design, a nodal epicentre for the emergence of timber build in the south of the country. Set up by Andrew Holloway, “ another ex-ceramicist – the company was, along with COWCo, among the first half dozen or so to develop in the early nineties. Their first project was a barn in South Harting built in 1991 again a few miles from Petersfield, followed by Orchard House, a four bedroom oak frame home in Winchester. In 1996 Green Oak were invited to join the engineering and architectural team on the celebrated Weald & Downland Museum Gridshell, where the upper level is specifically for timber-frame teaching – which multiplied their confidence about the possibilities of timber build.

And not only for Green Oak. The high profile Gridshell project “ almost winning the 2001 Stirling Architecture prize – has given British timber engineering a sizeable boost, recalibrating professional curiosity among architects and engineers about what is achievable with new engineering and new technology and wood as a material. It has also shown continental Europe that the Brits can build and deliver striking new timber building structures. Although again, it is a fundamentally post-nineteenth century structure, its ‘strength’ being in its grid-based lightness, which is somewhat at odds with the traditional heavyweight approach of oak and timber framing, and it has been said there are considerable numbers of people in the traditional timber-framing world who do not care for this ‘sticks and string’ building.

The completed theatre – interior and exterior (Bedales school)

Early COWmen: Rod James, Bill Keir, Robert Currey and Adam Milton (Charley Brentnall)

Shot of the early COW-Crew (Andy Parker, Carpenter Oak & Woodland)

Old…..Stirling Castle’s roof restored to former glories (Carpenter Oak & Woodland) … and new – The Earth Centre’s space canopy (Carpenter Oak & Woodland)

[Left] – The Weald and Downland Museum gridshell – Inside – (Stewart) [Right] – Carpenter Oak’s Moffat House, a cruck frame which was featured on the Grand Designs TV programme (Carpenter Oak & Woodland)

Overall, Andrew Holloway, feels that the timber-framing revival is apparent primarily in the southern half of the country, and he points to both the general public’s rebirth of interest in domestic timber build, which in turn has led architects into unexpected and hitherto unfamiliar terrain. Traditional timber frame buildings have been in demand for, for example pool barns, extensions, and garden rooms; a self-grown interest occurring over the last decade which seems undeniably linked both to the buoyancy of the economy during the period, and the fact that there is more money is located in the south. Architects, “ who, in Holloway’s view, are ˜as a breed” generally interested in what is new “ are becoming aware of the general public interest have been beginning to look into, address and learn about timber framing. Perhaps, to their surprise, they have generally found it interesting. At the same time it has to be said that there is a ‘retro’ element to the public’s desire, Holloway believes, that there is something brazenly English about the phenomena harking back to a lost England of another time, and relates the restored fortunes of timber frame building to the British being romantic, partial to historical revivalism. The building conservation movement is a point in case, and the increased interest in restoring and maintaining old historic timber frames has added to the building revival in significant measure. This in turn predated the arrival of the fully-fledged Heritage Culture, in which, as Holloway points out, the Brits have become world leaders.

Answering the question of why people are so attracted to timber frames and to wood , Holloway returns to the ideal. “There is a dream to live in a house which actually elevates your spirits and changes your consciousness. We’ve been so bludgeoned into accepting the box”, he believes, “that we no longer notice the difference.” But the timber frame dream is about, physically changing your state of being, closely akin to the dream of the natural home movement” “Building used to be the provenance of the very wealthy, now everybody wants to do it, and the vast majority of say, the British population can”. The public, he says, are unusally interested in timber buildings, “want a building which will elevate their senses, their sense of being. With galleys and open spaces, and with the beauty of construction as part of the building they are in.”

The sustainability dimension of this phenomena occurs almost by default. Overall, British forestry is in overproduction. On a year-by-year basis the degree of woodland covering the country increases annually, with the amount being cut for timber and smaller wood use comprising a smaller segment than the annual additional growth. This is another arrow in the quiver for those who contend that wood based building is the most consistently sustainable of forms, along with wood being a renewable material, as opposed to steel, concrete or glass; wood after all replenishes, growing again and again. Not only this but wood acts as a carbon sink “ storing carbon and potentially lowering the releases of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Production of man-made materials does just the opposite. Ironically the vast majority of timber used in British building comes not from local indigenous woods, but from relatively distant, cheap sources, notably, historically from around the Baltic basin. Initiatives of varying kinds are being developed to encourage the further growth of local timber construction, for instance, the TimberBuild Network and, in East Sussex, the Flimwell Woodland Enterprise Centre. Together, helped by the Internet, they are working to connect wood suppliers to people wanting to build close to the supply, thus reducing another element in the ecological footprint: transportation of materials.

The immediately relevant element in this story however, is that a skill and physical knowledge that was on its knees has survived a protracted period of adversity and is bouncing back, almost flourishing. Almost, as there are still no professional courses apart from NVQ (“a joke” says Holloway) since its one-time educational stronghold, the City & Guilds courses, were abandoned to the progressive corporatisation of knowledge in the early years of Thatcherism. Often enough, on larger projects, carpenters have had to be recruited from as afar afield as Germany and Canada. This said, where other companies could be counted on one hand ten years ago, and a dozen companies five or six years ago, Andrew Holloway says there are probably a hundred operating today, many seeded from Carpenter Oak and Woodland and a fair few from Green Oak. “The way it should be”, he comments. The future for wood construction is brightening distinctively. Indeed, from one-off woodland projects such as Ben Law’s very popular Prickly Nutwood home – which struck such a sympathetic chord with the tele-viewing public through the Channel 4 programme Grand Designs – to Green Oak’s latest project, a new Gridshell twice the size of Weald & Downland in Windsor’s Great Park going up in the next two years, it may be that the timberbuild renaissance is only just beginning.

A version of this article was originally published in Resurgence in may/june 2005 issue, no 230