Ladder making

Five years ago I blogged about ladder making. I had been contacted by Stanley Clarke who left school and became an apprentice ladder maker aged 14 in 1954.

At the time I said “I am going to look into various sources to see if there is any way we can find some funding to spend time with Stanley, pay for materials and make a proper video record as we try to preserve these old skills.” Well it took rather longer than anticipated but we did it far better than expected too. This week Steve Tomlin  and I met with Stanley and over two days built a thatcher’s ladder. This is a builder’s pole ladder Stanley brought for us to see, made by him over 50 years ago.

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On the first day we spent 5 hours planing the poles up, great fun and hard work, Stanley used to make 4 ladders a day on his own. Their timber was near perfect and needed far less work but he still must have been incredibly fit.

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We learned so much, not only about ladder making but about how to ensure skills are passed from one genration to the next. Much research has been done around the world on how it is best for this knowledge to be captured. Filming a skilled maker is not particularly helpful as all the difficult bits are done with such ease you don’t see how to overcome the difficulties. The best records are made when the process of making is undertaken by skilled apprentices who know little about the particular trade so ask all the right questions to tease the knowledge out of the master. In our case Stanley is very weak having suffered Guillain-Barre disease and been seriously paralysed. This could have been seen as a problem but in fact I believe it helped with the process of knowledge transfer. Stanley desperately wanted to see a ladder made but his body would not do it. He had to give instructions for us to carry out. I would seriously consider in future learning situations tying the master to a chair so they had to work by instruction only. Here I am with our finished ladder, a thing of beauty

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I was not really prepared for the experience of going up the ladder for the first time. Having been a tree surgeon and used aluminium ladders for access I hate them and regard them as dangerous places to be. The wooden ladder whilst heavy was incredibly stable, I would be perfectly happy clearing the gutters of my house from this ladder.

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Here is Stanley beside the finished article, the first one he had seen made for 50 years, it was an emotional few days.

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Stanley is far far more than a retired ladder maker, we visited his home and he showed us amongst other things the penny farthing he built from scratch. He rode this 4 times from Cornwall to France raising £180,000 for charity, he used to race it too, covering 100 miles in 4 1/2 hours. Whilst on the subject of unusual bikes we talked unicycles, I once rode mine round the top of the world trade centre, Stanley used to ride one in the circus, across a high wire with someone on his shoulders. He rode a works Norton 500 at the age of 17, he learned martial arts  to a very serious level from William  Fairbairn and whilst in the army he was the personal bodyguard to the Malaysian Prime Minister. The list of amazing jobs and achievements goes on and on and on I have never met anyone that has done so much to such a high level.

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Back to laddermaking in due course there will be freely available videos of the whole process and we will also be running a free training course to pass the skills on to others that want to learn. Places will be available through the Heritage Crafts Association and priority will be given to folk that need to make ladders for their own work eg thatchers or folk that have a serious commitment to making more ladders. For those that just fancy making an odd ladder there will be an online learning resource taking you step by step through the process.

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10 Responses to Ladder making

  1. CenTs Terres August 14, 2014 at 9:41 pm #

    Two words (or three) : just beautiful work !

  2. Robert Dammere August 15, 2014 at 10:08 am #

    Robin – just interested – the uprights of the ladder appear to (but are not, looking at your photos) the two halves of a vertically split cylinder. In the case of the builder’s ladder made by Stanley you illustrate, the two halves are joined by the rungs. In the ladder you made, the two halves have been reversed, then joined by the rungs. Were there diffferent traditional configurations for wooden ladders?

    (I see posts on your site when linked to by Ken, a friend since school days).

    • Robin Wood August 15, 2014 at 11:34 am #

      Hi Robert yes the thatchers ladder has the square edge outwards, this leaves the rounded side inwards which is more comfortable if you are working on the ladder all day and also the square outer edge gives a square edge to make the thatch up against.

  3. Tom August 15, 2014 at 6:03 pm #

    Such a great opportunity to not only spend time with, but learn from a craftsman such as Mr. Clarke. I really appreciate this article and look forward to seeing and hearing more about this project.

  4. Witchinana August 16, 2014 at 5:58 pm #

    I love wood and everything made this way, the old ways. Please pass on my best wishes to Stanley, I also suffered Guillain Barré Syndrome in 2004 aged 50. I hope his recovery is continued. Hemp oil capsules helped me a great deal. Loving the ladders, wooden ones are best.

  5. ziggy August 18, 2014 at 1:11 pm #

    Sounds great, love your effort in helping preserve these valuable skills and passing on the knowledge.

  6. Christian August 26, 2014 at 6:50 pm #

    hi

    I’m very interested in this old craft and would love to read more about it. Can you give some references in the literature with regard to the craft and the people surrounding it? I am from Denmark so if you can point me in the direction of a scandinavian tradition in this field it would be great!?

    great blog!

    Christian

  7. Steve Hunt August 29, 2014 at 2:00 pm #

    Thanks for this Robin. My Dad was a builder and I remember him having several traditionally made wooden ladders. I also remember roping a few ladders together to climb up and mend my grandmother’s chimney pot, when I was about 14 yrs old. I was terrified. But Dad was used to doing this every day and the ladders were great. They bend, and flex, which is actually very safe because if they were too rigid, they would have slipped. I once watched Dad tie seven together, to climb a church steeple. The local steeplejack had refused to climb it.

  8. David September 8, 2014 at 4:10 am #

    Great skill to keep in existence. Look forwards to seeing the online resources.

    On a related note, we have a property in regional Victoria with established trees and we are planting more with the intention of growing high-value timber. I would be very interested to hear if Stanley has any suggestions on making a good quality stile. We could do with several to get over fences on the property. I found some UK National Trust plans online that looked practicable but interested to hear if Stanley has any comments.

    And does Stanley think it’s possible to make safe ladders from rougher wood such as thinnings, larger branches and so on? There are some strength tables available for roundwood for several species, from memory. Using branches might be a bit fraught although I guess they could be put through a strength grading test.

    Thanks

    David

  9. Jerry Leahy October 1, 2014 at 5:26 pm #

    Robin

    I know Stanley, as I live near him, and have an allotment near his. Stan, as we all know him, has a wide circle of interests, and I’ve seen photos from his ladder making days. Stan is one of the few people who don’t understand the words ‘can’t’ or ‘don’t know’, as little gets him down, despite his injuries. He determines himself to do the impossible, and achieves it, somehow or other. If I’ve not seen him for a little while, I call on him and Maureen. They are always pleased to see visitors, and recall past events, including penny farthings, unicycles, bikes made from bedsteads, ladders, coffins, play the accordion, piano, motorbikes the list goes on. Stan is one of those people that I have been very pleased to know. I am about his age, but his experience in life is much wider than mine.

    Stan – you’ll go one forever.

    Jerry

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