When George Lailey died in 1958 a craft going back more than 2000 years died with him. He was the last person in England to make a living turning wooden bowls on a foot powered pole lathe. In medieval times nearly everybody in Britain ate from wooden bowls every day. They were beautiful, functional bowls that linger on in memories of Goldilocks but were killed off by the industrial revolution and cheap pottery.
I became fascinated by the craft whilst working in woodland conservation and set about reviving the lost technique, first learning the blacksmithing skills I needed to forge the specialised turning tools.
Like the old turners I use no sandpaper relying entirely on the sharpness of my tools to get a clean cut finish. Bowls made in this way have a very distinctive character with the marks of the tools being clearly visible, like hand thrown pottery or blown glass.
December 15th 2008 was exactly fifty years since the ‘last bowlturner’ George Lailey died aged 89. I felt I should mark the occasion with something special so I made this nesting set of bowls in spalted beech.
These are cut from one block of wood, one from inside the next, using special curved tools which I forge myself. A big nest like this – the largest bowl is just over seventeen inches in diameter – starts with such a large block of wood it is difficult to lift it onto the lathe.
Not only does this make very efficient use of the wood, but it also means the grain pattern runs through the bowls making a very special matching set.
This video shows how this unique set of bowls was made. I occasionally have these special sets available in the shop.