Wood Carving Blog

Feature Mondays – Looking back on 50 years of turning archive

Ray Key observes changes in the world of turning since 1965

As I look back over the past 50 years, the turning world has changed beyond all recognition, as have most other aspects of modern life. Things stayed pretty much the same in turning with regards to tools and machinery, right through to the 1970s. It was in the 1980s that major changes started to take place in almost every aspect connected with turning.


Chess set, sent from Germany in 1948, by a PoW who knew the Key family


In my formative years I purchased books that greatly influenced my interpretation of the requirements to be successful in woodturning. Many of these books were purchased long before the notion of becoming a full-time turner raised its head. Interestingly books on design featured almost equally alongside those on turning instruction, right from the start. I have always been drawn to well-designed work in whatever medium. Most crafts can usually be learnt if you have good hand-eye co-ordination and are willing to put in the many hours required. With turning, long hours at the lathe often performing repetitive cuts to nail the technique, will build an understanding of how the tools work best, building confidence and proficiency. Technique is a means to an end, freeing your creativity. Ernie Conover’s words have great resonance: “Good craft is necessary to create good art and the best craft without art will still be ugly in the morning. You have to have craft, mastering the medium to produce art.”

To underline the above, Frank Pain’s 1958 book The Practical Woodturner shows that his instructions mean just what they say: “Tools do what you want them to do when you know what they want to do… My aim is to show you how to cut wood as it prefers to be cut.” These are wonderful statements; this book was my bible from which I learnt to turn correctly and proficiently.

Gerald James’ 1958 book Woodturning Design and Practice opens with these words: “Some people will say I am putting the cart before the horse. To talk about design before describing the lathe and turning methods… but I feel very strongly that it is an essential prelude to making any piece…” Ronald Seal’s 1964 publication Practical Designs for Woodturning underscores this view with many more telling comments: “It is no more difficult to make an article of good design than one which is bad or indifferent.”

SH Glenister’s photographic book Contemporary Design in Woodwork: v. 3 in 1968 gave a good overview of what was happening in the wood world at that time.

Other turning books in those early years were Woodturning by Geoff Peters in 1961, Peter Child’s The Craftsman Woodturner in 1971 and Gordon Stokes’ three publications of the 1970s (Beginner’s Guide to Woodturning, Modern Wood Turning and The Manual of Woodturning). It was Pain and Peters that made a lasting impression on me, along with James and Seale. Professor David Pye’s 1968 publication, The Nature and Art of Workmanship is not a turners’ book, although he was both a turner and carver; to my mind this book remains required reading for any self-respecting craftsman. Dale Nish published Creative Woodturning in 1975, followed by Artistic Woodturning in 1980. These two books changed forever the format of turning books; several writers and publishers copied their style.


Early 1970s teak egg cups by Ray Key, found in an Oxfam shop in 2010 priced at £1.49

Makers of influence

The following makers had a huge influence on me in the 1960s and early 1970s: Dennis French, John Trippas, Tim Green, George Snead, Douglas Hart and David Pye. Most were producing quality domestic woodware. I decided that you needed to aspire to their standards if you wanted to make a career in turning. Gloucestershire-based Dennis French is still turning; he tells me his range is bigger than ever at the age of 83. John Trippas was down in Devon making a fine range of domestic products, as was Tim Green in Oxfordshire, trading as Crowdy Wood Products. Both Trippas and Green also made furniture and employed staff. The man whose turnings influenced me most was George Snead in Suffolk: he was a fine furniture maker, but turned a lot. His work was very pure with a strong Scandinavian design influence. Some of his work was featured in SH Glenister’s 1968 publication. My wife Liz and I visited George in his wonderful workshop in Suffolk.

A person who has probably had the most influence on the turning world in general is Dougie Hart; a name that most people will not be familiar with. It is through some of his A-list students that his influence has spread worldwide. His workshop was at Shinners Bridge in Devon where he employed Wendell Crang (what a wonderful name). Dougie was a colourful character who drove a hearse and often delivered Devon craftsmen’s work to London. Dougie was always ready to help any aspiring turner; I visited him twice before turning became my full-time career. The first time Wendell was sticking ‘Made in Scotland’ labels on Iroko bowls. The style of labels they were using impressed me; without any second bidding he told me the source. The second time was around 1972 when I was close to going full time. I was bemoaning the fact that I couldn’t afford to work in teak (Tectona grandis), which was much in vogue at the time. He promptly told me of a source in High Wycombe: he told me to buy shorts, which man to see and “tell him Dougie sent you”. I dealt with this company for years after being pointed in their direction. Dougie’s legacy is rich and lives on through those who passed through his workshop: Richard and Simon Raffan, Cecil Jordan and Nick Agar, to mention just a few.


Dennis French, 1970s yew (Taxus baccata) sugar bowl and scoop


Richard Raffan, late 1970s laburnum (Laburnum anagyroides) bowl

Richard Raffan is probably the best known turner in the world through his books, DVDs, seminars and workshops, to say nothing of his prodigious production for many years. Simon, who was also a potter, supplied the UK gallery market until he emigrated to Australia in 1982. Cecil Jordan supplied the gallery market for years, right up until his death last year. He concentrated on ornamental turning in his latter years, producing mostly boxes.

For many years he taught students at Parnham House in Dorset.Nick Agar eventually took on Dougie’s workshop and has in recent years become the UK’s most creative turner. He is one of the most travelled turners in the world; he is sought out by organisations worldwide to lead workshops and demonstrate at seminars. He continues to produce imaginative and creative works. David Pye greatly influenced me; he was very much a gallery turner, making boxes of the highest quality. His output was not prodigious as he was Professor of Furniture Design at the Royal College of Art. His writings still remain significant today: the aforementioned The Nature and Art of Workmanship and The Nature and Aesthetics of Design. For years I have read his telling essay from The Maker’s Eye 1981 catalogue at the end of classes and demonstrations; to my mind it is one of the most influential pieces of writing in the craft world. David Pye’s 1981 Wood Carver and Turner publication by the Crafts Council, in association with the Craft Study Centre, gives a wonderful insight into the range of his work philosophy and methods. The craft revival started mainly in the late 1960s and was in full swing by the 1970s. This was fuelled in the main by the public’s reaction to the soulless mass production of items made from plastic and stainless steel, etc. This was a good time to enter the craft world, when I gave up my day job in 1973 and we moved to Evesham, where Liz opened our shop. We were the fifth craft shop to open in the town and the last to close in 1985; all the others had gone in the early 1980s recession. Almost every Cotswold town and village had a craft shop through the 1970s; you can count them on one hand now. In the 1970s, the Crafts Advisory Council (now the Crafts Council) was set up to promote contemporary craft. Galleries selling crafts came into being, which was almost unheard of previously. Henry Rothschild’s Primavera gallery opened in 1946 and there wasn’t much else other than the British Craft Centre (now Contemporary Applied Arts). Joan Crossly Holland’s Oxford Gallery and the Peter Dingley Gallery came into being in the late 1960s. Both Joan and Peter were formidable advocates of the crafts; tough to deal with but encouraging. In my naivety I once called on Joan Crossly Holland unannounced and asked if she would be interested in looking at my work; I was firmly told that they only looked at work by appointment on Thursdays. However, not one to give up easily, I asked if she would look at some photographs. I received an unexpected and gratifying response: she said I should be on the Craft Council Index. The Crafts Council Gallery in Haymarket, London, held some wonderful exhibitions while in that location. The independent galleries above championed mostly ceramics; turned wood was a peripheral craft and not a lot has changed today. Over time, my work was stocked by all of the galleries mentioned.

Gallery turners

Back in the 1970s, there were very few turners whom you could describe as gallery makers. The Raffan brothers, Cecil Jordan, Richard Kell, David Pye and myself were the main players. Apart from Kell and Pye, the rest of us underpinned our livelihoods by producing functional work. Makers like Alan Shave, Mike Fitz and Peter Spear were also active at that time.


Ray Key, 1977 traditional turned objects (Craft Council Index rejected this application)


Ray Key, 1977 contemporary turned objects (Craft Council Index accepted this application)

County craft guilds

Many of the county craft guilds had been set up in the 1950s and 1960s; as the 1970s dawned they started to flourish once more after some tough times. Devon has always been one of the largest guilds, boasting many of the craft world’s leading practitioners. In 1970 they held an exhibition at Shinners Bridge. Turners exhibiting were the aforementioned Dougie Hart and John Trippas, along with a new name to us, Major Lee Pym. Liz and I arranged a visit to Major Pym; he was a wonderful guy in the Heath Robinson tradition and looked like Pinocchio’s creator, Geppetto. He had a bandsaw made from bicycle wheels. I was intrigued by his square glass jars with round openings; he was turning wooden lids for these and cutting a sealing washer, freehand with scissors from neoprene. No such thing as a sophisticated ‘O’ ring. This was the time when every kitchen had a spice jar rack on display. He had obtained his jars by eating huge quantities of shell fish until he found the supplier. He gave me the supplier’s name; I ordered a gross of them and never made one lid for them. He was quite a character.

Turning in the USA

Significant events occurred in the USA in the latter half of the 1970s, which impacted world turning. Dale Nish’s first book Creative Woodturning was published and became a bestseller worldwide. Albert LeCoff started organising woodturning seminars in Philadelphia, twice a year for 70 people with five presenters. Taunton Press published Fine Woodworking, which quickly established itself as a quality publication. This magazine provided a platform for the emerging creative forces in the woodturning world and also featured those who had been groundbreakers in earlier times. These three happenings helped to change the face of woodturning for ever.

My career takes off

I was selected for the Crafts Council Index in 1977, after initially misjudging the selection process the first time round. I submitted more traditional work rather than contemporary, which was my real forte. I was rejected and advised not to re-submit for at least 12 months. I didn’t take that advice; I had realised my mistake so resubmitted just six months later and was duly selected. 1977 saw my first One Man exhibition held at the Collection Gallery in Birmingham. Fortunately a lot of the right movers and shakers were impressed by this exhibition and doors opened for me. These opening doors were then forced wider open by having my work displayed at the British Craft Centre; back then, newly selected makers to the Crafts Council Index were invited to show five pieces of work. Galleries of significance would visit and see who was new on the scene, orders were placed and exhibitions offered. I am not sure things work that way today.

First International Woodturning Seminar

This was held in 1980 at John Makepeace’s Furniture School and Workshops at Parnham House in Dorset. Richard Raffan had cajoled John into this after visiting one of the Worshipful Company of Turners’ competitions in the late 1970s, on the basis that the standard of work was so poor that something needed to be done to put a bomb under UK turning. It is fair to say it may not have revolutionised UK turning, but it certainly made everyone look at what they were doing in a different light. Things gradually improved and much fruit was borne in time.


Simon Raffan, late 1970s amazakoue (Guibourtia ehie) bowl

This seminar was the catalyst for Don White to become a full-time turner. Ciaran Forbes and Liam O’Neill came over from Ireland and in time they had a great influence on turning in Ireland. Liam was the driving force for the formation of the Irish Woodturners Guild and both became internationally known through their work. Lots of seeds were planted that weekend.

One thing that couldn’t have been foreseen at the time was that without this event the AWGB may never have come into being. The format of this seminar was very different from what happens today: it was very formal, with the first day being dedicated to slide presentations and lectures, with quite a line up that awakened us all. Edward Lucie Smith, the art critic, was in the chair. Presentations were made by David Ellsworth, Bob Stocksdale, Stephen Hogbin, Frank Knox and Paul Smith from the USA and Canada, plus Richard Raffan and Neville Neal from the UK. Ellsworth and Hogbin presented work that made us all sit up and take notice: Ellsworth pioneered thin walled vessels hollowed through a ridiculous small hole, Hogbin cut apart and reassembled (his 1980 publication Woodturning: The Purpose of the Object was cutting edge at the time). Both of their presentations were revolutionary to a UK audience. Stocksdale was probably the best-known bowl turner in the world at the time with his porcelain thin bowls made from spectacular woods. Frank Knox was a fine ornamental turner who understood the word restraint. Paul Smith was the Director of the American Craft Museum in New York and opened eyes with the work shown from the museum collection.


Jim Partridge, 1980 wet-turned heart wood holly (Ilex spp.) bowl

Our comfort zone was restored by Richard Raffan and Neville Neal, both presenting what we in the UK were more used to. Richard described his philosophy of making work for use; Neville was probably the UK’s leading ladderback chair maker at the time. The second day was very different: all demonstrations (no seating, just stand, look and listen) plus discussion groups. I mentioned earlier there might never have been an AWGB without this event; Margaret Lester was the organising administrator.


David Ellsworth, 1981 figured maple (Acer spp.) hollow vessel

I was attending a James Krenov seminar when Margaret came and sat next to me. She said, “You’re a woodturner aren’t you?” and then explained about the planned 1980 event. She said she knew nothing about lathes or any of the technical side of things, so asked if she could she phone me for advice. She leaned quite heavily on me during the planning. Through this I got to know her well and her meticulous planning, so I convinced her to be the organising administrator of the Loughborough Seminar in 1987, where the AWGB was formed.


My interest in wood can probably be traced back to when I was around four or five years old. My father was always working with wood, but a German prisoner of war who my parents befriended probably sparked my real interest. I still have a three-legged stool and a leather jointed pull-along dog that he made before he was repatriated. Soon after his return to Germany in 1948, he sent a turned wood chess set. Was it this that sparked my love of turning? My first experience of seeing anyone turn was when I was about 10 years old; the man in question was a wonderful character by the name of Charlie Gardener. He and his wife used to be invited to the Royal Show and Chelsea Flower Show. His wife showed off their collection of gypsy caravans which she restored. Charlie turned mostly egg cups on a lathe cobbled together on a Singer sewing machine base, which had a Daff car gearbox to change speed with. I got to know them both well over the years. I first turned at school aged 14, making a handle for a garden fork I had created in the metal shop. In 1958 I became an apprentice Pattern Maker and turning was part of the job, I turned a lot, on a lathe from the ark, flat belt drive with slipping clutch. I have always said Pattern Makers don’t turn they scrape; there is a good reason as they work to very fine limits.

In 1965 I purchased my first lathe, met my wife-to-be and started a new job in Chrysler Styling Studios. The lathe kept me sane during my eight years there. I used the lathe to make a lot of our furniture and I also started supplying shops across the Cotswolds with domestic useful turned wood products. By 1973, either the day job or the hobby had to go. With the full backing of my wife Liz, the day job went. Her question to me was, ‘do you still think you will be wanting to do this in seven years time?’. That was 42 years ago; the rest is history, as they say.

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