The British Crafts Blog

Mastercrafts – Insights from master stonemason Andy Oldfield

Posted in Book development, Mastercrafts, Mentors, Stone masonry by britishcrafts on January 29, 2010

Stone Mason Andy Oldfield Mastercrafts“I love old buildings,” says stonemason Andy Oldfield, the master stonemason who acts as mentor to three unskilled enthusiasts in the Friday 19th March episode of Mastercrafts.  Andy, until recently, worked at the National Trust’s Hardwick Hall, one of Britain’s most spectacular Elizabethan houses.  “I was taught the skills of the stonemason by Hardwick’s master mason Trevor Hardy.  Working at Hardwick was a challenge and a privilege because the work done repairing and conserving the stone will last for generations.”

After what he describes as something of a mid-life crisis, Andy retrained as a stonemason at the age of thirty-one.  Before that he’d worked in a succession of different jobs.  But nothing captured his imagination in the way that stone carving did.

“I loved it from the first day of my apprenticeship,” he says.  Like most apprenticeships the work of the stonemason starts with the basics, as Andy explains.  “It’s quite simple really.  You go to the quarry and get a rough block of stone.  You then have to turn that rough block into a fairly precise cube.  It’s a process known as ‘bonding in’.  You make a flat surface on one side of the stone, using a simple chisel and mallet combined with special wooden blocks that are effectively depth guides to stop you taking too much stone away and to ensure that your finished surface is level.”  He insists that once you are able to make a perfect cube – no easy task – you have all the basic skills necessary even for complex carving.

Andy is immensely proud of the long tradition of craftsmanship of which he is part.  The materials from which the stonemason’s tools are made may have changed here and there over the years, but in terms of their basic design, they would be instantly recognised by a medieval stonemason.  “Stonemasonry tool skills go back a thousand years and more,” he explains.  “In addition to the skills needed to work stone, there is the knowledge of stone itself.  Different stones have very different qualities.  Sandstone, for example, is relatively easy to work because it is soft, whereas granite is difficult because it is very hard. That’s why granite chisels tend to be made in a far more resilient way.  Once the stone is down to its basic shape the finer tools come into play.  Decorative carving is difficult, there’s no doubt about it.  We use fine tools and round nylon mallets – the heads of the mallets are round because it means they can be used from all angles.  Stonemason’s mallets were once made from fruit wood, but nylon lasts much longer – perhaps as long as ten years.”

Andy is now concentrating on private commissions for stone carving and sculpture, and passing on his skills to others through courses.  His business The Fringe Workshop is based in the Peak District.

Here is an inspiring video in which Andy talks about the turning point of his life when he managed to get an apprenticeship in stonemasonry with the National Trust.

Andy is featured in the tie-in book to the Mastercrafts  TV series.  You can find more information about the book and order it for £14 (RRP £20) here.

Stonemason Andy Oldfield features in this book

The Mastercrafts book


Mastercrafts book at the printer

Posted in Book development, Mastercrafts by britishcrafts on January 27, 2010

The Somerset-based printers Butler Tanner and Dennis is printing the Mastercrafts book this week.  Here’s a clip to show you the printing process happening (taken by our MD Stephen on his iPhone when he visited the other day!). 

Incidentally, the book is printed using entirely British-sourced materials. 

Butler Tanner and Dennis is the UK’s leading colour book and publications printer, with roots going back over 165 years.  They are renowned in the industry for the high quality of their printing.  Books they have printed include David Attenborough’s Life Stories, the book that accompanied Jeremy Paxman’s successful TV series The Victorians, and Delia Smith and Jamie Oliver’s cookbooks.  B T & D recently won the ‘Best British Book’ award at the Best British Book Design and Production Awards for  The National Cookbook, published in association with The National Gallery. 

From Butler Tanner and Dennis’s website about sustainability:

“Butler Tanner & Dennis’s potential impact on the environment is a subject of constant and on-going discussion at all levels within our company and it is part of our business culture to be sure that we are environmentally responsible and to set ourselves standards and goals for future sustainability and compliance.

Our aim is nothing less than Carbon Neutrality.  This being said, we are FSC, PEFC and ISO14001 accredited. And that’s not all. We already have the environmental benefit of having all our operations under one roof in Frome. Our workforce are all local people and many of them travel to the factory on pushbikes, with more being encouraged and incentivised to do so.”

Find out more about Butler Tanner and Dennis.

Find out more about the Mastercrafts book

The Mastercrafts book


Off to the printers

Posted in Book development, Mastercrafts by britishcrafts on January 25, 2010

Neil Baber is Acquisitions Editor at David & Charles and has seen the Mastercrafts book through from initial concept to finished printed copies.

“When I was standing in the stone mason’s yard at Hardwick Hall with our photographer Lorna at the end of November, I’m not sure I really believed that we would be signing off the final proofs of the book less that seven weeks later. It wasn’t until mid December that filming finished but with a grand effort from the team at D&C, the book was ready for the presses this week and it was a great pleasure to pass the project into the safe hands of Butler, Tanner and Dennis, the master printers of Frome in Somerset.

B, T & D have been one of the premier printers in the UK for over 100 years and certainly know how to get the best out of the colour printing process. The lovely ‘uncoated’ paper we had chosen for Mastercrafts set them a challenge to make sure the ink from the very colourful layouts didn’t soak in and spread too much on the page. But having carefully checked the proofs we had total confidence that the first sheet would look great.

Just our luck – unfortunately a very unusual malfunction of the impressive eight-colour press mangled the first printing plate as it was loaded into the machine and we had to wait another day before seeing and checking the first sheet (see photo). Everyone is delighted with the result though and the run is now well on the way. They are loading up the binders this week so we’re on schedule to get the book into people’s hands ready for the first broadcast next month.”

Checking the Mastercrafts book proofs

Posted in Book development, Mastercrafts by britishcrafts on January 22, 2010

Verity Muir, Editor of the Mastercrafts book, had an interesting day on Monday:

“After weeks of hard slog, the day had finally arrived.  Mastercrafts was going to press. However we weren’t quite popping the champagne corks just yet as we had one last irksome task left to do, which was to check and approve the plotters.

The plotters show the pages precisely as they will appear in the book, and it is the final opportunity in the editorial process to ensure that there are no errors in the material. So, with my heart in my mouth, we began to inspect every page. I could barely look. 

With over an hour of silence and bated breath we turned the very last page with great relief. At last it was over and we could feel proud of what we had achieved in such a short space of time. Mastercrafts was finally complete!”

Then it was on to the printers……

Snapshot of a master blacksmith

Posted in Book development, Heritage Crafts, Mastercrafts, Mentors, Metalwork by britishcrafts on January 20, 2010

Don Barker, master blacksmith, features in the third episode of BBC2 TV’s Mastercrafts, shown on Friday 26 February 2010.  This article is adapted from the chapter on metalwork in the Mastercrafts book by author Tom Quinn:

Think about the traditional blacksmith’s forge and what immediately come to mind are the sensations of working with iron – fierce heat, glowing red-hot metal, the ringing sound of the hammer beating iron on iron, perhaps a horse being shod in the yard…..    There is still a huge demand for the skills of a blacksmith, although what they make is often more decorative than functional these days.

Interestingly, the derivation of the word ‘blacksmith’ has nothing to do with the tendency of   metalworkers to become covered in grime during the course of their work.  Blacksmiths work with black metal – iron – and the work the metal by hitting it: ‘smith’ probably derives from ‘smite’. 

Don Barker is a blacksmith with a passion for his work.  He is a medal holder and Fellow of the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths and is very proud to be the first working smith to become Prime Warden of the Company for 200 years.  His forty-year love affair with blacksmithing has never waned and he continues to work in the forge, shaping metal into beautiful things. 

‘My male ancestors seem to have mostly been blacksmiths going right back to about 1700’, he explains, ‘and I really believe that I’ve been drawn towards the work because it’s as if it’s there in my genes.’

Don in fact trained as an engineer, but in his mid-thirties he decided to quit his job and become a full-time blacksmith.  He trained through CoSIRA (Council for Small Industries in Rural Areas), a government quango that ran workshops up and down the country.  By the time he qualified, his years of hobby blacksmithing were paying off, and commissions were already coming in steadily.   He set up a limited company and has never looked back.  In addition to many local commissions for gates and railings, curtain rails and even shackles, Don has worked on some major blacksmithing projects.  ‘I did a really important job for the front of Westminster Abbey – a set of traditional gas lamps.  I also made four six-feet high bronze lamps and sixty-five metres of bronze handrailing for the Queen Mother’s memorial in the Mall.’

Don Barker at work

Watching a blacksmith at work is a remarkably satisfying experience.  With a minimum of fuss and seemingly effortlessly he can turn a plain bar of metal into something complex and decorative.  ‘Apart from getting the forging temperature right,’  says Don, ‘there’s an art in striking the metal in just the right way.  And it’s this creative skill that I believe I’ve inherited from my blacksmith ancestors.’

You’ll be able to see more of Don and his work in the BBC2 TV series Mastercrafts in February, and find out more about the craft of metalwork in the book Mastercrafts (pre-order here).  Contact Don via his own website.

Book jacket image for Mastercrafts

Mastercrafts book at the printers….

Posted in Book development, Mastercrafts by britishcrafts on January 18, 2010

David & Charles editorial and production staff are at printers Butler & Tanner today to check the proofs of the Mastercrafts book on press – very exciting!  This will save time in the production process, and enable the book to be out in the bookshops when the TV series airs in February.  I’m sure they will come back with some interesting pics from the printers, which we will share here.

We still don’t  have a date for the first episode but we want to make sure the book is available as soon as we can, and providing all goes according to schedule, books should be in the shops in early Feb.  You can save £5 off the RRP of £20 and pre-order Mastercrafts here.

Preview of some pics from the book

Posted in Book development, Mastercrafts, Mentors, Woodcraft by britishcrafts on January 13, 2010

The photographs in the Mastercrafts book are pretty inspiring – here are some from Guy Mallinson’s magical woodland workshop hidden away in a remote part of Dorset, where wigwam-like tents heated by open fires allow year-round outdoor working, protected from the worst of the weather; although I haven’t heard if he got snow-bound recently.  It’s possible to book courses with Guy, for all levels of ability.  To find out more, visit his website.  

Mastercrafts book nearly ready

Posted in Mastercrafts, Mentors, Thatching by britishcrafts on January 12, 2010

The book tie in to the Mastercrafts BBC2 TV show is reaching the end of the production process; the final pages are being checked and it will be sent off to the printer within days.  One last check on press and finished copies should be available in early February.  Here’s a preview of the cover, featuring Matt Williams of the wonderful Rumpelstiltskin Thatching in Oxfordshire.  Matt and David Bragg are committed to preserving regional styles of thatching,  and as such the majority of their work consists of straw thatching in Oxfordshire and the surrounding counties.  More about Matt and David’s work later.