Traditional crafts deserve a revival

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

In today's increasingly virtual world, there is something appealing about making things by hand, using centuries-old techniques and many traditional crafts definitely deserve a revival. In fact, many will have to be revived for the coming post-carbon and post-industrial age and, yes, it is coming.

There are in fact many traditional crafts and trades that deserve a revival and also traditional skills in general. Aside from the danger of them becoming lost they will be, as I have already said, needed again in the not so distant future when oil is becoming more and more expensive and even may be gone for good, at least cheap and abundant oil, and this includes skills of maintaining old-fashioned tools such as sharpening and setting crosscut felling saws, sharpening and peening scythes and sickles, and many more. And do not get lulled into a false sense of security by the fact that in early 2015 the price of a barrel of oil is at more or less rock bottom. This price drop is not due to more oil having come on stream but due to the OPEC nations wishing to put a stop to fracking.

So, here are a few traditional crafts to, maybe, try your hands on and learn or vice versa.


Blacksmiths use fire, hammers and an anvil to hot-forge iron and steel, shaping and joining the metal to make every thing from gates and staircases to chairs, fire irons, curtain poles, doorknobs, jewelery and sculptures. You need a small forge to heat the metal up to 1,000C (1,832F), an anvil complete with the various cutting and bending tools that slot neatly into it, a pair of pliers, a vice, and a selection of hammers and punches. The skills need learning, and can take years to perfect, but it's well worth it.

Smithing produces metalwork of unique character, very different from cut-and-weld manufacturing. And this is true for all handmade goods really.

Aside from the above mentioned goods a blacksmith also produces, or used to, knives, axes, sickles, scythes, billhooks and much, much more, and when the post-carbon world arrives handmade will be the way to go once again.

And, in fact, making cutting tools, especially knives, from scrap is a good way of learning the craft of the blacksmith and you do not need much in the way of tools. I have made many a small knife that way by using the head of an old sledgehammer for an anvil, and only a small ball-peen hammer, aside from a pair of pliers and a fire, and I mean a fire and not even a forge.

There are also ways of cold-forging steel for the making of knives and tools and using the heat later for tempering the steel.

Pole-lathe turning

Apart from a brief conversion to pottery thanks to the Romans, people largely ate and drank from wooden plates and bowls in Britain until the early 18th century and in many countries that went on even much further. In Russia wooden spoons for eating, for instance, and also wooden bowls, were still in use in the military even and in some cases until – especially the wooden spoons – the early part of World War Two.

Every village had its wood turner with his pole-lathe, a simple homemade assembly of timber beams and posts using as its driving power a springy sapling, anchored at the base. From the sapling's free end hangs a length of cord wrapped once around a spiked chuck, called a mandrel, hammered into the block of wood you are turning. If chair legs and other such rounds are being turned, including dibbers, truncheons, and such, the string is, in fact, wrapped around part of the peace being worked.

When you push down on a foot treadle attached to the other end of the cord, the chuck revolves. Release the treadle and the block spins back again. On each downward stroke, a chisel or hook tool shapes the wood. It's highly skilled work, and hugely rewarding. The Association of Polelathe Turners and Greenwood Workers has a list of courses:

Spoon carving and general wood carving

In times past spoons – especially of the lower classes and those used for work in the kitchen – were all carved from wood by means of gauges and the crooked knife. And even bowls were made like that and not just turned on the pole-lathe.

Most of what we had, bar the iron tools, textiles, etc., in the days of old were made of and from wood and using wood is also a green, pardon the pun, way to go as products made from wood keep the carbon locked up in this product for the rest of its life.

Working with wood, in which ever way, is extremely rewarding as an occupation and also very relaxing. The skills will also be very important in the days when our technology is going to let us down and when we finally have to rethink how we make things for our daily needs, wants and use.

WoodRecycledProductSamples_webWhile pole-lathe turning and wood turning in general is a good skill it is not always necessary to make treen goods, as I have discovered making rolling pins (for the making of tortillas) just simply by carving it from a piece of relative straight piece of coppice wood by using just knife, glass shave, and surform rasps and working entirely by eye. Also a more or less copy of an old style British Detective truncheon was done in the same way (see top piece in photo).

For spoon carving and so-called green woodworking and especially for inspiration see some of the Facebook pages and groups:,

Basket making

Willow baskets, and baskets from other woods, for carrying vegetables, laundry, logs and coal, fruit, bicycles, shopping, letters and such were fixtures of British life until plastic arrived in the 1950s.

The craft of basket making hasn't changed in thousands of years. You require very few tools: knives for pointing the ends of the willow or hazel, for this is another common wood used, rods and trimming the finished basket; a bodkin to make openings in the weave; a cleave and shave to split rods into three or four finer skeins; a beating iron to hammer the weave down. The base is made first: a round or rectangular frame of sturdier stakes interwoven with finer willow rods. Then you insert the upright stakes to form the side frame, and lay the first weave. Then you start weaving, in one of a range of styles: randing, slewing, fitching, waling. Finish with a border around the top. You need strong hands, a good eye for straight lines, and lots of patience. The Basketmakers' Association lists courses:

In years gone by the itinerant traders, the hawkers, more often than not carried their goods in woven baskets on their backs and those kinds of baskets can be found all over Europe and also in the Americas. They are the forerunner the the rucksack and the backpack but are much better for the carrying of goods, such as carved wooden spoons and other such things, that ever would be a rucksack or backpack.

There are, obviously, many other crafts and trades that deserve a revival and revitalization and that also for the fact that we may, rather sooner than later, also require them again in order to live comfortably in the post-fossil fuel age, and the coming Wood Age.

© 2015

For more on coppicing and why, etc. see “Managing our Woods”, a small book that explains the whys and wherefores of managing our woods in this way and calls for us to return to that way.