Woodworking wonders

Nose into the drive at 103 Alford Forest Road, Ashburton, past a few houses, then down a steep pitch towards the wastelands, and you will discover the Mu­seum of Woodworking and Ornamental Turning. Modest in proportions and unostentatious in the extreme, it should not to be overlooked by anyone seriously interested in woodwork. It is owned by the Lynn Historical Woodwork­ing Trust, and inside there is a good chance of finding Bob Lynn, who lovingly looks after the collection.

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Actually, he does more than look after it; he started the whole place, and makes it come alive. Author of Woodwork—My First 70 Years, Bob radiates enthusi­asm for wood and the tools that fashion it.

“When I was six, I made up my mind to be a wood­worker as I watched the school being extended, and I earned my first money from wood when I was ten. Stools, plate racks, firescreens and potato mashers were my first items, and I also constructed a lathe of sorts as well,” he told me.

As soon as he turned 15, Bob took up an apprentice­ship in carpentry and joinery, and in 1943 started his own building business (partial deafness prevented him from military service), which came to specialise in joinery. Among the many large jobs it completed was the joinery for Parliament’s Beehive building, which ran over ten years. Now retired at 81, Bob shows no sign of quitting wood anytime soon.

Inside the museum are 700 woodworking planes, six of which have been firmly dated to 1752, over 2000 additional hand tools (including a saw made in 1600 that cuts on the pull stroke), 600 woodworking books, a collection of 1500 named species of wood, and 19 lathes. Bob also has 40 drawers of beautifully ordered and manicured tools for carving and lettering—he’s done plenty of both.

“Eighty per cent of woodcarving is knowing how to sharpen the tools,” he confides.

But it is amongst the lathes that we encounter the pride of Bob’s collection: ten original ornamental turning lathes—rarer than icebergs in Alice Springs, a collection second only to that held by the Science Museum in South Kensington, London. Ornamental turning is used to decorate wood, ivory, brass, copper, perspex, silver, gold—in fact, most materi­als—using special engraving instruments.

The classic ornamental turning lathe is an ordinary wood lathe with a few precision additions, making it not unlike a modern metal lathe. One extra is a circular metal plate (the index plate) pierced by many series of concentric holes in which a pin fits to divide the work into the desired number of spaces. This enables a pattern to be accurately repeated from two to 96 times around the periphery of the item being decorated. Early lathes were treadle driven, but from about 1880 electric motors were used.

Ornamental turning was being practiced by 1600, and was popular throughout Europe until the end of the Victorian era, about 1900. The high cost of these lathes, plus the skill and mathemati­cal bent necessary to operate them, meant that only the aristocracy could afford to own them, and ordinary workers lacked the education to use them. Swash turning, a particular type of ornamental turning where the ornamen­tation angles around a piece rather than being parallel with the base, was particu­larly popular from 1600 to 1800, and instuction on the swash plate lathe was considered an essential part of any young prince’s education!

Watch and clock makers also made use of ornamental turning lathes, both for cutting gears and ornamenting cases.

For the 30 or 40 years before 1950, ornamental turning was largely forgotten, and the skills of centuries lost to all but a very few. With renewed interest in woodturning generally, interest in ornamental turning is again on the rise, and there is an international Society of Ornamental Turners of which Bob has been made a life member, for simplifying the complex index plates used in elliptical turning. In this type of turning the work is oval in cross section rather than circular. Bob told me that when officials from the UK came to assess his develop­ment, they commented that “only Kiwis or Aussies would do this. In England, if you can’t buy something, it can’t he done.”

The most famous maker of ornamental lathes was the Holtzapffel family engineer­ing business, which started in London in 1794 and didn’t finally disappear until 1956—although few if any ornamen­tal lathes were built after 1914. They made 2557 lathes of which 250 are thought to still be in existence. Every one and its particular assortment of tools was individually numbered and supplied in polished ma­hogany frames. The family also produced a five-volume definitive treatise on orna­mental turning between 1843 and 1884—still essential reading for serious practi­tioners.

Only two new Holtzapffel lathes were ordered from New Zealand, number 2215 in 1866 by John Acland of what became Mt Peel station, and number 2341 in 1883 (for £110) by a J. R. Campbell, once a part owner of nearby Mesopotamia Station. Perhaps as many as ten ornamental turning lathes of various types existed here 100 years ago—one was probably used by Richard Pearse in his aircraft build­ing—but apart from the Pearse lathe, which the museum possesses, the whereabouts of the rest are unknown.

The trust owns ten ornamental turning lathes: six Holtzapffels, two Gills, one Evans and one Davies. Along with the lathes is a collection of elaborate cutting frames—geared vertical, elliptical, epicycloidal to name but three—and a rare Holtzapffel horizontal lapping machine and treadle grinder. Plenty of examples of startlingly intricate ornamental turnery made locally are also on display, many in rare and exotic woods with the special cutting and finishing proper­ties ornamental turners require.

African blackwood, actually a rosewood, is considered the supreme wood for ornamental turning. Black maire, heart black pine and southern rata are the best local timbers. Sandpaper cannot be used on ornamental turning, so the wood must be able to take a perfect finish in any direction of the grain, directly from the cutters alone.

Bob Lynn is one of 14 who now do ornamental turnery in New Zealand, and all have learnt on the Trust’s lathes.

This museum is one where everything works, and where the machines of the past create beauty and delight for new generations.

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