The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees

For my last contextual research essay at University, I investigated into the degree in which craft practice may embody an alternative lifestyle. Some authors work that I cited for this essay included David Boyle, Peter Dormer, Christopher Frayling, Paul Greenhalgh and David Pye. However my main focus text for this study was a book written by Robert Penn.


This book was such an inspiring read and I actually thoroughly enjoyed following Penn’s creative journey. It also complimented my practical studies and made me more reflective about the use of materials in my work.

I just wanted to share with you a few extracts of my essay which outline Penn’s investigation, and my research into the lifestyles associated with woodcraft:

“Craft has been imaged as a pleasurable way of filling time, or alternatively as a subsistence practise that is done alongside other things.” (Greenhalgh, 2003:6) At this time, people were looking towards “some kind of balance, whether by slowing down, or simplifying,” (Boyle, 2004:159) and hoping to find fulfilment in their “devotion” to their craft. (Leigh, 2002:36) “It is generally believed that the best craft work is done for love, not for money,” (Leigh, 2002:35) suggesting that there is a need for “downshifting” in the field of work. “Being less busy, taking more time,” (Boyle, 2004:165) allows craftsmen to “express individual style,” (Leigh, 2002:39) and comfortably deal with things such as “addressing design problems, refining working methods, and resolving technical issues.” (Leigh, 2002:39) This is a concept that Leigh describes as ‘Chronomanual craft’. However, craftsmanship, or ‘workmanship’; as it is described by Pye, “involves more than simply making things in a slower, more time-consuming manner.” (Risatti, 2007:196) It involves “technical mastery,” (Metcalf, cited in Dormer, 1997:78) or the “ability of the hand to work physical material.” (Risatti, 2007:163) It is this “proportion of patient tedious work” that is necessary in order to achieve the “pleasure in any kind of livelihood,” (Pye, 1995:118) that was desired from the movement.


So, what is it about wood that particularly intrigues us? Although “opportunities to learn a craft have moved out of the family and the neighbourhood, and into educational institutions,” (Metcalf, cited in Dormer, 1997:76) it is claimed by many woodworkers that “no manual can teach it.” (Breck, 1908:163) Breck even suggest that “a man should make up as soon as possible for the weak points of his university career by getting acquainted with trees.” (Breck, 1908:169) There is a special relationship noted between woodworkers and their material. George Nakashima, a Japanese American woodworker believed very strongly in the “spiritualist dimension of craft.” (Adamson, 2010:219) He claimed that there “must be a union between the spirit in wood and the spirit in man.” (Nakashima, cited in Adamson, 2010:220) In the declaration of the Woodcraft Folk, it says they will use “the creative faculty both of our minds and our hands,” (Prynn, 1983:83) and in Canada the spiritual nature of the craft created a “popular image of craftspeople as ‘hippies.’” (Afoldy, 2005:141)

On a journey of discovery into this concept, British writer Robert Penn took part in a 2 year project, where he found and fell his own ash tree, which he then cut into planks and commissioned different craftsmen to make him a range of objects. His book follows his journey “with accompanying passages of history and science.” (Cumming, 2015) He identifies that “many of the craftsmen are in family businesses and are in the main a dying breed,” (Cumming, 2015) but also that they all feel a part of a “mutually beneficial relationship between people and trees.” (Penn, 2015:223) They felt they had a duty of “responding to the givens of a particular piece of wood.” (Britton, 2003:24) This reinforces the spiritual concepts that have previously been recorded, and Penn explains that “the objects spoke of the skill and the idealism of the artisans and craftsmen who had made them.” (Penn, 2015:226)

Penn also looks into the general effects of wood as a material on people. He describes his own feelings as when you “walk fifty paces in to a wood and there is a sense of things being different: you are out adrift.” (Penn, 2015:222) Likewise, he discusses research into physical effects wood has on people; how “leisurely forest walks reduce heart rate and blood pressure,” (Penn, 2015:113) and research studies that show “in classrooms and offices with wooden furniture, blood pressure and pulse rates tend to drop – wood is thus responsible for reducing stress levels and improving quality of sleep.” (Penn, 2015:111) It is evidence such as this, which allow us to understand why, for craftsmen like Jim Partridge “the outdoors has influenced his whole working identity,” (Britton, 2003:28) and why woodcraft is not only about the product, but a way of life and a mind-set.

These ideas of our emotional connection with our natural surroundings is something that I would really like to return to in my final year studies. I want to establish a strong professional stance that carefully considers the materials I use, where they come from and how they inform my audience about my creative process.

Another concept that Penn addresses in his book with quite some depth is the ethical side of craft practice. I would also like to really focus on working with materials that are responsibly and thoughtfully sourced; taking care not to waste materials, or take more from an environment than I need.

I think this last essay has really helped me to develop my practical work with more thought and contextual awareness. It has highlighted to me the importance of researching more than just visual stimulus to develop my work. I want to try and extend my theoretical research in my final academic year at University, because I believe it will help me to really develop as a craft practitioner and an artist.


I will just leave you with the citation list relevant to these extracts!


Greenhalgh, Paul (2003) The Persistence of Craft : The Applied Arts Today. Piscataway: Rutgers University Press.

Adamson, Glenn (2010) The Craft Reader. Oxford: Berg.

Boyle, David (2004) Authenticity: Brands, Fakes, Spin and the Lust for Real Life. London: Harper Perennial.

Britton, Alison and Swift, Katherine (2003) Jim Partridge. Aldershot: Lund Humphrie.

Coatts, Margot (1997) Pioneers of Modern Craft. Machester: Manchester University Press.

Dormer, Peter (1997) The Culture of Craft: Status and Future. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Penn, Robert (2015) The Man Who Made Things Out Of  Trees. United Kingdom: Particular Books.

Pye, David (1995) The Nature and Art of Workmanship. London: Herbert Press.

Risatti, Howard (2007) A Theory of Craft: Function and Aesthetic Expression. North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press.


Cumming, Ed (2015) The Man Who Made Things Out Of Trees Review – A Well-crafted Tribute to the Ash. At: (Accessed on 02.04.16)


Afoldy, Sandra (2005) Crafting Identity: The Development of Professional Fine Craft in Canada. [online] At: (Accessed on 28.03.16)

Breck, Edward (1908) Way of the Woods: A Manual for Sportsmen in Northeastern United States and Canada. [online] At: (Accessed on 01.04.16)

Leigh, Mole (2002) Chronomanual Craft: Time Investment as a Value in Contemporary Western Craft. [online] At: (Accessed on 11.03.16)

Prynn, David (1983) The Woodcraft Folk and the Labour Movement 1925-70. [online] At: (Accessed on 28.03.16)

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