As designer and manager of the Edward Barnsley workshop, James Ryan must sometimes feel the weight of responsibility on his shoulders. He may have been making and designing wooden furniture for 26 years – but the workshop itself has been in continuous use for over four times that.
The eponymous Edward Barnsley was born into a family of furniture makers in 1900, and over his lifetime went on to make over seven thousand pieces of furniture, becoming a key figure in the Arts and Crafts movement in the process. The company has worked on many high profile projects including the oak boards for the Domesday Book and pieces for the Palace of Westminster.
Edward prided himself on the quality of his furniture and that his craftsmen could use hand tools to give each piece character and individuality – although he did bow to the march of progress by introducing electricity to the workshop in 1955!
Today, the Edward Barnsley Workshop produce individual, hand-crafted pieces in line with their heritage, while adding contemporary twists to traditional designs. Sara Walker spoke to James to find out more.
“I believe the Barnsley Workshop has been successful in producing bespoke furniture for almost one hundred years because of the unique way of working that Edward Barnsley established,” says James.
“Barnsley Workshop furniture, both then and now, can only be made by skilled makers. Edward Barnsley wanted his employees to use their skills and experience to the full and that is apparent when you see the furniture. Customers find skilled workmanship attractive, and we always take their own personal requirements into consideration during the design.
Continuing the practice started by Edward himself, I often visit potential clients at their homes to discuss their requirements in detail and see the space available before starting a design. Then, I consider how the client wants to use the furniture alongside the shape and form of the piece, whilst also taking the practical aspects of making it correctly into consideration.
“We make most of our furniture using native hardwoods which we have cut and dry in our seasoning sheds. Sometimes we are asked to make a piece of furniture using timber from a tree belonging to the client. This can be a challenge, especially if the tree has defects, but it has often resulted in some of our most unique pieces. We mostly use oak, ash, walnut and cherry.
“Usually, in our workshop one person makes a piece from start to finish. However, when we have a large order, people work together as a team. When, in 2015, we made 111 chairs for Magdalen College, Oxford, everyone in the workshop was involved.
The first step is to create a full-size working drawing. The maker does this under my supervision, working from the scale drawing I will have agreed with the client. The maker writes a cutting list which is used to select the timber. Each component is marked out on the rough boards of timber, and then cut out over-sized. We set the components to one side in the workshop for as long as possible so they can acclimatise and any wood movement settles down.
When making a chair, for example, we usually start by shaping the back legs. We cut the joints, glue up sub-assemblies and finish by using the side-rails to join the front to the back. We devote a lot of time and attention to the finish, carefully planing and sanding pieces after the glue-up. It’s easy to underestimate how much time goes into this part of the making process.
The Edward Barnsley Workshop believes in passing on these traditional skills, and in 1980 the Edward Barnsley Educational Trust (EBET) was set up to offer apprenticeships. They also sometimes take fee-paying pupils.
When I quiz him about the apparent current lack of women apprentices, James explains: “There are no physical reasons why women can’t do the work. I’m not sure why, but we don’t receive many applications for the apprenticeships from women. I hope that will change.
For more women to become furniture-makers we just need to challenge some traditionally accepted ideas. Attitudes are changing, but it takes time. In recent years, the Edward Barnsley Educational Trust has engaged two women as apprentices. The most recent was Laura, who came here six years ago. The proportion of male to female apprentices is comparable to the proportion of male to female applicants, and I’d like to see more women applying.
“I tend to think it takes about five years to become a skilled craftsman who can make pretty much anything. Really talented people can get there a bit sooner.
Our apprentices come to us with two or three years’ experience, usually gained at further education college. After a few weeks of training with us, they can do the basics to a very high standard. It then takes months and years to learn how to make a wide range of pieces and to learn how to achieve high quality work at speed. We want to teach our apprentices how to make a piece of furniture using both traditional and modern methods. We want them to be skilful whether they use really basic tools or hi-tech tools. The end result will be the same.
With such an impressive lineage behind him, I ask James how he combines the company’s heritage and traditions with being a successful modern business. “By constantly evaluating what is unique or individual about the service and work we do and why we do it,” he replies.
“I also think this clarity of thinking helps with training and promotion. In terms of taking the company into the future, my aim is to keep on improving. Our work will always evolve because we work for clients, who commission pieces to meet their lifestyles which are constantly changing over time. As an example, I have recently been asked to design a sitting and standing desk for a client’s home office. This design brief reflects how we live and work now in 2018.”
To find out more about Barnsley furniture, enquire about a commission or view the range of items in stock, visit www.barnsley-furniture.co.uk. Prices start at £65 for home accessories.
All images (c) Edward Barnsley Workshop0