How it all began :: Interview with Project co-ordinator Sarah Thomas

me photographing

Photo by Dayve Ward

Interview by Bill Gilson

How did you get started with this project?

I met Walter last summer by chance. I was doing a project for Penguin Books – I was a “wayfarer,” which is somebody who walks without a specific destination. The idea was that I would walk around Britain encountering tales and characters and would make a blog about it. This was was a project to promote a book by the prominent nature writer, Robert Macfarlane called The Old Ways, which is about walking paths and keeping them open, and the connectedness of everything. And my involvement in this Walter’s Tools project was an extension of that connectedness. In my walking I came across Walter, a very interesting character, and I had a great afternoon with him here, listening to him with all his stories. And I also met a lady named Grace Holland, of the Woodmanship Trust – the charity that is running this project. She had recently successfully acquired a Heritage Lottery grant to do the Walter’s Tools project – to renovate and catalogue a significant chunk of Walter’s collection – for it to be made into a public tool library for free use by the public. And having met me and realising that I was going to be moving up to this part of the country, she rang and asked if I would run the project. I loved the way that it came about though two people that I met on my journey having something to do with each other. For me it was like an extension of those stories. Although in a coordinator role you end up spending a lot of time with spread sheets – alas.

I had already seen Walter’s barn when I first came here, and I was rather impressed with how he could go in and access a couple of Neolithic hand axes, which was what I he and I were talking about at the time. He went straight to a certain corner and got out this carrier bag containing these hand axes. But he has his own order in there, and it isn’t particularly accessible to anybody else. The barn needed a whole lot of pre-cleaning before the project could begin.

When was this?

Back in January. There was a lot that happened before the volunteers came on board.

The first volunteers came when?


How did the money work out?

It’s A Heritage Lottery funded scheme called “Sharing Heritage” – these are small community-grant-based projects. The idea is that there’s some kind of learning aspect in it. So as part of this project we weren’t just renovating and cataloguing the tools, we also ran a series of five weekend workshops in these trades, such as haymaking, basket making, tool-handle making, blacksmithing. And also charcoal burning, since Walter used to be a charcoal burner. We did that in collaboration with an event that was happening at Stott Park Bobbin Mill on the west side of Windermere. There was a bunch of people from the coppicing world doing an “earth burn,” and we ran a course in kiln charcoal burning.

How much money did the grant provide?

Ten thousand pounds. Which sounds like a lot, but it really isn’t that much.

Yes, I imagine you’d go through that pretty quickly, considering all you’ve done.

Yes. For a start we had to build this shelter to do the work under. We tried to build one for nothing, to start with, and then another –but they absolutely didn’t stand up against the wind and weather. So this very sturdy shelter is “Model Mark III” – and big tarps don’t come cheap.

You’ve done a nice job on it.

This static caravan, where we’re sitting now, used to be under a rotten old Dutch barn. The danger was that it would fall on people’s heads. Also it didn’t let enough light in. We pulled that down, dragged out the caravan – which didn’t fall apart. So we thought, we’ll use it as an office. Orri Hjaltason, a volunteer from northwest Iceland – Icelanders can do anything – and Paul Girling, who’s a furniture maker, came together and built this structure, which is based on a cruck barn.

Where are you from, Sarah? What’s your background?

I was born in Buckinghamshire and both my uncle and my cousin (who is here today) – Martin Foley – are furniture makers, carpenters. And I’ve always been quite interested in artisanship, and I’ve gone to craft fairs and been surrounded by that sort of thing. My educational background is in anthropology. I’m really interested in people’s stories and different ways of doing things. I’ve also lived abroad for a lot of my life. I grew up in Kenya, and I recently lived in Iceland. And now that I’m back in Britain I’m very interested in getting to know its culture. I’m very into learning how to be resourceful as a human. And I think Walter is resourcefulness incarnate. It’s good to learn how to fix things. It’s good to know how to work without the need for fossil fuels because that’s the only way to go now. So I think this is really a very progressive project. Re-educating ourselves in the old ways because they make sense. This project makes possible a new generation of people having shared resources, to continue in a way that’s sustainable. I hope it will have a very long lifetime, this tool collection.


Our volunteers

volunteers cataloguing

©Dayve Ward 2014

We are lucky to have been joined by a great bunch of volunteers who are really committed to the project, and hail from all sorts of backgrounds. Some, very usefully, have a sound knowledge of hand tools. We are also fortunate to have had a writer and a photographer join us. The writer, Bill Gilson, took some time to ask some of the volunteers their stories. The mini interviews are accompanied here by ‘in action’ portraits taken by photographer Dayve Ward.

Dayve & Bill©Sarah Thomas 2014 Bill Gilson (left) and Dayve Ward (right)


Dayve assemblage sample

©Dayve Ward 2014


Photographer.  Ambleside

How did you get started with this project?  

I’m a member of a small group of photographers – we call ourselves IPAG – that stands for Independent Photographers Art Group. There are six or seven members and we meet in Staveley. One of our members found out about the project and sent an email to everyone else.

I’m interested in photographing old tools – and other old things. I sometimes make arrangements of them. You quite often see them in drawers and they’re rusting away and sometimes people no longer know what they were for.  And they’re interesting to photograph because there’s a lot of texture and shape there – and especially when you show them to blokes, there’s a lot of interest in them. Besides old tools I’m also interested in “times gone by,” and in the fact that in a sad way many old objects have been neglected.

Do you work in color?  

I work in color, although depending on the image I may convert it to black and white.

The interesting thing about this project is that it is taking it from, ‘here’s a load of old tools’ to actually getting these old tools up and running, identifying them, and putting them in use again. And maybe this will help cause a resurgence of some of the old techniques so they won’t be lost.

I don’t always know what the tools are. I don’t have a tool collection myself. I have an interest in them at a different level, perhaps.

You don’t necessarily go out and cut things with billhooks.  

No –

But it’s nice to talk with these people who have worked with the tools.   

Yes, chatting with people with knowledge of that.  And it’s not just old tools, obviously, it’s places as well.  This is an on-going thing that I’ve got – I’ve been in old derelict buildings – and in a similar way, you have something that had a glory about it. Like an old forge, for example – you know, 300 years of bashing metal – now it’s not used but it’s got a history about it. There’s an old Derwent pencil factory in Keswick and I chatted to the guy and said do you mind if I go down there and photograph it.  I’m interested in all the old textures – I’m heavily interested in that side of things.

You mean the beauty of it.    

Well, a lot of people maybe don’t see the beauty. They think, “oh gosh, that’s falling apart”. But I’m thinking, “actually that’s really nice.”  It’s sad it’s falling apart but I can capture it and get an interesting image.  And then if it’s cleaned  up afterward – whether it’s an old tool or a factory, I think that’s brilliant.


Iris grinding

©Dayve Ward 2014

Lives in Great Salkeld. Owner of the company Woodland Inspirations.

What is Woodland Inspirations?

I give advice to people on woodland management and I do that through Cumbria Woodlands. They have something called a “Woodlands Advisory Scheme” and I’m one of their advisors. They get people phoning in and asking for someone to help them with their woodlands. What are their objectives? Are they keen on coppicing, or firewood, or just an area to play in? I advise them on how to achieve what they want.

How did you get interested in Walter’s Tools?

Just recently I started doing some woodworking myself – green-woodworking. I happen to live on an estate and there are so many pieces of green wood that I can use.  I have a shaving horse and a draw knife.

What kinds of things are you making?

I’ve been on a spoon-making course, and I’ve been on a rustic bench-making course, which was great.

Have you learned about sharpening?

On purpose I haven’t tried to sharpen, thinking I’ll come here and possibly learn about sharpening while working on the tools.

So this project is helping you get closer to tools – and how to treat them and fix them.

Yes, while we are fixing these old tools.  Next time I might bring my tool box and my tools. I’ve got an axe that needs to be sharpened.  And I’ve got a straight knife and a curved knife.


Philip Hine

©Dayve Ward 2014

Lives in Storth. Retired, IT.

Have you had some experience in your past with tools that drew you to this project?

Yes. It’s from growing up, my dad was always making things, fixing things, just generally using tools. My dad was a mechanic and coach builder. He made wagons and trucks.

Did you have a workshop in the house?  

Yes, there was always a workshop. And as a child I used to help my dad sort his tools out. And sort the nuts and bolts.

Probably helping him sharpen?

Oh, yes. And I’ve always made things, right from when I was very young. And now I’ve got a house full of tools at home.

Tools like the ones here – billhooks and that sort of thing?

I’ve got all sorts. But I tend to have more woodworking tools – joiner’s tools – chisels, planes, all that sort of thing. But I’ve also got a lot of rural craft tools, green-woodworker’s tools.

Where does your interest in green-woodworking tools come from?

Well it has to do with where I grew up in Storth. One of the last of the swill basket makers was in the village, and when we were kids in the fifties on Saturdays we used to go and sit in his workshop, because it was warm. And he was never bothered, he used to let us sit there and watch him make the swill baskets. So when I was an adult, Owen Jones, who now makes swill baskets, he took it over, and he taught courses. I’ve done a couple of them with him. The baskets are made from riven oak – you boil the oak and it gives off this distinctive smell that I remember from when I was a kid.


Graham Fell

©Sarah Thomas 2014

Kendal.  Retired; ran family business, W.A. Fell Ltd in Windermere.

I understand your family business goes way back –

They started in the 1850s, making bobbin machinery for the local bobbin trade. This was a big industry here in the Lakes, using the power of the rivers off the mountains to drive turbines to run the mills. They had the timber here so they used the timber and the power to make bobbins and reels to send down to the Lancashire cotton industry – which is really the start of the British Industrial Revolution. The cotton industry used millions upon millions of reels.

What exactly are these bobbins and reels? 

A bobbin is really anything that you wind the cotton onto, and it goes onto a loom one way or another. And a reel is just a large bobbin. Every household had cotton reels – for sewing machines. Many of the older people will remember them. They were all made  up here in the Lakes.  Our company made bobbin-making machines and shuttle-making machines.

What’s a shuttle?  

Essentially you take a bobbin and wind cotton onto it, and then you put it inside a shuttle, and as the cotton threads are woven the shuttle shoots from one side to another across the cotton threads, weaving the cloth. There is a “picking stick” at each side of the loom which sends the shuttle across at very high speed. The picking stick is made of American hickory with a leather strip on it, and it gets pulled back, bent, and it hits the end of the shuttle, which is made of wood with a metal tip. Now, the faster the shuttle can move, the faster you can weave. A shuttle is made of densified wood.

What’s that?  

You heat up hard wood with steam, put it in a press, and compress it up to 40 per cent of its original width. They used to do this down in Accrington. It takes about 65 different processes to make a shuttle. When you look at one, you see it’s a work of art.

I’ve always been interested in wood, because all our customers used wood. And as an engineer I was used to steel tools. I see that a lot of Walter’s tools were made by quite a few of my customers – Spear and Jackson, Burgon and Ball, all Sheffield tool manufacturers are represented in Walter’s tools. I supplied quite a few of them with machines for making the handles  for their steel tools.

So I thought that Walter’s tools would be a great project for me in my retirement. Because we’ve all got different skills as volunteers. Some people here are collectors of tools, and we do represent a whole range of different knowledge and interests regarding tools. Together we all add up to Walter. But separate we’re not anything like him.


Greta Bertram

©Dayve Ward 2014

Curator at the Museum of English Rural Life [MERL], part of the University of Reading. Also Secretary of the charity, The Heritage Crafts Association [HCA].

What brings you to Walter’s Tools as a volunteer?

At the museum I work on essentially a variety of cataloguing projects, but because of my interest in traditional crafts and my role in the HCA, and a very understanding boss, I’ve managed to wangle it so that I do a lot of work on the craft collections at MERL, where we have over 4000 products and tools.

The reason I’m here is because Sarah contacted the museum earlier in the year – asking if we could put out a call for volunteers – and I heard that it was all about cataloguing tools. That’s essentially what I’ve been doing, so I offered to help. I came up at the beginning of March and we discussed various ways of cataloguing and what is important to record.

What I particularly like about this project is the way in which it is different from working in a museum, where the stuff comes in and it just sits there on a shelf forever.  Which, to me, despite my working in a museum, is not really very good. What I like is that these tools are being refurbished so that they can be used to pass on craft skills.  In our collection at the museum we have a lot of brown and rusty things. These tools here are also brown and rusty but they’re not going to be brown and rusty forever.

To me, what’s important is not preserving that object, it’s kind of preserving the function. Putting a new handle on it or refurbishing the blade, from a museum perspective it’s kind of a sacrilege, but for me what you’re actually trying to preserve is the use of the tool, and you can’t use it if the tool is rusty and the handle’s split.



©Dayve Ward 2014


Lives in Morecambe. Retired. Originally taught woodworking. Studied with Edward Barnsley (1900-1987), renowned British furniture maker.

How did you hear about Walter’s Tools?

I do what’s called the “Men in Sheds,” we refurbish tools at AgeUK.  Graham Fell put it round at the shed.  I heard it from him first hand.

You like working with hand tools?

Oh yes.  Well, I suppose I like making things, really. My father’s family had a woodworking-funeral directing business in Bolton many long years ago. My dad was a joiner. Fathers say never go into the business that I’m in, so I kind of ran parallel to it, and taught.

They often go together in England, don’t they – joiners and funerals?

Yes. They used to make the coffins in the workshop.  They don’t do that any more. The coffins come from the manufacturer, I suppose on-line

Do you have a workshop at home?

Oh yes.

With power tools?

Yes, that’s the reason we bought the house – it was almost derelict but it has a couple of garages and a car port, so I can store timber and have machines under cover.

What are you working on now?

The house needs bringing into the twenty-first century.



©Dayve Ward 2014

Retired. Lives in Preston.  Originally from Northumberland.
Sold second-hand tools.

You’re here in connection with tools, and you know Walter. But how did you happen to hear about this project?

I saw it in the paper. I answered the email and then I got talking with Sarah and she said, “Do you know a bit about tools?” and I said, “Well, most of the stuff Walter’s got he bought it off me.”

So you sold old tools?

Years ago I was a drain cleaner at ICI. Then this job came up as part-time work study officer – timing people doing jobs. I did that for a long time, and I got made redundant. So I started selling old brass ware at the different markets. That turned out to be a waste of time, so I put an add in the local paper, “Old tools wanted.” People phoned up from all over the place. I’d give them a price to see if I was going to make a profit. I made a good living, oh yes. Selling tools in Kendal Market.  Now there’s a glut on tools and no one’s selling tools in the markets any more.

So what do you think about this project?

I think it’s good but I think they’re wasting their time with a lot of the tools. There must be 30 or 40 augers, they’re cleaning each one, they don’t need to do that!

Well at least the augers won’t get melted down.

They have to oil them. Last week they said, “Could we wrap them in newspapers?” and I said “no, the print on the newspaper will go onto the tool.”  I don’t know why Walter had so many billhooks, you can only use one at a time.

Maybe he just liked to collect billhooks.

When he used to come to my stall he’d say “How much is this?” And I’d say “Two pounds,” and he’d say, “no, no, not two pounds to me,” and I’d say, “a pound,” and he’d say, “just chuck that axe in as well … ”

That’s how he got so much stuff.

He’s got quite a good memory, though. They keep asking him where he got this from, where he got that from. And he remembers.  Now, that side axe – he told me he bought that side axe for twenty pence at a car boot sale, which you would do because nobody knows what a side axe is.