The Shaker movement reached its peak in the Victorian era. The sect, famous for their beautiful woodworking, migrated to the USA from Northern England. They considered that making simple, perfectly handcrafted furniture was an act of worship. You might be surprised to learn that a Shaftesbury craftsman is creating both cotemporary and tradition Shaker-inspired wooden boxes. And he’s exporting them to The States.
ThisIsAlfred’s Keri Jones went to meet Richard Gibson of Shaston Boxes. When you walk into Richard’s small, one-room workshop off the B3081 at Sherstock, between Shaftesbury and Gillingham, the sweet smell of wood fills the air. The mid-afternoon winter sunshine was reflecting on Richard’s collection of pale-coloured, round wooden boxes and stools dotted around his unit.
Richard understands the history behind this quality craftsmanship well. Shakers should not be confused with the Amish, another religious group which took refuge in the States. “The Shakers retired from the world, but they very much dealt with it. They would buy in things occasionally and they were great innovators,” explained Richard. “Amish don’t have electricity. They are separatist and reject new technology. The Shakers are completely the opposite. They were very inclusive of their local community. A very early table saw was developed by one of the women in their houses and they are also credited with some of the first metal pen nibs as well.”
Richard says that the Shaker movement’s designs could be compared with the British ‘Arts And Craft’ school of the late nineteenth century. “It’s very similar. In fact, I’m just reading a book on benches made by these American communities and it refers to the impetus of William Morris’ Arts and Crafts movement over here,” Richard said.
Richard was working in the hi-tech field of electronic engineering when he realised that he didn’t want to follow that path for the rest of his career. He decided to shift his focus toward working with natural materials, creating stylish yet simple craft pieces. “I started exploring lots of different woodworks, furniture making, basket weaving,” said Richard. “It was my wife who saw a course advertised at the American Museum in Bath. I already liked Shaker design. I wanted to make a classic, ladder-backed Shaker chair, which is English in style as well as American. I was just captivated by the process. Like most Shaker things, it is very simple. That was back in 2003. I started with a Stanley knife and a jigsaw. After three years I joined a local woodturning club. I went with them to a fair and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Fifteen years later, Richard has become involved in every stage of producing his Shaker-style boxes. He even cuts his own timber. He showed me around his small workspace, pointing out the different woods he has to work with. “I’ve got some walnut in the round out there, which is seasoning at the moment. I was given some lovely deodar cedar by a friend of mine, which is seasoning as well. I can start with a tree but most times I just start with the plank.”
“This is a band made from holly, which was a weed growing in the Abbey Gardens in Shaftesbury,” Richard continued. “I got a piece that bends up lovely. And that’s a little piece of burr elm from Wales.” Richard raised a belt-shaped strap of beautifully rich, dark wood. “That’s English walnut,” he said. “I’ve used wood from Heligan and Westonbirt Arboretum. They had some lovely sycamore – a huge specimen tree that got blown down. That was just a windfall for us.”
Richard showed me how he fashioned the flexible strips of wood together to form a sturdy oval or barrel shape. The end of each length of wood is cut so the slats can interlock, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. “You soak the band so that it becomes pliable, because if you didn’t do that it would snap on you. And you bend it around until one end, the swallowtail, lies over the inside band. Then, holding that tightly, you put copper tacks through and they are all pinned over.
“So you’ve made a kind of a belt – a hoop?” I asked. “This one is a hoop of English oak. I mainly work with that, or English ash,” Richard said. “Ash bends beautifully. It’s such a light wood. You can put almost any other wood as a top to it. Oak itself can be a bit tricky.”
The swallowtail end gives the finished piece extra strength. “It’s there because when you have natural wood it expands and contracts with heat. And by stress relieving the end of the timber, it doesn’t crack. Otherwise, you’d have to put lots more tacks in to hold it all together.”
Richard has wooden moulds that he shapes the boxes around. “The process starts with a pattern. So from that oval pattern you can get the whole length of your band that you need and you can choose how high it’s going to be. 90% of them are oval. The oval shape has a corner and you can actually grip the wood as you’re bending it round and hold it tightly there. If you have a true circle, there’s nothing to hold onto and it just slips around in your hand.”
The strips of wood need to be thin in order to be flexible. “They’re 1.5 to 2 millimetres thick, depending on how big the box is. The smaller the box, the thinner the band has to be to bend and not break, even when you wet it and soak it,” said Richard.
He then fits the lids by bending them around the boxes. He lifted the lid on a large, oval shaped wooden box that stood two feet high on the floor of his workshop. Richard pulled more boxes out of this larger container. They were packed in like Russian dolls. Richard wanted to show me how strong the crafted woodwork was.
“It’s the principle of the egg, isn’t it? If you squeeze the egg on its long points, you’re fine.” As he said that, Richard motioned me to sit on his oval side table, assuring me that it would take my fourteen stone weight. I carefully and nervously lowered myself down onto the surface. “It’s completely solid, isn’t it?” I said with some surprise. “You can see the thickness of the wood and you think it’s going to crumple underneath you,” I added, as Richard laughed.
“You could hop up on that, and stand around, and that will hold you without any problem,” said Richard. Yet when I tapped the drum-like side table, the sound of the wood revealed how thin it was. Genius.
I was keen to know whether people with connections to the Shaker community had seen Richard’s work. “There are only three living Shakers in Sabbath Day Lake community at the moment and I’ve only been to the Canterbury House. There were thirty or forty houses at their peak. I have exported quite a number of boxes, a dozen of so, out to America,” Richard said.
“That’s like selling coals to Newcastle,” I responded. “I have had Americans come by and say that the work is really nice, which is pleasing,” smiled Richard
Richard sells his work at seasonal craft fairs around Shaftesbury and he sends his piece to galleries as far away as Cornwall. And he’s happy to share his Shaker woodworking skills with you. “I run courses for one or two people at a time here at the workshop, and courses for up to eight people in Somerset and Gloucestershire. You can come and spend a day with me and go home with two boxes in the day.”
I suggested that Richard is creating potential competitors with his Shaker box-crafting courses. “I think I’ve only trained one so far in all the work that I’ve done. He’s further down south, near Corfe,” said Richard. It seems that Shaker wood workers are few and far between. “I suppose there are half a dozen of us in total here in the UK. There’s a chap over in Frome and another one in the Bristol area who supplies the American Museum.”
If you’ve managed to construct an IKEA flat pack and want to progress to making a timeless piece of furniture from quality English wood, Richard might have a creative gift idea for you. He supplies kits and moulds containing all of the parts you need to handcraft you own Shaker boxes wherever you are. And he has a best seller. “Size 3, which is a box about six inches long. People like that size and it’s a good present to give and to make for relatives.”
But if you’d rather ask this experienced craftsman to create your box for you, there may be a wait. Richard showed me the blackboard on the wall of his workshop. It was filled with chalked-on names. “These are all of the commissions I need to complete by Christmas. So yeah, I’m fully booked between now and then and probably a bit after as well! “
You can find Richard online at ShastonBoxes.co.uk.