Making Stories and Making Rope

By Bill Gilson

One of our volunteers, Bill Gilson, hails from New England. “I don’t know that much about tools” he said. “But I am interested in their stories”. It turns out Bill is a writer, and a perfect addition to the pool of talent we have amongst our volunteers. Here is a piece he wrote about his first volunteer day working on Walter’s Tools. 


fettled tools

Old hand tools speak with an eloquence both heartening and sad.  The simple beauty of design, modified by trial and usage over centuries, can be as inspiring as a great poem or song; but the stories of the persons who used particular tools are most often revealed only by signs of wear, surfaces shaped by anonymous hands long vanished.

Walter wagon portrait©Dayve Ward 2014

Walter Lloyd, who is 89 and lives on a farm near Newby Bridge, has worked with hand tools for most of his life, has given them serious study, and speaks eloquently about them.  He has also amassed a large collection of tools needing proper care and  preservation.  Fortunately, his recent encounter with the writer Sarah Thomas has resulted in a project which will not only preserve and catalogue the tools but will result in the creation of  “library” such that they can be borrowed and used.

Bill & Paddy

A call for volunteers to help on the project appeared in the Westmorland Gazette; I was one of seven persons who showed up at Walter’s place the first day.  The idea was to begin to sort the billhooks and saws and scythes, to label  and clean and “fettle” the tools needing repair.  I noticed right away that I was the person most lacking in practical tool-repair skills, so I did a bit of sorting and cataloguing, helping where I could; but mainly I took the opportunity to talk with Walter, who is very smart, very experienced with many vanishing country arts and skills, and a great talker. I also watched what the others were doing and asked them questions. I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Saen throws coke

Probably the key member of the group was blacksmith Shaun Bainbridge. He set up a small forge, filled the pan with coke, built a fire and set to work.  He very willingly explained what he was doing and seemed not at all annoyed at being relentlessly questioned by myself and others.  He took an old side-axe head and heated it, explaining how the sharp edge had been “heat-welded” to the body, demonstrated the way in which the colours of the steel changed as he hammered and filed and quenched.  He recovered and expertly re-shaped the points on a coal-miners pick.
      I helped Walter extract from a crowded corner of the barn a simple device consisting of a wooden frame on wheels and four metal cranks with which he gave a demonstration whereby he turned a length of sheep’s wool into a rope.  Later, when Walter told me that he had for several years earned his living making charcoal by the old woodland methods, I asked him how that was done. His step-by-step description was long and precise and humorous and left me convinced that not only should Walter’s tools be preserved, but his words as well.

By the time I left in late afternoon other volunteers, having been at work at the outdoor tarp-covered benches, had produced a pile of  billhooks – polished and clean and oiled with edges freshly ground – looking ready for use.  This is a great project.

How to make rope – No 1 – with wool, hay and willow. Also learn riving willow with Tony Morgan.

How to make rope – No 2 – with sisal baler twine.

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