Review – The Wooden Bowl

Published on on October 15, 2010. I’ve updated the link to Robin’s blog as he’s recently moved it.

The Wooden Bowl

Robin Wood, Stobart Davies, Pontyclerc, UK 2005

This is my third attempt to reduce the elegant simplicity of this book in to the banal form of a review. The first two ended up in the recycling, and it has taken me three years to finally get to this point. I re-read it over the past couple of nights to again try to capture the essence of the book but again feel I’ve failed. The retrospectively eponymous Mr Wood is obviously passionate about both his subject and the method of production and I’m having trouble doing justice to it. I should come clean, I’m a fan of Mr Wood’s work and could possibly be accused of being biased.

The book opens with an introduction actually worth reading, on the ubiquity of wooden bowls, the quantities made through history and the chances by which their preserved remains have come to our hands. It draws the line in the sawdust, if you will, by declining to differentiate between food bowl, dish and drinking bowl forms and dealing with all equally. The first chapter follows the evolution of the lathe and the various applications by different cultures of different types. Following this is an exploration of the raw materials, the conditions under which they are used and discussion of the various species, the uses to which they were put and the period in which they were used. This chapter alone is worth the price of admission.

The next section, more than half the book, deals with the use and development of wooden bowls through periods of history starting with the probable development of the lathe in the early Iron Age through to the end of pole-lathe turned bowls in the middle of the twentieth century. Developments in bowls are paralleled with improvements in lathe and tool technology and some consideration is given other items also produced the same way. Mr Wood is an enthusiastic practitioner, so each chapter in this section contains full details of the machinery, the tools and the techniques to make them. When I read this book, about the middle of this section, I have fully formed plans inside my head for nipping out the following morning and buying the timber to make my own. Particular forms, such as Mazers and dairy bowls, have their own sections where the full variation of the type through time is dealt with in one place so the evolution isn’t lost in the mix with other bowls.

It is in the medieval chapter of this section that Wood does us the great service of debunking the trencher myth. He traces the origin of the story back to Edward Pinto’s Treen and Other Wooden Bygones (1969) and notes that the ubiquitous use of trenchers is not supported by either the archaeological or documentary evidence for any but those at the top of the social scale. This is partly “… because plates and trenchers are only good for eating from a table and the vast majority of people did not eat from tables until the 17th century. Even where people are pictured at a table, for instance in Brueghel’s Peasant Wedding, they hold the bowls in their hands to eat. Where trenchers are pictured or referred to, they are at the high table…”

The Mary Rose gets its own chapter as is only fitting for such a securely dated, complete assemblage. Wood highlights groups of items made by individual turners, showing particular decorative or tool-use idiosyncrasies and shortcuts for speed rather than fine finish. The penultimate chapter is devoted to studies of the last treadle lathe working bowl turners in the period from 1930 to the late 1990s, often in their own words as recorded in newspapers, journals and books. In the final, lavishly illustrated chapter, the author takes us through the process of turning a porringer. The porringer was chosen as the form covers the entire period from the reign of one Elizabeth to the other and having handles, is a more complex shape than a plain bowl and thus shows techniques equally applicable to plates, cups and spoons.

The book concludes with an account of the craft of “loom [lathe] woodturning” written by Mr Frank Hughes in 1936 describing the tools, preparation of the timber and process of turning a nest of five bowls for the Irish Homespun Society (An Cumann Sníomháchin).

Throughout the book, Wood pushes the subject and his craft to the fore while attempting to fade into the background himself. Full of incredibly useful information, his enthusiasm is engaging, although for like-minded people may be dangerous. If only it were mandatory reading for re-enactors, we’d never see another woven bamboo bowl again.

Mr Wood is currently president of the Heritage Crafts Association and also maintains his own blogge.


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