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He showed us a slide of his workshop which looked like an ordinary garden shed but an interior shot showed it to be somewhat longer. It is known either as "The Kennel" or as "The Charnel House" because of the shelves of bones. The bones are boiled with a little detergent to get rid of the grease in buckets on a double burner fuelled by gas: this is done outside. He uses the top half of front and back legs (of cattle) and gets seven blanks from each bone - that is 28 blanks per animal. Out of each seven blanks he gets three to four usable pieces but, he says, these bones provide much better material.
He digressed at this point to talk about the beef crisis when fewer bones were available. While he avoided the Ministry another bobbin maker wrote there about the crisis. The reply seemed to come straight out of "Yes, Minister". It said that bobbins were "technical instruments" and it was permissible to buy bones to make "technical instruments". He then showed us what he does step by step. First the bones are cut lengthways into seven sections. Some of these are curved but provide denser material if used carefully. These are left overnight and then examined to see which are usable. Some are spoiled by black marks or nicks or other flaws. But he can't always tell from the blanks whether the material is usable or not. I should have said carving blanks is the next stage in the process. Then he makes the heads and necks. After this he sits and looks at the blanks to see which blank is suitable for which design: the condition of the blank dictates which design. His variety of designs is intended to accommodate variations in the bone. He keeps a design book or he otherwise forgets them. He cuts spirals freehand and uses a milling machine for windows. The babe is cut separately just over half an inch long and a little wider than the window and then the babe is pushed into the window. After this he starts engraving using one of four little electric drills with different shaped cutters. He finds this easier than changing cutters on one drill. Three of the drills are permanently set up and one is interchangeable. He doesn't need to draw precisely for most of his designs - a rough sketch is sufficient.
Hilary, his wife, does most of the painting but Stephen decides the colours. (Hilary does come up with ideas). Using enamels as these are hard wearing she paints in the grooves and over the edges. When the painting is completed the bobbin goes back in the lathe to remove excess paint. Hilary then spangles them - reluctantly. Before she married Stephen she bought only ready spangled bobbins so much does she hate spangling. The bead designs dictate, to some extent, the bobbin designs as he likes to match them up. He also gets inspiration from his own garden which doesn't seem to be overly cultivated - a kind of wild garden. He showed us slides of berries and leaves which have been incorporated into designs. He also gets inspiration/technical detail from a wide ranging library of books: one he showed was "Great locomotives" and he has incorporated cars, steam engines, steam trains, ships and such into designs which seemed to be mostly special commissions.
He also showed us the process of making a gilded cage for his bird in a gilded cage design. This is one of his joined bobbins - another is one with a bead on a wire in the middle of the bobbin. He says he designs directly onto the bobbin as it is very difficult to transfer a design developed on the flat onto a rounded bobbin. Sometimes he manages to convert mistakes into another design and he showed us examples of this. Finally, he pyrographs very small letters onto his bobbins as trying to engrave them results in filles O's etc,
I hope I haven't bored everyone rigid with this but last time I reported in detail what a speaker said I did have some enthusiastic responses from friends on the list.
Patricia in South Wales