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At Nichols Bros (Woodturners) Ltd

April 4, 2019
by the gentle author

Geoff Nichols standing at his father Stanley’s lathe

‘We are the last proper woodturners in London,’ boasts Geoff Nichols of Nichols Bros (Woodturners) Ltd in Walthamstow. It sounds like quite a bold claim, but since I have learned the story of Geoff’s family endeavour stretching back over a century, examined their work and enjoyed a tour of the premises, I am more than happy to endorse Nichols Bros as ‘proper’ woodturners indeed.

An undistinguished single storey building in a side street gives no hint of the wonders within. For eighty years, the Nichols family have been woodturning at this location and proved themselves masters of the art and the craft. Passing through double green doors from the street, you turn directly left and discover yourself in another kingdom, filled with glowing golden timber and lined with wood chips.

In a long low-ceilinged brick room sit venerable lathes surrounded by stacks of new pine and off-cuts, while the walls are adorned with intricate examples of woodturning hanging like stalactites. Geoff Nichols and his trusty partner Harry Morrow have worked here for the past half century, and they step forward to greet you – looking the epitome of master craftsmen in their long blue twill coats.

Yet further delights await your gaze. Widening his eyes in excitement, Geoff leads you into the yard beyond where blue tarpaulins conceal a unique spectacle, accumulated in a series of old sheds. One after the other, he lifts the tarpaulins to reveal rooms filled with a seemingly infinite array of spindles, all meticulously organised by style and disappearing into the gloom like gothic grottos.

‘We have a collection in the region of three thousand different spindles,’ underestimates Geoff proudly, ‘We try to display as many as we can for ease of reference but we have lots more that are stored in boxes too.’

Unquestionably the largest collection in London and perhaps the largest collection in the world, this is – in effect – our national archive of stair spindles. It is a secret museum that tells the story of the growth of the capital in spindles – a cultural asset of the greatest significance and it will not come again. Perhaps most fascinating was the ‘London spindle’ – the most common design in the capital yet also the one with the most variants.

After half century of woodturning, Geoff Nichols needs to find someone to take on his astonishing legacy. Is there a craftworker reading this who would like to take this noble craft onwards for another fifty years and earn a lifetime’s income in the process? Is there an institution that can give a home to the largest collection of spindles in existence?

All these thoughts were buzzing in my mind as Geoff led me to the tiny cubby hole which serves as the office, where we competed over who should sit upon the only chair in the place, before I plonked myself down upon a trestle and he told me the full story of Nichols Bros.

“My dad Stanley Nichols and his brother Arthur started on this site in Walthamstow in 1949. They were two youngest out of five brothers, the two eldest – there was about a twenty year age difference – already had a woodturning business, Nichols & Nichols, in the Kingsland Rd in Shoreditch which they started before the First World War.

After Stanley and Arthur left school, they went to work for their elder brothers until the Second World War began, then they went off to the forces. After the war, they carried on with their elder brothers for a year or so before they decided to set up their own woodturning business here, Nichols Bros.

I came into it the day I left school at fifteen, that was fifty years ago now in 1969, and Harry joined about four or five years after me. My Uncle Arthur retired about five years after I started, he used to handle the paperwork, so Harry took over from him. I was more involved in the practical side of the business, especially hand woodturning.

We probably had about five or six employees at our peak which was about twenty years ago. Since then the trade has changed quite dramatically because the trend has moved away from wood towards glass and metal. In pubs in the East End, all the glass racks were made of turned wood spindles but that is no longer the case. Once upon a time, we made a lot of mangle rollers but obviously that is work we will never get asked to do again. We used to do a lot of table legs and when I first joined the business all we were really doing was standard lamps.

The furniture industry disappeared in the East End a quarter of a century ago and we are now tied in to the building trade. People spend a lot of money on their properties these days, adding rooms in the loft which needs staircases – newel posts, handrails and spindles. Spindles for staircases is the work we are asked to do now, although we still make the occasional four-poster bed and table legs for the furniture trade which does exist.

A lot of woodturning is imported from China but we cannot try to compete by producing volume, instead we do bespoke woodturning if a customer wants spindles or newel posts matched up. Skill is very important. When I first started working here, we used to get an influx of people asking if there was a job or could they learn the trade, but it seems the younger generation tend to shy away from manual trades today.

My dad was an exceptionally good woodturner, better at some things than me although I think I am better than him at others. You can be the most skilled woodturner in the world but you have to do it within a certain time, because time is money. It is all about earning a living, it is not a hobby. If you turn one spindle by hand, you have then got to be able to replicate it again quickly. Being able to get sharp definition in your work is very important. I can look at any piece of woodturning and tell straight away whether it was made by a highly skilled turner or not.

In woodturning, the trick is you must not pick up and tools and put them down again too many times. You have to do as much as you can with either the chisel or the gouge. When you change tools you are wasting time, so you must be able to do the maximum before you change tools. That is the secret to fast woodturning and to be able to turn nice bead, a fillet or a jug. The ridge around the shaft is called a ‘bead,’ like beading. The ridge between the bead and the shaft of the spindle is called the ‘fillet’ and it gives definition of the bead. The ‘jug’ is the wave profile, like on a jug. Any woodturning you see is beads, fillets, bands, hollows and jugs. That is all woodturning is.

It gives me pleasure to take a square blank and turn it into an artistic shape. You alone know the difficulty in turning it. You can see that you have made something that looks beautiful and will be there for a long time. When you visit old buildings, you appreciate the tremendous work that was involved in the woodturning, especially since they were working on primitive lathes compared to ours.

My children will not be coming into the business. My son works in the City and my daughter has an Estate Agents, so no-one in the family can take it over which is a real shame. I would be open to train someone if they came and asked me. It would be lovely if we could find someone who wanted to start a woodturning business, because over the last seventy years we have collected so many machines and tools which are irreplaceable.

Geoff as a young man with his father Stanley Nichols

Stanley Nichols working at his lathe

Geoff at work on a barley-sugar twist spindle

Harry Morrow and Geoff Nichols at work at their lathes

Harry Morrow

The yard where the collection of more than three thousand spindles are kept

Some of the collection

Geoff Nichols

Multiple variants of the ‘London spindle’ – a distinctive style which evolved during the nineteenth century with the expansion of the capital

Nichols Bros (Woodturning) Ltd, 2A Milton Rd, Walthamstow, E17 4SR

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10 Responses leave one →
  1. April 4, 2019

    What a great place. I hope they find good people to take it over and continue the traditions. Valerie

  2. Jill Wilson permalink
    April 4, 2019

    Brilliant to see such craftsmanship. Lets hope that someone can be found to take over the business – it would be a tragedy if it closes forever.

  3. April 4, 2019

    Fantastic profession that is disappearing everywhere. I sincerely hope someone will come to be trained.

  4. Catherine Morley permalink
    April 4, 2019

    Wow just seen this post and it brings back so many memories. My Nana lived in Milton Rd and my mum had a hairdresser’s there as well. I remember this wood turners as I used to walk past most days and remember the sounds and smells of wood coming out. I’m 70 now and these memories are from my earliest memories probably around 5yrs old.
    I hope the business can find someone who will keep it going, there are two many small business’s that are viable where they close due to family not carrying on the business. Not blaming the family as they have there own chosen career, I just find it sad. Good luck.

  5. Marc permalink
    April 4, 2019

    If only I was 50 years younger ……

  6. Helen Breen permalink
    April 4, 2019

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thanks for a glimpse into another lost art in London. What a collection. Well said: “…our national archive of stair spindles…is a secret museum that tell the story of the growth of the capital of spindles – a cultural asset of the greatest significance and it will not come again.”

    Too bad that the Geoff cannot find a worthy apprentice to carry on the trade…

  7. Susan Martin permalink
    April 4, 2019

    How amazing and interesting. I so hope that Geoff finds someone worthy to take on his business. Thanks for another great blog.

  8. Greg Tingey permalink
    April 5, 2019

    VERY local to me …
    I have used their services a couple of times …
    Hope they remain open.

  9. Jim Brettell permalink
    April 5, 2019

    Geof,

    A very familiar story and the photos bring memories flooding back of our place in Winchelsea Road and later Chestnut Avenue. I was very glad to have had the chance to meet you at Rob’s funeral and to see your factory at first hand – wonderfully evocative of my early memories of 121 Teesdale Street in the 1950′s! As you know, succession was an issue for us and I really hope you are able to find someone keen to take on the traditions of woodturning in the East End. It seems you do indeed have the title of ‘last woodturner’ and I shall watch what happens with great interest.

    Best wishes,

    Jim Brettell

  10. Amanda permalink
    April 6, 2019

    These years of your dedicated skill must not be given up easily by the hope someone calls in by chance. If you haven’t done so already, ADVERTISING in the right areas may bring just the person – or team of two. The GA’s blog may weave its matchmaking magic too.

    It is true that the trend in this generation is not to learn a skill but talented individuals do exist who need an opportunity.

    It struck me in the quest for my ancestry, the most determined & successful Apprentices and Journeymen arrived in the heart of London from the shires and the West Country.
    A simple posting on FACEBOOK could bring your dream surprisingly closer.
    Your successful daughter would know exactly how.

    GOOD LUCK GEOFF

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