Self-taught wood-turners Peter Thomas and Trevor Ball tell Tracie Beardsley how they have turned retirement into a new career
When octogenarian actors Derek Jacobi and Clint Eastwood worked together on the drama Hereafter, Jacobi asked Eastwood how he coped with age. Eastwood famously replied: ‘Don’t let the old man in!’
In a tiny village in Dorset, talented 84-year-old Peter Thomas and 70-year-old Trevor Ball are keeping the old man well and truly out.
Former colleagues on Rampisham Manor estate, Peter as farm manager for 15 years and Trevor as gamekeeper and woodsman for 20 years, both are retired and now work happily every day on their “addiction’’ – woodturning and stick dressing.
Although they never intended to set up a business, both men now have a hugely satisfying second career.
In his charming 17th century cottage in Rampisham, Peter has a gallery of their stunning creations. On display are beautiful bowls, begging to be touched, alongside lampstands and ornaments that would take pride of place in any swanky London gallery.
There are exquisite walking sticks with ornate heads fashioned from ramshorns and sika deer antlers. The art of stick dressing, a carryover from when countrymen made their own shepherds crooks and walking sticks, is practised by Peter, who was taught the skill by his grandfather.
He says: ‘The day after I retired from farming, I saw a second hand lathe advertised. I bought it and for the next few weeks, all hell let loose! Eventually I taught myself how to use it properly and began woodturning.
‘I became completely hooked. I had a workshop built in my garden and then bought a top-of-the-range “big boy” lathe with some of my retirement funds.’
Trevor shares Peter’s addiction. His cottage is near Peter’s and he’s converted part of his kitchen into another Living Wood gallery.
Trevor says: ‘I learned a lot by watching Peter wood turning, which is an art in itself. He’s ambidextrous, switching effortlessly from one hand to the other while the lathe is turning at a furious speed.
‘Like Peter, I bought a shed and a lathe. I started by making bowls and became totally hooked. Wood captures you and draws you in. I finished as a gamekeeper on the Friday and on the Saturday I was exhibiting as part of Dorset Arts Week!’
We go where the wood takes us
This companionable double-act of self-taught heritage craftsmen are now award-winning exhibitors. They display at county shows across the south west, as many as 60 days of fares and events in a year. Both are also leading lights in the Dorset Art and Crafts Association and the Dorset Coppice Group.
Peter and Trevor use solely locally-sourced wood for their creations. “In this day and age we are so quick to discard anything that isn’t perfect,” says Peter. ‘We use dead, diseased and storm-damaged wood. When we begin wood-turning, there’s no preconceived ideas about what we’ll make. The natural edge of the wood evolves on the lathe. We go where the wood takes us.’
Peter, calling himself a Luddite when it comes to technology, has also set up a successful online shop. ‘Just this week, I’ve posted walking sticks to Poland, America, and France’, he tells me. Trevor had one couple from Boston buy 14 pieces of his work to take home. ‘That’s a real compliment as there are a lot of good turners in America where it’s seen as much more of an art form,’ says Trevor.
Wives Sarah and Jenny are happy woodturning widows! Trevor says: ‘You lose track of time, finding yourself lost in the zone. Both our wives are always asking us if we’re coming in for dinner!’
Peter adds: ’Jen would go mad if I was in the house all day. I’m sure I wouldn’t be alive today if I hadn’t started this hobby when I retired. Woodturning gives second life to a tree that has already lived for a few hundred years. We won’t outlast our creations, but making them has certainly given us a similarly new lease of life.’
Follow Peter and Trevor on Instagram as PeterLivingWood,
on Facebook as RampishamTurner,
or view the online shop on the website peterthomaslivingwood.co.uk.
Quick fire questions
A-list dinner party guests?
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy – and Peter (he’d be at the head of the table).
What book are you reading?
I’ve got piles of books everywhere! The Wisdom of Trees by Max Adams is top of my pile.