Crafts and Trades News

From Overseer To Project Manager

YALDhousesThis illustration of the construction of a large medieval timber-framed building shows a mass of workers, but there is one figure of particular interest. He is placed right at the centre of the composition, and he is obviously better dressed than anyone else. He points up to the roof, issuing instructions to a labourer who is working there; there is no doubt about the fact that he is a figure of authority. He is in charge.

At every stage of the Abbey’s development there would have been an unsung hero – one who actually left no mark on the building, but without whom chaos would have reigned. He was the overseer; the man who had the plan of the building in his head, who knew at which point each craft and trade should be on site, who was doing what, and how much it should all be costing.

Nowadays, during the restoration of the North Wing, the overseer has the title of project manager, and he works with a laptop, spreadsheets and a cell phone. His name is Peter Beckett, and he is far from being a hired hand – Combermere Abbey is his home.

Peter’s office during the restoration is a cubby hole in a Portakabin to the north of the building. The walls are covered with plans and delivery notes, and his desk has disappeared under yet more paperwork. Perched on old office chairs and with tradesmen coming and going, I asked him about his role.

“It wasn’t my decision that I should be the project manager”, he said, “It was my wife, Sarah’s. We discussed it and as we were the main contractor it made sense that we had a constant presence on-site. We could keep an eye on what was happening, but most importantly we could make decisions as quickly as possible – so that suppliers, providers and trades weren’t ever held up”.

A fascinating early question was to which point in time the building would be restored. The Abbey has been added to and subtracted from many times over the centuries and its shape and outline plan has evolved considerably. There could have been an argument that the early-Nineteenth century gothicisation should have been stripped away completely, leaving the Tudor half-timbered structure – though so much else has changed that such a notion would never have been practical. “We thought about that for a nano-second”, Peter says, “It was clear though that the timber structure had been cut into and battered about so much during the gothicisation that it made it impossible – plus an extra floor had been created above the Tudor building.”

One replacement which was considered was the Wellington Wing to the north-east, built in something of a hurry for the visit of the first Viscount Combermere’s commander and friend, Lord Wellington in 1820. This would have added considerably to the Abbey’s ground area, and it would have stood parallel to the longer service wing on the south-west. This was soon discounted though on the grounds of cost.

One crucial aspect of the work is of course controlling the money. Every invoice which comes in is logged for approval, and at any point Peter can see immediately how the different sections of the project are looking so far as cost is concerned – and the overall total.

One early task was selecting the suppliers and tradesmen who would work on the restoration. The criteria, Peter says, were, “Reputation, previous experience with this type of work, a good reference – and tendering. The tendering process started with us putting together a specification and getting responses to that. There was no question of giving the work to the cheapest. What was needed was the best job and the best value for money. This is a building of great quality and the work had to be done up to the right standard.

It was useful, Peter added, to talk to as many people in the field as possible and learn from their experiences, good and bad. “We have ended up with the most fantastic team of people here. We came to a working agreement with Grosvenor Construction early on, and Will Mellor, the Director who is responsible for the firm’s work here at Combermere, lined up people to provide advice when we come to a sticky question and feel we are out of our depth.”

The very first port of call was the specialist heritage architects, Arrol Snell; we asked them who we thought we should appoint as the principle contractor (Combermere remains the ‘main contractor’ throughout), and we contacted a number of firms, and finally selected Grosvenor. At every step, no matter the size of the ‘parcels contract’, Peter has organised a ‘beauty parade’ and looked at a number of suppliers or contractors.

Scheduling is a very important factor; goods must arrive on a particular date (and indeed, often at a particular time) and the craftsmen need to be in place to receive those goods and begin to use them. It is not good practise to have too much in the way of building materials on site, and at the Abbey there is neither space nor dry storage for a mass of material anyway. These requirements change frequently, however; jobs take a longer or shorter time to complete, and other factors can come into play. The worst outcome is having workers sitting around waiting for a crucial delivery.

“The project manager’s job is to juggle”, Peter says, “You are juggling people, materials, and different suppliers. Most suppliers deliver on time, but others don’t – which you remember – and sometimes there is a consignment which is simply wrong.

“We can move people around in most cases if a delivery is late, but of course you can’t do everything all at once; some jobs have to be done before others.”

Interestingly, it tends not to be the larger contractors who occasionally let the side down, but the smaller ones – who perhaps have less in the way of resources, but who one would expect to be more conscientious because the work matters more to them. “The bigger they are, the more professional they tend to be, with professional systems in place. They also have greater resources so they can pull people off other, less time-sensitive work, to fulfil an order which is on deadline. On the other hand if a supplier tells us that there is a problem, or the possibility of a problem, and the timing isn’t crucial for us, we can drop that back in the schedule. There has to be some give and take.

“Recently we ordered some stainless steel mesh and it had to be delivered three times because there was, initially, a genuine misunderstanding, and that material was sent back, but the next delivery was galvanised steel – not stainless steel. The third time we got what we wanted, but the delay was frustrating.”

Looking at the North Wing and the ad hoc building site which is sitting temporarily around it, materials such as timber are in evidence – but there are other suppliers to bear in mind – more than one might think. A Tudor overseer didn’t have to factor in electricians or telephone contractors.

“Project management has the same modus operandi no what the project is. What matters is having foresight in terms of anticipating problems, having an overall plan and knowing what you want to achieve. You then break all that down into the constituent steps – and then make sure that you stay one or two steps ahead of your suppliers. You have to review progress on a regular basis, see where you are up to, decide what might need re-scheduling, and see where you stand according to the budget.

“No two projects are the same, but the experience you gain on any one transfers to subsequent projects. You do become more adept at dealing with situations and getting a good feel for all the different elements. The most important element in project management is flexibility. When a problem arises you can’t just freeze; you have to be able to work around it and re-deploy your assets. If it wasn’t something you had anticipated it may cost you more in terms of time or money. No matter how keenly you try to anticipate problems things will go wrong regardless. You can’t think of everything but you have to be able to cope with everything.

“As a Grade I listed building – and one which is on English Heritage’s ‘at risk’ register – we have had their support all the way through. We were sixteen years trying to set up the restoration, and over that time we have developed a very good relationship with their people. With the Combermere estate this is the sixth or seventh project which we have undertaken, so we have built up their trust and confidence in us. That level of respect means, I believe, that they have faith in us.

“Any areas of disagreement with English Heritage were resolved in the planning stages. Early on it was a question of getting their reactions to ideas which we had, discussing the issues, and coming to a decision. We are all looking for pragmatic decisions, using the right materials for the house for the long term – and being as faithful as possible in re-creating the look and feel of the building as it was.”

There is no question but that Peter is in his element in this role, and is enjoying himself; “It is very satisfying to see something being created out of a wreck, and as each week goes past I see visible progress. You could say that it’s like conducting an orchestra, and whether you are playing first violin or just the triangle, everything has to find its place and come in on time.

“It has also been terrific to see what this country can still produce in terms of craftsmanship and the materials we require. You do need to look for the craftsmen, and often if it says ‘restoration’ or ‘historic’ over the door it means they are expensive, but this country does have some very good people still.

“It’s going to be a good, solid building for another two hundred years at least. We are one of the blips in time so far as the history of this house is concerned, and as with every project which Sarah and I have undertaken on the estate over the last two decades, it is like putting pieces into a great big jigsaw puzzle. When each piece has been repaired or restored – or taken away, if that was appropriate – it has helped build the overall picture of a vibrant Combermere estate. This will be one of the big sections, put back in its rightful place.”

Nick And Ben – The Latest In A Long Line of Woodworkers At The Abbey

Of all the craftsmen who have worked at Combermere Abbey over the past nine centuries, one of the very first to have gone on to the site in the early Twelfth century would have been the woodmen. We know from the Domesday Book that the land on the Cheshire/Shropshire border was a mix of oak woodland and either low scrub or heathland. Those ancient oaks would have offered perfect building materials – along with stone brought from further away – for not just the Abbey buildings but all the other ancillary and temporary structure which would have been needed.

Construction began only fifty years after the Norman’s vicious ‘harrying of the north’, when the land was ravaged in revenge for uprisings against Norman rule. The conquerors systematically destroyed everything of use or value; homes, farms, barns, crops, cattle, sheep – even poultry and dogs. Many Saxons were murdered by the Normans, and more yet starved to death. It is no wonder that in Cheshire and Shropshire – and on across northern England – Domesday describes the land as “waste” and of very small value. Even the valuable and strategically important city of Chester saw half its houses destroyed and lost a third of its value.

There was no human settlement at Combermere at this time; it was an isolated spot a few miles from both the small towns of Whitchurch and Audlem, and several tiny villages, so the harrying would have been less apparent. We can probably assume that the woodland was largely untouched; it would have been difficult to put to the torch unless the weather was very dry indeed. It is also safe to assume that, along with the good water supply, the timber was another reason why Combermere was chosen as the site for a monastery (felling and stripping trees for good timber usable in construction was labour-intensive, but was still far less expensive than moving timber – transporting it, usually on ox-drawn carts, was slow and difficult, and thus very expensive).


After the Dissolution and the grant of the Abbey to Sir George Cotton in 1539 it is likely that demolition work of the monastic church and the other ecclesiastical building was begun fairly quickly. Sir George did not have family wealth; he and his brother Richard had risen rapidly at the court of King Henry VIII despite coming from obscure origins in North Shropshire, so it is likely that he was not in a position to build a substantial country house immediately. He might well have been amassing the rents from the estate, and would have sold off the huge stock of building materials generated by the demolition. For the most part this was very valuable stone, a lot of which would have been expertly dressed, and the fact that it was four hundred years old was not at all detrimental (we can never know where it went, but it is fascinating to speculate; how many houses, farms, barns – or townhouses in Nantwich and Whitchurch – still have monastic stone from Combermere in their fabric?).

So what of the timbers? There are a lot of timbers in stone buildings, particularly in the roofs, let alone all the other buildings of lesser status which would have been predominantly built of wood. Worthwhile timbers would have been sold off too as there was surely more wood than would ever be needed, but was some stored for re-use? Or did Sir George know that it was going to be a while before he could build his new house, and think that storage of a material which would degrade in the moist conditions of Combermere was a bad idea? Was he perhaps budgeting for all-new timber on his new country house?


Whatever Sir George’s plans were they weren’t to be fulfilled in his lifetime; he died in 1545 at the age of forty. Combermere was inherited by his only son, (another) Richard Cotton (doubtless named after his uncle), who was about six years old. We don’t know when work began on the new house, but a date stone is inscribed 1563 (“Master Richard Cotton and his sons three, both for their pleasure and commoditie, this building did edifie, in fifteen hundred and sixty three”) – though was that laid at the beginning or the end of the work?

By way of an aside, there was something curious in that date of 1563. His first son, George, who was to inherit the house, was born in 1560, and his second – Arthur – was born in 1562. The next birth (by his first wife, Mary Mainwaring of Ightfield), in 1563, was a daughter – Mary Cotton. The third son, Andrew, wasn’t born until 1564, so the date stone was probably put in after the event, and therefore perhaps when building work was completed. (Richard fathered fourteen children in all, by three wives).

We can be sure though that during the 1560s there were joiners and carpenters back at Combermere Abbey, and in numbers not seen for four centuries. The construction must have been spread over a number of years, and it would have been a great source of work for craftsmen and labourers alike, plus a whole range of secondary suppliers such as blacksmiths, and those who supplied the workers with food, clothing, and other necessities. It is interesting to speculate how far the craftsmen travelled. There were probably not enough joiners, masons, lead workers and so on in the immediate vicinity, and some must have come from Whitchurch and Nantwich, which was the largest settlement within a ten mile radius by then. Presumably they were accommodated at the Abbey, returning home only on occasion (perhaps with much-needed cash). It seems logical that some of the more skilled craftsmen came from Chester and Shropshire, and perhaps even further afield.


For the past year or so there have been two Twenty-first carpenters on site at the Abbey, and they will be there until at least the end of this year (2015) and even on into the next.. They are father and son Nick and Ben Owens from Chirk, just across the River Dee in Wales. Nick’s father was a woodworker, and like the joiners of years gone, by he has followed in his father’s trade, just as Ben is now following in his. There have been several father-and-son teams working at the Abbey during the restoration of the North Wing, which is, in its way, rather satisfying: “I don’t think that I ever had a say in it”, Nick said, “I just followed my dad. It’s nice though that my son has followed me into the trade as well.”

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Nick (right) and Ben Owens on site at the Abbey

In large part the problems with the Tudor timbers were all too evident in the north-facing side of the Abbey, where substantial amounts of material had fallen away, but even that did not tell the full story of the rot in the wood. When the ashlar outer surface was removed it could be seen that in many cases the vertical timbers no longer reached down to the base or other beams – and there was not a lot more than air and dust where once there was solid Cheshire oak.

New steelwork had been introduced to avoid further collapse, and Nick and Ben’s first job was to cut away the rotten wood in the main frame of the building and replace it with good wood. The new pieces were cut to the same width and depth as the original beams, and were, in many places, joined with wooden pegs as they would have been five hundred years ago.

The next step for the joiners was to construct a new interior wall to carry the roof, and once the roof was in place they could move on to repairing the framework on the outside face, which will be plastered in replication of the gothic ‘stonework’. Nick and Ben are some of the few craftsmen who will be on site from just about the start of the work right through to the finishing touches being applied inside ahead of the plasterers, and then will be adding the architraves, skirting boards and doors before the decorators go in.

“When we first turned up and looked at the job I thought “My god!”. I’ve worked on some buildings which were really far gone but this was the worst because of the amount of decay and rot”, Nick said. “My next thought was “Where do we start?”, but you start somewhere, of course, and you’re away. It has been a challenge but at least the worst is over now and from here on it’s straight forward. Not easy, but at least straight forward.

“Actually, the place we did start was on getting the building safe. The first job was to replace the timbers which had been replaced by the temporary steelwork so that we could get the house standing on its own legs again, and then the steel could be taken out. We started from the bottom and worked upwards and it was soon holding its own.

“Then all the big oak timbers which had rotted away had to come out and new wood had to go in, in their place. Where we could we spliced new wood to the old, but where the timber was of structural importance the only thing to do was to put all-new wood in; you do lose strength on the join where you splice.

“All the wood is ‘like for like’; oak is replaced by oak and softwood by softwood. The oak came from a timber merchant near Market Drayton, not far away, but it’s French in origin – from Normandy. You can’t get English or Welsh oak of the size we needed. To get a straight length of oak six metres long you need to start with a very tall oak tree.

“Those long pieces are 300mm by 400mm [twelve inches by sixteen inches] and at six metres length the oak is very heavy. Plus, you have to feed it in through the building, often through window gaps, feeding it gently into the building, so it’s not easy. We have got modern lifting equipment, but most of the time we are using chains and blocks, much as the original carpenters would have done. You can always do it, but you really have to think about it before you start.

“We have used wooden pegs for joining because it’s the traditional way, and I like doing that, but for speed and strength we’ve used bolts. Bolts pull the beams together in the way that pegs don’t and that helps the glue go off. To a large degree though I’ve done it the way it was, and future generations will be able to see our work and see that we’ve respected the building.

“I do look at the original work and wonder about the men who worked on it. I can tell you though, they were good joiners – their work really stands up. It is good to see the stuff that they have done, especially their high-end work, like in the roof above the library. It’s nice joinery, especially where they have spent some time on something.

“I do think though that to some degree they had time on their hands. I think we have deadlines that they didn’t have, and we’ve got to achieve everything by a certain date, come what may. Time would not have been an issue for them, but not so much as for us, I’d think.

“The Tudor joiners were accurate with their measurements. Their rulers or tapes wouldn’t have been as accurate as ours, but wherever I’ve measured up their work it has always been there or thereabouts. And they always worked in multiples; two foot, four foot, eight foot, sixteen foot.”


For a thousand years or more carpentry has been a well-regarded and relatively well-paid craft. In the Fourteenth century a carpenter earned around twenty pence a week, which was more than twice as much as a common labourer, and similar to the wages of a mason. In the same century – in 1333 – the Carpenters’ Company (in effect a guild) created a ‘Boke of Ordinances’, which set out the rules of the craft. Most related to the provision of help to members in need, and included a payment of twelve pennies a year to help those who became ill or were injured at work, which was paid for by a subscription to the Company. Members of the fraternity were also required to employ other members who were without work, in preference to non-Company carpenters. Company members, as with all other guilds, were expressly forbidden from revealing the secrets of their craft to outsiders.

Members were expected to attend mass twice a year (which I don’t believe Nick and Ben are) and go to the funerals of brothers (and sisters – widows) of the Company. Medieval carpenters were very proud of the religious association of the craft; Jesus’s earthly father, Joseph, having been a carpenter.

The Company was incorporated by Royal Charter as a City of London Livery Company in 1477 by King Edward IV. The charter defined the Carpenters’ Company as ‘a body Corporate and Politic by the name of the Master Wardens and Commonalty of the Mistery of Freemen of the Carpentry of the City of London’. The charter gave the company the power to receive bequests and gifts of property, to plead in any court, and to have a common seal.

Carpenters were often self-employed, but great houses, castles and cathedrals would often have carpenters among their full-time staff, responsible for repairs as well as new building – and for repairing all items made of wood, be it a wheelbarrow, a cart, or a stool.

The route to becoming a carpenter was via an apprentice; a system which emerged in the Twelfth century and was rapidly adopted. A boy would be bound to a craftsman as an apprentice from the age of fourteen for a term of between six and nine years. The master had to give an assurance that he would teach the youngster all the skills he would need, and was legally bound then to do so; there are examples of apprentices taking legal action if they were under-taught or abused.

From the Sixteenth century onwards the master was paid a fee by the parents of the apprentice. The apprentice lived with the master and was fed and housed by him and his family. In theory no salary was paid to the apprentice – the benefit being the learning of the trade – but in reality they were often given modest allowances for clothing and other essentials.


Guild members were expected to take on the sons of other guild members, especially where their fathers had died. As well as the use of wood and their tools, the apprentice was taught mathematics, which was a relatively rare skill. At the end of their term they became journeymen and could set up on their own, but many stayed and worked alongside their master. If the master had no sons of his own an ex-apprentice would often inherit their business. There were many instances of apprentices marrying into the master’s family. Many apprentice carpenters worked without a formal agreement for their own fathers or other family members in the trade. After 1601 the children of the poor could be placed in apprenticeships at the expense of the parish, which was an enlightened step. Apprenticeships weren’t a male-only role; girls were apprenticed to women as seamstresses or weavers, under exactly the same conditions.

These terms and conditions of being a carpenter might be obsolete now, but the levels of skill are as high or higher, and the pride in their work – as evidenced by Nick and Ben – are certainly no lower. Doubtless it will be exactly the same in a couple of hundred years or so when carpenters next need to work on the Abbey. Many other professions will have moved on massively, but maybe carpentry will be very much the same as it was in the Twelfth century, the Sixteenth century, and the Twenty-first.


From Thomas le Plumer In The 1200s to Steve And Paul Today

We know the names of all the great men and women who have lived at Combermere Abbey over the past nine centuries, but – other than those who appeared in the censuses from the mid-Nineteenth century onwards – very few of the names of the lower orders; the servants and workmen who made their living in the house or on the estate.

Of the few we can identify though one was John Jenyns, who was a tanner working at the Abbey. This was dirty and smelly work, and Jenyns would have been low down in the Abbey’s pecking order, and not someone to sit next to in the refectory. We know his name though because he was accused of the murder of one of the monks in 1520, so his identity is preserved in history (and the actions of the Abbot at the time suggest that he was indeed guilty). Two hundred years later we have the name of another of the Abbey’s lower orders; Ralph the Fisherman. For reasons we can only guess at his name – and his alone – was included on the oldest known map of the estate. And then there was Thomas.

He was Thomas le Plumer – Thomas the plumber. He seems to have lived in Nantwich in the Thirteenth century, and was responsible for maintaining the water courses on the Abbey buildings. Although he was a common tradesmen he was one of great note, because he appears again, working on King Edwards I’s castles in North Wales; he was definitely employed at Conwy Castle – and, not far from Combermere, he worked on repairs to Beeston Castle which were undertaken in the first decade of that century. He worked there alongside Hugh de Dykemoke, whose responsibility was the ditches and ramparts; Ithel the smith (particularly interesting because he was Welsh); and – far more prestigious and better paid – Richard l’Enginour (engineer). Thomas was a skilled man, and his weekly wage would have been much higher than that of a mere labourer – perhaps as much as three pence a day (when a pig would have cost three shillings, and a cow ten shillings).

Thomas’s work would, primarily, have been channelling the clean water coming into the building, and foul water going safely out. Although wood was used for pipes, the medium of his trade was lead. Equally, it was his responsibility to ensure that rain water flowed off the roof and into the drains (and from there into the mere); whether it was stone, timber or brick, rain has always been one of the most damaging elements for any building, and the men who built the great Abbeys of western Europe certainly knew that.

‘Plomb’, as anyone who has filled up a car with fuel in France will know, means lead (‘sans plomb’ – unleaded) – from the Latin ‘plumbum’. Therefore, a plumber was a man who worked in lead. These days plumbers tend to work in plastic, but on buildings of historical importance such as Combermere Abbey it is still lead that is used to channel rainwater and move it safely off the structure.

Lead is malleable and easy worked, but is strong once formed, and – importantly – water-proof. It is also very heavy; one cubic foot of lead weighs around 500 lbs, which is two and a half times the weight of an average adult British man. It was first used by humans in modern-day Turkey around 6400BC, and it was extensively – and very skilfully – used for water courses and taps by the Romans.

Thomas’s Twenty First century counterparts at the Abbey is a father and son team, Steve and Paul Hempstock from Poynton near Stockport. Steve formed his company, Northwest Lead, back in 1992, and now has all of forty years experience in the business.

Over the years he has undertaken a large and impressive number of projects on buildings of historic and architectural importance, working for English Heritage, the National Trust, the Church of England, and local authorities – as well as privately-owned houses such as Combermere. They include Sudbury Hall, Derbyshire, Keddleston Hall, Derbyshire, John Rylands Library, Manchester, Attingham Park, Shropshire, Shrewsbury Castle, Dunham Massey Hall and Lyme Hall. Although they operate mostly in the North West and the north Midlands, he and Paul have worked all over the country. As well as lead and plastic, they utilise copper, zinc, stainless steel and aluminium (all of which would doubtless have astonished, and then delighted, Thomas le Plumer).

Steve’s father, James, was a master plumber, so Paul is now a third generation craftsman in lead. That notion of the work being a true craft was behind the formation of the Lead Contractors Association, which was created in 1985, and which Steve joined two years later – and of which he has been on the Council for twenty six years, and been its Chairman twice. Its purpose is to constantly improve the standards of lead workers in the construction industry, and monitor and regulate its affiliated companies. The Association is held in great respect for this work, and organisations such as English Heritage and the National Trust, as well as professionals in the heritage renovation industry such as architects, turn to its members as their first port of call.

The UK, Steve says, is probably the world’s largest user of lead in construction and conservation, relative to its size. Of all the work he has undertaken over the decades, two which he thinks of in particular are domes – where complex curves present even more of a challenge than relatively straight forward work such as at Combermere. His company’s work on the dome at Birmingham Art Gallery won them The Murdoch Award in 2012 (described as “the ultimate accolade in lead-work” – which North West Lead also won in 2010), and the dome of the church at Sir Titus Salt’s model village of Saltaire in Yorkshire.


The tower and dome of Saltaire church. The new lead on the dome is Northwest Lead’s work

At Combermere Abbey the firm used around three tonnes of lead, of which about 90% would have been recycled from previously used and salvaged lead, and the firm’s men were on site, on and off, for eight weeks. By their standards it wasn’t a particularly big job. When we spoke to Steve he was looking at what would be a far larger job at the mighty mansion of Chatsworth in Derbyshire (which he feared might be too big for his firm, in fact), and a job at Thornbridge Hall, also in Derbyshire – which dates from the Twelfth century but was re-built in the mid-Nineteenth century.

As I say, the great houses Northwest Lead has helped to conserve is huge: At Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire, the National Trust’s Seventeenth century treasure of a house (and previously the home of the Lords Vernon), North West Lead used more than sixty tons of sandcast lead in the restoration of the Victorian Wing, incorporating a unique eaves ventilation system, with removable panels in the flat roof sub-structure so that the underside condition of the lead could be frequently monitored.

In Liverpool, working in conjunction with City of Liverpool Architects Department, Steve created four French pavilion roofs for the Municipal Buildings, each being covered with eighteen tons of lead. The job also involved the renewal of all the linking roofs and a large first floor roof in the centre of the building as a light well to the ground floor public areas. The astonishing total of one hundred and sixty tons of milled lead was used on this project.

Over at the Manchester Museum in Manchester City Centre, Steve and Paul made around nine hundred lead-clad panels were manufactured in their workshop, which were delivered to site and fitted to the four elevations of the museum’s new extension. On this job Northwest Lead worked in close conjunction with Ian Simpson Architects to create an aesthetically pleasing and technically correct installation. It was essential to ensure that the panel surfaces were blemish-free as all the lead was supplied on pallets, cut to size and in flat sheet rather than rolls, with the corners of each panel folded by machine.

As Steve says, the materials used in the lead-workers tools have changed, but not their shape and form. If Thomas’s ghost had been walking the ramparts of the Abbey in the late spring of 2015 he would certainly have recognised what Northwest Lead’s men were about, and the way in which they were going about their work.

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At the very top of the building, at roof level, the cappings are all covered in lead to avoid rainwater ingress into the walls

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These bespoke water shutes are hand-made in lead, and throw excess rainwater clear of the sides of the Abbey. The shutter acts like a weir to slow the water. Each of these rather beautiful fittings in more than four feet long (and very heavy!)

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The craftsmen have built weather strips into the brickwork of the chimney, which will form a seal with the roofing materials

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These beautifully-made steps lead up to the chimney close to the northern corner of the roof, giving access for maintenance. Soon newly-laid tiles will overlap the lap on left and right 

Master Joinery In The North Wing

The replacement woodwork of window frames and staircases in the North Wing has been the work of RM Jones Joinery of Ruthin in North Wales. The firm’s owner is Meredydd Jones, and his family has been active in house building and woodworking in and around Ruthin for several generations. Meredydd worked as a joiner on building sites originally, and started his own company near the town – in a unit rented from his uncle, who was also in the building trade – some thirty five years ago. The company built their own factory eight years ago on a new industrial estate just to the north of the town – close to Ruthin’s well-known crafts centre (which was completely re-built eight years ago, and on which RM Jones worked, of course).

In the firm’s early days he had, as he says, “just one or two lads” working for him, but nowadays the figure is nearer to two dozen. “Our core work is staircases and windows”, he says, “but we also do cabinet work and kitchens. Recently we’ve built a number of porches and large external timber balconies.”

RM Jones’s work at the Abbey has included staircases, and a large number of windows – and internal fittings such as skirting boards are yet to be undertaken. All of which were made with great precision to exactly replicate the original items. Very interestingly, the original window frames had been made out of a variety of woods. Some were in oak, as one would expect – the Tudor timber frame is oak and there was a lot of oak available locally – but there were also softwoods, some bits of Douglas Fir, and even mahogany. RM Jones has used seasoned oak throughout – though a lot of the new oak is imported from France, which would have either amused or horrified both the Tudors and the Georgians.

2015-04-23 15.27.34In RM Jones’s workshop the Combermere window frames are stripped and, where possible, repaired. It’s slow, manual work.

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Some of the carcasses were originally made within rectangular frames, as above and below.

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A partly restored window, with as brace keeping the longer sides square

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Two hundred years ago this process, the first cut of new wood, would have been undertaken over a five foot-deep saw-pit, with the blade of a long, double-handled saw sitting vertically – with one man up top and one poor unfortunate below, sweaty and covered in sawdust.

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The factory’s single most expensive piece of equipment; a computer-controlled cutter and former, which can handle very complex designs very quickly.

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 Assembly of a completed window frame (under the care of a very happy worker)

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 A window casing in the spray booth awaiting paint


Above and below; finished windows ready to be transported to Combermere



It was one thing for the old window frames to be taken out of the Abbey and be transported to Ruthin so that they could be measured precisely and then reproduced, but with the stair cases the measurements had to be taken in situ, against irregular, curving walls. “We were able to pull apart some parts of the original stairs, but for the rest we designed it as we went along, making sure that it was in keeping with the original in so far we had it”, Meredydd says, “That was true of both the stairs themselves and the hand-rails. When it came to the measurements, top to bottom, to be sure that the treads begin and end at exactly the right point we did cheat a bit; we have a computer programme which works it out for us” – which would have utterly amazed their Tudor forebears (and perhaps lead to accusations of witchcraft).

Many of the original window cases fell apart as the joiners removed them from the building, in which case all the pieces had to be kept in one job lot to be re-assembled in the workshop so that they could be either repaired or completely replaced. In other cases there were salvageable pieces of wood from one window which could be grafted into another. As Meredydd showed me though, they were far from being all the same; they were of course hand-made, so no two were in fact the same dimensions, and the radiuses of the arches within the gothick forms were different.

Once the woodwork was complete the windows were spray-painted in-house. Each received three coats of a ‘breathable’, water-based Teknos paint (made in Britain, near Banbury, in Oxfordshire). The painting takes place in a dedicated spray booth and the items are then moved to an adjoining room where they are hung and dried. When you see the finished job it is immediately apparent that spray-painting gives a far superior finish to brush-painting. These window frames will not need re-painting for at least a generation.

2015-05-14 15.21.26A new window from RM Jones in place in the North Wing – high up on the south-facing return. Note the old iron strap re-used on the new wood below the window

Business, Meredydd says, has been very good for the firm in recent years, even through the recession. They are at the top end of the market, producing mostly bespoke work, and people will always pay for the highest quality work. “The Abbey work has been a big job for us, and very satisfying”, he says. “We delivered some windows yesterday and it was very nice to see them finished and going out of the workshop.”