The Craft of Traditional Ladder Making

The Craft of Traditional Ladder Making

09th October 2014

Nowadays, most ladders are made of steel, aluminium and fibreglass and are fabricated en masse in a mechanised factory.  Many ladders are not even ladders, they specialised pieces of access equipment that provides a more convenient and safer solution than does a ladder.  However, if you think of a ladder the first image that probably pops into your mind is probably an old-fashioned wooden ladder - the type you see in story book illustrations.  

Those wooden ladders were generally made by hand and retired ladder maker, Stanley Clark made sure that he passed on his knowledge and skills to a new generation, rather than have this traditional craft be totally lost to the modern world.  Stanley was apprenticed to a ladder maker straight out of school and began to learn the skills involved in ladder making.

Ladders were made specifically for certain tasks.  A bespoke thatcher's ladder would be tailored to the individual thatcher - the instep to knee measurement providing the relevant distance between rungs so he could work in a kneeling position.  Farmers preferred ladders made from bent willow poles, bendy enough not to snap when pushed away from a loaded wagon.  

Builders favoured a narrow ladder because it was easier to carry a full hod of bricks up one.  Many builders would use two ladders on the job, one for climbing up and another set in a hole on top of a bale of straw so they could slide down the ladder on the outside of the stile, in much the same way as a fireman slides down a pole!

When Stanley Clark's 70th birthday was approaching back in 2009 he determined to pass on his expertise to the younger generation and contacted woodcraft artisan Robin Wood.  Robin was fascinated by Stanley's story and set out to find a way of preserving his traditional skills.  While making a video recording is a great way of capturing the skills in action, it's not always the best way to pass on specialised techniques performed by a skilled maker as they can make difficult jobs look extremely simple.

It was decided that the best way to ensure that Stanley's skills are passed on to a new generation would be to collaborate with him on building a ladder with another Heritage craftsman, Steve Tomlin.  The first day was spent planning up the poles which was hard work in itself.   .  Because Stanley is paralysed he had to give instructions for the other two men to carry out which was an effective way of teaching the skills in practice rather than in theory.

At the end of two days, the three men had produced between them a fabulous looking wooden ladder that they proceeded to test.  The general purpose straight ladder was found to be totally stable and suitable for use clearing gutters, etc., its weight adding to its stability.  While this ladder took two days for two men to make (with Stanley as trainer/instructor), in his heyday, Stanley Clark could make four of these ladders a day.

More information can be found here