Waters and Acland - the world class Lake District furniture school

PUBLISHED: 00:00 12 August 2015

The quality of the furniture means its aimed at the top end of the market

The quality of the furniture means its aimed at the top end of the market

Acland & Waters

FINE furniture makers Will Acland and Oliver Waters are attracting students from across the world to a school they have set up in what was once a bustling bobbin mill in the Lake District.

Oliver and Will opened the workshop eight years agoOliver and Will opened the workshop eight years ago

The school is now an integral part of their award-winning furniture designers and makers business established in the Mill Yard at Staveley, near Kendal, eight years ago.

It was always the intention of Oliver, now 40, to branch out into teaching the crafts of cabinet and furniture making. But he says: ‘It was important the business was doing well, making inspiring furniture, before we branched out into the school.’

Having gained two rare Bespoke Guild Marks from the Worshipful Company of Furniture Makers and recognition from customers like Cunard, and even a visit from Prince Charles, they decided to go ahead with the school.

They put together a curriculum and advertised it on their website. The impact was immediate, attracting students from the Americas to Australia, as well as all over Europe. This summer they are taking on an architect from Turkey, an artist from Brazil and a student from California.

Four were taken on for the first year in early 2013, paying up to £16,000 for a full year’s intense training. Shorter courses are also available but Oliver and Will insist it is good value for money, packing a six-year apprenticeship – or the equivalent of a three-year degree - into 12 months.

What you get is a bench space in the Acland & Oliver works, and the constant availability of head tutor, Graham Loveridge, who was the company’s chief furniture maker, and brilliant at it, according to Oliver.

The students are given basic projects which help them learn the base skills, the first being an octagonal bread board, which involves learning to use planes, chisels and spokeshaves.

‘The ability to make fine use of hand tools is at the core of being a good furniture maker,’ adds Oliver. ‘The aim is to make something as close as possible to perfection. You always have to fall back on hand skills to finesse everything.’

The training moves on through Chinese puzzles to dove-tailing, stools, wall cabinets, with particular attention to making and fitting doors, and on to an occasional table.

Only then are students given a chance to learn how to use the machines which speed many of the processes. Will Acland’s skills as an artist are employed to teach design and drawing skills, the use of computer-aided technology and even marketing comes into the mix.

‘We try to teach at the highest level,’ says Graham. ‘We are totally focused on getting things right. It’s all very well using machines, but if the students don’t have the basic hand skills, they can get into trouble.’

The passion for traditional skills and the highest standards comes through in every conversation with the Acland & Waters team.

It even reached royal ears when Prince Charles visited in 2013 and was impressed with the commitment to both the skills themselves and the way the team pass them on to apprentices and students.

Oliver and Will go back a long way, having met at Queen Katherine School in Kendal before going their separate ways. Oliver entered the world of media production, which took him to London. As his 30th approached he realised he wanted to make a living at something he really loved and took a private course in fine furniture making in Devon.

He came back to Kendal and met up with Will who had taken a fine arts at Carlisle, worked for a stone-mason in Bath, and made fireplaces back in Kendal before going off to Brighton, as a student on the first ever three-dimensional craft degree.

He stayed on the south coast running a fitted-kitchen business, but always wanted to return to Kendal and met up with Oliver again.

They hired a space in a barn and, with second-hand tools and machines, started designing and making furniture.

Their big break was to fit kitchens and wardrobes in a big redevelopment in London, which gave them the capital to start Acland & Waters.

They have always used natural native timber, mainly oak, ripple sycamore, olive ash and walnut, with some hard woods like rose-wood for detail.

The first thing that hits visitors to the premises is that distinctive wood smell, as you enter a gallery which displays their own and other people’s distinctive work.

By designing and making bespoke pieces, one cabinet can cost as much as £50,000, they have very much aimed at the top of the market.

‘What we do is like precision engineering in wood, down to tiny tolerances, and clinically finished,’ says Oliver.

He believes the company, and the school, are riding the wave of craft resurgence attracting people who want high end, art-worked furniture. He is particularly proud that one of the first students, Angus Bruce-Gardner, stayed to become an apprentice, and has qualified to represent Britain in the World Skills Competition, held in Dubai.

The business has done well enough to support Oliver, his partner, Carol Lahey, who helps with the administration and has brought up the couple’s three children, and Will, his wife Holly, who helps with illustrations, and has brought up their two children. It is truly a family affair.

But it is when talking about training that Oliver’s eyes really shine. Each project reinforces skills from the previous project and teaches new skills, layer on layer. ‘Some people come here because they just want to make things well, others want to develop skills enough to run their own businesses. But they all want to design and make things.’

To this end, Will encourages the use of sketching, water colours and computers to ‘light a spark to become more creative.’

He admits to being surprised by the pleasure of teaching. ‘I get excited by other people getting excited about design. I wish I could have done my training in a business like ours. It is invigorating seeing the students going through the creative process and rewarding to be involved with someone who is up for it.’

It is that commitment that is crucial, according to Oliver. ‘If anyone is interested, they should come and have a look round. But we only want people to come here who are passionate about fine furniture making. If they haven’t got an interest in making things perfectly and aiming high, it is not the right place for them.’


Latest from the Lancashire Life