The art of whittling sticks in West Lancashire
PUBLISHED: 00:00 12 December 2017
As a boy, Giles Newman dreamed of becoming a park ranger. His family home was close to a forest and he spent much of his childhood playing in and around the woods.
Like most childhood dreams, reality was rather different. In between university and a spell as a fashion photographer, life caught up with him. ‘I found myself commuting by car four hours a day to work in a stuffy office as a website designer,’ he recalls.
Giles, who lives in the West Lancashire village of Bispham Green, adds: ‘It was quite a contrast to what I’d hoped for. Working in an office was something I was never meant to do and I used to wonder how on earth I’d ended up there.’
His one salvation continued to be among the trees. His father, who shared his passion, bought 30 acres of woodland overlooking Lake Bala in North Wales as a conservation project.
That gave Giles an escape and after marrying Kate, a teacher from Appley Bridge, and settling in Lancashire 14 years ago, he also worked as a volunteer with the West Lancashire Ranger Service.
Then disaster struck. He had a catastrophic illness which led to both lungs collapsing and Giles found himself in hospital for many months. ‘I eventually made a full recovery after surgery but all that time in a hospital bed made me think about what I was going to do with the rest of my life.’
During downtime with the rangers he had started whittling sticks and gradually a talent for carving developed. He began making spoons to stir his tea but practice and trial and error led to him crafting far more ornate pieces featuring horses, wolves, birds and butterflies as well as the flora and fauna native to this country.
‘A friend suggested I tried to sell them,’ says Giles. ‘It had never crossed my mind.’ But he set up an account online and used his skills as a photographer to show potential buyers the quality of his work.
‘Straight away, I started to build up a following, particularly in America’ he says. ‘In the first 12 months I had 30,000 followers on Instagram and pieces sold within two minutes of going online.’ That has since risen to 50,000.
‘I was gobsmacked – I had to pinch myself. The fact that I could pick up a piece of wood from the ground, carve it and someone would part with their hard-earned cash to buy it is still deeply humbling.’
So keen are collectors that Americans have paid $1,000 for one of his pieces and a Hollywood film production company commissioned him to carve a stag – sadly, the scene was cut and it never made it onto the screen.
He’s expanded his range from spoons to beautifully carved jewellery and he now sells in China, Russia, Australia, North America, the UK and across Europe.
He is happy to accept that it’s never going to make him rich. ‘On average it takes me 100 hours to make a piece but for more elaborate work it can be 200 hours,’ says Giles.
‘If you work it out that comes to between £1 and £3 an hour but that’s not really the point of what I’m doing. It’s a privilege to be able to carve wood. I love the therapeutic joy from the process and the fact that I can sell them allows me to continue doing what I’m doing.’
Giles, who is 40, is entirely self-taught and while conventional carvers can have up to 100 chisels with some using drills, he confines himself to just an axe and a knife. That requires not just a lot of skill, but also a considerable amount of thought.
‘Every one is unique – I don’t operate a production line. In fact, it’s the complete opposite. That’s mainly because until I split open a log I don’t know what I’m going to make. I work with the natural features like the knots and the grain. There’s no template – it’s the wood that guides me. I don’t try to force it.’
Giles uses a wide range of British native hardwoods but his favourite is English oak. ‘I love its character; it’s our most noble tree. It’s slow growing and is considered a difficult wood to work with although I don’t think of it like that any more. It just has certain characteristics.’
He only ever works with wood that has fallen naturally. ‘I would never fell a tree so I could carve it. That would seem wrong. As a result, I’m not looking for the perfect piece of wood. I work with what is available.’
Giles has been carving as a full time occupation for only a couple of years but his reputation has led to him holding workshops and he is writing a book about his experiences as a carver.
‘It has been a very steep - and very sharp - learning curve,’ he says. ‘Even when I was working in an office I used to escape to my car at lunchtime to practice wood carving. I think my colleagues must have found me an odd sight as I arrived back covered in wood shavings and with bandages on my fingers!
‘I’ve taken the top off the same thumb a couple of times and now have no feeling in it. But it’s a price worth paying. I have managed to escape the rat race and my life seems to have come full circle. I like that.’
It’s not surprising to discover that Giles does all his carving outdoors. ‘I’ve set up a shelter with a tarpaulin at the end of my garden and it has its own fire-pit. That’s where I carve whatever the weather. I had to explain what was going on to the neighbours. They might have found it all a bit strange especially when they hear the occasional squeal of pain!’
A grand work
One landowner who had provided wood for Giles said: ‘The beauty of my tree lives on his creations.’
His skill has been compared by fans to Grinling Gibbons, the great 17th century master carver who worked on iconic buildings such as Hampton Court Palace and St Paul’s Cathedral.
It’s a comparison Giles is too modest to accept but he would one day like to work on a major piece. ‘Gibbons had a rich patron which meant he was able to do grand work,’ says Giles. ‘Sadly, I don’t have that luxury but I’m very happy doing what I’m doing.’