Bridgwater College archive

Wednesday 25 September 2013

Michael Huntley talks to Steve Hopper, an ex apprentice of Alan Peters, as he puts the next generation of craftsmen through their paces


In previous articles on the subject of state organised training for furniture makers there hasn't been room to include my own thoughts on the matter. This month we're fortunate to be able to address that following a visit earlier in the year to Bridgwater College. Rather conveniently the campus is near me, only one hour's drive away, so I might be accused of a personal bias, but equally I might legitimately be asked by a local school-leaver where I would recommend they go to learn cabinetmaking. My answer in this instance would be to go and see Steve Hopper, Furniture Course Leader at Bridgwater College and for good reason. It's noticeable from the outset he has strong management style and total support from within the college and he backs this up with a strict workshop discipline; students are inspired by the confidence from a course leader who has a successful commercial background in fine woodworking; and he also has knowledge of individual learner's requirements.

It has been said in the past about some Further Education colleges that students have to make an appointment to consult the tutor but that is most definitely not the case at Bridgwater. There is a strong team of tutors and assistants always on hand. Dave Tottle, apprenticed at 16 and with over over 40 years' experience as a carpenter, is the learning support co-ordinator Technician. He patiently but firmly keeps the workshop running smoothly and makes a massive contribution to the success of the students, says Steve. Some students have their own toolkits but there are well fettled college kits available, too, so lack of tools should not prevent a learner from applying. The College also provides assistance finding accommodation and college buses to aid transport.

The courses offered are the City & Guilds 5780 scheme with diplomas in furniture making, levels 1, 2 and 3. There is a lot of education-speak jargon used in course descriptions, but all you need to know is that completing level 3 at Distinction level will almost certainly guarantee you a job, and if you are doing it for fun, will certainly bring your work to a professional level.


If you are aged between 16 and 19 for the next academic year then the tuition part of the course is free. If you are over 19 then tuition fees start at £750 and vary depending upon the course. You may also be asked to contribute towards materials if you use non-standard timbers for your projects. If you studied resistant materials and found it interesting, then this is the sort of course that you might apply for, but school-based woodwork is not a prerequisite. The courses are based around 18 hours of timetabled lessons per week for full-time and seven hours per week for part-time study. This allows flexibility if you have a part-time job. Some of the level 3 course study is in the evening, which makes it even easier for those in employment to attend. If you are really keen, you can usually find a bench on days when you are not timetabled to be at college. The course lasts for 36 weeks and there are eight double benches making 16 the maximum number of students.

The project pieces are assessed by Steve, then by a verifier from within the college and finally by an external assessor, but Steve's criteria is simple: is the piece saleable? If it is not, and this forms part of the approved marking scheme, then it is not a 'Pass' grade and brings us on to the question, is a 'Pass' sufficient for an employer? In my view, it isn't and in today's market, you need to aim higher and get a 'Merit' or a 'Distinction' for your work. There is a certain hardness in me that comes about from having run a business!

Local 'apprenticeships'™

The college doesn't have formal apprenticeships for furniture at present because the structure is a bit too inflexible for local businesses, so they have an informal arrangement that students find a position with a local employer and Steve will write a reference. The qualifications gained by the student are still just as valid and the instruction is just as suitable. However, one surprising fact was that most of the third-year students that I met were not wanting full-time work. The majority were aiming to run their own businesses or were retired and doing the course to improve existing hobby woodwork skills. I was told that "labour market intelligence shows that the country needs more site carpenters not cabinetmakers." I wonder how this compares to equivalent training in Europe, say in France, where every small town has a cabinetmaker?

The future looks good at Bridgwater because Steve and his Head of Department - Furniture is part of the Construction Department - both come from the working world and are able to tweak the courses to give emphasis to the practical skills needed to get a job and be proud of what you have produced.

Blake Fewster - SkillBuild winner

Part-time lecturer and ex-student Blake Fewster won the National SkillBuild Finals in 2010. He started his competition successes by achieving the highest score at the South West regional competition

and then going on to win the National final. Steve, Blake's tutor explains: "The final competition required Blake to craft a bedside table in sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) and walnut (Juglans spa.), incorporating an intricate hand-cut dovetailed drawer. This would be challenging for an experienced professional, let alone a student at the beginning of their furniture making career - Blake had just two and a half days under strict competition conditions to complete the task!"

Blake began at Bridgwater in 2008 making an oak (Quercus spa.) gun storage box for his first-year project. Even at this early stage he was gaining Distinctions so his tutors had recognised him as having major potential. In his second year, he made an oak chair, which was a commissioned piece for a local architect. Blake was selected for the UK cabinetmaking squad with seven other hopefuls in 2010 with the winner going on to represent Team UK in the WorldSkills London competition. Pipped at the post he achieved second place and another fantastic achievement. Following this success he was one of three cabinetmakers selected for the UK Squad for 2012. After narrowly missing an opportunity to represent the country in London, his heart was set on competing in the 2013 finals in Leipzig, Germany. The training took place over a year, all over the country, and even included a pressure test in South Tyrol, in northern Italy. The training was to push Blake to his limit as a maker, making sure that all areas of the trade were covered in depth. The Team selection event took place at Stephenson College in Coalville, Leicestershire, at the beginning of March 2013 and was an intensive five-day final competition. Unfortunately he did not win the chance to compete in Germany

but the journey has given him the skills he needs to run his own business and to start teaching at the College. Highly praised by Course Leader Steve Hopper, Blake is now a part-time lecturer teaching on the C&G L2 practical furniture making course and he has his own well-equipped workshop, from which he is taking private commissions.

Woodworkers Institute

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About The Course Leader

Steve is the Programme Manager of all the City & Guilds Furniture courses at Bridgwater College where he is in his 17th year of teaching. He sees his teaching career as a way of him playing a small part in keeping the traditions of the Arts & Crafts ethos alive and continuing for the future, and of course being able to enjoy being a part of the success of his students in various exhibitions and competitions, including SkillBuild and WorldSkills.
He has been a furniture maker for all of his adult life and his passion for working with wood started at school. In his last year at school he told his technical drawing teacher that he hoped to have a career in furniture making with Alan Peters and the teacher responded with: You will never get in there! After this comment, Steve was determined to prove him wrong. The interview with Alan Peters for a five-year apprenticeship took place shortly after and Steve was selected from a large number of potential trainees. He stayed with Alan for 16 years and in that time produced many of the fantastic pieces that readers will recognise as AP signature pieces.
In his latter years with Alan, Steve also took on the role of supervising and guiding the workshop trainees, many of whom had completed Degree courses and needed commercial workshop experience to hone their skills. Because of this one-to-one teaching role, he decided to take the opportunity to change direction and pass his skills on to the craftsmen and women of the future.
Steve was offered a position at the College in 1996 as the furniture workshop manager/instructor. He studied while teaching at the College to achieve the necessary teaching qualifications while in post and became the Programme Manager in 2002. Steve was awarded a prestigious City & Guilds Medal for Excellence in 2005, for his outstanding teaching on the furniture programmes - one of only seven teachers across all C&G subject areas to win an award that year. Part of his teaching role is to support and mentor the part-time furniture lecturers. He also aims to design and make a piece of furniture for his own home as often as possible, but he says that this year, he has not achieved this due to the development time needed for the new C&G qualifications.