Jonathan Fearnhead in Profile archive

Thursday 7 June 2012

Mark Baker speaks to Jonathan Fearnhead, a professional carver working in many forms from classical restoration to abstract and sculpture


In the rural heartland of Essex, not far from the M25, lives Jonathan Fearnhead - a professional carver, constantly facing new challenges with a wide and varied workload. Although Woodcarving spoke with Jonathan some time ago, the ever-increasing variety of his commissioned work is well worth keeping up to date with to see what has changed over the years.

Jonathan's workshop is a spare room in his house. I had no idea what this space would be like; work and tools are all over the place. The workshop is a rich treasure trove - everywhere you look there is something of interest. This could be a bit of his own work or a commission only half-complete, or of course there are all the tools, gadgets and gizmos. I was like a kid in a candy store. The juxtaposition of antique and new was a delight to see. Jonathan shares his workspace with three dogs who luckily managed to keep out of the way of photographic equipment and such like throughout the interview.

Before carving

Jonathan started woodworking when he was about 12 years of age, making balsa models and walking sticks. "It was more fiddling than anything else. We had a big garden, there were tools about and I just picked things up to amuse myself - bows and arrows and stuff," he says.

"My favourite subjects at school were metal work, woodworking and PE - I loved rugby - the other subjects like maths and science were OK, but I loved the practical subjects more. I just loved making and creating things from clay, plaster and wood. I never got bored; there was always something about working with wood, which you don't get with anything else. I knew before I left school I wanted to be a carver. I left school at 18 after studying art and worked for an engineer doing repetitive production work as well as making tea and sweeping up. I was there about a year. During this time I started getting commissions for my carvings so my spare time was spent carving. I was hired at a joinery company some while later and asked to restore a fire-damaged flight of stairs in No. 9 Clifford Street - the hotel Lord Nelson & Lady Hamilton stayed in just off Bond Street. 350 years worth of paint protected the stairs from the worst of the damage. The rest of the place was gutted and the only original piece of woodwork left was the pine staircase. It took about a year to restore the stairs to their former glory. I loved working on those stairs. Once they were finished I became self-employed and have been so ever since."


Asking Jonathan about the benefits and problems of being self-employed and whether he had any regrets about that decision, he replied that he had absolutely none. "I don't regret being a professional carver at all. I have done it for so long that it is part of me. I love the variety of work coming in, though they all have their pros and cons. Every once in a while a job comes up that is a joy. I had one such job just recently where I was given a lot of free reign to do as I chose. The remit was to carve a beam on the front of a house with a countryside theme and another on the back of the house with a seaside theme. The beams were in green oak. You can have fun and make it up as you go along."

"I think it is true that some jobs are OK, but some bits will always be a pain, especially repetitive ones like doing 30m of moulding. But I wouldn't change it for anything. There are always challenges and variety. I do everything from countryside oak beams - I am doing a lot of work in green oak, lintels and so on at the moment to in-the-round figure carving, antique restoration, and much more.

The problem with becoming self-employed was, and still is, that work does not come to me in a steady flow. Although you are never sure what will come your way, you can't really refuse jobs, so you have to be multi-skilled and able to learn on the job. Some jobs can only be done in the summer and some work is so big it has to be done outside and in situ. Jobs can be restoration, relief sculptural and so much more and of course, can vary in size tremendously. I recently undertook a job which involved refining a carved screen for a church in London. I had to do it there. It had to be done standing in a vertical position 3.5m up on a gantry. I used a combination of power carving and hand work."

Hand and power tools

I pick up on the comment about using both hand and power carving techniques and ask Jonathan which he prefers using. He replied that he uses both, making a value call as to which is most appropriate. “But how do you determine what is most appropriate?“ I ask. “Power carving never leaves a finished surface off the rotary carving cutters†he says, "but I use this method if it is the quickest way to rough the work to shape. Power carving might not just mean a rotary carving tool in a Dremel-type tool, it can also mean using a chainsaw, an angle grinder with carving cutters or rotary burrs which fit into an industrial flexible drive for a die grinder, running up to 27,000rpm.

I use an industrial Metabo die grinder with a specialist flexible shaft and holder set up for this. I have found this set up performs well and is powerful. The flexible drive has a safety clutch system, which will stop the rotation of the shaft in case of sudden catches or snags. This is an industrial way of power carving, suited to a professional situation, but the Foredom-type units are well-suited for rotary power carving too - it is just a question of the scale of bits used and how frequently. I must admit I use large rotary burrs to rough-out work more frequently than hand-carving now. If it is very large then I will use a chainsaw. Of course I revert to using hand tools for the final details"

Have you ever had a situation where a client hasn't liked what you have produced? I asked; "No, I make sure to liaise closely with clients and produce sketches and maquettes as necessary. I make sure everyone is clear as to what is being done and deal with any questions as we go along."

Working practice

Throughout my conversation with Jonathan he stressed that safe working practices are very necessary. He lost part of his finger in an accident and reminded me that it is very easy to become blase when using equipment frequently and lose concentration for a micro-second; enough time for something to go terribly wrong.

Jonathan is a wonderfully likeable chap with an absolute passion for what he does. He is not fearful of facing a challenge. I learned that he teaches carving at several locations and that he loves teaching these classes. He wants to see people progress and have fun with their carving.

Seeing Jonathan in his work environment was a real treat. It was so different from what I expected to see and so refreshing; everything has its place and is suited to the way he works. I am sure that we will meet up and see more of Jonathan in Woodcarving in the near future. If you ever have the chance to meet Jonathan, make sure to say hello and do take note that he has a delightfully wicked sense of humour.

Woodworkers Institute

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woodcarving , Maker Baker , Jonathan Fearnhead

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Jonathan Fearnhead - In Soundbites

To always have work coming in
To get my golf handicap down
Listening to the cricket test matches whilst carving
Computer games
Model aeroplanes - making and flying them
Crashing the model planes
Losing golf balls
Being beaten in computer games
Being interviewed - said with a wry smile and a laugh

Contact Details


Advice To Carvers

1. Learn to sharpen tools well; it makes them safer and easier to work with. You cannot cut any wood with blunt tools
2. Be patient and spend as much time as the job requires. Carving is not a fast process
3. Research your subject well before starting
4. If you are just starting out, work with a timber such as lime, or a fine grade of pine - Russian red or yellow pine are easy to work with - cutting will show immediately when you cut correctly or in the right direction
5. Clamp your work down properly so you are able to move it, ensuring you can get the best working position on it
6. Keep as upright as possible - back straight - when working
7. Buy the best tools you can afford. You are better off with two or three well chosen, good quality chisels than buying a cheap set which will hinder you and may even put you off carving

Jonathan working on one of his pieces