Feature Mondays - Andy Coates in Profile archive

Monday 18 May 2015

We meet turner and AWGB chairman Andy Coates


Andy Coates is based in Beccles, Suffolk where he runs a workshop/gallery called Cobwebcrafts. He is known for his decorative work, but is also a production turner as well as demonstrating and teaching woodturning. In 2006 he was accepted onto the Register of Professional Turners and he is currently chairman of the Association of Woodturners of Great Britain (AWGB).

Starting turning

Andy didn't start woodturning until 2003; he had a varied background before that due to what he describes as his 'butterfly' attention span. He first trained and qualified as a refrigeration and electrical engineer, then later worked in a UK university, which led to a science degree among a raft of other qualifications. After this he returned to refrigeration and ran his own small domestic appliance company before moving to London with his wife.

His introduction to woodturning came about on a visit to his in-laws in Suffolk. "On the dining table was a burr oak (Quercus robur) bowl. I asked my father-in-law, Terry, where he got it from. He told me he'd made it himself and within minutes we were in his workshop with a square of wood on his lathe and me poking away at it with a sharp pointy tool. I'm still doing that now!," he explains.

A couple of weeks later Terry phoned Andy to let him know there was a lathe on offer in a local store: "I asked him to reserve it and we drove up and collected it at the weekend. I took it back to London, clamped it to a rickety workmate in the garden and that was it... bitten. I haven't stopped turning since."

Shortly after this Andy moved to Suffolk, upgraded the lathe, bought a small shed and a bandsaw and spent the next 12 months turning eight hours a day, effectively condensing a decade of hobby turning into a year. After starting out making fairly simple pieces, his work has developed and become more complex: "I suppose, like most people, I began by making very plain undecorated objects. Lots of objects with 'interesting features', natural edges and never with any decoration, but boredom soon set in and after seeing decorated work in Woodturning magazine, I began to play with colour and texture. I still make undecorated objects from time to time, usually when the wood has a lot to say for itself, but in truth, it changes all the time. I get bored, so I'm always haring off at a tangent to something new. Occasionally I return to a theme that worked, but always with a fresh enthusiasm and a new tweak."

Turning style

Andy told us that, like a lot of jobbing turners, he turns a variety of objects: small production runs of everything from spindles and newels, roof finials, furniture parts, architectural and designer's oddities, components for artists, traditional boat builders' tools, antique restorations, etc. But he also finds time for more rewarding work. "When I'm not doing any of these to pay the bills, I 'play'. It's the playing that I do all the other things for. They allow me time to indulge myself. My passion is for decorated work, but the styles change frequently as I get bored easily," he says.

One of these decorative pieces can take anything from a few days to a few weeks to complete. "The actual turning rarely takes longer than a couple of hours, which is just the product of practice, practice, practice; it's the decoration that consumes time," Andy explains.

Inspiration and influences

Andy says that he finds it hard to pin down exactly what inspires him as he looks at so many possible sources. "I wish I knew what inspired me. It would save me a great deal of time! I look at lots of things from modern and traditional art, ceramics, nature, textures and patinations, anything and everything. If you look around your environment there's often some tiny detail that gets you wondering, 'what if I ... ?'. The trick then is to adapt and incorporate. There's no fun in copying something."

Although he likes to share ideas with other turners, Andy told us that he is not influenced directly by any particular turner's work. "I make a very conscious effort not to be influenced directly by the work of any other turner. I get bored repeating my own things; imagine how bored I'd get copying other peoples' work! But influence can be lots of things other than the work they produce. It can be work ethic, commitment, enthusiasm, drive, techniques, all things that can inspire in their own right. If you look at the most successful turners there are a few things they have in common beyond beautiful work, and effort and commitment are at the top of the list."

Workshop and tools

Andy's workshop is the back room of three in an old timber mill office building in Beccles, Suffolk. It's a few strides away from the river Waveney, which is on the Norfolk Broads, and he tells us it is a lovely spot to work in. "There are water marshes to one side and the river on the other. It's cold in the winter and cool in the summer.

I have an awful lot packed into what is really quite a small space, consequently it's always a mess, but I know where everything is and it suits me. In an ideal world I'd have a pristine, custom-built workshop with gleaming surfaces and every facility, but I don't live in an ideal world and, frankly, don't ever expect to, so I make do."

There are several tools that are essential to his work. "The vacuum chuck is a godsend. It speeds up so many different procedures safely and securely. A recent addition is the Hope articulated DH arm. After years of deep hollowing my shoulder often goes out and the rig takes the strain away. I also couldn't live without my WoodArt pyrography machine. I use it virtually every day, and its power is what allows me to burn quickly and repetitively. The quicker I can complete the pyrography, the better the margin on the piece when it sells. And finally, my Ashley Iles long-ground 10mm spindle gouge. I use it for all sorts of cuts and it gets into places no other tool will do."

Working routine

When Andy first set up as Cobwebcrafts he worked seven days a week for about eight years. However, this work rate took its toll. "Your body and mind soon tire of that, so now I don't go into the workshop on weekends unless absolutely pressed to. I do demonstrate some weekends, but it's not every weekend and I'm happy with the balance now. My life is governed by the school run, so everything is done around a daily timetable of drop off and collection of my daughter. You learn to skip lunch and just work through."

Although his days are structured around the routine of the school run, there is still a lot of variety in the way he spends his time. "At 7.45am I drop my daughter off for school. By 8.00am I'm in the workshop. Coffee on, fire lit, and the day begins. If it's a 'play day', I might spend an hour walking about picking up bits of wood and wondering what I could do with it. If it's a production day, it's right to it and I don't stop until I need a coffee. If I have a student in, the day is already prescribed and goes to a well set pattern. Usually! I work until 3.00pm when I leave for the school run. Sometimes I go back to the workshop, otherwise it's home afterwards and either paperwork, emails to answer, AWGB work or something else usually related to woodturning. And then I cook the evening meal. If I have an evening demonstration, the day is usually geared to prepping for i and being ready to leave in time. I have a morbid fear of being late for things."

Highs and lows

The lows of Andy's professional turning career have been the times when work has been quiet with not many orders coming in. "The first thing you do is question what you're doing. Is it right? Is it awful? But you get over it as soon as somebody walks in and buys something."

The highs include being accepted onto the RPT after turning for only two years, and joining the AWGB committee where he is now the chairman. "Other than that the highs have all been related to selling work. It's the ultimate compliment and cannot fail to put you on a high," he says.

When asked to choose the best things about turning, he opted for the variety and the constant opportunities for learning new skills. "Every hour, never mind every day, can be different. There's always something new to learn, there's always another way to do something, and if you do it for a living, you get to do it every day!"


Andy predominantly uses word of mouth to promote his work but also uses social media successfully. "I’ve never felt the need to advertise courses or demonstrations and to advertise my speculative work would be expensive. I use Twitter a lot and have found it incredibly useful as a promotional tool. I was very surprised the first time I sold a fresh-off-the-lathe piece on Twitter. Sometimes I don't even get a chance to photograph a piece because I have to get it packed and posted!"

Future plans

Andy hopes to continue to develop his work and maintain the balance between his production turning and his decorative pieces. "Hopefully the bread-and-butter work will continue to come in and allow me to spend time developing ideas and techniques. I just want to be able to continue turning wood. I'm easily pleased!"

Briony Darnley

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Contact Details:

Email: andy@andycoates.co.uk

Top Techniques

1. Learning to breathe as you cut. So many students concentrate so hard they forget to breathe, and when they do they leave a tell-tale sign on the wood
2. Learning that the bevel supports the cutting edge and guides and drives it. A supported cut is a better cut
3. Practice, practice, practice. Cut six identical blanks and turn the same object six times. Aim for them to be identical. They will not be. But the last three will probably be nearest and you will learn an awful lot in the process. Now burn the first three and repeat until you can do it quicker and with a better number of like objects

Handy Hints

1. Look at the production of any successful spindle turner and consider why they are so fast, skilled and proficient. They have put the hours of repetition in and it has paid dividends. Learn to turn spindle shapes properly. If you never turn another spindle afterwards the skills will not go amiss
2. Try to cut fluidly without stopping during the cut. Your shapes will be better and you'll be able to start abrading from a finer grit
3. Turn for yourself, not for other turners
4. Do not leave the tenon or recess on your work. They are an artefact of the manufacturing process and if you did not design it in, then it has no place on the finished object. Your work will look better and appear more professional. A cheap homemade jam chuck will enable you to achieve this

Likes & Dislikes

Learning something new
Cutting into a blank and discovering something beautiful inside
Talking to other woodturners
Watching a student get it
New tools!
The art vs craft debate
People copying work
Pointless arguments among turners
The public when they don't value what we do
Sweeping up shavings