Feature Mondays - Jason Breach In Profile archive
Monday 8 December 2014
Briony Darnley finds out about woodturner Jason Breach
From an early age Jason has always been a practical student, admitting he was not so good in other areas at school. At 10 years old he would always be building camps, making something or repairing his bike. He also had a great interest in fossils and semi-precious stones, so could often be found in a local rock shop after school. We must ask, how do you go from hand polishing stones, to turning wood?
First latheJason's father introduced him to turning after receiving a basic lathe - a Black & Decker drill lathe - which had been adapted slightly with a washing machine motor replacing the drill. The lathe was kept in the shed at the bottom of the garden. The shed had no mains electricity, so the lathe had to be powered by two extension leads that joined halfway along the garden path. Jason told us that the setup caused real panic when it rained, but the lathe created an interest in turning for Jason and soon a replacement machine was found to replace the drill lathe. The new lathe was a cast iron lathe - probably from the 1930s - and would have been an old foot powered treadle powered machine, but sadly the base was missing and again, it had a motor fitted. Due to the cast iron construction this worked well for Jason, apart from the very odd Morse taper size and very unusual thread size, which meant that Jason and his father could not purchase chucks and centres to fit. The lathe lasted a few years until, Jason recalls, needing a new chuck. That second lathe was updated with a brand new Coronet No.1, purchased from APTC at their first show held in Axminster.
Turned wooden boxesAt the age of 14, Jason's parents decided that he needed some proper training in turning, but his local school was sadly not able to help, so his mother enrolled him on a week-long summer school course at Parnham House, with a tutor called Cecil Jordan. Jason recalls that the week of summer school started on a Sunday night, with a sherry evening. "I can still recall Cecil asking my age and then 'how the hell did you manage to book a place on this course?' as it turns out they normally had an age limit of 18 years. I was not allowed any sherry," Jason tells us. The week went well for Jason, covering basic tools and uses, spindle work, followed by faceplate work and making a fruit bowl in sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus). That one week course is where Jason's interest in making turned wooden boxes blossomed.
While at Parnham Jason got to meet the other tutors, one of whom was Tom Kealy, a furniture maker. Over the years Tom has been a great help to Jason and always pushed him forward, kindly letting Jason do some work with him during the school holidays.
With Tom, Jason started to learn the basic hand skills. Tom persuaded Jason to go and do a furniture course, so he applied to Parnham for their apprentice place. With only one place available each year, 100 people apply, 20 applicants get an interview and only one person gets the place on the course. Sadly, it was not Jason, so it was onto 'Plan B'.
Upon leaving school, Jason enrolled on a three year full-time degree course at Buckingham College in High Wycombe. The course covered furniture design and management and Jason recalls that it was a very intense three years, covering everything from history of art and design, the designing and making of furniture, which included machining, upholstery, wood finishing and, of course, woodworking hand skills. Felling of trees, converting to planks, seasoning of materials and timber technology were also a very important part in the course. Throughout Jason's college years he had been making and selling items through a few local craft shops, such as lamps, fruit bowls and boxes.
The working worldUpon completing the course in June 1993, at the young age of 21, Jason returned home to Somerset, and found a job locally making bespoke kitchens, joinery and furniture. This experience of the real working world was very different for Jason from the protected environment of the college. Jason stayed in this job for about seven years, until the order book dried up and he was given his P45 and a chance to find another job.
On a visit to Axminster Tools & Machinery to purchase a few sundries, Jason met up with an old friend, Colwin Way. Colwin was someone Jason had known for a number of years, having met him for the first time years before at exhibitions of his and his employer's work. Colwin had heard Jason was looking for work and asked if he wanted to help him teach at Axminster. Jason gave this a go and they liked what he did. Jason tells us that he thoroughly enjoyed working there, so still works and teaches at Axminster. The job at Axminster helped develop Jason's turning skills even more and he feels very lucky to have been able to see the likes of Bert Marsh and Ray Key when teaching. Jason tells us Colwin is a great friend, and in many ways a mentor, challenging and pushing Jason to develop ideas and happily providing an instant critique. "He is someone very modest of his own talent as a turner and demonstrator," Jason says.
The memories of Jason's week at Parnham live on through the boxes he made there. "I find there is a certain skill to making a well-made box with a good fitting lid," Jason tells us. Apart from boxes, Jason makes a range of craft shop items, wooden fruit, hand mirrors and ball clocks, then there are gallery items like solitaire sets - each set has 32 balls, each made from a different timber. Boxes, from the simple to more elaborate, also fit into this list.
InspirationInspiration comes in many forms for Jason: numerous everyday shapes have inspired some of his boxes, from postboxes to power station chimneys. Even the grain orientation of the wood can play a part in the final effect of the finished item.
When Jason first started to make boxes he would hollow the interior shape as much as he could, with the aim of creating as much space inside the box as possible. That is no longer the case, as over the years he has become more aware of shape and proportion. When Jason started, he would simply mount a piece of wood on the lathe and see what happened. Now, he selects the wood with the shape already planned and the finished idea already in mind before the lathe is even switched on. The range of 'Orbital Arc' boxes he makes require a lot more planning: full scale drawings are done, wood is selected and holding methods thought out before he even gets to the lathe. Jason likes to use clean, simple, flowing curves in his work as he finds this brings out the natural beauty of the timber. The most important aspect of any finished item is that it must look like natural wood.
InfluencesOver the years Jason feels he has been very lucky to have met and watched such a variety of turners, including the likes of Ray Key, Bert Marsh, Allen Batty and Keith Rowley, to name just a few. Jason says that they have all influenced him in different ways: Bert and Ray have always encouraged him and pushed him on.
In more recent years, Jason has met Dale Nish, Dale's books being one of the first he read on turning: "He had a great sense of humour and was always encouraging in his comments - such a great influence!" Dale also introduced Jason to Hans Weissflog from Germany, who is someone Jason admires for his skill.
Working with woodJason does all of his creative turning in his workshop, which is simply in a wooden garden shed. It is all insulated, but does get cold in winter. The workshop was built by Jason himself, to fit the space he has. Half of the workshop space is taken up with a workbench and a small planer/thicknesser; the other end is the area where he turns. Jason's lathe is a Woodfast M410 short bed, which is only 380mm between centres but has a 510mm swing. He uses a Numatic extractor to remove the dust and clean up with. There is plenty of metal racking fitted along the wall space of the workshop, which is used to store the timber stock he has collected over the last 30 years and also holds polishes, chucks and centres.
To sharpen, Jason uses a Tormek to sharpen his bowl gouges as well as a Creusen slow speed grinder fitted with a CBN wheel one side and a white wheel on the other. Onto this is also fitted a Tormek bench grinder attachment; this provides the freedom to sharpen and reshape accurately, and also guarantees repeatability.
Jason comments that he thinks wood is an amazing material, with such a variety of colours, grain patterns, textures and density, and these natural features have always been part of his interest with different timbers: "Each piece is unique," he comments. "I always try to bring these natural features out, without the need of hiding behind stains or added surface treatment. To me the wood has to be the interest."
Each piece of timber that Jason uses is totally unique and therefore he feels deserves to be made into something as interesting and unique as the wood itself. "I hate wasting wood. I tend to keep all the little bits of exotic wood offcuts and these are stored with the hope of being useful someday," he explains. He continues: "I enjoy my turning for what it is: a creative method of taking a natural material and shaping it by hand into a finished object, unlike making an item of furniture that can take weeks, the time at the lathe is a lot quicker to have that completed object within your hands, and as long as that continues then I will always have a lathe as a way of allowing me this freedom to make an item in this modern mass-produced world."
Highs and lowsWhen asked about the high and low points of his turning career, Jason tells us that the high points are having met so many friends through turning, some of these he has known since he was 12 years old. These people have had a great influence on Jason and his turnings. The prominent low point of his career is that he is sadly starting to lose these friends as they are a little older, and sadly some are no longer here to offer him their knowledge and supportive words.
DevelopmentJason looks back to the development in woodturning, telling us: "Woodturning over the last 20 years has become a lot more open, with ideas being shared and talked over. This has helped the creative art form grow. Tools have developed to allow the impossible to be made, which has helped a dying craft to reshoot."
For Jason, the Internet is a great source of information, with information, photos and YouTube clips, but he feels these have to be used wisely. It has taken him a number of years to gain the tool skills he has, and he knows if these tools and techniques are used incorrectly, they can be very dangerous. Some things just cannot be explained properly in an online clip.
Working ethosA simple box can take Jason an hour to make from start to finish. The first box he ever made took a day and the more complex 'Orbital Arc' boxes can take 3-4 days to get totally finished. There can be experimental time, which does not always happen on a working box, being 'playtime' to see what he can push himself to achieve. These ideas are then put aside until they may be needed.
Over the years, Jason has assembled and developed what he classes as his box-making tool kit; these are the tools that allow Jason to produce a range of boxes as quickly and as easily as possible, with the best finish, which therefore reduces standing time. Jason's favourite tool is a 12mm unhandled oval skew chisel. The tool is unhandled as he uses it for delicate cuts and finds a handle adds too much weight, dragging the tool down and making it feel heavy and out of balance. The square end and side cutting negative refinement tool allows the interior of the parallel side and flat bottomed boxes to be cleaned up with one tool. The round-nosed refinement tool is used for general cleaning up of curved interiors and exterior surfaces. Jason finds the negative-rake grind on these two tools makes them more controllable in use. The other favourite item of equipment that Jason cannot be without is the Axminster four jaw, self-cantering chuck system. The variety of accessories makes this a joy to use and without this, certain items could not be made as easily or as safely.
Jason feels lucky that teaching covers his bills and therefore he can afford time to develop ideas without the pressure of having to make lots of items. He can enjoy making what he wants to make, with the freedom of not having the pressure behind him, but he still sets himself time limits and constantly worries about how long things are taking.