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Bodging is a traditional wood-turning craft, using green (unseasoned) wood to make chair legs and other cylindrical parts of chairs.
The origins of the term are obscure. It may be a folk extension of the words beech or birch (both timbers commonly used by bodgers) with the suffix -er: "one who works with beech or birch". Another theory is that bodges, defined as rough sacks of corn, closely resembled packages of finished goods the bodgers carried when they left the forest or workshop. Yet another theory (dating from 1879) is that bodger was a corruption of badger, as similarly to the behaviour of a badger, the bodger dwelt in the woods and seldom emerged until evenings.
Other theories about its origin include the German word Böttcher (cooper, a trade that uses similar tools), and similar Scandinavian words, such the Danish name Bødker. These words have similar origins to the English word butt, as in water butt (see also Cooper (profession)).[FN 1]
The bodger's equipment was so easy to move and set up that it was easier to go to the timber and work it there than to transport it to a workshop. The completed chair legs were sold to furniture factories to be married with other chair parts made in the workshop.
Common bodger's or bodging tools included:
- the polelathe and a variety of chisels, and likely sharpening stones or grinding wheel for honing the rapidly blunted tools (which are blunted far more rapidly than if used to shape seasoned wood stock- for turning and finishing the chair leg or stretcher pole (the horizontal structural member joining the chair-legs- to prevent them splaying
- the spokeshave-like drawknife: for crudely rounding billets of green wood to be intermediately finished for the wood-turner. This is because "green" wood is far easier to slice near-finished to shape with the grain than to cut against the grain as per turning on the lathe.
- trestle or saw-horse (likely fabricated in the forest as required)
- a coarse saw: for cutting fallen or newly felled wood to length
- axes and adzes: for hewing wood into rough billets
- a shave horse to firmly hold the wooden billets for using the drawknife
A bodger commonly camped in the open woods in a "bodger's hovel" or basic "lean-to"-type shelter constructed of forest-floor lengths suitable for use as poles lashed, likely with twine, together to form a simple triangular frame for waterproof thatch roof. The "sides" of the shelter may have been enclosed in wicker or wattled manner to keep out driving rain, animals, etc.[FN 2]
High Wycombe lathe
High-Wycombe lathe became a commonly used generic term to describe any wooden-bed pole lathe, irrespective of user or location, and remained the bodger's preferred lathe until the 1960s when the trade died out, losing to the more cost-effective and rapid mechanised mass production factory methods.
The term was once common around the furniture-making town of High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, England. Bodgers were highly skilled itinerant wood-turners, who worked in the beech woods of the Chiltern Hills. The term and trade also spread to Ireland and Scotland.
The term was always confined to High Wycombe until the recent (post 1980) revival of pole lathe turning with many chairmakers around the country now calling themselves bodgers. Chairs were made and parts turned in all parts of the UK before the semi industrialised production of High Wycombe. As well recorded in Cotton the English Regional Chair
Bodgers also sold their waste product as kindling, or as exceptionally durable woven-baskets.
In the early years of the 20th century, there were about 30 chair bodgers scattered within the vicinity of the High Wycombe furniture trade. Although there was great camaraderie and kinship amongst this close community nevertheless a professional eye was kept upon what each other was doing. Most important to the bodger was which company did his competitors supply and at what price. Bodger Samuel Rockall's account book for 1908 shows he was receiving 19 shillings (95p) for a gross (144 units) of plain legs including stretchers. With three stretchers to a set of four legs this amounted to 242 turnings in total.
The rate of production was surprisingly high. According to Ronald Goodearl, who photographed one of the last professional bodgers Alec and Owen Dean in the late 1940s, recalled they had stated "each man would turn out 144 parts per day (one gross) including legs and stretchers- this would include cutting up the green wood, and turning it into blanks, then turning it".
After felling a suitable tree, the bodger would cut the tree into billets, approximately the length of a chair leg. The billet would then be split using a wedge. Using the side-axe, he would roughly shape the pieces into chair legs. The drawknife would farther refine the leg shape. The finishing stage was turning the leg with the pole lathe (the pole lathe was made on site). Once the leg or stretchers were finished, being of "green" wood, they required seasoning. Chair legs would be stored in piles until the quota (usually a gross of legs and the requisite stretchers) was complete. The bodger would then take their work to one of the large chair-making centres. The largest consumer of the day was the High Wycombe Windsor chair industry. After completion the chairs were sold on to dealers, mainly in the market town of Windsor, Berkshire, which is possibly how the name "Windsor Chair" originated.
Samuel Rockall learnt the trade from his uncle, Jimmy Rockall. At the age of 61, Samuel was almost the last of the living chair bodgers. Rockall’s bodging tradition was captured on film shortly after he died in 1962. His two sons helped in the reconstruction of his working life in the woods and his workshop. The colour film was produced by the furniture manufacturer Parker Knoll and follows the complete process using Sam’s own tools and equipment. A film copy is available at the Wycombe Museum.
In contemporary British English slang, bodging can also refer to a job done of necessity using whatever tools and materials come to hand and which, whilst not necessarily elegant, is nevertheless serviceable. Bodged should not be confused with a "botched" job: a poor, incompetent or shoddy example of work, deriving from the mediaeval word "botch" – a bruise or carbuncle, typically in the field of DIY, though often in fashion magazines to describe poorly executed cosmetic surgery. A "bodge", like its cognates kludge and fudge, is serviceable: a "botched" job most certainly is not – but a total failure.
- There is no known etymology of the modern term bodger referring to skilled woodworkers. It first appears c. 1910, and only applied to a few dozen turners around High Wycombe, the reference quoted above dated 1879 can not refer to this type of bodger. All the hypotheses above are pure guesswork and not supported by etymologists. The etymology of the bodger and botcher (poor workmanship) is well recorded from Shakespeare onwards, and now the two terms are synonymous.
- It should be noted that these "camps" were not where the bodgers lived, just where they worked during the day. They lived in cottages in the villages of the area and walked to work each day. They were no more "itinerant" than a modern day dry stone waller or thatcher.
- Hunter, Robert (1879). The encyclopædic dictionary: a new and original work of reference to all the words in the English language, with a full account of their origin, meaning, pronunciation, and use. Volume 1. Cassell, Petter, Galpin and Co. Retrieved 17 March 2014.
- Wycombe District Council Website Retrieved 17 March 2014
- "Early days of the Green Wood group". GREEN WOOD WORKER. Retrieved 26 August 2012.
- Fraser, W. Hamish (1981). Thecoming of the mass market, 1850-1914. Archon Books. ISBN 0-208-01960-X.
- Green, Harvey (2007). Wood: Craft, Culture, History. Penguin. p. 418. Retrieved 17 March 2017. "High Wycombe Lathe is a wood bed pole-lathe used amongst the bodgers of the area. Bodgers still used pole-lathes in the High Wycombe area until 1960s"
- Wycombe District Council Website, bibliography:
- Abbott, M. (1989). Green Woodwork. Guild of Master Craftsmen.
- Cotton, B. (1991). The English Regional Chair. Antique Collectors Club.
- Dover, H. (1991). Home Front Furniture: British Utility Design 1941-1951. Scholar Press.
- Edwards, C. (1993). Victorian Furniture. MUP.
- Edwards, C. (1994). Twentieth Century Furniture. MUP.
- Edwards, C. (1988). Stimulus and Response: An investigation into changes in the furniture industry between 1880 and 1920. Unpublished MA thesis, RCA. (Available in the Museum library)
- Gilbert, C. (1992). English Vernacular Furniture. Yale.
- Kinmonth, C. (1993). Irish Country Furniture 1700 - 1950. Yale.
- Kirkham, P.; Mace, R.; Porter, P. (1987). Furnishing the World. The East London Furniture Trade 1830-1980. Journeyman.
- Knell, D. (1993). English Country Furniture. Shire.
- Mayes, J. (1960). History of Chair Making in High Wycombe. Routledge & Kegan Paul.
- Country Relics. Cambridge University Press. p. 55.
- Seymour, John (1984). The forgotten Arts: A practical guide to traditional skills. Angus & Robertson.
- Samuel Rockall, last of the chair bodgers, Stuart King.
- Edwards, Clive (2000). Encyclopedia of furniture materials, trades, and techniques. Ashgate Publishing.
- Massingham, Harold John (1939). Rural England: A survey of its chief features. C. Scribner's sons. p. 85.
- Gloag, John (1967). The chair, its origins, design, and social history. A. S. Barnes. p. 130.
- Frankel, Candie (1996). Encyclopedia of Country Furniture. Friedman/Fairfax. p. 164. ISBN 1567992617.
- Country Relics, p.54
- "The Comic Journal". Fantagraphics Books Inc. 9 November 2013. Retrieved 17 March 2014.
- Wycome Wanderers Website. Retrieved 17 March 2014.
- The Association of Polelathe Turners and Greenwood Workers
- The Artful Bodger
- Green Wood Work
- Guide to Bodging
- The Chair Bodgers of Buckinghamshire
- The last Chiltern chair bodger photographic memorial of Owen Dean and his workshop