The Dufton Rake makers
The beautiful, ancient, red sandstone-built village of Dufton, near Appleby- In-Westmoreland is located in the verdant Eden Valley lying between the Pennines and the Lake District. Hereabouts, this tranquil and beautiful part of the ancient county of Westmoreland – (since 1974 part of Cumbria) – has a violent history as witnessed by the impressive historic castles at Appleby, Brough, Penrith and Pendragon.
The silvery River Eden springing from its source high on Mallerstang flows through green pastures and pretty red sandstone villages for some seventy five miles until reaching the Solway Firth, its waters pour into the sea. Cross Fell, the highest Pennine mountain at 893 metres – (2930 feet) – dominates the Eden Valley to stand sentinel-like over the fell-side villages of Knock, Melmerby and Dufton.
Rudds, England’s Remaining Wooden Rake Makers
>Located at Nook Fold on the edge of Dufton are the highly evocative workshops of John and son Graeme Rudd, probably England’s remaining wooden rake makers. Adorning the outside wall of their time-weathered red sandstone workshop, a curiously carved date stone reveals that the building harks back to 1632 and was at that period a farmhouse. These buildings, known as Dufton Saw Mill, are probably among the oldest surviving buildings in the village.
Standing within John and Graeme’s workshop you get the feeling that here time has stood still for well over a hundred years. For lining the 400 year old, roughly plastered lime-washed walls are wooden shelving containing countless dusty boxes of nails, screws and other fastenings, whilst hanging from rusty nails driven into the walls are a motley collection of ancient looking, blacksmith-fashioned tools all of which are still used daily by the father and son partnership for the making of rakes.
A welcoming fire of blazing wooden off-cuts burning in the grate of the old stone fireplace provides snug comfort and warmth to the workshops, whilst at the same time giving off a wonderfully intoxicating aroma that mixes with the smells of freshly cut ash and birch.
John Rudd, 73 and his son Graeme 41, are exceptionally friendly welcoming folk, and are clearly proud of their family’s long established traditional wooden rake making skills. The two men work quietly and peaceably to produce yearly several thousand wooden rakes. Both are proud also of their reputation of perhaps being the last wooden rake makers in England.
The Rudd Family Rake Makers History
Back in the nineteenth century, most of the Eden Valley villages had at least one carpenter’s or joiner’s shop. The manufacture of both domestic and agricultural tools and implements was a regular, profitable sideline for these small businesses; rake making was one of them.
About 1891, John Rudd was a joiner in Dufton who established the rake making business at Nook Fold. Six years earlier in 1885, John had become an indentured apprentice to joiner Thomas Longstaff in nearby Warcop. Therefore, having now served his time he set himself up as a joiner in the old farmhouse at Nook Fold. As time went by, John realised that specialising in rake making was probably more lucrative than of being a general joiner. Thus, he became established in this ancient craft.
About this period, and extending well into the twentieth century, most of the work was carried out by hand using traditional carpentry tools and methods. Nevertheless, John Rudd’s brainchild business prospered, and bundles of wooden rakes were regularly supplied to farmers and iron mongers all over the surrounding counties. In the 1920s there was a significant increase in rake manufacturing output resulting from one of the Rudd family’s relatives moving down to Clitheroe in Lancashire where he visited numerous local farms to show off the firm’s wooden rakes. The Lancashire farmers took an instant like to the rakes and began placing orders.
During the 1950s, in common with many other British traditional craft-based industries the Rudd’s found themselves up against strong competition from fully mechanised American rake manufacturing firms. Worryingly, it was soon revealed that the prices of the American mass produced rakes were considerably less than Rudd’s prices.
John’s son, John Joseph – (the current John’s father) – who by now had gained a strong foothold in his father’s business became seriously concerned regarding these American products which resulted in him making the snap decision to play the Americans at their own game by mechanising rake production at Dufton Saw Mill. This was however, in the gloomy penny-pinching post-war days of the 1950s somewhat difficult to put into practice, but a chance encounter with a visiting North-East engineer who was holidaying in Dufton assisted the firm’s plight significantly. Upon him calling in to the Dufton Saw Mill, the Geordie engineer set to with John Joseph, and between them they subsequently designed and constructed several purpose-built wood working machines which speeded up considerably, the rake manufacturing stages resulting in a massive increase in output. Some fifty odd years later, these examples of mechanical wizardry are still working perfectly and efficiently in John and Graeme’s workshop. Among the machinery installed by John Joseph Rudd were several circular saws and drills which were powered by an oil engine. Unfortunately, when questioned by the author, John couldn’t recall the make or anything else about the engine, which apparently ran until electricity was installed in 1949.
In 1948, subsequent to his father’s retirement, John Joseph Rudd took over the running of the business. John senior, lived in one of the cottages facing the main workshop. These cottages were demolished some time ago and now the boiler house, used for steam-bending the timber, and the adjacent rake storage barn occupy the area.
During the Second World War a number of German POWs were employed by the Rudds and by the late 1940s also a number of displaced persons: Latvians and Lithuanians, many of them being excellent workers being taken on during busy periods. The current senior partner John Rudd’s mother, together with about a dozen local employees also daily toiled in the rake making workshops.
In 1946 when John was a small boy of eight, both before and after school he would readily assist his father John Joseph in the workshops. He recalls with laughter bursting his thumb with a blow from a heavy hammer and attending school with the bruised thumb heavily bandaged.
A fascinating specimen of Rudd’s ‘Heath-Robinson’ machinery, still regularly used, and intriguingly called ‘The Demon Dentist’, is an example of mechanical wizardry that speedily and accurately carries out the operation of inserting the teeth made of silver birch into the rake heads. The machine did away with the once laborious and highly inefficient practice of hand-drilling sixteen holes and inserting the teeth. Taking just a mere few seconds, in one action the Demon Dentist drills and also inserts the teeth. The author was given a hearty demonstration by John sitting in front of the Demon, and with Graeme feeding fistfuls of teeth from the top, rather like an army machine gunner keeping going the flow of ammunition; within a few minutes several rake heads were fully toothed up. Nearby, another machine can cut a specifically shaped bevel on the ends of the teeth.
Traditional Rake Making
Upon the author asking John where the raw materials come from, he said that during the 1960s and up until the 1980s he personally felled numerous locally grown silver birch trees. During this period Rudd’s also purchased silver birch and ash from other local sources. Prior to the late 1960s, the firm cut rake shafts from twelve inch by four inch baulks of English ash. John was also questioned why in the twenty first century, the reason for traditional wooden rakes are still preferred over metal rakes. His reply was that in days of old, farm workers would be out in the fields raking hay from dawn till dusk, and if the rake had an iron or steel head, the implement would have proved far too cumbersome and heavy for continual usage.
The manufacture involved cutting the shafts from seasoned coppiced ash, which upon its original cutting would have been seasoned out in the open for at least a year. The bark would be then removed and if necessary, the shaft would be straightened by steaming followed by clamping within a special setting frame. Finally, the shaft-making process would be completed by hand planing.
The rake heads would also be sawn by hand to the correct dimensions. Before the introduction of the Demon Dentist machine, the teeth would be whittled down from five inch sections of silver birch logs; the thinned pieces then finally rounded in the tooth cutter. This was simply a length of iron pipe with a sharpened rim through which the teeth would be driven. The tooth cutter would be firmly positioned on a bench over a hole beneath the tool, thus enabling the teeth to be driven through; each new tooth inserted knocking out the previously shaped tooth which fell onto the bench below. Each tooth would then be hand finished with a blunt point. Upon completion the teeth would be inserted into holes laboriously hand drilled into the head and then driven home. The shaft would be firmly driven into the completed head, and then further strengthened by a bow of steamed ash or hazel.
The Current Rake Making Process
Very little has actually altered since earlier times. These days the ash used for making the rake heads are simultaneously planed on all four faces by machine. The teeth, sixteen per rake head are cut from lengths of round silver birch, which in turn are cut from logs. The rake heads, when made up are drilled to receive the shaft – machined from heavy ash billets – which are firmly driven into place. The final component, the bow, now usually of ash is cut; the wood is then placed into a water-filled ancient iron boiler within the boiler house beneath which is a fire of wood off-cuts. The steam thus produced is applied for around ten minutes making the timber supple for the bending process. The distinctive shape of the bow is formed by bending the steamed wood around a former. Working on the gnarled old bench, lit by the cobweb-strewn window, the bow is worked round through a pre-drilled hole in the shaft until the pre-marked mid point is reached. The shaft and bow are then secured into the rake head.
Unbelievably, the Rudds do not use any adhesives whatsoever, just four small wire nails! John proudly stated that should a Rudd manufactured rake work loose, then the time honoured method of retightening, is by standing the rake head in water, which causes the wood to expand and therefore tighten everything up.
A simple, yet time honoured method for testing that the rake head and shaft are correctly squarely aligned, is carried out by inserting the end of the shaft into a specifically drilled hole in the stone wall of the old workshop alongside the bench, and then to spin the whole rake around. Should both ends of the rake head spin past a mark on the bench, then bingo! – the newly assembled rake is proven dead square and can then be nailed.
Traditionally, the rakes were manufactured from English hard woods. Nowadays, the rakes are cut and shaped from billets of imported German grown ash, and the teeth of silver birch come from Sweden. The author questioned John the reason for importing woods when growing up in the Scottish Highlands are millions of silver birch trees. John’s reply was that imported timber is not only readily available, but is of better quality and is cheaper than British woods. Notwithstanding, the Rudd manufactured rake heads and bows are made of English hard woods. And to prove this point, lying out in a corner of the Saw Mill yard was a stack of huge locally felled ash tree trunks.
Situated at the end of the old dated workshop is the Saw Mill wherein a large horizontal circular saw is used for reducing ash logs down to smaller workable sizes. Behind the Saw Mill is a relatively sizeable square proportioned building of modern design, built in 1982. This is the New Workshop which houses a number of well laid out wood working machines. Here most of the manufacturing work is now carried out.
At Rudd’s Nook Fold Saw Mill, rake making used to be mostly seasonal, with spring and summer being the busiest periods. Autumn and winter were often slack times, but nowadays the firm still manages to produce on average approximately 330 rakes per week. Evidently there is still sufficient demand for quality produced traditional wooden rakes all over Britain. Although, regrettably owing to farming mechanisation, these days not many rakes are actually sold to farmers. Today the Rudd’s main customers are landscape gardeners, golf courses and those discerning home owners who like to own and use craftsman-made implements. Local authorities and corporations are also regular customers. Around every month or so, John and Graeme load up their 7.5 ton Iveco box truck with several large bundles of rakes which they then deliver to a wholesaler in Lancashire.
You may have seen an old fashioned wooden rake being used by landscape gardeners. Or one used for raking out the bunkers on the local golf course. You may actually be lucky to own one of these lovingly crafted traditional English wooden rakes. The chances are too, that the rake will have been probably made by the Rudds of Dufton Saw Mill, Nook Fold, Dufton, Cumbria. If you, like the author, is someone who cherishes craftsmanship and wants to own a beautifully fashioned wooden rake for tending your hay meadow, pony paddock, or garden, then may I suggest you contact John or Graeme Rudd on 01768 351880.
The author would like to take the opportunity of thanking John and Graeme Rudd for the welcome he and his wife Christine were given when visiting to research this article.