A box, according to my dictionary, is "a container, usually lidded, made of cardboard, wood or other stiff material." This bleak and basic definition conveys no idea of the hardwood boxes made by Cumbrian craftsman, Peter Lloyd, of Hallbankgate. For his boxes are no mere containers, but objects of intrinsic beauty, the sort of which will become a family's treasured heirlooms.
They are, of course, functional as well and can serve various purposes from leather-lined deed boxes and writing cases to silk-lined sewing boxes and rich velvet-lined jewel boxes. All Peter's boxes are made of British hardwoods. He has discovered pieces of burr elm at a local sawmill. And in a nearby wood he found a tree marked for felling which was burr oak. Other valuable finds have come from a Prudhoe tree surgeon who supplied him with a splendid piece of yew. "Male yew, which is a better colour that the female," says Peter. A beautiful golden yew box bears out this statement.
From various parts of Britain have come walnut - even American black walnut, ripple ash, spalted beech and beautifully marked fiddleback sycamore, the sort which, as its name implies, is used in the making of backs of fiddles, and which, says Peter, "really draws your hands to it."
Peter began making boxes about three yeas ago when he decided there was a gap in the market. But he has been interested in wood since he was knee-high to his father. The first thing he remembers making was a book shelf for his father when he was about 11. He continued with woodwork at school up to A. Level. But, as a career, it went on the back burner for some time after leaving school when he moved into air traffic control and then hotel catering management. Eventually he came back to it when he did an Advanced City and Guilds course in carpentry and joinery so that he could get into teaching. After teacher training he taught craft, design and technology for four years at the William Howard School in Brampton. Then, deciding it was time for a change, went off with his family to teach woodwork in Botswana. Two years later he was back in Hallbankgate and beginning to make his unique boxes.
"I had always had it at the back of my mind that I would like to be my own boss," he says. "I was foolish enough to believe that if it was a lovely day one could say 'let's go for a walk instead of working'. Self-employed life isn't like that". But with a workshop in his garden which looks over peaceful fields to the Solway, working conditions could hardly be pleasanter. In his workshop he has a power saw and drill. For the rest, it's hands on - and infinite patience - with chisels and sandpapers and steel wool.
If it is a question of production, he admits that he cannot compete with machines.
"But", he says, "I can beat a machine every time in dealing with one-offs." He does not work in straight-grained woods, unlike factories which prefer straight grains with no defects because they are easier for machinery to cope with.
"I choose woods with something special about them," says Peter. So he is particularly keen on burr woods. The "burr" is the lump which grows out from the main trunk of a tree, like a giant bunion and which, when cut, reveals beautiful grain. He also likes "spalted" woods which have irregular black lines running through them. Sometimes these appear simply as contrast colouring lines in the wood. At others they develop into intricate lacy patterns. The spalting is caused by fungus getting into the wood when it is felled and the trick is to catch it and dry it at just the right time which stops the rotting process and achieves a rarely beautiful piece of wood.
Each box Peter makes is unique. Even from the same piece of wood no two can ever be quite the same. And each box he sees as achieving a balance between the needs of the design and the natural qualities of the material. He lets a box come from a piece of wood.
"The wood decides," he says. "Every finished piece is a celebration of its wood."
He gets his wood kiln-seasoned in Prudhoe but he still takes care to guard against undue movement by keeping it for a time in centrally heated conditions, then half making a box and returning it to central heating for a time before completing it.
"You have to build to allow for movement," he says. "Wood will always move and the great craftsmen always allowed for it. It's when you make it rigid that you get problems."
The boxes are usually finished with wooden strappings. Often, too, there is a panel of a lighter coloured, contrasting wood let into the lid which echoes the shape of the main piece. The wooden linings and inner trays are usually of gleaming blonde sycamore which makes a pleasing foil for the dark richness of the fabric linings. All the joints are dovetailed, even those of the inner trays. The lids are held open with silver chain controlled by a weight let down into the side of the box - a very neat arrangement.
Peter tends to make one complete box at a time, rather than doing the same operation on several simultaneously. "If I did that I would be moving towards a production line," he says. A single box can take up to a fortnight to complete. He uses Danish oil to seal the finished piece and the final gleaming patina comes from beeswax and elbow grease. And when you see the variety of colours of the finished boxes, from green and gold through rich damson purple to deep chocolate brown, you begin to feel that the term "jewel box" does, in fact, apply to the container as much as to the contents.
Peter sells mainly from his home, the Old School House, Hallbankgate, and at craft fairs and galleries. Prices range from £200 to £600. Although he generally makes boxes and then offers them for sale ("because that way people see exactly what they are buying") he will also undertake commissions.
Photographs: Jonathon Becker