People seem to be irresistibly drawn to touch Peter Lloyd's boxes. "I stroke them myself!" Peter admits, "Maybe this in-built attraction is something I've put into each box. But I think it's more likely to be something inherent in the wood itself."
It could be due to the fact, that there's nothing stand offish about Peter's boxes; that they are made to be used is at once self-evident, and so it feels safe to touch them.
"That's partly because I don't use veneers", Peter explains. "If a surface gets scratched, it can just be sanded down again, 'Rugged' is the world I'd use, a sort of 'take me as I am — I'm the same all the way through to the other side,' quality."
This essential ruggedness doesn't restrict Peter to making only 'men's boxes' — lined with leather, with uses varying from deed containers to writing cases. With exquisite figuring on exterior surfaces and silk or velvet linings, rugged is that last word that comes to mind when describing Peter's jewellery or work boxes. However, the dictum of Peter's school woodwork teacher, that the harder a piece of wood is to clean up, the nicer it looks when finished, holds true whatever the piece: "Although at times I feel it's perverse of me so often to choose the most difficult woods to work," says Peter, "the results justify the pains along the way because woods such as fiddleback sycamore, yew and spalted beech are so interesting and tactile compared to a most straight-grained timber. But, of course, they're also that much fuller of the unpredictable stresses and strains that makes a woodworker's life difficult, so each of my boxes has advice on avoiding temperature and moisture extremes and comes with a guarantee that, if detrimental movement does occur, I will do something about it."
Originally, Peter taught Craft, Design and Technology at a secondary school in Cumbria, followed by two years in Botswana. But, "Our time there was disappointing in some ways," he admits. "Trees were seen by the local people primarily as firewood, not a creative resource. I found myself teaching an outdated syllabus which was exam-oriented and irrelevant to the local way of life, using imported woods, such as meranti, South African pine and jeutong for the exam pieces."
Back in Cumbria, Peter’s wife, Chris, decided to work full time, which meant that, with the security of her salary, Peter could risk setting up as a woodworker on his own. His garden workshop, wasn’t big enough to make furniture, so at first he made pine-frames mirrors. All very well, until Peter realised that he was becoming a one-man production line. The solution was to make instead something both challenging and creative that would take far longer but would command a higher price: "I’m convinced that there’s a gap in the market for high quality boxes, there just don’t seem to be any in the shops."
Peter soon discovered that entry to prestigious craft fairs was by submission of slides or photos. That was how he was selected for an exhibition in Glasgow by the Tent Company of Edinburgh but, "I would never had made it to "The Tent" at the Edinburgh Festival though, if one of the organisers hadn’t seen my work at Glasgow and realised its tactile quality, which doesn’t come over on slides."
For wood Peter relies, on the manager of a local "tree-execution place, where the trees are sawn into three-foot lengths to be sealed underground as pit props." Interesting pieces are put aside for Peter. A recent find was a piece of yellow and green streaked wych elm with fantastic figuring; from this Peter made a work box that recently won the Lilliput Lane Craft Award at Carlisle’s Tullie House Open Exhibition. Another major source is a tree surgeon, who specialises in selling such hardwoods as rippled cherry, yew and burr oak.
Whilst each of Peter’s boxes is the end product of a careful study of the shape and figure of the wood — reflecting a balance between design and the material’s natural qualities — his techniques evolve with each new box. The challenge is working out better ways of making boxes, which allow wood to move and yet form part of a box with fine tolerances. The lid of one of his latest boxes, for example, is made up of a panel of sycamore floating freely within grooves in the sides of the box with pieces displaying the sapwood planted onto this. The dovetails were arranged to allow the lid to be cut off later with a jigsaw.
Peter’s only fixed machine is a radial-arm saw, which he finds sufficiently accurate for fine work on the inside of the boxes that must fit to about ½mm on either side. “I use an Arbotech carving tool on the angle grinder to make my scalloped boxes; it removes large quantities of wood very rapidly but, in the end, there’s no replacement for a piece of abrasive paper, which seems to wear out the end of my fingers only slightly slower that in smoothes the box!” Peter is the first to admit that nothing is really new, but he hasn’t seen elsewhere his chain and weight mechanism, which restrains the opened lid and allows the chain to disappear out of sight into the thickness of the side of the box when it is shut.
All in all, for Peter there is nothing quite so satisfying as someone liking his work enough to pay money for it. And having four of his boxes on show in the gallery where he first saw the work of Tim Stead, whose, “sheer brilliance of creativeness and style leaves me breathless”, is an equally great satisfaction. However, Peter became increasingly aware of one big potential problem: “All my tools are in what is essentially a wooden garden shed; going to craft fairs, I’m carrying all my potential income for months ahead. But getting insurance was not easy. It took months to find a company which was willing to take me on my terms, wooden shed and all.”