Focus on: Nigel Howe – Training Manager The Oak Frame Training Forum

In our regular series of interviews with members of The Carpenters Fellowship – we talk today to Nigel Howe. Nigel responsible for training the timber framers of the future. Phew. Not too much pressure then……

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How did you start your career in Timber Framing?

My father was part of a self-build project in the 1950s that built 50 homes, all 3 bed semi-detached with garages & long gardens. So I grew up among tradesmen who built their own homes, conservatories, sheds, greenhouses. Over the years I learnt how to dig foundations, lay bricks, measure, level, triangulate & work with timber. My school was a Secondary Technical School (boys) specialising in the Building Trades in Reading Berkshire. As part of the curriculum, we built extra workshops on the site & built an outdoor pursuits centre in the Wye Valley where we spent weeks at a time. There I developed my skills in Technical Drawing TD, & Woodwork. In particular. Part of the idea of the school was to train the architects & craftsmen, & the building inspectors for the area. The school was a tough mixture of Hells Angels, skin‘eds, swots & hippies with a mutual respect for our building skills & sporting prowess. There were 14 of us in the Berkshire U15 Rugby squad of 30.

I moved to Bristol, married Jackie & trained in to be a teacher. Wherever we have lived we have built, extended, repaired & maintained properties. We have taken on derelict & almost uninhabitable properties & raised our children amongst sawdust, lime mortars, linseed oil & the smell of log burners.

20 years ago I left mainstream teaching & helped set up the Forest of Avon Wood Products Cooperative along with Jim O’ & Rupert. I worked on the Leigh Woods Barn Project & a 3 bay open barn at Chelvey Court & decided to buy a Wood-Mizer mobile sawmill. I took on the lease for the redundant farm buildings at Chelvey & set up the Chelvey Designer Makers Cooperative of woodworkers. I worked with Henry Russell & Gudren Leitz, & met Charley Brentnall, on the Westonbirt Arboretum Great Oak Hall project. Every timber went across the Wood-Mizer & we did 12-hour shifts to keep ahead of the framers. This build was instrumental in the origins of the CF & we photograph our new SAP intake with John Russell’s model of the Great Oak Hall.

What is the biggest challenge within the Timber Framing world?

Timber framing is heavy demanding work & requires the rare ability of engaging brain, eyes & hands to work with a variety of tools in all weathers & ground conditions. We are all mad; some quietly behind the drawing board & others barking in the framing yard.

What is the most inspiring project you have worked on?

I have been fortunate to have worked on several inspiring projects which in their own ways have played a part in shaping me (mainly my hands, knees & back). The Chelvey Court barn shelter, Penny Brohn Cancer Care centre garden shelter, the OFTF buildings reflecting the training of the CF members. The one project that must rank as the greatest challenge in so many ways & therefore the most inspiring & depressing must be Timber House.

The transformation of a Grade II* Listed building that had been derelict for many years. 16 King St Bristol. A jetted 4 storey Jacobean merchant’s house built circa1663 in the period of the Restoration of the monarchy after the Civil War. So from Restoration 1660 to restoration 2014-17.

The building shows all the signs of wear & tear & changes over the centuries. When we took it on the previous leaseholders had done major repairs to the roof & cellar but ran out of steam. When we took it over there were a few original ceilings & floor joists but no floors. The work has been a combination of repairs & restoration alongside upgrading to comply with up-to-date standards of thermal & acoustic insulation & other building regs for fire & structural engineering requirements.

People who have worked on Timber House include: Jo, Sarah & Rob; Henry, Pete, Alan, Jeff, Marius, Finn, Sam, Mark, Will B, Ant, Will R, Tom C, Ollie, Tim H, Reza, Brendan, Tommy, Will, Finley, Graham & other helpers & support from Sheila, Amy, Freya & Heidi.

This has been a monumental task & has emphasised that balance & compromise that face us all when dealing with our heritage “What to leave in & what to remove?” Wherever possible we” leave in” to be rediscovered By future craftsmen & investigators. If we remove we are making a value judgement on what is worthy.

Now that the building regs have been signed off & it is being used Timber House has been given another chance to stand proudly in the historic heart of Bristol.


Where/what is your dream home and why

One in which I can sit down with a glass & a book!

One where the grandchildren can play among some of the Oak sawdust that I have brought in from the workshop. A home where Jackie is happy surrounded by her artwork.  Probably with a view of the sea on the North coast of Cornwall so that the sea is blue.  I haven’t seen it. I don’t know if it exists or whether I have yet to build it.

Thanks so much Nigel!