FEATURE: Meet the Harborough man who is just one of a handful of joiners in the world who can carry out his work

Richard Arnold's career spans 42 years, following in the footsteps of his late grandfather

Sunday, 15th March 2020, 12:25 pm
Richard Arnold using a plane his grandfather used at his workshop in Wilbarston. PICTURE: ANDREW CARPENTER

Harborough Mail reporter Red Williams went to meet the man more known in America than in his own backyard of Market Harborough.

Richard Arnold does woodworking jobs so exclusive and so demanding that hardly anyone else in the world can do them.

Carving out a stellar career spanning 42 years in joinery has put the one-off carpenter right at the top of his magnificent historic craft.

Richard with a door frame he's working on. PICTURE: ANDREW CARPENTER

Working with 300-year-old tools his Civil War forefathers would have recognised, Richard plies his trade out at Wilbarston and lives in Market Harborough.

And yet the brilliantly-gifted 58-year-old is far better known in the United States than he is right here in his very own English backwoods.

Taking rare time out from his all-consuming calling in life, Richard told the Harborough Mail: “I’m a very lucky man.

“I do the job I love to bits day in day out and I pour my heart and soul into it.”

Richard's grandfather Cecil Incles who worked at WW Brown in Market Harborough.

He added: “I went into woodworking as soon as I left school at 16 an astonishing 42 years ago.

“But I can’t ever see myself putting down my beloved tools – I’ll probably die at my bench!”

Working with wood is knotted in Richard’s DNA – it’s a case of like grandfather like grandson.

“I really am following very much in the footsteps of my late grandfather, Cecil Incles.

Richard with his grandfathers tool box he now uses everyday. PICTURE: ANDREW CARPENTER

“He was a soldier in the First World War and fought at the Somme in 1917-1918 so he was fortunate to make it home alive,” recalled Richard, who attended Kibworth High School and Harborough’s Robert Smyth School.

“My grandfather did a joinery apprenticeship in 1919 after leaving the army and bought a tool kit off a man called George Shelton.

“Even then the tools were so old they were becoming obsolete!

“My grandad died when I was 14 and I inherited his tool chest.

Richard with the door he made and was featured in an american magazine Mortise & Tenon. PICTURE: ANDREW CARPENTER

“I’m so proud to be still working with the tools that he used 100 years ago.

“And they got me very interested in pre-industrial hand tool work – the rest is history.”

Western Front war hero Cecil served his time with well-known building contractor WW Brown & Sons in Quakers Yard on Harborough’s Adam and Eve Street.

“They are still there and that’s where I cut my teeth too.

“It was a nice coincidence, to say the least, that I began there when I started out,” smiled Richard.

“It took me three years to complete my apprenticeship and I was at Brown’s for 12 years before moving on.

Richard Arnold works on a bannister rail made from walnut. PICTURE: ANDREW CARPENTER

“I went on to work at different local firms before setting up my own joinery business in 2002.”

Setting up at Dallacre Farm on Rushton Road, Wilbarston, he runs the neat and tidy rural workshop with his colleague Matthew Castle.

“I decided to go my own way because standards were slipping in the industry – and I’ve always worked to the highest possible level.

“I’ve never had to advertise once in the 18 years I’ve been here and it’s really taken off after our humble beginnings.

“I mostly do jobs for customers within a 30-40-mile radius and it’s all word of mouth.

“I see myself as an old style village carpentry business.

“We’ll do anything and everything.

“But it’s often bespoke – doing work for listed buildings, older properties and conservation projects.

“Specially-commissioned staircases, sliding sash windows, unique old doors – we’ll do them all,” said Richard, who has three stepdaughters, two grand-daughters and a grandson.

“I’ve also just made highly-specialised handrails using Georgian and Victorian methods.

“I’m probably one of a handful of joiners anywhere in the world who could have done the job.

“I also make my own tools – it takes me about two days to fashion a wooden plane.

“There are very few of us doing this.

“There’s someone else down in Devon but that’s about it over here.

“I sell these mainly to customers in the USA.

“I’m much better known over in the States than here.

“I’m building a new website at the moment to showcase what I do.”

The extraordinary chippie with magic in his hands also loves to collect ancient tools – hundreds of them!

“I may well have the biggest collection of 18th century carpentry tools in the world, certainly in the UK.

“I’ve built up about 700 woodworking planes alone – and they’re not at my workshop I hasten to point out,” said Richard.

“My oldest piece of kit will be about 340 years old and dates back to the late 17th century.

“They were beautifully made but they were also highly specialist, niche tools and that’s why they are still here.”

Not content with using his hands to create stunning kitchens, cabinets and every other type of furniture, he also writes vividly about the esoteric world of wood he’s dedicated his life to.

“I made a door from rough-sawn timber for a Victorian terraced house in under 11 hours.

“I then wrote an article about the challenge for an American journal called Mortise & Tenon,” said Richard, whose cottage industry is extremely ethical and eco-friendly.

“I’ve also written about what I do for other highly-specific magazines and websites.

“I hated writing at school.

“I was dyslexic and left-handed, which didn’t help.

“But now I love to write using a word processor while the internet allows me to advise and keep in touch with people in America instantly.

“So I’m combining the best of old technology and new technology to do what I do best!”

He also saluted his long-suffering wife Kate.

“She might say I’m a bit extreme at times.

“I’ll still work five or six days a week and be carrying out research when I get home at night.

“But she’s very understanding,” he admitted.

“And she’ll also come along and help me demonstrate my craft and tools at woodworking and country shows.”

Vowing to devote the rest of his life to enshrining and saving the old ways, Richard said: “I’m using tools and methods stretching back well over 200 years – before machinery was invented and started to take over.

“Many craftsmen were lost in the Great War – and the way they worked went with them.

“I’m determined to protect their incredible skills, huge knowledge and expertise.

“I am fighting as hard as I can to work as they did and to leave an historic legacy making sure that our unique woodworking heritage and traditions live on.

“I’ll always be poor thanks to this job!

“But wealth comes in many different forms.

“And working with wood and the tools that craftsmen used hundreds of years ago all my life has made me a very rich man indeed.”

If you would like to find out more about Richard and the services he offers then visit his website here: http://www.richarnold.co.uk

Richard Arnold works on a bannister rail made from walnut. PICTURE: ANDREW CARPENTER
Some of the tiny planes Richard still uses today. PICTURE: ANDREW CARPENTER
Richard with a window frame he's working on. PICTURE: ANDREW CARPENTER