Ben Willis Woodcraft is an independent wood workshop based in Crystal Palace offering a chance to get back to nature by using green wood to make a bowl, stool or chair from scratch.
The methods Ben uses in his South London workshop date back to the origins of carpentry, in the days before big machines. It’s called ‘green woodworking’ because they work with hand tools and unseasoned wood – the only processing these trees have seen is being cut down and chopped into logs. A lot of artisan crafts like this died out with the two world wars, but they’ve seen a revival since the 70s with the hippie movement taking us back to the land and our roots.
Demonstrating what he teaches during my last visit, Ben takes a log of ash that still looks dewy on the bark and splits it in half, then into quarters and eighths with a froe and wooden hammer. There’s an element of strength Ben reassures me, but it’s more technique. He chops away at one of the pieces with an axe until he’s holding a messy cylinder, then moves over to the next work station – a wooden shaving horse – and scrapes off the rough edges with that ancient drawknife.
Ben approached Obby in 2016 to help him realise his dream of becoming a full-time teacher, and turn his skills into a career. Ben needed a way to sell spaces for his classes online, and manage his students with less admin and using less of his time that he could otherwise use creating and teaching.
It looks easy when Ben does it but I’m pretty sure working so smoothly with wood takes practice, as with all of these skills. Ben’s been doing this for ten years but it was the same story for him at the start, ‘when I was learning, I was terrible. I remember it. I spent six months living in the woods in Herefordshire, practising every day.’
The first time he went, it was to study the art of chair-making under the tutelage of Mike Abbott, the resurgent of the green woodworking craft. His dedication during the course scored Ben a place as Mike’s apprentice for the following season, where he took on the role of assistant teacher and began to share his learning with other keen woodworkers.
People assume that you know everything, which I didn’t. But it helps cement it pretty quickly in your mind when you’re in that position.
From student to teacher, though teaching is in his genes with his mum a school teacher, Ben was a little intimidated by the fact that some of the students had been practising longer than he had. But – as many of our teachers have experienced – a shift from learning to teaching forced him to realise his capabilities, and at that point, it became an immensely satisfying experience.
I guess I just put myself in their shoes, coming to it in the same way that I did all those years ago when my eyes were opened to this whole world of possibilities of what you can do with a log and some hand tools. I like the idea of being able to pass that on to other people. Invariably when people have a go, they’re hooked on it.
Ben wants people to know how liberating it is to get stuck into hands on creative activities, in a time when we’re so often desk-bound and committed to work that’s fundamentally unfulfilling. Ben joked that getting into woodwork has complicated his life somewhat, because it means he’ll never be satisfied with a boring office job again. But I get the impression he wouldn’t change a thing if he had the option to do his life over without the complication.
You really do notice a shift in mindset, when you get to bring more practical skills into a primarily digital lifestyle. It helps you to understand how the world around you works. Which is why Obby's community of teachers is so passionate about helping people uncover their hidden talents.
To help teachers like Ben do this, Obby provides a platform to build and grow your teaching business online. Using Obby, Ben was able to build his online presence, grow his student base, and reduce admin all in a matter of minutes.
The most valued part of Obby for Ben is the automated email communication with students. Booking confirmations, reminders, reschedules etc are all automated via the platform and require no set-up, at all!
These tools have helped Ben to turn his skills into a career of teaching, but still allows him to hone his passion and spend time in his element.
Since joining Obby, the Ben Willis Woodcraft school have run over a thousand classes, with hundreds of bookings sold and managed direct through Obby. Ben now has more time to chop, shave, scrape, split, craft, and most importantly teach.
If you go down to the woods today…check out Ben Willis’s woodworking classes