Woodturner Gary Rance on prestigious clients and making 500 doorknobs for The Duke of Westminster
PUBLISHED: 11:11 09 May 2017
An apple a day… but sometimes Gary Rance will get through 100 or more, courtesy of a skill he developed after tossing a coin as a teenager, Sandra Smith finds
Here’s a question for you. What do Prince Andrew, Geoffrey Palmer and the Duke of Westminster have in common? No idea? Let me throw Sothebys and Harrods into the mix to see if that helps. I reckon this conundrum might be spinning you into such a frenzy you hardly know which way to turn.
Yes, that was my way of sneaking in a couple of final clues but if you still haven’t worked out the common denominator, allow me to introduce Gary Rance, a woodturner with a host of prestigious clients and who is known amongst his peers as the fastest and most accurate turner in the country.
“That’s quite an accolade,” Gary quietly acknowledges. “If I start to do something, I finish the whole lot. The other day I created 100 apples. I just switch off and listen to the radio because of the repetitiveness. I’ve made 500 doorknobs for one of The Duke of Westminster’s houses, and another commission – a telescope from oak from HMS Victory – was presented to Prince Andrew.”
And Geoffrey Palmer, I pry? “He rang and asked to come round and see me as he wanted doorknobs for his kitchen. When he arrived I said, ‘I recognise you from somewhere.’ ‘Probably on the box,’ he replied.”
Little fazes this laidback, gentle man. From his elevated home, overlooking fields and with Wendover Woods in sight, he walks me through a sunny conservatory to a long workshop in his garden where my senses absorb the sight, texture and aroma of wood. Industrial sized lathes, metal cabinets, hand tools and shelves brimming with storage boxes confirm that this is where creativity and manufacturing combine.
Yet woodturning wasn’t Gary’s original career choice. In fact he owes his successful profession to chance.
“Being a country lad I wanted to be a gamekeeper, which my father had done after retiring from Amersham Water Company. But when I left school at 16 my mother sent me to the Job Centre. There were two vacancies on offer: metal turning and woodturning. After two interviews I was offered both jobs but I couldn’t make up my mind which to accept… so I flicked a coin.”
During a three year apprenticeship at Chesham’s Joseph Reynolds, Gary was taught the skill of crafting bowls, peppermills, rolling pins and all manner of wooden household items. Then, following a 10 year stint at another company, he decided to set up his own business.
“I started off working in our coal bunker while my studio was being built. I spent a week knocking on customers’ doors and never looked back. I’ve been busy all the time.”
The range of wood Gary stores includes familiar ones such as his favourites – laburnum and yew, whose rich colours he admires – alongside the less common varieties of purple heart and padauk (respectively from South America and Africa). The older the wood, the “prettier” the grain, though many customers provide their own, often from trees which have fallen in their own gardens.
As a member of the Worshipful Company of Turners, Gary has been called upon to provide gifts such as pendants and letter openers for Ladies events. He has also produced 1,000 pens for a Swiss company, legs for settees sold at Harrods, and provides Sothebys with gavel blocks. Some of his tools can be viewed at Chiltern Open Air Museum, while each year he demonstrates at over 20 events throughout the UK as well as travelling abroad. For the numerous hobby turners who go along to see him, Gary’s DVDs and designs are popular purchases.
I’m learning about the apples I’ve been admiring – 3” wide with five cut from a piece of 12” timber – when Gary offers to demonstrate his skill.
He puts on his Guild coat then selects a piece of padauk wood which is cut to a small chunk and a hole drilled through the middle. Gary changes chucks (the attachment on a lathe onto which the wood being turned is temporarily fixed), lines up several hand tools, turns on a dust extractor and, finally, switches on the lathe. As he “roughs out” the general curves, within seconds one end of the apple is already as rounded as the real thing. Such is his skill and experience he could probably complete this task by sight only, but nevertheless he stops the machine, checks to confirm the piece is the right diameter then, with a 12ml spindle, continues to refine the proportions before halting the lathe to turn the apple around in order to shape the other end.
“The lathe turns at 2,260 revs per minute,” he shares. “It takes a lot of practice to do this every time, even though it looks easy.”
The next process involves three grades of sandpaper – 180, 240 and 400 – used in said order followed by wire wool. Friction polish is dripped onto the apple then wiped with a paper towel before a block of wax and buffing generates a glossy finish. When he removes the shiny wooden fruit it’s as perfect as the real thing. Still, all is not yet complete. Inside a plastic container are what look, and smell, like cloves. Who’d have guessed one of these fragrant spices perfectly replicates the bottom of an apple?
“Are these real stalks?” I wonder, peering inside another box. He smiles. Not at all. They are black stained twigs. Gary glues one to the top of the apple to complete his demonstration.
The speed at which he has created this beautiful, lifelike sculpture is uncanny; 10 minutes from start to finish. His reputation is well deserved.
He delves into more containers, keen to reveal magic wands, pears, bowls and watch stands, all fashioned in this workroom, while explaining that although most of his work is trade, he enjoys focussing on one off pieces for galleries as well.
“You can see my stuff in Wendover’s Lady Grey Tea Room, though anyone can come round here to have a look or discuss what they want.”
It’s a generous offer from a generous man. “This is for you,” Gary says, handing me the apple he’s just created and I take home not only a classic English fruit made from an exotic tree, but a memento of a fascinating morning with a most humble and talented craftsman.