On location with BBC2's 'Mastercrafts'


by Angie Boyer

craft&design Editor Angie Boyer takes an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the exciting new craft series on BBC2 presented by Monty Don

“Just because we have taken on some new technological skills, it does not mean that older – even ancient – crafts cease to be relevant” Monty Don

“When I applied for a place as a Mastercrafts trainee, I thought it would be great if I was lucky enough to be chosen; it would be nice to be on TV and I might learn to make a few small things into the bargain. But I’m loving this so much that I’ve decided I want to do it full time; after the project has finished I’m going to train at Hereford College to become a professional blacksmith, I want to learn how to do this on a grand scale and make really big pieces.”

Dominic is one of three trainees working under the guidance of mentor and master of his trade, Don Barker, in Mastercrafts, the inspiring new craft series on BBC2.

Presented by Monty Don, himself no stranger to creative pursuits, the series takes six Mastercrafts mentors, all skilled professionals in their own field, and gives them each three trainees. The idea is that the trainees are taught the basic skills necessary to produce a finished piece for the final project, with a winner being chosen in each discipline. All of this in just six weeks, so a lot had to be achieved in a short space of time.

Don Barker explains, “Each week I set the trainees a different task which was designed to progress their blacksmithing skills, learning the basic principles and fairly rudimentary techniques, including how to make their own tools. Of course, they won’t become master blacksmiths in that time and the idea certainly wasn’t to make this look simple, we’re respectful to the people who do this professionally, but they will develop some skills. Learning each technique individually can appear to be relatively easy, but putting those techniques together to make something beautiful is much more difficult, so the trainees had to be tenacious in their work and they’ve all done very well indeed.”

Paul and I spent a morning with the blacksmiths during week 5 of the project, whilst the trainees were being filmed as they started work on their final piece, each using the skills they’d learnt to design and make a garden gate for someone living locally. Elsewhere in the country there were mentors and trainees doing exactly the same, learning the techniques necessary to complete a final project in thatching, weaving, stained glass, stone masonry and green woodworking – all traditional skills which have found a place in the 21st century.

Talking with mentor, Guy Mallinson about his woodland workshop, I realise that Mastercrafts has been about more than simply teaching skills, it’s provided an interesting opportunity for the coming together of like minded people.

“Having the time and opportunity to share my passion for craftsmanship in wood with my trainees over six weeks was very enjoyable. I enjoyed seeing them learn and gain pleasure and gratification from the slow and difficult processes that they learned,” Guy tells me.

“As well as the trainees, I enjoyed meeting the other contributors. Monty Don was a pleasure to work with and I was delighted to discover that he enjoys green woodworking as a hobby and how he was taught bowl carving by Paul Caton, who also taught me many years ago. Monty’s passion for traditional crafts is infectious and the days that he was with us in the woodland workshop were always enjoyable with lively discussion on the place of traditional crafts in our time.”

Guy continues, “Another contributor was Mike Abbott, who we invited along to judge the final task; Mike has been an inspiration to me in my journey from cabinet making to green woodworking. I also took the trainees to visit David Saltmarsh to see his fantastic hand made chairs, we were all inspired by his hard work and talent, working from a tiny shed on his organic farm. Another contact made through the show was Robin Wood, the pole lathe turner who recently set up the Heritage Crafts Association, again a great inspiration.

“It was fascinating to watch and be involved with the craft of film making as well,” Guy continues. “Soon into the six weeks we all forgot the radio mikes and cameras and enjoyed watching the expert film and sound crews making something beautiful to look at.”

Although there was inevitably an element of competition throughout the project, teamwork played an important part for many of the trainees, as blacksmith Gill explains to me when we meet at the forge.

“I’ve enjoyed working together as a team and sharing ideas, we’ve all brought something very different to this. I’ve decided that blacksmithing is definitely what I want to do in the future, I’ve really loved the whole creative process, there’s something very therapeutic about belting hot metal! But could someone please invent smaller gauntlets for ladies,” she pleads, her hands visibly swamped by the ones she’s wearing.

Hugh, the third blacksmith trainee, says, “I did this years ago in secondary school and loved it then, I’ve just been waiting for the opportunity to come back to it again, it must have been Divine Providence that led me to Mastercrafts!” 

Hugh works methodically, heating and then beating a piece of metal into shape as he tells me that his grandfather used to be a basket weaver in Ireland. “He cultivated his own raw materials and made baskets to carry turf,” Hugh explains as he casts an eye over his final project design, which is drawn out in chalk on the floor alongside him.

“The thing I’ve most enjoyed about Mastercrafts has been learning the skills and being able to work on a real project, making something, the gate, that will make someone happy for years to come.”

craft&design assisted the TV production company in their original search for suitable participants, and it was interesting to eventually meet some of them;  I was especially curious to know why Gill wanted to learn blacksmithing.

“I love metal – its grace and strength and the surprising ways it can be shaped, also how vulnerable it can be if not cared for properly. There is some family history, too, my grandfather was a blacksmith, so I wanted to see whether I’d inherited any ability. I’ve enjoyed the project immensely, I’ve learned so much about myself and about crafting metal. Though this might sound silly, I think that you find something that resembles yourself in the metal, which allows you to bring it to life – there has to be some kind of mutual response between you and your medium. What surprised me most was how playful and frivolous a design I eventually produced, totally unexpected! Now I cannot imagine a life in which blacksmithing does not feature.”

For the Mastercrafts thatchers, Matt and Dave of Rumpelstiltskin Thatching Company, the task was particularly tricky as they had to teach their trainees the necessary skills in just six weeks instead of their usual four year programme of teaching!

They explain, “An apprentice will absorb information, techniques and practices far more than they will learn directly from instruction. We both learned our craft in this way, so to try and break down every process and remember all the subtle touches that make the difference between high quality, durable and beautiful work, rather than ‘straw hanging’, was a real challenge. We gained a valuable insight into the minutiae of our daily actions and a new respect for the countless generations of thatchers, who have refined the process of turning a pile of straw into the thatched roofs we see today throughout our countryside.”

I asked Matt and Dave what they had personally most enjoyed about being involved with Mastercrafts. “Most of the time we get very little feedback about our work until a roof is completed, when people comment on ‘how lovely it looks when freshly done”, but for us the whole process of thatching is what leads us to this final finished appearance. It has been great to have the opportunity to invite a group of people, both the trainees and all the crew, to follow us from preparing the roof, selecting the straw and hazel spars, the hours and hours of relentless preparation, and then to see the whole process of thatching a roof.

“We see layers of thatch that is centuries old every day, but it is rare to allow anyone else the opportunity to see and touch these and to see their enthusiasm for our craft and the appreciation of our heritage grow every day.

“On the flip side of this,” they continue, “we very much enjoyed being part of the enormously complicated process of making a television show. Just like our craft, countless hours of work go into creating a finished product that people will appreciate all too fleetingly.”

So what about the six weeks time frame for the thatchers, did that pose problems I asked. “When the apprentices arrived there was definitely a feeling that they thought the process would be a lot easier than we ever thought it would be. Learning this craft from scratch in just six weeks was at best daunting, but the trainees gave it their best shot and after the initial realisation that this was to be no walk in the park, they all knuckled down and actually coped quite well. The added pressure of being filmed occasionally took its toll, it’s probably fair to say that the process turned into a test of character every bit as much as it was a test of skill.”

It seems to me that this series has given those involved plenty of food for thought and inspiration for the future. As blacksmith Don Barker says, “Mastercrafts has been a ‘taster’ for an apprenticeship which has inspired some of the trainees to think about doing more in the future.”

Guy Mallinson adds that “it was great to have the time to reflect and discuss specific aspirations of the three diverse trainees and to weigh up different aspects of craftsmanship in wood, be it heritage skills, education, sustainability, therapy, building and restoration, products for profit or simply a healthy hobby or way of life. We spent a lot of time discussing the public perception of wood craft, which has been devalued in some way over recent decades. However, it appears that true craft is regaining credibility and is becoming more valued both for products and process. We agreed that everybody would benefit from the opportunity to make things by hand, be it at school or for adults looking for a break from the fast and disposable culture that we live in. We all enjoyed the shared intense experience and found it quite a shock to return to the ‘real world’ when it ended!”

Thanks to this series we might at long last be seeing hand crafted work presented on television in a way that not only helps people understand and appreciate the history of craft, but also the potential for the future of these skills and their value within our society today. Hopefully people will be inspired and encouraged to look at hand crafted work in a new and different way.


Mastercrafts could indeed be a significant milestone in the journey to promote craftsmanship in Britain to a wider audience. If our behind-the-scenes feature and the BBC TV programmes inspire you to find out more, you’ll want to complete the package with the exciting new book from David & Charles, ‘Mastercrafts’ by Tom Quinn, which accompanies the series.

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