During the 1950s, Stanley Clark worked as a ladder maker for John Ward & sons who employed 12 people making approx 1600 wooden ladders per year. When aluminium ladders were introduced in the 1960’s, the wooden ladder industry disappeared almost overnight.
Woodworkers Robin Wood and Steve Tomlin travelled to Northampton as part of this Heritage Crafts Association project to make a ladder with Stanley and learn the skills.
A generous grant from the Foyle Foundation, with support from Santander and the members of the Heritage Crafts Association made it possible for Stanley Clark to pass on his skills.
Thanks to Robin Wood, Steve Tomlin, Gabriel Sainhas and Ben Higgins Millner. Also thanks to the Directors and Staff of FWT Burrows & Co. Ltd, Northampton, and Elvaston Castle (Derbyshire County Council) for the workshop venues.
Ladder making does not require a large number of specialist tools and you may already own many of them if you work with wood. Two specialist pieces of equipment are the ladder making plank and a tapered auger.
The ladder is built on a special bench known as the Plank, consisting of a long beam 3”x10” fixed on edge to two sturdy upights. A ¾” hole is drilled vertically at one end to allow the pole halves to be pinned to the plank while planing. Two other ¾” holes are drilled at a downward angle close to the top of the plank at each end; these act as supports for the pole halves when working on the edges.
This is used to taper the rung holes, versions for either a brace and bit or power drill can be used. The auger owned by Stanley Clark tapered by 1¼” width over 6½” length.
The poles should be Norway Spruce, as straight, free of knots and close to the final dimensions as possible to limit the amount of planing necessary.
- Saw the pole along its length, orienting the saw cut to give equal strength to both sides.
- Remove the bark from both sides.
- Allow the sides to dry in pairs.
Prepare the first side:
- Drill a ¾” hole at the rung spacing from the base of the first side then pin it to the plank using a wooden dowel.
- Measure for the the desired number of rungs plus an additional rung spacing and saw the first side to length.
- Plane the flat face smooth and remove any twist in the timber. Use a long plane (eg Jack plane), keeping the body of the plane along the length of the side to ensure a flat surface. As Norway Spruce grows with a corkscrew twist so you’ll need to plane up the pole on the right hand side and down the pole on the left hand side. Pulling the plane makes planing down the pole easier and spreads the work over different muscles.
- Below you can see Steve using two planes as ‘winding sticks’ to check that the top of the side is flat and level. Sight across the top of the two straight edges and remove more wood until they are level with each other. Repeat this process along the length of the ladder side.
- Snap lines along the edges using a chalkline to get straight edges, removing as little wood as possible. Plane these edges perpendicular to the flat face.
- Plane the curved face, working with the taper from bottom to top. First plane a single flat along the top then plane two facets between this flat and the edge to give 7 facets in total. Smooth the bevels to round the curved face fully.
- Lay this first half as a pattern onto the second half and draw around it to copy the shape. Repeat the processes above so you have matching sides.
- Mark a centreline on the inside face of each side and mark the rung positions onto one using dividers to walk up the spacings. The positions on the second half can be marked either using the same dividers or using a square to mark across from the first half.
Rungs are made from either oak or ash. At Wards, the ash was from trees under 9” dia at the base and cut between the two summer moons; timber from larger trees was considered weaker. Oak should be winter felled, again timing the work between the two moons.
For a tapered ladder the rungs will get progressively shorter. Set your blanks out side by side and all level at one end. Mark the length of the first and last rung then draw a straight line along the blanks between these marks to determine the lengths of the other rungs. Cut them to to length and turn as shown. A short section, called the ‘teat’ is turned straight on each end; this should protrude from the sides when the rungs are properly fitted.
The tapered sections should be adjusted to match whatever tool you are using to taper the holes. Rungs were often turned from green wood but should be dry before fitting into the ladder sides.
Set the ladder halves on bearers on the ground and hold them in place using clamps or weights.
- Have somebody watch while you’re drilling to check your angle. Face the same direction along the sides as you drill so that any deviation is consistent.
- Drill ¾” rung holes from the inside face of your sides, perpendicular to the flat face. On a tapered ladder, the rungs will flex when the two halves are joined which adds tension and rigidity to the ladder.
- Taper the holes using a tapered auger bit, drilling until the auger is just touching the outside of the ¾” hole on the exit side. The holes near the base of the ladder will require more augering because the timber is thicker.
Here, Robin is drilling from the curved face to make a thatcher’s ladder. For a builder’s ladder you would drill from the flat face – sand bags can be used to support the sides when the curved face is downward.
Time to fit the pieces together. Make sure, if your ladder is tapered, that you have the rungs in the right order before you start. Wood is incredibly tough so don’t worry if everything isn’t perfectly aligned and needs persuading into position.
- Insert the rungs in one side of the ladder then knock the second half onto the rungs. The straight section at the end of each rung should protrude through the side of the ladder equally. Pull the sides together with sash cramps working your way along the ladder and pulling in 3 or 4 rungs at a time.
- Make some short pegs from straight grain wood, approx ¼” square by 2″ long.
- Peg every 5th rung at each end. Drill a ¼” hole diagonally through the side and into the rung from the inside of the ladder. The corners of a square peg will bite into the round hole, holding it tightly in place. These pegs are not structural, they simply hold the sides together while the ends of the rungs are trimmed and the sides planed before the tie rods are fitted.
- Trim the ends of the rungs (teats) flush with the sides.
- Plane the outer face of the side smooth and chamfer the edges. If desired, it is easier to sand the sides at this stage, before fitting the tie rods.
The ladder sides are held together by ¼” mild steel rods fitted below every 5th rung. Space the tie rods so they don’t coincide with pegged rungs.
- Cut each rod slighly over-length then clamp it in a vice to peen one end over a washer.
- Drill straight through the sides slightly below where the rung exits. The tie rod should pass just underneath the rung.
- Trim and peen the loose end over a washer to fix. Holding a heavy lump hammer against the other end will provide support for this though the lump hammer only needs holding lightly so it is knocked away with each impact from the peening hammer.