The Nicaraguan Origins of Altham Oak Beams
Altham Oak’s Derek Goffin revealed this week that a Central American building project he worked on in 1987 was the tiny “acorn” which grew into today’s successful oak carpentry and wood conservation business today.The co-operative, based by the River Calder at Altham Corn Mill, works wonders with bent wood and oak beams, providing a wide array of traditional designs – anything from the roofs of country houses to the cover for an open-air hot tub. But it was the project in Nicaragua 25 years ago that inspired founding member Derek Goffin to devote his life and his talents to oak beams.
Journeying to the country following the Sandinista revolution of the 1980s, Derek saw a land brimming with opportunities. He recalls that Nicaragua “was an exciting place to be. There was a lot of hope and more people were able to go into education and I thought I wanted to help.”
With other volunteers, he helped to build a new school and was struck by the clever techniques employed by local builders who did not have access to the hi-tech construction equipment in the developed world. Instead of using straight trees to make the roof beams, builders would cut a length of wood from a bent tree with a chainsaw.
“In this country that tree would have been discarded or sent for hardboard manufacture or fire wood,” Derek recalls – and he now uses the same method to create top-quality oak beams from bent trees in the UK.
A number of different strands of what we had done before and what our needs were when we had moved into the Mill came together at the end of the 1980s and led to the setting up of Altham Harwood Centre (Later renamed as Altham Oak & Carpentry.) There was Derek’s memories of his trip to Nicaragua, the work Pete had done in Liverpool in getting us kiln dried English Elm for us to use as flooring, staircases and kitchen units in the Mill, support from the Lancashire CDA who helped us write a business plan, the availability of the £40-a-week Enterprise Allowance scheme, the fact that we needed to find a way to earn a living as building work was drying up due to government cuts to home improvement grants – and last, but not least, that we needed to find some way to finance the renovation of the other half of the Mill.
So there was a plan (Inc: an actual business plan) and the first bit went pretty much as we expected it to – after that Well – I have yet to see a business plan that actually goes to plan! We put together a combination of a loan from ICOM and Enterprise Allowance for six of us along with the final bit of money we had from the transfer of the houses back in Burnley to the Burnleywood Housing Co-op. Which allowed us to spend 12 months getting the other half / the ‘square side’ of the Mill into a structurally sound state. With a new roof floors, windows and doors. Creating a couple of workshop spaces and access for more accommodation on the top floor. While at the same time clearing a working timber yard on part of the field and installing a couple of DIY drying kilns inside shipping containers and a portacabin as an office.. Me, Barbara and Derek worked with Bob Sproule, Jackie Holden and Dave Elder from the Burnleywood Co-op. This time we were confident to tackle the major construction work ourselves – no help this time from the likes of Rapid Transformations.
The original idea for the business was to set up a new workers co-operative that would ‘hand-cut’ oak beams from second grade oak timber, which at the time was being sold at firewood prices due to the bottom having dropped out of the pit prop market following the closures after the ’84 Miners Strike. The problem was that there is not really any tradition of oak timber framing in East Lancs and therefore we couldn’t get any statistics on the potential market to put into our business plan in order to borrow the money we needed to set up. So we persuaded our lenders (& ourselves) that there was a market for ‘rustic’ floorboards and kiln dried English Hardwoods for the craft and furniture market. Which there was – but they were already buying from other sources. We did try to make a go of what we had said in the business plan. But as it became obvious that it wasn’t working out, and the Enterprise Allowances were running out – we faced the uncomfortable experience of sacking ourselves in order to try and save the business. Everybody but Derek was laid off. Bob went and did a stint turning the bottom on pressure cookers at Prestige, I did some jobbing building, Jackie & Dave went their own ways – can’t remember what Barbara did while we tried to come up with our own alternative plan to get things back on track.
Some initial business dealing in local hardwood did come in and somewhere along the line we were helped out by a co-operative in London who placed an order with us for 100 flat pack bird tables that they were going to sell as mail-order Xmas presents through a special offer in the Daily Mail. Not what we had planned to be doing and just to be clear not our favourite newspaper – but needs must.
In the end we managed to make a go of the business through a combination of the original idea of hand-cutting oak beams along with kiln drying local Ash & Elm and getting it machined into floorboards by Walter Lambert’s in Nelson. Plus selling some planks to local furniture makers. We pretty much taught ourselves the skills we needed ‘on-the-job’. We did some basic chainsaw training at the start and Derek later went on a specialist course. But when it came to traditional techniques such as adzing it was very much a case of “Here’s an adze – off you go!”
The first few years felt pretty precarious with very quiet periods each winter when work would dry up. We did seem to manage to earn enough in the rest of the year to tide us over the lean periods. Eventually we built up a reputation and a fairly specialist skills base and the business went on to be what I would call at first a moderate success and in the end something I look back on with not just fond memories, but some pride in what was achieved.
In 2005 the Co-op changed it’s name to Altham Oak and Carpentry Ltd to better reflect the work that it was then doing. It went on for another decade after that specialising in bespoke timber frame structures, as well as oak beams and trusses.. The Co-op was wound up in 2015 after 25 years during which time it had laid the foundations for a local East Lancs Oak timber framing trade that has carried on since.