Of mice and mushrooms

Of mice and mushrooms

A Cross and Bowl created by Joe McElwee in his Esh Winning Workshop

A Tiny Mouse created by Joe McElwee in his Esh Winning Workshop

A Mexican Style Urn created by Joe McElwee in his Esh Winning Workshop

Joe McElwee pictured with a magnificent Japanese Temple he created on his lathe

Joe McElwee turns a piece of wood in his workshop in Esh Winning

First published in Leader
Last updated
The Northern Echo: Photograph of the Author by , Reporter (Durham)

JOE McElwee works out of a lean-to-style shed bolted onto the side of his retirement bungalow, in sleepy Esh Winning, County Durham.

But the wooden treasures he lovingly crafts are in huge demand and have been sent as far afield as New Zealand, Canada, the USA and China.

And his trademark mice and mushrooms keep him busy in the shed for as long as he wishes to spend there.

“I could hardly keep up, they were selling so well,” the 78-year-old grandfather says of the leather-tailed mice.

Joe started making them for the Friends of Durham Cathedral shop.

The shop is no more, but he still gets calls asking him to make a few more mice for gifts, occasions and keepsakes.

And it was his work for the Friends shop that led Joe to receive one very special commission - to make a cross for Rev Dr Helen-Ann Hartley, Anglican Bishop of Waikato, New Zealand, and the first woman ordained within the Church of England to become a bishop.

In his cramped studio, Joe shows off a thank you card from the Sunderland-born bishop, in which she expresses her “belated and heartfelt” thanks.

“Thank you for the wonderful cross you gave me,” Rev Hartley has written.

“It’s truly special to have it and a great privilege to wear it.”

Joe took up woodturning about ten years ago, having spent the early years of his retirement playing golf.

Prior to that, he had worked for a major housebuilder and a plastering firm, as well as plying his trade as a carpenter and joiner.

But wood was his real love.

When he was diagnosed with arthritis, his specialist told him the best thing to do was to keep his hands busy. Well, he’s certainly done that.

Using wood he has either bought or been given, he spends between four hours and five weeks turning the raw material into a finely crafted piece of art – whether it be a bowl, a piece of fruit, an ornament or something else in his broad repertoire.

It’s not all a quick process – the wood can take up to four years to dry out sufficiently to go on Joe’s lathe.

A stack of logs waiting patiently outside the studio is testament to that.

From there, he carefully crafts the wood as it spins, creating the most amazingly intricate pieces.

“Whatever I do I want it to be the best I can possibly do,” he says.

“I don’t want to have an assembly line. If I wanted to make a lot of money, I’d be rushing them through. But I don’t – I want to do everything to the best of my ability.”

And so Joe often spends hours and hours working alone, sometimes effectively full-time.

“It’s therapeutic and relaxing,” he reflects.

“I’ve got the radio and some coffee. I could spend hours in here happily.

“When you retire you’ve got to have something to keep your mind busy.”

And, thankfully, he is keeping the arthritis at bay.

“I’m determined to carry on. If you give up, you might as well put a blanket round up and sit and go to sleep,” he says, firmly.

Many of his fans across the world are grateful there are no plans to do that yet.

JOE McElwee makes pieces to order and is happy to receive requests. To contact him, call 0191-373-4394.

Comments (1)

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6:57pm Mon 25 Aug 14

Sonnar says...

Inspirational: it just shows that us oldies can still keep up given the time and devotion to what we really like to do!
Inspirational: it just shows that us oldies can still keep up given the time and devotion to what we really like to do! Sonnar
  • Score: 1

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