In conversation with Steve of Overthrow Sieves & Riddles

I recently had the privilege of talking with Steve Overthrow traditional sieve & riddle maker. He is reviving the craft which is on the endangered crafts list and is the only remaining sieve and riddle maker in England. Steve is based in Langport, Somerset …

Steve OverthrowYou have a pretty unusual and niche craft, what exactly are sieves and riddles and how are they different ?

Sieves and Riddles are tools that are an ancient form of sorting what you do want from what you don’t. That could be soil size, for grading potting compost, breaking down the compost from your heap or help getting the garden beds to a good tilth. It’s also for ceramicists to sieve glaze, foundries sand, fisherman to collect only the shell fish that are big enough so not to remove the younger stocks and lastly, most importantly for cooks to make food, and bakers to make cake. In the past they would have been used for so much more, to name a couple on farms for sifting grain, in homes and on the railways for coal.

The difference between a Sieve and a Riddle is that a Sieve has a pre-made mesh trapped between two pieces of wood, and a Riddle is completely woven by hand, wire by wire.

As the last remaining sieve and riddle maker in England, how to do you feel about being on the endangered craftspeople list ​(England) or one of two in UK.

The craft was extinct, so I put myself on the endangered list by deciding to take up the craft, I feel incredibly privileged to be a part of the Heritage Crafts Associations Red List of Endangered Crafts, to have my name amongst amazing craftspeople is the something I could only ever have dreamed of.

How did you get started making sieves, what were you doing previously ?

I’ve been a member of the HCA since, around 2011 and like all members received the monthly newsletter via email, and this particular one in June 2017 contained the Red List link which I read, at the time I was coming to the end of a 8 year period working with cars from the 1920’s and 1930’s, my original dream job and such a pleasure with the group of people I worked with and for, and being set in a barn on a Somerset Farm too, just great.

I was a week away from redundancy due to the new business owner moving it up North, and the thought of going to work in the modern world just didn’t appeal to me, and then I read the HCA email. I had secured a modern job, but something with links to history to work towards was what I needed. I was already hobby woodturning at the time, and was going to do something along those lines, I like the go find a tree and make something out of it aspect but then in the list in the extinct category was Sieve and Riddle making. I love my garden, I love British made tools, how many years were sieves and riddles made in this country and it’s not happening anymore, I need to find out about this. I then didn’t look away from the screen for about 4 hours while me and google tried to find out about the craft, there wasn’t a lot out there.

Obviously working in a heritage craft, tradition and revival must be important elements for you but are there other values that you hold dear that your work embodies ?

​As mentioned before, made well and by the bloke or lady round the corner, or at least on the same piece of land is what I believe in. I believe that we will reverse this cheap, short lived, unrepairable, unrecyclable crap from abroad mentality, especially now the big employers are dropping the employees that put them there, I see a small business revolution coming, I think people are realising that the best way to get treated well by a boss (not always) is be your own boss, become a local business and if we all group together and buy local, we will all benefit. (Went a bit off subject but it happened naturally)

Do you find it difficult to compete in the market with mass produced sieves or are they so different that there is no comparison ?

No I don’t find it hard to compete, in short no mass produced product – (hate that word) that can compete with any craftsperson, and the people that buy from craftspeople know and appreciate that. I have had one or two look at me weird, £80 for a Sieve? I can get one on (I won’t use the word but a big online company who uses the name of a forest – wrongfully) for a tenner. My answer is well go on and do that, when you have bought your sixth one in twelve years come back and see me. (The definition of insanity is……….) What I do find hard is to get found amongst social media algorithms and retailers with big advertising budgets for online and with clever computer people, I think I looked the other day and I was 5th or 6th on a particular search on google so slowly and steadily getting up there and ridding the world of cheap ‘P’ sieves (where you see a ‘P’ that means plastic, it’s the very worst of swear words and I will only use it once).

Where do you see you and your business in 5-10 years time ? will you be looking for an understudy or apprentice to make sure the skills you have revived stay alive for another generation ?

I will still be doing it without doubt in 50 years time, this is a lifetime commitment now. I love it. I will probably never retire as I don’t like golf, pink cardies and French holidays, I just like being at the workbench with radio 2 on in the background. I will be the hunched over old bloke pushing the broom around and making the tea’s while swearing at the young’uns. In the next 5-10 years, well I hope for the business to pay full time within the next year, and from there see how much demand there is and plan on what steps to take next. I have two sons, the eldest is 3, youngest nearly two and both have been at the workbench wielding tools already, and doing it well. They each have their own pieces of wood they bash and drill. It would be lovely to pass it on to them if they wanted too, but if not I will find somebody else. I would look to somebody who does not have a lot both financially and qualifications wise to take on I think, it’s hard to get a chance when you don’t have anything and to help somebody else get a chance at something possibly life changing would be lovely.

You mentioned having to learn by doing a lot of research – Did you have a lot of failures before getting your first successfully made one ?

(Johann strauss II The Blue Danube Waltz, listen to this in your head and where you get the woop woop, woop woop bit replace that with snap snap, snap snap, you are now in my head, this is what I heard a lot and the way I turned something that was doing my nut in, to something positive). I had a lot of steam bending failures at first, mostly because of my early inability to understand wood imperfections, on this occasion it was a largely unseen fungus that presents itself more as the wood dries (I use green wood) so not very visible at the time.

Most memorably, I was making the Riddles that appeared on the BBC’s ‘The 1900 Island’ my 2nd-7th ever made Riddles were on that program and about two weeks before they needed to go up to North Wales for filming I had a weekend of cutting and steam bending, hoops 32-39 bent without snapping. I nearly cried at the 31 now semi round snapped firewood hoops before that. This was my worst failure, and in essence a rookie error. Others hiccups have been more obstacles and just understanding how to overcome them was needed, most of the answers coming from the past either reading what old craftsmen from other trades, or descendants of those people had written online and of course from Mike Turnock known as the last Sieve and Riddle Maker before his retirement in 2010 who has filled in what research could not possibly of found out for me.

You have recently been developing a ceramic sieve … where and what would that be used for ? Is there a big potential market out there for you with a fusion of modern and old technology ?

It’s mainly a sieve aimed at potters and ceramicists, and they are possibly the tools I have been most worried about. When you get asked to make for other craftspeople it’s the highest honour, for people who make such beautiful things to look at your work, and choose to buy them over the cheaper alternatives usually unmentionable “P” word or some very ugly looking wooden plywood attempts that I have seen is an honour. And I feel the pressure a bit with those. I had a couple pottery and ceramics supply firms come to me for pricing and told that they were to expensive and wouldn’t sell. Coincidentally their prices have crept up since for not so nicely foreign made ones, some wood, some ‘P’, without my 5 year guarantee. My view in response to those suppliers is, if a potter or ceramicist puts their all into making something so beautiful, they can then command a higher price because of the time, quality, uniqueness and craftsmanship that is there, so why would they not want to buy that way ? If the craftsperson wants to sell British artisan and buy cheap Chinese then are they not going against what they are working towards ? I think these sieves will sell into the future.

You make your riddles and sieves bespoke and to order – what is the most unusual use you have made one for ?

I think the TV program was unusual, and unexpected, but I have had one that went to a fruit presser for washing the fruit and a couple that have gone to a lady who works with wool again for the cleaning process.

What has been the most and least useful thing or piece of advice that you have been given or learnt from running your business ?

Tough question, I’m still having big lessons now, the problem with having a business is that you have to run it and I like the making part best.

From the people that I have spoken to the best advice has come from a few people I respect very highly as makers who have been doing it a while, firstly Robin Wood gave me some great advice initially and a very useful video to watch that I still watch to this day (thanks Robin), that was helped along by Daniel Carpenter. Around the same time as that Tracey Bell from The Old Kennels in Devon gave me some advice and a kick up the backside too when I was questioning myself about carrying on.

Robin Tuppen from Thomas Smith Trugs came to see me at Oak Fair last year and gave me advice for a few things particularly about internet and website usage and getting the most out of it, more recently I asked him for his advice ref advertising, again priceless information for which I’m very grateful. I think the Trug is a superior level of craftsmanship to a riddle, but they could potentially appeal to the same customers.

In the last month I have moved into a workspace above Will Shakspeare glass blowing workshop, again he just keeps giving me little snippets of advice and to me all of this is invaluable, they have all been there done it, still doing it and have got an incredible name for themselves, you need to listen when they speak.

On the day to day, well I am on this path alone at the moment, and work silly hours so I need I suppose some reassurance of why im doing it and what makes me keep on it. So I draw most advice from motivational speeches, public figures and books so to name a few youtube speeches, Dwayne ‘the rock’ Johnson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Denzel Washington, Mel Robbins, Morgan Freeman, The Lone Wolf Speech, watching Drew Pritchard and Gordon Ramsey on the TV, the book from Rapper 50 cent ‘Hustle hard, hustle smarter’ is great, the Enzo Ferrari biography, Ray Mears ‘My outdoor life’, all people that have gone a slightly different way to the herd. From all of these I like to draw on their life experiences and an insight into why im doing something and why those people did it to understand that I’m not weird I just want it enough.

Like now, I’m answering these questions after a weeks work, and after a couple hours of paperwork and answering this particular question at 3:27am on a Saturday morning when I need to be in the workshop at 8am, I must go to bed but I must move forward, where’s the balance ? The balance will come in time I’m sure but for now it will come at 7:30am in the form of a strong coffee (which I hate) and a self kick up the arse out the door. That’s all useful advice. I don’t listen to bad advice, I put a positive spin on it, file it and then move on.

In terms of what I have learnt the most, well it is still a learning process and that is about time management, I’m still working on that but as I make efficiencies in what I’m doing as part of constant improvement the time is managing itself better as a result. Rather than say no I won’t do that I’ll do this, find a way to do both. Reading that back let me just say I’m not some highly strung person who backflips out of bed like on the apprentice, im as docile as a dairy cow and am completely allergic to mornings and alarm clocks, a constant want to improve and move forward is what I strive for.

With such a traditional craft it’s tempting to ignore the internet and online shopping but how important has it become for you both before and during Covid-19 ?

Necessary evil I think sums the internet up. The internet has two sides like real life, good and bad, you can change your life like at no point in history using either the good or the bad on the internet, I choose the good and have been able to find out stuff and meet people that I couldn’t have done 40 years ago. It’s got its bad sides, but in short the internet is a tool, use it for what it’s made for and you will benefit.

It’s a misconception that shopping online is not local, I contact local businesses via the internet and especially with unsocial distancing recently it has been a great tool. The Covid period has been great for me, I was employed initially and furloughed at the drop of a hat but almost immediately orders took off. It was like it was supposed to be, almost the same way I found out about Sieves and Riddles the week before being made Redundant in 2017. It’s all meant to be.

Do you teach other people to make sieves and riddles for themselves purely for the enjoyment of making something ?

​I have taught one of my friends, he’s a very clever Polish guy who actually got me the saw blade selecting advice I needed from his Polish boat making friend, so he came and had a go and took a riddle away at the end of it. I do courses at The Old Kennels in Devon once a year but that’s about it. It’s hard going on the fingers like most crafts, but maybe a little harsher. I think if anybody seen the state of my hands and arms, they would run for the hills, I’m in the middle of the Somerset Levels so that’s saying something !

Blood loss is an occupational hazard, but hey, no sense – no feeling.

Steve thanks for giving us an illuminating glimpse into your world of sieve & riddle making, really appreciate the opportunity to hear about you bringing a dying craft back to life … Thanks again.

Steve’s work can be viewed on his website