A trip to see bat maker Charlie French

Last week I phoned Charlie French and asked if I could visit and have a chat with an eye to writing an article for the blog. Well the day turned out to be more than I expected, in a very good way. After a quick drive up the motorway I found myself in Mansfield Woodhouse at the CF workshop. Charlie wasn’t there.

He was instead at the radio station for Mansfield 103.2 recording the Nottinghamshire Cricket Review Show. I was kindly invited into the studio to listen to them recording the roundup of the local cricket leagues. Hosted by Tony Delahunty and ably supported by Alan Rowley of “The Follow On” and Charlie French, it’s a fantastic show that gives some exposure to the local clubs, players and some of the unsung heroes of village cricket. I was perfectly content to hang around but they kindly invited me onto the airwaves and included me in the show. Have a listen to this LINK as you can skip to 1:04:38 and 1:41:18 if you feel like punishing yourself, however I’d listen to the whole thing as it’s very entertaining.

With the show “in the can” as we say in the industry I headed back to Charlie French’s workshop to begin discussing how he got started and bat making in general. We sat down, each with what can only be described as bucket of tea in hand, and he began to recount his journey into bat making. Before CF Sports started in 1992, Charlie was employed at Cresswell Colliery as a Methane Drainage Officer, responsible for keeping the mines gas free. After they closed the mine he made the decision to make leap over to his current career. He was introduced to bat making by Bernie Facer, who was a slow left arm bowler playing for Huntingdon at a time when both played in the Notts Amateur League. Bernie was working for County Sports in Little Paxton before he left to form his own company “Double B” who eventually joined forces with Hawk Cricket, working there until his retirement.

Charlie served a brief apprenticeship with Bernie and immediately began making bats, the first one for himself which he still has to this day. I asked Charlie if he had a woodworking background that may have helped his career change to which he confirmed he hadn’t but he didn’t feel bat making was woodwork. This was interesting as it always seemed that my bat making was the inevitable amalgamation of my love of woodwork and cricket. His view was that woodwork is precise and bat making is less so, the fine tuning associated with hand crafting a cricket bat is done within a broader spectrum of work. I understand what he’s saying, half an ounce is a lot of willow, whereas a precise joint can be the difference of a 0.005 of an inch shaving.

For Charlie the quality of a cricket bat starts at the pressing. Whilst a good piece of Willow helps get things going it’s the attention to detail when pressing that means the difference between an average bat and a great bat. His bat press has a story of its own. It was built in the workshop of Cresswell Colliery using spare bits and pieces and was the talking point amongst employees, with enquiries as to its progress always flying around. Whilst I’ve seen electrically powered and hand cranked, Charlie’s is the only hydraulic press I’ve ever seen and I have to say I’m not sure why. It’s a great piece of kit – control, subtlety and simplicity all rolled into one and he was able to get it made for a bargain price. You wouldn’t believe me if I told you!

A visit to his website and you’ll see he’s a supporter of hand crafted cricket bats and makes all his own bats by hand. We seemed to share views on the importance of a craftsman versus a machine, the skills and the hard work involved in bat making. It was interesting to hear his opinion on bat shapes and middle positions amongst other things. To me this is fascinating, every bat maker has their own shapes but many share the same views on what works. In other words, what makes a good bat seems to be a common view but the bats we see are more a reflection of what the consumer wants.

I mentioned in passing that I used to watch James Laver make bats in the shop at Grace Road, Leicestershire whilst he was serving his apprenticeship with Millichamp and Hall. At this point Charlie informed me that he’d been asked by Henry Greswell to take up the position early in his bat making career but had declined to focus on his own venture. The six degrees of separation theory is probably closer to 1.5 in the small bat making world.

Something I was surprised to hear was that he makes his own handles. He said that if you’re going to make a cricket bat you may as well make all of it since there are only two parts. The hardest part is getting hold of the cane but I suspect he’s being modest and there’s more to it than meets the eye.

Charlie French seems to be exactly that, modest. He just gets on with making cricket bats without expecting a big pat on the back. I’ve been a fan of his bats for a long time and after meeting him it’s with good reason. He has an enthusiasm for bat making and is openly grateful to Bernie Facer for helping him get started. I am grateful to Charlie French for allowing me to visit and it was very kind of him to chat with me about bat making.