New shelter for courses

Yesterday I finished constructing the model for the new shelter. Here’s a better close up of the joint at the front where the two ridges are flattened and held together with 3 fixings, then bolted to the flattened tops of the X-frame.

I found some old sheeps-wool insulation to act as ground level, as all the verticals will be buried about 50cm.


I had planned to wait till March/April to start on the real thing but with another day of glorious sunshine, I decided to start stripping the poles. Resting one end on the edge of the trampolene and the other end on a shaving horse worked for a while but when the pole is curved it is tricky holding it to reach all surfaces. I have a few benches wrapped under a tarp and also found a woodworking vice, so I took an hour or so to clean up the vice before fixing it to the bench. That gripped the pole much better, so I plan to strip some more today.









Springing back to Life

Today (23rd Feb) was one of those special magic days. Woken by the dawn chorus for the first time of the year, then after breakfast a sunny walk together through the orchards. After 11ses, I sat in the sun outside the back door on the chair made by our daughter Nettie a few years ago. Here I worked on the plans for the new shelter in the garden.

Scale plans for the new shelter

The plan is to tuck the shelter in a handy gap in the shade of the hedge.

The site for the new shelter

I drew some rough plans last summer and ordered the required chestnut poles from ‘Say it with Wood’ in the autumn. Aly duly delivered the poles after the Christmas holiday.

Aly delivering the poles

After drawing up the detailed plans, I cut some hazel rods to make a tenth scale model.

Hazel rods alongside the chestnut poles

Then sawed them to length to match the actual chestnut poles: 10@16ft, 6@13ft and 4@10ft. The 8×4 metre tarpaulin arrived a few weeks ago. Deciding on the scale took some thought. I started in imperial units with 2″ to a foot (i.e. 1/6 scale). I then wondered where to put the model so that it would be handy in the next month or so. I remembered a reject wooden drawer from the drying cabinet, so then had to reduce the scale so that it would fit. 1:10 worked nicely, so that lends itself to metric units. I still delight in having the option of choosing whichever units work best in any given situation.

Hazel rods cut to length

I plan to bury the posts into the ground, so for the model to work, I made use of the bag of crumbly clay that I had left-over from patching the workshop floor a while ago (but that’s another story). Then came the fixings. I reckon on using 10mm bolts or studding, so that meant 1mm pins for the model. I could find nothing that small, neither would a 1mm drill bit fit into my drill chuck, so I ended up using 30mm panel pins, which are just under 2mm diameter. They work very well, cos I can fold them over to hold themselves in place. If the poles are to be buried 50cm, then the clay should come 5cm up the poles on the model.

Triangulation is the key to most structures, although funnily enough, not on my chairs. I intend to use the same system as on the previous workshop at Brookhouse Wood:  horizontal beams joined by half-lapping, then fixed onto the top of an X-frame. I’ve searched through my photo collection but can’t find a decent one of this structure in use, so here it is on the model. I’ll try to get a decent pic sometime.


Here’s a pic of the structure as far as I got before the light faded.

Model shelter in a big drawer

I’ll need a few more shorter poles along the back edge and I’ll probably order some sawn 3″x3″ beams to run from the front ridge to the back ridge to help support the tarp. Hopefully I’ll have the model finished tomorrow and then start stripping the chestnut poles.

So to finish the day, I took Tamsin a cuppa and she showed me her latest glass-work, this time an engraving – a fabulous whale. It looks even better than this in real life, when held up against the setting sun.

Tam's whale

With the last touch of evening light, I returned to the house to prepare the meal just in time for ‘Rock Block’ on Planet Rock, which kicked off with AC/DC playing TNT.

Now the moon is up and the day is still not over. Springtime is what makes life worth living!





Days 4 & 5

Having assembled their chairs and oiled them yesterday, Mandy and Rhys posed in the morning sun with their chair frames before returning to the workshop to seat them.

The frames assebled and oiled

I tried to tempt them with one of the Irish seating patterns that we have developed over recent years but they both decided to go with a plain weave in Danish cord. The ‘warp’ was woven in ‘blocks’ of 5. To deal with the trapezoidal seat shape, they wove 2 ‘binds’ at the back and 5 binds at the front. They helped each other with the ‘warp’ for each chair, making it much easier to keep the tension but that also gave them the benefit of two brains on the case to spot any mistakes. They were then able to complete the ‘weft’ individually with the odd bit of interference from me. Job done!!

Completed chairs

This proved to be a very successful start to the 2016 courses at Greenwood Cottage. This spring will be spent building a new outdoor shelter so that I can manage four people at a time between May and September.


Chair assembly

Day 3 was spent smoothing all the dried components with spokeshaves, scrapers and Abranet sanding pads, then assembling the back panels then the two side panels for each chair. Here’s  a photo taken on the morning of day 4.

3 panels assembled for each chair

Day 4 was spent drilling the remaining holes in the side panels for final assembly, then trimming the tops of the legs, leveling the bottoms and applying a coat of oil. Rhys’s cross rail was reluctant to be squeezed so we used a clamp to help it, rather than thump it. This worked nicely.

Today will be spent weaving the seats.

10,000 hours

IMG_3009I was looking through Facebook and was reminded of this idea that after 10,000 hours of practice at any skill, one starts to get good at it. A quick Google found this:

I suggest you all take a couple of minutes to read it.

Over my 30 years as a green woodworker, I must have made about 3,000 of these rattles, which take about 20-30 minutes each, so I would have a long way to go to get REALLY good at them!




Day 2 – Technology plays its role

With the new drying system working to a large extent from solar electricity,  I also succumbed to digital technology to examine the process.

I had sent off to Thermometers Direct for the digi thermometer/hygrometer as well as a fabulous new garden max/min thermometer. Rhys happened to have his moisture meter, so we could see that the moisture of the rungs was now down to 10%, which is as dry as we could aim to reach. Over the course of yesterday’s work we found that the rungs were virtually dry within 6 hours. I had previously wondered which of the three factors – heat, humidity and draft – would have the greatest effect on the drying. It appears that the draft comes out as the winner. In future, I might be able drop the heat setting on the fan.

Much to my delight, Rhys and Mandy easily made the remaining components for their chairs by the end of the day. Rather like The Feeding of the Five Thousand story from the bible, the leftovers from their two days chair-making looked far greater than the couple of logs they started with. They will have gained a chair each, while I will have gained a month’s kindling for the wood-burners.



I rushed up to the workshop and found the fan heater still circulating warm air at 36 degrees and when I measured the tenons on the rungs, which were put in the dryer 14 hours earlier, they had shrunk from 5/8″ (15.9mm) diameter to a beautiful oval, 14.3 x 15.3mm – maybe not earth shattering to most people but for me, it a technological triumph – thanks John!! In a few days, these will be squeezed into 14mm holes.rungs

Also pictured are the 5 spindles with tenons made to 3/8″. Tomorrow we’ll use a 5/16″ tenon cutter to fit them into 8mm holes. Who says my 3rd class degree in Maths was a waste of time?

Back in the saddle

Nearly 5 months since I ran my last course at Brookhouse Wood, today I kicked off the 2016 programme with the start of a 5-day chair-making course for Rhys and Mandy from The Ruskin Mill Organisation.

Rhys & Mandy with their green ash
The start of two chairs

To give them the experience of different kinds of ash wood, we started with two very different logs. On the left is a log from nearby Netherwood, planted by The Woodland Trust to commemorate the turn of the millennium.

On the right is a section from the tree from a Herefordshire estate that I used for making a set of chairs in December. (Also in the top photo are some leftovers from making a handle for a maul).

We started by cleaving the spindles from the Netherwood log and then cleft and shaped the crest and cross-rail to complete the components for the back panel for the chair. (You can see the top of Josh’s chair at the bottom of the pic, which we are using as the model)

Mandy displaying the components for the back panel.

Just before lunch we started on the other log (slower grown but beautifully straight) to cleave two pairs of back legs, which they then shaved, sitting astride their shaving-horses in the glorious spring sunshine.

Back leg production underway.

By mid-afternoon the legs, the crest and the cross-rail went into the steam box, while Mandy & Rhys started shaping some rungs. After an hours steaming we carried out the bending then stacked the fruits of the day’s work into the new drying cabinet. (Also some crumpled sheets of newspaper drying out having been used to clean the workshop windows yesterday)

The drying cabinet in action

With a day’s non-stop sunshine on the solar panels generating over 12 kwh of electricity, I reckoned that would just about source the power for an hour’s wallpaper stripper (for the steam) plus 10 hours of the fan-heater running at moderate heat – thus saving quite a lot of firewood and fire stoking. This is still very experimental but it reached about 36 degrees with a relative humidity of 20% and a brisk circulation of air. We’ll see tomorrow how it has worked.

The new drying cabinet

From wood-power to sun-power

Last summer (2015), when I knew I would be leaving my woodland workshop, I realised that I would have to do something about a means of drying chair components without using the wood-fired dryer that we had used for the last ten years. Over the winter, when making a few chairs myself or when providing some personal tuition, I have always been able to dry bits of wood, either in our wood-fired cooker in the kitchen, or in a rack above the living-room wood-burner. If I’m going to have four people at a time during the summer then I am going to need some other method. Having recently had 11 solar panels fitted to the roof of my workshop, it now made sense to use electricity to power the drying system during the summer.

Good news and bad news

A couple of years ago I inherited an elegant wooden cupboard with sliding shelves about 50cm deep, much the same depth as the woodland drying unit.

I sat it on my workshop bench, surrounded it with foam insulation and placed a fan-heater inside. With some freshly made chair rungs inside the cabinet, I left the fan heater running all night. By morning, the wood was nice and dry but……………. the fan-heater had burned out. Neither finances, nor environmental considerations nor indeed fire safety, would allow me to continue like this.

Specialist knowledge

I have spent my 30-year career working on the principle that if I can do it, so can anybody else. I have purchased specialist tools but I have always tried to cobble together all the other equipment myself without any specialist input, other than equally unqualified volunteers. However, I had recently met John Lane, a heating engineer who had fitted  a system for Ben Orford and he reckoned he could work out a system for my workshop. He was keen to attend one of my courses so we arranged a skills exchange. If we somehow placed a fan-heater outside the drying unit, it should be able to run for a long time without overheating. I contemplated making a special plywood box but the antique cupboard was so well made and nobody else in my family wanted it. Rather than throw it the tip or burn it, I felt happy to adapt it for a drying cabinet.

Warm air circulation

John duly took a load of measurements and returned several weeks later with all the components made up and ready to fit. He sawed a couple of square holes in the cupboard and fitted an adjustable metal manifold to the hole in the top and a shorter piece in the hole in the bottom.

With the cabinet upside-down, he fitted some more tubing which had been fitted to both ends of an electric fan-heater.


The idea is that the heater blows warm air into the bottom of the cabinet and after circulating around the inside it passes out of the top corner and down the manifold, back to the fan-heater to start again. With lots of foam slabs held in place on the outside of the whole affair by some sticky foil tape, we lifted it back onto the space, where my bench had been.


This will work best with just one shelf inside, which allows the air to circulate through twenty or so large holes drilled through the base of the shelf. I have placed a metal grid a couple of inches above the shelf onto which the drying components can be placed. The steam bent legs will sit in the lower half, still clamped onto the bending jigs. (The clamps should fit quite happily). We ran the heater for an hour or so reaching about 50 degrees centigrade. With the woodland dryer we aimed for about 80 degrees but I’m hoping with the air circulation it can operate at a lower temperature but still dry things out within a day.

Watch this space!

During the recent dry, almost spring-like weather, I have been catching up with jobs in the garden preparing for the erection of the new shelter (the tarpaulin arrived yesterday). The acid test for the dryer will come next week, when I have two staff from the Ruskin Mill organisation coming to make a couple of spindle-back chairs between Monday and Friday.  As always, we shall be using ash wood, some from the 64-year old ash tree that I used in December and some from a freshly felled tree, kindly given to me from a local Woodland Trust Millenium wood, only 16 years old. I shall do my best to report the progress on this blog.


Extracts from my book ‘Living Wood – From Buying a Woodland to Making a Chair’

Lots of things have coincided over the last few days (activity on Facebook, thinking about new books, telly prog on vlogging, settling into semi-retirement) and a few people have referred to odd pages from my second book. I’ve searched through my files and found some of the text but the actual proofs are with the printers and I’m not going to chase them up. So here are a few sections of text and I’ll slot in some photos from the pages to go with them. I’m sorry about the quality of the pics, taken with the pages of the book curved open. I’m afraid the fig numbers don’t match the photos of the finished book. Obviously if you want higher quality, then you can order a copy of the book from the ‘books’ page on this website. You will also get to see the remaining 237 pages! I think I’ve even managed to put a link to a video on cleaving some big lengths of wood.

Bookmark and paper knife set (fig 12.14)


This project demonstrates nicely the flexing properties of wood that are so seldom utilised. It requires great precision with the drawknife which, when mastered, can be most effective.


  • Start with a quickly grown ash log (with growth rings of at least 3mm (1/8”) for flexibility)
  • Cut it to about 30 cm (12”) long and, as with the rounders bat, cleave, trim, shave and rough out a cylinder, this time about 40 mm diameter.
  • I suggest turning two sets of bookmarks end to end so that you can grip one while shaving the other
  • Turn a shape you like, tapering at each end. Both ends can be quite different. I like to burn some lines onto the workpiece using the technique described overleaf but this is maybe a bit much for a beginner.
  • When you have made finished turning, remove the workpiece from the lathe and grip one end in the shaving horse with the other end pointing towards you.
  • Using a sharp drawknife, remove a series of shavings about a millimetre thick. These should retain the silhouette that you turned and they will be the book marks. (fig 12.15)


Shaving off the bookmarks

  • When you have shaved away several bookmarks from one end, turn it end to end in the shaving horse and work on the other end, producing another crop of book marks.
  • Turn the workpiece upside down and work on the other side of both ends. You will be amazed how many slices you have produced. Most of them will end up as kindling at first but with practice, you should get dozens of bookmarks out of one blank
  • When left with the central piece at one end about 8 mm (3/8”) thick, shape it into a paper knife
  • Repeat this at the other end
  • Saw the two paper knives apart and there you have it.

I have had two rubber stamps made up saying:

A slice of Herefordshire


I stamp one of these on each side of the bookmarks and give them away at craft demonstrations to kids and Americans tourists for 20p apiece in a charity box.



Cleaving is a very simple yet effective way of dividing a length of wood along its length without the need for any machinery. It is also sometimes referred to as riving and both terms refer to a refined form of splitting.


The basic theory of cleaving is very simple. Some kind of wedge shaped object is forced into the end of a log to prize the fibres apart. At right angles to the growth rings are the rays. These are like small ribbons buried within the log. In some timbers like oak, they are very obvious. In other timbers like ash, they are barely visible. Either way, they act as lines along which it is easier to prize apart the fibres of the log. This is referred to as cleaving radially and is generally the easiest way to cleave a log.


There are two quite distinct approaches to cleaving a piece of wood depending whether it is sturdy or slender.

Cleaving sturdy logs


If the wood is short and fat, such as a lump of firewood, the two halves will generally fly apart and the split will run straight along the flow of the fibres. This is the natural tendency for wood to split apart along the flow of the fibres – to go with the grain.


If you are cleaving a fairly large log, the usual approach is to cleave it into two equal halves using a number of wedges and a heavy object to drive them into the wood. A collection of old axe heads, a few plastic or wooden wedges and a large wooden maul are what I recommend here’s a short video. Apart from large knots, a factor to take into account is where the pith lies within the log. (This is the soft bit from which the growth ring emanate). If the pith is in the centre of the log, the best approach is to look for any existing splits in the end of the log and start cleaving from there. If the pith is off to one side, then you should try to start your split as shown (13?). This ensures two fairly even halves which should entice the split to run straight down the middle You will see why below

Cleaving slender sections

The real skill comes in when cleaving more slender sections, such as hazel rods to make hurdles or in our case, when cleaving the back legs for the chair. As a rule of thumb, I call it a slender log if its length is more than about 7 times its width. In this case, the wood is able to flex as the wedge is driven in.



If both halves flex equally, the split will probably run straight along the grain. If on the other hand, one half is able to flex more than the other, the split will tend to run off towards the half that is flexing more. I cannot explain why. It depends greatly on the quality of the wood. If it is brittle, it will easily shear off to one side. If it is supple and fibrous, there is a much better chance of it following the grain.

With practice, you can utilise this property of green wood and actually steer the direction of the split as it runs along the length of wood. To do this you will need something more sophisticated than a simple wedge to prize the log open. The usual answer is a tool called a froe and some kind of cleaving brake as described on P?

Support the log on the cleaving brake and use a wooden club to knock the back of the froe blade into the end-grain. Whenever possible, aim to split the log into two parts that are likely to flex equally. Once the blade of the froe is completely buried in the wood, lever the log open by pushing down on the handle of the froe. This twists the blade within the wood which will normally force both halves of the log to flex apart.

If all goes well, the split will run nice and straight along the log. You can insert a wedge into the split to hold it open while you slide the froe along ready to lever it and force the split to continue. Avoid putting your hand into the opening, as it could close again with a vice-like grip. Keep going like this until the log falls in two.

If however, the split starts to run off to one side, you will have to try your best to counteract it. You will have to try to force the bigger half to flex more than the smaller half. (please forgive my imprecise use of the word ‘half’’) in the hope that this will force the split back into line.

Grip the wood in the cleaving brake with the bigger half to the bottom and bear down with both hands onto the blade of the froe attempting to flex the bigger half. (Before trying this, make sure that the blade of the froe is kept a bit blunt so as not to inflict a cut) Then lever the handle of the froe downwards, probably with your elbow, to hopefully drive the split to open back towards the centre of the log. Once it is running straight again, try to keep both halves of the log flexing equally. This probably sounds a bit weird but it is astonishing just how much control you can exert over the way a split runs along a log.

Although the general rule is to cleave in half, with experience and with good logs, you should be able to cleave into thirds. With larger logs you will be able to start cleaving tangentially (see?). You will find however, that older trees tend to become more brittle so the best results when bending, will be gained from younger trees, the ideal being around 30 years old.

This is just a very basic description of the process and there are dozens of little subtleties. Like learning to drive a car or to use a chainsaw, the art of cleaving can really only be learnt in a hands-on situation. However, it is worth taking time to practice this process and once you have mastered it you will be able to produce top quality lengths of timber from virtually worthless firewood without the need of any powered machinery.