Famous authors making chairs!

In 2017 Tamsin‘s friend Jackie Morris visited us with her partner Robin and they thought it would be fun to bring along a couple of their friends on a 5-day course to each make a chair. Over the intervening year Jackie’s many years of hard work have been rewarded by the acclaim of her latest book, a collaboration with Robert Macfarlane entitled Lost Words.

Monday, the first day of their course arrived, as did Jackie & Robin with their friend Astrid, a skilled woodworker, who is always keen to try new aspects to her craft. The fourth member of the group was Nicola Davies another successful author and TV presenter, who unfortunately missed the first day due to sickness. This gave me the rare opportunity to work alongside Jackie, Robin and Astrid, starting to make some of the components, which Nicola supplemented with her own endeavours when she arrived on Tuesday.

After a short introduction to the techniques of working with green wood, the team were given some sections from an ash tree, sourced from a nearby woodland belonging to Herefordshire Wildlife Trust.

Using a ‘wedge on a stick’ normally called a froe, they ‘cleft’ the log in half and then in half again until it yielded the wood for a pair of chair legs. Then, using a shaving horse and drawknife, they shaved the rough blanks to shape to be steam-bent to produce the familiar gentle curve of a comfortable country chair.

By Thursday, they had all assembled the back panels to their chairs and were ready for the final assembly. The first stage was to drill at an angle into their pair of back legs. While the driller(s) used a traditional brace-and-bit to drill, two others would sight up their alignment to ensure they were drilling at exactly the desired angle – ‘left a little, up a little – DRILL!’

Formation drilling

Jackie and Robin drilling their back legs

Once the holes had been drilled, the chairs were assembled, panel by panel, until the final squeeze, using a powerful clamp.

Squeeezing!

Nicola squeezing together the components for her chair

The final job on Thursday afternoon was to oil the chair frames, so as to be dry again for  the seat to be woven the next day. While Robin was still furiously sanding his components, he was banished to the adjacent lawn (watched adoringly by our dear old dog), in order to prevent fine clouds of dust defiling the smooth, sticky surfaces of the womens’ frames.

Oiling

Robin banished from the workshop while the others apply a coat of oil

On Friday morning, the team each chose their preferred seat pattern and by the end of the day we were able to admire the fruits of a fulfilling week. It was hard work for all five of us but every course is different and every chair is quite unique, encapsulating an experience that is all too rare in our modern, hi-tech computerised world.

The finished chairs

Who would believe what can be made from some logs and some cord?

As Nicola so sweetly summed it up: ‘I had the most wonderful week. It was totally absorbing – wonderful to be doing something in which every part of me was engaged. I adored the physicality of it.’

 

 

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What does Mike do in the winter?

I am frequently asked how I pass the time during the winter months, when I am not running courses.

Winter writing

Since 2002, when Tamsin and I produced our book Living Wood, I have often spent winter months working on new editions of this book or the newer one, Going with the Grain, which we published in 2011. After four editions selling 9000 copies, we now intend to let Living Wood go out of print. (As I write, there still around 50 copies remaining, so get in quick!) The second edition of Going with the Grain still has around 100 copies in stock and it seems popular enough to warrant a third edition. Over the intervening five years with over 300 new chairs being made, many improvements have evolved, and I’d hate it if these weren’t properly documented. So that’s a bad-weather job for the next few months.

Winter wooding

What else do I do? For my ten years at Clissett Wood and my first five years at Brookhouse Wood, much of my winter was taken up with woodland management and harvesting wood for milling, making chairs and for firewood. I described this in chapter 5 of Living Wood, summarising what I believed would be the ideal scenario. Being no longer involved with a woodland is a mixed blessing – no longer able to select the trees I wish to fell but also no longer having to swing a chainsaw and large lumps of wood in the cold winter weather – nothing finer though, for a fit young man!

Building sheds

However, I still enjoy sawing and splitting the firewood for our home, and in 2012 with the help of my son Dougal, I built a woodshed with two south-facing bays for storing and seasoning firewood.

This has worked very well but I had also been using another adjacent old shed that was steadily collapsing, so this winter I decided to demolish part of this shed and double the size of the newer woodshed.

I took the opportunity to remove the previous corrugated sheets, added four new sheets and increased the overhang of the roof to prevent southerly winds blowing rain onto the drying logs. Oh, how I missed the assistance of my teen-aged son, now studying music in Bristol. Instead, I had to drag Tamsin away from her creative stained-glass work to steady the poles and to pass up the corrugated sheets. Ten days without rain enabled me to take my time and to process the dry, wormy old timbers into superb kindling.

Keeping warm

So much for the dry weather and the extra overhang! Thanks to ‘The Beast from the East’, all that kindling now has a good coating of snow.  Nevertheless, Tamsin has been able to keep warm burning bits of dry old shed, while working away in her studio on some gorgeous pieces for the Blue Ginger Gallery, which re-opens with ‘meet the makers’ on 17th March. Meanwhile I have been able to sort through the backlog of paperwork in the living room, while building up an improving relationship with the new wood-burning stove that we fitted last year.

As I write, it is just starting to thaw and I can return to planning this year’s changes to the summer shelter and dining area, which are looking distinctly sorry for themselves under a carpet of snow. The new tarpaulin (twice the size of the current one) is still in its snow covered bundle waiting to emerge like a dragonfly, when the warm sun returns. I shall retrieve the set of chairs over-wintering with Ed & Rowena and hopefully greet their return with a new ash dining table to replace the disastrous attempt from 2017.

It’s hard to imagine right now, that in 11 weeks, when the courses start again in May, we’ll be out in the warm Herefordshire spring air again…………

The Greenwood Cottage workshop 2017

The early stages of a chair-making course

……………but that’s the delight of the cycle of an English year!

A brief look back at 2017

So far as Abbotts Living Wood was concerned, 2017 wasn’t as bad a year as everybody else seems to have experienced. From a personal point of view, my participation in a number of successful collaborative projects has given my semi-retirement a whole new direction.

Apart from one course in June, when we had to wrap up the shelter in a huge tarpaulin to protect us from a cold, wet north wind, the courses went well and are currently fully booked for the 2018 season.

A cold day in June

A cold day in June

The Exhibition at Tinsmiths celebrating Philip Clissett’s bi-centenary went OK and my talk attracted a hall full of people, who seemed to enjoy it. I didn’t sell any of my chairs though.

In October I took some chairs across the county to the amazing home of Ed & Rowena Waghorn, who’s house build claims the record as the longest build in the whole history of Channel 4’s Grand Designs. The results are absolutely stunning.

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An armchair by Ben L for Grand Designs

Hoping for a bit of product placement I took across 5 dining chairs made either by assistants or myself but I was hoping the armchair made by Benny Lawless (assistant from 2007) would catch the eye of Kevin McCloud, reminding him of his favourite episode at the build of Ben Law’s woodland house. I think there were 3 split-second glimpses of the green wood chairs but no flood of orders!

Having re-established a working relationship with Gudrun during the Clissett exhibition, we collaborated again on a weekend of activities entitled Winds of Change celebrating the 30th anniversary of The Great Storm of 1987. Our belief was that this storm marked a new awareness that wood (the most sustainable of raw materials) actually does grow on trees and can be used for a wide range of fulfilling crafts. We worked this in as part of the prestigious sculpture exhibition entitled Out of Nature, run by Jenny Watts together with Bronte Woodruff at the magnificent Newport House, north of the city of Hereford.

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This biennial exhibition raises funds for a project called The Cartshed, which provides a range of outdoor activities (including green woodwork) for local people with mental health issues.  We were fortunate to be joined by Jackie Morris, who gave an enlightening talk on Sunday about her work, writing and illustrating books, the latest being her joint work with Robert Macfarlane, the best-selling Lost Words. It was a surreal few days, with tropical balmy weather over the weekend, followed by a storm on the day of the anniversary, which hit Ireland full blast but struck Herefordshire with an unworldly red sun – seen here balanced on Jackie’s finger.

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Jackie Morris with the red sun balanced on the tip of her finger

As soon as we had we recovered from the weekend, I dived headlong into my new role as political agent for the local Green Party in a by-election campaign for the local council. When we moved here in May 1997, not only had New Labour swept to victory in the General election but we also discovered that we had a Green local councillor called Guy Woodford. Our Utopian vision was later shattered, in part by the Iraq war and in part with Guy’s defeat by the Tories in a subsequent election. So now at the age of 82, he leaped back into life in support of the new candidate, Ellie Chowns in her attempt to regain the seat for the Greens.

Beneath the pear tree

Green councilors, past and present

Ellie made for a great candidate, intelligent and articulate, with many years experience in working for underprivileged people around the world.  She was surrounded by a great team with decades of experience provided not only by Guy but also by Pete Blench who has masterminded three recent Green victories in nearby Leominster. West Midlands HQ provided support from the effervescent Peggy Wiseman, who worked long and hard to encourage the country-folk to adopt some smart, modern campaigning techniques. My job was to make sure that the word reached every household in the ward by coordinating a small army of volunteers, who appeared from every corner of the surrounding countryside to distribute election literature. Much to everybody’s astonishment, Ellie won with a substantial majority.

At 66 years old, I have spent over half my life encouraging enthusiastic volunteers to help construct a series of sylvan idylls in Bristol, Devon and Herefordshire. I now see that in my new-found semi-retirement, I can put this experience to a not unrelated purpose; helping in a small way to continue a gentle political transformation in a quiet corner of rural England.

An exciting October!

Autumn will kick in with three exciting events, which should appeal to anyone interested in this blog. Click onto the links for lots more details:

Out of Nature

The biennial sculpture exhibition is back again running from 1st to 22nd October, with a special Winds of Change weekend over the 14th & 15th, marking the 30th anniversary of The Great Storm of ’87, when trees crashed their way back into the consciousness of the English nation, easing the way for the resurgence of interest in woodlands and related green wood crafts. This weekend will feature an all star cast including Jackie Morris, Archie Miles, Rob Penn (all signing their latest books – lovely Christmas presents!) and several leading wood crafts people (including myself).

Chapel Lawn Woodland Fair

A one-day event in Shropshire on 7th with a host of woodland activities. I shall be going along in the afternoon with one of the three chairs I have made from a wych elm tree that grew in the village of Chapel Lawn.

ALICE

An exhibition of art inspired by the work of Lewis Carroll starting on 21st. Tamsin is helping organise it and will be entering some of her imaginative glass panels.

Drink me bottles

I am pulling together some other chair-makers to enter a selection of hand-made chairs (to go with the Mad Hatter’s tea party), which will be for sale. Details are still to be finalised but tickets are now available for a couple of fascinating evenings related to Alice.

I hope to see some of you at one or more of these.

Making chairs by hand

After the successful launch of the Chair exhibition at Tinsmiths in Ledbury, I took a trip to visit a couple of colleagues who run chair-making courses to take some photos for my forthcoming presentation on 15th July about Philip Clissett and his chair-making legacy.

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First I called on Tim Gatfield, who had attended a course with Gudrun at Clissett Wood about 15 years ago and after a few years as her assistant, he purchased a woodland just north of Bath. With the help of many volunteers, he has built a beautiful set-up of workshops, round-houses and cabins in which he hosts a series of green wood courses at The Cherry Wood Project throughout the summer.

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I arrived during the last few hours of a 9-day chair-making course. Three participants had already left but the others kindly posed with Tim and his two apprentices, proudly displaying the splendid results of their time in the workshop.

A couple of years ago, after quite a struggle, he obtained full planning permission, not only for his woodland work and the courses but also for a large yurt in which he lives with his wife and their two children – a well-deserved reward for years of hard work. After an evening meal with Tim and Debs and a night in one of the cabins, I lit the fire for a cuppa and some breakfast ready to set off for my next port of call at Westonbirt Arboretum.

One of my last photos at Cherry wood was the compost toilet, situated across a suspended walkway among the trees. I couldn’t help but contrast this with a structure linked to the recent extravagant tree-top walkway recently installed by the Forestry Commission. 24 years ago, I spent a few weeks in the autumn at the arboretum with my then girl-friend Tamsin, producing baby-rattles on the pole-lathe to sell to the streams of visitors coming to see the autumn colours. How things had changed since then! Instead of a tiny kiosk with one attendant, I was greeted by a huge entrance building with automated turnstiles.

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I found my way to what until recently had been Westonbirt Garden Centre, which closed and was then used as a builders yard during the construction of the spectacular tree-top walkway.

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Now the yard was in operation as the base for Windsor chair-making courses run by my colleague Paul Hayden, who had attended one of my courses way back in 1989. I couldn’t help being stuck by the contrast between Paul’s ‘builders yard’ and Tim’s ‘woodland idyll’ but they are both equally valid embodiments of a genuine enthusiasm to convey the delights of working with greenwood.

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I took this photo looking down from the walkway as Paul was just getting underway with the start of a six-day chair-making course. Although he has been running courses at Westonbirt with his colleague Peter Murray for several years, Paul’s enterprise is about to take a leap forward when he hopes this summer, to gain planning permission to turn his ‘yard’ into a full blown green wood centre with a permanent workshop, a sawmill and a shop. With the arboretum catering for around half a million tree-lovers each year, most of whom will walk across the tree-level walkway to gaze down onto Paul and his chair-making students, I’m sure Paul will play a major role in keeping alive the tradition of making chairs by hand.

 

 

 

 

 

So much for a peaceful retirement!

We are now at the end of June 2017 and I haven’t got round to blogging for seven months, so here’s a quick catch up. In  February we decided to replace our living room wood-burner with a new stove that had a back-boiler, so that we could also get rid of the dear old Tyrolia cooker that lived in the kitchen. With the space liberated we then set about refitting the whole of the kitchen, a job that took over a large chunk of our spring.

I managed to fit in a sunny day levelling the floor in the shelter, where I now run the courses and I made a model of the proposed new dining area.

At one point I felt so relaxed that I spent a blissful March morning weeding a small piece of the raspberry patch outside my workshop.

weeding raspberry patch

April saw the erection of the new dining area with the help of a few friends from time to time.

I cobbled together a makeshift table out of two walnut veneered headboards in time for my eldest daughter, Hannah and her husband, who arrived after Easter to partake of their wedding present – a week making a chair each. This they achieved, and in the process helped me get up and running for the following courses.

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In the meantime I had collected several loads of beautiful chair-making ash from various helpful colleagues around the county.

So the courses took place during alternate weeks in May and June, with the weather fluctuating from a record-breaking heatwave to cold , wet and wind, for which I had to envelope the shelter in a huge tarpaulin. Whatever the weather , everybody managed to make a fine chair and seemed to have enjoyed their week.

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So now it is time to to turn my mind to the exhibition, Country Chairs Today that commences at Tinsmiths gallery in Ledbury this weekend, 1st July……………….but more of this and other events in another blog, coming soon.

Hereford Contemporary

The first day of Hereford Contemporary was greeted with a crisp frost followed by a morning of almost warm sunshine at the Left Bank overlooking the River Wye in the centre of Hereford today – a very different backdrop from my usual rural idyll.

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Chair 20

My latest settin’ chair in the morning frost

I spent the day shaving bits of ash wood to make back legs for my next chairs, while my neighbour, Sylvan was working on some of his round-wood structures using his magnificent shaving horse.

Sylvan's super horse

Sylvan with his super long shaving horse – with wheels on the back legs

After some heavy overnight rain tonight, we are hoping for a dry afternoon at least, followed by another dry day on Sunday, so get yourselves along to see our demos as well as a host of lovely crafts indoors.