Some serious chair production

With a picture in my mind of mornings in a spacious workshop and afternoons on the beach, I had agreed to spend a week or two in West Wales this summer helping my colleague Peter fulfil his order of 40 chairs to go to a hospice in Denmark.  The best laid plans and all that…………

By the time we had reached early October, we agreed that I should do my bit in my workshop in Herefordshire, then just spend a couple of days delivering my produce and assembling a few chairs together in his workshop. I spent a week making and bending a load of crests, cross-rails, laths and back legs, then loaded them along with some more ash logs into my van and drove over to Pembrokeshire. I arrived to find Peter and Nikki working away in what he had referred to as a barn – not some romantic timber structure but it did have a roof, 4 walls and a pair of doors that opened wide. On my arrival we carried the fruits of my labours into his workshop for Peter’s inspection.

For somebody who had just spent 6 months assisting running courses, Peter had established an impressive chair-production workshop, with an eager team of co-workers, Nikki, Merlin and Alec, who all spent various lengths of time gaining invaluable experience in a production situation. Alec was now back home and Merlin was away for the week, leaving just Peter and Nikki, so the three of us spent the remainder of the day assembling back panels. Most impressive to me (and well-placed in the autumn sunshine) was the work-bench, made out of a fire door that he had bought for £5, with a leg in each corner and a little bracing – simple but effective. At one end hung his F-clamps, within easy reach when needed. (When I arrived home to my own workshop, I put this idea to use by adding a rack for clamps to help hold down my bench when steam-bending.)

I stupidly left my camera tripod in Peter’s workshop, so was unable to take a decent photo of the spectacular collection of 24 chairs, which Peter and his gang had already assembled. Some of them had already been seated, using knitted polypropylene cord, making for a very light, attractive, comfortable and long-lasting seat.

Two dozen lath-back chairs

Chairs stacked in Peter’s spare room

Seeing these chairs stacked and ready for shipment brought to mind Philip Clissett’s contract for 100 or so chairs for the Art Worker’s Guild in London in the late 19th Century. Could it be that Peter’s project is the largest single order for hand-made greenwood chairs in the last 120 years?

The following day we returned to the ‘barn’ where we squeezed together numbers 25,26 & 27, briefly assisted by Britte (sorry if I got the name wrong), the lady who had placed the order.

25,26 & 27

3 more chairs assembled, leaving 13 to go.

Peter and his team now have 3 weeks to complete the chairs before they set sail for Denmark, after which he & Louise with their Welsh-born baby daughter, Gwen re-locate to Sweden on the next phase of their remarkable lives. I look forward to seeing some pictures of this collection of chairs in the hospice ……………..and to following the progress of this inspiring young family.

The first day’s bending

After diving into a lovely ash log on Saturday, I spent yesterday morning removing the dry old bark then cleaving the 5 best sections to yield the back legs (and a pile of lovely kindling wood).

This morning I checked through the inner sections and found a couple more leg blanks. The rest were cut to length to yield crests and cross-rails.

Inner sections cut to 45cm

These were cleft to give produce the crests and cross-rails

Another section was cut into 30cm lengths, then cleft using a ‘push-knife’ giving the blanks for  the laths.

When I had enough bits prepared, they were loaded into the steamer.

The steamer loaded

4 legs, 4 crests, 4 cross-rails and 4 sets of laths ready for steaming.

The laths only needed 30 mins in the steamer, then after about an hour spent bending everything, they were loaded into the dryer, where they shall  receive about 20 hours in a circulation of warm air (about 30 degrees C).

The dryer full of bent bits

2 pairs of back legs plus all the components for 4 back panels

The plan is to bend the same again for the next 3 days to complete the bent components needed to finish Peter’s 40 chairs.

Peter’s last legs

I got back an hour ago after helping my mate Hamish and a bunch of his mates erecting a chestnut cruck framed shelter. I found a message from my Danish friend Peter with a list of steam-bent pieces he needs to complete his order of 40 chairs for a theraputic centre in Denmark. I could see the clouds gathering, so after a quick cuppa I got the chainsaw and cut a metre length of ash, 28cm diameter that Toby had delivered a few weeks ago.

A perfect length of ash among my firewood pile

The upright section looks just right for 16 back chair legs

With maul and axe, I split it into two halves and barrowed it to the cleaving break. With the Ray Iles mega-froe, I split it into quarters then with the lovely froe that I was sent this spring (lost the guy’s name but I’ll post it sometime) I cleft these into eights, then a tangential split on each to give some lovely straight sections to produce the 16 crests & cross rails on Peter’s list plus what should turn out to be the blanks for 16 back legs tomorrow. Then I need to cleave and bend him 80 laths. Watch this space!

 

 

It’s party time again

 

A September evening sing-song at Brookhouse Wood

A September evening sing-song at Brookhouse Wood

It is just over a year since my farewell gathering at Brookhouse Wood last year. Readers of this blog will know that the winter was spent planning the next phase, while spring was spent erecting a new shelter at Greenwood Cottage.  June was a bit wet but after that, running courses in our sunny garden made a pleasant contrast to the leafy woodland canopy. It was only when my old mates, Tom & Owen dropped in for an evening last week, that I realised the one thing I did miss about the woods was the evening campfires with their raucous sing-songs.

The new shelter working well for dispensing party food

The new shelter working well for dispensing party food

Having said that, this summer has not been devoid of evening entertainment. Tamsin’s birthday party in June managed to find itself one of the few dry June evenings with over 100 guests filling our blossoming garden.

So before the year is over, we’re planning one final blast, much the same as the two springtime parties we have held over the last few years. After the initial Valentine’s Disco in 2014, we got together with Toby & Aly of Say it with Wood in 2015 to put on The Return of the Sun. With support from other local businesses we managed to raise £333 for the local Green Party and £170 for a charity called Practical Action. This autumn we shall again be collecting for Practical Action, encouraged by the delightful thank-you card from them after the last event.

practical-action

The thank-you card from Practical Action after the last event.

The other beneficiary will be a wonderful charity called Peace Direct, having attended an inspiring talk by their founder Scilla Elworthy earlier this summer. We won’t be providing food this year but Alewright will be running a fully licenced bar. The music will again be provided by Stevie Bean and his family, who are keen to try out their new speakers, playing ‘an eclectic mix of soul, rock, disco and more’.

Farewell to the Sun will be held in Bishops Frome Village Centre on Saturday 29th October, from 8pm to midnight and tickets will cost just £5 on the door. Just like at the supermarkets, you will be able to choose which charity receives your money, or you can split it between the two, or if you are feeling really generous, you could give them £5 each.

We are looking forward to another great evening, getting together with friends old and new, to network, to chat and to dance the night away. We hope to see you there.

A lifelong ambition fulfilled

I have been meaning to update this blog for weeks but apart from one wet day (the first day of the most recent course) the sun has been shining from dawn til dusk and I’ve been outside making the most of it. However, this morning I woke at 2.30am and couldn’t go back to sleep such was my excitement from yesterday’s activities.

More good courses

We’ve had two more successful courses, the first one with a lovely bunch of people, all making spindle-backs and coming up with several more clever tricks to help make chairs (I’ll write these up in the winter). They also explored further into the realms of seat-weaving.

July offerings

Some impressive seats on the course in July

The next course was filled with ex-students from previous courses, so 3 of them made the more time-consuming lath-backs to add to their collections at home.

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A course for experienced chair-makers in August

Settin chairs

I have spent the few days since then assembling four chairs for an exhibition at Twenty-Twenty Gallery starting on 20th August. This will be the first time I have had my chairs in an exhibition since I was based in Devon over 20 years ago. Prompted by people on courses over the last few years, I have now added the ‘settin chair’ to the range of chairs produced in my workshop. This is an interpretation of a low chair described an the excellent book entitled Craftsman of the Cumberlands mixed with elements of the ‘wee-wor’ chair that we have been making for years.

Wonderful wood

In previous years on my chair-making courses in the woods, any leftover wood has been merrily burned to keep the kettle boiling, to fire the steamer and to dry chair-parts. Now my courses are based at home with solar panels powering the electric kettle, the wallpaper stripper and the drying unit, so every bit of ‘waste’ wood has been piled into my firewood sheds: longer pieces sawn to length for firewood, little pieces all ready to go into my workshop wood-burner and vast amounts of shavings to supply our friends with kindling.

A week or so ago I sawed up the remains of the stash of logs I had acquired over the last year – very sad to see it go for firewood rather than chairs but I’m sure we’ll appreciate the warmth this winter.

Logs ready for firewood

The last of the ash logs that I brought back from Brookhouse Wood when I left last year

More wood

Back in March I had received a call from our friend Toby Allen of Say it with Wood who said that they had felled a section of sweet chestnut coppice amongst which, were a few tonnes of ash logs – would I be interested? This was a good excuse for a walk, so we had a look and decided that we’d accept the offer.

Part of the cycle of woodland management

Mostly sweet chestnut logs, felled for use mainly in the production of fencing products

Good-looking ash logs

A stray ash tree amidst the sea of sweet chestnut

 

So yesterday Toby arrived with his fabulous, self-steering forwarder to restock my little wood-yard at Greenwood Cottage. Because he had once attended a chair-making course, Toby new which logs to put to one side and which to drop onto the pile for firewood. After a chat over a cup of tea, I wrote Toby a cheque worth about twice the normal firewood value, with which we were both very happy. This worked out at about the equivalent of a place on a course or the retail value of a finished chair. How could I not be happy  with such a deal?

Pricing wood for chair-making

I have been long advocating a pricing system for buying logs for chair-making but it has always been hard to justify the cost and time involved in calculating the small volumes involved, combined with the cost of transporting the stuff (see my blog last autumn). Now I am no longer based in a woodland, I have to buy in all my materials for chair-making and for firewood. Obtaining a mixed load like this is undoubtedly a win-win situation for both myself as the user, and for Toby as the supplier. I have already had colleagues saying they would love to have some logs like this, and I have suggested that if they can’t find such logs locally, they buy some of this supply to make space for me to purchase another similar load.

30 years ago, the Green Wood Trust was established through the mutual advantages of creative wood-users getting together with conservationists who were coppicing woodlands in the Severn Valley. I like to think that my dealings with Say it with Wood are taking this kind of symbiotic relationship forward as an example that could be repeated throughout the country.

Greenwood Cottage Shelter

It is now a month since I completed the construction of the new shelter in our garden but the weather has been so wonderful and the days have been so long, that I haven’t found time before now to put it on my blog.

I’ll keep the words to a minimum but here are a few of the many photos.

Back in the winter I had made a scale model to give me an idea of what I would need in the way of timber and what sized tarpaulin. As the project got underway, I had a few significant rethinks: I bought some softwood poles to supplement the sweet chestnut and I went for as much triangulation as I could fit in. It still bears a resemblance to the model.

I decided that 10mm steel bolts would be the most suitable fixings with the surfaces flattened at each joint. The sloping ground was an issue to resolve. The site for the shelter drops about 50cm over the 8metre length of the shelter and that would entail a huge amount of earthworks to level the ground by hand. Most buildings stick to vertical uprights to support horizontal beams rather than following any sloping ground. I decided to follow that principle, which would mean the shelter being higher at one end than the other.

A standard length for buying timber is 16ft (a bit under 5 metres) so by joining two lengths at the front and back I could span an 8metre tarpaulin. By combining this joint with an X-frame support it worked very neatly with my previous workshop when using squared timbers. I had found that commercial 4″x2″ timbers were nothing like as strong as roundwood, so I had to saw some flat faces onto the poles before they could be connected. A long 7/16″ auger bit was just right to make the holes for the 10mm bolts – one of the delights of our ‘Impetric’ system of measurement! For the initial work I had the assistance of Roger, a veteran from many spring ‘development weeks’ plus some help from my son Dougal.

To erect the top beams at the same time as the X-frame, I needed a team of several people. Fortunately Tamsin had a visit from a couple of fellow artists, Sarah and Juan as well as Juan’s sons, who were only too happy to help out and the operation went sweetly.

Fitting the rafters was a surprisingly easy one-man operation, although I had to shuffle around the A-frame so that the front horizontals were level and parallel, achieved by using the two end rafters as giant rulers. Only when I was happy with the positioning was I able to firmly pound the soil back into the holes at the base of the uprights.

Will, Bryce and Penny took a break from Brookhouse Wood to help lift the 8m X 4m tarpaulin into place and we fixed it using a length of 10mm bungee cord woven from one of the top corners through the eyelets (@ 50cm spacing) around the poles and tied off in the opposite bottom corner.

When I took a photo the next day, I glanced across at our neighbour’s solar panel array and realised that it was much the same size and angle as the shelter roof. I’ve seen flexible, transparent solar panels and hope that one day a shelter like this would be able to generate enough electricity to run a simple workshop.

So by my 65th birthday, a week before the start of my first course of the summer, the main structure was in place. All I had to do was make a path to the site for the dining shelter and put some shelving along the back. For this, I was able to use some surplus chestnut poles and 4 ash planks that had been milled about 8 years ago. I was also able to use up a gallon of Cuprinol preservative (which I had been saving since I finished supervising a youth training scheme in 1984) to coat the beams and the shelving.

 

 

A new drill cabinet

I just spent a happy afternoon in my workshop, listening to Johnnie Walker and fitting  a new drill rack into the beautiful cabinet that Tamsin recently gave to me for the new shelter.

Spring with no woodland

 

Hannah's wedding

Cutting the Black Forest gateau

 

The clock change at the end of March has, for the last 30 years, always heralded the first of my ‘Development Weeks’ during which my woodland workshop has been brought back to life after a winter of hibernation. This year (nicely timed to make up for the absence of a woodland workshop) it heralded the wedding of my eldest daughter, Hannah, who married Johannes in a beautiful chapel near Freiburg, followed by a sumptuous reception in a picturesque farmhouse on the edge of the Black Forest.

 

 

Black Forest Wood

‘bales’ of firewood drying

On the plane I had been reading more of my copy of the best-selling book Norwegian Wood, where on page 87 there is a photo of an interesting modern method of storing firewood. By using a cleaving machine, metre long sections of log are strapped in bundles, capable of being easily moved around by tractors in the same way as the large bales of straw we see all over the countryside. I was delighted to see such a system put into action by the Black Forest farmer who’s wife was hosting the reception.

Starting on the shelter

stripping poles beneath the washing

So it was not until April 5th that I started working on my new shelter. The sun shone and after hanging out the washing (Tamsin being frantically busy fulfilling orders from her recent media appearances in Country Living Magazine and Countryfile) I started stripping poles (note the oak swill wash basket made by Owen Jones about 18 years ago and still in use most days).

 

Waiting for Spring

Chestnut poles stacked next to a pile of equipment wrapped up for the winter

 

In January I had bought 20 chestnut poles from  Say it with Wood which had been stacked next to a tarpaulin covering a load of equipment I had brought back from the woods.

 

 

 

For 30 years my ‘Development Weeks’ have been manic occasions during which I have attempted to harness the enthusiasm and energy of around a dozen volunteers, felling trees, splitting logs, building cabins and a host of other woody projects. They have nearly all camped in the woods and spent the evenings cooking, eating, drinking and singing together – a superbly creative combination of the energy from people, food and wood.

 

 

Stripping chestnut pole

working out in the spring sunshine

 

This year, with no facilities for camping, I have been plodding away mainly on my own.  I unwrapped a shaving horse and a bench (fitted with a vice) and placed them near the trampoline to hold the poles while removing the bark plus some of the sapwood. Obviously the work takes longer and it would have saved a lot of time to have a few others to help strip the poles. On the other hand it has been a more meditative process – Zen and the art of stripping poles! We had a few warm sunny days, I thought summer had arrived, so off came the shirt and out came the shorts. It made a refreshing change from the 7-minute workout accompanying my son, Dougal each day. This outdoor workout also had the added incentive of ending up with something useful when it was completed.

 

 

 

 

 

In fact, as well as 20 stripped poles, I ended up with 4 builders bags full of lovely dry shavings, which I dried in the sunshine on the trampoline and are now in the wood-shed, waiting for evening use on the fire-dish (made by blacksmith friend, Andrew Findlay).

As I was working away, I recalled the construction of the previous ten or so workshops I had built over my thirty year career. I knew chestnut poles were best to resist rot when buried in the ground but realised that straighter, lighter softwood poles would serve better for the horizonal components that would be clear of ground level. When recently collecting some chair-making ash, I had noticed some straight, slender poles at Moreton Wood, so I ordered a dozen of these from Paul, which I collected and stripped.

With a couple of days off to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary, it took until the last week of April before I was ready to start assembling the new shelter.

Pastures new

Leaving Brookhouse Wood has proved to be a mixed blessing. No longer can I take my chainsaw and fell my own selection of chair-making logs. There have been years when I have been offered good logs from other sources, such as Toby & Aly at ‘Say it with Wood’ but now I have to be more proactive and make contact with other possible sources within the neighbourhood.

So yesterday I drove the 15 minutes to Moreton Wood, where Paul Morton (coincidence or what!) has just been felling a clump of ash, mainly natural regeneration within a section of conifers planted about 40 years ago. They’ve had to struggle upwards for the light without developing spreading branches. As near perfect for chair-making as one could wish for.

Paul found me a few convenient trees and Jo pulled them to the track with her horse (Guinness?). We selected which bits I wanted, Paul cut them to length and we loaded them into the van.

P1070088

They look better when selected and loaded. There are lots more on another slope, which have to be dragged by horse to the track at the bottom, then driven out with the 4×4 and trailer, where they can be loaded into road vehicles like my lovely red van.

We had a cuppa, where I was able to look around their magnificent workshop, all made out of timber from the site, along the lines of Ben Law’s Woodland House.

P1070084

For the last 12 years since buying the woodland, they have lived in a small caravan. Now they are going for residential planning permission, which looks to progressing  relatively smoothly – so far.

We had an interesting chat about all sorts of woody things, including Jo’s ‘Woodland Creative Project’ and how it might relate to the Woodland Trust’s proposed ‘Charter for Trees, Woodlands and People’. We talked about a new generation of woodland dwellers – people who want to live and work on the land, not in a romantic escapism but as a serious alternative to the rat-race faced by so many young adults in the 21st century. And of course we also had to discuss methods of pricing ash logs for chair-making (as I discussed in Living Woods Mag, issues 32 & 33).

I wish Jo & Paul every success and look forward to using more of their logs on this summer’s courses.

Here’s a link to their website: http://www.moretonwood.co.uk/

 

 

 

 

Bending chair legs

A week ago I spent an hour or so with Richard Mackley, who had contacted me about bending a new back leg so that he could repair an old, broken Clissett chair. When I saw the distorted grain in the broken leg as well as the very straight seat-rails, I really doubted that this was a cleft-wood chair, even if the legs had a distinctly oval cross section. (I’m really sorry I didn’t take more detailed photos – maybe another time). Anyway, I sold him a few lengths of nice straight ash so that he could turn some new legs and we arranged another session to do the bending.

Interested to find out more about this apparent ‘fake’ Clissett, Richard and I exchanged e-mails with Terry Rowell, a relation by marriage to a Clissett descendant, who has compiled a remarkable website all about the old fellow and his chair-making: http://www.philipclissett.co.uk/. Much to our delight, Terry agreed to join us on our bending session to look at Richard’s chair and to bounce about ideas on bending the back legs.

Terry, Richard and a collection of chairs

(with a fortuitous selfie of me in the mirror)

It took little time for Terry to confirm my doubts about Richard’s chair not being made by PC. But neither did it seem to be a Gardiner or Neal version either. Undaunted, Richard bent 2 pairs of nicely turned legs with a bit of help from myself with a wallpaper stripper generating clouds of steam.

Sadly, Richard had to leave us in order to take one of his woodworking classes at Herefordshire College. Then Terry and I got down to our issue about how PC bent his back legs. Having examined as much historical evidence as possible, Terry’s hypothesis (he trained as a scientist) is that PC bent his legs without the use of either steam, or boiling water, as used by Lawrence Neal: http://www.lawrencenealchairs.co.uk/video.html. I was introduced to the work of PC by my old mentor Jack Hill. (I’ve just found the website he seems to have started, the year before he died in 2009: http://www.southirishhorse.com/hill/). Jack used steam for all his bending, as one needs a great deal less boiling water than if you immerse the legs in a big tub of boiling water. This is what I have always done myself.

I had spent the previous afternoon cleaving and shaving 3 pairs of legs from the lovely straight ash logs that I had collected in November. I found it helpful to have a range of froes, from the huge Ray Iles froe down to a little broken Bristol Design one.

Now was the time for Terry to convince me, against all my scepticism, about his theory of cold bending. Before he started he asked me to shave the leg down a little from the 38mm diameter to nearer the 32/33mm of his delicate PC chair. Allowing for shrinkage we settled for about 34mm. We decided to use my cleaving brake as a bending former…….and to my great surprise, the leg bent quite easily with no sign of kinking or snapping or tearing. I love the expression on Terry’s face, clearly saying ‘told you so!!’

Told you so!

 

Not for the first time in my life, I had to open my mind to rethink my long-held beliefs. It obviously sprung back somewhat but it is documented that PC put his back legs, held in a bending jig in a cooling baker’s oven for 20-30 minutes to harden, then a few days in the warm to dry. We then had another go with a 38mm leg, with little extra effort required.

Terry with a gently curved leg

As Terry said ‘If they can be bent cold, why would Clissett have messed about with boiling water or steam’. When compared with the examples of chairs by Clissett and Gardiner, it appears that the cold bending produces the gentle curve as seen on the Clissett chair as opposed to the comparatively kinked leg produced in Gardiner and Neal chairs.

Hopefully Terry will join me at the forthcoming Bodgers Ball in May near Bristol, for a discussion on various ways of bending not only chair legs but scythe snaiths.