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.
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.
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.
For the last couple of years we have arranged a disco/party to celebrate the ‘Return of the Sun’ and to raise a few quid for some good causes. This spring it didn’t happen, a major reason being the clash of dates with the Anti-Trident demo in London. Leaping about in the village hall would have been much warmer than standing in an icy wind in Trafalgar Square but I’m glad we had been there to listen to some inspiring speeches about the insanity of spending a fortune on something that no sane person would ever envisage putting to use.
Doing my best to ignore the crazy world of politics, I actually enjoyed a very successful summer of courses in my new shelter at Greenwood Cottage. So to celebrate, I took it on myself to organize ‘Farewell to the Sun’, as one last fling before winter set in. Stevie and his young crew were happy to run the disco. I tracked down AleWrightNow (I only just got the play on words relating to Free’s big hit), who were happy to lay on a licenced bar with all the works plus 3 staff if we could reckon on about 80 adults. As the date grew near, I realized I had been a bit lazy with publicity and invitations, on top of which lots of people had planned trips and other events to coincide with the half-term hols.
The evening arrived and I turned up having collected a couple of friends, Emily & Paul from the train, to find the AleWright crew chomping at the bit, waiting for the previous kids Halloween party to vacate the kitchen. One benefit of this quick change-over was that we inherited a load of pumpkin and bat decorations to compliment the colourful bunting that Tamsin brought along – having dashed back from a day with her artist friends at the opening of the latest fabulous exhibition at Twenty Twenty gallery in Bridgenorth.
Our first guest was Felicity, the recently retired mayor of nearby Leominster with her husband Pete, after whom a steady trickle of both expected and unexpected friends and guests slowly dispelled my fear of the event being a damp squib. A selection of 70’s disco was followed by some electronic music and when the rock playlist kicked in, the place started buzzing. When the last few guests arrived, they were greeted by a sweaty, frenzied but very happy old greenwood chair-maker, of whom I’m sure Philip Clissett would have been proud. Enough friends stayed on to help clear up – many thanks to Lois & Ben and especially Jo & Colin. This just left Tamsin, Paul, Emily and myself to find/wind/wend our way through the broccili field back to Greenwood Cottage for the night.
A good old fry-up
After counting up the £300 takings to be shared between the two charities, Practical Action and Peace Direct, the following morning was spent enjoying a mild morning in the garden around our splendid fire pit (made for us by Andrew Findlay). A huge fry-up was donated and cooked by old friends David & Smiffy. This brought back fond memories of many such morning breakfasts in the woods, stretching back beyond Brookhouse Wood to the days of Clissett Wood.
Thus fortified, Paul leapt into action helping with my earthworks, extending the lawn below Tamsin’s ‘creative nest’ at the top of the garden, much to the delight of Tamsin’s ‘familiar’, ZaZa.
It’s now head down for me to get some chairs made for Hereford Contemporary in a couple of weeks, while Tamsin creativity is unleashed in fulfilling the many demands for her work in the run up to Christmas. – see Tamsin’s website for more details.
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.
Peter selecting a log outside his barn
Peter checking my bent bits.
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.)
Peter enviously eyeing up the fancy chisels I brought with me.
Easily reached F-clamps holding down my own lightweight bench
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.
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.
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.
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).
The legs have to be marked about 1cm away from the stained wood beneath the bark.
Half the legs have been shaved yielding a good pile of shavings
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.
Another section was cut into 30cm lengths, then cleft using a ‘push-knife’ giving the blanks for the laths.
This lath was split from both ends
Laths cleft, shaved and ready for steaming
When I had enough bits prepared, they were loaded into the steamer.
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 plan is to bend the same again for the next 3 days to complete the bent components needed to finish Peter’s 40 chairs.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Hannah’s ‘settin chair’ made on the last course alongside a ‘wee wor’ made by assistants at Brookhouse Wood.
two chair frames freshly oiled, ready for seating
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 stack of shavings, which make excellent kindling
Ready to burn in my winter workshop
In the wood-station, ready for cutting to length
Drying nicely for use over the coming winter
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.
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.
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?
Ready to receive the delivery of logs
Putting the best of the logs to one side
Handing over a cheque for the logs
Enough logs for up to 80 chairs and a winter’s firewood
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.
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.
It’s all about triangulation
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.
Flat faces with 10mm bolts
Checking the slope
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.
Flattening one face of a horizontal beam
joining a pair of horizontals
Drilling bolt holes
Roger tightening the bolts
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.
The lifting team
Lifting in to place
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.
Levelling the flats on the rafters
Checking the front of the rafters
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.
Lifiting the tarpaulin
Fixing the tarp
Penny with Will, Bryce & Mike
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.
The structure completed
The neighbour’s solar panels
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.
My 65th birthday
The path to the dining area
My 30-year old can of Cuprinol
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Log piles in 2014
Springtime lunch break
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).
Solar energy being put to use again
Burning the dry shavings
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.
Softwood poles behind a basket making course
Conifer poles waiting to be 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.