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.


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.


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.

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: http://www.wisdomgroup.com/blog/10000-hours-of-practice/.

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?