Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

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.

 

Result!!!

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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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)

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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

And www.living-wood.co.uk

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

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

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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.

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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.

It’s a Wonderful Life

For those of you who have been avidly waiting for the latest episode in my chair-making saga, I have to apologise for getting rabbled up in preparations for Christmas, so my chair-making blog has been temporarily put to one side.

I’ve done my best to listen to the reading of Rob Penn’s book on Radio 4 each morning this week.

Rob's book

The Man who Made Things out of Trees

On Monday, Tamsin was helping me to weave the seat on a chair, when the first episode was aired. It first I was taken aback by the voice. In the Radio Times it had said that Rob was going to be reading it but instead of his  gravelly voice was the refined reading voice of Andrew Lesser (I think I’ve got that right). I found it hard to imagine the owner of this voice wielding a chainsaw, while crashing his way through a Welsh woodland. Having got over that disappointment, we enjoyed listening to Rob’s eloquently written, entertaining story, with Tamsin commenting that this was more like the kind of book she would read, rather than my sort of book.

I missed Tuesday’s episode but made a point to listen to Wednesday’s, which was all about his visit to Robin Wood’s bowl turning workshop. Whenever I have a radio programme I am keen to hear, I make sure I have a good pile of washing up, to keep my hands occupied, while my brain is soaking up the airwaves……………

Believe it or not, this is where I stopped writing this blog yesterday to make the morning cuppa and didn’t get back to it till this morning, having just read Robin Wood’s blog about ‘Doing what you love’……………………………

Just as the story got to the bit where Rob (Wood) made 3 cuts on the base of the bowl as his maker’s mark. I realised I was washing up one of Rob’s bowls that we use daily, along with several other pole-lathe-turned bowls by Ben Orford, Owen Thomas, James Wilkes, Steve Tomlin and Barnaby Carder (made long before he was Barn the Spoon). Not to mention a set of plates turned by Rob and even a few rare Mike Abbott plates, as well as a collection of wooden spoons and spatulas.

A Selection of treen in the Abbott household

I couldn’t resist taking this photo – but after consideration, I refrained from posting it, as it might look like I was trying to outdo Rob Penn. Since reading Rob Wood’s blog, I’ve given up on trying to conceal my competitive instincts!! http://www.robin-wood.co.uk/wood-craft-blog/2015/12/26/do-what-you-love/. It appears that fast cars, big houses and wads of money have now been overtaken by handmade wooden artefacts, big log-piles and good friendships as the ultimate status symbols. This is surely no bad thing!

Back to Rob Penn’s book……on Thursday morning I was enjoying hearing all about the process of steam-bending ash when used in the construction of toboggans, when the phone rang. I thought it’s probably someone called Peter or David, with a strong Indian accent wanting me to take part in a survey but I dragged myself away from the washing up and answered it anyway. It was a good friend of Tamsin’s phoning with a progress check on his wife who had recently been rushed to hospital with severe heart failure a few weeks before her 80th birthday. As a fully paid up member of Dignity in Dying – an organisation fighting for the legalisation of assisted suicide – I find the idea of fading away with heart failure just before my 80th birthday a pretty near ideal way of parting from this world……….but when it’s a friend who was sharing lunch with you 10 days earlier, somehow the theory and the actuality seem totally incongruous. What do you say to somebody who is about to loose his partner after over half a century of a loving relationship? Steam-bending bits of ash suddenly seemed completely trivial.

After lunch we dragged in the somewhat reluctant teenagers to watch the classic film ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ starring James Stewart playing a man who has sacrificed all his dreams of traveling the world and living the high life to carry on the work of his father in running a savings and loan company in small-town America. He is driven to the point where he contemplates suicide but is saved by a guardian angel and it all ends happily – an amazingly powerful film, showing how precious a seemingly ordinary life can be. (It would make an excellent party Political broadcast for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party).

So at 3am on Friday morning (Christmas Day) we were woken by Nettie, our teenaged daughter freshly back from her first term at university, saying that she was worried about a strong pain in the left side of her chest. We phoned NHS 111 (a very helpful service) who made an appointment for her at Hereford Hospital at 9.10 in the morning. We duly set off, each armed with some reading material to pass the waiting time.

Norwegian Wood

My book was a copy of Norwegian Wood by Lars Mytting, all about the delights of harvesting, splitting, stacking and burning firewood – now an international best-seller – beautifully written and very informative. Nettie read ‘Down and out in Paris and London’ by George Orwell.

 

After seeing the only other out-patient, the doctor was able to take his time, explore all the possibilities and conclude that she was in fine health and had simply suffered from an attack of heartburn. We called into the nearest filling station to buy some Rennies when I noticed it was exactly 9.45am, just in time to drive home listening to the final episode of ‘The Man Who Made things out of Trees’.

 

It was great to know that all the regular listeners to Radio4 would now be aware of just how many things could be made out of an ash tree (even if chairs were pretty well ignored – I’m hoping Rob’s sequel will be ‘The Men and Women who make Chairs out of Trees’).

However, I have to admit that the details of the construction of Rob’s writing desk were overshadowed by contemplations on the meaning of life and how fortunate are those of us who enjoy a healthy, harmonious and fulfilling life.

 

Putting it all together

Saturday 12th was a day off but I was back in the workshop again today (Sun 14th) – the other side of the coin, when running your own business. The first thing was to drill all the mortices in one of the side panels. This was pretty much by the book ‘Going with the Grain’, lifting the back of the chair by 5cm, marking out where to drill, then gripping the frame to the bench. Having reflected on my comment about it being too scary to do all the drilling with a Forstner bit, I tried it on a scrap piece and it seemed OK, so I thought I’d try it for real today. It was no great ordeal – it burned the wood a little where the depth stop rubbed but that could easily be shaved off. I’ve laid out all the tools that were needed for this particular process.

Drilling into one of the side panels

Here are the stages in creating the mortice for the crest at the top of the back leg.

The lump of wood with a big nail in it is a ‘centre finder’, which when used with the sliding bevel (on the right) marks a point showing where to drill the angled holes. The little thing between them is the same 14mm bundle of nails that I used for marking the mortices for the laths  a few days ago. Tapping this little bundle on top of the nail hole shows where to drill the two holes of the mortice. I used the 12mm chisel to clean out the mortice after the 2 holes had been drilled. It looks a mess here but a few strokes with a spokeshave cleans it all up nicely.

Marking out an eliptical hole for the F-clamp

When drilling the second panel, I decided to make a new hole in the bench to enable a clamp to grip the front legs to the bench. I like making it an ellipse, which is very easy to do with a couple of nails and a short length of string. I could probably calculate exactly where to put the nails and how long the string should be but I went for trial and error. The first attempt was too small for the clamp but the second attempt was fine. I could have made it more elliptical by shortening the length of string. (See the new hole in the pics below)

 

I thought it worth using the dummy method described in my book ‘Living Wood’ to perform a trial assembly with dummies to take the place of the front and back rails and rungs – the same length but smaller tenons (so that they can be easily removed again). The frame is held together with bungee cord, so that I can measure the lengths for the cross rail and the crest. I had made the crests over-length (just in case) so I cut them shorter according to the lengths given in the book – which was reassuring.

After spending some time shaving and sanding all the components, I then squeezed it all together and fitted a couple of 5.5mm square walnut pins into 6mm holes at the top to hold the crest in place. (The little grey pad, bottom right is one of the wonderful Abranet pads for sanding everything).

Not counting the two walnut pins, that’s 22 components and 36 holes to create a remarkably robust structure out of very little wood but a lot of time and effort.

I just need to trim the tops and bottoms of the legs before oiling the frame and weaving the seat but I’ll hope to assemble the other 5 chairs first.