More chair-making

Today I returned to the workshop to work on the other section of the tree that I barrowed up the the workshop on Friday. It was a quarter of the very bottom section of the tree, which I marked with the ‘curtain ring’. Unfortunately it just yielded 7 rather than 8, so I cleft it into 3 rather than the preferred 4. I then marked each third to give 4 legs.


After cleaving I had the front leg blanks for the 6 chairs, which I plan to make before Christmas.

6 pairs of front legs

While I was doing this, I had the chair legs, crests and laths from Friday, gently steaming away. Top right is the wallpaper stripper feed steam down the flexi pipe into the plywood steam box that I resurrected. In the woods we had been using a box made of 2″ insulation boards but that was in a poor state, so I’ve used those boards to lag the stronger plywood box. The big advantage of the foam box was that it was very lightweight and easy to lift on and off the wood-fired drum. Now the steam box is fixed, that’s not an issue.

Using pretty much the same jigs as in Going With the Grain 2nd edition, I bent 3 pairs of back legs, 3 sets of laths, 3 cross-rails and a couple of crests. These are now drying around our woodburning stove in the living room.

The afternoon was spent shaving the 6 pairs of front legs, following the gentle curved that came from the butt end of the tree. I tried using a 1 1/2″ tenon cutter to size the tops of the legs.

I concluded that was a waste of time and used the ‘curtain ring’ as with the back legs. These legs will now be dried gently along with all the steamed bits. The shavings will sit outside being dried by the strong wind and will be ready to use for kindling within days.

Kindling wood produced on Friday



Making chair legs

Yesterday I had a lovely day outside my workshop starting to make use of the ash logs I collected in the rain a few weeks ago making things out of trees. I had stacked the logs carefully as they had come out of the tree trunk.

an ash tree stacked under cover.
an ash tree stacked under cover.

I barrowed one of the sections from the best section together with a section from the butt section up to my cleaving brake outside the workshop. (In fact I didn’t get round to using the butt section).

 2 sections in the barrow

Using a selection of three froes, I cleft the section to yield the material for 6 long legs plus lots of other bits. It was surprisingly sensitive to pressure from the froe, which is why I used the micro froe for the later stages, so that the split wouldn’t run too far along the log before I could control it’s direction.

cleft in half with very big froe Starting to cleave the second halfThe blanks for 6 legs plus 5 other lengthsP1060127









Four of the legs came from just under the bark and had perfect grain. The other pair were from the inner section and had a slight wiggle near one end so I cut them shorter………..and the sun came out – wonderful! I made a peg to hold the ‘curtain ring’ which is the gauge to determine a uniform thickness for the leg.





Sunshine at last a curtain ring peg








However perfect the grain may appear, it is never going to be perfectly straight, which is why the process of cleaving and shaving has the advantage over sawing and turning to maximise the strength of the fibres running along the whole length of the leg.

wood is never dead straight









Out of the other 5 lengths I was able to make 6 front seat rails and 16 laths (to be bent in the next day or so at the same time as the legs.

16 back laths 6 front seat rails






I also managed to make a couple of crests and a back seat-rail out of the remainder as well as 2 large tubs of kindling and a few little bits of firewood but it was to dark to get a pic by then.

A wonderful way to spend a relatively benign December day.

Sometimes I sit and think

A year or so ago, my wife & daughter introduced me to a new musician called Courtney Barnett, who had released a double EP with a great track called ‘Out of the Woodwork’. To coincide with her current world tour, Courtney released an album entitled ‘Sometimes I sit and think and sometimes I just sit’. Well, as a chair-maker, this was bound to catch my attention, especially with a picture of a chair on the front cover. By chance, on 6 Music one day, they mentioned that Courtney’s dad collects chairs. I got the idea that I should make a chair based on the album cover and present it to her to take home for her dad.

Well……I finally completed the chair yesterday and we are going to one of her gigs in Wolverhampton (still a few tickets going, I understand) but I doubt she’ll be able to take the chair with her, so it will go to Hannah, a friend who’s parents own the woods where I had a workshop many years ago.

The chair is an ‘elephants eye, settin chair’. The ‘elephant’s eye’ is a feature that can sometimes appear when splitting the wood from near the centre of a log, which once contained a little branch.


Elephants eye

The ‘settin’ bit I once found in a wonderful American book all about the life and work of one particular chair-maker in the Cumberland Hills in Kentucky. This book contains an extract from another superb American book, which changed my life when I first read it. The settin chair is a kind of rocking chair without the rockers.

‘The slightest effort is sufficient to tip the chair backward, permitting one to remain comfortably at this angle for long periods of time, to lean against the wall or to rock back and forth’

In Britain we have a nursing chair called a wee-wor, which seems to be peculiar to a Victorian chair-making family called Owen, in Clun, on the English/Welsh border. 20 years ago my wife and I bought one of these  chairs as a wedding present for each other, since when it has been used as a model project on my courses. The ‘wee-wor’ name was given to us by Chris (below left) who came on a course and told us that his mother’s family came from Clun and that’s just the name they had for chairs like this.

It has evolved through various stages until this summer Paul (above right) decided not to bother about the rockers and low and behold……..we had a settin chair. I have never liked rocking chairs but I love the settin chair, so we have had a few more made since then on courses and now I have made a few of them myself.

The Man who Made Things out of Trees

The Man who Made Things out of Trees
The Man who Made Things out of Trees

The end of October saw the launch of a new book by Robert Penn called ‘The Man who Made things out of Trees’. Three years or so ago, Rob featured in a TV series entitled ‘Tales from the Wildwood’, which I watched avidly, being entertained by his struggle to find ways of bringing British woodlands back into useful, productive management. I saw the publicity about Rob’s new book so ordered a copy online but was delighted when Rob then sent me a signed copy. It was rather smaller than I had expected and contained a few useful drawings but I was surprised that it had no photos at all. My wife pointed out that it was more along the lines of ‘nature writing’ rather than being a purely informative book, and books in this genre rarely include photos – it’s a book to read for enjoyment – a new concept to me.

I entered into the spirit of this nature writing and soon became absorbed into Rob’s story of searching long and hard for an ideal ash tree, then having it processed (unfortunately, as with his TV programme all planked rather than any cleaving) and finding a range of crafts-people to make it into useful wooden artefacts. The book is  obviously based on many of his experiences with the TV series, featuring the delightful Willie Bullough with his sawmill near Hay-on-Wye. Amongst other crafts-people, the book features fourth generation wheelwright, Phil Gregson, bowl turner and spoon carver Robin Wood, with even a cameo appearance from my good self. It is well written with many good descriptions of the people he meets on his journey. ‘Wiry, fit-looking, with a tuft of brown hair, square glasses, a gold earring and eager, searching eyes, he had the bearing of a Jester. If you had never met Robin Wood, this description captures him perfectly. If you do know Robin, then it has to make you chuckle.

Although the book has the structure of a story, Rob deftly weaves in a great deal of information related to the ash tree, and its place in culture. I had no idea that in 1911 there were 23,785 wheelwrights in England and Wales. He has obviously read widely and in the middle of his wheelwright chapter, Rob launches off for four pages into a brief lecture about ‘the modulus of elasticity’. Despite having worked with ash for 30 years, I had no idea that my raw material was made of microfibril which ‘wind around the cells, spiralling upwards, a bit like the coils of a spring’. This book has something for everybody.

Yesterday was wet and windy, so I was taking the opportunity to read a bit more of Rob’s book, when I received a phone call from Andrew Pickup, a forestry consultant at the firm Prior and Rickett, asking if I was interested in some ash logs he had for sale. (He must have picked up on my reading topic). Today was supposed to be dry, if rather cloudy so we arranged to meet at Weobley post office at 9am, about a 45-minute drive away. Unfortunately the rain band in the south of England had decided to wander a few counties northwards, so Andrew and I stood in the rain examining his six logs. They were bigger than I normally use but to justify the journey I agreed to take the one with the least crinkly bark, leaving the other 5 for  someone like Rob Penn, looking for some straight ash to get milled.

Andrew told me it contained 26 hoppus feet, which is the foresters version of a cubic foot. I said I pay £2.50 per cubic foot for chair-making wood, so after adding VAT and knocking a bit off for the knots, we called it £70. I measured about 5 metres of straight trunk before it became knotty, so sawed a 70cm length off the bottom end where the grain flares – this should make front legs for chairs. That left four lengths just over a metre, which I hoped would cleave straight and clean for back legs. I cut out the knotty sections (nice for any bowl turners – otherwise it will be for next year’s firewood – a reminder of an episode in Rob’s TV series!) then cleft the first section into quarters – very nice.



Using a blunt axe and a wooden maul, I set about cleaving the metre lengths – better still. I worked out how many legs should come out of one of the halves – about 12. Not the ideal number. I would prefer 4, 8 or 16 to enable me to keep cleaving into halves. So now I chose to split each half into thirds, each wedge then yielding 4 legs on the outside, hopefully 2 more inside and then lots of other bits – either other chair parts or as Phil Gregson says in Rob’s book ‘just expensive firewood’. But without having paid for sawmilling or seasoning, my firewood works out at maybe twice the market rate, no more – and it comes ready split.

About an hour after I started sawing the trunk into lengths, I had the whole lot cleft into manageable pieces. It then took another 50 minutes to hump it over the barbed wire fence and load it into the van, fortunately right next to the fence. I had brought a wheelbarrow just in case but it was not needed.

I couldn’t quite fit in the metre lengths end to end, so had to stack them at one end – a bit of a pain but it looks very neat. The bits and bobs then fitted tidily in the remaining gap, along with chainsaw, axe, maul, wedge and the copy of Rob’s book that I had taken to read while waiting for Andrew to meet me. I then drove home, wet on the outside but glowing with the warmth of a 64-year-old who has just experienced that retirement is not necessarily the end of a fulfilling working life.

The economics of this little adventure? Timber £70, four hours skilled(?) labour (including driving) @ say £20/hour, plus 50 miles @ 40p/mile, gives £170. I could probably sell each of those metre long wedges @£10 and have all the material for front legs and firewood for free. Or I could make the back legs for the 30 chairs on order from Denmark, that I’m supposed to be making with Peter & Ben and still have enough wood for next summer’s courses. We’ll see.

In the meantime I’ll fit in reading the remainder of Rob’s book, which is inspiring me to crack on with writing the fourth in my own trilogy.

Looking ahead

Oh dear ……I’ve seem to have spent the last 16 weeks thinking of nothing but the end of my time at Brookhouse Wood. Well, I suppose after 11 very happy and fulfilling summers, that’s only to be expected. The final run of courses in September were often hectic but I believe they were well appreciated – and they helped fill the coffers to get me through the coming winter. The final party was superb and I was delighted that so many of the ex-assists turned up to share it. The memorable Transhumance procession was recorded by my friend and colleague, Leo (I’ll try and add the link to his Vimeo) and the following night curled up in the hay around the fire, watching the lunar eclipse will never be forgotten.

Arriving at Greenwood CottageSince then, I have spent 3 weeks tidying the workshop at Brookhouse Wood for Will & Bryony who have taken over the farm and for Will & Penny, who will be looking after the workshop and the new glamping enterprise. The idea is that a wider range of courses will take place at Brookhouse Wood, including not only Barn the Spoon and his organisation, The Greenwood Guild but also course like yoga and painting. The oak dining table will remain along with 11 greenwood chairs, some made by myself and many more made by past assistants who have been trained at the workshop over the last decade.P1050826I removed most of the gubbins I had accumilated over the years, and had to squeeze it into my much smaller workshop at home.P1050849The last few days have been spent arranging it all to fill every space, while not disturbing too much, the family momentos at one end and the ‘boys stuff’ at the other end.P1050862 P1050854

I then set about restoring my old plywood steam-box, which now sits in a handy space next to the woodshed, that had been occupied by the lawnmower. I found an old shelf for the electric boiler and fed the cable through the wattle-and-daub wall to connect permanently to the mains. If I do my steam-bending on a sunny day, the new solar panels on the workshop roof should easily generate the power required, saving the need to keep stoking the fire beneath a 40-gallon drum.


The forthcoming projects are to convert an old cupboard into an electrically powered kiln, and then to build a new tarpaulin covered area for running courses next summer. In the meantime this winter, I plan to write the 3rd book in the current trilogy entitled ‘Square Pegs in Round Holes’ describing the years at Brookhouse Wood, while also containing several chair-making updates on ‘Going with the Grain’.

Books on Green woodwork(ing)

Dry weather and the end of my final season of woodland courses had kept me well away from the office until yesterday, when I thought I’d catch up on my blog. I spent a frustrating morning trying to match the photos to the text with little success, so spent the afternoon picking autumn raspberries and cooking french apple tarts. This morning I woke refreshed and spent a jolly hour or so with my wife Tamsin, looking through Ben Law’s latest book ‘Woodland Craft’ and comparing it with a few others. So here are a few thoughts.P1050741Ben Law has been writing books for about 15 years, mainly for Permanent Publications, who produce Permaculture Magazine. They have now linked up with GMC, who published my first book ‘Green Woodwork’ back in 1989. I wrote the book 4 years into my career running green wood courses and it was clearly a book about my attempts to rediscover many of the skills that had been lost over the course of the 20th Century and was never meant to be a professional manual.


About 5 years after its publication, GMC asked if I would work on a much needed 2nd edition. By this time I had met Tamsin, an excellent illustrator and we decided that it would be fun to publish our own update, so I kept GMC dangling for several years until we produced ‘Living Wood’ ourselves. Every few years, GMC and I would tentatively discuss a 2nd edition for ‘Green Woodwork’ but we could never agree on the contract, so now they are linked with Perm Pubs, Ben Law was the obvious man to bring out a new book on greenwood/woodland crafts. (I’m not sure why his book has dropped the ‘s’ in Crafts).

I haven’t yet read it cover-to-cover but as always, Ben has written the book well on the range of topics (mainly associated with sweet chestnut) with which he is now very familiar. Other topics, such as hazel hurdles, laths, willow baskets and chair-making are well covered by specialists in these areas. This gives a far more professional approach to the topics than my ham-fisted first attempts in ‘Green Woodwork’. In this respect it almost harks back to the real classic book on the subject, Herbert Edlin’s ‘Woodland Crafts in Britain’, a book that must have taken years of research and will certainly never be equalled.

P1050736As well as the practical step-by-step instructions, Ben’s new book contains many good quality illustrations but where it is dreadfully let down is in the photographs. It appears that the publishers have paid for a pro photographer to spend a day taking a load of pretty atmospheric pics, which are given double page spreads, while poor old Ben has had to take most of the other photos himself and they have been squeezed so small that it is very difficult to gain anything useful from them at all. This prompted me to search out my copy of ‘Greenwood Crafts’ by Rebecca Oaks and Edward Mills, published by Crowood Press in 2012. Along with another of their books (‘Windsor Chairs’ by James Murcell) they have made a real effort to achieve a high quality in their photos.


Because Rebecca and Edward are based in the English Lake District, this book has quite a different emphasis on the crafts covered and I feel it is more suitable for anyone who is new to the world of greenwood/woodland crafts. It has a complete chapter on setting up a greenwood workshop as opposed to Ben’s book which, although it has lots of (tiny) photos of a range of tools, only has a double page spread of drawings of the devices that are so critical to the success of these crafts.

So my conclusion is that Green Woodwork is a nicely written reminder of the sorry state of green wood crafts in the 70’s and 80’s (and how good looking I once was!). If you want to read how to get started, then I would suggest, Mills and Oaks is the book to get you underway but for a well written guide for those who have already entered into the green wood world, then Ben Law’s book will inspire you to further achievements. However no book will ever compare to Edlin’s classic and no book will ever compare to learning these skills at first hand from a skilled teacher.

Mike’s final course at Brookhouse Wood

Three weeks ago I spent the day on ‘The Verandah’ at Brookhouse Wood with a bunch of people coming to the end of my final chair-making course carrying out the final assembly of their chair frames. We took the opportunity of a good weather forecast to move all the benches out into the warm September sunshine.P1050572

On the final day of the course we were able to spend another day in the sunshine weaving the seats.P1050601

Bryce with his sitting chair

Bryce was one of the people who had made a low ‘sitting chair’ (as opposed to a dining chair) with a colourful polypropylene seat. Once all the chairs were finished we were able to prepare for the farewell party, for which we were joined by friends, previous course participants and a good number of ex-assistants.A bunch of Ex-assists

Mike’s final transhumance


A misty September morning on the Brookhouse Wood 'Verandah'
A misty September morning on the Brookhouse Wood ‘Verandah’

Transhumance is the seasonal movement of people with their livestock between higher summer pastures and winter pastures in the lower valleys. Since I established my enterprise at the end of September 1985, I have made such a twice-yearly journey, moving between my winter retreat and my woodland workshop for a series of summer green wood courses. To coincide with this 30th anniversary, I shall be saying a final farewell to Brookhouse Wood on the last weekend of the September.

  • From 7pm on Saturday 26th there will be a celebration around a campfire on ‘the verandah’ at my woodland workshop, of music, song and merriment. Bring food and drink to share. Overnight camping will be available if you bring your own tent.
  • On Sunday morning starting at 11am, there will be a procession along the lanes from Brookhouse Wood to the Majors Arms at Halmonds Frome
  • From 1pm there will be a spit roast (plus vegan option) at the Majors Arms where you can buy a selection of good local beers and ciders with fabulous views across to the Welsh Hills.
  • At 3pm the procession will lead to Greenwood Cottage where Mike will unload his belongings and visitors will be served with tea, cakes and scones.
  • At 5pm the procession will lead back to Brookhouse Wood where visitors will be able to depart for home. If some of you would like to stay overnight for a quiet celebration of the Lunar eclipse, then please let us know.

Mike’s final woodland courses

The extra course in September, from 14-19th has now fully booked but we sometimes get cancellations a month or so before the start of a course, so if you wish to take part in a course this August or September, don’t be afraid to send us and e-mail to see if any places have arisen –

If you’d like to be one of the first to attend our small-scale courses at Greenwood Cottage next summer you can see the first few dates on the previous blog. We plan to add more dates for next summer, once we have finished the courses this September.