I had last set foot in Meephill Coppice in May 1999, when it was up for sale. It had been planted mainly with conifers but it also contained some fine young ash trees which were a mixture of coppice and natural regeneration. As it turned out, it was eventually purchased by my former colleague, Gudrun Leitz along with the much larger, neighbouring Childer Wood (see ‘Living Wood’ pages 41 & 42). As I started setting up for my fourth year of courses at Greenwood Cottage, very nearly 20 years later, Gudrun invited me to look through some of the ash logs that had been felled over the winter by our mutual colleague, Crunchie together with his wonderful horses.
I measured the volume of each log and after arriving home and cleaving them, I sorted the good chair-making logs from the inferior wood, which was valued as firewood (there is no such thing as ‘waste’ in the greenwood world!)
This log looked straight with no obvious knots but was very slow grown (which in ash is a bad quality), so mostly went as firewood
These whispy fibres signified that this wood would have the elastic strength for which ash is renown. Because the pith was off-centre, it wasn’t ideal for cleaving the long slender back legs of chairs, so it was cut into shorter lengths for the other chair parts.
This log, wasn’t so fibrous but it was more regular in its growth and would prove good for cleaving in metre lengths for back chair-legs
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.
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.
Today started by steam-bending the last set of laths. Before I could do this, I took out the 2 sets that I bent on Sunday and fitted them into the setting jig. They needed packing out with a some slices of thin plywood to retain maximum bend.
To make the side rungs and seat-rails for the 6 chairs, I used a log felled this April that had been cleft in half when making legs in a course this summer. It was 18cm (7″) diameter and I cut 3 lengths of 38cm (15″). As with the wood for the legs, this was best split into thirds. In theory, each third would yield 5 rungs and 3 seat-rails.
After cleaving the first of these lengths it looked as if I had the blanks for 6 seat-rails and 11 rungs, with 5 lengths of rejects – either run out during cleaving or defects in the wood.
By the time I had shaved them, this had gone down to 6 seat-rails and 9 rungs.
The beauty of working green wood is that one can happily reject anything that’s not right for the job. I had been thinking of cutting all of my spring-felled logs into firewood, so getting a load of chair parts out of this log is a bonus. Because it had been felled 8 months ago, I then left these shaved blanks in a tub of water for several hours. The idea was for them to soak up some moisture so they would swell a little. Then when I cut the tenons with the tenon cutter, they would shrink to the desired size. (After taking the photo, I placed a weight on them to hold them under the water).
Those 3 sections of the half log just yielded the 36 side rungs and rails plus 4 back seat-rails and are now drying in the racks above the wood-burning stove.
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.
two ash trunks for sale
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.