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!! 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.



Green woodworking as a way to earn a living

There is a group on Facebook called ‘Spoon Carving, Green Woodworking and Sloyd’ of which I am a member. Yesterday a couple of interesting topics were posted:

Jarrod Stone asked

What IS “green woodworking” to you?
-How did you come to your definition?

Barn the spoon asked

1. What price including postage should I sell one of my nicely finished eating spoons made from straight wood.

2. How much do you think I should earn per annum as a Spooner working about 20 solid days a month (I think that is quite a nice amount of holidays).

Both threads produced an enormous response, which I have read with great interest. Having written a book entitled ‘Green Woodwork’ published in 1989, and having spent one and a half summers with Barn as my assistant, I couldn’t help but respond.Image

I still basically hold with what I wrote in 1989 (Green Woodwork pages 9&10): ‘The phrase that best sums up the type of work I now practice is ‘green woodwork’. In one respect it means simply working with green (or unseasoned) wood. But having learned how to make the most of the extraordinary properties of green wood, I have come to realise that many of the projects can be carried out without the need to rely on powered machinery. this liberation from the noise, the cost and the danger of such equipment gives rise to the other interpretation of ‘green woodwork’: it is energy-efficient, non-polluting and unbelievably fulfilling. It can be equally enjoyed by the life-served carpenter, the inquisitive novice and the primary-school pupil’.

When in 1975 I read Herbert Edlin’s seminal book ‘Traditional Woodland Crafts’ I discovered the craft of ‘chair bodging’, that is using the pole-lathe to turn the legs of Windsor chairs from fresh cut beech trees. I cobbled together a primitive pole-lathe in the attic of the farm-house where I was living, and that became my hobby. Image

Ten years later I took up running green woodwork courses as a means of earning a living inevitably leading me to become involved in trying to formalise training programmes. I have come out of meetings bored to tears having struggled for hours trying to define ‘green woodwork’ or ‘green wood trades’ or ‘coppice crafts’.

For 28 years I have managed to eek out a living running woodland courses, where the end product is usually much less significant than the process and the surroundings, both in terms of the environment and the other people involved. Over that time my approach has evolved, and the dear old pole-lathe has virtually become obselete again in my workshop. We now use cordless drills and tenon cutters to produce perfect joints every time but we still use the age old craft of cleaving to get the fresh logs down to size. Our ‘lumber horses’ are made out of mass produced softwood, held together with turbo coach screws but the resulting chairs require no glue and no screws, occasionally using a cleft oak peg to hold a joint in place. Image

The important thing for me is that we all enjoy the creative process, and people go away with a fully functional object of which they are proud, which will be a constant reminder of a fulfilling week in the woods. That’s the best definition I can give.

As for Barn’s concerns about pricing and the resulting income. I had a long discussion with my wife Tamsin, who runs a successful business producing illustrated stained glass. Image

There is no simple answer to what price a spoon should be, nor how much a person should earn. It is all down to the individual spoon and the individual person. Tamsin suggested Barn should spend time talking to other full-time crafts-people. Jenny Crisp has been making baskets for many years and has some of her produce in the V&A museum in London but she works away steadily producing beautiful and functional items at a price that most people can afford. Much the same goes for Own Jones MBE, with his oak swill baskets or Lawrence Neal who took over the chair-making business from his father Neville.Image

We have several items made by Jenny Crisp and Owen Jones in our house along with some of Barn’s spoons and bowls turned on pole-lathes by Robin Wood, Ben Orford, Steve Tomlin, Owen Thomas and James Wilkes. All these items enhance the quality of our lives. Image

It may be that Barn is moving into the realms of artists or celebrities, where the functionality of his output is subordinate to the fact that he made it. Here he could talk to our mutual friend and successful artist, Jackie Morris, who is happy to charge a comparatively high price for one of her paintings – still a lot cheaper than a Van Dyke. Another realm to look at is that of the musician. I remember Richard Thompson (one of the founders of Fairport Convention) saying how fortunate he had been in his career: successful enough to earn a reasonable living but not so famous that he was able to stop working. That seems about right to me. Contrast with Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and many others who maybe made it too big! Steering that line is as much up to fate as it is up to planning but it worth bearing in mind, which is obviously what Barn is struggling with at the moment.