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
I have been meaning to update this blog for weeks but apart from one wet day (the first day of the most recent course) the sun has been shining from dawn til dusk and I’ve been outside making the most of it. However, this morning I woke at 2.30am and couldn’t go back to sleep such was my excitement from yesterday’s activities.
More good courses
We’ve had two more successful courses, the first one with a lovely bunch of people, all making spindle-backs and coming up with several more clever tricks to help make chairs (I’ll write these up in the winter). They also explored further into the realms of seat-weaving.
The next course was filled with ex-students from previous courses, so 3 of them made the more time-consuming lath-backs to add to their collections at home.
I have spent the few days since then assembling four chairs for an exhibition at Twenty-Twenty Gallery starting on 20th August. This will be the first time I have had my chairs in an exhibition since I was based in Devon over 20 years ago. Prompted by people on courses over the last few years, I have now added the ‘settin chair’ to the range of chairs produced in my workshop. This is an interpretation of a low chair described an the excellent book entitled Craftsman of the Cumberlands mixed with elements of the ‘wee-wor’ chair that we have been making for years.
Hannah’s ‘settin chair’ made on the last course alongside a ‘wee wor’ made by assistants at Brookhouse Wood.
two chair frames freshly oiled, ready for seating
In previous years on my chair-making courses in the woods, any leftover wood has been merrily burned to keep the kettle boiling, to fire the steamer and to dry chair-parts. Now my courses are based at home with solar panels powering the electric kettle, the wallpaper stripper and the drying unit, so every bit of ‘waste’ wood has been piled into my firewood sheds: longer pieces sawn to length for firewood, little pieces all ready to go into my workshop wood-burner and vast amounts of shavings to supply our friends with kindling.
In the wood-station, ready for cutting to length
Drying nicely for use over the coming winter
Ready to burn in my winter workshop
A stack of shavings, which make excellent kindling
A week or so ago I sawed up the remains of the stash of logs I had acquired over the last year – very sad to see it go for firewood rather than chairs but I’m sure we’ll appreciate the warmth this winter.
Back in March I had received a call from our friend Toby Allen of Say it with Wood who said that they had felled a section of sweet chestnut coppice amongst which, were a few tonnes of ash logs – would I be interested? This was a good excuse for a walk, so we had a look and decided that we’d accept the offer.
So yesterday Toby arrived with his fabulous, self-steering forwarder to restock my little wood-yard at Greenwood Cottage. Because he had once attended a chair-making course, Toby new which logs to put to one side and which to drop onto the pile for firewood. After a chat over a cup of tea, I wrote Toby a cheque worth about twice the normal firewood value, with which we were both very happy. This worked out at about the equivalent of a place on a course or the retail value of a finished chair. How could I not be happy with such a deal?
Ready to receive the delivery of logs
Putting the best of the logs to one side
Handing over a cheque for the logs
Enough logs for up to 80 chairs and a winter’s firewood
Pricing wood for chair-making
I have been long advocating a pricing system for buying logs for chair-making but it has always been hard to justify the cost and time involved in calculating the small volumes involved, combined with the cost of transporting the stuff (see my blog last autumn). Now I am no longer based in a woodland, I have to buy in all my materials for chair-making and for firewood. Obtaining a mixed load like this is undoubtedly a win-win situation for both myself as the user, and for Toby as the supplier. I have already had colleagues saying they would love to have some logs like this, and I have suggested that if they can’t find such logs locally, they buy some of this supply to make space for me to purchase another similar load.
30 years ago, the Green Wood Trust was established through the mutual advantages of creative wood-users getting together with conservationists who were coppicing woodlands in the Severn Valley. I like to think that my dealings with Say it with Wood are taking this kind of symbiotic relationship forward as an example that could be repeated throughout the country.
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.
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)
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.
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)
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.
Christmas holiday in the Abbott household always seems to run until our son, Dougal’s birthday on 13th January, so now we are slowly returning to our normal routine.
Making chairs for a living
Over the 30 years of my career, the central part of my business has been devoted to running green wood courses through the summer based in a workshop in the woods. During the winters, if I haven’t been distracted by writing books or by moving home, I would occasionally make some chairs to order. Over the first 12-15 years I must have made about three dozen double-bow Windsor chairs but I am now unable to find any detailed records of who purchased them all. Here’s a pair from a batch of three that I made last year, having not made any for about fifteen years. I was reluctantly persuaded to make one for an old customer, so I decided to produce a set of three, making use of a beautiful old elm plank that had been lying at the back of my workshop for the last ten years or so. During this process, I realised why I had stopped making Windsor’s in favour of the simpler (and to my mind, more comfortable) lath-backs.
Documenting each new chair
Last winter, thinking that I was soon to give up running courses, I embarked on making a series of lath-back chairs – a design that has steadily evolved over the last ten years at Brookhouse Wood. To assist with my records, I decided to give each new chair a number as well as the ‘M ABBOTT’ name stamp and to document each one in a special ‘Chair book’. Last year’s chairs are 1-4 and the elephant’s eye, settin chair that I made in November is number 5 . The 6 chairs that I was busy with throughout December are numbers 6 to 11 but for some reason, I completed number 11 first and that was collected before Christmas.
The deadline for the set of five was not till into January, so I waited to seat them until my daughter, Nettie came home on holiday from university to lend an extra pair of hands. She is studying Maths & Philosophy, which I reckon makes her well qualified to work on interesting chair-seating patterns.
Apart from a few minor details, (hopefully the subject of another blog for the chair-making nerds amongst you) I am now pretty happy with the chair structure but the seat pattern is still developing, so after each one was finished, we’d work out a variation for the next one.
These chairs had been commissioned by Ian, who had come from Australia to attend a course last May. Being unable to take the chair home with him, he gave it to his sister-in-law Hazel, who then said she’d like a full set. In early January, Hazel arrived with her sister and with Phil, who had a big car to carry the chairs.
I’ll now print off the pictures of my first dozen or so lath-back chairs and paste them into my new chair book. I also intend to copy this information into a ‘Chair’ page on my new website – but all in good time!
I’m still waiting for Peter, my assistant from last summer to confirm an order for about 40 chairs for a theraputic centre in Denmark, which we plan to work on along with a colleague called Ben. In the meantime I have agreed to place some chairs in an exhibition in September (2016) at Twenty Twenty Gallery in Much Wenclock in Shropshire. So it looks as if I shall at last become a chair-maker to keep me busy when not running courses in the garden at home.
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.
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 – firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
I have just read through my previous blog entry – the secret power of trees and the rhythm of life – and it resonates more now than it did back in December.
Johnny Walshe has just posted a video he made while he took part in our Development Week at Brookhouse wood exactly a year ago. The sun was shining, the soil seemed too dry then but it crumbled beautifully under the horse drawn plough. Tom and Owen (Dillon & Thomas – I still think this is a brilliant band name) were in full voice, singing and playing around the fire, while others just gently mooched around the workshop.
Owen, Jack and the other assistants helped us get through the wettest summer ever with their energy, song and laughter but the Mayan prediction of the end of the world edged ever nearer. Little malfunctions started to happen – my chainsaw packed up in August, my car in November and all the time, news of ash dieback hung over us like the Grim Reaper. Two days after the courses finished in September, I helped my 92-year old father move into a nearby care home and by Christmas he was about settled there. We took a few day-trips, had some slap-up lunches together and took time to catch up on each other’s lives.
Eventually in January I had four good weeks tucked away in our cosy new cruck barn, frenziedly working on the new version of Living Wood (which I had enthusiastically announced on this blog way back in July). Then in February my father caught a chest infection and on 22nd he died – peacefully in his bed. ‘He’d had a good innings’ everybody says but it was heartbreaking to be with him for the last few weeks as he steadily lost the will to live. Surely there must be better ways to finish a life. Since then funerals, probates and sifting through his belongings have taken over from the new book. One consolation has been that I have felt spring has been holding its breath, encouraging me to sort out the unforeseen administration involved in the death of a parent.
So Johnny’s video reminds me that spring is aptly named – the coiled spring of the pole-lathe pole is quietly lifting the treadle back, ready for the next empowering downward stroke. The bluebells will eventually emerge and life will return to the woods with firewood being sawn, split and stacked. A steady stream of enthusiastic visitors will arrive to make more beautiful chairs in our amazing sylvan paradise and Living Wood 4th editionwill be launched this summer, with its vibrant new cover and a new crop of photos taken at Brookhouse Wood over the last seven years.