Making chair rungs & rails

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.Laths in their setting jig

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.

The results from cleaving the first bit of log

By the time I had shaved them, this had gone down to 6 seat-rails and 9 rungs.

Rungs and rails after shaving

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).

The rung & rail blanks soaking

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.


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.

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.

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 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.

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.

I’m back from the woods

Hello again followers! 6 months have elapsed since my last entry. Mostly very pleasant months, lost in the woods with a flow of really great people coming to spend a week, away from their normal lives. With the help of some enthusiastic young assistants, Stephen, JoJo, Johnny, James, Jo, Sharyn and Rhun, we had yet another great summer giving a couple of dozen ash trees a whole new life in the form of some beautiful chairs. In between courses, I was working hard on new editions of both my current books, Living Wood and Going with the Grain, both of which are now available, just in time for you to give copies to your friends and relatives for Christmas.Image

I happened to be in the office when a journalist phoned to ask me about ash trees and chair-making but was taken aback when the article was published a week before it was due.

I’m afraid that when the article came out, the website hadn’t been updated since July but we now have the dates for 2014 posted for you all to find a suitable date.

Wrapping up the first course

Having made all the parts for the chairs on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, Thursday had been spent in the sun starting the process of assembly. By the end of Friday the chairs had been fully assembled and oiled. Jo Morton had delivered a load of wych elm bark and I had talked to the group about the other options for seating their chairs. On Saturday (May 4th) Hans and Fransisco went for the wych elm and settled themselves among the anaemonies beneath the emerging cherry blossom to work on their seats.

Hans and Fransisco applying wych elm bark to their chairs, surrounded by spring flowers.
Hans and Fransisco applying wych elm bark to their chairs, surrounded by spring flowers.

James helped Ian weave his seat using kambaa (a plaited palm cord from Tanzania) to match the chair he had made on a course a few years ago.

James helping Ian to finish the kambaa seat on his high lath-back chair
James helping Ian to finish the kambaa seat on his high lath-back chair

Phil decided on another variation of the woven Irish pattern that we have been developing over the last two years, as described in one of my earlier blogs.

Phil's seat with Danish cord in a woven Irish pattern.
Phil’s seat with Danish cord in a woven Irish pattern.

JoJo completed yet another variant of the woven Irish pattern based on Beth’s seat from September 2012, which in turn was inspired by Emma’s woven stool from 2009.

The seat woven by JoJo based on a pattern of Beth's in September 2012, which in turn was based on a stool woven by Emma about 4 years ago
The seat woven by JoJo based on a pattern of Beth’s in September 2012, which in turn was based on a stool woven by Emma about 4 years ago

Aly joined us for the day to replace the seat on a chair she had made a few years ago. When they were all finished, they undertook the obligatory ‘end of course’ pose on the verandah, with the Malvern Hills in the distance, still visible before the leaves emerge.

The produce from the first chair-making course of 2013
The produce from the first chair-making course of 2013

Spring in the Woods

At last! After a mainly cold,wet summer last year followed by the long, cold winter, we started our first course of the year this week.

I think the miserable winter must have put people off the idea of a week in the woods, so we only had four bookings on this course but it gave me the opportunity to train up this year’s assistants. Stephen has returned as the main assistant, having worked with Barn as an assistant in 2009. Johnny, James and JoJo will be taking it in turns to work alongside Stephen in guiding this year’s students through their chair-making courses.

Stephen carefully sighting Hans as he locates where to drill into his chair legs
Stephen carefully sighting Hans as he locates where to drill into his chair legs

Yesterday the sun shone non-stop from the dawn chorus until sunset, so having made all the parts for the chairs during the first two and a half days, we moved some benches onto the field at the edge of the woods to start assembling the chairs.

James helping Ian assemble his side panel
James helping Ian assemble his side panel

We were also able to use the magnificent dining table built last year by Owen, Steve and the other volunteers. As well as using it at lunchtime, it also serves well as a woodwork bench with a view across the valley to the Malvern Hills in the distance.

Hans cutting a mortice while JoJo and Fransisco squeeze together a chair frame
Hans cutting a mortice while JoJo and Fransisco squeeze together a chair frame

By lunchtime our simple solar water heater had warmed 7 gallons of water to just the right temperature for a shower.

Fransisco replacing one of the water containers back into the solar heater after his shower
Fransisco replacing one of the water containers back into the solar heater after his shower

The next two courses are about fully booked but we still have places for the course from June 10th to 15th. After the dry cold March and the showers in late April, I fully expect a blazing June, so book a course place soon and you will hopefully be able to spend a creative week,  basking in the Herefordshire countryside.