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
A week ago I spent an hour or so with Richard Mackley, who had contacted me about bending a new back leg so that he could repair an old, broken Clissett chair. When I saw the distorted grain in the broken leg as well as the very straight seat-rails, I really doubted that this was a cleft-wood chair, even if the legs had a distinctly oval cross section. (I’m really sorry I didn’t take more detailed photos – maybe another time). Anyway, I sold him a few lengths of nice straight ash so that he could turn some new legs and we arranged another session to do the bending.
Interested to find out more about this apparent ‘fake’ Clissett, Richard and I exchanged e-mails with Terry Rowell, a relation by marriage to a Clissett descendant, who has compiled a remarkable website all about the old fellow and his chair-making: http://www.philipclissett.co.uk/. Much to our delight, Terry agreed to join us on our bending session to look at Richard’s chair and to bounce about ideas on bending the back legs.
It took little time for Terry to confirm my doubts about Richard’s chair not being made by PC. But neither did it seem to be a Gardiner or Neal version either. Undaunted, Richard bent 2 pairs of nicely turned legs with a bit of help from myself with a wallpaper stripper generating clouds of steam.
Sadly, Richard had to leave us in order to take one of his woodworking classes at Herefordshire College. Then Terry and I got down to our issue about how PC bent his back legs. Having examined as much historical evidence as possible, Terry’s hypothesis (he trained as a scientist) is that PC bent his legs without the use of either steam, or boiling water, as used by Lawrence Neal: http://www.lawrencenealchairs.co.uk/video.html. I was introduced to the work of PC by my old mentor Jack Hill. (I’ve just found the website he seems to have started, the year before he died in 2009: http://www.southirishhorse.com/hill/). Jack used steam for all his bending, as one needs a great deal less boiling water than if you immerse the legs in a big tub of boiling water. This is what I have always done myself.
I had spent the previous afternoon cleaving and shaving 3 pairs of legs from the lovely straight ash logs that I had collected in November. I found it helpful to have a range of froes, from the huge Ray Iles froe down to a little broken Bristol Design one.
Now was the time for Terry to convince me, against all my scepticism, about his theory of cold bending. Before he started he asked me to shave the leg down a little from the 38mm diameter to nearer the 32/33mm of his delicate PC chair. Allowing for shrinkage we settled for about 34mm. We decided to use my cleaving brake as a bending former…….and to my great surprise, the leg bent quite easily with no sign of kinking or snapping or tearing. I love the expression on Terry’s face, clearly saying ‘told you so!!’
Not for the first time in my life, I had to open my mind to rethink my long-held beliefs. It obviously sprung back somewhat but it is documented that PC put his back legs, held in a bending jig in a cooling baker’s oven for 20-30 minutes to harden, then a few days in the warm to dry. We then had another go with a 38mm leg, with little extra effort required.
As Terry said ‘If they can be bent cold, why would Clissett have messed about with boiling water or steam’. When compared with the examples of chairs by Clissett and Gardiner, it appears that the cold bending produces the gentle curve as seen on the Clissett chair as opposed to the comparatively kinked leg produced in Gardiner and Neal chairs.
Hopefully Terry will join me at the forthcoming Bodgers Ball in May near Bristol, for a discussion on various ways of bending not only chair legs but scythe snaiths.
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.
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.
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.
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!! http://www.robin-wood.co.uk/wood-craft-blog/2015/12/26/do-what-you-love/. 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.
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.
After 4 days of dismal, damp weather, yesterday (Wednesday) we had a warm, sunny afternoon and I was able to take a few more photos of my chair-making. On Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, I had assembled a chair each day.
Because they are made with very tight joints, it is a bit tricky squeezing the frames together single handed, having to hold the chair and the rung, while having to wind the handle on the sash clamp. On the courses we always have at least two people (if not three) working together on this operation. On the chairs that I make for sale, I like all the components to be as delicate as possible, so there is a likelihood of the rungs flexing while being squeezed into place, especially with the long slender front rungs. If they have a natural curve, then that just adds to the difficulty. For those of you who are planning to make chairs like these, I suggest making the front rungs no less than 18mm diameter in the centre, tapering down to the 16mm tenon at each end.
Nearly straight rungs
I had made some spare side rungs, some of which had quite distinct curves along their length but I selected the straightest ones in order to reduce their flexing during assembly. They still have enough inherent character to distinguish them quite clearly from lathe turned produce.
Having assembled all six back panels last week, I was intrigued by their appearance as they lay in the drying rack and realised that they reminded me of a rack of spare ribs. It is this lightness and flexibility combined with the elastic strength of good ash timber that makes these chairs far and away my favourite chair to produce. I spent a happy 15 minutes trying to capture this feeling by photographing them in sunshine on our trampoline.
These cross rails are too delicate to be squeezed in with the usual extra-large tenons, so by running the 9/16″ (14.3mm) tenon cutter over them before assembly, they just squeeze perfectly into their 14mm holes.
Saturday 12th was a day off but I was back in the workshop again today (Sun 14th) – the other side of the coin, when running your own business. The first thing was to drill all the mortices in one of the side panels. This was pretty much by the book ‘Going with the Grain’, lifting the back of the chair by 5cm, marking out where to drill, then gripping the frame to the bench. Having reflected on my comment about it being too scary to do all the drilling with a Forstner bit, I tried it on a scrap piece and it seemed OK, so I thought I’d try it for real today. It was no great ordeal – it burned the wood a little where the depth stop rubbed but that could easily be shaved off. I’ve laid out all the tools that were needed for this particular process.
Here are the stages in creating the mortice for the crest at the top of the back leg.
The lump of wood with a big nail in it is a ‘centre finder’, which when used with the sliding bevel (on the right) marks a point showing where to drill the angled holes. The little thing between them is the same 14mm bundle of nails that I used for marking the mortices for the laths a few days ago. Tapping this little bundle on top of the nail hole shows where to drill the two holes of the mortice. I used the 12mm chisel to clean out the mortice after the 2 holes had been drilled. It looks a mess here but a few strokes with a spokeshave cleans it all up nicely.
When drilling the second panel, I decided to make a new hole in the bench to enable a clamp to grip the front legs to the bench. I like making it an ellipse, which is very easy to do with a couple of nails and a short length of string. I could probably calculate exactly where to put the nails and how long the string should be but I went for trial and error. The first attempt was too small for the clamp but the second attempt was fine. I could have made it more elliptical by shortening the length of string. (See the new hole in the pics below)
I thought it worth using the dummy method described in my book ‘Living Wood’ to perform a trial assembly with dummies to take the place of the front and back rails and rungs – the same length but smaller tenons (so that they can be easily removed again). The frame is held together with bungee cord, so that I can measure the lengths for the cross rail and the crest. I had made the crests over-length (just in case) so I cut them shorter according to the lengths given in the book – which was reassuring.
After spending some time shaving and sanding all the components, I then squeezed it all together and fitted a couple of 5.5mm square walnut pins into 6mm holes at the top to hold the crest in place. (The little grey pad, bottom right is one of the wonderful Abranet pads for sanding everything).
Not counting the two walnut pins, that’s 22 components and 36 holes to create a remarkably robust structure out of very little wood but a lot of time and effort.
I just need to trim the tops and bottoms of the legs before oiling the frame and weaving the seat but I’ll hope to assemble the other 5 chairs first.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.