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
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Having seen the best hour’s telly a month ago when Countryfile had an hour featuring British woodlands, I have just listened to the best EVER radio programme on BBC Radio 4. It was all about the benefits of woodlands for human well-being. It would have been better still if I had been on it but there you go. If you didn’t hear it, go to i-player when it is available.
This is exactly the topic that I have been banging on about for the last 35 years and it seems to be sinking in.
Call it co-incidence or collective unconscious but this morning I got up early to write the Introduction for my new book. Here it is, hopefully along with some photos from the woods where I spend my summers feeling very good. Also a link to see a pole-lathe in action.
I first discovered the pole-lathe in 1976 in a wonderful book entitled ‘Woodland Crafts of Britain’ by Herbert Edlin. Intrigued by the idea and wanting to work with wood but having very little money, I cobbled one together and the pole-lathe steadily crept into my life. For twenty years it was the mainstay of my career and ever since that first tentative treadle, I have struggled to put my finger on what it is that makes the pole lathe such a magical machine. Now I think I have finally nailed it!
Life is rhythm, rhythm is life.
Everything that is, was created in ‘The Big Bang’ or ‘The Seven Days of Creation’ or ‘Whatever’. I believe we can never comprehend how it all came about but here it is, and we have to live with it.
Life is ruled by one overriding law, expressed in different ways by different people:
What goes up, must come down
To each and every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction
The concept of Yin and yang
The only certainty in life is change
There ain’t no happy times without no pain – Paul Brady
And nothing exemplifies this law better than the rhythm of the pole-lathe..
The start of the downstroke requires a huge input of effort during which very little happens. Is it really going to be worth it?
It then picks up speed and you bring the chisel into contact with the soft, succulent wood and the long smooth shavings start to glide. This is the moment to live for.
Then the stroke comes to an end, the action stops but all that creative energy is captured in the spring of the pole. Not death, just dormancy.
You have to let go, relax your pressure on the treadle and leave it to the pole to bring you back for the next episode. If you don’t let go, everything grinds to a halt.
Do you recognise this rhythm?
It is the rhythm of life – the heartbeat – day and night – the seasons – sex and drugs and rock-and-roll!
As I understand it, Halloween marks the pagan new year – the harvest is in and nature starts its well earned rest until the spring, making a good marker for the start of my winter routine. By now I hope to have all the apples picked, the firewood stacked, a bag of spuds in the larder and a full gas bottle outside the kitchen – ready for whatever the winter can throw at us. With half -term over we can snuggle into our normal winter routine – Tamsin working away in her studio producing stained glass panels for the forthcoming Hereford Contemporary Craft Fair, while I spend the mornings working on the revised book, and the afternoons cutting firewood, picking our prolific autumn raspberries, cooking apple crumbles, shopping and relishing many more family activities (such as driving our teenage children the length and breadth of East Herefordshire).
As last winter was drawing to a close, I received a phone call from a TV researcher asking if I would be interested in taking part in a TV programme, Tales from the Wild Wood. As part of a woodland restoration project, they were going to fell an ash tree, which they wanted to convert into furniture. Of course I told them I was the man for the job and I could bring a shaving horse with a few simple tools and convert it on the spot to make the parts for a chair. I posted them a copy of my chair-making book, Going with the Grain and looked forward to taking part in the project. A few days later we spoke again and they had already decided that the tree would be planked in a sawmill, and they wouldn’t require my input. Ce est la vie!
I must somehow have been tuned into the current zeitgeist and spent a fair chunk of the summer, (when not running courses) in building a shed in the garden centred around two splendid ash crucks and a load of milled Western red cedar. Last week, we spent a day fixing all the cladding, so as a farewell to the summer, I spent Halloween morning preparing kindling wood out of the last remains of the cedar planks. A potential candidate for ‘George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces’ had we known, the cruck room has already been used as accommodation for at least six friends and family over the last few months as well as being a superb location for my after-lunch 20-minute nap (uninterrupted by phone calls from India asking to speak to Mr aBott).
Instead of indulging in trick or treat, I spent Halloween evening ferrying Dougal back from his break-dance class, an hour or so before collecting Nettie from helping out with the Class 7 Halloween disco. I rushed back in time to catch 20 minutes of ‘Tales from the Wild Wood’ (8.30 on BBC4) but had missed the felling of the ash tree. However I was in time to see three respected woodworkers selecting their required logs, which were by now lying on the woodland floor. When I saw furniture-maker David Colwell describing the ideal log for his elegant and efficient steam-bent chairs, I didn’t feel so bad that I had missed out on the chance of another ’10 minutes of fame’. (It is exactly three years since I took part in the filming of Monty Don’s Mastercrafts, which brought in a great deal of custom for my courses). I was also astonished by John with his large-scale turnery, who says he has to buy most of his ash from abroad. I shared in Ralph’s disbelief at Rob Penn’s ignorance of the value of a chunk of burr, which could have been made into some beautiful bowls instead of being chopped for firewood. Still, life is all about learning, and Rob is taking it all on board and sharing it readily with anyone who may be watching the programme. It does however seem a shame that, as with Kevin McCloud’s shed building, the opportunity had been missed to show some really informative AND visually entertaining green wood skills. Never mind – it will happen another time.
Anyway, a few days ago we hooked up to Airband high speed wireless broadband, which has been received with great delight by Tamsin and Dougal, both astonished by the up-and download speeds. Today I hope to use i-player to see Rob felling his ash tree, wondering if in ten years time this will prove to be a valuable piece of archive footage of the days when ash trees abounded freely in British woodlands before the devastation of Chalara dieback. Or will this latest plague turn out to be yet another media frenzy, this time probably whipped up by the apparent destruction of 90% of Denmark’s ash trees by the disease. Only time will tell. From a purely selfish point of view, if this were to happen in Britain, there should still be enough good ash to enable 400 more chairs to be made over my 5 remaining years of chair-making courses. As somebody pointed out, this scare might have the positive effect of increasing the public’s awareness of this wonderful resource which is so much taken for granted by modern society. Always look on the bight side, eh!