Posts Tagged ‘Mike Abbott’

You can’t judge a tree by looking at its bark!

Ash trees in Meephill coppice

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.

Crunchie and Mike coming back from the woods in 2015

A collection of logs ready to be picked up

The logs loaded for home.

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!)

A log with a rotten centre

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

wispy fibres – a sign of tough chair-making wood

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.

Good, straight, tough, fibrous ash-wood

a straight, symmetrical log, ideal for back legs of chairs

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

half of each of these two logs.

Despite thirty years working with this stuff, it is still difficult to ascertain the specific quality of a log by looking at its bark.

The logs, cleft in half and stacked under cover by the stream

So, log by log, I stacked them in a cool, dry, shady spot between my workshop and the adjacent stream.

Since then, they have been used with varying success over seven 5-day courses to produce 27 unique heirlooms for their delighted makers.

May 24th

June 7th

June 26th

July 5th

july 19th

August 9th

August 23rd

That will do for the moment!

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Spring with no woodland

 

Hannah's wedding

Cutting the Black Forest gateau

 

The clock change at the end of March has, for the last 30 years, always heralded the first of my ‘Development Weeks’ during which my woodland workshop has been brought back to life after a winter of hibernation. This year (nicely timed to make up for the absence of a woodland workshop) it heralded the wedding of my eldest daughter, Hannah, who married Johannes in a beautiful chapel near Freiburg, followed by a sumptuous reception in a picturesque farmhouse on the edge of the Black Forest.

 

 

Black Forest Wood

‘bales’ of firewood drying

On the plane I had been reading more of my copy of the best-selling book Norwegian Wood, where on page 87 there is a photo of an interesting modern method of storing firewood. By using a cleaving machine, metre long sections of log are strapped in bundles, capable of being easily moved around by tractors in the same way as the large bales of straw we see all over the countryside. I was delighted to see such a system put into action by the Black Forest farmer who’s wife was hosting the reception.

Starting on the shelter

stripping poles beneath the washing

So it was not until April 5th that I started working on my new shelter. The sun shone and after hanging out the washing (Tamsin being frantically busy fulfilling orders from her recent media appearances in Country Living Magazine and Countryfile) I started stripping poles (note the oak swill wash basket made by Owen Jones about 18 years ago and still in use most days).

 

Waiting for Spring

Chestnut poles stacked next to a pile of equipment wrapped up for the winter

 

In January I had bought 20 chestnut poles from  Say it with Wood which had been stacked next to a tarpaulin covering a load of equipment I had brought back from the woods.

 

 

 

For 30 years my ‘Development Weeks’ have been manic occasions during which I have attempted to harness the enthusiasm and energy of around a dozen volunteers, felling trees, splitting logs, building cabins and a host of other woody projects. They have nearly all camped in the woods and spent the evenings cooking, eating, drinking and singing together – a superbly creative combination of the energy from people, food and wood.

 

 

Stripping chestnut pole

working out in the spring sunshine

 

This year, with no facilities for camping, I have been plodding away mainly on my own.  I unwrapped a shaving horse and a bench (fitted with a vice) and placed them near the trampoline to hold the poles while removing the bark plus some of the sapwood. Obviously the work takes longer and it would have saved a lot of time to have a few others to help strip the poles. On the other hand it has been a more meditative process – Zen and the art of stripping poles! We had a few warm sunny days, I thought summer had arrived, so off came the shirt and out came the shorts. It made a refreshing change from the 7-minute workout accompanying my son, Dougal each day. This outdoor workout also had the added incentive of ending up with something useful when it was completed.

 

 

 

 

 

In fact, as well as 20 stripped poles, I ended up with 4 builders bags full of lovely dry shavings, which I dried in the sunshine on the trampoline and are now in the wood-shed, waiting for evening use on the fire-dish (made by blacksmith friend, Andrew Findlay).

As I was working away, I recalled the construction of the previous ten or so workshops I had built over my thirty year career. I knew chestnut poles were best to resist rot when buried in the ground but realised that straighter, lighter softwood poles would serve better for the horizonal components that would be clear of ground level. When recently collecting some chair-making ash, I had noticed some straight, slender poles at Moreton Wood, so I ordered a dozen of these from Paul, which I collected and stripped.

With a couple of days off to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary, it took until the last week of April before I was ready to start assembling the new shelter.

Bending 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.

Terry, Richard and a collection of chairs

(with a fortuitous selfie of me in the mirror)

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!!’

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.

Terry with a gently curved leg

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.

Back in the saddle

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.

Rhys & Mandy with their green ash

The start of two chairs

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)

P1060834

Mandy displaying the components for the back panel.

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.

P1060838

Back leg production underway.

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)

The drying cabinet in action

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.

Chairs completed and collected

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.

Double bows

Chair 11

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.

Collecting chairs 6-10

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.

 

 

 

It’s a Wonderful Life

For those of you who have been avidly waiting for the latest episode in my chair-making saga, I have to apologise for getting rabbled up in preparations for Christmas, so my chair-making blog has been temporarily put to one side.

I’ve done my best to listen to the reading of Rob Penn’s book on Radio 4 each morning this week.

Rob's book

The Man who Made Things out of Trees

On Monday, Tamsin was helping me to weave the seat on a chair, when the first episode was aired. It first I was taken aback by the voice. In the Radio Times it had said that Rob was going to be reading it but instead of his  gravelly voice was the refined reading voice of Andrew Lesser (I think I’ve got that right). I found it hard to imagine the owner of this voice wielding a chainsaw, while crashing his way through a Welsh woodland. Having got over that disappointment, we enjoyed listening to Rob’s eloquently written, entertaining story, with Tamsin commenting that this was more like the kind of book she would read, rather than my sort of book.

I missed Tuesday’s episode but made a point to listen to Wednesday’s, which was all about his visit to Robin Wood’s bowl turning workshop. Whenever I have a radio programme I am keen to hear, I make sure I have a good pile of washing up, to keep my hands occupied, while my brain is soaking up the airwaves……………

Believe it or not, this is where I stopped writing this blog yesterday to make the morning cuppa and didn’t get back to it till this morning, having just read Robin Wood’s blog about ‘Doing what you love’……………………………

Just as the story got to the bit where Rob (Wood) made 3 cuts on the base of the bowl as his maker’s mark. I realised I was washing up one of Rob’s bowls that we use daily, along with several other pole-lathe-turned bowls by Ben Orford, Owen Thomas, James Wilkes, Steve Tomlin and Barnaby Carder (made long before he was Barn the Spoon). Not to mention a set of plates turned by Rob and even a few rare Mike Abbott plates, as well as a collection of wooden spoons and spatulas.

A Selection of treen in the Abbott household

I couldn’t resist taking this photo – but after consideration, I refrained from posting it, as it might look like I was trying to outdo Rob Penn. Since reading Rob Wood’s blog, I’ve given up on trying to conceal my competitive instincts!! 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.

Norwegian Wood

My book was a copy of Norwegian Wood by Lars Mytting, all about the delights of harvesting, splitting, stacking and burning firewood – now an international best-seller – beautifully written and very informative. Nettie read ‘Down and out in Paris and London’ by George Orwell.

 

After seeing the only other out-patient, the doctor was able to take his time, explore all the possibilities and conclude that she was in fine health and had simply suffered from an attack of heartburn. We called into the nearest filling station to buy some Rennies when I noticed it was exactly 9.45am, just in time to drive home listening to the final episode of ‘The Man Who Made things out of Trees’.

 

It was great to know that all the regular listeners to Radio4 would now be aware of just how many things could be made out of an ash tree (even if chairs were pretty well ignored – I’m hoping Rob’s sequel will be ‘The Men and Women who make Chairs out of Trees’).

However, I have to admit that the details of the construction of Rob’s writing desk were overshadowed by contemplations on the meaning of life and how fortunate are those of us who enjoy a healthy, harmonious and fulfilling life.

 

Spare ribs

Sunshine at last!!

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.Three Chairs

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

Side rungs for three chairs

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.

Spare ribs

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.

Spare ribs in the sunshine3 racks of spare ribs

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.