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.


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.

The Secret Power of Trees

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.

The rhythm of life!

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!ImageImageImageImageImageImage