Posts Tagged ‘Rob Penn’

A lifelong ambition fulfilled

I have been meaning to update this blog for weeks but apart from one wet day (the first day of the most recent course) the sun has been shining from dawn til dusk and I’ve been outside making the most of it. However, this morning I woke at 2.30am and couldn’t go back to sleep such was my excitement from yesterday’s activities.

More good courses

We’ve had two more successful courses, the first one with a lovely bunch of people, all making spindle-backs and coming up with several more clever tricks to help make chairs (I’ll write these up in the winter). They also explored further into the realms of seat-weaving.

July offerings

Some impressive seats on the course in July

The next course was filled with ex-students from previous courses, so 3 of them made the more time-consuming lath-backs to add to their collections at home.

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A course for experienced chair-makers in August

Settin chairs

I have spent the few days since then assembling four chairs for an exhibition at Twenty-Twenty Gallery starting on 20th August. This will be the first time I have had my chairs in an exhibition since I was based in Devon over 20 years ago. Prompted by people on courses over the last few years, I have now added the ‘settin chair’ to the range of chairs produced in my workshop. This is an interpretation of a low chair described an the excellent book entitled Craftsman of the Cumberlands mixed with elements of the ‘wee-wor’ chair that we have been making for years.

Wonderful wood

In previous years on my chair-making courses in the woods, any leftover wood has been merrily burned to keep the kettle boiling, to fire the steamer and to dry chair-parts. Now my courses are based at home with solar panels powering the electric kettle, the wallpaper stripper and the drying unit, so every bit of ‘waste’ wood has been piled into my firewood sheds: longer pieces sawn to length for firewood, little pieces all ready to go into my workshop wood-burner and vast amounts of shavings to supply our friends with kindling.

A week or so ago I sawed up the remains of the stash of logs I had acquired over the last year – very sad to see it go for firewood rather than chairs but I’m sure we’ll appreciate the warmth this winter.

Logs ready for firewood

The last of the ash logs that I brought back from Brookhouse Wood when I left last year

More wood

Back in March I had received a call from our friend Toby Allen of Say it with Wood who said that they had felled a section of sweet chestnut coppice amongst which, were a few tonnes of ash logs – would I be interested? This was a good excuse for a walk, so we had a look and decided that we’d accept the offer.

Part of the cycle of woodland management

Mostly sweet chestnut logs, felled for use mainly in the production of fencing products

Good-looking ash logs

A stray ash tree amidst the sea of sweet chestnut

 

So yesterday Toby arrived with his fabulous, self-steering forwarder to restock my little wood-yard at Greenwood Cottage. Because he had once attended a chair-making course, Toby new which logs to put to one side and which to drop onto the pile for firewood. After a chat over a cup of tea, I wrote Toby a cheque worth about twice the normal firewood value, with which we were both very happy. This worked out at about the equivalent of a place on a course or the retail value of a finished chair. How could I not be happy  with such a deal?

Pricing wood for chair-making

I have been long advocating a pricing system for buying logs for chair-making but it has always been hard to justify the cost and time involved in calculating the small volumes involved, combined with the cost of transporting the stuff (see my blog last autumn). Now I am no longer based in a woodland, I have to buy in all my materials for chair-making and for firewood. Obtaining a mixed load like this is undoubtedly a win-win situation for both myself as the user, and for Toby as the supplier. I have already had colleagues saying they would love to have some logs like this, and I have suggested that if they can’t find such logs locally, they buy some of this supply to make space for me to purchase another similar load.

30 years ago, the Green Wood Trust was established through the mutual advantages of creative wood-users getting together with conservationists who were coppicing woodlands in the Severn Valley. I like to think that my dealings with Say it with Wood are taking this kind of symbiotic relationship forward as an example that could be repeated throughout the country.

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.

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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.

Halloween Tales from the Wild Wood

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!