Posts Tagged ‘The Man who Made Things out of Trees’

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.

P1080370

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.

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.

 

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.

P1060045

 

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.