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
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.
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.
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.
Hannah’s ‘settin chair’ made on the last course alongside a ‘wee wor’ made by assistants at Brookhouse Wood.
two chair frames freshly oiled, ready for seating
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.
In the wood-station, ready for cutting to length
Drying nicely for use over the coming winter
Ready to burn in my winter workshop
A stack of shavings, which make excellent 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.
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.
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?
Ready to receive the delivery of logs
Putting the best of the logs to one side
Handing over a cheque for the logs
Enough logs for up to 80 chairs and a winter’s firewood
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 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.
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.
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).
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.
Log piles in 2014
Springtime lunch break
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).
Solar energy being put to use again
Burning the dry shavings
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.
Softwood poles behind a basket making course
Conifer poles waiting to be 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.
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.
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)
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.
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)
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.
Today started by steam-bending the last set of laths. Before I could do this, I took out the 2 sets that I bent on Sunday and fitted them into the setting jig. They needed packing out with a some slices of thin plywood to retain maximum bend.
To make the side rungs and seat-rails for the 6 chairs, I used a log felled this April that had been cleft in half when making legs in a course this summer. It was 18cm (7″) diameter and I cut 3 lengths of 38cm (15″). As with the wood for the legs, this was best split into thirds. In theory, each third would yield 5 rungs and 3 seat-rails.
After cleaving the first of these lengths it looked as if I had the blanks for 6 seat-rails and 11 rungs, with 5 lengths of rejects – either run out during cleaving or defects in the wood.
By the time I had shaved them, this had gone down to 6 seat-rails and 9 rungs.
The beauty of working green wood is that one can happily reject anything that’s not right for the job. I had been thinking of cutting all of my spring-felled logs into firewood, so getting a load of chair parts out of this log is a bonus. Because it had been felled 8 months ago, I then left these shaved blanks in a tub of water for several hours. The idea was for them to soak up some moisture so they would swell a little. Then when I cut the tenons with the tenon cutter, they would shrink to the desired size. (After taking the photo, I placed a weight on them to hold them under the water).
Those 3 sections of the half log just yielded the 36 side rungs and rails plus 4 back seat-rails and are now drying in the racks above the wood-burning stove.
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.
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.Ben 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.
As 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.
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.