Thursday, 12 September 2019

Scythe Course 29/09/2019

Limited Places Available on Scythe Course in Co.Durham

Ever cursed your strimmer or lawn mower when it won't start? Come and learn how to use a scythe to manage your garden so that you can replace that unreliable, smoky strimmer! Full day course at Low Burnhall Nature Reserve near Durham City. 

Drop me an email or phone call if you'd like to book onto the course. Thanks! 

Monday, 2 September 2019

The Importance of Making

The Arts and Crafts Dilemma

Everybody uses ‘things’ every day, from the bowl one eats their breakfast from to the bed they sleep in at night. But despite our lives being thoroughly interwoven with the things we use daily, do we know how our possessions are made, where they came from or even who made them? A large majority of our possessions are produced on mass, and as such lack the individualism and stories that are associated with handmade objects. John Ruskin, the seminal art critic, writer and artist, was strongly opposed to the industrialisation of Europe and America that took place during the 19th century; Ruskin believed machine made objects to be “dishonest”, and that craftsmanship brought dignity to labour.

I can certainly testify to the satisfaction gained from using an item I have either made myself, a friend has made and given to me or an item I have purchased from a crafts-person directly. There is, without doubt, a greater feeling of connection to the item compared to a machine-made product. I enjoy the irregularities of handmade items and take satisfaction that the craftsperson has made a wage from making a product they both enjoy making and I enjoy using.

However, a dilemma exists that I discovered just a short time into making a living from crafts. I only discovered today that this dilemma has been present within arts and crafts since at least Ruskin’s time in the 19th century; how do you make high quality, handmade products at an affordable price for the many. These handmade crafts often take a long time to make, sometimes even the raw materials alone are expensive let alone the time it takes to create the objects. This creates products that often have a steep price tag that are simply out of reach for most people, hence we must opt for the mass produced, cheaper, option. This is in complete contradiction to the concept of enriching one’s daily life by using objects with a story.

Appreciating the Everyday

An artist called Thomas Thwaites from the UK set himself a challenge, to make a toaster from scratch. He visited his local high street and purchased the cheapest toaster he could find, just £5.00 was the cost. He subsequently took apart the toaster, piece by piece, to discover what’s needed to make a toaster. Over the next 9 months he proceeded to gather the raw materials he needed to construct his own toaster; he visited oil rigs to gather oil to make plastic and mines to gather mica and copper. In the end he succeeded in making a functional, if somewhat unconventional looking, toaster and went on to write a book about the process.

I think this story really highlights the complexity of the seemingly mundane items we use regularly, how often do you use your toaster without even considering the complexities of the machine you’re using to achieve a relatively simple task, toasting some bread. Perhaps we should just take a few moments each time we use an item to fully appreciate the effort and resources that have gone into producing the item we’re using. This also leads into the ethos of repairing instead of replacing in an attempt to reduce the quantity of materials we unnecessarily throw away.

The Importance of Making

Making has always been an essential and important part of life for humans, our ability to turn the objects and materials around us into complex items and tools is what allowed homo-sapiens to inhabit (almost) all areas of the earth. Think about homo-sapiens ability to live in far colder environments than those we evolved in; all because humans learnt how to sew and make warm clothes. Making things has perhaps become less everyday than it once was, we can now buy something rather than make it for ourselves. However, I think there are many things to be gained from seeing through the process of making for ourselves and those around us.

Making, and even fixing, allows somebody to change something, which in turn allows one to realise that they CAN make a change, however small. Making and altering things will change your perspective of the world, you do not have to accept the prescribed wooden handle offered with your choice of axe, the handle is yours to adjust and modify as you see fit just as societal norms and the life you live are yours to make.

Monday, 11 April 2016

A Woven Winter

The end of the felling season arrived just a few weeks ago at the end of March, and it turned out to be a pretty busy felling season this year! Now the birds are singing, the sun is shining (sometimes) and winter is at last over. So I thought I'd post a few pictures to show the jobs I've been working on over the winter. 

A lot of my time this year has been spent travelling between Kent and Norfolk, I've been cutting Sweet Chestnut down in Kent and Hazel up in Norfolk. Whilst I've been spending time down in Kent I've also been doing quite a bit of work with fellow woodsman, John Waller aka The Underwoodsman:

Over the winter I helped John with a number of woven fence jobs, often assisting with the cutting of the materials from the woodland all the way through to the installation of the fence. 

A small area of willow that we harvested in early October

The willow harvested woven into the finished fence, from Forest to Fence! 

Woven gate mid-way along fence

It's also been a busy winter for the weaving of hurdles of various sizes. I use an old railway sleeper as a mould for the spacing of the 'zales' or uprights.

People often ask me about the splitting of small diameter hazel rods, and how it's achieved. There's many ways to cleft a small diameter rod, but the method I find the fastest and most reliable is through the use of a post with a 'wedge' carved into it. The post is driven into the ground to give it stability and a wedge is then carved into it. The wedge is thin on one face of the post and thick on the opposite face. A split along the hazel rod is started with the use of a bill hook, as soon as the two halves have begun to split apart the rod can be pushed into the wedge, like so:

To avoid the split running off the the left or the right of the rod you have to be able to control the tension and compression in the rod. A split will only run into compression, not tension. For example, if the split in the photo was running off to the right, I would push the left side of the stick to the right, this creates tension in the right hand side of the rod bringing the split back to the centre. It takes a while to get right and requires practice, practice and more practice! Get in touch if you'd like more info on this, it's often easier to teach in person than over the web! There's more info about splitting larger diameter poles in an old post: Ash Gate Hurdles, How to, Part 1

Here's one of the finished hurdles, 6' x 6'
The finished hurdles fitted as a woven screen. The customer wanted the bark side facing in towards his garden.
I mentioned that I've been travelling up to Norfolk to cut hazel. I've been working in a woodland called Honeypot wood, near Wendling, mid Norfolk. It's a woodland that's owned and managed by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust and has an incredibly interesting story, both culturally and botanically. It was owned by the Ministry of Defence during the 2nd world war, during which time it was used as an ammunition store and I believe there may be an old runway. As a consequence there's a number of old concrete shelters that still exist in the woods, as well as a number of concrete rides throughout the wood. 

The other instantly obvious feature about this woodland is the very high ash coppice stools. I've never seen ash stools cut this high! People have speculated that they may be this high simply due to the age of the stools; every time a stool is coppiced it grows slightly in height / diameter as the regrowth shoots from the old, harvested stems. However, when you look closely at these stools you can see that at one point they have simply been cut at a high level, old growth tends to become very gnarly and rough. Evidence seems to suggest that during one coppice season the ash stools were simply cut very high. Honeypot wood is a very wet wood with poor drainage; perhaps they were cut high to avoid getting too wet one year!? I'm not sure we'll ever know for sure. When I was really busy cutting in Honeypot I stayed in the wood in my van for a few nights. At this time the moon was full and high in the sky, the moonlight shining down on the high coppice stools made the trees look like gnarled creatures walking through the woodland in the middle of the night! A creepy woodland indeed.

Many wildflowers are now present in the block that I coppiced this year, including wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa), bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta), dog's mercury (Mercurialis perennis) and lesser celendine (Ranunculus ficaria). The first 3 of which are ancient woodland indicator species. 

It's a great feeling heading into the Spring and Summer; life abounds, it's a time of year I've always enjoyed. This year I managed to cut plenty of hazel during the winter months so will be busy weaving and making during the spring and summer months. If you'd like to order any coppice products, get in touch. Don't forget your bean poles and pea sticks for the garden too

Thanks for reading!  

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Hedge Laying

The winter cutting season is finally here! For woodsman all over the country it's a pretty exciting time; as between the months of October and the end of March is when the majority of coppicing and hedge laying work takes place. This is the way it's been for a VERY long time; cutting in the winter avoids disturbing any birds that might be nesting in the coppice during the spring / summer months and it's also better for the trees themselves. The sap within a tree rises during the spring and early summer and then begins to fall during the autumn. By winter deciduous trees are in the depths of their dormant stage. This means that most of a trees energy reserves are stored in their roots during the winter, by coppicing a tree in the winter the tree is able to put this energy into sending up new shoots, or regrowth, in the spring. For more information on coppicing see my previous post.

The first job for me this cutting season has been a hedge laying job on a community green in Watlington, near Kings Lynn in Norfolk. 

First section of laid hedge
The hedge to be laid was 80m long and comprised almost entirely of hawthorn with a few self seeded sallow trees mixed in. Hedge laying is a very traditional way to manage a hedge; it revitalises a hedge by encouraging it to send up new shoots in the spring. When laying a hedge a small proportion of the stem is left intact with the stump, this allows the laid stem (or pleacher) to actually carry on growing, maintaining a living barrier. There are many hedgelaying styles in the UK, this particular one is known as the 'Midland Bullock' style and is often reffered to as the 'standard' style.

Hawthorn pleachers; the aim is to get the stem to 'lie down' without
shearing it from the stump of the shrub. a proportion of the
outer bark, inner bark, cambium and the sapwood layers remain
attached. This way new growth will shoot from the pleacher and
the stump. 
With the midland style one side of the hedge is known as the near side, and the other as the far side. The near side exposes the stems and pleachers giving a lovely woven look, this side would traditionally have been on the track side. The far side of the hedge would have been on the field side, on this side of the hedge the pleachers and stumps are completely covered by the brash from the tops of the stems. This prevents any livestock on the field from nibbling away the tasty new re-growth which would eventually kill the hedge if not prevented. 

In the case of this hedge, livestock was not a concern. Therefore I laid the hedge with the near side facing in towards the community green; anyone walking through the green will see the neat, woven near side. Another reason for choosing to lay it this direction was that the road next to the hedge often has large vehicles travelling along it. The hedge is laid the same way as the direction of traffic flow closest to the hedge so that any up-draft caused by large vehicles does not lift the pleachers off of the stem, severing their lifeline. The traffic along this road doesn't travel all that fast so whether large updrafts are created by any vehicles in this case is debatable, however this would certainly be something to consider if laying a hedge alongside a motorway or bypass. 

When a hedge is laid it needs to be staked to keep it in position, and to give it an initial bit of strength. I brought some sweet chestnut stakes up with me from Kent as these make extremely strong and durable stakes for hedging, fencing or any situations where stakes are required. (P.S. if you need any chestnut stakes, check out my coppice products page! Couldn't resist the plug!) 

Stakes ready to be split.
I split these 5'6" poles down to make cleft stakes, even the poles split into 8 stakes made extremely strong stakes that could be really driven into place. If you'd like to learn more about splitting poles using a cleaving brake and a froe please see my previous post about making ash gate hurdles.

Some chestnut stakes all split and ready to be driven into the hedge.
Once the hedge is laid and staked it needs to be bound. It was fortunate on this job that there were a number of willow trees that had self seeded into the hedge, these made great binders. Two sets of binders are wound around and around each other as they flow along the length of the hedge, creating a great look but also helping to hold the hedge together to create an instantly strong stock proof barrier. 

80m of hedge all laid and bound. The section at this end of the photo
has been dead hedged to fill a gap between the hedge and a gate.
The Eastern Daily Press (edp) even decided to come and cover the project, they wrote a little article about it available here. They took a nice photo of Keith (one of the Watlington Millennium Green Trustees) and myself too.

Keith and me flying the WREN flag! 
This hedge laying project took place on Watlington Millennium Green, near Kings Lynn in Norfolk and was organised by the Watlington Millennium Green Trust (who were very hospitable!) and was funded by WREN. 

WREN help to fund community projects that are located within 10 miles of a landfill site. This hedge has now been revitalised; it will continue to provide a refuge for wildlife whilst also opening up a community run outdoor space to create wide views across the green. 

A special thanks also to Chris for his help almost everyday I was hedging! I hope you learnt a few tips and don't forget that I'm determined to get you competing in a hedge laying competition soon! 

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Green Oak Handrail

This was a post that I started back in March 2014 but never got around to publishing. I finally got around to finishing it off, here it is, enjoy!

In my eyes, using trees from the woodlands in our local area is the most sustainable form of timber production and use. I was asked to make a handrail at work last week for use outside of a new oak framed ticket office that's nearing completion. I wanted to use local timber from our woodland located literally yards away from the new ticket office.

I was looking for an oak tree with a relatively straight stem, of about 15cm in diameter. I was working on my own so an axe and bow saw was used to fell the tree, which is nice as it means no power tools were used in the production of the handrail.

The first stage of the process was to strip the bark from the tree with a drawknife.

Once peeled a length was cut to the required length for the posts. This was then cleft in half using a froe. See my previous post on 'how to make an ash gate hurdle' for tips on using a froe and cleaving brake to split wood. 

Once cleft the posts were then driven into the ground. It's important to drive it far enough into the ground so that the posts are stable. A couple of foot was fine for us. 

 Tenon joints were then cut into the top of the post. we angled the base of the joint to match the angle of the handrail. 

Mortise joints that matched the tenons just cut were then cut into the rail. To measure where the mortises needed to be cut we simply placed the rail over the posts and marked where they needed to be. The mortises then had to be cut at a slight angle, this was more tricky! This was necessary as the handrail slopes uphill, but the tenons were cut parallel to the posts, which are vertical (I'm not sure if that makes sense!). 

The rail could then be slotted onto the posts. This was a tight fit but the oak posts would inevitably shrink. The rail would probably also shrink but whether they would shrink at the same rate was unknown. Ideally, if time had allowed, I would have seasoned the posts but kept the rail green. The seasoned tenons would not shrink any further. The mortise joints could then be cut to match the dried tenons, the green mortise joints would then shrink as they dried creating an extremely tight joint. 

Handrail fitted, all that's left to do is peg the mortise and tenon joints but we didn't have a drill on us so that will have to wait! All we need now is some visitors! 

Please excuse the mad hair! 

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

A Hazel Bender

Well it's been a while since my last post! It's been a busy year so far, I've been able to get out to quite a few coppice and craft related events so I thought I'd write up a few posts to summarise the year so far.

The biggest project I've been involved in so far this year is the building of a traditional hazel 'bender'. Now, we've heard all the jokes.... a bender in this sense is a traditional, simple shelter made using flexible withies or rods; often of hazel.

Traditionally, hazel rods were stuck into the ground and bent over to meet in the middle, creating a dome shaped structure. A groundsheet of some sort could then be put down to stop the damp rising.The skeleton of the structure is then covered with a tarp of some sort, canvas or poly, and insulation can be added at this point too.

We made ours slightly differently, we knew that we wanted it to be standing for as long as possible and that it should be a warm, dry place to spend time whether it's summer or winter.

Naturally, the base was first. We wanted to raise it off the ground slightly so that air could circulate beneath the bender. A few posts were knocked into the ground and bearers were nailed between these posts. The tops of pallets were then nailed down onto this base. 

Next we added a plastic, waterproof membrane as well as a small amount of insulation and a thin layer of ply to top it all off. 

At this point I should point out that benders normally have a circular footprint, sometimes with a small porch to keep the wind out. We wanted to make the most efficient use of the space we had so our floor plan is slightly non traditional. This did create challenges but we were able to work around them all in the end.

Now that the base was done, we could start bending over the hazel rods. We drilled 35 mm holes in the base where the hazel rods went through the base. 

And then the rain arrived and soaked our base!! 

A LOT of knots were tied, we used square lashing knots to tie the rods together. 

Whilst building the bender structure with hazel rods we also fitted these window panels. Most benders don't have windows but we thought it would be nice to let a bit of light in. Besides, we needed some window sills for plants!

It took us a while to figure out how to join an inherently round structure onto square windows. We ended up using  the blue water pipe that you can see in the above photo. this was screwed onto the window panels and the hazel rods were then inserted into these sections of pipe. 

Unfortunately I don't have any photos of the next stage, basically we covered the structure with a series of layers; firstly hessian fabric, then sheeps wool underlay insulation and finally a cotton canvas. 

We used a series of screws and large washers to attach the canvas to the structure. 

Once the door was fitted and the canvas was on it started to feel really cosy. The next stage was to fit a stove. 

First fire in the stove!
So far, so good. We decided to start moving some stuff in. 

A rather long spell of wet weather then came in and we discovered that the cotton duck canvas we fitted was only water resistant. Our newly built bender was leaking like a sieve! Luckily we built the bender in the spring so we had the summer ahead of us to sort out the leaks. I tried a few different products to waterproof the canvas but unfortunately, in the end we had to give in and purchase a poly-cotton canvas. Whilst fitting the new poly-cotton canvas we also fitted an additional reflective layer between the hessian and the insulation. This helps to reflect radiant heat back into the bender. This extra layer seems to have worked incredibly well at preventing heat from escaping and I would definitely recommend it to anyone building a yurt or bender. Particularly if you want to spend time in it during the winter. 

We're really happy with the finished garden hide-away and learnt a lot during the building process. We will definitely by-pass the cotton canvas next time, which is a real shame as it's nice to be able to use a natural product that's breathable. The one thing which I think may have allowed us to stick with the cotton canvas is a product called Tyvek. Which is a man-made breathable / waterproof membrane used in the construction industry. a layer of this could have been fitted between the canvas and insulation. Perhaps next time! 

If anybody would like more information about this project or if you're thinking about building a bender of your own, get in touch. I'd be more than happy to share what I learnt throughout the build. 

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

New spoons for sale

Well it's been a while since I've posted on here!  The move down to Kent to start working in the woodlands down here has been keeping me busy.

I've also been busy making more wooden spoons in my spare time and have made too many to fit in our utensil draw at home! So here's a few that are up for sale. Please send me an email or leave a comment if you're interested in buying one.

The postage for these spoons is £4.50 recorded 1st class delivery to UK mainland. This price is per order rather than per spoon..

15-01 Beech Crook -  SORRY, NOW SOLD

Serving / cooking spoon. 

Length: 25 cm     Bowl width: 5.5 cm

£20 + Postage

15-02 Beech Crook -  SORRY, NOW SOLD

Serving / Cooking spoon

The Celtic runes on this spoon translate to BEECH. 

Length: 28.5 cm      Bowl width: 5.5 cm

£20 + postage

15-03 Birch eating spoon - SORRY, NOW SOLD

Length: 18.5 cm     Bowl width: 4 cm

£13 + postage

15-04 Birch eating spoon - SORRY, NOW SOLD

Length: 19 cm      Bowl width: 3.75 cm

£13 + postage

Thanks for looking everyone. If you're interested in being taught how to carve these spoons yourself let me know, I'm thinking about running some spoon carving courses in the not too distant future.