Cumbrian Burry Oak

You might remember a few years ago I posted about a very special English Walnut tree that was milled at DF Timber Ltd in Cumbria.  Every now and then other exceptional trees, felled locally, come through the mill and we get to see their story prized open and see all it's potential in it's full glory.

A few months back a huge English Oak tree was next to be milled.  It had been growing in Portinscale, down the road from DF Timber, for probably well over the 250 year mark. Huw from DF Timber mentioned that it had been pollarded* but it had probably been dying for a long time as it didn't have any new growth.  It was felled in 2012 and sadly had a fair bit of heart rot but with a tree this size its still worthwhile buying it.

(*Pollarding - a technique of tree pruning.  By cutting the top branches you encourage denser growth throughout the tree.  Traditionally it provided fodder for livestock and timber/firewood.  Very similar to coppicing but raised off the ground away from munching mouths of deer and sheep etc...)

All in all it weighed over 3 tonnes, 95 cubic feet and was way too big to fit on even the scary, beastly green mill.  Huw had to whip out the long bar chainsaw and cut it down to size first.

What also makes this specimen extra special is the amount of bur evident within it's timber. You can see a huge round bur growing out the side of this tree - it's almost as big as Huw! - and there's plenty more all around it's trunk.

A bur is a strange, unexplained growth made up of dormant buds and twisted grain.  Commonly believed to be the trees reaction to the stresses of the world, like the Elephantiasis of the tree world.  Yet, cut below the bark and these ugly growths hold the most coveted markings for furniture makers, sculptures and turners.  Clusters of varying sized knots, surrounded by dense and open grain can sand, buff and oil up to stunning results.  Assorted colours play with the light.  Often it's such a beautiful mess it's hard to know which way up the tree was.

With a big chunk of Oak to get through, even the long bar chainsaw ( 36inches ) proved tricky to make a clean cut all the way through.  Huw got as far as the chainsaw allowed before using simple wooden wedges to smack all along the cut he'd made, forcing the tree open.  Splitting wood is one of the easiest and satisfying procedures for cutting up greenwood* - if it has clean and straight grain - throw a big bur in the way and the wood won't know which way to split!  It needed some extra welly!

(*freshly felled/cut or non seasoned timber)

Finally separated and it's beautiful, dark colouring gives away only a hint of what this tree has to offer.  Sadly, the heart is a little soft, but the timber around it will have plenty to make up for it.

Charcoaling for Wood Vinegar

I'm on a quest to find a future for England's 649,000 hectares of unmanaged woodlands. Every year around 4 million tonnes of unharvested English timber is ignored, that equates to 800,000 tonnes of carbon store.  To bring these forgotten plots of land back into management we could not only provide British industry with a vital raw material and fuel, but enhance and re-establish our declining wildlife, and ecology, something that can have a positive trickle effect on our agriculture.

My landlady's woodland, "Jan's wood", is my case study.  What economical manufacturing process can I create within this 45 acre woodland, neglected but bursting with potential?  So far I have been learning the intricate chemistry that lies within trees, and how this chemistry makes wood behave the way it does.

In particular, I have been referring to England's historical woodland based craft to understand how generations benefited from this material long before the Industrial Revolution.

Charcoal is created by heating any organic material (animal or plant) to temperatures up to 300 C in the absense of air.  It is essentially carbon, the atomic building block within everything on this planet.

However, it was not charcoal that I was in hoping to collect.  The heat creates a chemical decomposition of the wood, releasing a whole pick'n'mix of chemical goodies in the smoke - Pyroligneous Acid.  Traditionally the most sought-after ingredient amongst the condensed fumes in acetic acid, used as a fixative in dyeing cloth.  Today, wood vinegar is promoted across the Far East as an organic and cheap pesticide and fertiliser.

I wanted to see if I could add to the chemical by-product menu I was developing to aid in my physical break down of wood.  All in the exploration of the wonders of wood.

Frank, my little workshop helper, was back to help with the first burn.  (If you spy any safety concerns, please ignore) ;)

A donated Transit van exhaust pipe was the perfect cooling chimney.  It got incredibly hot, another source of energy perhaps?!

Only a small sample of the wood vinegar and wood tar collected.  The yield was impressive considering the small amount of wood in the burner.

What a let down, it turned out to be a bit of a fail.  My eager need to shut the burner down led to a drum full of chared wood.  At least it was dry.

We decided to have a BBQ, regardless.Everything was looking very hopeful, until the burgers went on.  Sod's law it would die!

The Toolman

We had an unexpected visitor to the workshop on friday.  Every once in a while The Toolman stops by to say hello and show off his spoils.  I have only met him a handful of times, but he's a fascinating character.  Travelling the length and breadth of the country visiting auctions, John has a vast collection of antique tools of all shapes, sizes, uses and ages.  Most of what he buys and sells he knows the history or the previous owner.  I was privileged to visit him at his home last month and the collection doesn't stop at his van, it is clearly a worthwhile passion of his...

This week he had two boxes of hammers, only a fraction of the 360 hammers he won at the last auction he attended.  As you do.

Seeing a selection of hammers really demonstrates the incredible variety one instrument can have for doing a number of different jobs.  Hammers do so much more than bang things.  The shapes, weights and sizes all depend on the job.  This one pictured is a roof tilers hammer, it's quite lightweight, well used and beautiful.

During my time at the Workshop I have really developed an appreciation of hand tools, their design, history and how to use them properly.  Antique tools aren't too dissimilar to the pieces of furniture they help create.  They are specific to the owner's needs.    A new handle is turned especially.  The weight of the tool in your hand should feel right.  The sound the tool makes on the wood tells you so much about the wood, as well as the tool.  The blade is honed and sharpened time and again throughout each project, slowly altering the shape a fraction of a millimetre at a time.  Each time you sharpen your tool, the better you know it, the more automatic the actions become.  Both the tool and the craftsman mould to each other over time.  Improving with time.

Sifting through The Toolman's collection there are years of peoples lives.  All sorts of names stamped in boxwood handles.  Patches of worn metal were the previous owner has held this plane or that chisel again and again, always in the same spot.  Blades only a few centimetres long, the rest has been sharpened away after a long career.

The first thing you need to look for when tool shopping is the stamped emblems of the steel manufacturer.  This is were antique tools are far and beyond the best tools for the job, because back in the day the blades were made with better, purer steel.  It might take a lot of hard work and time to get them back down to working condition, but when you do it's worth it.  The quality of the steel is vital for keeping a sharp edge for longer and providing cleaner cuts to the wood. 

If you would like to get in touch with John, let me know.  I'm sure he will be ever so happy to talk tools.  Gather up your questions because there isn't much he doesn't know.  I have also been meaning to do a blog post about Huw's incredible tool chest.  Watch this space for that update.

How to live 'Sustainably'?

I have been a very lucky lady.  A few weeks ago I was offered a place on a trip to Romania for a Green Village Project, organised by Grampus Heritage and Training Ltd.  They specialise in European projects, involving a number of countries, demonstrating, exchanging and collaborating traditional cultures, crafts and skills. It was set around a remote village close to Auid, Transylvania.  The village is quite remarkable, for an ill-informed Londoner like myself.  Almost every part of the function and survival of the village, the surrounding land and the residents, is sustained within their land.  During our 4 day stay there we only ate vegetables grown by the host, Monica's grandmother, sausages and smoked meat from their pigs, eggs from their many chickens, wine and grappa from their grapes, water from their well, bread from their flour, pickles from their own vinegar, the list goes on.  Lunchtimes were banquets of typical village food - all naturally delicious, and 100% organic.

However, we had to work for our lunch, the real reason the project was there, to build a traditional green fence strong enough to keep huge wild pigs off the potato patch.  Using only one chainsaw and a horse and cart a few of us wandered up through the vast orchard (planted by the co-operatives of the Communist rule.  When land and property was finally returned to their rightful owners there was a lot of work to be done by individuals, so some became neglected and left to ruin - like this orchard) to the woods and collected young trees no thicker than 2 inches.  Back at the potato patch green poles were striped of their bark and spaced evenly.  Removing the bark allowed the young trees to slide along the poles when they are weaved and pushed down.

Working with at least two young trees at a time, the weaving begins in a systematic way, always starting on one side and moving along one pole as you add.  On the next row you start on the other side.  Once a substantial 'base' has been created the trees are stabbed in the weave close to a pole and bent down, filling in any gaps or thin areas.  It's definitely a two man job.  The locals were full steam ahead and jibber-jabbered away in Romanian (fuelled with grappa) so I just stepped aside and admired the speed they worked at.  Jumping on top of the weave to flatten it down seemed vaguely helpful, sometimes.

The finished product was beautiful, cheap and so strong, using all my weight it didn't rock at all.  This years potato harvest is going to be a good one!

So, can we look to these people's example and see a sustainable future?  This was the question I set out to answer on my travels via the metropolis of Manchester.  I conclude not really.  Our global society would not and should not step back to an almost medieval existence.  However, there are things that make sense which needs to be echoed the world over.  Firstly the understanding of how and where our food and resources come from.

If you appreciate the real cost or effort of growing a potato harvest fit to feed your family for the year ahead then I believe there would be a dramatic change in the amount of waste.  A change that I think will echo in purchasing and consumption.  This family rinse scraps from their pots and plates in a little bit of water to feed the dogs which guard their home.  The chicken poo is collected and fertilises the potatoes.  Everything has a use.  In London we may not all have chickens, cows and a garden big enough to grow our veg, but we do waste food like it doesn't matter - that's from the disconnection.  I wonder what a difference community compost heaps could make.

Another lesson to be learned is the use of the materials and resources we have to hand.  Discounting the chainsaw fuel, labour and grappa, the material for our green fence was essentially free.  The trees selected were the right size but also removed to thin out the woodland, something which every woodland needs for it to develop into a healthy ecosystem that can become a benefit environmentally and commercially.  In England our wood product is practically a waste product of recreational programmes within our National Woodlands.  There have been incentives and grants set to encourage people to plant trees but the important emphasis on what and how to use these new woodlands is dying out.  Simultaneously industry has either replaced varied hardwood woodland for fast growing softwoods or extensively imported from as far as New Zealand.  I can see a catalyst for change happening from a creative look at what we need and how it can be provided for by what we have already.

The first thing that grabbed me as we drove into the village for the first time was the strange, alien-like trees dotted around the landscape.  The ancient art of pollarding and coppicing Willow is clearly still widely practiced, and as I found out, vital to everyday life.  Here at home, we have hundreds of years history of coppiced woodland.  Aside from being beautiful homes to all varieties of insects, birds, mammals and wild flowers they provided firewood, food and materials.  Once you coppice you realise how resilient and amazing trees are.  The more you hack at it the more it'll grow back; three times more shoots for you to harvest and use next year.  Once upon a time all of our necessary materials came from what we had around us.  I have begun to really ponder on the realities of a fresh look at this tradition for some of our needs today.

Finally, I must touch on the pros and cons of 'Working with your hands vs. Working with machines'.  It's an age old debate and many people, including the Arts and Crafty lot 100 years ago, have approached it far better than I ever could.  The point I will highlight though: the debate is still happening and still as important.  The reason why this Romanian village is beginning to struggle is the fact that the young people are moving to the cities to find work.  Tending the land by hand just does not pay.  The orchard has been left to waste because it would take a huge, fit team to prune and harvest it every year.  The price of food has dropped because of the use of machinery, for organic hand grown produce to compete just isn't viable.  I visited the market where all the local farmers trade and swap their spoils, these people know and understand when and how food grows, so they know not to buy things out of season, why? because otherwise it doesn't taste as good, simple as that.  Back in the UK we've lost that and prioritise cheap and all-year round convenience over flavour and nutrition.  Looking at these big issues through the food market is helpful.  It encapsulates what the consequences of industrial trends are because it's an everyday need.  The product and furniture market roughly follows the same story, with a few extra things thrown in.  The machine has opened up so much to so many people, which is a good thing, for the short term.  We are at an advantage point, where everyone (in the UK) has access to their basic needs, from here we can begin to plough forward with long sighted vision.  The slow food and organic movement started from a change of attitude of the buyer.  People began to demand better because it's better for them in the long run.  Can this not become the big trend of the mid-twenty first century?


Knit knit knit

Mondays are the best days of the week. Mondays mean that I can get back to the workshop and crack on with my current projects, and they also mean knitting circle evening.  For quite a few months now a group of wooly fanatics have been getting together, taking turns hosting dinner and treating each other to tasty nibbles and delicious cakes.  We're an odd bunch, at first glance.  From afar I bet you couldn't guess we were meeting to compare baking skills and purling achievements.  But this lovely oddball collection of friends have developed a healthy addiction to wool and all things associated with it.  Its one of the highlights of my week.

I must confess, the past 4-6 meets I have indulged more on the three course meal than stitches and projects we each have.  Things were going so well, until I finished my bonbon; the cherry on top of my hand knitting hat.  Since then projects have started, and fizzled out.  There hasn't been anything that I've wanted to get my teeth into, except...

The penultimate project that I still insist on starting ... AND COMPLETING, is The Giant Sock Project, or The Knitted and Felted Adult Sleeping Bag.  Granted, it'll take a lot of time, and a lot of wool.  Maybe it's these factors that have curbed my enthusiasm.  There is the beautiful, soft, perfectly formed cocoon-shaped sleeping bag in my imagination, can it be realised?!  We shall see.

I think learning to knit a normal sized sock and how to felt may actually be a sensible starting point.  Hence this little tester (please glance over the poor and ugly little sample square, it's not my best work)

It may seem like a small step to you, however this teeny-tiny little square has given me hope that I shall be sleeping toasty warm next winter.

A Story of a Walnut Tree

Not too long ago a very special tree was brought to the timber yard, a local Walnut tree. What was once a common timber, English Walnut has become a rare sighting. It has a beautiful grain, dark and rich colouring which is hard and tough but a pleasure to work with. It was particularly popular for gun stock and carving, as well as mid-twentieth century furniture, along with other exotic timber with similarly dark colouring, like Teak and Rosewood. Nowadays most Walnut is imported from America or Europe, and usually in veneer form.So, when it was time for this tree to be milled, it's no surprise that there was an audience!

The exciting thing about watching timber milling is the story that is gradually revealed.  Like a huge book of history.  The average age of a tree that is milled at DF Timber is 50 to 250 years old!  Everything that surrounds the tree throughout it's life marks and affects it over time.  It stores events in its shape, grain and natural character.  Once felled and prized open, these events can be seen, sometimes in a poetic flow, other times in sudden and dramatic forms.

Only Huw has the guts to operate the big green timber mill.  This beast is loud and scary.  It shakes and vibrates like nothing and spits out sawdust and all sorts at quite a force.  It can cut a tree up to 4 ft wide and 25 ft in length, not the biggest available commercially, but has served DF Timber very well.

With every tree that is milled there is always the risk of the blade hitting something that is within the timber.  Throughout history trees have been convenient fence posts, notice boards, gate posts etc etc.  If a blade, like the 120mm wide blade on this big mill, were to hit anything substantial it could be lethal.  Everyone is on high alert!

This Walnut tree came from a garden, prime spots for all sorts of metal and stone to get lodged in a crotch or trunk, eventually having the tree grow around it.  It was on only cut No.2 that we hit a problem.

Right in the heart of the tree were two huge old nails.  Going by the size of the tree, they must have been hammered in at least 100 years ago.  For what reason - who knows!  I'm sure the guy had no idea he was going to completely mess up our blade, 2011.  Metal in trees stains and spreads up and down with the sap, so if you're buying any trees and you know there's going to be metal in it, best not bother.

The Woodmizer can cut far more accurately.  Here's George, the resident joiner, checking up on Huw's alignment.  A guitar maker had already bought one side of the heartwood.  The other side of the heartwood was going to a gun maker.  Needless to say, it wasn't long until every part of this tree had been snapped up.

It couldn't be a better day.  The sun was so bright and warm, the walnut grain looked absolutely stunning in it's light.  By this stage we were all oogling at the colours and sweeping grain marks.  It was a little sad to know that it will eventually be cut up into considerably small components, instead of being used for a piece that can show off its entirety.  You can't be too precious, I told myself.

I'm so glad I got to see this beautiful wood in this process.  Confirmed: Walnut is most definitely my favourite wood.







Remembering the lakes

It had been 8 weeks of work, so I thought I'd spoil myself and take the bank holiday weekend off. Two days of walking and wild swimming, I felt so relieved to be out in the fells again. And ashamed that I had to remind myself of how beautiful it is here.

Shakers history lesson

For the past couple of weeks I have been catching up with a friend to drool over magazines and websites in the search for just the right look for her new kitchen. It's been fun letting my imagination run wild about a space again, and not just an object. Thinking of alternative textures and colours wasn't really something I could do with my previous companies clients. However, with Kate its been more of a girly chin-waggle about what-ifs. The tight budget and dread of the last-resort B&Q bailout kitchen has, I think, allowed both of us to think of exciting, out of the ordinary sources as well as useful design additions for a busy family space. The wealth of scrapyards with rusty old agricultural machinery dotted all over the county is like my dream treasure trove. Luckily Kate is the perfect client and knows the exact, practical necessities her dream kitchen must have.

And so, after a gin fuelled meeting, we came to the conclusion that, for all aesthetic and practical purposes, the Shaker style was the way forward. But what does Shaker mean? Why does it conjure up images of religious sect uniforms and introvert communities?

I happen to find a book in the Office...

The Shakers

What a fascinating history! Reading only a little way in I knew that I had the Shakers all wrong and that their story is worth knowing.

Firstly, it all started with a British woman, Ann Lee. Now you've got to remember that the early days of this story is set in the mid 1700's. Equality, fair wages, trade unions etc, the words probably didn't even exist. For a religious movement, fronted by a woman with very outrageous views for the time to get any attention is an achievement in its self. But after moving to America, in the ten years before her death, the Shakers bloomed and formed full-on communities during industrial revolution, civil war and economic unrest. They had some pretty strict rules, including no hanky-panky and equal ownership to everything, however, their equality between all humans, of any colour or sex, predates even the American Declaration of Human Rights. Going by the growth and success of the Shakers, its clear that their social structure had something good about it. Abolishing social hierarchy and sharing out equal responsibility gave everyone a purpose. The community was one and had to work as one for it to succeed.

In respect to Shaker style, the principles are also ruled by strict guidelines, all in the nature of worship with no profane distractions. Generally there was three colours, blue, green and white. Buildings of particular purpose could only be painted in the corresponding colour. The sexes were separated so buildings were split, however, both sides were exactly the same, equal. This lends itself to their balanced proportions.

The furniture was their big money spinner. Personally, all I see is World War II Utility furniture (I get into this later on) The designs are scaled back and the craftsmanship is the aesthetic. The Shakers worked on a form-follows-function idealism decades before the word Modernism was first strung together. They strived for perfection and purity in everything, and their built environment was how they manifested this. Design played a key role in ritual, daily worship, everyday functionality as well as identity. I'm looking forward to understanding more examples of their furniture and manufacture.

To completely separate themselves from the rest of the 'profane world' and create their own utopia may seem strange, it may seem idyllic, either way the people chose to be there, and could chose to leave, surrounded by all the unrest in America at the time, and despite their strict way of life, the Shaker way of life was a utopian World to thousands of people for hundreds of years. Communities still exist today.

Now, I'm no historian, and I haven't finished the book, but regardless, the Shakers have grabbed my attention. I must say, I'm not thinking about becoming "Pip, the word" and some of the extreme laws are a definitely off-putting, however the social frame of mind at the foundations of the Shaker movement is an interesting model for study.

Thinking about humanities techniques of survival in the face of social adversity, I can relate it to the momentous example of the British Home Front during World War II. It is human nature to group together and close inward as a form of protection. However, the scale and speed of organisation of the Home Front is an incredible achievement. Within months 90% of the country was ready for agriculture. Quantities of propaganda were designed and issued to instruct, educate and ease the public. Local community schemes were set up; street food scraps for chicken and pigs, gardens dug up for food, neighbourly spirit that is like a dream to us these days. It must be said that this community-working-together-ness was enforced by government law, however it was for a clear and obvious cause. We refer back to the community spirit and Nationalism with pride. Nowadays we have broken communities; pockets of individuals that have no purpose or hope, they exist, that is all. With no focus or channel for constructive expression is it any wonder that a whole generation fired up and run riot on the streets that serve only the corporate establishments built on commercialism and globalisation?

A year ago I was reading up about British furniture designer and manufacturer Gordan Russell and his crusade for good design during the early twentieth century. He followed the values of the Arts and Crafts movement, but being a bit of a realist thought it was a bit silly turning your backs on all machines completely. He was designing during the height of political, social and industrial higgidy-piggidy, but with the combination of design integrity (not ripping off previous design, designing to function and production) and responsible manufacture (giving your staff some decent air to breath, and high quality but keeping costs down for accessible purchasing) he had double the incentive to get out there and lecture the public about what they should demand from a cheating industry. And good on him!

And that is where Gordan Russell is my man. He was part of a group of designers and thinkers that recognised the social and industrial malpractice and preached against it. Before the World Wars it was an ongoing fight for change (although, they were trying to sell plain, boring Modernism to a Georgian-loving market) The irony is, the World Wars meant that politics stepped in and removed all other design choice away, replaced it with the Utility furniture scheme (Gordan was on the Board of Trade committee, where he enforced the Modernist ideals under the guise of Utility) the public hated it because it was plain and boring, but then after the war, Modernism was dynamite. 1951, the Festival of Britian and Gordan Russell was on fire! President of the Design Council he continued his crusade for good design through education and industrial promotion. The design industry in Britain has flourished ever since.

Hundred years on and I can't help but feel we've gone full circle. We are faced with mass-produced everything, value is lost, waste increases and resources deplete in the background. Time ticks away and while more recognition pops up in media, on the streets ignorance is bliss when it means you can watch your uber cool 64" plasma screen. Profits take priority over the bigger picture. Individuals exploit the masses, the masses are ambivalent, et cetra et cetra. It makes my head spin, thats why I like to read about people like Gordan Russell and Ann Lee that saw a way forward and did it for themselves. It rung true for the people around them, Gordan Russell in Government, Ann Lee with her equality-loving followers.

The big thing that seems to treacle away time and time again is VALUE. To value someone or something is to care and appreciate. To understand its qualities and treat it with respect.

Were design played a vital role in identity and spiritual ritual for the Shakers, and survival and education for the Home Front, design since the late 20thC to now seems to have played its own part in the difficulties we face today. With mass production, products have become cheaper, and the throw away culture began, the life span of a product was shortened and now people go shopping with the 'temporary solution' attitude. In reaction to this the manufacturers have to bring out the next, new product, far more impressive and necessary! than the last. Slowly over time, the market is becoming dominated by a only a handful of shops, and even those are competing over designs of the same function and slightly varying appearance. In a global industry the market is saturated and commercial and materialistic success is the be-all.

For the craft industry, competing with the speed and price of mass production has become almost suicidal. The scary thing for me is to think that the world has forgotten what value a piece of art or furniture or pottery deserves. Has it forgotten that a high price doesn't have to equal a label of kudos, but instead a standard for craftsmanship, honesty in material, individualism and everlasting? Does it appreciate that something bespoke and handmade is created at the rate of the makers skills and experience? Is the desire to have 'slow-products' still there in peoples psyche, or will they never wake up from the convenience, and damaging, mass-produced dream?

And for me, design is the desire, cause, solution and hope for whatever has gone and whatever happens next.