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.

Perfecting the compression process

With the Woodland Laboratory and new compression jig set up I set to work tweaking the process again and again until I had worked out the exact formula to make my Lignin board. I needed to find out what wood available in the woodland would work best, if any.  My experiments also needed to work out the best compression and drying process.  There were certain controls in the set up that were not changed; 300g of green (fresh) chainsaw shavings of each wood type, 2.5 litres of cooking liquid and around 1 hour of cooking in a pressure cooker.  In total there were 25 tests done with this set up, with each test something new was learnt or observed and the next test was tweaked accordingly, sometimes this even included the controls.  Through this trail and error method I learnt about my material, its particular behaviours and fine tipping points of its process.

The early tests were fairly fragile and not at all strong.  They stuck to the mould, came out damp, expanded once released, burnt, came out uneven or crumbed completely.  Sometimes I thought I was wasting my time and it just wasn't possible.

I added foil to help release the samples from the mould.  Measuring the shavings and making sure they were spread out evenly under the compression plate also made a huge difference.

I was using the blow torch onto the surface of the mould but with no insulation.  I knew from the beginning that this wasn't at all efficient and was frustrated that all the heat was going out into the atmosphere.  I also dreaded heating the mould with the bottle jack so close to the blowtorch.  The mould was modified so two bars could be slipped through the mould to hold the pressure plate in place and the bottle jack removed so the whole mould can be placed in a kiln for heating.

Unfortunately it didn't work.  It needs to have constant pressure applied throughout the process, especially as the water is forced out.  I was also experiencing most of my samples coming out damp.  I couldn't quite understand why parts of the sample were promising and bonding well and others just flaky shavings.

The tests continued.  I stopped using potash, water seemed to work better.  Oak, being very dense, was near impossible to get to vaguely work so I ditched it.  Ash was the most consistent in postive results, but none were bonded evenly across the whole sample.

Then that ureka moment!  Drilling holes into the top compression plate allowed the water to steam off easier.  All those times when I openned up the mould and the sample expanded or felt damp, it was because the steam could not escape - so obvious!

The first sample with the modified mould was a great success.  It was dry, solid and strong with very little flex.  I was able to cut it with the bandsaw.  Once I had continuously made simular samples, all in Ash, I got their strength tested.

I owe a huge amount of graditude to Paul Burke, Civil Engineer Imperial College and fellow honourary Cumbrian.  Paul is incredibly knowledgable in sustainable energy and policies.  Many a tea break have we discussed the various alternative energies available or being developed.  Thankfully, he completely understood where I was coming from on this quest to find a relevant use for coppiced wood and was never too slow to remind me how worthwhile it is.

Besides bigging up my lagging confidence, he very kindly helped to test the stress point of my samples to see how strong they are, especially in comparison to existing OSB products.

My Just Wood material has the stress point of 9N per mm.  That's 1/3rd of the strength of the same thickness OSB! Not bad for a few handfuls of chainsaw shavings.

With my process and material perfected it was time to take the next step - moulding forms!

Setting up the Woodland Laboratory

A long over due post detailing that final push of my Master degree project, Just Wood.  I left the last post basically describing all the resaerch I had compiled and how I could pull it all together into one perpetual cycle of growth, harvest, waste, process, product and back to growth again.  It was a rabbit hole that I was reluctant to leave and with hindsight (it is a wonderful thing) I was causing lots of conundrums for myself.  That's what happens when you can do anything. So here's how I went from my first successful sample of Lignin Board (glueless wood material made by compressing waste chainsaw shavings - blog post here) to a process that generates strong, formed components for use in furniture, all in my wood somewhere in the depths of North Cumbria.

I knew the basic principles of compressing cooked shavings will work, I had a very exciting sample.  The next job was up scaling that set up so I could perfect the process, see what works and what doesn't and hopefully produce a production line for manufacturing a component of some description.

Off I went to find a Blacksmith.  The wonderful thing about Cumbria is that you're never to far away from someone with a shed, making anything or everything in metal, or wood, or clay or wool etc.  Fortunately, 15 minutes away in Gilcrux lives David Watson.  A blacksmith who specialises in fabrication and Norman forges.  It was through his hard work, unwaived patience and endless cups of tea that I was able to push my leftfield ideas.

First off, he put together my test frame, designed to hold a 20 tonne bottle jack that will compress my cooked chainsaw shavings.

A little butane blowtorch didn't seem to be the job, and my fears were confirmed when the mould was prized open.  The shavings were still damp.  The pressure did not seem to have been enough however, were the biscuit tin had a seam or corner the shavings were looking more like one material.  Not the best result, but enough to get me thinking there was something in it... I had to go bigger.Welcome to the Woodland Laboratory!  (aka Pip Towers)  My home for the next few months.

I moved in with shavings from 4 hardwoods typical throughout my wood, a few fermentation jugs full of my homemade alkali potash, a stove and a pressure cooker.

I had a new re-useable metal mould made up.  A box with drainage holes, removable bottom and top pressure plate.  Along with a proper butane blowtorch, I was ready to go full kelter and perfect my process.

I have to say, I had never used a 20 tonne bottle jack or blow torch before, and certainly never together, at the same time, in close proximity to each other.  To say I was tense and nervous would be an understatement.  Safety marshal Chris was on hand - somewhere behind a large Ash tree.  After all the varied ways I did this process and all the things I learnt each time, the fear of something bad happening never left.  Don't try this at home is all I can say!


Chainsaw joy

In my last post I finished off by mentioning my increasingly love for my chainsaw.  Yes it's loud and powerful.  Yes I get to cut down trees - hugely satisfying.  But essentually the chainsaw is a brilliant tool.  While I was making my shaving horse I got a little impatient chipping away carving the seat, so I thought "Blow it, where's my chainsaw".  Finding that with gentle encouragement and careful blade direction the chainsaw can make light work of carving, cutting, boring etc.  Could this transfer into furniture making?  Could my chainsaw be a portable mortising machine?

Again, using the Crack Willow was not the ideal timber, but I wanted to quickly test out the ease of boring out a mortise tenon joint.  I was surprised, it wasn't ideal doing it freehand, but perhaps a jig could aid in accurate cuts.

My friend Paul, a greenwood worker and forester, helped me sketch up this 3D model to play with directions, pivots and heights that would be useful as a portable chainsaw CNC.Why was I so intent on using my chainsaw, apart from it being a fast and efficient machine?

At this point I had researched my material and the role it plays in the environment from the minute molecular level, the small scale craft traditions, all the way up to the industrial forestry management of softwoods.  At each point there was always a cycle back to starting point - the woodland eco-system.  No matter how big or small these cycles are, they could produce a number of by-products workable into my process.  Chemicals, fuel, raw material, adhesives.. the list goes on.

By Charcoaling I was experimenting with the pyrolosis process - decomposing wood by heating without oxygen.  This process gives off all sorts of gases, inparticular Carbon Monoxide, Ethanol and Methanol, all extremely flammable.  YouTube is full of fun, crazy people using the gases in systems to power electrical generators, lawn mowers or even running cars around Europe!  The best example I found, and the most fascinating fella doing amazing low tech things in the name of off grid eco living, in Texas - AllEnergies

In the quest for an on-site holistic system for manufacturing, generating my own power from wood felt like a momentus step in the right direction.  I had discovered a simple moulding process for cooked chainsaw shavings, but I just wasn't satisfied - This project has researched into so any aspects of wood, as a varied resource.  My imagination got the better of me, I wanted to run an electric chainsaw on wood!  What a perfect loop that would be.

Cut down a tree.  The trunk is planked, the shavings collected.  The brash and branches are seasoned for firewood to boil the fresh shavings to mould.  The heat could also be used to generate woodgas.  The woodgas can be conbusted in a generator which in turn charges a battery for the chainsaw... etc etc.  Had I more time during this project, I would have loved to see this happen.



Here's a fairly late update from Jan's wood.  Since my last post, March in Cumbria has been a whirlwind of all sorts of weather.  There was, of course the mad snow storm which blocked our main road, and then while most of England was bogged down by heavy, relentless rain, we had 2 weeks of gorgeous bluebird days, extremely cold and windy, but wonderfully sunny.  I managed to warm up the camera long enough to give a little idea of where I've been working.As soon as I got back to the woods from a good trip to London, I needed to get back to the wood and play, learning from books written by those who specialise in this organic material.  By learning to use and manipulate the greenwood's properties like so many talented craftsmen before, I hoped to find way of developing a system that will allow me to create furniture.  I'm a sucker for symmetry and I like to design the outcome, it's the control freak within, however, greenwood does not conventionally work this way.  Perhaps there could be a compromise?  Cleaving is a fascinating process of knocking a blade down the centre of the wood.  It will naturally split along the grain.  If the split travels in the wrong direction the tool, called a froe, can be levered one way or the other to encourage the split along a clean line down the length of wood.  Hence, to and froe!  This has given me some beautifully symmetric material, albeit still organic and irregular.

Another brilliant use of greenwoods properties that I have always wanted to explore is shrink joints.  When felled, timber has the moisture content of 30% upward to as high as 60%.  As it dries the cells shrink.  Greenwood workers turn dowelled furniture components, pre-dry them and use them in green mortise holes.  These mortise holes dry and shrink around the pre-dried tenons - glueless joints.  I love this method, using only the natural behaviour of the material to construct solid furniture.

So I mocked up a silly chair sketch.  Crack Willow was really not the most sensible wood to use, I'll admit.  I have to add, during this point I was aware that this traditional process involves a long time.  Greenwood workers are calm. patient souls, allowing their material to slowly dry or season.  Unfortunately time is not my luxury, and in the scheme of trying to find an industrial process for greenwood, these exercises were not proving the right direction.While I was in London, and with access to the metal workshop at Uni I thought I'd have some fun making my own tool.  I love the concept of cleaving, but I wondered if that moment of splitting could be capitalised to form extruded shapes.  Would I be closer to making my uniform components from supple greenwood?

Nope.  The middle 'punch' of my tool did a good job of dowelling my log, until it got wedged in the grain.  As for the splitting froe wings, the split ran away in front  of the tool as soon as it got it's teeth into the end grain, so all control was lost.  As this tool was a complex and lengthy process to make, I abandoned this idea.  However it certain helped me understand the nature of the grain and inner structure of my wood.  It did a great job of creating perfect tenons for my shaving horse legs!

While playing in the wood, making a shaving horse and fiddling with these ideas, I have become increasingly appreciative of my chainsaw.  It makes light work of rough shaping and cutting to length, but it creates a great amount of mess.  There are shavings everywhere!  More about chainsawing next time...

Lignin board

I had some willow shavings soaking happily in my potash alkali for a few weeks.  Time had come to do something with it.  Going back to the advice from Bio-composite Centre I re-boiled the solution with a bit of whisk/friction.  After a 2 hour cook the shavings were scooped into my make-do metal mould.  It was G-clamped up as tightly as possible and left to dry.

The shavings were checked after 3 days.  Were the wood had dried and had been compressed the most, there was definetely bonding.  Exciting stuff!

The sample was placed back in the mould and the whole thing was placed over a stove to apply some heat.  It was left there to sizzle away until I was sure all the water had evaporated away.

Once everything had cooled, the clamps were removed.  The shavings had successfully bonded together.  The surface that was on the metal mould side and over the heat had a very smooth and shiney finish.  I had created my own glueless particle board, a course masonite board.

I can only presume the cooked cellulose and lignin had acted as a bonding agent when heat and pressure is applied.  Unforuntately the the material isn't water resistant, but there is still some potential with this aplication within my woodland.

Baking wood liquor

With the remaining wood liquor from my cooking, I wanted to test evaporating it off, the times it'll take and the residue left behind.The liquid is reluctant to let much water evaporate away.  The wood liquor with crushed charcoal left a very interesting goo.  This test was done a month ago and the goo is still drying / hardening.  I'll definitely keep an eye on it, as well as make a bigger sample to cook further.  

A Welsh recipe for Hemi-Cellulose

During my search for the sacred Lignin I was put in touch with the Bio Composites Centre, associated with Bangor University, North Wales.  The lovely folks there were very kind to sit with me and discuss, in detail, my projects ambitions and set restrictions.  I have limited my material palette to everything that surrounds me within Jan's Wood, with the addition of fuel for a chainsaw.  Could organic chemistry provide all the key ingredients to make a mouldable material?  I had been soaking and cooking wood in homemade Potash, created from wood ash - is this an adequate alkali to aid in the break down of my wood? Unfortunately they had to let me down gently.  Lignin is a tough tough substance, separating it from the cellulose without strong chemicals like Sodium Hydroxide would be a tall order, or perhaps a miracle.  OK - if I haven't been extracting Lignin during my cooking tests, what have I been left with?

Lignin is a complex and un-uniformed molecule structure with strong bonds.  Within Lignin sits long but weaker glucose chains of Hemi-cellulose.  When soaked and heated these sugars are the first bonds to be broken and released.

Bio Composite, Bangor gave me a recipe to test out an extraction of my own Hemi-cellulose, which I could use as a glaze, or perhaps a wood treatment....

As soon as the Potash (Potassium Carbonate K2CO3) was poured into the Willow shavings the colour change indictated that some reaction had happened, I much quicker reaction compared to soaking wood in water.  The solution was boiled for 2 hours and the colour had become a wonderful deep red with an interesting fragrance.  It was this liquor that I needed.

As the Potash, a fairly strong alkali, needed to be nuetralised, a standard acid was added until pH 7 was reached.

I was advised that an alcohol will react and condense together the sugars of the Hemi-cellulose, so Meths was trickled in until cloudy clumps formed.  

Chemistry was never my strong subject, enjoyable, but baffling.  Besides this being a complicated process, I was stabbing in the dark.  Not being able to decipher exactly what I had created meant I had to abandon this clever chemistry and move on.  Furthermore, this process involved large external ingredients with next to no yield of ... er... an opaque reddy/brown liquid that never seems to dry.  Joy.

Project#2: Refined

What is refinement?  Investigate the refinement of a base material towards the creation of a refined product. My starting material had to be wood.  However, coppiced wood has been a draw to me for awhile due to its totally sustainable and low-impact cycle.

Coppicing is a tradition of woodland management; working to a cycle of growth of trees which have been sensitively selected and felled for regrowth.  Trees have dormant buds lying in wait under their bark in defense to damage, like getting munched by Mammoths or stamped on by any other significant mammal.  As the network of roots remain, replacement growth happens considerably faster than for a new tree to grow from seed. For centuries humans have manipulated this natural trait to provide an abundant supply of raw material.  After every harvest, a tree stool will provide, on average, 3 times the number of new shoots.  Historically, coppiced areas are left for 5-7 years to regenerate and produce quick grown, straight poles, prime for the greenwood craft industry.

Essentially, coppice is a sustainable and truely renewable source of carbon-neutral material.  Whats-more, its potential is everywhere.  There are around half a million acres of unmanaged woodlands in the UK.  To see a new wave of industry utilising this resource for our markets and manufacturing would be a huge step forward for the conservation of our countryside.

The draw back in working with such a material is that it's inherent beauty and purity, it's organic-ness makes it difficult to take coppiced / green wood forward as a realistic contender for batch production.  To work with it is labour-some and time consuming, if not for stunning results.  Now, how can I make afford products with this environmentally affordable material?

Of all the green wood craft, I am most intrigued by Swill Baskets.  The principle is taking green Oak, granted as straight as possible, and boiling it for at least 24 hours allowing it to be split to fine strips.  Essentially the wood is being made into a generic form of itself, to be flexed and weaved into a basket.  As it dries the wood hardens and the basket becomes incredibly strong.

It is the reaction of the wood to the boiling that has intrigued me.  What happens to the make-up of the wood to make it go pliable when wet, and retain shape and rigidity when it dries?

To understand wood a little better, on a microscopic scale I got in touch with a research scientist from Innovia Films.  They produce cellophane by the tonne.  Cellophane is pure cellulose extracted from wood pulp.  The process of extraction is fairly similar to paper making.  Huge quantities of wood pulp are re-boiled in a water and Sodium Hydroxide solution; a soup that speeds up the separation of cellulose from the 2 other essential ingredients in wood (The Kraft process).

Now here's the bio-chemistry bit.  Wood is made up of cellulose, hemi-cellulose and lignin.

Cellulose is the structure of the wood.  The molecular fibres which act together to create rigidity.

Hemi-cellulose is the 'string' that holds the cellulose fibres together.

This knot of cellulose is set in lignin.  The 'resin' which glues the structural molecules together.

When the cellophane and paper makers, as well as swill basket makers, boil their wood they are diluting the lignin.  In the example of boiling and steaming wood in the wood craft industry, the dilution of the lignin allows the wood to be bent and formed into new directions.  As the water evaporates and the lignin condenses, the wood stiffens and retains its new shape.

From this finding I have been developing an interest in Lignin and what it's properties could be used for.  Although a waste product from these different techniques, it has a great calorific value, it has more carbon content than wood itself.  The Kraft process burns the recovered lignin to recycle its energy back into the system.

Understanding these two comparably different scales of wood manipulation, I started to wonder if the use of Sodium Hydroxide (Caustic soda) in the industrialisation of cellophane was completely necessary.  Reading into the science of woods molecular bonds I believe a high pressure and high temperature hydrolysis method would be enough.

First step: Try to cook and separate wood at home with a Pressure Cooker.

The smaller the carrots the quicker the cooking, right!?  I reused the brown water from the previous cook.  I figured I'd intensify the concerntation.

Although the sight of a pressure cooker steaming away on the stove was a regular occurance during my childhood, I have no idea how to use one, especially when cooking wood for 6 hours.  The water levels were calculated wrong and that was the end of this test.

These tests were an interesting starting point.  I've been left with some interesting brown liquour.  Somewhere, floating in this milk bottle is weaker bonded lignin.  The wood has barely changed, so the cooking process definitely needs taken up a knotch or two.

To the laboratory...



BacktoSchool: Design for the Real World & Enhanced Bodies

I'm back at school! After a wee sabbatical to gain some skills and develop a network of talented people I find myself lost amongst new faces in familiar spaces.  London feels a far cry from Cumbria. Feeling a little disjointed I took myself to the current exhibition, SustainRCA and the Helen Hamlyn Centre of Design from within my University.  The whole show was incredibly inspirational and clearly showcases the hard work done by all participants.  Helen Hamlyn Centre's focus is on enhancing human health and well-being through social research and development.  The Sustain RCA exhibited student projects addressing the resource and environmental impacts of human behaviour.

Particular projects that stood out for me were

  • Hal Watts' ESource.  Combating the extreme health and environmental problems arising from E-waste sent to districts in Africa and India, where young boys burn plastic coated wires to extract the precious metal inside, Hal has developed a low-tech sorter.  Brilliant!
  • Addressing our future outlook for nutrious food for a ever growing global population, Ento introduces the advantages of insects!

Finally, being back at Uni means the fun first project of the year.  A course-wide brief which gives a good introduction of yourself at the start of the course, as well as flexing our experimental design muscles after a long summer.

Here's my presentational video, a tongue-in-cheek solution to one of my biggest fears.

Enhanced Bodies: How can you make your body do the impossible?



Wedding Gift Part 2

Final blog post of the Wedding Gift.  It's been interesting going through all the pictures and remembering the extremely late nights and totally unknown outcomes.  Ahh good times.  But the plan finally came together, to a sigh of relief.  Here's installment 2 of 2, Making the leaf relief picture. From the start of this project I wanted to combine the wedding seating plan with a wedding gift for the newly weds.  The seating blocks came first, then the idea to set them in framed picture.  It was tricky trying to think of an image that wouldn't be over bearing to the whole scheme, as well as being considered ugly by the bride and groom.  It had to be subtle; white would be the colour, with detail pulled out with shadows - a relief in plaster!  The subject for the image varied from shared personal interests of the couple to toally abstract forms.  Neither seemed visually appropriate.  Instead I looked for symbolism of all that I wish for the happy couple's future.

"The Oak is the mightiest of trees and symbolizes strength and courage. The ancient Romans thought oak trees attracted lightening and thereby connected the oak tree to the sky god, Jupiter and his wife, Juno, the goddess of marriage. Thus, the oak is a symbol of conjugal fidelity and fulfillment. The oak tree was regarded by Socrates as an oracle tree. The Druids likewise ate acorns in preparation for prophesying. In addition, the Druids believed the leaves of the oak tree had the power to heal and renew strength." Living Arts Original

"The Sycamore is one of the oldest species of trees on the planet. Given its age, the Sycamore is often referenced in the pages of history:

  • In the Bible, the Sycamore is considered a symbol of strength, divinity, and eternity.
  • In American history, a 168-year-old Sycamore tree is credited with sheltering large groups of soldiers during the Battle of Brandywine in Pennsylvania. Since then the tree has become a symbol of protection in the United States." 20-20 site

For ease of display during the wedding I worked out how many blocks would fit comfortably and clearly, evenly spread out and easy to navagate.  Rounding up the number of blocks to 180 created two frames measuring 800 x 410 mm each internally.  One Oak, one Sycamore.  The rest of the scheme was built on from here.

Clay Studio at Pippa Murray Design
Clay Studio at Pippa Murray Design

Retreating into the clay studio I'm fortunate to have in our garage at home, thanks again Jan!  It had been a good 11 years since I worked with clay, boy I have missed it.  Memories of Carly Simon singing during A-Level Art classes came flooding back.

Working with plaster and solid wood was going to be heavy.  To reduce the weight I had to make individual tiles so the plaster can be thinner and easier to handle without a risk of damage.

Music was set up and coffee brewed...

Preparing and rolling out clay for tiles
Preparing and rolling out clay for tiles
Using real Oak and Sycamore leaves to create relief
Using real Oak and Sycamore leaves to create relief
Close up of varied depth of Sycamore leaf imprint
Close up of varied depth of Sycamore leaf imprint
Sycamore leaf relief
Sycamore leaf relief
Casting individual tiles in Plaster of Paris
Casting individual tiles in Plaster of Paris
Plaster tiles revealed
Plaster tiles revealed
Oak leaf relief tiles getting cleaned up
Oak leaf relief tiles getting cleaned up
Flattening plaster tiles and fitting them to a board
Flattening plaster tiles and fitting them to a board
Completed Plaster leaf relief tiles, mounted and ready to be framed
Completed Plaster leaf relief tiles, mounted and ready to be framed

They were going to be individual tiles but I wanted to keep the image as a whole so the composition ignored the tile seams and the leaves overlapped them as much as possible.  When I made a test of casting leaves from clay I was amazing by the incredible detail that is picked up.  What I found was, if the clay remains moist, the leaves can be imprinted with a sense of movement and form.

Steve making the Sycamore picture frame.  Cutting excess veneer of kerf joint
Steve making the Sycamore picture frame. Cutting excess veneer of kerf joint
Finally, the wedding gift is finished!
Finally, the wedding gift is finished!

Steve Younger, the furnitiure maker at DF Furniture kindly made the frames for me.  Here, he is working on the finishing touches of the Sycamore frame, cutting away the excess veneer of the kerf joint.  The tactile finish of Steve's work is always remarkable, certainly his particular trademark.  Feeling is believing.  (Louie the dog, I love him really)

There was one very hairy moment right at the end when the plaster was still considerably wet.  Luckily a slow cook oven setting sorted it out just in the nick of time.  Clay has been a joy to use again, plaster is exciting however it maybe a while until the next time I use it.

The scheme was amibious and a lot of enjoyable hardwork.  It was fun designing for an event, a one off moment involving a number of people.  I am eternally grateful to my parents for humouring me and my plans.  For Oliver and Emma for asking me to be a part of their special day.  A special thank you to everyone at DF Timber, Kim Butler, Jan Walker and those at the Square Orange that helped through the ups... and the downs.  Couldn't have pulled it off without you. x

How thick?

Things seem to be testing me recently.  I've been trying to see the funny side of it, but when things add up it gets tough.  Take my computer for example, it's in the Apple hospital at the moment, having all of its insides replaced.  Not a cheap proceeder.  Turns out I've been on borrowed time for 2 years until it finally conked out.  It's really thrown a spanner in the works, hence why I've been so distant recently.  Ironically, it died just as I had finished and installed my stupidly organised computer cabinet at home.  I guess the timing was perfect for my back ups, but now I have all my computer nogans hooked up neatly in lovely cabinet with nothing to do.  Fingers crossed those Apple Genius' can make it new and happy again. Besides pleasing my obsessive organisational needs, I wanted to create a piece that tested the thickness, or thinness I should say, of solid wood furniture.  Everyone knows wood moves and cups, and the thinner it is, as the theory says, the more likely it is to distort as it dries out.  When furniture was being made from engineered materials like chipboard it meant clever veneerers could make thin lightweight pieces look solid without this risk.  Unfortunately, I like these lightweight designs but love solid wood.  Against all the advice in the workshop I went ahead and machined up 15mm Beech.

As it was only for me I designed the simplest set up, quite Utility Furniture-esque.  My very generous Landlady, Jan, gave me a wonderful set of bead drawers, perfectly and naturally distressed, they'll be good for my filing and stationary.  The depth of the whole cabinet had to accommodate these drawers and a 4 socket power extension, as well as my printer.  The back was left open for easy access and wires.

Finally, I have been wanted to collaborate with Kim Butler for ages.  Kim is the resident wood carver and can often been found chipping away on Danny's old bench, or scorching beautiful carvings outside.  When I asked if she would add her finishing touches to my cabinet I was thrilled when she came up with these cute buttons.  Her colour matching was spot on and really pulls my tatty old drawers into the whole scheme.  Thank you Kim!

And so, the verdict.  Well, it wasn't the biggest item ever, but it's not the smallest either, yet it has turned out fine.  The top and bottom surfaces were extended past the sides by 2mm so that, if it were to open up, the join would remain neat.  Considering there is some spalted Beech laminated together and jointed with not very large housing, the movement is minimal.  There was some splitting at the end of the laminated top and bottom, that was super glued and clamped, however most of that was planed away during the finishing touches.

I conclude that 15mm solid wood is not a disaster waiting to happen, as long as it is done with lots of care and attention.  This cabinet had a spacing of 400mm between upstands and carries very little weight.  Something larger with lots of heavy keepsakes would definitely need something thicker.

...I also conclude that I am a neat freak.




Going Waney

I must admit that before working at this workshop, I didn't really like natural edge.  Funny really seeing as the likes of George Nakashima and Wharton Esherick, to name only a few, are my heros.  To use it, it has to be used well.  Too much and you're teetering toward that horrible 'rustic' appearance. So for this project, a picture frame for a wedding present, I surprised myself that I decided to embrace that waney edge gamble.  Initially I wanted to have two sides bookmatched, with some fascinating burr.  Unfortunately natural edge limits you to specific types of wood.  Elm is ideal because it generally has little or no sap wood. (the lighter coloured wood between the bark and old trunk of the tree.)  Sap wood rots and crumbles, it can be pretty unstable, so best avoided for this situation.

We looked far and wide for a really special bit of timber that could be bookmatched, but with no luck.  However, having put together the chosen piece I think bookmatched could have been borderline rustic.  At the end of the day, the frame is to compliment the picture.

Some sly little jointing and chiseling had to be done to let the natural edge meet the other edge at the mitre corner.  Otherwise it was straight forward with a super sharp plane and a 45 degree shooting board.

I slipped some 0 bisciuts into the corners, just in case.  Tentatively clamping up each corner at a time, making sure it's all square, the mitres closed up perfectly, even the natural edge joints.  

Both for asthetics and additional strength some kerf joints were added in a smart contrasting veneer.  Once the frame had been smoothed out, sanded and oiled the effect worked brilliantly.  I positioned the burr so it will sit just onto the pictures mount at the bottom right hand corner.



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.

The Mystery Project & New Toy

OK, so I've been very very quiet recently, but that doesn't mean I haven't been beaving away.  I've been working on a very special project, but it has to be a secret.  Here are some teaser photos which I hope don't give too much away.

It's really pushed my techniques and skills, there have been angles aplenty going here there and everywhere, which can be a right pain to get right.  There has been lots of routing, spoke shaving and sanding, which I'm pretty accustomed to by now.  However, wood carving is a whole new experience.

It has been pretty exciting being a little freer, with my mallet in hand, smacking little chips away, one at a time, bit by bit.  The results have come out far better than I imagined, so I'm pretty chuffed.  Unfortunately I can't show anymore pictures until it's finished and the secret is officially revealed.  Watch this space...

To prove I haven't been completely dossing, here's what all my hardwork over November and December has afforded me.  Christmas certainly came late this year when the DHL man handing over a parcel with my new hand plane.

It's a Lie-Nielson No.6 Fore plane.  That's like the mercedes of the hand tool.  It's shiny, beautifully made and rides like a dream.  In tool geekdom, it's a definite must have!!

Huw is the tool historian, he can name, date and describe in detail the use and any quirky story associated to any tool, tractor or rusty metal.  He makes hand planes, like this one but far more beautiful, by hand in his shed - as a hobby.  Any given weekend he is hunting out rusty heaps of tractor metal to make new again.  It's a amazing what he does and how well he executes it.  A very good person to know, therefore he was on hand to supervise the first honing and sharpening, just to be sure.  It glides over the wood so smoothly, and it is guaranteed square and flat every time, which was a mission with my old beloved No.7.  Hopefully it will serve me well for the rest of my furniture making career.  Nerdy tool chat over, I'll leave you with a portrait of my tool collection...

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.







Grand Designs Live 2011

Phew, what a crazy week we've had at Danny Frost Furniture.  A last minute offer for a spectacularly well-placed stand at Grand Designs Live, NEC Birmingham, means it has been all hands on deck to get all the planning, designing, construction and necessary ordering done before setting off, stupid'o clock, leaving our beloved Cumbria.  Danny Frost Furniture, the other half of Danny Frost Timber, has recently been acquired by its long standing employees, Huw Lowden and Steve Younger.  Both are experienced and extremely talented cabinet makers.  Within the DF fold are a number of independent craftspeople, all with the special connection of the locally and sustainably sourced hardwoods, milled and seasoned at 'Frosty towers'.  Our stand was a little snap shot of what happens in a small workshop in the North Lakes; Danny Frost's popular best sellers; Jonathan Leech's elegant and simple turned bowls; Croglan Design's unique chopping boards; Phil Bradley's homegrown and weaved willow baskets; as well as my latest pieces, kindly loaned by my clients.

A special thank you must be mentioned to Jamie Chaplin-Brice for over seeing the planning and designing of the stand.  It clearly displayed everyones wares beautifully.  All the mental and physical hard work clearly paid off, going by the attention we received during the show.  Plus, his willow-rack shelving was a definite winner!

Jamie seen with his ingenious willow rack shelving

I personally have to thank Huw and Steve for all the support and belief they have shown in my work.  My Arts and Crafts Bookcase and Boot Bench got to sit happily in the stand, and as a consequence, received some very lovely feedback.




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.