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.

The Woodland Factory

The time had come to make that push toward a 3D form, something to demonstrate the potential of this woodland based process.  I designed a component table leg that requires simular replicas and strength to function. Through my previous tests I knew there were all sorts of factors and restrictions that narrowed what form it could be.  Firstly, the pressure needed to be even across the whole part, varying thickness of material would hinder any successful bonding.  The fluidity of the material is obviously very static, so high or steep sides would be difficult to achieve.  Sides would also not bond well because of the nature of the applied pressure being in only one direction.  The tooling itself would have to improvised as anything CNCed and made to withstand these pressures and temperatures will cost a fortune.

Considering these factors, this table leg was designed and David Watson, my very awesome and helpful Blacksmith set to work fabricating a strong press mould.

Next, to scale up my Woodland Labortory into a Factory where I can boil up my shavings and compress my big mould efficiently.

Digging up sticky mud littered with rocks and stones is not much fun.  It took a week to dig the holes for the bath fire pit, the compression press kiln and build the kiln walls.  These walls were built with a tradtitional cob material; the reclaimed earth and clay was mixed with straw and used as a mouldable cement.  Houses were traditionally built this way, providing breathable and insulating walls that could last for centuries, all from the materials around the site.

The weather gods were not on my side.  I had one window of opportunity for Dom Bush, the filmmaker to film the process in good weather.  In the run up to that day a freak flood, just in a 5 mile radius around my wood, descended and my newly dug holes were filled with water.  The whole area was thick with mud everywhere.  I had one day left to finish and get it fit for filming.  Luckily Jonathan Leech, a local woodturner had a huge dumpy bag of Yew and Cherry shavings to hand that covered the mud beautifully and made The Woodland Factory useable.  A close call, but a very happy turnaround.

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!

Willow me

We have begun to record a short of my work in the wood.  Dom Bush, from Land & Sky Media has been visiting me in Jan's Wood to film a hefty Willow tree being felled. We are also playing with stop animation to capture the regrowth of the tree, and the changing envirnoment throughout the spring and summer.

Watch this space for more updates on this exciting project.


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.

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

Raise a glass to Mr & Mrs. Murray

I told myself I wouldn't cry, but when you attend the most the beautiful wedding of a very special couple indeed, it's hard to compose yourself. Emma and Oli have pulled an incredible event together in only 4 months, and if you were there, you'd know how impressive that is.  The attention to detail and immaculate organisation was flawless.  No cliché here; it was the most beautiful wedding ever!  What a shame it came and went in a flash.

Sitting back home in the North Lakes and piecing together the memories and photos, I realise I have been in a World of Weddings.  A few months ago the couple took me out for an innocent Dim Sum dinner in London.  Little did I know it was bribery.  I left sleepy and full of dumplings, with my head full of wedding plans and promises of church readings and to create the seating plan for their reception.

The brief was simple, 9 tables will be named after the destinations of their European roadtrip honeymoon.  There will be around 180 guests.

I wanted to create something unique that would provide mementos to the guests and a keepsake wedding present to the Bride and Groom.

Many ideas came and went, including an 8 sided revolving picture frame.  Eventually these blocks of wood, which reveal the table names, came about.  They were created in 6 types of Cumbrian wood, each one with a contrasting Sycamore centre, dovetailed in to slide across.  The names were lasercut into each one, fingers were crossed that there weren't any spelling mistakes!

The blocks were for the guests, but as they are removed they could be revealing something underneath too.  It was decided the blocks could be contained in the wedding gift.  Two frames; one Oak containing a subtle Oak leaf relief, and one Sycamore containing a Sycamore leaf relief.

I was honoured by so many people taking them home.  Unfortunately the contrast of humidity between Cumbria and Gloucester during this crazy summer of ours affected the fit a little too much for my perfectionism, but overall I'm thrilled with how it turned out.  The 'making-of' to be blogged soon.


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.




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?


Times and Star: November 2011

"Meet the New Generation of Furniture Makers" See what the lovely people at Cockermouth's Times & Star had to say about everyone at DF Furniture! A great article, and the images come out swell. The Boot Bench and Bookcase look pretty neat on newsprint.

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.




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.

thank you holly

Here I am, all blogged up and ready to roll. I'd like to send out a huge thank you to Holly Falconer who graciously gave a lonely little bike a good home in exchange for setting up this blog and my website.

Check out her stuff, its a guaranteed good gander.

Muchas gracias se