Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Week 7: Axe's in the woods

What a week! Loads of new stuff to learn and do and for the first time. By Thursday afternoon I felt really tired physically and glad to leave slightly early! Maybe partly because at yoga on Tuesday we worked on our thigh muscles and these were what we used a lot in the woods!

Wednesday began gently enough with us cutting more small trees with bowsaw and billhook to revise and get back into the rhythm of the woods after half term and a week of green woodworking. I tackled a thicket of thorn bushes working towards David who had started on the adjoining one. Thorns are not the easiest trees to fell because the wood is hard and the branches often contort and tangle. They grow at angles which can be hard to sned too. However I began to realise that it was a good way to practice using the billhook ‘with conviction’ and set me up for the afternoon.

After lunch Nick began teaching us how to use the felling axe. Before letting us loose on standing trees where we could do real damage to the trees or ourselves he got us learning on fallen trunks. He and Martin had sawn some of the smaller Douglas fir trunks which were lying around so that they were moveable lengths. He demonstrated how to stand for the job – knees slightly bent which was why my thighs protested the next morning! – how to swing the axe, how to recognise a good ‘V’ cut when we had made one and how to avoid chopping our feet or legs off in the process. We then scattered to find a length to learn on and were given the task of cutting it into pieces about a foot long for use on the workshop woodburner. All 3 tutors patrolled the area ensuring we were working safely and offering advice to help us do the job as easily and efficiently as possible. Given all the problems I had had with the billhook, both with ‘conviction’ and accuracy, I was rather anxious about this exercise but in the event, with helpful comments from the team, I managed it OK and whilst there was no way I could produce as many logs as Kieron or Stef who are both very strong and experienced with tools, I did manage to cut up 2 lengths of trunk in the afternoon and enjoyed myself.

Andrew getting to grips with using an axe

Sue doing the same

Thursday was a very different day with gales and torrential rain so we all hunkered down in the workshop with the woodburner lit. We actually burnt some of the logs we had chopped into length the day before which Martin nobly stood in the rain to split for us. Penny, who would have to cycle for an hour and a half to get to the wood, was concerned about her safety and when she discovered a branch blown down on her place needing to be moved urgently called Nick to say she would have to stay home. I was very relieved that she was being sensible. Barbara had a heavy cold and went home before lunch looking quite ill.

The rest of us got on with the shavehorses. We began by drilling holes with the augur bit for the legs – one at the front and two at the back. Because the legs have to splay out to provide stability the holes must be at quite an angle which makes the drilling hard. At one point I hit a particularly hard bit of wood – maybe a knot – and made very little headway so Nick kindly took over and persuaded the drill through it. By the time all 3 were made my body was beginning to protest! Then the edges of the holes had to be cleaned up with a gouge chisel. This was another first for me but with Martin showing me what to do and then supervising I managed it.

A nervous moment whilst drilling the leg holes with the auger

Although I had shaped the tenons the previous week I had left them slightly oversized as always in case they shrank as the wood dried. So it was back on the shavehorse and the fiddly job of  offering them up to the hole, paring a little bit off, offering them up… Eventually they were a snug fit. It was then that I discovered that the front one was too upright because I had not angled the hole enough. I was so cross with myself`! Luckily for me Martin suggested that by taking a sliver off one side of the tenon, which was still quite tight, the tenon would be angled to the leg and might solve the problem. It did. Phew! Thanks Martin!

With the bench seat finished (it is in the right of the picture), lunch eaten and a fascinating discussion over our cups of tea on the effect of planning policy and building regulations on the working countryside, it was time to start making the vice for my shavehorse. I found a lovely piece of Ash for the uprights, split it and shaved off the bark. Unfortunately I made the split so the curve was from side to side rather than front to back and Nick decided that making it work was more effort than starting again. It was entirely my fault – I should have asked if it mattered which way I put the split.

Martin and Stef had offered to go and find more lengths for the remaining horses. Given that the rides had turned into streams and the clay mud was treacherously slippery this was very generous of them and none of us argued. There was enough in what they collected for me to have another length and this time I made sure that I orientated it correctly. Once I had removed the bark the next job was to clamp both lengths together and drill holes right through for the adjustable pin and the mortice for the top bar. This was done with the brace and bit and was quite tricky because the split had to be as vertical as possible in the vice and the holes exactly at right angles to it. I watched both David and Kieron do theirs and decided that at 3pm and feeling tired it was not a good idea to start such a precise task which also demanded quite a lot of energy. So I downed tools until next week. It is always OK on this course to pace ourselves and stop when we feel we need to.

Andrew had also got to a good place to stop. We travel together as we live quite close to each other and we were both concerned about the drive home given that there might be floods and fallen trees. So with the light fading we left the others to finish and went home early. That evening my legs were very stiff and I walked like a mannequin! Luckily by next morning the stiffness had eased and was soon worked off.

Words by Sue Laverack
Photos by David Hunter

Week 6: A shavehorse is born

Having spent the week before the half term break on the plot with the students on the short course, this week was devoted to green woodwork.

One of the trees I had practiced my felling on was a Douglas fir. When I cleared around its base I discovered a balk of timber at its base. Further investigation revealed that a large tree had blown down but some of its roots had remained intact and still in the ground. All built one of its branches had died and broken off but the one which survived had grown on and become ‘my’ tree. Martin and Nick got quite excited when they realised what I had found and cleared the rest of the trunk. It was perfect for making the seats of shavehorses, which is our next woodworking project.

So on Wednesday morning, whilst the others finished the last sawhorse under construction Martin, Andrew and I set off to start cutting the trunk into lengths. It was my first time using the two-handed saw. The thinner top section was to be in 5’6” lengths to be suitable for fence posts if this was the best use of them. We were debating how best to measure this as we had forgotten to take a tape measure with us. When I said that I was 5’6” tall there was much teasing about making me lie down next to the trunk! Luckily for me I was spared the mud and cold as a thin pole was found on one of the cut piles and held against me before being cut to my height!

We had found lengths of wood to use as levers and brought some A frames but in the event as we reduced its weight the trunk gradually sprang off the ground hinging on the remaining roots.

Once we reached the more substantial sections we began cutting lengths for shavehorses. By this time the others had joined us and whilst turns were taken on the saw the rest of us practiced splitting some logs, which had already been cut from another fallen fir.

Starting the log splitting

Driving in the splitting axe

Split complete

When 3 lengths were ready for the seats we split them in half and then again parallel to the first split so that we had 6 rough thick planks and 6 ‘bark bits’ similar to the ones I remember getting from a woodyard as fuel some years ago. This process took a lot longer to do than to write! We used froes, axes, wedges (both metal and wood) beetles with a lot of puff, much debate about how best to proceed and quite a bit of sweat but luckily no blood or tears!

Having carried the planks to the clearing around the shelter on Thursday morning Nick, Barbara and Martin gave us the good news that we were now expected to choose one for ourselves, decide which would be the top surface and smooth it ‘enough to be comfortable to suit on and not get splinters in your bum’. For which exercise we would use an axe with a final tidying up from the drawknife. That was some daunting prospect! I have struggled to get the hang of using an axe for shaping. I can now hit ‘with conviction’ (as Martin puts it) but accuracy?..... I tend to end up with a random scattering of nice deep cuts which are not very helpful. However whilst teaching, advice and encouragement are freely available rescuing is not on offer here. 

The finished shavehorse bench

And by the end of the morning my plank was relatively smooth and flat with only a couple of gouges too deep to pare out. I told myself that if necessary I could put a cushion over those – yes a cushion in the workshop – I know – girly!.

Then in  the afternoon I was back on more familiar territory making legs. We each chose a log from the selection provided, cut it to length (more practice on the 2 handed saw) and split it into 4 quarters. I was lucky. My ash log split cleanly and sweetly but David’s and Andrews’s had twists and knots which were invisible from the outside but made the job hard work. Then the tenons had to be shaped. It was then I noticed how much I had learnt. When I first made tenons I did all the work with a drawknife; then I started to try to do some shaping with the axe but quickly gave up; this time I was choosing to axe until the job was nearly done. And I got them made quickly. Practice has made me more confident and improved my ‘eye’ for the shape. Since we are making these shavehorses for ourselves we labelled our components with our initials in charcoal before leaving to avoid confusion.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Week 5: Four day coppicing course

This week we were joined by 3 new people who were on the ‘Introduction to Coppicing’ course and we all spent 4 days in the woods. John and Geraldine were from London and hoped to have a wood of their own one day, Trevor was from South East Wales and Chair of a conservation group which had just taken over management of an area of woodland.

Whilst those of us on the long course continued our tree felling practice Nick gave the newcomers the welcome and ‘health and safety’ talks. Then they joined in the fun. Small trees were becoming harder to find and seemed to have a hunted look! It is amazing how quickly the plot is opening up. Where once the hazard to movement was the undergrowth, now that that has all been slashed down it is piles of sorted wood which impede progress. Oh, and the mud!

The coppice plot at the start of our work

Wednesday was very wet so we all retreated into the shelter for the theory part of the course. Nick explained to us how to identify trees, how they grow and how woodsmen use the wood they extract to earn a living. Although we were all sitting on hard chairs in a leaky space he kept us fascinated for the whole day. He recommended some books for further reading and as soon as I got home I scanned my shelves. Some I had and Amazon has had a string of orders as I have treated myself to others.

Eager learners discuss points during our rainy day theory session

Nick teaching the theory behind coppicing
During a brief dry spell we were sent out to find leaves so that we could have a go at identifying them. Trevor, David and Penny spotted a grass snake which Trevor managed to photograph despite its efforts to hide in the brash.

Grass snake
Thursday the weather improved and we were out on the plot again (to Nick’s relief!). At last I feel as though I am getting the hang of using the billhook. I was being far too tentative but with a lot of help and encouragement from Nick and Martin I am beginning to strike with the required ‘conviction’. Accuracy though is another thing entirely! So I make a lot of semi-random deep cuts! They assure me that it is just a matter of practice and that they will ensure that I get loads of that.

It was sad to say goodbye to our 3 new friends but Trevor seems to have caught the ‘coppicewood bug’ and hopes to do more courses sometime. Next week is half term for us so a week off. I really thought that 4 days would be hard going and leave me very tired but in fact I had very little stiffness and whilst there are a lot of things I have not had time to do this week the tiredness is manageable. I seem to be getting fitter.

P.S. I went to the GP surgery during half term for my annual blood pressure etc. check. The nurse asked about exercise and I told her what I did – the 2 days a week in the woods, a yoga class, a large garden… The resulting note was ‘no formal exercise but keeps active’! It seems only gym membership counts!

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Week 4: The coppicing begins

We start work on our own plot! At last the trees are dormant enough and there are few enough leaves for us to begin cutting.

We have been allocated an area, roughly an acre in size, of neglected woodland and set the task of turning it into managed coppice by next March. No pressure then!

Initially it looked to be just a tangle of trees of various sizes, some multi-stemmed, some twisted, some dead or dying and all tied together with brambles and honeysuckle. Where should we begin. By asking us questions and teasing out our existing knowledge and common sense Nick helped us work out how to approach the job and how to think logically about the sequence of work. If we started with the small trees we would create enough space to tackle the bigger ones and we could learn safely on ones that would not do too much damage if they did not fall exactly where we wanted them to.

He showed us how to make a directional cut on the side where we wanted the tree to fall.

Nick prepares for the felling cut

Nick starts the felling cut

Then we were shown how to take off the branches with the billhook to leave a neat, straight piece of wood. And how to then trim up the branches to give faggot wood, pea sticks from hazel or brish for making besom brooms from birch.

And armed with slashers, bowsaws and billhooks we fanned out to find a suitable tree!

For the rest of that day and the following one we practiced felling, snedding and sorting the wood into piles, gradually learning how to choose the sequence of clearing. We are expected to get on with things and learn for ourselves but with 3 tutors to 6 students there is always someone nearby to ask advice from and a discreet eye is always being kept on our activities in case we are about to do something really stupid. Even so I cut down an ash which should really have been allowed to grow on! I think I have been forgiven!

David commencing his felling cut
Sue sets to work on her felled Birch
Kieron snedding