Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Week 14: Snow and ash

This will be a short post as I was only in the woods for half a day!

Living at the bottom of a valley with steep hills whichever way I try to get out means that I am unable to get out in bad weather. Last Friday we had a heavy snow fall and it been too cold for a significant thaw with nights when the slush refroze.

On Wednesday morning the roads were just passable with care. Andrew and I share lifts whenever we can and as he has a Landrover he offered to take me in. The journey was not too bad and once we reached the larger roads they were clear. Kieron was unable to get through but to everyone’s surprise Penny arrived having walked most of the way.

We went down to the plot and snedded the willow felled late last Wednesday as a warm-up exercise. Then whilst Stef, Penny and I felled the Ash tree we had talked about last week under Martin’s supervision, Andrew and David dropped another large leaning willow with Nick. The idea was to get us familiar with using match cutting on a leaning tree. It was hard work but kept us warm.

Sue getting to work on the complicated ash.

And the snow really starts to come.

Andrew and David working on match cutting a willow.

Stef match cutting the ash
By lunchtime the ash was cleared and the willow safely down. The snow was heavier and we put all the tools under the shelter we had started building a couple of weeks ago so we could find them again. We went in the workshop for lunch and when we opened the door again realised how heavy it was getting and it was lying so those of us with tricky journeys left. We got half way up Rhos hill and got stopped behind a series of vehicles all blocked by some lorries which were stuck. We doubled back through Cilgerran to Boncath and then home. With 2 very brief stops for fuel and a sack of hen food (for Andrew’s flock) it took us 2 hours to get to my place and another 30 mins for Andrew to get home! This morning he has decided that the deep snow and the ice make it silly to try going so I am home. David and Stef have camper vans and had prepared to stay over to reduce travel, the 3 tutors live within walking distance but what they will do there today I have no idea! The snow will probably be too deep to work on the plot and the translucent roof of the shelter will be cloaked in snow so too dark in there to do project work. The rest of us will not get in. A shame but just one of those things.

Words by Sue Laverack
Photos by Sue Laverack and David Hunter

Monday, 28 January 2013

Week 13: Return of the two handed saw

Another week of new skills!

Wednesday was spent on the plot and Nick began by asking us to think about how to  fell an Ash tree which had got bent over whilst young and then grown clear. The base of the trunk was virtually horizontal but then curved sharply and the main part of the trunk was vertical. Apparently several of us had looked at it with a view to taking it down and then moved on to something easier! I suggested felling it with the axe just above the curve as if it were a normal straight grown tree and then removing the horizontal section. This would have got it down safely but, as Nick pointed out, the curve could be useful for craft work and my method would lose that option. We considered using a rope to control the direction of fall, the use of a match cut (cutting a V evenly on each side of the horizontal stem so that the two cuts met at the base) and then axing through the top. If that was our chosen method Nick emphasised the importance of doing both cuts at once rather than all of one before the other. After all that thought and discussion we realised that the way we would want it to fall was blocked by a large willow which would have to come down first!

So we moved on and learnt how to fell a larger tree than any we had so far done. We worked as a team to axe the ‘birds mouth’ directional cut which we had learned with bowsaw and billhook on small stuff. Then we used the two-handed saw to cut through the back. This involved learning to keep the blade flat and to adjust effort between the two sawyers to keep parallel to the back of the ‘bird’s mouth’. Not as easy as it looks! Then we knocked in wedges to push the tree over in the required direction.

All we had to do then was sned up the branches – more axe work to sever the branches from the trunk and some good natured competition to establish the pecking order of skilfulness and stamina! To my delight I was using the axe much more successfully this week. I am nowhere near the best but it was a lot less disgraceful than last week. Amazingly we got it all cleared with enough time to fell another willow (but not sned it) before the end of the day.

Sue and Penny at work with the two handed saw.
Wedges and mallet add the finishing touches.
Thursday was a strange experience. Kieron had phoned to say that a recurring elbow problem had flared up and he would not be in the woods this week. Penny is cycling in and with snow in the forecast today had decided that discretion was the better part of valour and stayed home. So only 4 of us convened with the 3 tutors for green woodworking in the shelter and the low numbers felt very weird. At lunch time we talked about the richness of a larger group, how glad we are that we are not on a course (as has happened in the past) with only 2 students, and Nick commented appreciatively on the keenness and commitment of this group.

Andrew finished his shavehorse and the rest of us started work on our projects. After a week’s reflection Stef decided not to make a musical instrument as that would involve using seasoned rather than green wood. Instead he wants to make a frame for a shelter which he can put up, take down and transport easily wherever he is working in the woods. He is experimenting with small scale models of components to refine his design. Similarly David has decided that he wants a pole lathe more urgently than he could achieve as his project so will make one at home and instead is working on a trailer to pull behind his bike. I stuck to the idea of a swing bench for the garden and had been using the internet to explore designs, measured up the space for dimensions and begun to think how I might construct it. Martin revealed that he had made one years ago so he worked with me on refining my design.

Much discussion and many doodles later he and I set out onto the plot to source a 5 foot length of straight wood to make the front and back seat supports and a shorter length for the sides rails. I then had to learn to use the cleaving brake to split them. The long one went perfectly but the small one ran out and Martin went to find a replacement for me whilst I barked the long pieces and tidied them up.

Once all four were prepared I laid them out on the shelter floor to mark the joints. It was then that Martin realised that in our design the back support could foul the hanging chains and another discussion began on the best way to fix the back strongly enough without this happening. It had to be worked out before I made the joints because it would affect where I positioned the long rails on the side ones. We came up with a plan just as it was time to leave! With all the joints to make and 9 spindles to turn on the pole-lathe for the back I could well be finishing it on volunteer days over the summer!

It felt really good that we were not restricted to making things the tutors already know how to do; but that within the legitimate restraints of time and available materials we are able to access their experience and skill to find solutions to the challenges of our chosen project. This allows us to learn the skill of thinking through the technical and logistic problems as well as the specific skills of ‘making a joint’ or ‘making a chair’. In this respect it appears to be very different from many of the other, shorter, green woodworking courses available. I think it must be much more interesting for the tutors than ‘another run through’ of the same processes as well! 

Words by Sue Laverack
Photos by David Hunter

Monday, 14 January 2013

Week 12: Shelter in the woods

I was very unsure whether I would make it to the woods this week. Over New Year I visited my daughter and her family and returned with a cold which, by Tuesday was streaming. However by Wednesday I was feeling rather better and more energetic and decided that in the open air, with very fit people, the infection risk was probably manageable.

It was back to the plot and more felling. Nick asked us to concentrate on a relatively small area at the top end explaining that at this stage he always starts to worry about finishing the whole plot and wants to ensure that at least some of it is completed properly before spring.

I chose an Ash with 4 medium sized stems. I am not sure whether it was my cold, the long break or what but I chewed the first stem horribly! All the work Martin had put in before Christmas seemed to have disappeared into the ether and I was back to square one! To make matters worse I had cut quite low and thus the stem was at its widest – much bigger than I had anticipated. It finally succumbed to my pig-headed determination (apparently it has been noted that what I lack in skill I make up for with independence and stubbornness!) and was snedded before lunch.

After the lunch break I was tempted to ask if I could do faggot making as light relief but decided that if practice was what I needed than I should make the most of every opportunity. See what I mean about determination? The next stem was slightly slimmer and, having discovered from Nick that Ash regenerates from higher stools, I cut it higher. This one was not good but slightly less disgraceful than the first.

On Thursday we began making the new shelter which had been rained off before Christmas. Nick, Barbara and Martin had already selected some material and a site and we had the design so we just had to decide size, exact position and the direction of the doorway. There were 8 of us (Penny was cycling in so arrived a little later) – a builder, an ex-traveller, an outdoor pursuits leader, an ex-army officer, me with my slight tendency to bossiness (OK considerable tendency to bossiness!) and 3 tutors – and a democratic ethos so decisions took some time! Once they were made we got the framework up quite quickly and began gathering brash to thatch it with. Barbara showed us how to split bramble to bind the bundles. I could see this being very useful in basket making so whilst the chaps tied the framework together I collected some stems and practiced splitting them. Split bramble is ideal for binding besom brooms because the stubs of the thorns help it grip and, of course, in a wood there is material to hand but it is a slow process and the lengths can break at weak points making it less consistent than string so for this job we supplemented our stocks with string. Purism has its limits!

Martin working on the shelter's frame

Barbara splitting brambles for cordage

Debating how to move forward

Uprights being staked

By the end of lunchtime the rain had set in again so we began discussing our projects. For the rest of the course we will spend our green woodworking days working on something for ourselves. As long as it is relevant to the woods it can be practical or theoretical. If practical it can involve making something, learning or developing a particular skill, or be ‘research and development’ for a project to be done at home. The tutors will be there as a resource with whatever advice, skill or help they can offer. Kieron has been researching traditional techniques for building a kayak/canoe and would like to make one. Nick warned that the very long lengths suitable for cleaving needed for his first ideas would be difficult to find in this wood but with discussions about joining lengths and Stef contributing his experience of building a traditional boat it seems there are ways round this. David was considering either a trailer to pull behind his bike or making his own pole lathe. As we all talked he seemed to be veering towards the latter. Andrew needs a new gate for his orchard but also some hurdles for his sheep. Again a woven hurdle would take material that these woods cannot supply but his own smallholding might yield enough and it may be possible to invite someone with experience of hazel hurdle making to come and teach us for a day. Penny is thinking along similar lines as she too is a smallholder. Stef is a musician and interested in making instruments in traditional ways so would like to try turning a flute type instrument on the pole lathe. I have a rusting swing seat in the garden which I would like to replace. Each of us now has to produce some kind of drawing with dimensions which can then be refined with the tutors to provide a cutting list. I am really looking forward to seeing the different designs unfold and learning from all the projects. The creativity and the richness of past experience is a joy to be part of.

Words by Sue Laverack
Photos by David Hunter 

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Week 11: Coppicewood becomes a crafts centre for the day

Today Martin spent a lot of time with me working on the multi-stemmed hazel we started last week. He was concerned that I was wasting a great deal of effort because I was not swinging the axe correctly. I was not beginning the swing with my left hand on the end of the handle and the right near the head and then sliding the right one down the shaft to join the left one before the head hit the tree. Once I was beginning to do that more consistently he pointed out that I was almost arresting the swing just as the head made contact with the wood instead of following through. Finally I was keeping my legs still meaning that my arms and upper body were doing all the work when I should have been shifting my weight from my right leg to the left thus using my leg muscles and all my weight. When I get it right I make much faster progress and for less effort. It took all day but I was rewarded at the end of the afternoon by a shout of ‘Nice one Sue’ from Nick. The credit should really go to Martin for not giving up on me! Also to Coppicewood because with one tutor to two students there is time pay that much attention to helping each of us when we need it and the length of the course allows plenty of practice. It will be interesting to see how much of the learning has ‘stuck’ when we return in January.

Martyn W and I had had a conversation a few weeks ago when he was last volunteering about which weight of axe would be best for me. He had brought one of his for me to try and it was a joy to use – a very good balance between light enough to handle comfortably and heavy enough to make the most of my efforts. It suited me even better than the Gransfors I had tried and which is favoured by Jill and Martin and which I had been planning to buy. He is lending it to me for the duration of the course or until I find one similar to buy. This means I have both an axe and a drawknife (on loan from Martin A) giving me time to find the right ones to buy without pressure to get what is immediately available. It is very generous and trusting of them to lend me tools and I feel very privileged. I had not realised before how important it is to choose tools carefully and how much difference different weights and patterns could make to he pleasure from working.

By the end of the afternoon all the large stems were down and snedded and we had ‘plashed’ two smaller stems. ‘Plashing’ is cutting part way through the stem so that it can be bent down to run along the ground. Then the bark is cut off for a small length on the under surface and the stem is pegged down into a shallow scrape in the ground at that point. With luck roots will form and a new tree will grow. The process is usually done in early spring once all the coppicing is complete but we had had to bend these stems out of the way so we pegged them before they got broken.

Hazel stool complete

Thursday was our last day before the Christmas break and as four of us have finished our shavehorses the plan was to build another shelter near the plot for our morning tea break. Nick had seen a design in a book by Ray Mears which would be simple to construct using materials we already had to hand. However the rain was heavy and persistent so we stayed in the workshop and Nick taught us some knots which are traditionally used by woodsmen. Then each of us chose something to ‘potter’ at. I found a piece of Ash which had been cleft in half, cleft it again with a froe and used a hatchet and drawknife to fashion a handle for my own froe head recently bought through Martin. I had hoped to take out the bend so that I practiced preparing a piece for the pole lathe but it was still banana shaped when I had finished! This was not a problem for the handle but shows I need more practice! For the last part of the afternoon Nick found me a piece of Sycamore and with his guidance I began to carve a spoon. 

Sue's froe complete with handle

Festive Robin and cake thief.

Andrew’s wife had sent us some mince pies and an iced fruit cake (she is a very gifted and generous baker and keeps us well supplied with treats) and I had taken in mulled wine and homemade chocolates so we passed a productive and happy afternoon around the fire.

I find it hard to believe that we have reached the half way point in the course but when I start to list the new skills I have been taught (some of which I can now actually do – some works in progress!) I realise how much has happened.

Week 10: Shavehorses complete in time for Christmas

I am feeling slightly embarrassed at how pleased I am feeling with myself after this week!

On Wednesday it was bitterly cold but crisp and clear so we went on the plot as planned. Nothing like a bit of axe work to warm you up! Four of the team who manage the woods at the Centre for Alternative technology had come to volunteer for the day. A ‘busman’s holiday’ but a chance to have a change of scene and meet another group. Adam, their leader, trained at Coppicewood and Rob had been on short courses so were old friends.

I was looking around for another tree to fell and asked Nick whether I could try working on a multi-stemmed one as these predominate in my woods. He had shown us how to go about it last week and demonstrated that an axe was the only way to work as the stems were too close together to get a saw in between. Sawing from the outside would result in the saw getting trapped as the weight of the stem closed the cut. He had also stressed the importance of cutting low so that new growth is from the root. He and Jill had been working on neighbouring stools and there were a couple of stems left on each which I could have finished but I opted to start on a large stool with many tangled stems as this meant I had to think carefully about the order of work. We had a discussion about the best place to begin and he left me to it.

I got the first one down fairly easily and began on the second which proved to be thicker than I had realised. Two stems had grown close together and fused. Martin came across and suggested that by adjusting my swing a bit I could work more efficiently. It is the kind of thing I do not realise I am doing wrong until someone points it out to me. He offered to work on the stool with me but made me tell him which stem to do next. That way I learnt how to order the cutting but had company, help and advice if I needed it, and the job got done more quickly so was less daunting. Then Rob came across and did a lot of the snedding for us which was a great help.

Martin offering advice on tackling this gnarled hazel.

Hazel under coppice

By the end of the day about two thirds of the stems were down and cleared. When I looked at the stumps they were much less rough than last week’s so I was pleased with my progress. I also noticed that as my technique improved with advice and feedback from the tutors I used less energy to get the same result.

Thursday was another freezing cold day and we got on with our shavehorses. First I turned the knob on the end of the hinge pin and really enjoyed seeing the shape emerge under my chisel. Then I whittled pegs to secure the top rail of the vice and drilled the holes for them. I kept trying to put off drilling right across the seat plank for the pin to go through but eventually ran out of excuses! With Martin saying ‘left a bit, back a bit, too much…’ to keep my drill bit in line in one plane and a guide mark for the other I got through without too much difficulty and came out within half an inch of where I wanted to be. Not bad over about 10 inches. The pin proved to be too thick for the hole – a very snug fit would not swivel properly – so Nick helped me centre it on the lathe to turn it down a bit more. My first attempt went wrong as I was using the chisel with the bevel up not down but Nick soon sorted me out and I ended up with a smooth pin which went through the hole nicely. 

Sue sitting proudly upon her finished product

Andrew working on some of the final parts

Kieron nervously making the final drill...

... and a sigh of relief as it all comes off

Before I adjusted the length of the legs so it sits level on the ground Martin realised that by turning the front one it would be more stable so we knocked it out and repositioned it. A couple of saw cuts and it was level and firm with the vice just clearing the ground. Then all I had to do was saw of a length of sawn timber and bolt it to the front and the job was done.

I realised that although I had had help and advice at every stage, I had tackled every part of the process and the result was a respectable object which will do the job it is intended for. I felt ridiculously proud of what I had achieved!

David, Kieron and Stef also finished their horses and as all 3 drive vans they were able to take them home. Andrew will use his Landrover to move mine for me next week. He and Penny are on the finishing straight and should have theirs done by Christmas.

 Words by Sue Laverack
Photos by Sue Laverack and David Hunter

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Week 9: The art of the polelathe

I felled another two trees with the axe today and although I am still not happy with my skill the stumps were a bit less mangled than the ones I did last week. It is hard physical work and the second one took a certain amount of dogged determination to complete! Very satisfying though to see the pile of wood growing and the plot being cleared.

Lunch time was particularly interesting as Bruce came along and showed us Yakon and Oca, two root vegetables which he had grown in his forest garden. The Oca has to be cooked but Yakon can be eaten raw so he cut off some slices for us to try – deliciously sweet and crunchy. Apparently it does not soften on cooking so is excellent in stir-fries. I really appreciate Bruce’s generous sharing of his expertise in growing these more exotic vegetables and fruits and allowing us to taste them before deciding whether they warrant a space in our own gardens.

On Thursday we were working on our shavehorses again. My first task was to use the axe to shape the piece of Ash I had cleft last week into a square cross section. This had to be as straight as possible as ‘bananas’ take a lot of work on the lathe. I was fortunate in that the original piece of wood had been straight with straight grain (a straight piece may still have twisted grain so it is not until it is cleft that it is certain it will work well). Even so I was pleased with the result and once I had taken the corners off and tidied it up with the drawknife it went on the lathe well. 

Barbara giving Penny a few pointers on the art of the polelathe

The polelathe in action

Whilst I waited for a polelathe to be free Martin helped me to shape the bottom of the vice legs for the foot rest and fit it. The carpentry I have been doing in my own workshop paid dividends and it went well. It really feels to be coming together now!

After lunch Nick and Martin showed us how to split a log into square sticks and hammer them through a jig to make tines for rakes. This was not a digression into hay rake making but because the same square sticks were what we needed to whittle pegs to secure the tenons in the vices. This was an activity we could get on with whenever we had a few minutes spare.

Then I was able to go on the lathe with Barbara showing me how to set it up and rough my pin to a cylinder. We are all finding that turning is addictive and we could very easily keep cutting until we end up with chopsticks or even toothpicks! I stopped just in time and Barbara showed me how to smooth the cylinder using a different chisel. The pin has a knob on the end so Nick demonstrated squaring off an end or section and turned a narrow bead. I will turn a ball in the remaining wood but the light was going rapidly so that will have to wait until next time.

I took the opportunity to return to the woods on Saturday and join the Festive Weaving Course led by Barbara. This was not part of the long course and the other 3 students on it were people I had not met before. We had great fun making wreathes, stars and chains and decorating them with greenery and other things which we had brought and shared. So that was three Christmas presents sorted!

The results of a hard days weaving

Week 8: Felling with the axe

I felled 3 trees with the axe today! Not very neatly I have to confess. I can do ‘clout’ or ‘accuracy’ but not, it seems, both at once! However Nick assures me that all I need is lots of practice – which he will ensure I get. Now is that a threat or a promise?

The day began with Nick showing us how to fell with the axe, the importance of cutting upwards for the bottom of the ‘V’ and keeping the lower cut close to the ground. He also went over the safety aspects of using the axe which could do real damage if we chop ourselves. 

Nick judging the lean on the chosen tree

Work begins cutting out the directional cut

Inspecting the cut and illustrating the clean working face


I decided to warm up by cutting some more of the small thorn trees I had been clearing last week using bowsaw and billhook. Then I practiced using the axe on fallen trunks to remember the correct action. Jill, one of the volunteers who I had worked alongside over the summer, teased me that I was being too cautious and was convinced I could move on to standing trees quite safely. She was quite correct – I was putting off something I was apprehensive about. Not that I thought I would hurt myself but that I would leave a mangled stump which would never re-grow. This despite the fact that Nick had assured us that the trees ‘knew’ we had to learn and would collectively be relieved that someone was trying to care for them.

So with Nick keeping an eye on me and providing helpful advice I had a go on one of the middle sized thorn trees where I had been clearing small stuff with David. My stump was indeed mangled but there was a recognisable shape which vaguely approximated to the one on Nick’s demonstration. David’s was much neater and he got his tree down faster with fewer blows. He has proved very adept with all the tools in contrast to my struggles. Luckily Andrew’s stump was also a bit ragged so my pride was salvaged!

The next 2 trees also came down OK and where I wanted them to and I managed the upcut more often. Still a long way to go though before I am happy with my skill. However I am getting much better at snedding so there is progress.

By late afternoon I was getting very tired and the proportion of ‘pauses for breath’ to ‘working’ was getting high. David kindly lent muscle power to help me pull out branches and sned up material so the ride was clear. One of the nice things about working in a group is that there is always help on hand if the job is hard.

On the Thursday Andrew and I were late because on my way to pick him up I encountered sheet ice at a crossroads and had to detour. Kieron was even later after similar problems. Barbara was also absent as a finger she had injured on a thorn yesterday had swollen up and she had gone to the minor injuries unit for advice. With only 3 students and 2 tutors there at the start green woodworking was decided on and we continued with our shavehorses. The first pair of uprights for my vice were discarded because I split the log in the wrong plane and got the curve going side to side instead of front to back. The second pair were on the massive side so at Nick’s suggestion I discarded those as well and he helped me find another length which I split and barked. Third time lucky! I am getting quite good at using the froe!

Then they had to be clamped together and 4 holes drilled right through the pair – two for the mortice to take the top rail and two for the adjustable peg which acts as the hinge. Martin showed me what to do and checked that I was keeping the drill at right angles to the split. I really struggled to get through with the brace and bit but assumed it was me being a) old b) girly and c) unfit. Nick, who had taken over from Martin, took pity on me and offered to do one of the holes. When he also puffed and struggled I realised it really was a rather unusually hard piece of wood and felt better! Then Martin showed me how to use a chisel to join up the two holes for the mortice.

Lunch around the woodburner turned into a spoon carving activity with several of us whittling away. Nick went one better and worked on a plate he is carving as a Christmas present. I love the range of skills we can learn and the flexibility in the course.

Lunch time whittling - this time a plate being shaped

One of my discarded uprights was recycled into the top rail of the vice and I shaped the ends into tenons to fit the mortices. Why did I ever find using the drawknife and shavehorse difficult?

By this time Stef and David, who are both amazingly competent, had split wood for their pins and axed it into first a square cross section, and then octagonal, straight  rod. We all watched as Nick mounted Stef’s onto the pole lathe and explained how to set it up and turn the piece down into a cylinder.

I have split myself a piece to use for the pin but decided that axing it to shape was a job for another day. Maybe I was being a whimp but I chose to reframe it as ‘knowing my limitations’!

Words by Sue Laverack
Photos by David Hunter