Saturday, 30 March 2013

Week 21: Greenwood working Cousre

We spent 4 days in the woods this week and were joined by Holly. Lee and Gary on the short course in green woodworking. They all 3 elected to make shavehorses – a wise decision because to make a shavehorse involves using a shavehorse!  But it also involves most of the processes used in green woodwork so is excellent learning.

On Monday, whilst Nick and Martin started the 3 new people off on their course I finished the 4th tenon for my seat frame. Then Martin helped me sort out the components I had made and suggested that I concentrate on making the arms which I hadn’t started. We went down to the plot and found and cleft a curved piece of Ash to give 2 short planks. I had to use the side axe to smooth the face and work them to a suitable thickness. I am still not very god with the eide axe but by the time I had finished and also shaped them a bit I was improving and only had to do a small amount of work with the drawknife. I had a spare piece of  wood which I had already shaped to an oval cross-section so I cut it in half and made tenons on the end to fit holes drilled in the front of the arms. That took me the rest of the afternoon.

Kieron finished his 2 gates today. They are beautiful – simple but elegant – and for his hen run which is complete apart from them so he will be staying home tomorrow to hang them and, if his apple trees arrive, we will not see him again until next week as they will need planting.

Tuesday I started to make the seat back. I shaved the bark of the top rail. Then I made motice and tenon joints at each end of the end spindles which were cleft from curved pieces of bird cherry from my garden. This may not sound much for a day’s work but the 4 joints were fiddly because nothing is straight or square and the 2 bottom ones were made like conventional carpentry ones with sawn flats and a pin – another new technique for me. When we put it together we realised that the sides were too tall for the other spindles so I need to lengthen the tenons and then cut the ends off. We were just about to pack up when I realised that I had made a mistake – what I had thought was the outside edge of the frame was actually the inside! With Nick’s help I tried to find a solution and after a while he suggested we try turning the top rail around and seeing if it would still work with all the curves and angles. It did. PHEW!!! But tomorrow I need to check the spindle lengths again because the rake of the back is now greater which may mean shortening the sides more.

After a night when I kept waking up trying to think how to manage the spindles and their angles into the frame and top rail I had to face doing it for real! It seems both Nick and Martin have been giving it a lot of thought too! This project has posed challenges for us all. I worked the end spindles to length, then marked the frame with equidistant holes and drilled them. Martin and Nick told me to do them vertical as the spindles should have enough flex to bend to the rake. Then each spindle had to be shaved down to fit its own hole. Then I had to assemble it all again, mark the top rail, take it all apart and shape each spindle to fit its top hole. I made 2 mistakes on the top rail – one hole was too near the edge and the top of the spindle shows through and another was slightly out of place. Nothing I could do about either after the event. Then Nick helped me put it all together one last time. I was so relieved when it all went in! And despite the mistakes I am pleased with the design. Quirky and solid frames but the plain spindles make it quite light and delicate at the same time.
It is getting crowded in the shelter now as we all begin to lay out our pieces and fit things together. My bench and David’s bike trailer are both quite big, Andrew and Penny are needing to build up their components into gates and 3 shavehorses are standing around waiting for the vices to be fitted. Only Stef is being compact – he has spent hours on the pole-lathe turning the legs and spindles for his stick chair and is now adzing the seat. He is hard at work when we arrive and continues until it is too dark to see.

Stef hard at work on his chair seat

Kieron's rustic gates complete and looking brilliant.
My job on Thursday was to attach the arms. A simple cut out at the bottom of the support will sit on the inside of the frame and be held with a screw but the back of the arm had to be connected to the end spindle with a complicated sort of cross halving joint in the side and front of the spindle. But these are curved and bend in both planes! I managed something which will be strong but has more gaps than I would ideally like. However Nick and Martin were pleased with my efforts and very reassuring. I must say I am pleased with the overall effect – just don’t look TOO closely!  By way of light relief and a change I finished the afternoon by going to the plot again and finding pieces that would make the seat planks. Martin came to help and we halved some straight lengths of Ash. I shaped them with the side axe and then started to smooth them finally and flatten the ends with the draw knife but ran out of time. With one day next week to complete the job I think I will get it finished – just!

Sue's swing seat approaching completion
 Words and photos by Sue Laverack

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Week 20: Final week on the plot

This was our last week felling for this season so we spent both days on the plot. Next week we combine with the four day green woodworking course and the following week, our last, is after Lady Day, the traditional end of the coppicing season, so we will spend it finishing off any snedding, pleaching small saved stems and generally tidying up.

On the Wednesday morning Barbara offered to do a charcoal burn with anyone who wanted to do one on their own but with supervision. I leapt at the chance! I have helped several times whilst volunteering but the only time I was involved in actually managing the process and deciding when to close the drum or let more air in was when all three tutors were away and us volunteers worked on our own. We ended up with a lot of partly burnt ‘brown ends’. Charcoal making is something I want to do at home with wood from the garden so I needed to be confident I can get it right. With Barbara’s help and reminders I loaded the drum and got it lit.

We needed to stay fairly close and keep checking that it didn’t go out so I did a bit more to my tenons on the swing bench until coffee time. By spending some time during lunch on it I got the third one finished and a start on the fourth. I also drilled a 1 inch hole in an offcut of shelving I had brought from home so that I have a guage for shaping the spindles. I took them home at the end of the day to shave them to size in my own workshop. I am concerned that I will not finish my project by the end of the course otherwise.

We checked the charcoal again before going to the plot after the break and Barbara knew from experience that it should be fine until lunch so I started felling another smallish tree and snedding it. Despite the wintry showers and cold by the end of the afternoon I had done 2. We are either hardy or masochistic depending on your point of view!

We checked the charcoal at lunchtime and decided that it was ready to close down. It was the first time I had put the band on to seal the top and the first time that I had made the final decision about when to do it although Barbara was there to advise and help. All I could do then was wait and see!

So my first job on Thursday was to open the drum and find out if I had been successful. I had! And whilst Stef began loading the second drum for his turn I unloaded mine, sieved and bagged it. I did as much of this on my own as I could because at home there will be no-one to help. It was very satisfying to see a bag of charcoal ready for sale and made by me.

Charcoal, the finished product
 Back on the plot I did another 2 smallish trees. Martin came over and asked how I  was getting on and was I happy with the way I had done them. I am now confident that I can get the tree down safely and where I want it to go and the stumps are low and have the right slope but they look as if they have been chewed by a large, dentally challenged rat and they should be smooth so on that count I am not happy with my work. I also know that I waste a lot of energy making ineffectual cuts. So when I started on my last tree of the season, a slightly larger Ash, he came over to see if he could help me work out where I was going wrong. Between him demonstrating –AGAIN (the tutors have the patience of saints!) – and watching me, and us talking, it became clear what the problem was – I was doing too much on the bottom cut when I should be concentrating more on the top cut and then cutting the slices free with the bottom cut. I tried again and Eureka! A smooth stump. Shame I can’t consolidate the learning until October! 

Sue's smooth axe work
Martin also told me that Jill struggled to master the axe when she did the course and had similar problems to me which surprised me as she is now very competent in a way that I have been envying but apparently she got the hang of it when she volunteered the following season. Good job I live locally and can go on volunteering then! Martin himself needed to find the correct axe for him and found it hard to learn so I am in good company and felt less of a frustrated prat! It seems the ‘knack’ comes when it comes. At least I ended major work on the plot on a high and I am really looking forward to next year’s season.

Words and photos by Sue Laverack

Week 19: Thinking of pleaching

Andrew was unwell today so I went to the coppice on my own. His wife usually supplies us with cakes (she is an excellent baker!) so I took some drop scones – can’t have the troops going hungry!

With help from Rhodi who is a volunteer I snedded the tree I had felled last week. Rhodi has not been for a while but will retire soon and become a more frequent visitor which will please him and us. 

Then Barbara suggested I drop a hazel which was not very big but included several small stems which could be pleached to form new stools if I could save them. I managed to get it down and leave 5 though at the price of the stool being slightly high on one side. Maybe when the pleaching is done I will be able to tidy it up.

Hazel stump

Hazel rods left ready for pleaching
Then Barbara and I tackled a willow which was rather large for either of us to do on our own though the men would have happily done it solo. It was good for me to realise that Barbara, like me, finds she has to be realistic about her strength and stamina. After lunch she was busy cutting willow for weaving so Rhodi again came to help me sned. Just for practice I took off some larger branches with the axe.

Thursday was green woodworking and Nick, Martin and Barbara had agreed that as I couldn’t turn my spindles I should get on with making the seat frame next. Fortunately when we originally prepared the 4 pieces and laid them out on the floor I had numbered each corner so I was able to start cutting the mortices. After checking the appropriate sizes I drilled two holes for each mortice at the ends of the shorter side pieces and then had to be reminded how to chisel out the wood between them to form the oval hole. Once they were cleaned up I started to shape tenons on the ends of the long front and back rails. These are to go right through the mortices far enough to be pegged so over 4 inches of consistent oval has to be shaped on each. It is a case of marking the end with the shape in the right place and shaping it roughly leaving it oversized and then offering it up to the hole, taking a bit off, offering it up….. Bu the end of the afternoon the two which fit into one side rail were done and a good snug fit and the third was part done. I am beginning to realise that this is quite an ambitious project for the time available but I am enjoying it and am pleased with my work so far. Having practiced making round tenons over the summer whilst volunteering has certainly helped.

Words and Photos by Sue Laverack

Monday, 4 March 2013

Week 18: Ladies day on the horizon

After a week off for half term we began by replenishing the firewood pile in the shelter. The fire is lit each day at the moment so that we can keep warm during breaks. Stef has assumed the role of fire monitor as he usually arrives first and, if he has camped overnight nearby, is keen to get and stay warm.

We then sharpened our tools and went down to the plot. Martin and I cleared the remainder of the large tree I had helped to fell last time we were there. This involved using the two-handed saw to cut the trunk into more manageable pieces which was more good practice for me.

Once that was done I looked around for another tree to fell and Nick suggested that I do a nearby thorn. We are trying to work fairly methodically down the plot now to clear the remaining trees before we stop felling by Lady Day (March 25th) which is traditionally when the coppicing season ends. The thorn was quite a challenge for me because the wood is tough and it was two stems so close together they had to be treated as one large one and with the tops very tangled together. It took me some time but I succeeded in the end without needing to send for reinforcements! The work I did on my own garden over the half term break means I am a lot more confident with the axe now but I wish I was 30 years younger with all the energy, strength and stamina I had then! Snedding occupied me for the rest of the day.

Sue's hawthorn

Part way through the afternoon David was felling another tree with Nick helping him on the two-handed saw. Although David had made a directional cut with the axe Nick had foreseen that it might tend to rock backwards and trap the saw so had thrown a rope round it high up. It did and wedges were hammered in but still it would not fall. David, Nick, Stef and I all pulled and managed to set up a rocking motion which eventually brought it off the balance and down in a controlled fall just where it was meant to be.

Rope set up ready for the two handed saw

Wedges going in to encourage the tree to fall where we want it to
Bruce came to see how we were all getting on and has asked David to make a short video with each of us saying something about our experience of the course maybe interspersed with footage of the work we are doping. Watch this space for more news and links!

Thursday was, as usual, green woodworking. I found a lovely curved piece of thorn to make the top rail of the back of my bench and some more willow for spindles. By lunchtime I had prepared all the blanks I need for the turned spindles and in the afternoon, with Nick’s help set the first one up on the pole-lathe. By the time I got it roughed to a cylinder and started smoothing I was finding difficulty. Nick came to help and at first thought it was just that I was being impatient and that one of the centres had worn a bit which was making the piece wobble. He trimmed that end, remounted it and I tried again. It turned out that whilst those had definitely been factors the spindle was also too long and thin so flexing and the wood was very soft. I could not remember if it was a piece from the wood or one I had brought from a tree I had felled at home. Either way it seemed almost inevitable that others I had prepared would give the same problem. I decided that I either began again with no certainty of success  or went back to my original plan of shaping them all with the drawknife. I decided to do the latter. I was sorry to lose the chance of playing on the pole-lathe but as I am building one in my own workshop there will be plenty of opportunity to do more at home.after the course ends. And because I live fairly locally I will volunteer as I did before joining the course so I will still have access to the tools and expertise here.

Barbara helping Penny perfect basket weaving

Barbara helping David bring his cart together

A refurbished two handed saw being put through it's paces
 Meanwhile the others are making good progress with their projects too.

Words by Sue Laverack
Photos by Sue Laverack and David Hunter

Week 17: To the hedge!

If ‘a change is as good as a rest’ then this week is ‘the exception that proves the rule’ because I am stiff and very tired!

The change has been that we have spent 4 days learning to lay hedges in a field at St Dogmaels and the usual team has been augmented by Steve and Ineke, a couple from Northumberland, nominally on holiday and taking this short course purely out of interest having neither hedges nor land of their own. Have I explained before that being weird is a prerequisite of involvement in Coppicewood?

We met on Monday morning at the shelter in the woods for a briefing and to collect tools. Nick explained the principles of hedgelaying – how we would pleach stems by cutting down on a slant with a billhook at the base of the stem leaving a thin hinge, then bend the stem down to the ground and weave the top growth around stakes leaving the brash on the far side before cutting off the stump remaining as it could be a hazard to livestock. He also showed us the large ‘Yorkshire pattern’ billhooks we would be using to cut down through larger stems alongside the more familiar small ones and taught Steve and Ineke how to sharpen them. The rest of us, old hands at sharpening now, made sure that all the hooks, slashers and 2 axes were ready for use. Then we loaded these with bowsaws, two-handed saws and large mallets (for knocking in stakes) into Andrew’s large Landrover and set off for St Dogmaels. We were to work on a field which is used as a market garden and had been asked to take as few vehicles as possible as parking is limited so for most days Andrew’s Landrover became our shuttle bus and mobile tool store.

For most of the rest of the day we worked to be able to get to the bit of hedge we wanted to work on! Like many in this part of Wales it had been neglected and small trees had grown as offsets or seedlings either side of the bank on which the original had been planted. These had to be cleared to gain access. However we were encouraged to practice pleaching some of these so that we made our mistakes on ones that would not be needed in the finished piece. Because there were so many of us we were each given a section to work on and by the end of the day we had reached our objective along quite a long length. Part of the arrangement with the landowner was that he would be responsible for dealing with all the stuff we cut out and he had arranged for someone with a chipper to come in later and shred it all. To make this horrible job as easy as possible we piled all the brash in a line with stems pointing to the hedge and a good tractor width away from it. Our progress on the hedge itself might not have looked much but this line of rubbish was seriously impressive!

Removing unwanted material

On Tuesday Andrew’s big Landy was not available so Stef and Kieron nobly folded themselves up small into my little Kia Picanto for the ride from the woods to the field. Andrew turned up in his smaller Landrover just in time to rescue Nick from joining them! We were asked to divide into 4 teams of 2, each of which would tackle an allocated length but Nick very tactfully requested that the youngsters take the high banked section. This meant that Andrew and I, as the 2 who are ‘getting on a bit and not as agile as we once were’, got the section where the bank was almost demolished without being too embarrassed!

Before we could begin to pleach anything we had to clear out thickets of branches which had been flailed off by the electricity board to stop them interfering with their lines which follow the hedgerow. Then we had to clear small stuff from behind the hedge itself just as we had done at the front. Finally we began to pleach and bend the first few stems of our section but could not weave these into stakes because we had to allow for the team next to us (Steve and Ineke) to join onto our section when they finished theirs. Those first stems had to be laid loosely down the bank to go on top of their last few when they reached the end. To complicate things even further some of the trees in our section were of substantial girth and had to be pleached with the two-handed saw. It did have the advantage of giving us practice with that! It was rather dispiriting to look at our work at the end of the day and see very little to show for it despite hard work and many scratches but we were assured that the first stage was often slow and tiresome and that we would pick up speed the next day.

A pleach in progress

Pleach complete

They were right! Despite a lot of time still being taken up with clearing out stuff we did not want (the line of rubbish got higher, longer and denser) we did start to produce something which bore a passing resemblance to a neat hedge! Nick, Barbara and Martin moved up and down the line offering help, advice and encouragement and generally ensuring that we did not bring disgrace on the college!

After 2 days of warmth and sunshine the forecast for Wednesday had been for heavy rain but we were lucky and suffered only occasional drizzle / light rain so were able to keep working. When I got home it was obvious that we had escaped lightly and that my place had not been so lucky. It seems that Cardigan had a deluge overnight because the next (and last) day we were paddling in mud.

Slipping, sliding and slithering up and down the banks we managed between us to join all the sections together. Steve and Ineke, who did not take the full lunch break (very keen those two!) finished theirs and leapfrogged our section to take on another bit and Martin and Barbara did a section beyond them. They had been itching to get stuck in since Monday! The rest of us finished too late to start any more but cleared up bits of debris which were littering the tractor path and made sure that all the tools were collected together. And, if I am to be strictly honest, stood around admiring our handiwork! By the end of the day roughly 70 yards of hedge was looking surprisingly neat for the work of beginners.

The finished product

Whilst David got Penny to her bus, Martin walked home to the other end of St Dogmaels and Steve and Ineke returned to their B&B for a well earned shower and a few more days holiday, Andrew took Nick, Barbara, Stef and I back to base where we  cleaned and put away all the tools. Although I was tired, muddy and had discovered muscles which I never knew I had it had been a great course and a lot of fun.

The hedgelaying crew

On Sunday I was working on reducing shading on my orchard and instead of coppicing a row of willows on one edge I laid them as a hedge. It wouldn’t win any prizes but I couldn’t have done it the week before. I also axed down a multi-stemmed hazel which I couldn’t have done a few weeks ago. This course seems to be working! A week off next week for half term so a chance to recover and/or get stiff and tired on our own patches.

Words by Sue Laverack
Photos by Sue Laverack and David Hunter