Tales from the Wood

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Elvers (Anguilla anguilla) Marble Carving

On the beach at Trimingham, amongst the storm-tossed rubble, I came across this piece of marble. Probably Carrerra - but only a small fragment - perhaps the remains of a Victorian washstand. Who can guess? It carved beautifully, and polished up to that lustrous sheen one can only get with high quality marble. I wonder if I'll come across some more?



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Ceramic Composites

Ceramic composites are becoming increasingly prevalent in the new technological fields of precision engineering. However, very little translates, so it seems, to arts and crafts practice.

It's a complex and sometimes an eye-wateringly difficult subject, but at it's simplest level, it can be viewed as a way of extending established ceramic methods by exploring different components to form sintered bodies. Or in other words, using other materials besides clay!

To cut a long story short, I've been testing some simple composites to try and cut down firing time. It certainly seems to make sense these days to reduce energy consumption, but also, as an interesting spin-off, it became apparent that a simple way of constructing, was to use folded-paper moulds. This technique proved nigh on impossible with standard clay slip, for more reasons that I can list here, but with a carefully designed composite, it casts up strongly and the paper mould can easily be peeled off (and recycled). Glazing is also straightforward.

As to firing times. Well, to achieve a comfortable low-fire (raku) temperature, it takes about 10 minutes. And no, absolutely no pre-firing needed!



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The Art of Hedgelaying

Way back in history, when I lived on a farm in Staffordshire, hedgelaying was part-and-parcel of everyday field maintenance. It ensured that field boundaries were stockproof and the hedges dense and secure, It gave the hedgerow-birds good tight cover for nesting and provided seasonal employment for the local 'Hedgers and Ditchers'.

I was lucky enough to be taught the art by two of Staffordhire's best; Bill Windley and Geoff Key (1985 British Champion) but despite the illustrious tuition, I was never more than a jobbing, rather than a hero hedgelayer and never did particularly well in local competitions.

But, I really loved it; there's nothing better on a freezing winter's day than a few hours grubbing around in a hedge bottom - it keeps you warm as toast and you can see a real transformation, as the neatly sloping pleachers follows your billhook and axe.

Now living in Norfolk, I've found much less evidence of hedgelaying: beets and potatoes have taken over from sheep and bullocks. However, staring me in the face, for too long now, there is a good 150 yard stretch of overgrown hedge bordering the wood, and it's ripe for laying.

The principles of hedgelaying are fairly simple, you thin the individual hedgerow trees, cut through each stem with a slicing cut, leaving just enough bark and cambium to enable the sap to rise, and then, carefully bend the stem (now a called a pleacher) down into the previously layed section.

Iv'e made a questionable start, but by the end, I guess I'll be back to average!

Hedge Laying 1

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Hedge Laying 3

Hedge Laying 4

Terracotta Bird Workshop at Cley Marshes North Norfolk

A much underrated ceramic technique, terracotta is an ideal medium for short time-scale workshops. Simple red clay, a single firing and a lifetime's polishing with beeswax.

This day-long session started with basic observational drawing from the seclusion of a bird hide with more contextual, landscape studies. The aim is to form a - very generalised - concept of the subject matter (in this case, a bird sculpture). Then, after practicing some basic terracotta techniques, the students start to construct their hand-scale sculptures.

Using an adaptive approach, we follow a very playful process of working the clay and reflecting on each new material outcome; always asking the question: 'could this be adapted to the concept of bird sculpture'?

Working in this way, we don't impose any dangerous pre-visualisations on the material, rather, we let the material make its own suggestions on how things develop. Slowly but surely, we reflect, discard, adapt, and finally, edge towards commitment.



Terracotta Bird

Last Sycamore Vessel?

Here it is, the last black sycamore vessel…well probably.

As there are no more suitably-sized trees to be thinned, at least for a while, I'll be turning my attention to other projects. Sweet chestnut will have to feature in the future, particularly as I've planted over a thousand, and in the meantime there's a few, more mature, chestnut specimens to be felled. Sweet chestnut has very different working characteristics to sycamore, it cleaves easily but isn't great for turning and burning.

Chestnut coppice is a wonderful material, but it will be a while untill we're ready to take the first cut. In the meantime, I can only wonder how the new saplings have managed to survive and even thrive after the long Norfolk drought, but I guess being a predominately Mediterranean species it has adapted to these drier conditions.

With climate change, now a certainty, the planting of new woodlands needs to take heed of these newly predicted climatic patterns as it will only be a matter of time before we see our traditional broadleaf woodlands struggling to regenerate and survive.

Last Sycamore Vessel ?


Pine Needle Black

I'm having a break from charred sycamore vessels. Mainly due to an unpredictable loss rate (I guess inevitable, when you torture a perfectly good piece of turned wood with a blow torch) and now that most of the thinning has been done, we're running out of suitable trees.

So, after some experimentation, I'm making a few black ceramic pieces with chestnut handles.

For previous work (below) I made a wood-fired muffle kiln, to carbon-impregnate the ceramic body after a previous stoneware firing. The new batch however, will be blackened in a similar way to the Raku process: removed from the kiln at red heat and immersed in a carbon rich material. Sawdust is usually used for this, but pine needles create a wonderfully deep black that seems to really impregnate the body.

I took a macro-photo to see the blackened body in detail - nothing particularly conclusive about this, but it seemed a good idea at the time and I wanted to test the new macro attachment for the phone-camera. Impressive little gadget I thought, for something that looks little more than a fancy tie clip!

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