Tales from the Wood

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Reed & Hazel
The hazel I cut down to clear the footpath I’ve used to put together this chair - it’s really to test an idea. Whilst I was creating those reed and coppice sculptures for Norfolk Wildlife Trust, I couldnt help notice how springy and resiliant tightly-bound reed can be. We’ve so much Norfolk reed in the area that has to be mown annually, I wondered if it could be put to good use for seating ? This is only a lash up, but it takes a bit of weight and is surprisingly comfortable. How long it will remain that way I’ve yet to find out.

Faggots Fascines and Bundles
When does a pile of sticks become a bundle and what’s the difference between a faggot and a fascine? To be honest, I think it all depends on the intended use and whether you think the term fascine is a bit posh for, what ever way you look at it, is simply a bunch of twigs. Sticks are a pain to transport (and by stick I mean anything smaller than your average wrist). Then it becomes imperative you group the material together. Whether its brash from felling trees or hazel poles from coppicing, it’s simply a matter of getting the stuff together and binding it up. There’s some really useful devices to help. The woodman’s grip is one of the best. You can see it in use here, two stoat poles joined with rope are used to snare the bundle and then compress it down with tremendous force. I used one years back to bundle up short rotation coppice willow on the farm, and I used it for all sorts of stuff (including squeezing out waterlogged carpet).

The fascine, which is the wire bound bundle I’ve just compressed, will be used for a small flood defence on the reed marsh and this is the definitive function of the fascine: to resist erosion. Its easy to peg down, it doesn’t get pushed about by spate-water and it attracts colonisation by other plants which serve to bind the structure together. The faggot on the other hand is a similarly bunched and bound-up collection of twiggy material, but primarily used as a fuel source. They have traditionally been used for heating bread ovens and pottery-kiln firings were often ‘finished off’ with the fierce heat of a few gorse faggots.

Finally you can see I’ve been trimming some hazel back form the footpath that borders the wood. I got some nice material out of it, which I bundled and dragged back to the workshop for a bit of rustic-chair bodging (more of that later). incidentally, the ‘high drama’ camera angle you see below, is sadly the outcome of falling over my own sodding bundle !

A New Shaving Horse
A new one for the stable; this model is based on John Alexander’s clever design but adapted for UK off-the-shelf timber. Material costs- about £35.00 and easy for students to make, take apart and take home.

Here’s Julian (well part of him) on his newly made model. In the background a European pattern I made of riven oak and hazel; its very beautiful, but quite labour intensive and a bit much for someone new to green wood working who simply wants to learn the basics of riving and shaving and at the end of the day go home with a shaving horse and some knowledge of how to use it.

Marking out the coppice coups and some thoughts on deer damage
Now that permission is in place to coppice the 2.5 acres of broadleaf woodland the strip has been subdivided into coupes (or ‘cants’). Numbering ten in all - each being about a quarter of an acre - they are rather small as coppice coupes go and certainly smaller than coppices I’ve worked in before; but the strip lies along an open field-side border, so each coupe when cut shouldn’t get shaded-out, which is the main problem with small sections of coppice. This area, as I’ve mentioned before, is seriously neglected and although there’s plenty of evidence of previous coppicing activity (the chestnut coppice stool below is 7 metres in girth !) it is long since out of cycle and needs to be brought back in, if at all possible. The ten coupes will be cut annually in turn so giving a total growing cycle of 10 years for each coupe. This time-span has been largely determined by the mixed nature of the trees, mainly sycamore, chestnut and hazel and the nature of the stems they will produce. Because of this variety of species It’s really a compromise, but it will at least start to bring the wood back into cycle and attract the abundant flora and fauna that coppicing is well known for.

Following on from this theme, one particularly attracted group of fauna will be the roe and muntjac deer and of course the grey squirrel (who crave young sycamores). You can see below, if you look carefully that all the growing tips from this sycamore stool have been browsed off. Also, despite giving this young family of roe deer plenty of fresh grazing in the meadow and rides we still to need to protect the coupes. Fencing is the traditional method and with such high numbers of animals present it’s pretty much essential.

So it’s going to be a winter of felling, snedding, stacking, clearing, and then fencing. With luck we should have a spring and summer devoted to making.

Now I know what you thinking... how high does a fence have to be to stop grey squirrels. I’ll have to get back to you on that one ?

Go Wild at Ranworth
I’ve spent a lovely day on the delightful Ranworth Broad recently working with the Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s event to celebrate the wildlife and heritage of the ‘Bure Valley Living Landscape’. Like a lot of the work I’ve been doing for the Trust, I’ve focussed on the entomology and natural resources of the local environment (others might say I’ve been making flies and spiders out of reeds and twigs). Whichever way you look at it, I think this strategy really works as a way of introducing people to the context of the landscape; particularly the working landscape.

Norfolk reed is a case in point. A material which is vital to the ecology of marsh and fen, yet needs to be harvested and managed to encourage new vibrant growth and hold at bay natural succession which would inevitably lead to carr and then climax woodland. The interesting thing for me is what you can do with the harvested reed. As a thatching material it is of course well known, but it’s not always of the quality or consistency required by the thatching community. Certainly the reed I help cut on my local reed marsh is limited in its potential for this type of end-use. Recently I’ve been exploiting the reed’s natural qualities and adapting this structurally. As you can see here, the legs of my fen raft spider
dolomedes plantarius are remarkably strong and light and it’s got me wondering about other potential uses.

North Norfolk Sculpture Trail
This three-piece sculpture was made for a local sculpture trail and it’s chainsaw-carved out of oak. The charred branch details were cut from dead rhododendron and the whole work fits together with wooden and copper pegs. The idea takes the commonplace garden structure of the bird-table and in a ‘theatrical’ sort of way puts any visiting bird literally on a pedestal. As luck would have it, I never saw a bird come within 500 yards of the work, despite a scattering of titbits but I did see a wood pigeon land on the generously carved bosom of another exhibitors creation...Typical.

Norfolk Wildlife Trust: Cley Nature ReserveThis weekend I have been busy at Cley nature reserve constructing a large reed sculpture for their ‘Marine Week’ event. The materials were sourced from the reserve and visitors were invited to come and see the work in progress. It was a stormy day, but the ever-changing light brought even more drama to this unique landscape. As I worked, marsh harriers lapwings and spoonbills displayed over the wetlands and I eat a delicious apple-flavoured Norfolk ice cream while I watched. Oh, and I made a 12-foot-flat-fish. Try saying that when your mouth’s full of delicious apple-flavoured Norfolk ice cream !

Summer Challenge at Holt Hall
I’ve just finished a two-day workshop at Holt Hall - a beautiful North Norfolk setting - where local children have been taking part in the council-run Summer Challenge. We had a great time collecting and preparing materials and then they created sculptures using only the materials at hand. As you can see, the children had some wonderful work to show which they then used to make a sculpture trail in the magnificent Holt Hall Parkland.

Charred Sycamore Vessels
Recently I’ve been making some turned carved & charred sycamore vessels to complete some orders from the ‘Norfolk Open Studios’. They are quite interesting to make particularly as they have asymmetric handles. The carving and charring process softens the forms in a very subtle way and they become sculpturally quite formal and austere, particularly when in groups.

Gathering Winter Fuel
It’s a bit late this year for cutting firewood. It should have been done during the winter. However we’ve been concentrating on the dead standing timber which has a lower moisture content than green wood and should ‘season up’ well enough before winter.

Also to speed the process up, we’ve built two ‘Holtz Hausen’ which are very efficient structures in distributing drying air through the wood stack. They have a log ’shingle’ roof which should shed most of the rain and the central core is laid with vertical logs which, as the theory goes, draws the air through and up like a chimney. I’m a bit sceptical about this part of the thinking but it certainly looks the part.

Oh yes, and sometimes they collapse !

The Royal Norfolk Show
I have spent the last two days down at the Norfolk Show working with the Norfolk Wildlife Trust. They provided lots of beautiful reed from their Hickling Reserve (were I’ll be working later in the summer) and I brought in some coppice thinnings. I’d no idea what I’d make ( a very good thing when your working adaptively) but after some early explorations with binding and wedging (actions which you can find in the ‘making and adapting’ section of this site) I eventually arrived at an interpretation of a dragonfly and damselfly which fitted in nicely with the trust’s display - there were even real-life examples flying around the adjacent pond. It might not be ‘High Art’ but the children and their parents all seemed to enthuse about what was going on and if it made people more aware of their environment then I guess that’s what matters most !

The trust’s stand was amazing, looking like a delightful corner of a Norfolk reed-marsh with its own dyke, bundles of reed and even a marshmans work-boat and to cap it all It won ‘Best Trade Stand in Show’.

School’s Visit
The local school have made their first visit. The sun shone and the woods were at their best. We went on an exploration and collected sticks for making charcoal, resin from the pines and spruce root for binding. After everyone had a turn on the pole lathe we returned our attention to the fire (which seemed to have a hold on attention from the start ! ). We made some charcoal and boiled some resin to make glue. Lots of fun, smoke, sparks and sticky stuff.... Perfect.

I’ve been working on this maquette for a sculpture project with Norfolk Wildlife Trust. With the aid of families signed up for the event, I hope to build a full scale version at the Cley Nature Reserve. The theme will be ‘marine life’ and we will have a good supply of reeds near the site. I’m hoping that each rib will be composed of a full-sized reed bundle, so it will be a real specimen - at least 12 feet across which should look impressive on the grassy slope next to the Visitor Centre.

Two turned waders
Although only a bit of experiment with two-part turning these little chaps have proved popular with visitors and here is a pair to be sent out this week. One is in ebonised sycamore the other is spalted birch ( the spalted black line is created by fungal attack in the dead wood and is the zone line between two types of fungi)

Bluebells & Clearing the Coppice
The bluebells are late this year and have been really splendid, despite muntjac doing their best to graze them off. Any day now we are expecting our license from the Forestry Commission to start the coppice project and we have had two really useful visits from woodland specialists who has given us lots of positive advice and support.

Pitchwood Fish
I found some more Pitchwood (also known as: Fatwood or Fetvid) and carved these 3 fish brooches. This stuff really is translucent and waxy almost like amber (which is I guess is a close fossilized relative). The little beady eyes are once again made from inlaid pine resin with pine charcoal but this time I added a little beeswax to make it less brittle.

Turning Wooden Birds
Wooden decoy carving has been a long tradition in Norfolk. Originally used to attract wildfowl into cage traps and to lure quarry within range of the punt gunner, decoy carving has now evolved into a hugely popular craft. My take on the theme led me to adapt some experiments with lathe turning.

Whilst mid-winter lug worm digging on the North Norfolk mud flats I was often surrounded by hosts of waders in typical ‘tight feathered’ winter plumage. Particularly noticeable was the plump and rounded symmetry of the birds at rest, pulling in their heads and tucking in their wings.

I wandered if I could construct a turned wooden redshank using the natural inbuilt symmetry afforded by the lathe. After several attempts (early efforts resembled mutant puffins) I came up with this. One piece turning; severed and re-attached head; carved legs. The beak was refined with a bit of whittling and the bird was mounted in a bit of left-over birch.

Reed Cutting
Living next to a reed marsh has distinct advantages, one of which is the abundance of flora and fauna it attracts and another is the continual supply of Norfolk reed it provides. The marsh is looked after by a Commons Trust and I’m lucky enough to be a trustee. The reed isn’t of the consistency required for thatching but it’s a versatile material for landscape sculpture. I’m running a Living Landscape event for Norfolk Wildlife Trust and intend to use Norfolk reed as the main material, so Richard (my Godson) and I cut and prepared a few bundles for practice.

After the reeds are cut they are ‘combed out’ to get rid of any unwanted debris and then bundled and tied off.

The bundles are stacked ready for collection.

The skills and traditions of the marshman are many and varied, and here you can see I have passed just some of this folklore on to Richard.

Including the little known application of an old fridge door !

Clearing the Coppice Area
Two large trees which have fallen this winter have created a lot of damage in the coppice area so they needed cutting clear and winching out. This sort of work is time consuming and winching takes a surprising amount of effort - even with a 2 ton hand winch. The clearing up, is vital to a working coppice, it enables safe passage between the coppice stools and ensures light can can find its way down to encourage new ground cover growth. This particular coppice has been neglected for many years and I have applied for a Forestry Commission license to regenerate it.

All the brash from the damaged trees is collected into ‘habitat piles’ these will slowly rot down and provide a home for microorganisms, fungi and insects which, at base level, are essential for a healthy ecosystem.

After the work has been done, the useable timber is stacked along the ride for collection and the whole area is left looking a lot healthier.

A Lapel Pin
Using the materials I have been exploring over the last few days. I eventually made this lapel pin. It started by seeing how the fatwood responds to a few actions: carving, turning, heating etc.
It led to turning and carving the small minnow you see here. What better way to finish it off than with a pine resin eye.

Fatwood, charcoal and resin; all from one species of tree and reconstituted to make a new object; of course, the wonderfully practical properties of natural materials have been understood and applied for thousands of years, but it’s only when you discover it for yourself that you truly appreciate what a gift it is.

At the heart of old pine stumps (pines that have felled or been subject to other, sudden-death episodes) lies the resin-rich rot-defying ‘fatwood’. Long valued for its use as a fire lighter this dense and rare wood is a delight to carve: rich fragrant and translucent.

The theory goes like this. After the tree is ‘cut short’ resin is still being pumped by the root system into the stump. The heartwood is particularly resinous anyway, and as you can see in the photograph, being rich in bacteria defying resin, it has resisted rotting.

I hope to do some work with this material and the refined resin I made earlier and i’ll see how they respond to some simple ‘actions’.

Making Charcoal
Charcoal making, on a small scale is a very easy and pleasurable process, all you need is a tin with a hole in it, some dry wood and a nice little wood-fire. I needed some charcoal powder for some resin experiments I was doing, so after roasting the wood in the tin (you can tell when it’s done as the hole in the tin stops blowing out inflammable gas) I ground some up in a pestle and mortar. I remember my father teaching me to make charcoal like this when I was very young; don’t get me wrong he was no backwoods-man: he was a pin-stripe suited civil servant and read the Telegraph from cover to cover. Why he needed to make charcoal I can only guess at.

Refining Pine Resin
To refine the resin, I have sunken a tin can into the soil and placed another larger tin over the top.

A small metal sieve containing the resin is placed on top, and the whole lot is heated in a small fire.

The resin melts and flows through the sieve into the cooler partially buried tin can. Here you can see the molten resin being spun onto a stick - It solidifies very rapidly.

Here the resin has been poured onto a ceramic tile which shows its very brittle state on hardening. This proves that during the refining process many volatile hydrocarbons are driven off rendering the resin mush less sticky and with little of that characteristic (and rather pleasant) pine smell.

At the end of the process we now have two sticks of hard and shiny resin.

And here I have added chalk and charcoal to two resin samples in order to render the resin less brittle.

Pine Resin
This scots pine, like many others, has exuded a sticky resin in order to repair and protect a damaged section of trunk. Over time the resin solidifies and can be collected quite easily. Pines were tapped (very much like rubber trees) on an industrial scale , the resin was refined into products like rosin and turpentine.

Here I have collected some dried resin (though it is still fairly pliable) which I intend to refine (Separate it from the pieces of bark and dust etc ) I hope to use it as an adhesive or maybe a modeling material. Certainly, there is evidence that it was used in pre-history as a glue for fixing flint arrow-heads and stone axe-heads to their wooden shafts.

Letter Cutting
Out of the woods and back in the workshop. I’ve another sign writing commission to complete. Each letter becomes so absorbing that I spend far too much time on this kind of work. But on a cold winter’s day, I can sit by the wood stove and earn up to £1.50p an hour ! (It’s going to say ‘CORNER COTTAGE’ by the way).

Tools for the Woods
I found a cheap but nicely forged axe at a local antiques shop. In keeping with prevalent ideas on head shape for a felling axe I decided to reshape the bit (rather drastically) in order to bring the centre of effort closer to the bit edge (more accurate, less deviation).

A heavily leaning sycamore needed felling so I gave the newly refurbished axe a try. Like most ‘leaners’ it didn’t go over exactly cleanly, but the axe seemed nicely balanced and very different to the traditional English patterns i’m used to from my hedge-laying days.

On large rhododendron stems it cut very cleanly as you can see here (2 swings and it’s over) but for smaller stuff, as usual, the extra velocity of a good Yorkshire pattern billhook takes some beating

Winter Sets In
It’s been a harsh winter so far in the wood and the resident birds are finding it increasingly hard to find food. I was watching a barn owl hunting during mid-morning - I know that during hard weather they become increasingly diurnal but I’ve never seen one so early in the day.

However, despite the anxiety of watching nature’s struggle for survival one can’t help but marvel at the beauty of it all.

After roasting on a fire I stripped the spruce roots I collected through a split stick. After splitting in two with a knife I’m left with some useful bundles of finished root.

Collecting spruce root
The tool is a copy of a North American first nation instrument which proved remarkably capable to track along the root without breaking the fibres. Spruce seemed very strong, but also cedar provided some fine and very pliable specimens. I will roast the roots later before stripping off the skins. Then I hope to use the root as a binding or stitching material - maybe I’ll even attempt
a spruce root basket but I think it will take a lot of roots!

As I was working I noticed I was being watched by a group of roe deer. They’re getting quite used to me scratching around in the wood and I sometimes catch them snoozing as I continue to work.