coppicer

a blog about woodland management and traditional crafts in North Essex. Scroll to the bottom of the page and click follow to recieve new posts by email

Month: January, 2012

Woodbine, Faggots and Hooks

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A frosty log pile at Hales Wood

As you can see from the image above, Friday morning saw the first frost of the year at Hales Wood. However, though we are still at the beginning of 2012, the plants are already beginning their preparations for spring and the recent mild weather has brought everything forward by a week or so. The honeysuckle in Hales Wood is already coming into leaf and provided they can survive further frosts, in summer these leaves will be joined by its sweet-smelling flowers.

Honeysuckle in January

Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum) is one of five woody climbers that are native to Britain and it grows all over Hales Wood. It twists its way up the rods of hazel and other coppiced species in the wood, spiralling anti-clockwise up towards the sunlight. However, as the rods grow within its embrace, the honeysuckle¬† constricts, deforms and eventually strangles them, leaving the rods as standing deadwood. It is this behaviour that gives honeysuckle one of its other names ‘woodbine’. One would expect that a species which throttles rods and remains awkwardly tangled around felled hazel would be a hated foe of coppice workers, and perhaps at one time it was. But as well as accepting its place in the ecology of Hales Wood, Andy and I cherish honeysuckle; provided they are felled before they die off, constricted poles often exhibit incredible shapes which can be used to create unique walking sticks, tool handles and furniture.

Freshly cut rods still entwined in honeysuckle... and one of Andy's finished thumbsticks made with twisted hazel

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Faggots are one of our main products in the winter months. A faggot or fascine is essentially a tightly bound bundle of sticks. Traditionally faggots were used as fuel, in bread ovens and kilns but we make them for sale to conservation groups who use them in river defences. They are staked into the edges of eroded streams where they collect silt, increase flow and rebuild the banks.

Cradle for faggot making

We use simple cradles like this one, made from aspen poles, to make faggots. As we sort through a pile of hazel, we select the lengths that are suitable for making into products, typically straight clean sections of varying lengths (or interesting forks and shapes for furniture making) and put them to one side, everything else is put onto the cradle. When the cradle is full ,the sticks are constricted using metal cables and then the bundle is tied up with string in three places. Therefore faggots are a way for us to use all the material which isn’t suitable for anything else and produce a useful product for important conservation work.

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The tool seen used in the video above is known as a billhook, in winter, this is the tool I use most. Billhooks were once a very commonly used tool in Britain and much of northern Europe, they come in all shapes and sizes and have many different uses. Some are designed for felling small coppice rods and some are designed for hedging, some are designed for hacking through brambles and some are designed for pointing stakes. I use a billhook mainly for cutting and trimming felled hazel rods into products and faggot material and for sharpening smaller stakes.

Old catalogues like the one above give a hint to the huge variety of billhooks that were once widely available in Britain. As well as common regional patterns, local blacksmiths and smaller manufactures would have custom-made hooks to order to meet the needs of the individual user. There are still companies that make billhooks but for those willing to do a little sharpening there are still many good examples available second-hand; the older tools that have avoided too much abuse are often well balanced, made from high quality steel and generally worth buying.

This is the billhook I use for trimming up the hazel in the winter, its a Wiltshire pattern billhook made in Birmingham by A.F. Parkes. It’s hook means you can pick up rods without having to squat down and when cutting onto a block it can easily go through an inch and half of hazel in one swing. Its at least twice as old as I am but despite that (and the now vacant worm holes in the handle) it’s still working well.

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Winter in Hales Wood

This is my first post on this new blog, if you want to know more about me and/or the blog, click About at the top.

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It’s winter, and when the nights draw in and the temperatures drop, deciduous trees become dormant; they lose their leaves and their sap becomes concentrated in their roots. In contrast woodland workers are at their busiest in the depths of winter. Wood cut in the winter has less sap in it, making it quicker to season and more durable. An area of coppiced trees (known as a coup or cant), cut in the winter has the entirety of spring and summer in which to put on new growth. Because of this, the majority of felling, and therefore most woodland work, occurs between November and March.

It is the end of the first week of 2012 and the middle of an unusually mild and dry winter, the majority of which, I have spent in Hales Wood. Hales is a predominantly hazel woodland in North Essex, consisting of, for the most part, coppiced hazel growing beneath ash and oak standards (single, long-lived trees). Each year, an area of roughly 1.5-2 acres is selected and then the hazel and other under-wood species are felled. The felling is undertaken by the owner, Paul, and he spends his winter cutting the hazel off the stools (or stumps). My role, along with my apprenticeship mentor Andy, is to work through this hazel with hand-tools, selecting out useful material and converting it into products. For example a reasonably straight section of hazel, 1.5″¬† across and 5′ long makes an ideal hedging stake; once spotted it can be cut to length and then sharpened with a billhook or axe and thrown into a nearby pile of other stakes ready to be bundled. All the hazel felled in Hales will leave the wood as a product ready for sale or in a bundle of similar material ready to be used back at the workshop (eg. parts for rustic furniture).

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This week saw the end of an era at Hales Wood. On Thursday, I finished up for the day and went to leave the wood only to find this sight greeting me on the main track:

A heavily leaning poplar, battered by heavy winds since Tuesday, had finally given up and toppled over, blocking the main track in and out of the wood and causing some damage to the deer fence that surrounds the coppice. It was a significant tree in that it was the last of an avenue of poplar planted by the Forestry Commission in the time that they owned the wood. I spent Friday helping Paul as he de-limbed the tree and cut it into lengths, moving the timber off the track and clearing the fence. Seeing a full size tree downed like that made me think again about working in the wood in high winds.

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On Saturday we held our first volunteer day at Hales Wood. Students from the woodland management courses we held last year came to get some more experience of coppice work. We mainly spent the day felling, as chainsaw issues have halted Paul’s work for a day or two and we need more material to process. This mostly involved cutting hazel with pruning saws, however fellow woodland worker Graham and I also took the opportunity to try some axe work. We felled several aspen and some coppiced ash with a small forest axe. Felling with an axe is hugely satisfying but slower and more difficult than a chainsaw, therefore it is now sadly something of a rarity.

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