I spent the last week and a half working on a fairly unique commission for local forestry contractor John Fish, owner of Treewood Harvesting. I met John Fish last year when I helped Stephen and Becky Westover (of Westover Woodlands) build a roundwood timber frame structure in his garden.
During a break in work, over a cup of tea, John enquired about my other work and was intrigued to find that Andy and I made traditional wooden rakes. John asked if I could make a giant version; a rake too big for use, but which would make a visually striking object to add to his already impressive collection of garden curiosities. At the time it was a little beyond my abilities; more than anything, I was still relying on my bicycle for transport and would need to look beyond Hales Wood for a piece of ash suitable for making a giant handle. Finally, this September, with my new vehicle and a beautiful ash pole from the Westover’s yard in Gosfield, I was finally able to put the giant rake together.
I used one of Andy’s ‘Yorkshire pattern’ hay rakes (pictured above) as a rough template. John was keen that the rake wasn’t just oversized but genuinely giant, so we agreed on approximately scaling up from the original size by a factor of three. This put the handle at roughly 12 ft long and the head at well over four foot wide. My first step was to peel the handle; an ash pole from the Bovingdon Hall Estate in Gosfield. Despite being amazingly straight the pole had a fair number of knots and it took a lot of careful work with drawknife, spokeshave and then reams of sandpaper to get a nice finish. As always though, the knots added a lot to the final look and made it much more interesting than a perfect, clean grained pole.
The next step was to start on the head of the rake, this is where the inconsistencies of scaling work up became really apparent. Our usual process for making the heads is to cleave (split) a 6inch or so diameter ash log into segments which can be squared off relatively quickly with a drawknife to make fairly regular pieces. For the giant head, i would be using one of the biggest, cleanest pieces of ash cut in Hales Wood last year; 6-7inch diameter and about 5 ft long. I halved it using a froe and then used a combination of side axe, drawknife, travisher and lots more sandpaper to work it up to a clean finish.
This was again a time consuming process; the piece of ash had several knots and areas of unusual grain which made it difficult to work and almost led me to discard it at first. However, i feel that the end result was again improved by the attractive figuring which would have been missing from a clean grained log.
With the main pieces completed I began making the teeth. Again, scaling up made the process more time consuming. Our standard rake teeth are made with a ‘tyne (or tooth) cutter’ (pictured above). This old fashioned tool, fabricated especially for Andy, is a metal cylinder with a blade top. Pieces of ash can be hammered through the blade to produce clean, straight half inch dowels perfect for rake teeth. Without a giant tyne cutter i was forced to make each tooth by hand, cleaving out ash and working them into cylinders with the drawknife.
Now came the moment of truth, drilling out the holes for combining all the elements and joining the whole rake together with the bracing. A Yorkshire pattern rake is braced with steambent bows of ash (as opposed to the hampshire pattern made with a splayed, split handle). Because of the risk involved in drilling incorrectly and to avoid too busy a look at the head of the rake, i used a single bow rather than the two used in the original. I used a seasoned ash rod, which i steamed for two hours (peeling it after one hour). This was bent into an even curve and jointed into the handle and the head and fixed with small pegs.
I was very proud of the completed rake. Of course with the benefit of hindsight, i would do many things differently to make the process easier, quicker and more efficient but being so unique a project, it was always going to be a learning experience. I take a certain amount of satisfaction in knowing that the chainsaws used to fell the original logs were the only power tools required to make the rake, and the finished product is made entirely of wood with no nails or screws to hold it together. Although the rake is not an exact scale version of a traditional hay rake it has been constructed with traditional techniques and therefore shows how old fashioned crafts can be used to produce new and different pieces of work. I am extremely grateful to John Fish for coming up with such a unique project for me to work on and to have encouraged me to take on such a useful learning experience.