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: September, 2012

The Giant Rake

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.

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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.

Yorkshire Pattern Hay Rakes, made by Andy Basham

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 handle in progress

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.

Cleaving out the head with a froe (click for more details)Roughing out the head with a side axeFinishing off the head with a travisher

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.

A tyne cutter with half inch rake teeth
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.

The handle mortice, drilled with a 2 inch auger

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.

The completed rake

The completed rake

The completed rake (with scale)

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.

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Recollections of Summer

After last week’s beautiful sunshine, there is now the distinct feeling of autumn in the air. The summer is drawing to a close and I thought this the perfect time to finally update my blog again and look back on a hectic but enjoyable season. Unlike winter, my summer work is more sociable with shows and festivals taking up alot of weekends. Its also mostly out of the woods, often back at the workshop making products out of last winter’s harvest for sale or commission.

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Shortly after my last post I finally acquired a motor vehicle for the first time in my life. Having always relied on my bicycle I had been reluctant to give in to fossil fuelled transport for a long time but the requirements of work and a need for flexible accommodation led me to bite the bullet and buy this:

My First Car

A converted 1994 Ford Transit Minibus, complete with double and single bed, woodburner and kitchen. From wooded hillsides in Worcestershire to muddy festival sites in Somerset, carrying everything from bicycles and sound equipment, to 12 ft logs, as well as being a surprisingly comfortable living space…this vehicle has already proved itself invaluable and has been host to some of the most memorable moments of my summer.

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In early May, I did some work for local farmer John Furze, building a hazel revetment (woven fence designed to retain the soil) around the banks of the farm pond. I had help from my friends Pete and Jonny and despite wind, rain and a lack of proper waders, we managed to complete the job without getting too wet!

Woven Hazel Revetment

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One of the main projects I worked on this summer was the building of two wooden structures for the Valley of the Antics stage at Secret Garden Party Festival. A group of friends and I used timber from Hales Wood to construct a pair of structures designed to lure people in to the stage’s area during the day and to provide somewhere to sit down and escape the dance floor in the evenings.

JackJack and Dixon debarking aspen poles

The first step was to select and peel aspen poles. These trees were felled in the coppiced area of Hales Wood in the winter and are the result of events that took place roughly 15 years ago. When the coppice at Hales was deer-fenced a small number of deer were actually trapped inside the fence. Despite their captivity they had free reign of 25 acres of coppice and  wreaked havoc on the freshly cut coup before they were dispatched. Because they favoured hazel shoots over the more bitter aspen, the latter species was given a head start and therefore this area of the wood was left with a large number of tall aspen poles.

Peeled Aspen Poles

These proved the ideal material for a temporary structure and working the aspen with a chisel was a real pleasure. Once the preparatory work was done off site, the frames had to be assembled at the festival. The main structure was designed to be a chill-out space in one corner of the dance floor and was constructed around a large log which supported all the rafters.

The centrepiece of the structure

The team in action: (r to l) Paul, Jimbo, JackJack, Tricky, Dixon and Andy

Once in place, the rest of the frame was built around it. The roof was made from hazel, hornbeam and aspen brush. We left the roof deliberately sparse as the structure was undercover and we thought a more solid roof would make it too dark and encourage climbing! The ‘walls’ were constructed from woven willow around hazel uprights, giving solidity and a sense of enclosure as well as being convenient back rests for the straw bale seating.

The completed structure (before the crowds decended!)

The second structure was an archway designed to be the entrance to the straw bale arena that housed the stage. This was a smaller structure with a pole frame and a faggot bundle roof.

JackJack and Paul roof the archway

The Completed Archway

We were all extremely pleased with the way the structures turned out and enjoyed the feeling of pride we got from seeing hundreds of people pass through them, dancing, sitting, chatting and generally having a lovely time! I particularly enjoyed working as part of a group of friends and rediscovering my love for roundwood timber framing; this project has inspired me to do more of this sort of work, making temporary and permanent structures from larger round poles.

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Shortly after the festival I attended my sisters wedding, where the archway structure made another appearance, this time decorated with my sister’s homemade bunting and elder, cut from my brother’s forest garden…

The archway as an entrance to the matrimonial meadow

I also made a bench for the happy couple. Constructed from woven willow and built on the same principle as some of our fences, it has a hazel seat and is surprisingly sturdy. I was really pleased with how this turned out and hope to refine the design and make more with next years willow harvest.

Woven Wedding Bench

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This collection of recollections is concluded by last weekend’s Woodfest. This festival, organised by the redoubtable Ian Pease and his team at Hatfield Forest, seems to be going from strength to strength. A perfect combination of woodland crafts and music (along with a generous helping of real ale!) I had a great weekend, with my traditionally made kid’s broomsticks proving as popular as ever (thanks to unending Harry Potter fever). I’m already looking forward to next year!

Hatfield Forest Woodfest

Broomstick Making at Hatfield Woodfest (Photo courtesy of Jess Stokes)

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