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

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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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March Madness… and April Flowers

Well, as can usually be expected, a hectic March got the better of me and this is therefore my first update in a couple of months! A lot has happened since there was snow on the ground in February so this will be a particularly long post…

Snowdrops in Great Howe wood

The snow we had in February melted away to reveal the first of the years flowers poking their heads out of the woodland floor. Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) are always a welcome sight for those who long for spring as, even though they emerge early in the year, they are the forerunners of a whole host of flowers, which will fill the woods when the sun finally begins to shine. Despite this, they have long had negative associations in folklore. Superstition warned against bringing snowdrops into the house as they were seen as bringers of bad fortune which some claimed would even turn eggs bad in their shells. Now, picking wild snowdrops is forbidden by law and they are protected along with all other wild flowers. However, they are a relatively recent visitor to our shores, possibly brought to Britain as a garden flower by green-fingered travelling monks in the 16th Century. In modern times, Snowdrops are still cultivated for garden flowers but also for the harvesting of galantamine, a substance used in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

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The snowdrops above were photographed in Great Howe wood, a woodland near Finchingfield, North Essex where I began work this winter. Great Howe is a mixed woodland which has been out of rotation (not cut or managed) for many years. Therefore unlike Hales Wood, the coups do not demonstrate a clear structure of coppiced underwood with large standard trees above. Instead the wood is a mixture of species with oversized standards shading out overgrown coppice stools. The hazel has not been cut for many decades and as such, stools that were once a mass of straight slim rods have mostly died back leaving a few large stems which have grown thicker and thicker and begun to pull themselves apart in their search for light.

Overgrown hazel at Great Howe wood

Obviously, these stems, sometimes 6 or 8 inches in diameter are no longer suitable for most traditional craft work. Instead the thickest material will be used as firewood or charcoal wood and the tops; mostly erratic and windy due to a lack of light will be used for making more faggots. The only other product gleaned from overgrown hazel like this are the sunshoots; long, thin and often very straight stems that old and stressed hazel sends shooting up for the sunlight. These are an emergency measure by the plant, quickly abandoned if they do not succeed. Therefore many of them are dead and useless. The ones that aren’t are quick-grown, often near-perfect rods, ideal for many craft uses such as weaving and binding hedges.

I was helped in the felling at Great Howe wood by my friends Huw and Graham who I am extremely grateful to. Hopefully they enjoyed the time we spent in the woods and were glad to play a part in restoring an unmanaged woodland to it’s former glory.

Huw and Graham casting their expert eyes over Graham's rather cantankerous old chainsaw

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I had further company in March in the form of Pete, an old friend who has recently started his own blog which displays his rather excellent woodcarving skills:

http://ditchfieldcrafts.blogspot.co.uk/p/shop.html

Pete and I continued with the processing of the hazel in Hales Wood, making up faggots and putting aside other products as the first warm weather of the year began to stir the woods. We also spent some time in Great Howe, working through some of the thicker hazel and sawing it into firewood lengths with a chainsaw bench.

Small-scale equipment for processing small-diameter logs

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In early March, Natural England supplied Hales wood with a wildlife camera which takes pictures using a sensor. Paul set it up in a variety of places in the wood using different settings; it managed to capture several pictures of deer, foxes and mice and, when placed on a well used badger path, managed to snap this delightful shot:

A Badger on a nocturnal perambulation through hazel coppice***

The warm, dry weather continued throughout March and I spent the final week at a Sustainable Woodland Management course as part of my apprenticeship. It was held  at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) in Wales and led by Grace Crabb and Bob Shaw. The course was really great, covering a huge variety of management techniques and ideas as well as introducing a number of crafts and products. To top it off the weather was again unseasonably warm, leading to a hosepipe ban in Essex but giving the Welsh countryside a welcome break from rain.

Bob Shaw beside a large Douglas Fir, felled decades ago

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My return to Essex coincided with the return of the rain, and in the past fortnight the woods have responded to this moisture with verdant growth. The whole woodland is starting to leaf up and a whole host of ground flora is now making an appearance in the recently cut areas of coppice.

Wood Anemone, Dog Violet

The picture above shows two of the flowers currently on display in Hales Wood. On the left is the wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa) . This is an early spring flower which can spread to cover large areas of woodland, although in Hales, the presence of so many other flowers seems to keep it confined to smaller patches. It has a rather attractive trait of opening up in the daylight and closing up in the evening or when rain threatens (as seen above). The other flower is a Common Dog-violet (Viola riviniana) so called to differentiate it from the more aromatic “sweet” violet. This flower is of real value to butterflies being both an early source of nectar and providing food for caterpillars once the flowers have faded.

OxlipApril has also seen the arrival of the oxlips (Primula elatior) in Hales wood. Oxlips are a species of flower common in parts of Europe and Scandinavia but in Britain they are confined almost entirely to ancient woodlands in East Anglia. They are rather abundant in Hales wood, especially within the nature reserve fence where they can escape the mouths of deer who are particularly partial to the flowers.

Finally I thought I would include a picture of an early purple orchid, the same species I showed in my last post as a scraggly collection of leaves poking out of the soil. Now the most advanced specimen is a towering plant, six inches high with an exquisite flower at its top. Evidence of the changes that have occurred over the last two months and proof that spring has well and truly arrived in the woods.

Early Purple Orchid

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One-year old Hazel Coppice in Spring***

Snowfall

Snow in Hales Wood

These photos show the first snow of 2012 in Hales Wood. Snow makes work in the wood very difficult, it covers the downed hazel and soaks into your gloves and boots. The wood is still blanketed in snow so this seemed the perfect time to sit down and write another post.

One year old hazel stools under snow

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Before the snow arrived I snapped this shot of one of the first orchids to emerge in the area we felled this winter. The early purple orchid (Orchis Mascula) grows throughout Hales wood, and in the late spring its purple-flowered spikes will be dotted all over the open areas of the wood. The starchy tubers of the orchids were once dug up and ground into a nutritious flour used in love potions and salep, a beverage popular in the Ottoman Empire. Now these flowers are protected in Britain by the Wildlife And Countryside Act, 1981 and they are one of the species that we work hard to promote in the wood.

Early Purple Orchid

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For those of you reading this who aren’t familiar with the process of coppicing, I thought I would lay out more clearly how it works. In Hales wood, the main coppice species is hazel and it grows under larger ash and oak trees known as standards. The hazel grows from stumps (or stools). Each winter we cut down an area of hazel, removing the stems and leaving the freshly cut stools under the standards:

Freshly cut hazel

Once the felled hazel has been cleared away the newly cut area is bathed in light for the first time in years. The ground is soon littered with wild flowers and other woodland plants, and the hazel begins to regrow. Because the hazel already has established roots it is able to put on a huge amount of growth, sometimes as much as six or seven feet in the first year. After this first spurt of growth the hazel looks like this:

One year old hazel stool

 The hazel continues to put on further growth every year, after several years the hazel is taller and thicker but the wild flowers and other ground cover plants around it have given way to brambles and a generally denser undergrowth:

Four to Five year old hazel

Eventually the hazel reaches a height and density at which the canopy closes up, shading out the undergrowth beneath. At about 8-12 years of growth, the hazel is the optimum size for felling. At this age the hazel contains the most potential products and the shady woodland floor beneath is once again a blank canvas for new plants:

8 year old hazel

Once the hazel is felled the process begins again. Because the wood is worked in sections there is always areas at various stages of growth meaning coppiced woodland has a diversity of habitats and can support a large variety of different species of plants and animals. This combination of biodiversity and long-term stability is part of what makes coppicing such a sustainable form of woodland management.

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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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