Sunday, 25 November 2012

Week 3: Charcoal

When we emptied the charcoal bins from last week we found mixed results. The one which had been hard to light and kept threatening to go out was good. That one was riddled to remove the fine ash and bagged. The other bin, which had seemed to start well must have gone out because it was full of ‘brown ends’; mainly black on the outside but just charred a few millimetres in with the centre of the stick unburnt. It was decided that we would do an experiment to see if we could still make useable charcoal from these/ the empty second bin was charged with paper and kindling and the ‘brown ends’ piled in. We did not attempt to grade them for size or pack them neatly as those would have been very dirty, dusty jobs. Then we lit it and there was a surprising amount of white smoke indicating that the moisture content was still high. When this bin was emptied on Thursday it had worked – we had charcoal!

Knowing that this burn should be fairly quick and with the store for sawn charcoal wood empty we set to with bowsaws and cut up the wood we had dragged out last week before lighting the bin. There is something very satisfying about seeing a shelter neatly stacked with wood ready for use. I suppose a rather primitive ‘We will survive’ response!

The next job was to cut a new ride through a previously cut plot so as to shorten the distance wood has to be carried out. Working in 2 teams we aimed to start from each end and meet in the middle. The tutors had already identified the two ends of the ride but with so much new tree growth and thickets of bramble neither team could see the other to establish the line to cut along! Much shouting and holding slashers up high allowed us to navigate successfully. Nick told us of miners in Derbyshire using a candle in the window of their tool shed to keep their tunnel going straight into the hillside which reminded me of navigating into harbour using ‘leading lights’. These conversational digressions certainly make the course richer and more interesting! The pace is relaxed enough for them to be enjoyed and valued rather than resented for ‘making us late’.

The new ride
Then it was off to last year’s plot to learn how to split a log which is too big to move out easily in one piece. A chance to use the beetles and wedges made last week! The logs we were using were Douglas Fir and full of knots so we treated it as ‘just an exercise’ but in fact they split well.

We all watch Nick with the splitting axe whilst David holds it steady

Then wedges lengthen the split
Sometimes metal wedges are easier to use than wooden ones
Thursday’s task, once the charcoal bin was empty, was to drag more timber off ‘seven’, the plot we have been clearing of felled material. Nick gave us a firm but gentle, well deserved telling off for stacking the charcoal wood too high, parallel to the ride not at right angles to it, and not arranged with all the butt ends to the ride. Luckily for us it was lunch time so he did not make us take it apart and re-do it! But we will not make that mistake again.

Then we made ‘ears’ to go with the legs we did last week and learned to drill mortices with the augur bit. By the end of the afternoon one saw horse was complete. I realise that I am becoming much better at shaping with the axe leaving less to do with the draw knife on the shavehorse.

Words and photos by Sue Laverack

Week 2: The tools of the trade

Week 2 here at Coppicewood College and the new experiences and learning are coming thick and fast. Yet the pace does not feel pressurised or unmanageable.

David has arrived so we are a full compliment of 6. A really interesting group with varied backgrounds, experiences and expertise as well as age.

On Wednesday we pulled some more wood out of the overgrown plot generally tidying up the piles we had already uncovered. Then onto last years plot to find pieces suitable for making wedges and beetles in the afternoon.

After the lunch break we were all shown how to use a hatchet to shape wood (without removing any of our fingers) by Martin. Nick showed us again how to flex our hands so as to stretch the tendons before we started and minimise the risk of tendonitis (a.k.a. tennis elbow or golfers elbow depending on which tendons in the elbow are inflamed). 

Martin shows us how to remove wood , not fingers, with a hatchet.

We chose our pole, sawed it to length and started chopping. In a surprisingly short time we had tired arms and hands but reasonably decent wedges. My length of Ash proved to have a twisted grain and one end split as I was working on it – a tendency of Ash apparently. However they would do the job and on Thursday I chose to make another pair from Hazel which went better. I really appreciate the encouragement to ‘have another go’ and to actively learn as much as being taught.

Wedge making in progress – I am not sure why Nick felt the need to practice!?

Barbara showed us how to make a beetle. It did not go entirely according to plan which was very reassuring – even the experts cannot get it right all the time with a material which has its own quirks. I shall use that as my excuse! Andrew and I made ours from pieces cut from the same length of willow and discovered that they were softer than our wedges – mine were from Ash, his from Oak. More learning! Luckily any real disasters can be obliterated on the fire!

Andrew and I finishing our wedges

Thursday brought a new challenge – charcoal burning. I had helped with this several times as a volunteer but for some of the group it was entirely new. We loaded the drums and got them lit but the monitoring and closing down was done by Martin and Barbara, partly because the weather turned extremely wet. We will have to wait until next week to find out how well the burn went. Hopefully we will make more charcoal during the course to become familiar with the later stages. I gather that if possible Barbara will do a burn with each of us individually which would be good.

Martin and Barbara loading the drums whilst Andrew trims an oversized piece to length.

everyone helps

And the drums are lit.

Nick was running a one day workshop on spoon carving and as it was raining ‘stair rods’ we all had lunch together in the shelter with the logburner lit and the kettle steaming gently on its top.

Despite the rain we made legs in the afternoon and were introduced to yet more skills – splitting with the froe and shaping with the drawknife on the shavehorse. And in between more practice at using an axe. Whilst volunteering I had tried using an axe but never really got the hang of it. This last two days the knack has ‘clicked’ and it is becoming much easier. I have done a fair bit of work  with the drawknife and really enjoy it. I hope that the froe will become easier too with practice. Sorry – no pictures of this because it was just too wet to take any!

Words and photos by Sue Laverack

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Week 1: The New Recruits

The start of my amazing adventure learning how to manage woodland using traditional coppicing techniques!

There are 6 of us on the course here at Coppicewood College in Cillgeran but David is unable to join us until the end of the month. So Andrew, Stef, Kieron, Penny and I were welcomed briefly by Bruce Slark (Secretary of Coppicewood College) and Nick (Senior Tutor). Then Nick did the required talk about Health and Safety which mercifully took the view that, as adults, for the most part we could decide for ourselves what was appropriate clothing and take responsibility for our own well being but that specific hazards would be pointed out as we went along. We were encouraged to make full use of the breaks to relax, particularly if we were doing work that used unfamiliar muscles. And in that spirit we had a tea break before starting work!

I have sharpened tools here before during my time as a volunteer but it was really useful to have the theory and practice explained systematically and then to sharpen the slasher I was going to be using with Nick and Martin keeping an eye on us all and checking the finished edge.

We spent the rest of the day clearing the rides we were going to be using over the next few weeks. The joy of working in this way with hand tools is that I can hear the sounds of the woods and talk to my companions whereas with a brushcutter the noise and smell are unpleasant and the protective clothing required can be uncomfortable. Nick, Barbara and Martin had told me it was just as quick and effective to use hand tools and despite our inexperience they were right!

Next day the pace quickened a tad. We went to a plot cut a few years ago where some of the wood had been left stacked in situ and slashed our way through the undergrowth to extract cord wood to make a ‘road’ where the main ride was very muddy. With 8 of us working together it did not take long to find and extricate enough material. Then we took turns to move material from where we had collected it to the work area, dig earth from beside the path to build up the low point, cut wood to length and position the cut pieces across the boggy section. Then we dug more earth along the path sides and used it to secure the ends of the wood, at the same time making a drainage ditch. By 3pm the job was done and had cost nothing but some effort. Had we put down rubble it would just have sunk unless we had first dug out the mud and laid a membrane. In the wood all materials would have had to be manhandled or barrowed as no vehicle can get through.

By way of light relief until the end of the day we went for a walk along ‘Steve’s ride’ and had a preliminary lesson in tree identification. The knowledge the tutors have about the flora and fauna, from insects to deer, is huge. Will I ever know as much? Probably not. I have left it too late. But I will glean as much as I can over the next 6 months.

Over the weekend I have sawn up some wood felled last year in the garden, mainly pruning, and stacked it in the woodshed. My technique is much better after the instruction in tension and compression. I have also noticed that I have been inspired to learn more and have been greedily re-reading books on my shelves and articles on the internet.

Words and photos by Sue Laverack