Friday, 5 April 2013

Week 22: The end

The end of the course. I can’t believe we are there already! It seems as if the woods are shouting ‘coming whether you’re ready or not!’

Until coffee time on Wednesday we were on the plot. The plan was to learn to pleach hazel stems that had been left when felling with the hope that these would then form new stools. I had already done this as a volunteer and then again with Martin when we shared a large hazel and some of the small stems had got damaged or bent so had to be pleached to keep them safe. I therefore asked to do faggot making. I have a lot of material on my garden which needs clearing up and some of it is for faggots. Martin showed me how to use the ‘woodsman’s grip’ to tie the bundles tightly and we discussed the possibility of using bungee cord if I am working in the shed. A small but useful exercise.

Then we all got on with our projects as time is now limited. With Martin’s help I sourced some Ash for the seat slats and split short, thin planks which I tidied up with the side axe. Essentially the same process as we used to make the benches for the shavehorses but on a smalller scale. It was good to get in more practice with the side axe – there is something about me and axes which doesn’t quite click it seems. I had finally smoothed about half of them with the drawknife when it was time to go home. Andrew and I left slightly early because we had all been invited to Nick and Barbara’s for a celebration meal and both of us wanted to get home to deal with animals before returning. Andrew’s wife, Keridwen had been invited to thank her for the steady stream of delicious cakes which she has sent.

The get together was great. Nick and Barbara’s house is as warm, welcoming, homely and unpretentiously stylish as I would have expected. William Morris would be proud of them – everything was both beautiful and useful. They had cooked a delicious vegetarian feast and I had made a vegan (because Bruce and Cathy had hoped to be there but Bruce was ill) and gluten free (Barbara is gluten intolerant) cake in the shape of a log with an axe, a gate and a robin to represent the one who visits the shelter in search of crumbs from our lunches. A warm fire, comfy seats, good food and good company – a lovely end to the course.

Thursday was slightly fraught for me because my car had to go to the garage for service and MOT . Gravell’s computer had had a hissy fit and forgotten to remind me so when I realised the MOT was due there was no choice of dates. Gravells is in the opposite direction to Cilgerran so I had to take the car one way, pick up a courtesy car and retrace most of my route then on to the woods. I also had to leave promptly to get the cars swopped before they closed for the Easter break. I had hoped to savour the end of the course but was rather distracted so I was particularly glad that we had had the event the previous evening.

With advice and help from Nick and Martin my swing bench was finished by lunchtime. I have still to build a framework for it to hang from at home but I have most of what I need to do that. Andrew very kindly brought his large Landrover and between us he, I, Nick and Barbara carried the seat up the ride and got it in. Because of the necessity to get the courtesy car back to Narberth Andrew took the seat home and delivered it to my place on the Friday morning. I spent the Easter weekend building the frame and after a trip to Crymych for chains and some extra fixings it was installed by Tuesday evening.

Penny's finished gate

Sue's swing seat in place

 On the Thursday afternoon I picked up a discarded piece of cleft Ash, shaped it into a blank for the pole lathe with the side axe just for more practice and then mounted it on the lathe and turned it into a spurtle. It’s the first time I have done the entire process without help so a result!

I came on the course to learn how to manage my own trees safely and now I can. But I have gained so much more. According to the certificate I was given on Thursday afternoon I have demonstrated competence in:

Care and maintenance of hand tools
Cutting and management of a coppice plot
Tree identification
Felling trees safely using an axe and crosscut saw
Selection, cleaving and shaping of green wood
Construction of a saw horse, shave horse and other devices
Pole lathe turning
Charcoal burning
Identifying uses for coppice product
Design and construction of a craft project using coppiced materials

I feel a bit of a fraud in that competence may be pushing it a bit on some of those! I have had a go at all of them and whilst I have a lot to learn I know much more than I did. On the learning progression Unconscious incompetence – Conscious incompetence – Conscious competence – Unconscious competence I am between conscious incompetence and conscious competence with different aspects ahead of, or behind, the pack. Since my husband died I have had rather a lot of experience of conscious incompetence as I have taken on responsibilities that I used to leave to him. I don’t like the feeling and struggle with it. The team have identified that I tend to react by being impatient and rushing, ‘taking a run at it’ which, with their help I am learning to curb. Their patient, generous, loving support has enabled me to do things I never thought I could.

Could I have done all this for free by volunteering? Maybe. But on winter Wednesdays the focus of the tutors is on the students – volunteers who have not done the course help by snedding, fetching and carrying. It is only if the course is undersubscribed or the students have all achieved competence in whatever is being practiced that there is time for volunteers to be taught new skills. In summer there is more teaching of green woodwork and charcoal burning but this is all geared towards selling products to raise funds or maintaining the infrastructure, so there is no opportunity to do a project and saw horses or shavehorses are only made when existing ones need replacing.

Quite apart from the skills officially taught I have learned about myself, spent time with a diverse and fascinating group of people, had wide ranging discussions on an array of topics which have challenged my ideas and broadened my horizons and all in a beautiful place. If I could afford it I would do the course again next year and no doubt gain a lot from it. As it is I will continue to volunteer regularly to practice what I have learned, make use of the generous ‘after sales service’ to ask questions and tap into the experience and expertise of the team, and hopefully be more useful to them and to next year’s students.

PS I have taken a week off from volunteering for Coppicewood to go to Dyfed Permaculture Farm Trust and spend a day learning to graft apple trees with Philip Batten. Another lovely day out and a new skill to add to my repertoire!

Words by Sue Laverack

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Week 21: Greenwood working Cousre

We spent 4 days in the woods this week and were joined by Holly. Lee and Gary on the short course in green woodworking. They all 3 elected to make shavehorses – a wise decision because to make a shavehorse involves using a shavehorse!  But it also involves most of the processes used in green woodwork so is excellent learning.

On Monday, whilst Nick and Martin started the 3 new people off on their course I finished the 4th tenon for my seat frame. Then Martin helped me sort out the components I had made and suggested that I concentrate on making the arms which I hadn’t started. We went down to the plot and found and cleft a curved piece of Ash to give 2 short planks. I had to use the side axe to smooth the face and work them to a suitable thickness. I am still not very god with the eide axe but by the time I had finished and also shaped them a bit I was improving and only had to do a small amount of work with the drawknife. I had a spare piece of  wood which I had already shaped to an oval cross-section so I cut it in half and made tenons on the end to fit holes drilled in the front of the arms. That took me the rest of the afternoon.

Kieron finished his 2 gates today. They are beautiful – simple but elegant – and for his hen run which is complete apart from them so he will be staying home tomorrow to hang them and, if his apple trees arrive, we will not see him again until next week as they will need planting.

Tuesday I started to make the seat back. I shaved the bark of the top rail. Then I made motice and tenon joints at each end of the end spindles which were cleft from curved pieces of bird cherry from my garden. This may not sound much for a day’s work but the 4 joints were fiddly because nothing is straight or square and the 2 bottom ones were made like conventional carpentry ones with sawn flats and a pin – another new technique for me. When we put it together we realised that the sides were too tall for the other spindles so I need to lengthen the tenons and then cut the ends off. We were just about to pack up when I realised that I had made a mistake – what I had thought was the outside edge of the frame was actually the inside! With Nick’s help I tried to find a solution and after a while he suggested we try turning the top rail around and seeing if it would still work with all the curves and angles. It did. PHEW!!! But tomorrow I need to check the spindle lengths again because the rake of the back is now greater which may mean shortening the sides more.

After a night when I kept waking up trying to think how to manage the spindles and their angles into the frame and top rail I had to face doing it for real! It seems both Nick and Martin have been giving it a lot of thought too! This project has posed challenges for us all. I worked the end spindles to length, then marked the frame with equidistant holes and drilled them. Martin and Nick told me to do them vertical as the spindles should have enough flex to bend to the rake. Then each spindle had to be shaved down to fit its own hole. Then I had to assemble it all again, mark the top rail, take it all apart and shape each spindle to fit its top hole. I made 2 mistakes on the top rail – one hole was too near the edge and the top of the spindle shows through and another was slightly out of place. Nothing I could do about either after the event. Then Nick helped me put it all together one last time. I was so relieved when it all went in! And despite the mistakes I am pleased with the design. Quirky and solid frames but the plain spindles make it quite light and delicate at the same time.
It is getting crowded in the shelter now as we all begin to lay out our pieces and fit things together. My bench and David’s bike trailer are both quite big, Andrew and Penny are needing to build up their components into gates and 3 shavehorses are standing around waiting for the vices to be fitted. Only Stef is being compact – he has spent hours on the pole-lathe turning the legs and spindles for his stick chair and is now adzing the seat. He is hard at work when we arrive and continues until it is too dark to see.

Stef hard at work on his chair seat

Kieron's rustic gates complete and looking brilliant.
My job on Thursday was to attach the arms. A simple cut out at the bottom of the support will sit on the inside of the frame and be held with a screw but the back of the arm had to be connected to the end spindle with a complicated sort of cross halving joint in the side and front of the spindle. But these are curved and bend in both planes! I managed something which will be strong but has more gaps than I would ideally like. However Nick and Martin were pleased with my efforts and very reassuring. I must say I am pleased with the overall effect – just don’t look TOO closely!  By way of light relief and a change I finished the afternoon by going to the plot again and finding pieces that would make the seat planks. Martin came to help and we halved some straight lengths of Ash. I shaped them with the side axe and then started to smooth them finally and flatten the ends with the draw knife but ran out of time. With one day next week to complete the job I think I will get it finished – just!

Sue's swing seat approaching completion
 Words and photos by Sue Laverack

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Week 20: Final week on the plot

This was our last week felling for this season so we spent both days on the plot. Next week we combine with the four day green woodworking course and the following week, our last, is after Lady Day, the traditional end of the coppicing season, so we will spend it finishing off any snedding, pleaching small saved stems and generally tidying up.

On the Wednesday morning Barbara offered to do a charcoal burn with anyone who wanted to do one on their own but with supervision. I leapt at the chance! I have helped several times whilst volunteering but the only time I was involved in actually managing the process and deciding when to close the drum or let more air in was when all three tutors were away and us volunteers worked on our own. We ended up with a lot of partly burnt ‘brown ends’. Charcoal making is something I want to do at home with wood from the garden so I needed to be confident I can get it right. With Barbara’s help and reminders I loaded the drum and got it lit.

We needed to stay fairly close and keep checking that it didn’t go out so I did a bit more to my tenons on the swing bench until coffee time. By spending some time during lunch on it I got the third one finished and a start on the fourth. I also drilled a 1 inch hole in an offcut of shelving I had brought from home so that I have a guage for shaping the spindles. I took them home at the end of the day to shave them to size in my own workshop. I am concerned that I will not finish my project by the end of the course otherwise.

We checked the charcoal again before going to the plot after the break and Barbara knew from experience that it should be fine until lunch so I started felling another smallish tree and snedding it. Despite the wintry showers and cold by the end of the afternoon I had done 2. We are either hardy or masochistic depending on your point of view!

We checked the charcoal at lunchtime and decided that it was ready to close down. It was the first time I had put the band on to seal the top and the first time that I had made the final decision about when to do it although Barbara was there to advise and help. All I could do then was wait and see!

So my first job on Thursday was to open the drum and find out if I had been successful. I had! And whilst Stef began loading the second drum for his turn I unloaded mine, sieved and bagged it. I did as much of this on my own as I could because at home there will be no-one to help. It was very satisfying to see a bag of charcoal ready for sale and made by me.

Charcoal, the finished product
 Back on the plot I did another 2 smallish trees. Martin came over and asked how I  was getting on and was I happy with the way I had done them. I am now confident that I can get the tree down safely and where I want it to go and the stumps are low and have the right slope but they look as if they have been chewed by a large, dentally challenged rat and they should be smooth so on that count I am not happy with my work. I also know that I waste a lot of energy making ineffectual cuts. So when I started on my last tree of the season, a slightly larger Ash, he came over to see if he could help me work out where I was going wrong. Between him demonstrating –AGAIN (the tutors have the patience of saints!) – and watching me, and us talking, it became clear what the problem was – I was doing too much on the bottom cut when I should be concentrating more on the top cut and then cutting the slices free with the bottom cut. I tried again and Eureka! A smooth stump. Shame I can’t consolidate the learning until October! 

Sue's smooth axe work
Martin also told me that Jill struggled to master the axe when she did the course and had similar problems to me which surprised me as she is now very competent in a way that I have been envying but apparently she got the hang of it when she volunteered the following season. Good job I live locally and can go on volunteering then! Martin himself needed to find the correct axe for him and found it hard to learn so I am in good company and felt less of a frustrated prat! It seems the ‘knack’ comes when it comes. At least I ended major work on the plot on a high and I am really looking forward to next year’s season.

Words and photos by Sue Laverack

Week 19: Thinking of pleaching

Andrew was unwell today so I went to the coppice on my own. His wife usually supplies us with cakes (she is an excellent baker!) so I took some drop scones – can’t have the troops going hungry!

With help from Rhodi who is a volunteer I snedded the tree I had felled last week. Rhodi has not been for a while but will retire soon and become a more frequent visitor which will please him and us. 

Then Barbara suggested I drop a hazel which was not very big but included several small stems which could be pleached to form new stools if I could save them. I managed to get it down and leave 5 though at the price of the stool being slightly high on one side. Maybe when the pleaching is done I will be able to tidy it up.

Hazel stump

Hazel rods left ready for pleaching
Then Barbara and I tackled a willow which was rather large for either of us to do on our own though the men would have happily done it solo. It was good for me to realise that Barbara, like me, finds she has to be realistic about her strength and stamina. After lunch she was busy cutting willow for weaving so Rhodi again came to help me sned. Just for practice I took off some larger branches with the axe.

Thursday was green woodworking and Nick, Martin and Barbara had agreed that as I couldn’t turn my spindles I should get on with making the seat frame next. Fortunately when we originally prepared the 4 pieces and laid them out on the floor I had numbered each corner so I was able to start cutting the mortices. After checking the appropriate sizes I drilled two holes for each mortice at the ends of the shorter side pieces and then had to be reminded how to chisel out the wood between them to form the oval hole. Once they were cleaned up I started to shape tenons on the ends of the long front and back rails. These are to go right through the mortices far enough to be pegged so over 4 inches of consistent oval has to be shaped on each. It is a case of marking the end with the shape in the right place and shaping it roughly leaving it oversized and then offering it up to the hole, taking a bit off, offering it up….. Bu the end of the afternoon the two which fit into one side rail were done and a good snug fit and the third was part done. I am beginning to realise that this is quite an ambitious project for the time available but I am enjoying it and am pleased with my work so far. Having practiced making round tenons over the summer whilst volunteering has certainly helped.

Words and Photos by Sue Laverack

Monday, 4 March 2013

Week 18: Ladies day on the horizon

After a week off for half term we began by replenishing the firewood pile in the shelter. The fire is lit each day at the moment so that we can keep warm during breaks. Stef has assumed the role of fire monitor as he usually arrives first and, if he has camped overnight nearby, is keen to get and stay warm.

We then sharpened our tools and went down to the plot. Martin and I cleared the remainder of the large tree I had helped to fell last time we were there. This involved using the two-handed saw to cut the trunk into more manageable pieces which was more good practice for me.

Once that was done I looked around for another tree to fell and Nick suggested that I do a nearby thorn. We are trying to work fairly methodically down the plot now to clear the remaining trees before we stop felling by Lady Day (March 25th) which is traditionally when the coppicing season ends. The thorn was quite a challenge for me because the wood is tough and it was two stems so close together they had to be treated as one large one and with the tops very tangled together. It took me some time but I succeeded in the end without needing to send for reinforcements! The work I did on my own garden over the half term break means I am a lot more confident with the axe now but I wish I was 30 years younger with all the energy, strength and stamina I had then! Snedding occupied me for the rest of the day.

Sue's hawthorn

Part way through the afternoon David was felling another tree with Nick helping him on the two-handed saw. Although David had made a directional cut with the axe Nick had foreseen that it might tend to rock backwards and trap the saw so had thrown a rope round it high up. It did and wedges were hammered in but still it would not fall. David, Nick, Stef and I all pulled and managed to set up a rocking motion which eventually brought it off the balance and down in a controlled fall just where it was meant to be.

Rope set up ready for the two handed saw

Wedges going in to encourage the tree to fall where we want it to
Bruce came to see how we were all getting on and has asked David to make a short video with each of us saying something about our experience of the course maybe interspersed with footage of the work we are doping. Watch this space for more news and links!

Thursday was, as usual, green woodworking. I found a lovely curved piece of thorn to make the top rail of the back of my bench and some more willow for spindles. By lunchtime I had prepared all the blanks I need for the turned spindles and in the afternoon, with Nick’s help set the first one up on the pole-lathe. By the time I got it roughed to a cylinder and started smoothing I was finding difficulty. Nick came to help and at first thought it was just that I was being impatient and that one of the centres had worn a bit which was making the piece wobble. He trimmed that end, remounted it and I tried again. It turned out that whilst those had definitely been factors the spindle was also too long and thin so flexing and the wood was very soft. I could not remember if it was a piece from the wood or one I had brought from a tree I had felled at home. Either way it seemed almost inevitable that others I had prepared would give the same problem. I decided that I either began again with no certainty of success  or went back to my original plan of shaping them all with the drawknife. I decided to do the latter. I was sorry to lose the chance of playing on the pole-lathe but as I am building one in my own workshop there will be plenty of opportunity to do more at home.after the course ends. And because I live fairly locally I will volunteer as I did before joining the course so I will still have access to the tools and expertise here.

Barbara helping Penny perfect basket weaving

Barbara helping David bring his cart together

A refurbished two handed saw being put through it's paces
 Meanwhile the others are making good progress with their projects too.

Words by Sue Laverack
Photos by Sue Laverack and David Hunter

Week 17: To the hedge!

If ‘a change is as good as a rest’ then this week is ‘the exception that proves the rule’ because I am stiff and very tired!

The change has been that we have spent 4 days learning to lay hedges in a field at St Dogmaels and the usual team has been augmented by Steve and Ineke, a couple from Northumberland, nominally on holiday and taking this short course purely out of interest having neither hedges nor land of their own. Have I explained before that being weird is a prerequisite of involvement in Coppicewood?

We met on Monday morning at the shelter in the woods for a briefing and to collect tools. Nick explained the principles of hedgelaying – how we would pleach stems by cutting down on a slant with a billhook at the base of the stem leaving a thin hinge, then bend the stem down to the ground and weave the top growth around stakes leaving the brash on the far side before cutting off the stump remaining as it could be a hazard to livestock. He also showed us the large ‘Yorkshire pattern’ billhooks we would be using to cut down through larger stems alongside the more familiar small ones and taught Steve and Ineke how to sharpen them. The rest of us, old hands at sharpening now, made sure that all the hooks, slashers and 2 axes were ready for use. Then we loaded these with bowsaws, two-handed saws and large mallets (for knocking in stakes) into Andrew’s large Landrover and set off for St Dogmaels. We were to work on a field which is used as a market garden and had been asked to take as few vehicles as possible as parking is limited so for most days Andrew’s Landrover became our shuttle bus and mobile tool store.

For most of the rest of the day we worked to be able to get to the bit of hedge we wanted to work on! Like many in this part of Wales it had been neglected and small trees had grown as offsets or seedlings either side of the bank on which the original had been planted. These had to be cleared to gain access. However we were encouraged to practice pleaching some of these so that we made our mistakes on ones that would not be needed in the finished piece. Because there were so many of us we were each given a section to work on and by the end of the day we had reached our objective along quite a long length. Part of the arrangement with the landowner was that he would be responsible for dealing with all the stuff we cut out and he had arranged for someone with a chipper to come in later and shred it all. To make this horrible job as easy as possible we piled all the brash in a line with stems pointing to the hedge and a good tractor width away from it. Our progress on the hedge itself might not have looked much but this line of rubbish was seriously impressive!

Removing unwanted material

On Tuesday Andrew’s big Landy was not available so Stef and Kieron nobly folded themselves up small into my little Kia Picanto for the ride from the woods to the field. Andrew turned up in his smaller Landrover just in time to rescue Nick from joining them! We were asked to divide into 4 teams of 2, each of which would tackle an allocated length but Nick very tactfully requested that the youngsters take the high banked section. This meant that Andrew and I, as the 2 who are ‘getting on a bit and not as agile as we once were’, got the section where the bank was almost demolished without being too embarrassed!

Before we could begin to pleach anything we had to clear out thickets of branches which had been flailed off by the electricity board to stop them interfering with their lines which follow the hedgerow. Then we had to clear small stuff from behind the hedge itself just as we had done at the front. Finally we began to pleach and bend the first few stems of our section but could not weave these into stakes because we had to allow for the team next to us (Steve and Ineke) to join onto our section when they finished theirs. Those first stems had to be laid loosely down the bank to go on top of their last few when they reached the end. To complicate things even further some of the trees in our section were of substantial girth and had to be pleached with the two-handed saw. It did have the advantage of giving us practice with that! It was rather dispiriting to look at our work at the end of the day and see very little to show for it despite hard work and many scratches but we were assured that the first stage was often slow and tiresome and that we would pick up speed the next day.

A pleach in progress

Pleach complete

They were right! Despite a lot of time still being taken up with clearing out stuff we did not want (the line of rubbish got higher, longer and denser) we did start to produce something which bore a passing resemblance to a neat hedge! Nick, Barbara and Martin moved up and down the line offering help, advice and encouragement and generally ensuring that we did not bring disgrace on the college!

After 2 days of warmth and sunshine the forecast for Wednesday had been for heavy rain but we were lucky and suffered only occasional drizzle / light rain so were able to keep working. When I got home it was obvious that we had escaped lightly and that my place had not been so lucky. It seems that Cardigan had a deluge overnight because the next (and last) day we were paddling in mud.

Slipping, sliding and slithering up and down the banks we managed between us to join all the sections together. Steve and Ineke, who did not take the full lunch break (very keen those two!) finished theirs and leapfrogged our section to take on another bit and Martin and Barbara did a section beyond them. They had been itching to get stuck in since Monday! The rest of us finished too late to start any more but cleared up bits of debris which were littering the tractor path and made sure that all the tools were collected together. And, if I am to be strictly honest, stood around admiring our handiwork! By the end of the day roughly 70 yards of hedge was looking surprisingly neat for the work of beginners.

The finished product

Whilst David got Penny to her bus, Martin walked home to the other end of St Dogmaels and Steve and Ineke returned to their B&B for a well earned shower and a few more days holiday, Andrew took Nick, Barbara, Stef and I back to base where we  cleaned and put away all the tools. Although I was tired, muddy and had discovered muscles which I never knew I had it had been a great course and a lot of fun.

The hedgelaying crew

On Sunday I was working on reducing shading on my orchard and instead of coppicing a row of willows on one edge I laid them as a hedge. It wouldn’t win any prizes but I couldn’t have done it the week before. I also axed down a multi-stemmed hazel which I couldn’t have done a few weeks ago. This course seems to be working! A week off next week for half term so a chance to recover and/or get stiff and tired on our own patches.

Words by Sue Laverack
Photos by Sue Laverack and David Hunter

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Week 16: The Big Willow

Nick had clearly been concerned about the incident last week when the upper most branches of the tree I was working on fell on Jill and began with our work on the plot with a reminder to us all to be aware of where others were working and to warn them sooner rather than later that a tree was close to falling. Whilst I did not want in any way to avoid responsibility for what had happened I took the opportunity to remind everyone that my poor hearing means that my awareness of what is going on behind me is more limited than most people’s. I need to be more diligent about looking behind me but others can help by alerting me to their presence and not just assuming that I will hear them.

We then went on to look at the next 2 trees to be felled – both leaning and needing to be match cut; both big enough to warrant a team effort. Having looked at them both Nick asked us to divide into 2 groups bearing in mind that they should be evenly matched in terms of ‘youth’ which I took to mean energy, muscle power and skill. As the oldest, one of the lightest and possibly the least skilled and with no-one else making a move I opted for the willow and Andrew and Kieron chose to join me.. That left Stef, David and Penny to tackle the Oak. I am not sure if this was the even division Nick had in mind but it was what he got because he did n’t want to be bossy! Nick and Martin (Barbara was unwell and had stayed home) left us to it but kept an eye on proceedings and intervened when they thought we needed advice.

Andrew, Kieron and I formed a disorderly queue with our axes and jostled politely for equal shares of the work. With their bigger, heavier axes and greater skill they worked more efficiently than I did but I was pleased that my swings seem to be improving. We did a neatly matched pair of cuts and then a few blows on the back brought the tree down gracefully and slowly on its hinge. The top growth was twisted and tangled, the trunk was still attached by its hinge and supported on some of the branches so we had to work out how to dismember it safely without causing it to twist or fall unintentionally. Martin helped us to think it through and we all had a go at axing off branches. Martin, and later Jill, joined us to help sned. One branch was now vertical from the trunk which was still suspended above the ground. Martin decided that for safety he would axe it off as it needed a cut rather high for any of us to manage competently, but if we had dropped the trunk there was a possibility it would roll with the weight that was high up. We discussed other strategies if we were working on our own with such a situation but they were slower and more complex so we let him help us out! Then Kieron and I got on the two handed saw and cut the trunk into 2 more manageable lengths. Despite several brief but intense hailstorms we got the job finished by the end of the day.

The snedding ants get to work

The two handed saw being put to good use by Garry and Stef
A two handed saw will last forever once properly set up.  Here's Martin getting an old saw ship shape

Andrew had brought me today and used his long wheel base Landrover so that he could take Penny and her finished Shavehorse home – a shavehorse being difficult to transport on the bus or her bike! They had loaded it earlier but when we left we decided to walk up Steve’s ride to his yard and thence to the lane thinking it would be less muddy. Jill joined us with her bike. When we got to the gate we discovered that it was locked because Martin, who parks in Steve’s yard, had already left. Rather than go back we agreed to climb the gate which was netted on our side at the bottom making it more difficult to get a foot hold. Andrew lifted Jill’s bike over and we climbed. Penny and Jill managed it with panache; between being restricted by thermal long johns, jeans and waterproof over trousers which made bending my knees difficult and an uncontrollable fit of giggling I did it very inelegantly! A sack of potatoes comes to mind!

Having travelled to her home Andrew and I were even more more struck by Penny’s fortitude and determination in getting to the course.

Thursday was green woodworking as usual and I was very touched that both Nick and Martin had been thinking about the best way to construct my swing bench given that the weight is pulling down on chains rather than pressing down on legs. They had come to similar conclusions and a few more diagrams later we were in agreement. However the first task was to finish preparing blanks to become the spindles for the back. How many of these are turned on the lathe and how many remain as shaped by the drawknife depends on time and progress. Their length also depends on the curved piece I select for the top of the back and I have discovered that the longer the spindle is the thicker it must be or it flexes and wobbles on the lathe which may also affect how many I turn. I spent the morning shaping the willow I had cleft last week into straight cylinders using the axe and then the drawknife. The practice I got in over the summer making sawhorses certainly helped as I was able to do them quite quickly and can make a circle by eye and feel. 

Penny getting advice from Barabra on how to work weave her bean support

Sue's finished spurtle

After lunch I asked Barbara for the piece of thorn she had mentioned last week. Thorn is particularly good to turn on the lathe and she wanted me to have that experience. When we got the piece from the store it had a saw cut part way down but this seemed to be superficial so I got the froe and started to split it. That was when I discovered that the cut was too deep and stopped the split. I need a couple of shorter spindles for the front of the arms so decided to continue and use the piece for one of those. It was beautifully straight grained and I quite quickly had the blank I needed. I mounted it on the lathe and started to rough it to a true cylinder. Nick came to check that I was OK as I was working outside and the tutors were all busy in the workshop. He noticed that one end of the work had slipped and was off-centre which was why it was taking a long time to become round! He cut that end off and re-mounted it for me but once I had finished roughing I had a short piece much fatter at one end and rather thin at the other. Martin was walking past and came to see how I was getting on. After a brief discussion I decided to abandon it as a spindle but rather than waste the wood and the work already put in I turned it (literally!) into a spurtle for stirring my porridge. It was beautiful wood to work, nicely figured and with a smooth finish. To my delight and relief I managed to produce a fairly even thickness of shaft and to shape quite a nice thistle as a handle. I must trim the ends off and it needs to dry out slowly and even so may split but it was good to finish the week on a high note.

 Words by Sue Laverack
Photos by Sue Laverack and David Hunter

Week 15: Wayward Trees

What a contrast to the snow and drama of last week! This week we had two days of warm sunshine and it was a pleasure to be out on the plot on Wednesday. We were joined by 3 new people. Two are thinking of signing up for the 6 month course next year and wanted to come and see what it would entail. The third lives quite locally and is interested in short courses and maybe volunteering. It was lovely to meet them and they seemed to enjoy their visits.

We warmed up by snedding the rest of the wood felled last week then fanned out to find a tree to cut down I chose a multi-stemmed thorn. To my delight I found that I was using the axe much more effectively and getting bigger chips out. I still need to improve my accuracy but there is definitely progress! Mid afternoon though I nearly caused a nasty accident when the stem I was cutting was caught by the wind, suddenly twisted and fell in the opposite direction to the one I expected. The top branches landed on Jill who I had not realised was working behind me. Luckily she was bending down and facing away from me so the branches hit her back rather than her face which would have been badly scratched. A good lesson to pay more attention to what is going on all around me and to warn everyone in good time when a stem is getting weaker.

During a tea break I spoke to Bruce, our chairman, about learning to peen my scythe. It was during an open day for members of Coppicewood that I first tried a scythe and got the scything bug! He is hoping to organise a day when we can all go and explore his forest garden and those who have not tried it before can have a go at scything. He offered to teach me peening whilst the others try out the scythes. It is a very generous offer and I accepted quickly.

Thursday was green woodworking and I started to prepare pieces of willow for turning as spindles. I managed to get one straight enough from the pieces I had taken from home and a couple which will be good enough rounded on the shavehorse but are not quite straight enough for the lathe. I had also taken a piece of bird cherry which had broken off under the weight of snow and cleft it and shaped it as back ends or arms – exact use yet to be decided. Barbara has suggested I try to use some thorn for some of the spindles as this would be good lathe practice and she has some pieces I can cleave. That will be next week’s task.

Using figure of eight movements during sharpening avoids pitting the stone

Correct angle of the chisel on the stone

During the day on Thursday we also had a refresher course on sharpening.  We were shown how to use the oil stone to hone and edge on a smoothing chisel and how to get to the awkward surfaces of a lathe gauge.  Sharpening tools takes sometime but there is no doubt that the sharper the tool the better the result, the safer the task and the more enjoyable the job.

Words by Sue Laverack
Photos by David Hunter 

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Week 14: Snow and ash

This will be a short post as I was only in the woods for half a day!

Living at the bottom of a valley with steep hills whichever way I try to get out means that I am unable to get out in bad weather. Last Friday we had a heavy snow fall and it been too cold for a significant thaw with nights when the slush refroze.

On Wednesday morning the roads were just passable with care. Andrew and I share lifts whenever we can and as he has a Landrover he offered to take me in. The journey was not too bad and once we reached the larger roads they were clear. Kieron was unable to get through but to everyone’s surprise Penny arrived having walked most of the way.

We went down to the plot and snedded the willow felled late last Wednesday as a warm-up exercise. Then whilst Stef, Penny and I felled the Ash tree we had talked about last week under Martin’s supervision, Andrew and David dropped another large leaning willow with Nick. The idea was to get us familiar with using match cutting on a leaning tree. It was hard work but kept us warm.

Sue getting to work on the complicated ash.

And the snow really starts to come.

Andrew and David working on match cutting a willow.

Stef match cutting the ash
By lunchtime the ash was cleared and the willow safely down. The snow was heavier and we put all the tools under the shelter we had started building a couple of weeks ago so we could find them again. We went in the workshop for lunch and when we opened the door again realised how heavy it was getting and it was lying so those of us with tricky journeys left. We got half way up Rhos hill and got stopped behind a series of vehicles all blocked by some lorries which were stuck. We doubled back through Cilgerran to Boncath and then home. With 2 very brief stops for fuel and a sack of hen food (for Andrew’s flock) it took us 2 hours to get to my place and another 30 mins for Andrew to get home! This morning he has decided that the deep snow and the ice make it silly to try going so I am home. David and Stef have camper vans and had prepared to stay over to reduce travel, the 3 tutors live within walking distance but what they will do there today I have no idea! The snow will probably be too deep to work on the plot and the translucent roof of the shelter will be cloaked in snow so too dark in there to do project work. The rest of us will not get in. A shame but just one of those things.

Words by Sue Laverack
Photos by Sue Laverack and David Hunter

Monday, 28 January 2013

Week 13: Return of the two handed saw

Another week of new skills!

Wednesday was spent on the plot and Nick began by asking us to think about how to  fell an Ash tree which had got bent over whilst young and then grown clear. The base of the trunk was virtually horizontal but then curved sharply and the main part of the trunk was vertical. Apparently several of us had looked at it with a view to taking it down and then moved on to something easier! I suggested felling it with the axe just above the curve as if it were a normal straight grown tree and then removing the horizontal section. This would have got it down safely but, as Nick pointed out, the curve could be useful for craft work and my method would lose that option. We considered using a rope to control the direction of fall, the use of a match cut (cutting a V evenly on each side of the horizontal stem so that the two cuts met at the base) and then axing through the top. If that was our chosen method Nick emphasised the importance of doing both cuts at once rather than all of one before the other. After all that thought and discussion we realised that the way we would want it to fall was blocked by a large willow which would have to come down first!

So we moved on and learnt how to fell a larger tree than any we had so far done. We worked as a team to axe the ‘birds mouth’ directional cut which we had learned with bowsaw and billhook on small stuff. Then we used the two-handed saw to cut through the back. This involved learning to keep the blade flat and to adjust effort between the two sawyers to keep parallel to the back of the ‘bird’s mouth’. Not as easy as it looks! Then we knocked in wedges to push the tree over in the required direction.

All we had to do then was sned up the branches – more axe work to sever the branches from the trunk and some good natured competition to establish the pecking order of skilfulness and stamina! To my delight I was using the axe much more successfully this week. I am nowhere near the best but it was a lot less disgraceful than last week. Amazingly we got it all cleared with enough time to fell another willow (but not sned it) before the end of the day.

Sue and Penny at work with the two handed saw.
Wedges and mallet add the finishing touches.
Thursday was a strange experience. Kieron had phoned to say that a recurring elbow problem had flared up and he would not be in the woods this week. Penny is cycling in and with snow in the forecast today had decided that discretion was the better part of valour and stayed home. So only 4 of us convened with the 3 tutors for green woodworking in the shelter and the low numbers felt very weird. At lunch time we talked about the richness of a larger group, how glad we are that we are not on a course (as has happened in the past) with only 2 students, and Nick commented appreciatively on the keenness and commitment of this group.

Andrew finished his shavehorse and the rest of us started work on our projects. After a week’s reflection Stef decided not to make a musical instrument as that would involve using seasoned rather than green wood. Instead he wants to make a frame for a shelter which he can put up, take down and transport easily wherever he is working in the woods. He is experimenting with small scale models of components to refine his design. Similarly David has decided that he wants a pole lathe more urgently than he could achieve as his project so will make one at home and instead is working on a trailer to pull behind his bike. I stuck to the idea of a swing bench for the garden and had been using the internet to explore designs, measured up the space for dimensions and begun to think how I might construct it. Martin revealed that he had made one years ago so he worked with me on refining my design.

Much discussion and many doodles later he and I set out onto the plot to source a 5 foot length of straight wood to make the front and back seat supports and a shorter length for the sides rails. I then had to learn to use the cleaving brake to split them. The long one went perfectly but the small one ran out and Martin went to find a replacement for me whilst I barked the long pieces and tidied them up.

Once all four were prepared I laid them out on the shelter floor to mark the joints. It was then that Martin realised that in our design the back support could foul the hanging chains and another discussion began on the best way to fix the back strongly enough without this happening. It had to be worked out before I made the joints because it would affect where I positioned the long rails on the side ones. We came up with a plan just as it was time to leave! With all the joints to make and 9 spindles to turn on the pole-lathe for the back I could well be finishing it on volunteer days over the summer!

It felt really good that we were not restricted to making things the tutors already know how to do; but that within the legitimate restraints of time and available materials we are able to access their experience and skill to find solutions to the challenges of our chosen project. This allows us to learn the skill of thinking through the technical and logistic problems as well as the specific skills of ‘making a joint’ or ‘making a chair’. In this respect it appears to be very different from many of the other, shorter, green woodworking courses available. I think it must be much more interesting for the tutors than ‘another run through’ of the same processes as well! 

Words by Sue Laverack
Photos by David Hunter

Monday, 14 January 2013

Week 12: Shelter in the woods

I was very unsure whether I would make it to the woods this week. Over New Year I visited my daughter and her family and returned with a cold which, by Tuesday was streaming. However by Wednesday I was feeling rather better and more energetic and decided that in the open air, with very fit people, the infection risk was probably manageable.

It was back to the plot and more felling. Nick asked us to concentrate on a relatively small area at the top end explaining that at this stage he always starts to worry about finishing the whole plot and wants to ensure that at least some of it is completed properly before spring.

I chose an Ash with 4 medium sized stems. I am not sure whether it was my cold, the long break or what but I chewed the first stem horribly! All the work Martin had put in before Christmas seemed to have disappeared into the ether and I was back to square one! To make matters worse I had cut quite low and thus the stem was at its widest – much bigger than I had anticipated. It finally succumbed to my pig-headed determination (apparently it has been noted that what I lack in skill I make up for with independence and stubbornness!) and was snedded before lunch.

After the lunch break I was tempted to ask if I could do faggot making as light relief but decided that if practice was what I needed than I should make the most of every opportunity. See what I mean about determination? The next stem was slightly slimmer and, having discovered from Nick that Ash regenerates from higher stools, I cut it higher. This one was not good but slightly less disgraceful than the first.

On Thursday we began making the new shelter which had been rained off before Christmas. Nick, Barbara and Martin had already selected some material and a site and we had the design so we just had to decide size, exact position and the direction of the doorway. There were 8 of us (Penny was cycling in so arrived a little later) – a builder, an ex-traveller, an outdoor pursuits leader, an ex-army officer, me with my slight tendency to bossiness (OK considerable tendency to bossiness!) and 3 tutors – and a democratic ethos so decisions took some time! Once they were made we got the framework up quite quickly and began gathering brash to thatch it with. Barbara showed us how to split bramble to bind the bundles. I could see this being very useful in basket making so whilst the chaps tied the framework together I collected some stems and practiced splitting them. Split bramble is ideal for binding besom brooms because the stubs of the thorns help it grip and, of course, in a wood there is material to hand but it is a slow process and the lengths can break at weak points making it less consistent than string so for this job we supplemented our stocks with string. Purism has its limits!

Martin working on the shelter's frame

Barbara splitting brambles for cordage

Debating how to move forward

Uprights being staked

By the end of lunchtime the rain had set in again so we began discussing our projects. For the rest of the course we will spend our green woodworking days working on something for ourselves. As long as it is relevant to the woods it can be practical or theoretical. If practical it can involve making something, learning or developing a particular skill, or be ‘research and development’ for a project to be done at home. The tutors will be there as a resource with whatever advice, skill or help they can offer. Kieron has been researching traditional techniques for building a kayak/canoe and would like to make one. Nick warned that the very long lengths suitable for cleaving needed for his first ideas would be difficult to find in this wood but with discussions about joining lengths and Stef contributing his experience of building a traditional boat it seems there are ways round this. David was considering either a trailer to pull behind his bike or making his own pole lathe. As we all talked he seemed to be veering towards the latter. Andrew needs a new gate for his orchard but also some hurdles for his sheep. Again a woven hurdle would take material that these woods cannot supply but his own smallholding might yield enough and it may be possible to invite someone with experience of hazel hurdle making to come and teach us for a day. Penny is thinking along similar lines as she too is a smallholder. Stef is a musician and interested in making instruments in traditional ways so would like to try turning a flute type instrument on the pole lathe. I have a rusting swing seat in the garden which I would like to replace. Each of us now has to produce some kind of drawing with dimensions which can then be refined with the tutors to provide a cutting list. I am really looking forward to seeing the different designs unfold and learning from all the projects. The creativity and the richness of past experience is a joy to be part of.

Words by Sue Laverack
Photos by David Hunter 

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Week 11: Coppicewood becomes a crafts centre for the day

Today Martin spent a lot of time with me working on the multi-stemmed hazel we started last week. He was concerned that I was wasting a great deal of effort because I was not swinging the axe correctly. I was not beginning the swing with my left hand on the end of the handle and the right near the head and then sliding the right one down the shaft to join the left one before the head hit the tree. Once I was beginning to do that more consistently he pointed out that I was almost arresting the swing just as the head made contact with the wood instead of following through. Finally I was keeping my legs still meaning that my arms and upper body were doing all the work when I should have been shifting my weight from my right leg to the left thus using my leg muscles and all my weight. When I get it right I make much faster progress and for less effort. It took all day but I was rewarded at the end of the afternoon by a shout of ‘Nice one Sue’ from Nick. The credit should really go to Martin for not giving up on me! Also to Coppicewood because with one tutor to two students there is time pay that much attention to helping each of us when we need it and the length of the course allows plenty of practice. It will be interesting to see how much of the learning has ‘stuck’ when we return in January.

Martyn W and I had had a conversation a few weeks ago when he was last volunteering about which weight of axe would be best for me. He had brought one of his for me to try and it was a joy to use – a very good balance between light enough to handle comfortably and heavy enough to make the most of my efforts. It suited me even better than the Gransfors I had tried and which is favoured by Jill and Martin and which I had been planning to buy. He is lending it to me for the duration of the course or until I find one similar to buy. This means I have both an axe and a drawknife (on loan from Martin A) giving me time to find the right ones to buy without pressure to get what is immediately available. It is very generous and trusting of them to lend me tools and I feel very privileged. I had not realised before how important it is to choose tools carefully and how much difference different weights and patterns could make to he pleasure from working.

By the end of the afternoon all the large stems were down and snedded and we had ‘plashed’ two smaller stems. ‘Plashing’ is cutting part way through the stem so that it can be bent down to run along the ground. Then the bark is cut off for a small length on the under surface and the stem is pegged down into a shallow scrape in the ground at that point. With luck roots will form and a new tree will grow. The process is usually done in early spring once all the coppicing is complete but we had had to bend these stems out of the way so we pegged them before they got broken.

Hazel stool complete

Thursday was our last day before the Christmas break and as four of us have finished our shavehorses the plan was to build another shelter near the plot for our morning tea break. Nick had seen a design in a book by Ray Mears which would be simple to construct using materials we already had to hand. However the rain was heavy and persistent so we stayed in the workshop and Nick taught us some knots which are traditionally used by woodsmen. Then each of us chose something to ‘potter’ at. I found a piece of Ash which had been cleft in half, cleft it again with a froe and used a hatchet and drawknife to fashion a handle for my own froe head recently bought through Martin. I had hoped to take out the bend so that I practiced preparing a piece for the pole lathe but it was still banana shaped when I had finished! This was not a problem for the handle but shows I need more practice! For the last part of the afternoon Nick found me a piece of Sycamore and with his guidance I began to carve a spoon. 

Sue's froe complete with handle

Festive Robin and cake thief.

Andrew’s wife had sent us some mince pies and an iced fruit cake (she is a very gifted and generous baker and keeps us well supplied with treats) and I had taken in mulled wine and homemade chocolates so we passed a productive and happy afternoon around the fire.

I find it hard to believe that we have reached the half way point in the course but when I start to list the new skills I have been taught (some of which I can now actually do – some works in progress!) I realise how much has happened.