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

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