I am incredibly pleased to have been featured in the April edition of Devon Life Magazine. The article really hits on what Little Acorn Furniture is all about. We have had some fantastic courses already this year, I would like to say a big thank you to everyone who has come along and added to the creativity in their own way.
We also have big plans for our first appearance at the Devon County Show this year. It looks like this summer is going to be a good one for Little Acorn Furniture.
It’s been several months since I last wrote something in this section of my web site, and a lot has happened in that time. After a very quiet summer last year, I really had to take a close look at what Little Acorn Furniture was doing and where it was going. No one thing changed but over the winter several things seemed to fall into place. I am immensely great full to a number of people for this and couldn’t possibly thank them enough for their invaluable support and input. The start to this year finds Little Acorn Furniture with fully booked courses and a string of fantastic reviews and comments from all who have attended (Thank you, everyone). More contract work and clients than ever before, and a new commitment and partnership with White Wood Management that promises a very exciting and diverse future for both of us.
Add to this a forthcoming article in Devon Life Magazine and a place on the Dartmoor Artisan trail and things really do look promising.
For the next few blog posts, I will be focusing on something else that happened this winter and that is the first of a brand new Chair making course. My aim has always been that whoever visits my workshop take away with them something unique that they have made from scratch themselves. This is not so much of a challenge for me when it comes to stools, pole lathed dibbers and bats or even tables. Chairs, however, pose a number of technical challenges and the obvious thing to do is to all make the same chair. on each course. This increases everyone’s chance of success and keeps my stress and preparation levels just about manageable. But that is not what I wanted for my visitors, they must make something entirely unique and to their own tastes. With this in mind our first Rustic Chair Making Course took place this February.
I would start the course with a load of freshly cut logs left as long as possible, which is about six feet as I have to carry them out of the woods near the workshop. I would also have as many species available as I could, this very much depends on the time of year and the work I have been doing prior to the course. In this case, we had Ash, Sycamore and some rather nice Cherry. I also provided seasoned beech slabs, again these were left as large as feasibly possible. So we have all the ingredients in place along with the equipment.
Next came the recipe, could I really expect people to design their own chair, they had after all come to me to learn how to make the chair and designing requires a whole other set of skills and factors to consider. How then to ensure that each person could create their own piece of furniture in just one week and be certain that when it came to it the chair was comfortable and well proportioned?
I then set about listing the options available. I have no steam bending set up as yet in my work shop, so that simplified things a bit. Although steam bending is a truly wondrous thing to do it is time consuming and often slightly unpredictable, so bow backed chair was not on the menu.
Stick back or ladder back, that was a good start. Was a splat an option? I decided that only if people had their hearts set on it or seemed capable of achieving the extra work in the time given would this be added to the menu. This along with the number of sticks or rungs and the width and height of the back were limited only by the desire and skill of the maker. So far so good. There are several options for making and jointing the comb on a stick back chair and I listed these as part of the menu. The seat was quite simple all my chairs have a solid seasoned slab seat and as I was teaching the course that is what it would be. The size and shape of the seat could be a matter of personal taste as could the degree to which it is shaped and carved. Chair height (or leg length, depending on how you look at it) was quite straight forward as all of my timber was in long lengths, the stretcher arrangement is also easily adapted and I presented the options for square or H arrangements.
So I felt that I could deal with the mechanics and practicality of quite a wide range of designs, but how to ensure that it all came together in the end. All of the chairs that I have made recently were quite unusual and specific to the client’s needs, these would not do as templates for a course. So, I set about designing a chair that could be adapted, the spacing’s and angles were all worked out for a demonstration chair, an average chair that would be comfortable (I hoped) and fairly achievable in the time available. This was to be my starting point, it was an imaginary chair that could be made in any of the ways I have mentioned and still work. An ‘average’ to act as a starting point, it could be made wider, taller, deeper in fact altered in any way and by carefully tweaking the dimmensions and angles would still definitely be a lovely functional chair.
In doing all of this I did not in any way detract from or diminish the skills to be gained and determination needed by participants to complete their project, neither I hope did I limit there input or influence on the chair they chose to make. Rather, I tried in some way to provide as blank a canvas as possible with a number of options. It also encouraged a view of the bigger picture from the onset and allowed me, the teacher the time to focus on the detail of the process.
Perhaps, I should call the course ‘Design & Build Your Own Chair’ because that is exactly what happened.
Increasingly I am being asked to make things that require the use of fully seasoned timber rather than Green Wood. Unusually for me, the timber is seasoned before I get to it with my tools rather than afterward. As my workshop, tools, hands, and head are set up to deal with wood that is still unseasoned this poses certain challenges. With only the bare minimum of power tools and limited space, I set about making a fitted wardrobe for customers in Exminster.
As ever I was involved in the entire process from tree to bedroom and this is a brief story of how a bodger managed to make a very un ‘green wood’ wardrobe.
Once again Jim white of Whitewood Management was able to provide ideal material. Larch felled from near Okehampton and milled several years ago on his Peterson sawmill. This had then been air dried for several years in ideal conditions and then stored under load to prevent distortion or warping, perfect.
The timber was in large 8 by 4-inch sections some sixteen feet in length. I select two boards that were straight and relatively knot free, cut them to approximate lengths and brought them home. I was now in the happy position of having everything I needed for the job, well almost. Choosing the correct and most suitable piece of wood for a project is equally important whether it is small diameter green wood or seasoned boards. Any unforeseen defects can cause havoc with your plans later down the line. The Green-Wood approach almost forces you to work with and incorporate these defects or characteristics into your work. I handled correctly the end product is all the better for it. What I needed now though was timber that I could bend (or straighten) to actually obey my wishes.
These boards must be sectioned up and straightened so that when assembled the doors would line up, close (and remain) closed and the hinges would fit etc. I had already roughly worked out that I had enough material of the appropriate lengths and now set about my cutting list for the numerous individual components of the frame and six doors. The result can be seen the opposite, this was transcribed onto a full-length board to give the actual dimensions that were needed for the job.
I was now well and truly on the outside of my comfort zone, I have worked on numerous timber frame projects and have built several pieces of furniture this way for our home… But this was for a client… It had to be right!
Having re-sawed the boards using my basic but perfectly adequate table saw and miter saw. I used a benchtop jointer plane and enlisted the help of a friend, who might have been an actual joiner.
Suppressing my urge to yell, “straight enough is fine” and “don’t worry I can incorporate that into the final design” I bit my tongue as we worked the individual pieces until they were straight square and true, oh and the correct size of course.
I have since reverted to a hand plane for squaring timber (there is a dining table on its way matching those chairs I made). That said I can not devalue the ease and functionality of a surface planer, they are simply not as pleasant to use.
Now back in more comfortable territory, it was time to cut the mortise and tenon joints for the frame. I decided to follow the conventional rather than traditional route to do this and set up my table saw and miter saw to cut the tenons. If you are going to use machines to do your work for you, the pleasure comes from using them to the best of their abilities. I spent a good while truing the fences, blades and calibrating the scales. All of this paid off as I was able to quickly cut all the tenons for doors and frames. My bench morticer did the rest. A quick and satisfying clean up with a favorite chisel and we were ready to put it together.
To keep costs down for the client and to make life easier for me hardwood ply was used for the door panels. Recesses were cut on the table saw and finished by hand, I still don’t own or want to own a router. With the aid of a couple of quickly knocked up right angle jigs and a flat workbench, the doors went together. Against my better judgment, I used expanding joiners glue and have since vowed (again) never to use it EVER again. It may be effective but it is messy and unpleasant to use, being self-taught I have never shied away from the imperfections in my work and do not need a hideous chemical concoction to make me feel better about the slight gaps or miss alignments that inevitably (if very occasionally) occur.
We now have significantly fewer bits of wood laying around the “garage size” workshop which is now very full of a “bedroom size” wardrobe door frame. As predicted the doors almost but didn’t quite fit the frame, fine we can plain them down and square them up to fit! But we cant put the frame together, there is no way we could get it up the stairs to the bedroom. With no flat surface large enough to lay the frame flat on, the doors were planed (by hand) and fitted whilst the frame was propped up against the workbench. I took great pleasure from the simple task of chiseling the recesses for the hinges, taking my time and reveling in the peace, quiet and the satisfyinglyrepetitive nature of the job. Would it fit? Would it all line up as expected, these were problems for another day, I had thirty identical three-millimeter recess to chisel out of this lovely wood, that was good enough for now.
I could, I suppose of fitted the frame in the bedroom and then fitted the doors on site! There was a very good reason for not doing this though. The client was very imminently expecting a baby and I did not want to be in part ownership of their master bedroom when the family suddenly got bigger by one. So came the day when the kids (mine) were speedily deposited at school, the van loaded and a mad dash through the village made with bits of wardrobe. Carried upstairs in the now quiet house it soon became apparent that YES it does fit and it is straight and YES the doors still go on and close, mostly. A few tweaks here and there and a slight upgrade of the latches to compensate for very minor twists in the timber (it wasn’t like that a few days ago, I assure you) and there you have it. After another visit to fit some cunningly shaped cover strips, a shelf and rail my work was done. Lots of lessons learned and proof that determination can prevail.
This blog is a re-blog of Eric Swithinbank’s wonderful account of his time working in the woods as a Natural England trainee. We have worked together on a variety of tasks and it has been an absolute pleasure to be involved with this very worthwhile scheme, over to Eric….
In the dense broadleaf woodland of the Bovey valley, tucked away on a south facing slope just above the river lies the remains of an old farmstead – Boveycombe Farm. The farmstead and field systems have records dating as far back as 1332 all the way up until the 1940’s when some of the fields were farmed for potatoes. Since then, the farm has become engulfed by the surrounding woodland. Myself, Daniel and Tristan (full time trainees at East Dartmoor NNR) have been working with local Woodland Trust contractors Jim White and Alasdair Kilpatrick to uncover the archaeology of the farm buildings and field boundaries as well as clearing some of the vegetation within the old field systems to create a woodland glade; an important habitat for many woodland species which make the most of the sunlight accessible due to the break in the canopy. With a sheltered, sunny location on a south facing slope and easy access to water, it is easy to understand why people settled here. In fact whilst working at the farmstead this winter, we sat down to enjoy our lunch in the surprisingly warm December sun and observed a red admiral butterfly!
Coming from a nature conservation background it has been eye opening to work with Alasdair and Jim who offer perspective on how woodlands can be productive in a sustainable way. Alasdair uses wood that he sources from his work as a forester to craft furniture, tools and equipment using traditional green woodworking techniques. He also runs green woodworking courses at his workshop in Fingle Woods. The work at Boveycombe provided some high quality green wood, as well as some thin ash poles which Alasdair utilised for his pole lathes.
Alasdair invited us to spend some time at his workshop where he started by explaining some of the basic principles of green woodworking. He noted that when using traditional techniques that do not involve power tools, it is important to work with the wood and recognise that it is not an inanimate mass with which you impose your will on. In many ways, it still reacts like a living material, with cell structures that will shrink or swell when dried or exposed to water. How the tree grew dictates how it behaves as a material, for example if a tree has twisted and turned to reach the light there will be various tensions at play. Trees are naturally strong along the direction in which they have grown which can be observed as the grain in the wood. This must be considered when working the wood and it is for this reason that the Shipwrights of old would walk amongst woodlands and select the oak trees which matched the shape they needed for ship building.We spent some time with Alasdair examining cleft (split) wood and observed how the sapling still exists within the large trunk, merely swallowed up and expanded upon after seasons upon seasons of growth, the change of which are expressed in growth rings. Each year the story of growing conditions can be observed in the rings; with the stresses and pressures of each season etched into the material we are working with. Luckily for us, the ash wood we sourced from Boveycombe Farm was remarkably straight as it had grown up amongst the canopy, shooting upwards to get to the light. We used the traditional greenwood working techniques such as cleaving (splitting), side axing, draw knifing and pole lathing to craft the components we needed to create our own shaving horse (A bench that doubles as a vice when draw knifing).
For me, discovering green woodworking has been an extension of ecology and nature conservation. Learning about how different tree species react as timber has complemented my knowledge of their ecology, fleshing out my understanding of their role within a woodland, as well as understanding their textures and how they behave. For example pioneer species such as birch and alder grow quickly and are short lived, therefore they are less dense and can be worked more easily. Slow growing climax community species such as oak or holly are much denser, thus are harder to work but provide more strength in some situations.
Utilising wood in this way can act as a circular economy and provides a sustainable renewable resource with which gates, fences, hand rails, benches, steps, etcetera can be crafted on site. These will eventually return to the soil from which they originated and nurture future trees. It localises the whole process, for example the shaving horse we crafted with wood from Boveycombe farm is being used back at East Dartmoor Woods to fix tool handles which are being used to further the management at Boveycombe. Green woodworking requires no large, loud and expensive machinery or protective equipment; it is pleasurable and can be done socially with a group of volunteers. In contrast, wood sourced from building suppliers has been grown in commercial forests of little nature conservation value, harvested with large machinery, transported, treated and costs money.
The UK has a notably low (but increasing) woodland cover of 12.9% compared with the European average of 25% to 37%; especially considering that native broadleaf cover only accounts for 29% of our woodlands, the rest being conifers. However the situation is improving with organisations such as the Woodland Trust working to increase and improve the quality of our UK woodlands by, for example, converting coniferous woods back to native broadleaf woodlands. Perhaps we can increase our beautiful, ecologically diverse native woodlands and still gain some productivity from them. It has been a pleasure to explore the practical side of managing woodlands combining ecology, practical management and craftsmanship. Working woodlands in this way benefits the environment, finances and keeps traditional green woodworking craftsmanship alive – a real win-win!
It’s important to note that the timber we use for green woodworking is a by-product from woodland management for nature conservation. The majority of wood is left as dead wood, a vitally important habitat in its own right. The techniques used ensure that the process remains small scale and sustainable.
For demonstrations of green woodworking and much more why not come along to our spring woodland festival at Yarner Woods on the 19th of May.
As you can see I have finally manged to complete the first four of six dining chairs. It is very difficulty to decide when to put down the sand paper or oil cloth and there is always more that can be done.
It has been a long and quite challenging process and one from which I have taken a great deal. New ideas have been tested and found to work, old methods have been discarded and not missed. I can honestly say that these are the most ‘Little Acorn Style’ chairs I have ever made.
I anticipated that the biggest issue would be in making them all ‘look the same’. To this end I developed the system of templates and used a small band saw to cut identical blanks from the seasoned slab wood. From this point onward everything was shaped entirely by hand and I soon stopped worrying about how exactly I was replicating each piece. The joy of green wood working is to allow the material to have its own influence on the character of the finished piece, and this is exactly what I did. The chairs would be ‘a matching set’ but each one unique inits own right.
The biggest technical challenge was then to get the geometry of the already individual chairs to be the same. It was specified that two chair seats be approximately 2 cm higher than the others whilst the backs remained the same overall height. The chairs were all assembled individually and the latest chair checked against the previous ones for accuracy. For the first chair several mock ups were made until I had worked out a combination of angles that seemed to give the correct feel and appearance. The first chair was by far the most challenging and set the bench mark for the others.
A critical design element was to use only round mortise and tenon joints for all components, the stretchers have two, one at each end, the front legs have two mortises for the stretchers and a single ‘blind wedged’ tenon into the seat. The rear legs have a total of five mortises each, two each for the comb and stretchers and a through mortise for securing to the seat slab.
The comb and splat each have four hand carved tenons and it is is these I feel that give the chairs the distinctive appearance that I am very pleased with indeed.
The ash wedges used in the visible oak pegs on the rear legs is also something new for a chair, I have secured table tops in the is way in the past but never with such contrasting materials. Securing the back legs in this way was supposed to be quicker and easier than adding stretchers directly below the seat, I am not at all sure if this was the case. I feel that it is a more elegant and equally robust solution, that I will be continuing to refine and use.
So what is actually involved, nearly eighty pieces of wood, all oak, ash and yew from the south Devon area. 16 pieces turned green on a pole lathe for the stretchers, 8 pieces hand carved from seasoned oak for the seats and combs, 8 back legs cut and carved from seasoned ash. 8 spindles and 8 front legs cleft and shaped from green ash. 4 cleft yew splats shaped with draw knife and spoke shave. A total of 16 hand made wedges, eight in ash and eight in oak, and 8 oak pegs. And of course the two butterfly joints used on the first seat.