Working Woodlands (What the volunteers say)

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….

Working Woodlands
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!


Students from Exeter University have been volunteering at the site, sometimes numbering up to 27 pairs of helping hands. They have been fantastic in helping us to uncover archaeology, create the woodland glade and remove non-native conifers – some of which the students took home as Christmas trees!

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.

Pole lathes set up in Alasdair’s workshop using ash poles (the trunk of young, slender ash trees) from Boveycombe Farm.

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).


Daniel enjoying our newly crafted shaving horse.

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!

  1. 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.

For more information on Alasdair’s courses and crafts please visit

Four finally finished

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.


One of Four!

In my last blog, I had almost completed the first of a set of dining chairs, or so I thought…..

Shortly after I posted the first chair really took shape, as you can see below. At this stage it was roughly assembled, unglued and in need of final sanding and finishing. This is the point at which I note and remedy any discrepancies in the shape of the components and the angles of the finished chair. It is also the point at which you can test to see how comfortable, or not, the chair will be.

The chair is now completed, except for four pieces of oak. Two “blind”wedges that secure the front legs into their mortises and two pegs that will secure the rear legs to the seat.

I now started on the second chair with this one as my reference. If needed I could remove components to check size and shape, in this way I hoped to produce to very similar yet equally unique chairs. I would then repeat this for the remaining two chairs. As the components were already prepared the second chair went together very well, and confirmed that all the time spent designing and producing templates was time well spent.

1 and 2 at the end of the day.

With number two together but not finished I decided to give number one the final finishing touches. This meant completely dismantling for the final sand and finish before reassembling for the final time with wood glue, wedges and pins.

On fitting the final leg things got unduly interesting, as is often the way with green wood work. A stabilised drying crack in the seat took offence to my gentle efforts to tighten up the joints and started to propagate along the seat. The legs must slot evenly into the recess in the seat whilst securely fitting the stretchers and comb mortises into the tenons. Each leg has a total of five round mortises all of which must be eased into position with out (as happened) excessive force being placed on the seat slab. This slab is the most characterful of the set and therefore it is also the most prone to failure. Although the crack was not structurally significant it needed attention. Once finally assembled I fitted the pegs into the rear of the legs and set to work on the seat.

Oak pegs securing the back legs and the split in the seat.

As the fibres on the top of the chair had not separated I decided to embellish the underside with some butterfly joints which would prevent further movement and eliminate any flex in the seat.

Fortunately I had some oak left over from the comb which I used for the inserts and the result is both beautiful and effective, if a little nerve wracking.

And there we have it the first chair finished and oiled, number two is not far behind and three and four are ready to assemble.

Oh and the clients (thank you) have requested another two, so one down five to go…….

For four chairs you need….

Since starting Little Acorn Furniture last year I have completed a number of commissions for bespoke pieces of furniture ,but my biggest challenge (and the most rewarding) came this summer when I was asked if I could complete a set of four dining chairs. The design was to incorporate elements of all four of the chairs that I had on display and would be unlike any I had made before. The key to green woodworking is to allow the material to dictate to a certain degree how the finished piece is assembled and how it ultimately appears and functions.  Is it therefore possible to make four items that appear the same whilst having the individual feel and appearance of green wood furniture?

After discussing and deciding on the precise materials (in this case, oak, ash and yew) we then had to establish that although they would be of the same dimensions and basic appearance, the four chairs would each be unique.

Each chair I have ever made has, like all green wood projects been  a process of experimentation and developement. Each one yields new techniques which I carry forward and adapt  and also ideas and methods that fall by the wayside or are put to use elswhere.  With this in mind I spent considerable time playing with dimensions and jointing methods, not only did they have to meet the specification but I needed an approach that could be reliably replicated with suitable accuracy. Not easy given the potential variation in the material.

Initial templates of the curved back and seat modeled against one of my earlier chairs.

Templates were produced for the key elements that would allow me to reproduce the components. I then had a list of materials, dimmensions, and shapes so I set about sourcing the materials.

Ash planks taken from trees in Oekhampton and processed by WhiteWood Management

Over the remainder of the summer I was able to find all the timber from within a few miles of Chagford. For the all important seats and curved back I found seasoned oak and ash from Jim White who had felled and processed the trees himself. The yew became available from Castle Drogo when they uncovered drawings of the formal garden that showed the original layout of the yew hedge and removed several feet of mature hedgerow. The ash for the front legs had to have a natural curve that matched the curve in the back legs. After considering several trees, I came across one in a woodland that I was working in for the Duchy of Cornwall. The trees on this site are being thinned and coppiced to promote ground flora and allow access for further management. So I eventually had, in theory at least all that I needed.

Yew, ash and oak ready for shaping, is it enough for four chairs?

Using my templates the seasoned wood was roughly cut to shape with a band saw, and then the green wood was cleft and side axed to shape. Only once this was done could I be sure that I had the correct amount of suitable timber for all four chairs.

After much chiselling, drawknifing and shinanigans it started to look like this might actually work. The principal componnets were all shapped and ready for assemble. This is the point at which each of the chairs began to develop its individuality. Despite my best efforts the components were easily grouped into four distinct sets, each with taper, curve and sizes that matched as closely as possible to each other. All of a sudden I was make four similar but distinct chairs not just producing matching sets of components.

At last four sets of legs and seats and other components, similar but not exact copies!

Now to the next challange, how to assemble these components in a way that could be replicated. The angle of the seat, the back, the splay of the legs and the curve of the comb all had to be correct.

Experimenting with the assembly, at least it looks like it might one day be a chair, or four!

Several mockups were made using plywood templates and scrap wood until I was happy that the chairs would actually be comfortable to sit in and good enough to eat from. It was then time for a deep breath and set to work on one of the actual seats.

Some of the templates used to determine and replicate the principle joints and angles.
Progress to date, no turning back from here!

And here we have the story so far. The legs are jointed and the comb fitted. This is the most critacal stage and fitting the other components (a further nine parts are requied to complete each chair) will provide comfort and structual stability but will not alter the design which is now set in stone, or wood.

I think it works rather nicely…. so far


Work Horses (literally)

Meet Polly and Beano, key employees of the Dartmoor Horse Loggers. On Wednesday I had the great pleasure to be working in the same stand of Douglas Fir as them in a stunning area of Fingle Wood known as Halls Cleave. These amazing animals under the expert guidance of Will and Alex (the human element of the team) are able to extract their own body weight in timber (700Kg) at a time. Amazingly they leave the ground almost unscathed with none of the ruts and tire tracks associated with modern methods.

Beano (the blond one)


Beano takes a short break after pulling out a huge Fir tree
Polly in work mode, a beautiful site.

To find out more please vist