The story behind a sweet chestnut spoon

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Spoon carved in sweet chestnut

I recently carved this spoon from a section of eight year old sweet chestnut wood. The other half of the blank had been used by Ed Marsh to carve a spoon for himself. Behind this simple act of carving a spoon lies an interesting story that is worth telling.

Ed had sourced the piece of sweet chestnut from Clissett Wood, the woodland in Herefordshire that he co-owns and helps manage. This is no ordinary woodland, but has a rich pedigree in the history and revival of green woodworking in the UK, via its association with Mike Abbott and Gudrun Leitz.

Mike Abbott was one of the pioneers of the revival of green woodworking in the UK. His influence grew from authoring the book ‘Green Woodwork’ which had come out in 1989. Along with Drew Langsner’s ‘Green Woodworking’, first published in 1987, these books inspired me to pick up a froe and maul and to start cleaving green wood.

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Green Woodwork by Mike Abbott, published in 1989

In the 1990s Mike Abbott was searching for a woodland to buy in the Herefordshire countryside and on 26 March 1994, visited New Hill Wood for the first time, a 10 acre woodland for sale around 5 miles North West of the market town of Ledbury. It was a traditional broad-leaved woodland with trees planted in the 1920s, but with a few 19th century specimens and new plantings of ash, oak and cherry. The woodland offered great potential as a woodland workshop but was expensive and so Mike and colleagues set up a partnership to allow the cost to be shared amongst seven co-owners of the woods, including fellow green woodworker Gudrun Leitz.

With the purchase complete the name of the wood was changed to Clissett Wood to honour the memory of Victorian chairmaker Philip Clissett, whose beautiful spindle and ladder back chairs grace several museums in the West Midlands.

Clissett Wood has seen many hundreds of students pass through its leafy splendour in the years since Mike Abbott, his wife Tamsin and friends bought the wood. The woodland also features heavily in Mike’s second book, ‘Living Wood’ published in 2002 which has a more autobiographical element and details the trials and tribulations of looking for a woodland to buy, including a whole chapter on Clissett Wood.

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Living Wood by Mike Abbott, published in 2002
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A chapter on Clissett Wood from the book Living Wood by Mike Abbott

Mike and Tamsin have subsequently sold their shares in Clissett Wood, but as one of the two original co-owners Gudren Leitz continues to run green woodworking and chairmaking courses from the woods today. .

And so it came to be that Ed Marsh, one of the more recent co-owners of Clissett Wood, was at the recent Oxfordshire Bodgers meeting in our own small woodland idyll of Foxcombe Wood when he presented me with some sweet chestnut grown at Clissett Wood which he had harvested from a recent management weekend in the woods.

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Ed Marsh channelling an Elizabethan bowl turner at a Combe Mill Museum steaming day

The character of sweet chestnut, Castanea sativa, became apparent as I looked at the spoon blank cleaved in two by Ed. At one end was a dirty grey smear on the surface of the cut wood. This was evidence of the high tannin content of sweet chestnut wood reacting with the metal of the axe blade used to cleave the branch leaving a characteristic deposit familiar to anyone who has seen, for instance the staining around a nail driven into oak wood.

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As a non-native species to the UK, the traditional view that sweet chestnut was introduced by the Romans has been disputed although it is clear that the tree was exploited for its wood and fruit from the early middle ages.

The high tannin content , second only to oak for UK hardwood species, makes sweet chestnut an excellent wood for posts, fencing and stakes, usually harvested from coppiced trees. For me sweet chestnut is forever linked to the wonderful timber framed Woodland House built by Ben Law and documented on Channel 4’s Grand Designs in what the presenter and viewers said was their favourite house

Behind every wooden spoon is story of the sort of the wood it is carved from, where it has grown and how it was harvested. Not all stories get told, but I’m pleased that this sweet chestnut spoon has such a rich provenance.

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Making Shrink Pots with the Oxfordshire Bodgers

Inspired by the great Youtube video Harry Rogers posted of the Kent Bodgers making shrink pots a couple of years ago the Oxfordshire Bodgers decided to theme one of its winter meetings around making shrink pots.

The process involves carving out the centre of a freshly felled green wood log to create a hollow tube and then to gouge a groove at the bottom edge to fit a custom-carved base of dry wood. As the pot seasons and dries, the greatest shrinkage is in the tangential plane, in other words the circumference of the pot reduces, which then tightens onto the dry base, locking it into the groove and possibly creating a water-tight fit if the base aligns well with the groove.

We were the hosts of Willowbrook Farm near Kidlington just North of Oxford and although we had booked the use of their indoor classroom the December weather gods smiled on us and it was mild enough to work outside, although with frequent trips indoors to the the tea urn and the biscuits.

We were joined by new member David who as a groundsman at Oxford University has access to recently felled timber and brought some lovely birch. Indeed, so fresh was the wood that as it was being drilled at one end the pressure was driving out the sap at the other end to create a moisture shadow of the spinning bit in the end grain of the wood.

None of the group were expert shrink-potters so it was a true skill share and experiment day. One of the biggest challenges with making shrink pots outside of a workshop is clamping them down, especially for drilling or augering the initial hole through the end grain of the log.

We had a variety of techniques on the go, including the use of portable workbenches, and a bowl-horse.

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Using a one and a quarter inch auger in a Black and Decker Workmate

Perhaps the simplest approach, to use a pair of wooden clamps to hold the log at ground level by standing on the clamps and then drilling with an auger, thus allowing the full weight of the body to help drive the auger through the end grain.

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Using a wooden clamp, a convenient foot and and an auger to cut through the end grain of a birch log

Augering two or three holes on the end grain worked best to then help with the removal of waste from the centre of the pot. We had a variety of drill bit and auger sizes to play with. One inch to one and a quarter inch (25 to 30 mm) bits seemed to work the best. I had brought along a two inch auger which shifted a lot of wood but was very hard going through end grain.

Once the initial hole had been drilled through the log then the work needed to be brought to a decent working height on a bench to allow for gouging out the remainder of the wood. Again the pot needed to be clamped in position. We had a variety of gouges available. Carving gouges with the bevel on the outside could be used at a pinch, but required the gouge to be angled in to the wall of the pot to rest on the short reference surface of the outer bevel. I found it easiest to use a one inch (25 mm) in-cannel gouge (sometimes referred to as a paring gouge) as this allowed the gouge to be used straight down and created a relatively smooth inner surface.

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Using an in-cannel gouge to hollow the pot

Judging the thickness of the wall of the shrink pot was important, taking into account the need to sink a groove into the base of the pot. The silver birch bark looked lovely and most folk had opted to retain the bark to create a rustic look to their pots. Even if the final pot is likely to have the bark removed, in decision to take off the outer bark before angering or leave it on is an interesting one. Leaving the bark protects the piece from clamping marks, but again it depends on whether the point is going to follow the shape of the log or to be defined by the maker and hence remove more of the outer edge of the pot.

Hook knives were used to smooth the final inner surface of the pot after gouging. I had a relatively shallow hand forged hook knife on a long handle that worked well for this task.

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Smoothing the inner surface of the shrink pot with a hook knife

Next was cutting out the groove. Eddie was able to help out here with another of his amazing Bodger’s Ball tool purchases, a complete set of Flexcut right-handed scores and v tools of various sizes. A marking gauge could be used to score the wood at the appropriate depth and the scores, with their blades at right angles to the handle were perfect for cutting a groove of around 1/8 to 3/16 inch (3 to 5 mm) depth in the wood.

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Flexcut right-angled scorps in a variety of sizes

Both Eddie and Phil had kindly brought some dried wood to use as the base and so next up was carving the base to size and thinning the edge to fit the groove. The tighter the initial fit, the greater the chance of a tight seal, but care has to be taken that if the groove isn’t deep enough, the pot could split as it shrinks too much around the base.

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Here’s one I prepared earlier! Fitting a lid to a hazel shrink pot

That was about as far as we could get for our session, Aimee won the prize for productivity, preparing three birch pots during the day! Letting them dry slowly to reduce the chance of splitting is important. I personally favour a thick paper bag to control moisture loss and find that flour bags fit the bill.

Once the pot is dry and the base locked in place then it is possible to design and fit a lid.

Willowbrook Farm was a great venue for our activities and visits from the farm animals on site certainly enlivened our day. Using the well designed and smell-free compost toilets was also a pleasure! I hope our group can come and visit again soon.

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Phil, Nigel and Gracie the pony!

 

 

Knife Skills with the Scouts of Shipton-under-Wychwood

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The Scouts of Shipton-under-Wychwood in action!

It was off to Shipton-under-Wychwood in the heart of the Oxfordshire Cotwolds as a guest of the local scout group. Their leader, Nicole Calvert, had seen me demonstrating spoon carving at the Wychwood Forest Fair and we arranged an introductory knife skills event for a dozen 12-13 year olds members of the Shipton Scout Group.

As an evening meeting we only had an hour and a half for our session, so the key focus was on safe use of the knife. The ‘bubble of blood’ always seems to catch youngsters attention and there was much waving of limbs to see who was within extended arm distance of each other. The ‘triangle of death’ – the space between the knees and groin in which we never use a knife also seemed to catch folks’ attention.

Gory warnings over, the scouts chose their materials- freshly cut try-sticks of hazel and also most importantly a knife. The majority used a Hultafors safety knife, with a bright yellow handle, finger guard and rounded tip on a carbon steel blade. They are inexpensive to purchase but the handle can sometimes be a little big for small hands.

I also had a couple of Morakniv Rookies. They have a stainless steel blade and smaller wooden handles than the Hultafors.

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From top to bottom; Hultafors safety knife; Svante Djarv child’s carving knife and the E Jonsson child’s knife

I was also interested to try a newly purchased Svante Djarv children’s carving knife with a smaller 2 inch or 5 cm rounded blade. I sourced mine from www.woodsmithexperience.co.uk. As a hand forged product from Sweden this knife is way too expensive to be a first choice for sessions such as this but it was a lovely tool and the scout who chose it definitely enjoyed the experience.

Finally I had a petite E. Jonsson child friendly knife, also made in famous knife-making town of Mora in Sweden. This was used by the Scout with the smallest hands in the group. A clean sweep of Swedish-made knives!

First we practiced taking the knives safely out of their sheaths and back again and then it was time to make some shavings!

We kept the knife grips simple for this introductory session, starting with the elbow grip and the power grip and knee grip variants, carving away from the body to put a sharp point on their stick.

Cutting with the grain of the wood and navigating knots were also valuable introductory skills picked up by the participants.

For those scouts who had done some carving before they also practiced with dry heel rods to get a feel for the difference between green wood and dry wood.

In a final free-carving session peeling off  the bark from the stick to make a wand or light sabre was a popular activity!

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The Morakniv Rookie

It was really wonderful to listen to the quiet concentration of the scout group as they carved their sticks and to watch the shavings pile up around them. It was important to take mini-breaks to keep their concentration from flagging and avoid mistakes being made.

Some scouts used a cut-resistant glove on their non-knife hand to create a little more confidence and having hazel sticks of various thicknesses was helpful for the complete beginners in the group.

With some demonstrations of the use of the froe for cleaving wood and hewing a spoon blank with an axe thrown in it was a satisfying evening of green woodwork and bushcraft skills.

Thanks again to the Shipton-Under-Wychwood Scout Group for making me feel so welcome and I hope we can continue our exploration of knife skills again soon.

Bookings now open for spoon carving course 7 July 2018

Last year I ran a spoon carving course at Combe Mill which was a great venue for the activity. We worked outside under the shade of a veteran willow tree and by the banks of the Evenlode. The cafe and facilities of Combe Mill were available for us, and the echoes of many hundreds of crafts people working the Mill in generations past guided our hands as we shaped green wood into a wonderful variety of spoons.

I enjoyed it so much (and I hope the participants did as well!) that I’m running another course on Saturday 7 July 2018 and bookings are now open here. We’ll have a good selection of spoon designs to inspire and books and tools. I’d be so pleased to see you there!

I’ll be sharing the course fees with Combe Mill and also the Wychwood Project who I’ve teamed up with to support their education programme and campaign to maintain traditional countryside skills. The Project also organises the Wychwood Forest Festival. The Festival happens this year on Sunday 2 September 2018 and I’m planning to run some drop-in hands on whittling sessions there. If you are within striking distance of West Oxfordshire save the date!

Carving with Spalted Birch

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A frosty lawn provides a backdrop to this spatula and spoon carved from spalted birch

I like carving spalted birch. The obvious reason is that as the fungus works it’s way through the wood feeding on the more easily digestible materials it leaves some damn fine patterns and makes each carved object unique. However, there are some more intangible pleasures as well. Spalted birch is usually easier to carve as some of the strength of the wood has been compromised by the fungus. However what I enjoy most is navigating the point at which the wood has rotted too much and reached the soft, punky phase when it has lost all structural integrity. It’s a little like gambling- what will the next cut with the axe or knife reveal?

It is white rot that leaves the bleached and variously pigmented areas of the wood, feeding differentially on lignin and leaving the lighter coloured cellulose. Shiitake mushrooms are the fruiting body of a white rot fungus. The black or dark brown lines are so-called zone lines, made up of fungal mycelium where different fungal colonies come into contact, either with the same or different species and they create defensive barriers to protect their resources.

The spoon in the image above has a rather thick zone line running through the bowl and up the edge of the handle. I reckon this is about as rotted birch wood can get and still be used.

As the wood dries the fungal growth is halted. My experience is that once the carving is completed spalted wood soaks up oil more than regular hardwood which means that as it oxidises and dries it can help stabilise the weaker wood structure that has been left after the fungus has passed through. However, there is no doubt that in the normal rough and tumble of a kitchen spalted objects won’t have quite the same toughness as regular hardwood objects and will eventually wear out, though with any luck only after providing many years of service and developing the wonderful patina of age.

In the spoon above I have used toy safe tung oil, the subject of a previous post. It has left the spoon with a distinctly yellow hue, as with linseed oil. My experience of using tung oil on a few utensils now is that it becomes more viscous and sticky in the container as it ages and appears to have a much longer drying time than other oxidising oils such as grapeseed or walnut oil, having a slightly tacky feel some months after initial treatment. Given its higher cost than a bottle of supermarket speciality oil, I won’t buy any more once my supplies are exhausted. Grapeseed oil remains my favourite oil, having the least colour of the oxidising oils, relatively quick drying and easily available.

The spatula was carved from a different, larger log and the spalting patterns within it are more subtle. It has been treated with linseed oil, but hasn’t taken on anything like the same yellow hue as the tung oil-treated spoon.

Birch are not long-lived trees and any trip to a woodland with them growing is likely to yield a branch or two that have been on the woodland floor or some months, allowing the spalting fungus to invade. The white rot fungi need oxygen to grow, so if you find a nice piece of wood and can’t use it immediately, keeping it in a bucket of water once debarked will halt the growth of the salting fungi and the wood will remain stable in its waterlogged condition for many months, or even years. Look at bog oak!

Oxfordshire Bodgers meet in Foxcombe Woods

Oxfordshire Bodgers in Foxcombe Wood from David Knight on Vimeo.

The sun shone, the fire was lit and industrious folk were unloading tools, shave horses and pole lathes from their cars when I arrived at Foxcombe Wood on Sunday morning. There was a good turn out, including Griff who had been demonstrating at Wychwood Forest Fair the week before. He’s based in Harwell and runs Rustic Ash Chairs. Ray, Phil, Birgit and Adrian also attended.

We are grateful to be able to use Foxcombe Woods, a private Nature Reserve in Boars Hill South West of Oxford, managed by Steve who joined us around the fire to enjoy his pipe and tea.

It was a glorious and enterprising day, with spoons being carved, tool handles turned and stool rungs drawknives. I made some progress on some sycamore rungs that are intended for a shaker-style chair. Phil impressed us all with his beautiful new Nic Westermann axe. Griff was able to use a Nic Westermann  finishing hook knife I have on his striking whale-flume spoon.img_0099

We discussed plans for future meetings, including a repeat of the popular leather working workshop we arranged last Autumn  and attendance at Combe Mill’s woodcraft day on 16 October 2016 where several of us will be demonstrating.

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As the smoke from the wood shavings on the fire caught the early evening sunlight it was time to pack for home after a satisfying and productive day in the woods in good company. Who could ask for more?

Traditional Workbench at Heathrow Airport

When Terminal Five at Heathrow Airport won ‘Best Airport Terminal for 2016’ I suspect voters weren’t swayed by the fact that there is a beautiful old woodworking bench sitting in the departures lounge.

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A well-used woodworking bench gracing Cafe Nero at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 departure lounge

The traffic gods of the A40 and M40 must have been smiling down on us as we arrived far too early to drop off my son’s hold luggage  as he embarked on a visit to South Korea, so we headed to Cafe Nero at the left hand end of Terminal Five’s departure lounge. I didn’t notice it at first but in the queue to purchase our drinks I realised that the table that was displaying bags of coffee beans had a vice attached.

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The evidence that this was no ordinary old vintage table

The workbench had a lovely tail vice on it, with square bench dog holes.

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The glass jar of coffee beans sits in the tool tray. At the other end the face vice appears to be missing.

The bench appears to be a German-style workbench, perhaps from the 19th century. Christopher Schwartz has a good critique of this bench design style in his Popular Woodworking blog column .

The the most similar image I can find is of a Joiners Bench with German Bench Screw from the Jos Harm catalogue as referenced by Christopher Schwartz in his book Workbenches, Revised Edition: From Design and Theory to Construction and Use.
joiners bench with German screw

 

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This is a workbench surface that has seen a lot of use. I can’t imagine the 19th century woodworkers for whom this bench was so much a part of their working life would have an inkling that it would end up forming part of the visual landscape for travellers at one of the world’s busiest airports as they choose which smoothie to buy.

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Making Magic Wands at Combe Mill

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The lumber horse set up in the grounds of Combe Mill. The River Evenlode flows behind

There was a chill in the air as I set up on the very first steaming day of the season at Combe Mill. After a successful session at the Christmas fair making hazel flowers with children (and the odd adult!) I thought I would run a similar session but rather than hazel flowers I would try my hand at offering younger visitors the chance to make magic wands. The design is very simple, using a 15 inch hazel rod, around 3/4 inch thick. Using a drawknife, bevel down, the bark is peeled off, leaving a 4 inch handle with the bark remaining. This is an easier technique with the drawknife than making hazel flowers and something that folk find deeply satisfying to peel off the bark and expose the blond wood below.

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Required tools for apprentice wizards and witches everywhere

The hazel was harvested from the Blenheim Estate Woodland that adjoins Combe Mill and is being managed by volunteers from the Mill to bring a woodland pond back to life by letting more light in. This involves coppicing overgrown hazel stools. One of the main problems in the woodland is deer grazing and so we have been building four foot high fencing around each stool to protect any new growth.

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Jen hidden behind one of our well protected hazel stools. Look and weep, roe deer!

Suitably togged up with a leather apron and protective glasses my young charges mounted the shavehorse, the only restriction being whether their feet could reach the lower bar. The drawknife is a great tool to use with youngsters because it is very difficult to cut yourself with. The biggest risk is that the blank slips out of the shavehorse head, but the apron then provides protection. Close supervision made sure that this didn’t happen and a little judicious leaning on the head for some youngsters minimised this risk.

My shave horse is based on the lumber horse design from Mike Abbott in his book Going with the Grain; Making Chairs in the 21st Century. It may not be very rustic, but it is nice and solid. I made my version so that the seat and back legs are removable and the main body folds down for transport, all with the use of a 13 mm ring spanner.

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As the temperature warmed up and the visitors started to flow I realised that my marketing ploy, with a nod to JK Rowling was misdirected. Most of the children I attracted to my shave horse were too young to know who Harry Potter was, although their parents or carers were usually fans. So, next time I do this I need to reference Winnie the Witch to attract the right demographic.

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Harry who?

I do hope the trading standards inspectors don’t check up on my claims that the wands will turn any vegetables into chocolate. Many thanks to all who visited me at Combe and generously donated to the Mill funds in return for their unique magic wand.

Child Friendly Wood Carving

To the Combe Mill Tea Rooms with Jen, Phil and William to explore wood carving with kids. William has kindly volunteered to be our guinea pig to help us structure some wood carving and whittling sessions for children as part of Combe Mill’s education actives. Despite his tender age William has some experience of whittling with a knife already, using his ink stained but much loved round tipped Opinel number 7. He would have been happy to dive straight in to whittling a point on to a hazel rod which he has already sawn to length with a folding wood saw. However we practice our safety talk first using evocative imagery such as the ‘bubble of blood’ to describe the outstretched arms length distance around someone that could cause injury and asking William to think carefully about where the knife blade could end up before any cut is made. One difference between adult and children’s wood carving courses that is clear straight away is the need for more clearly defined boundaries regarding health and safety, so for instance being clear that all knives not in use are put back in their sheath or folded away and demonstrating the way to pass a knife to someone else handle first.

William was fine with the power cut away from his body to the right of his legs to quickly remove wood to put a wicked point on the stick. He quickly adopted the push cut to take smaller, more controlled cuts and the notch cut to create rings and circles on the hazel stick.

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I was keen to get William’s view of the Hultafors safety knife and was pleased that he quickly took to it. There is no doubt that a knife with a rounded end is more limiting in the type of carving or whittling work that can be done. For instance, carving a two prong fork from a hazel rod requires the use of the sharp tip to begin the split between the two forks. However, given that William is under ten years old the rounded end feels like an important compromise between the functionality of the tool and the risk of stabbing injury. The yellow handle of the Hultafors knife did help it stand out from the inevitable piles of books, tools and woodchips that developed in the tea rooms.

We gave William a hook knife to use to carve a rustic spoon from his hazel rod , but coordinating holding the bowl of the spoon and sweeping the hook knife blade at right angles to the grain to start the shaping of the bowl was quite a challenge for him.

It was also really interesting to observe how long William’s attention span was. This helped to shape the length for our proposed sessions with children.

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Based on William’s invaluable feedback we will be exploring several shorter sessions for children to first develop and then build up their confidence in using a knife for whittling with a high tutor to child ratio. I’m looking forward to the sessions!

The image of a child whittling on a stick with their favourite pocket knife seems at once very homely and yet in the UK faintly worrying if linked to stories of knife crime. Can we reclaim our wood culture and the concept of the knife as a tool to be used in our service to shape wood? If we can it will start with children and giving them the opportunity to explore their interest and creativity in using a knife in a safe and responsible manner.

If you live in or around Oxford and would be interested in finding out more about our wood carving and whittling sessions for children at Combe Mill please do get in touch via the blog and we’ll send more details.

A New Scrub Plane

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A Pinie scrub plane

The best present Santa brought me this season was a new wooden scrub plane made by the Czech company Pinie. It has a beautiful rhino handle up front and a wooden body made from beech and a sole from hornbeam, all sourced from the forests of the Czech Republic. Pinie wooden planes in various shapes and sizes are available on Amazon and are very reasonably priced when compared with their metal counterparts.

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The three components of the scrub plane. The beech and hornbeam body is clear from this angle.

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The blade of the plane is curved and is set at 45% in the body of the plane. The 3 mm thick metal of the blade does a great job of quickly removing thick shavings from the surface of the board through the large mouth of the plane, leaving gouged grooves like a gently ploughed field across the surface of the wood. These can then be planed out by a jack plane when the board is approaching the required dimension.

By taking diagonal stokes at at 45 degrees to the grain of the wood it is possible to deal with knots and undulating grain to begin to shape the piece into a board.

I really enjoy taking ‘found’ green wood, such as the fallen limb of a tree and after initial shaping with the axe, use a variety of planes to shape the wood down to make an object such as a chopping board.

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My other hand is holding the camera!

Here in the photo I’m working on a piece of field maple (Acer campestre, Britain’s only truly native maple species) which snapped in December storms to leave a large split piece of wood. I’ll slowly thin it to size, letting the surface dry out a little before taking off a few more millimetres of wood and repeating until it’s ready to be put aside to season and then, perhaps a year later , come back to it for final dimensioning with jack and jointer planes.

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This saw handle has seen better days

 

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It’s field maple replacement one day

Here’s another piece of field maple that is destined to become the hardwood handle of my three foot crosscut saw to replace a temporary softwood handle. It will be a good feeling to know the provenance of the wood in my hand when it is sawing up the next fallen limb which has fallen victim to high winds.

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Three foot cross cut saw. A quiet alternative to a chainsaw.

Having played with the Pinie scrub plane (I’ve seen them described affectionately as ‘woodies’) I am keen to know how it would compare with a vintage Stanley No. 40 scrub plane, but looking at their prices on eBay is a bit scary. I would also like to try the Lie-Neilsen scrub plane which is based on the Stanley design, but that may have to wait until Santa visits again next year!