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!

Rustic Butter Knife

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Hazel butter knife inspired by Chris Lubkemann’s Little Book of Whittling

I had fun carving this rustic butter knife from a fairly chunky hazel rod. The diameter of the rod was about one and a quarter inches with six years of growth rings in it, and the finished knife around 11 inches long. I took inspiration from Chris Lubkemann’s book, the Little Book of Whittling for the design, especially his signature rooster’s head pattern which adorns the butter knife. Of course, carving in the round means that the piece retains the pith of the wood, seen at the tip of the butter knife blade, but, fingers crossed, no checks or splits so far.

I carved it in preparation for some work with children and their parents planned as part of the educational activities at Combe Mill, a historic steam and water mill powered sawmill here in Oxfordshire. Thinking through some of the challenges of working with children, especially the safety aspects, has been interesting and I’m looking forward to some experimentation with the son of a colleague in the coming days. Volunteers at Combe Mill are managing a woodland area close to the Mill by coppicing hazel, so it is very exciting to use this as a resource for whittling fun.

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Hultafors safety knife with yellow handle, finger guard and rounded end

I purchased a couple of Hultafors Safety Knives at a very good price from the Axminster.co.uk website (no affiliation!) and it will be interesting to see how children take to them. The rounded ends, finger guard and colourful handle all earn big ticks on the safety angle, but whether they will pass muster as real knives will be interesting to see.

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Can you see the micro bevel?

When I tried carving with the knives they were very sharp from the box, but came with a very fine micro-bevel on the blade, which made it quite difficult to get the knife to register on the surface being carved. Some honing and stropping seems to have restored a single Scandinavian grind to the knives.

I’ll also be experimenting with hand protection for the non-carving hand, including a thumb guard for paring cuts. I’m looking forward to working with a younger audience and tapping into their natural enthusiasm for all things sharp!

Pure Tung Oil

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This bottle of pure tung oil has just arrived through the post from tungoil.co.uk. I’m keen to compare the finish of tung oil on spoons with that of linseed oil, grape seed oil or walnut oil. Like these three oils tung oil is a drying oil which polymerises in the presence of oxygen to form a solid but flexible matrix with the wood that has been treated. Like linseed oil the label ‘tung oil’ covers a multitude of sins for products with all sorts of additives to either enhance the penetration of oil into wood or to accelerate the curing of the oil. None of these products with additives can be used on kitchenware or children’s toys, which is why it it is important to search out pure foodsafe tung oil.

The manufacturers have several claims of the benefits of  tung oil over linseed oil, it penetrates the wood more easily, dris more quickly and is more resistant to mould. It will be interesting to test those claims.

The Bestwood brand is pure tung oil extracted from the seeds or nuts of the Chinese Tung tree Aleurites fordii or Vernicia fordii, a member of the spurge family. As it contains no additives it is certified EN71 toy safe.

There is some evidence that tung oil may cause an allergic response from those with nut allergies, so that must be taken into account when using it, especially on any products being sold.

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I intend to treat this apple wood spoon with pure tung oil so do check back and see how I get on. Will tung oil have a better finish than my favourite grape seed oil? For me the most important characteristic is how little colour the finish has and how much the natural finish of the wood can shine through.