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