Sunday, 26 June 2011

Sweet Chestnut bark seating

Whilst running the intro to green woodworking course we took the time to peel the bark from the sweet chestnut logs before riving them down, with the aim of using it for weaving, principally for seating the chairs that I will be making this summer.

 Using inner bark for seating is common in North America and no doubt some other places in the world but has only very recent precedent in the UK. Hickory is the most commonly used bark in the US but as it doesn't grow in Europe we have to cast around and experiment a bit. Chair makers here have had good results with elm bark, particularly wych elm, which was first tried, I believe, by Mike Abbot, and detailed in his fine book, Living Wood.

Having no wych elm hearabouts I am hoping the chestnut will make a good alternative, being very leathery and flexible in nature, as well as tough and presumably, because of its high tannin content, durable and resistant to decay.

It is important to peel the bark at a time of year that the sap is running freely, otherwise it is too difficult to remove, ie spring to early summer. The chestnut is very easy to peel when fresh cut at this time of year and we have tried both peeling with one longitudinal cut, then removing as a whole slab, or cutting thin strips (3/4" - 1") one at a time.

The outer bark should be removed with a draw knife and this is best done before stripping. We didnt have the time and have since found it can be cut away with a sharp knife without too much bother.

Once cut into strips the thick inner bark fibres must be crushed and softened gently by rounding over a stick or between your thumb and forefinger, then coiled and tied ready for drying.

I am hoping this method will make a great alternative to rush seating which is quite time cosuming to weave therefore expensive. The beauty of it is that you can complete a chair using only one species of tree, and it is a quick and attractive way of solving the seating dilemma, ie suitabilty, comfort, cost, availability.

I will keep you posted on how well this all works when I make my next chair.. 

Our first green woodworking course

After a very busy few weeks building and preparing the woodland workshop (and exhibiting at the Royal Cornwall show), we finally ran the first course proper. Despite a pretty awful weather forecast for the first day we felt pretty much well prepared and raring to go, with a good supply of fresh sweet-chestnut logs, sharp tools, tea and cake, and four enthusiastic nascent green woodworkers.

I must say that we could not have had a nicer bunch of people for our first go. Elizabeth, B, Kevin and James were as enthusiastic and keen to learn and share as I could have hoped, and everyone seemed to settle in really well. Pretty soon the woods were filled with the sounds of splitting, chopping and shaving wood, not to mention some great conversation, philosophical debate, and jokes that were highly variable in subject and it has to be said, quality!

Over the three days we covered many of the fundamentals of green woodworking, including tool safety and handling, riving, using a break, chopping (axe work), shaving, adzing, boring holes and shaping and fitting leg joints with wedges.

The aim of this introductory course is to provide students with a foundation of skills crucial to working with green wood, started with in the round, and processed using simple tools in a woodland setting. I feel also that it is important for people to take something physical away with them along with the all important knowledge and techniques learned. I was delighted that everyone managed to make a beautiful 3 legged or 4 legged slab bench to take home with them. The 3 legged benches are the basis for a shave horse and will be completed on a later 2 day course.

By the afternoon of the third day the workshop had become an absolute hive of activity, and I was really pleased and quite surprised at how confident everyone had become with the tools and materials. From my point of view as tutor that was the most important thing, but I also felt that everyone had had a really enjoyable and fun time in a beautiful woodland setting, and crafted something with their own two hands that was really worth keeping and that they would be proud of for years to come.