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Not my favourite time of year. Last time I posted we were enjoying the end of a warm Autumnal November. Now we’re at the end of a drenched December and January that seems an impossibly long time ago and everything is just so Wet!

It’s been unseasonably warm (I’m told we should learn to expect that as the climate changes) and that doesn’t help at all as all my carefully prepared stacks of firewood have been exposed to continually moist air.

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The must-have present this winter for the firewood hunter gatherer of the family is the book attractively entitled ‘Norwegian Wood’ a well written story of woodsmen, firewood and beautiful Norwegian piles of firewood stacked outside and covered in snow.

But here in the British Isles our firewood no matter how carefully split, stacked and dried during our relatively long summer is exposed to moisture laden gales – now replete with everyday names. Today we’re enjoying ‘Storm Henry’ at a relatively balmy 12 degrees above zero (C).

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The result – my carefully seasoned, split and stacked firewood is shockingly wet! Almost 30% on this piece of oak chosen at random from the stack outside my front door. That’s a lot more water in the log than I’d like to have – 300g of water in a 1kg log and all of that has to be ‘boiled’ off up the chimney. That’s all energy not available to heat the house, resulting in a cooler stove and potentially more tar blocking up the chimney as inefficient combustion at cooler temperatures mixes volatile chemicals and moisture.

So what went wrong? Nothing other than our British ‘maritime’ climate. We just can’t do Norwegian Wood over here. It’s too warm and too moist. Wood is hygroscopic – in other words – it will absorb moisture from it’s environment. If the atmosphere is above zero (C) and moist then dry wood will become damp. There is an equilibrium moisture content, and at a few degrees (C) with the relative moisture content of air up to between  90 and 100% (the air is saturated with moisture) as it has been for months now. Then my air dried logs will be returning to somewhere over 20% and perhaps as high as 30% depending upon how quickly the moisture is absorbed and how long it stays moist.

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What can I do about it? Not much outside. With so much rain and overcast days there is little hope of using the sun to dry the wood. Even expensively (environmentally as well as financially) kiln dried firewood will become damp in this weather. The same applies to the net bags of logs left standing outside filling stations or garden centres. If they weren’t damp when they were delivered they will be by now.

All I can do is ensure that I take my logs into the house and give them a day or two beside the fire (but not too close of course) before I burn them.

By chopping my firewood into smaller sizes and letting the warmth run through them I can reduce the moisture content to below 20% which enables a more efficient combustion in the stove as well as reducing the moisture released up the chimney.

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So don’t forget to bring your logs inside at least a day or two before you need to burn them, chop them up good and small (you’ll get warm all over again) and run your stove hot enough for efficient burning.  But most of all I hope your logs are nice and dry wherever you are burning them this winter!

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My favourite time of year. The light on the Lynchmere Commons is always special as the wall to wall green of summer turns to a riot of colour.

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The bracken turns a glowing copper dappled with the autumn sunshine

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All summer the leaves have been a monotonous shade of green and now they put on a show as they slowly reveal the silver structure of the Birch trees

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And then there are the sunsets! (this one was taken at the Weald & Downland Museum)

Sometimes I wish I could grab it and hold it but it’s so fleeting as the leaves are falling all around me and the sun is lower every day. My enjoyment is tinged with a hint of apprehension as winter approaches.

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The Grass is Ris!  and the mowing season is suddenly upon us.

When I am not attacking the bracken on the commons I am working around the edges of the meadows to control the invading bracken, nettles and thistles. Hard work but very satisfying in the spring sunshine.

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The beginning of the new mowing season is always a time for preparing the blade for the coming season. How straight is your blade?

I am always hunting for good blades and I have to go through a lot of nearly dead ones to find a blade which can be restored. One of the many challenges of working with the English Scythe is the age and the state of the blades. When they come to me they are inevitably in quite a bad state, though often not terminal as this motley bunch shows.

It’s not hard to put an edge on the blade and that’s about all you’ll need to start whacking weeds but restoring it’s grass cutting ability needs more detailed attention.

On their own the blades can look quite reasonable but when you put a bunch together on a flat metal surface things can look a little different. OK so I selected most of these blades because they need work but even so some of them look like they’ve been run over by a tractor, or even a steam roller rather than stored carefully in the barn.

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  The flat surface belongs to John’s Old Kiln Forge at the Tilford Rural Life Centre. I took the blades to show John and discuss the best methods for restoring them. We tried out a few methods on an old and very pitted blade.

DSCF3031Most of the work is with the blade cold to avoid losing it’s temper – or softening the hard steel in the blade edge.

DSCF3047It wouldn’t be a visit to a forge without a little heat though. Unlike the blade edge the tang is adjusted hot to prevent tiny cracks being formed which then turn into metal fatigue and failure of the tang under constant heavy useage. The blade is kept cool by dripping water onto it whilst the tang is heating.

DSCF3061As well as practicing on the old blade we also improved the shape of the blade edge on one of my workin blades. Time to put the blade to the test. The improvement in performance is noticeable – but still more work to be done.

I have a moribund blog called The Scythe Grinders Arms and I’ll be resurrecting this in the coming weeks as I work on my scythes to provide a place for devotees of the English blade and snead.

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……the Bodgers Ball 2015 that is. Every year hundreds of Greenwood workers get together in a field somewhere in the UK to share skills, catch up with old friends, meet new ones, compete, try out new ideas and to generally have a ball! This year we were invited to the heart of Sherwood Forest by the East Midlands and Derbyshire local groups of the Bodgers. Here is a quick romp through some photos of the ball as I saw it.

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I took my steamer to demonstrate steam bending a traditional English scythe snathe. Full steam up as Graham inspects the washing machine drum stove with the old petrol tank boiler mounted on top.

DSCF2882      Just as well I came fully equipped. It wasn’t long before friends moved in with lathe, shave horse and steamer all in use.DSCF2880

Sean Hellman didn’t bring a lathe and had to make do with mine to turn an egg for the egg and spoon race. He didn’t bring his chisels either – is that an axe he’s turning the egg with? DSCF2881   First time for everything, who needs chisels on a pole lathe for turning an egg. Not Sean!DSCF2892With the egg turned and a spoon carved the teams finished the race three legged. Crazy competition it could only be at a bodgers ball.

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Merlin from Somerset brought along a good selection of cross cut saws. Almost as fine as the Series 3 they are sitting on. Merlin is turning into a fine saw doctor especially with the big greenwood raker teeth on the crosscuts and if your saw could do with some TLC you can contact him in the West Country via the Cherrywood Project near Bath.

DSCF2887Power tools are banned for the duration of the Ball (not just for the insurance it’s also the ethos of the event) and the cross cut saws made quick work of any sawing needed as well allowing people to have a go.

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Moving up a step from the Landrovers Simon Damant came very well equipped with his ex fire brigade 4WD Bedford MJ. We were grateful for the stove when it poured down on the Friday night, though the various concoctions of calvados, distilled mead and blackcurrent vodka may have been partly responsible. Simon – you really must get some steps to stop me falling out of the truck next time!

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Fully equipped with a portable forge as well and some bags of charcoal to run the hearth.

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Simon gave a demonstration making a rams head hook and also took part in the half hour challenge where competitors have 30 minutes to make something saleable.

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Richard Roods emporium is becoming a firm favourite at the ball and it’s a rare event where I go home with less than I brought with me.

DSCF2856  This year was no exception as Richard had been putting aside knackered old English scythes for me all year. Avoiding lugging this lot back calls for desparate measures!DSCF2923-001

What’s all this then? Heretic?  Have I given up on the English Scythe? No, not at all. I just want the ironwork, the eye bolts, scythe rings, nibs and one or two of the blades for rebuilding onto my newly made snathes – the woodwork and especially the livestock (woodworm) are not welcome. Although this fire is mainly for effect I did burn up two snathes in steaming the new snathe which seems quite appropriate to me as the old is used to help make the new.

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Steve and Nigel hijacked my steamer to steam some rings of chestnut. Will they reveal what they are planning to do with them?

DSCF2927The climax of the weekend are the half hour challenge and the log to leg races on the Sunday afternoon. Simon and Kate joined me and we came a creditable third in the team log to leg race and I was very pleased to come third in the individual log to leg race. That just left cutting the cake and suddenly and far far too soon it was the end of another fine bodgers ball. Just another 360 days to go until the next one. But the Somerset Scythe Festival is a lot closer – only 4 weeks away. No rest  for the even slightly naughty around here…..

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I’ve done it again. Last time I looked it was February, but it has been a busy time of year with a lot to get done on the Lynchmere commons  and despite my best of intentions posting on the blog just doesn’t seem to get a high enough priority. Time to make up for that now.

Our winter work gets busier as the season progresses. With a cutoff at the start of March for the bird nesting season it’s hard work through February and I spend a lot of time in the office looking out of the window.

Ok, so this office has wheels, big wheels and a crane – and a heater that functions sometimes – though it’s not a lot of use as not all of the windows have glass in them, but it is about the only time of year that I get to work in a heated environment and look out of the window. If you have to use big machinery then February is probably the best time of year to do it as it’s too cold to work on my polelathe!

DSCF2081Like many offices the view from the back window is a little bit more industrial! This office is rather less than ergonomically designed being a relatively old timber tractor. Definitely no disabled access, which I need after a couple of weeks ot twisting to operate the timber crane controls and jumping down from the (missing) steps. But its the only way to get the work done.

DSCF2090This timber has been cut to thin out woodland areas, improving the remaining timber, the wildlife habitat and the heathland areas of the commons. Most of it is Scots Pine, a native softwood, which has self seeded on the heath and has little commercial value. In this country we don’t rate softwood as firewood (unlike much of norther Europe) But this will be going to a nearby biomass boiler at a local school which means that as well as improving the commons habitat the felled timber will be travelling almost no distance (timber miles) and helping to reduce fossil fuel usage, which seems a Win-Win to me.

DSCF1844In February I don’t just have one office! Here’s the view from another office window and this office does have glass in all its windows – at the moment.  Not such a pleasant sight though, as this forest of evergreen is Western Hemlock which is selfseeding rapidly onto our carefully cleared heath areas from a Forestry Commission adjacent site. Western Hemlock is not a native species and is classed as an invasive alien which it certainly is!  We pull the small seedlings by hand but larger ones need a more industrial solution.

DSCF1845Cue the view from the back of the office – with a mower on steroids that keeps the Hemlock at bay!

DSCF1912It doesn’t always go according to plan with machinery and sometimes the weather, landscape and trees bite back and damage my office infrastructure. It would be a rare winter when I don’t suffer some form of breakage. The steering arms on this landrover have been modified for me. They should be straight not U-shaped and wrapped around the axle!

DSCF1856Now it’s March our struggle with heavy machinery on the commons is over for another year and I have the aches and bruises to remember it by. I’m looking forward to largely working by hand with billhook, axe, scythe and of course my polelathe over the coming spring and summer.

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You’d be forgiven for thinking that Scythes don’t come out much in the Winter months. So it was a pleasure to combine our winter Scythe Association meeting with reed cutting at Heacham Saltings on the North Norfolk coast.

DSCF1633Traditionally the reed is cut and gathered for thatching. For the Scythe to lay the reed where it can easily be gathered into bundles we attach a simple cradle made from a suitable rod of flexible fresh (green) wood like Willow or Hazel which helps to lay the reed all in the same direction in the windrow.

DSCF1642Saturday morning was bright but bitterly cold and getting down into the reed bed provided almost the only prospect of shelter as well as warmth through plenty of exercise. Our host Richard Brown led the way in and explained the work needed (the Saltings is managed under an environmental stewardship grant and mowing of blocks in the reed bed is a part of the conservation management).

DSCF1655It wasn’t long before we were all getting to grips with mowing the 6ft reeds.

DSCF1679The reed bed had already been drained down to allow us to mow the reeds but ditches, channels and pools of water remain and for those wearing long wellingtons or short waders it afforded the chance to experience some underwater mowing.

DSCF1657John Letts took the opportunity to bundle some of the mown reed.

DSCF1684But as the reed was being cut for conservation management rather than thatching most could be forked into piles at the edges of the bed.

DSCF1659Before too long our enthusiastic team of mowers had made good inroads into the bed and cleared enough reed to complete the task.

DSCF1660I’ve been making some traditional English steam bent shafts over the last year and this was my first change to try out one of my new snathes (on the right). I’d hurriedly fitted it out with a random assortment of ironwork and handgrips (nibs) on Thursday before travelling to Norfolk and was a little worried that it might not survive the encounter. In the event the scythe proved to be more equal to the task, as it’s little on the large and heavy side for reed mowing, though it’s not finished yet and needs plenty of tweaking to get it optimised.

DSCF1710Suitably warmed and exercised we retired to Richard’s beach house to take in the views over the Wash and for our formal Scythe Association winter meeting, a short affair followed by evening of long conversations fuelled by Simon’s excellent blue cheese, plenty of beer and I seem to remember that a bottle of my ‘Sloe Vodkin’ was involved as well.

DSCF1749On Sunday Richard has another block of reed for us to mow, this time at the other end of the saltings. An opportunity to blow away the cobwebs and finish the job.

DSCF1784All too soon the job was done and it was time to take my leave. Back to the real world. I love the work that I do, but I will carry with me the memory of the places I’ve been, things I’ve done and the people I’ve seen over the last three days. Thank you  – It’s been like a breath of fresh air to recharge my batteries in the middle of winter.

      P1030471Two little pigs went to market……except the pigs weren’t so little any longer! In case you weren’t aware we’ve been keeping a couple of pigs. We were lucky to be offered the use of a small piece of ground, scrub woodland really, a short walk around the corner in Lynchmere where we live.

After 16 short weeks our two Oxford Sandy and Black’s aren’t piglets any more, they’re porkers. Porker is the name for a pig that’s reached a size big enough to eat as the joints make good pork. A bit larger and they are called baconers as there is enough meat and fat for good cuts of bacon. We’re hoping for a bit of bacon.

On Monday our first time keeping stock came to an end, except it’s as much the beginning as it is the end, we always planned it this way but it’s somehow different from the planning when you actually come to do it.

DSCF9859It’s hard to remember just how small  they were when they first arrived!  You wouldn’t want to be picking one up now – Alison estimated that they were 70 plus kg last week – and immensely strong.

DSCF9893-001and they were very cute as well !

DSCF9899There was  grass in the pen in those days! Digging is natural behaviour for pigs and they had ample scope digging some big holes in their pen – this was their first digging experience just a few seconds after arriving.

P1030290By the beginning of  this week it more resembled the Somme than a woodland glade both for the amount of mud and the depth of some of the craters they dug.

P1030425Even the pig ark was starting to take some damage. Not sure it would have taken much more abuse and we plan some reinforcements for the next inhabitants. Yes, I made the ark from some local larch and logs after advice from Graham (of Wildcroft rare breed farm in Puttenham where we got the pigs) that wooden arks are expensive to buy and they quickly get chewed and damaged so we thought we might as well make our own.

P1030455The Oxford Sandy and Black (OSB) is a traditional rare breed which is known for being placid and easy to keep. Good for first time keepers like us. It’s also  renowned for the quality of the meat making good pork and bacon as well – and let’s face it – this is all about the meat in the end no matter how cute they might be. This one was known as crackle (short for crackling) has the lop ears.

P1030454His brother Scratch (yes it’s short for Scratchings) had lop ears when he arrived but somewhere along the line developed a habit of waving his ears out horizontally – and acquired the optional name of Yoda because he did that thing with his ears.

P1030472We enjoyed their company and took a lot of pleasure from their inquisitive, gentle and always funloving natures but they are big boys now and it’s time to take them to market or in our case to Southern Traditional Meats near Henfield in West Sussex.

P1030476We wanted the final journey to be as stress free for the pigs – if not us – as we could make it. It’s a 30 mile journey and we needed to be sure that they would be comfortable in the trailer – and that we could get them into the trailer having little or no experience of this and having heard many horror stories of spending hours trying to get pigs into trailers. So we fed them in the trailer a couple of times before kitting it out with bedding and a water bucket for their journey.

This was always going to be the hardest part of the job. Alison has done all the hard work of the stock-keeping and has been the closest to the pigs so that makes it all the harder. But as we both realised – if you can’t bear to grow your own meat how can you buy meat from a supermarket shelf when you have little or no idea how the animals were treated.

In the event the final journey went with no complaints (I think that’s got to be the best you can say really) and we were very pleased with the quiet and calm in the pens at the abbattoir which were all occupied by rare breed pigs. I think we gave them the most contented short life that they could have wished for. I like to think that this will show in the quality of the meat.

We’re just about to find out and I’m going to get to make some bacon………

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