Archive for November, 2008

Wood for Burning

The weather is dismal as usual. Cold and wet. But our wood burning stove brightens things up and it’s better for watching than the TV. Almost as good as the bird table.

The price of fossil fuel is making log fires more popular and I can smell wood smoke up and down our lane these days. I’ve heard that there is a long waiting list for installation of wood burners by the local firms.

There must be an increase in demand for firewood locally, although I’ve not heard of any happy firewood merchants – but then that’s probably a contradiction in terms. I have noticed more people asking me if I’ve any old wood lying around. It seems that we are still scavanging our firewood in the traditional way.

There are several versions around of an old poem about firewood. The one I’ve posted here was sent to me by my mum (her excellent calligraphy) some years ago and there’s a lot of truth in it.

Just about any wood will burn, but they all have different characteristics. The age and moisture content has a huge effect upon the quality of the fire. Some wood needs to be seasoned for quite a while, sweet chestnut for example, before it makes good firewood. Other woods, like birch, don’t last well and are best dried and burnt within a year.

The most popular firewoods around here are Ash, Oak, Beech and Birch. Though a few burn Pine. We burn a lot of birchwood, otherwise it would go to waste. It’s very good firewood almost immediately and its excellent as long as its dried. Unlike many denser hardwoods it doesn’t need to be seasoned. In fact if you do leave it outside for a season it will probably be past its prime already. As the poem says it will burn hot and fast, so we mix it with some oak and beech when we can.

It’s best to burn firewood with the lowest possible moisture content as the combination of the volatiles in the wood and the steam will create creosote in your chimney given half a chance. We stack our firewood in shelters down the side of the house and try to bring it in at least a day and preferably two before we will burn it so that it can dry as much as possible.


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Now and then I do find old bottles on the commons. Perhaps discarded by woodsmen of years ago, but more likely the residue of youngsters playing in the woods in decades past.

There are a couple of places where I regularly find old bottles and jars from before the days of branding or screw tops. They are a lot heavier than today’s glass bottles and jars. To prevent them becoming a danger to people or grazing animals I tend to pick them up and add them to the recycling, unless they are particularly old or interesting, when I might keep or reuse them.

Whilst removing an oak bough from the fenceline this week I found a number of interesting old bottles and jars. It’s clear that these are part of old dumps for farm refuse, or middens, dating back to before regular collections were made.

How old they are I don’t yet know. What’s coming to light at the moment is mainly from the mid 20th century (I think).

One I particularly like is labelled ‘genuine malt vinegar’ and seems to have been a corked bottle. the rest are an assortment of preserve and pickle jars and some for paste (I think these are from Shippams, a Chichester firm). As always there are some that mystify me.

Not really worth calling the Time Team yet. But as deeper items come to light I remain hopeful of older finds, perhaps cider flagons or earthenware jars, we shall see. There was a bronze age burial found very close to the commons, so I shan’t stop looking – who knows what I might find?

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Chainsaw Massacre

Sadly, quite a few trees were harmed in the taking of these photos!

My polelathe turning and greenwood working has been held up partly by the weather, but also because at short notice I’ve spent most of the last 2 weeks teaching chainsaw and tree felling for a local college. This comprises organised chaos as 2 trainers try to teach upto a dozen young students safe use of a chainsaw, field maintenance and the finer points of felling and cutting up trees.

The site we’ve been working at is a large pine plantation on the Surrey borders (between Frensham and Hindhead). Counting the tree rings this Scots Pine was planted about 60 years ago when it was popular to create these dank dismal conifer woods in the belief that it would lead to an efficient intensive forestry industry rather like intensive agriculture. You may notice I am slightly biased in my view of how we manage our environment.

There is a popular myth that much of Englands woodlands disappeared during the first half of the 20th century as a result of timber needs during the wars. But figures show (Oliver Rackham, Woodlands, 2006) that despite the great felling woodland increased as grazing and cultivation ceased during the depression and the creation of the Forestry Commission led to mass planting of conifers.

Sadly much ancient woodland and rare habit was destroyed to further this mistaken belief in the creation of plantations with little or no concern for the environment, or our traditions of woodland management over the centuries. This site is gradually being returned to a mixture of lowland heath and more open natural woodland which will be more beneficial to the environment, for wildlife and, if managed well, for wood from native tree species. For those who don’t associate Surrey with large pine plantations and lowland heaths here is a photo of the restored heathland.

Once I’ve recovered from the overdose of training it will be full speed ahead with green woodwork and also some much overdue landrover maintenance, with much to get done before Christmas arrives.

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We have 4 apple trees squeezed into our tiny garden. The youngest of which is an Howgate Wonder which is now starting to produce a crop of large (easily over 6 inch) red apples which can stay on the tree until December.

Originating from the Isle of Wight in 1915 the Howgate Wonder is normally described as a cooking apple. But if you like a cooking apple which is inedible raw and rapidly cooks down to a mush, the Howgate Wonder would be a disappointment for you. In fact its a very versatile apple, initially a cooker, by November its also a good eater and when cooked it holds its shape well, something that I prefer. Apparently it also juices well, although we’ve not had enough to try it yet. But I did add a couple to the perry I made last year. The apples withstand frost and stay on the tree well after everything else has fallen, they are good keepers right through the winter.

The only problem with leaving them on the tree is that they get noticed. They catch the attention of lots of our neighbours, who regularly ask me ‘What are the enormous apples’ and before long the birds are also tucking into a feast. I’ve taken all of the apples off the tree now because we have one blackbird that’s making the apples a regular treat. But I’ve left one for the birds.

We now have a crate of apples stored in a vegbox crate individually wrapped in newspaper, which means that I can make my favourite apple crumble whenever I like.

My favourite recipe is a double crumble! I use about 200g plain flour, 150g soft brown sugar and 150g of butter(warm) that I mix with my fingers (add a teaspoon of cinnamon if you like). Core, peel and roughly chop one large or two smaller apples, place in a pie dish, add a handful of raisins if you like and sprinkle the crumble mix on top. Adjust the amount of apple or crumble mix you use to suit your dish. Cook for around 30minutes at about gasmark 6ish and enjoy. Definitely comfort food and good for breakfast as well!

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Birch Attack!

Somebody once told me that trees are best stored standing up. It’s a philosophy that I aspire to and it suits me as I like trees and I like to work with the wood, so I try to only take as much as I need.

I’ve had my eye on a birch tree right behind my wood stack for a couple of years. It’s the one in the centre of the photo. It’s straight which will be good for turning, but it’s days are numbered as it shows signs of being aggressively attacked by a range of fungi. This might be a bonus if the rot has spread inside the wood leaving interesting colours and textures. So I’ve left it standing until I need it and for the rot to spread, until its not safe to leave it standing any longer.

Last week I decided the rot had spread too far and as it would not see out another season I felled it. Attacked by fungi and now by the chainsaw the tree swiftly succumbed. At firts sight it looks as if the fungi have infected the whole tree and I stand a chance of getting some interesting wood from it. I will post on the wood when I use it in the next few weeks.

You can see from the stump and the butt that the rot has spread to about 80% of the wood at the base of the tree. With no branches at the top its windage was reduced but with so little sound wood it could have fallen at any time in a strong wind.

The rectangular area of torn fibres on the stump is called a hinge. It’s used in felling trees to accurately control the direction the tree is felled, which can only fall in the line of least resistance, or at 90 degrees to the long sides of the rectangle. This is a good example – which is just as well as I am teaching it at the moment!

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Could this be the World’s first centrally heated firewood stack?No I’ve not gone mad. At least I don’t think I’m any worse than usual. But my firewood is a lot worse. It’s still quite damp. Partly due to the consistently damp weather but also because I don’t have anywhere under cover for a large stack of firewood.

At this time of year its too late to build a firewood stack outdoors – especially with birch – it won’t dry out and will quickly go mouldy.

We use firewood to heat our house during the winter so we can get through a lot of firewood. There is an open fire in the lounge although we only use it occasionally and a wood burner (hunter herald) in the front room which I light every morning and every evening.

I want the firewood to be as dry as possible before I burn it to limit the amount of tar deposited in the chimney. So as an experiment I decided to stack some damp firewood around an old oil drum too full of holes to be used as a charcoal bin. Then I lit a fire in the bin as I normally would do to make charcoal.

This seemed to work quite well and I left the wood to dry whilst getting on with other things. Then it occurred to me that I could probably complete the stack and cover over the top. This worked surprisingly well and although I didn’t leave it for long enough it was driving off all of the moisture in the wood, as well as in my gloves, strops and ropes that I piled on top for good measure.

The only disadvantage I’ve discovered so far is a slight smokey smell to the wood for a couple of days following the drying process. I piled beech and oak over the top as birch is much lighter and would have smouldered and probably caught fire.

By the time I had loaded the landrover with smokey but warm firewood it was dark. The full moon came out briefly just as it rose through the trees.

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Warning this post contains explicit pole lathe material.

I don’t think you can have good vibrations on a pole lathe and mine have been particularly bad recently.

One problem with the single bed design is that its very light. Very convenient for carrying around, but its quite prone to all sorts of shake, rattle and roll as you work.

One consequence of the design can be chattering, which is a bouncing of the chisel over the wood as you turn, making a good finish hard to achieve. The first image shows a bad case. This seems to build up, starting as a slight iregularity and then growung until the chisel bounces over the wood.

Now the shows are over I’ve switched to using the lathe in the shed a lot but I’ve been finding it hard going. Sometime this summer I took it off its legs and fixed it to a couple of upright timbers. I found it very difficult to get a good finish, well, any finish at all. I’ve been forced to work slowly with a light use of the finishing chisel (I use a 2 inch skew chisel for both detail and finishing).

At first I thought I was using a blunt tool and spent some time giving it a good honing. For this I use a 1200grit and then a 4000grit waterstone – for a quick hone I would just use the 4000grit waterstone.

Finally, I noticed that the lathe was bouncing more than usual and then I realised that one of the uprights was actually vibrating like a bow. I can’t imagine why I didn’t notice it earlier, but it is possible that it’s developed over the summer and only very recently affected the work. It’s about a 2 1/2inch by 6 inch lump of pine and looks solid but I’d used it so that I could bolt through the 2inch side and not the strength of the 6 inch face

As usual I had little time, being late in preparations for a Christmas market. But the problem was so severe that I could not even finish a rolling pin to my satisfaction. This forced me to take down the upright, turn it through 90 degrees and cut some proper joints so that its now more stable. The joints were tight enough that I used a mallet to force the upright and lathe bed into position with hardwood wedges. I’ve not needed to put any bolts in yet.

What a difference it makes! I can use a lot more power without the lathe starting to chatter, and the likelihood of the chisel digging in is much reduced.

I was getting very depressed with my turning. Partly its the weather, the cold and the dark. The shed I use is very convenient being just over the road, but its an old cart shed with an open front. Now I am re-energised and planning to do a lot of work on the lathe in the coming weeks.

The neat coathook on the beam is courtesy of my nephew Christopher who has been listening to Robin Wood too much and is now lecturing us on how to use a knife!

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