Archive for February, 2011



I’ve been using my cherry mallet for several years, it’s one of the first greenwood tools that I made – you can see it’s had a lot of use by the patina on the end that passes for a handle whilst the head is battered but still intact. I’ve made a lot of mallets for others but since this one has lasted so well I’ve not got around to making one for myself, except for the odd rush job when I’ve left mine at home on the day.

I was given a length of 4 inch thick blackthorn in the autumn. Blackthorn has a reputation for being a hard wood and it’s interesting that Edlin in Woodland Crafts in Britain harks towards an old local industry when he tell us ‘It’s black barked knobbly trunk serves for cudgels or shillelaghs made in Surrey as well as in Ireland’.  Being quite unstraight I’m only going to be able to use short lengths and one thing I thought I’d make was a purpose made mallet, perhaps helping to restart a local tradition!


This ia mainly as an experiment as I’ve never turned blackthorn before and I’m not expecting it to be easy. Given the gnarly nature of the wood cleeving and turning the cleft seems like very hard work so I’m turning the wood in the round to maximise the size of the club.

For some reason when I started turning greenwood I got the impression that the wood will very likely split if it’s turned in the round. Recently I’ve noticed quite a lot of round branchwood, particularly hazel that doesn’t seem to split. So I’m going to be turning more wood in the round in future partly to find out what happens.


As predicted turning the dense grain was hard work, though once tamed it gives a lovely almost creamy smooth finish just from the chisel.

Certainly a mallet with a difference and I wouldn’t really want a normal one! I still have a couple of short lengths left and I’m tempted to turn another couple of mallets or perhaps I’ll try cleeving and turn a few priests. Any other ideas for blackthorn?


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I’m very pleased with the circular saw bench I managed to save from a journey to the dump, but I spoke a little bit too soon. Having figured out how to cut a useable (if not pretty) bowl blank on it the saw suddenly started to screetch loadly and run rough. Typical. I don’t really have the room for it anyway and the last thing I need is another heap of scrap iron in the shed! So it’s either fix it or it continues an interrupted journey to the dump.


With help from Richard but no manual we waded into the saw. I now know an awful lot more than I need to about it. It turns out to be an Elektra Beckum HS315  saw bench (now known I think as Metabo). In typical German fashion it’s simple, overengineered and painted that green colour. No not that Landrover green colour, but that German machinery green colour that just reeks of the right tool for the job.

Either the motor will be made to be dismantled or it will be throw it away time. Can you guess which one it was? Despite my misgivings the motor came apart really easily and the problem became clear.

Sitting in it’s previous shed the roof had leaked onto the table and then dripped down onto the spindle and the front motor bearing was Kaput – I think thats the correct technical term for this saw? The bearing was labelled and a couple of minutes on the internet secured me a replacement in the first class post for only £2.50 (a few dollars) much to my amazement. Thankyou the eponymously named  www.budgetbearings.co.uk you do what it says on the tin!


Luckily Richard has a hydraulic press which made extraction and replacement of the bearings an almost pleasant job and replaced a lot of swearwords and grazed knuckles.

None of those annoying brushes on this motor. The armature is a serious piece of engineering, I think it must have been designed for use on a railway engine or maybe its a spare from a Tiger tank! I can’t help thinking that if this saw bench had been designed and manufactured in England it would have been a different story. It would be mainly plastic, too complicated, impossible to take apart with all the bolts in hard to reach places and even worse to reassemble, and of course none of the spare parts would still be available (Landrovers being the exception that prove the rule) as it would have been replaced by one thats even more complicated and sealed for life.

Taking it apart gave me the opportunity to clean and grease it all up so now the adjustments are all working as well. So there is no such thing as a free saw, but at a total cost so far of under a fiver (excluding mine and Richard’s time of course ). I’m more than happy with the beast and there is an immense sense of satisfaction in returning a well made tool to service as its manufacturer intended, rather than throwing it away and more than a hint of rebellion against a society which regards it as desirable to waste so much. Not sure I’m upto darning my socks yet though – we’ll see!

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One of the most versatile greenwood working tools is the shavehorse and it’s one of the simplest. I’m often asked about making shave horses so here is my simple recipe – I hope it’s useful. Being a combination of stool, bench and clamp there are a multitude of designs and variations which doesn’t necessarily help decide which one to make. As it’s often the first piece of equipment you’ll build making it can be a bit intimidating. You’ll see a lot of horses which are engineering masterpieces or even works of art.  But you don’t have many tools yet so simplicity and availability of materials, I think, are key.

There are two main ways to keep it simple. One is to make the build from materials that are widely available and cheap to buy, and Mike Abbott has designed Champion the Lumberhorse entirely from lengths of 4×2 from the DIY store with this in mind. You can find Champion at this link.

The other way is to scrounge what you need, either from the skip, the hedgerow or the firewood pile (with appropriate permission of course) and that’s the way my shavehorses have been made. They are not things of great beauty, and like the apocryphal mallet they are still going strong despite having three new heads and four new handles!


I wrote about making this horse in April last year, you can find the article at this link – A Quick Horse. All you need to get going are a plank or cleft log about 4ft long and 10 inch or so diameter, some 2inch diameter branch for the legs and top/bottom of the clamp frame, some 3inch diameter, 30inch length branch for the sides of the frame and a short piece of flattish wood and a block for the bed (list of items repeated at the bottom). You don’t have to use all roundwood or all skipwood – feel free to mix and match.


I start by making the 3 legged bench. A 4 ft plank, in this case an old offcut, would have been great if it had been 4 ft 6inch – but 4ft was what I had. I’ve used a 3ft 6inch plank from a skip before now.

The back legs need to be splayed outwards and back for stability, something around 18 degrees is fine (standard angle for the back legs of chairs) but you can adjust for the height and stability you want for the horse. I have the bench/seat at around 20 inches off the ground with legs between 22 and 24inch in length – but you may want it higher or lower so cut legs to fit. Drill holes for the legs 1 inch or greater in diameter, whittle down the legs (knife, axe or drawknife) and keep trying until they fit snugly.

For the frame I cleft a 30inch length 3 inch diameter chestnut branch (the good part from an old fence post) but I’ve cleft Birch, Hazel and Ash for this job before now – just about anything will do. No need to use cleft wood if you have lengths of sawn timber to hand. This one used turned wooden top and bottom rungs. But you can start by taking two more lengths of the same branch wood as the legs and whittling tenons onto the end for a very tight fit (like the legs but tighter). You can nail, screw and glue if you are not confident of your work, but I leave mine loose and bang the frame back into shape occasionally with a mallet.

Very little about my horses are permanent. Even the components are temporary though the horse lingers on.  The legs (and if necessary the frame) dismount for transport the block is not secured and the beg is only lashed onto the bench. To assemble I use coachscews to fit the frame onto the bench.  You could use wooden pegs if you want. It’s best to mark off the height for the screws before drilling the frame – so that the bottom of the frame swings just clear of the ground. but with enough clearance to allow for soft ground and shaving piles. Remember that leverage is set by which the pivot is set and the more of the frame that is below the bench the greater the levearge exerted to clamp the work.

Finally fitting the angled bed onto the front of the horse – here an old pine offcut – often secured with a peg, bolt or hinge, but in this case bound with a length of rope after the hinge gave way. Angle of the bed is set by a simple offcut block or cleft of firewood. The beauty of making it from wood lying around is that it almost always possible to repair again when it breaks in the heat of the moment. Enjoy!

If you are a Shave horse addict or what to see more variations on the theme then try out this thread  Shave horse Pictures on the Bodgers Ask n’ answer forum where dozens of shave horses are displayed. There are also plans for a similar (but much prettier) horse to mine on the website here. And shave horse design will be a particular theme at this years Bodgers Ball in May. More details on the Bodgers website.

Here once again is the list of wood and items to be scrounged

Bench – 4ft or longer plank or cleft log of 10inch diameter.

Legs – 2 inch diameter 24 inch lengths or similar of suitable round branch wood

Frame – sides 30inch, 3inch diameter(approx) roundwood, top and bottom 2inch dia 18 inch lengths roundwood

Bed & block – offcuts to fit.

Misc – Two coach screws and a length of cord to assemble frame to bench and tie down the bed.

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Once a year Brian Rogers at Merrist Wood College invites me to teach polelathe turning to the students on the Practical Habitat Management course. Over the years this has been very successful and I do it out of interest to see how they get to grips with the greenwood rather than a love of teaching.

Every year there is someone who surprises me ( last year more than most!) and normally at least one student goes on to build their own horse and/or lathe. This year Zac seemed to have no trouble with the lathe, I think he’d got to this stage with his rounders bat cum truncheon before I’d even explained what a skew chisel is.

Brian started polelathing many years ago so his lathes have been around for a while. With Brian’s two lathes we can just about get 4 lathes running in the workshop as I take along a couple of the lightweight mike abbott designed polelathe 2000’s which are really good for using and then collapsing and throwing, sorry, storing in a corner until needed again.

Whilst at the other end of the workshop we axed and shaved away on the blanks very industriously. Is there something strange about that shave horse in the middle? Close up please……

I forgot to take a clearer photo – but yes the rear legs have collapsed and it’s bolted onto the remains of an old plastic chair instead! It’s been this way for at least a couple of years now and I’m expecting to see it again next year Brian!

Amongst the things that collapsed this year (I reckon that once Merrist Wood have hammered them – they are set for another year at least) was one of my treadles. It already had gaffer tape on it and I seem to remember it broke at Merrist Wood last year as well, but this year it’s picked up another bit of old fence post to keep it going.

Well done to all the Merrist Wood PHM students I hope you enjoyed the day and good luck with the rest of the course.

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What’s my beetle?

Somedays things just don’t go according to plan. I had a cunning plan to make a replacement oak gatepost using an oak log and my chainsaw mill. I had some suitable oak hidden away waiting to use and I’d used one of these logs to make a new bed for one of my lathes a few months ago. It was fine then.

Everything seemed to be going fine at first. Not perfect but good enough for a gate post.

Unfortunately the other side didn’t look anything like as good with enough rotten wood to make it unuseable as a post. I don’t think I’ve seen oak so badly rotted out before.

Getting suspicious I found this beastie hiding under the bark. My beetle knowledge is nonexistant so I’ve no idea what it is, anyone else any ideas? The only time I remember seeing anything similar was on a film, Alien perhaps?  I am assuming that the oak is bad news and I’m disposing of it just in case. Time for plan B.

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You are probably aware (if you live in the UK) that the Government proposal to dispose of the bulk of the Public Forest Estate has itself been disposed of. I really didn’t expect the government to cave in so quickly. Only last week I received a letter from my MP, in response to my concerns, attempting to reassure me that these would be addressed (not that it reassured me in the least).  The minister responsible was forced to eat humble pie and decided to confess saying ‘I’m sorry, we got it wrong’.

Now call me a cynic, but………..it seems that no one can quite get to the bottom of what the minister got wrong and is apologising for. What is the ‘it’ she refers to? Under intense questioning she refuses to say it was wrong to plan for the disposal of the public forests. I can only assume that what she really means is ‘It was wrong to try to do it this way’. That’s really not the same thing and it worries me, it’s a recipe for disaster, if the public think she is apologising for one thing whilst the politicians mean entirely another – though of course it has become rather the norm. Somehow, I fear, we have not heard the last of this.

Attempts to flog off something of long term value to pay for short term improvements (meaning before the next election) are nothing new. Our woodlands are generally amongst the first in the firing line as a fascinating programme on Radio 4 revealed earlier this week, The Long View, discussing the public revolt over Epping Forest in the 19th Century. You can still listen to it on-line for a few days at this link here


I suspect the real reason the disposal was abandoned so abruptly is quite simple, cash!  The disposal was conceived by civil servants and ministers as a way of balancing the books in a department facing a 30% cut in its budget. But with increasing promises of access and biodiversity in response to public alar,m the cost of regulating the disposed of forests started to increase whilst the likely sale receipts shrank as ministers started to talk warmly of ‘transferring’ and ‘leasing’ and of course the Big Society (or BS for short?).

It is not hard to see that the costs of the public consultation, increased regulation and the ‘cost’ of our access to these woods soon outstripped the probable receipts and bingo – disposal cancelled. Or is it? The 15% sale of some of the forest is currently ‘on hold’ and I wait with interest to hear what happens to this programme. Think ‘Yes Minister’ and I don’t think you will be far wrong!

Before I end this rant, let me return to the subject of the 30% cut in the DEFRA (Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) budget. If the civil servants aren’t allowed to flog off a few forests (yet) then you can be sure that they are even now looking to find savings elsewhere that will make our environment, food and rural affairs 30% cheaper overnight.

This is the department that brought us ‘naked jumping from filing cabinets’ and has paid £200million in fines to the EU over the last 5 years because it’s so bad at paying farmers. One thing is for sure. They have learned from their mistake and they won’t make it so easy for us to figure out what we are losing next time around! So if I was you I’d keep an eye on your beaches, footpaths, nature reserves, rivers and even your woodlands while Natural England is well on its way to becoming Homeopathic England. You might just see them getting cheaper in front of your eyes.

Disclosure – I am biased. All photographs in this article are taken on the Lynchmere Commons, a mixed woodland and heathland formerly in private ownership, but in  1998 was bought by The Lynchmere Society, a local community based charity http://www.thelynchmeresociety.org


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There is a saying in this country that firewood keeps you warm three times. You get warm when you cut it, warm when you split and stack it and then finally warm when you burn it.

That’s if you are really organised mind you. The more you end up moving it around the more often it keeps you warm, and in my case that’s probably more often than I would like!  In the clear and cold February winter sunshine the Silver Birch trees look great and I can understand  why I am always having to explain why we need to fell them.

Look at the base of the trees though and not all is well, with black fluid weeping from patches on the trunk and the bark coming away. Silver Birch is a fast growing tree and it’s life span is often only 60 to 80 years so these trees are getting towards the end of their lives. As well as suffering from old age, the poor acid soil of the commons may cause stress through lack of nutrients and especially water during the summer making the trees more vulnerable to disease.

One way or another a lot of the Birch are falling over and this winter we’ve cleared this fenceline of diseased, dead and dangerous trees. A change is always difficult and it looks a bit bald at the moment with the ground churned up but the increased light on the ground should help the flora regenerate from the seed bank, providing we can stay on top of the bracken of course.

There is only thing I hate more than cutting down trees and that’s wasting the wood. I’m not convinced by the idea of  loads of useful wood left as ‘habitat piles’ so we put a lot of effort into using as much of the wood as we can. Thanks go to Roy, Bear(Chris), Nic and Richard who helped to move out all of the useful timber, a good dozen tonnes or more, though being a grim day we didn’t really manage to stay very warm as we got more tired.

I’d left some of the Birch trees as poles. As part of an experiment Richard and I improvised a frame for the rear hydraulics and converted the tractor into a skidder to extract the poles. Not quite the same as as Axmen but after  a little fine tuning of ropes and cables the  rig performed well, easily hauling out 2 or 3 trees at a time. Quicker and more efficient it might be but the only problem with this approach is that you don’t keep as warm as lifting and shifting the cut logs!

There is a limit to the number of times that hauling logs around can warm you up. But a hot fire soon warmed me up again and a couple of baked potatoes were fine compensation for the cold work hauling out the last of the birch poles.

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