Archive for the ‘Coppice crafts’ Category



I’m Back! Season’s Greetings & best wishes for the New Year wherever you are.

You may have noticed that I’ve been a bit behind with posts recently. It’s not for shortage of articles to write up, more a shortage of time and a major episode of writers block of some kind which involves staring at the screen and failing to post anything.

I’m even a little late posting this short greeting, but in this case I’ll make an excuse as we had a severe storm a couple of days ago and lost our power.

Christmas eve with the logburner and candles, no power, no lights, no TV, no radio, no internet and even the mobile network was down. We’d been planning to have a quiet Christmas, lucky really, as it looked as if it would be very quiet indeed.

Many of the houses in our lane still have open fires or woodburners so people weren’t getting too cold and with candlelights on in most houses it would have looked like a Christmas scene from a hundred years ago if it wasn’t for vehicles charging around trying to find the roads not blocked by floods or trees.  As the evening wore on Dave,a friend who lives up the lane, brought around some company and beer. I’d just begun to feel it was getting too late for the power to come back when suddenly the mobile phone signals returned, followed shortly afterwards by the power. The ‘real world’ returns.



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National Besom making competition? Well why not? This year at the Weald & Downland Open Air Museum’s Autumn Show we held the first Besom Broom making competition for many years (if indeed there has ever been one before). Certainly the other competitors and I are unaware of another one.

The idea sprang from a discussion with Jo Waters at the previous year’s show and the Weald & Downland Museum kindly agreed to sponsor the prizes for the event. As always it seemed a good idea at the time but as the show loomed I began to wonder if I’d taken on a little bit more than I could handle. Would anyone turn up? Would it work?

On the day we had a good collection of broom makers, or Broom-Squires as they are known in this neck of the woods, from Sussex and Hampshire and Terry Heard joined us from Dorset with his living van and great  setup for making besoms and tent pegs.

As you’d expect the world of Besom making has it’s own ways and we do like our tools, the roundshave being a rare tool that’s very much sought after for shaving the handles or tails of the brooms. On this occasion a visitor brought in an interesting roundshave for us to examine.

The Roundshave is a form of extreme curved drawknife and all the ones I’ve seen have been homemade using an old file or perhaps by the local blacksmith to suit each broomsquire.  The one on the left I was given some years ago by a friend who had it from his grandfather whereas the tool on the right, brought in by our visitor, is stamped A.Moss (a well known local firm of edge tool makers and blacksmiths) and as well being a fine example is the first Moss made roundshave that Alan, Dave or I had seen. Despite being offered a reasonable sum our visitor declined to sell!

Chris Letchford puts the finishing touches to his besom in the competition-almost ready for the flight testing. Chris took on the competition having only learnt to make besoms 6 weeks earlier on my besom making course, and demonstrated all weekend – well done Chris, but we’ll expect a more traditional shelter for next year!

After some discussions we decided to run the competition purely on quality and gave everyone 30 minutes to make their broom. Justin Owen and Karen Barrett kindly offered to judge the brooms which were delivered to them anonymously by Julia. Which just leaves me to reveal the results…..

    Terry Heard                                           1st Winner

Chris Letchford                                    2nd place

                                      Alan Waters                                           3rd place (and fastest by far)

John Wescott                                        3rd Equal

Peter Jameson                                      3rd Equal

Mark Allery                                            3rd Equal

Confused? Well we decided to only award first and second places, but in the event the Judges decided that Alan’s broom was a more than equal 3rd as well as being the fastest.

Thank you to all who took part in what, with hindsight, we are calling the First National Besom Broom making competition, the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum for sponsoring our competition and particularly to the judges Justin, Karen and Julia who made it all work. Don’t miss next years 2nd national besom broom making competition – and I look forward to seeing you there!

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Normally my charcoal making site on Lynchmere Common is a quiet and solitary place with only the odd visitor to counter the sound of axe splitting wood (And my chainsaw of course).  But last week I had the pleasure of a visit from the South Downs Volunteer Ranger Service to learn Besom (Birch) broom making. The first task of the day was to make a couple of shave horses so as we worked out how best to start everyone off Dan plays the ancient game of ‘pass the beetle’ (a beetle is a simple heavy wooden mallet) to see who gets to cleeve the first log.

Making Besom (Birch) brooms is an old tradition on the Lynchmere Commons where birch scrub grows so fast on the poor heathland soil that if you blink it will turn to woodland whilst your eyes are shut.

The making of besoms helped to keep areas of the heath free, a process which today in many places is largely replaced by mechanisation and spraying chemicals – but I am very keen to see the birch as a useful crop in the local economy rather than a nuisance and weed, so making besom brooms is a way for people to learn how best to use all parts of the tree.

While making the shave horses and besoms is of course important, the day has to start with putting the kettle on and as you might notice there are not many photos without a mug of tea lurking somewhere – just like the landrover. The washing machine drum has been joined by my recently rebuilt barrow, an old builders barrow rescued from a skip and very simply rebuilt for a new lease of life carrying brushwood to fuel the kettle.

A hive of industry as the two new shave horses take shape accompanied by the inevitable cups of tea.

With the new shave horses ready for use we switched to making besoms, first learning to select the material to build up the heads of the brooms as I demonstrate by making one from bales of birch gathered on the commons in the last winter season and stored in the dry and dark to keep the material from becoming brittle and going rotten.

Jean and Arthur put the new skill touse building their own heads and in the background are the birch poles selected to make the tails 0r handles of the besoms.

While Stephen takes the more comfort oriented route to finishing the head, once complete I use a leather belt to holt the bundle of birch tight enough while the wire bonds are placed around the head.

The last job is to bang the shaved and pointed tail into the bound head. These besoms should be good for a few years of use provided that the birch has been selected, cut at the right time of year and then stored well.

I have been told that for the first year the fresh broom with its long lead would be used to sweep the dew from the lawns (preventing the lord and lady getting their feet and long dresses wet I suppose), the next year for sweeping up leaves, the third in the yard, by the fourth it would be short enough for sweeping out the parlours and the fifth year with just the stubs left would be ideal for sweeping snow from the paths. Then it’s perfect fire lighting material and so the cycle would start again.

Before putting the besoms to good use, which seems to involve beating off the encroaching photographers more than it does sweeping the dew from the lawn. A nice collection of besoms resulted from the day – which I think says more about the aptitude of those taking part than it does my ability to transfer the skills.




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One thing that I like about working in the woods is that it does take me to some interesting places, many of which are just around the corner but otherwise you wouldn’t have a reason to go there. I had the usual busy day planned yesterday until Frank rang and my plans changed. He needed a hand, or more accurately a landrover,  hauling some long chestnut poles from a coppice on the side of the Devil’s Punchbowl over a mile from the nearest access point to the waiting truck.

Chestnut coppice is cut on a long cycle, typically between 12 and 20years and the regrowth shoots from the stumps, known as stools, so that the cycle can begin again. This coppice is ready to be cut again though only a small area has been cleared so far.  This cycle of clearing, removing and allowing wildflowers to pop up whilst the regrowth starts again is important in managing the woods, not just for providing sustainable timber products but also in providing an excellent habitat in the woods for plenty of wildlife.

It’s the first time I’ve been in the punchbowl since the A3 was rerouted and it has changed enormously since the tunnel opened last year. You can still see the route of the old road on the other side of the valley but the matting it’s clad in to prevent erosion will soon disappear under new growth and it will be hard to remember what it used to be like. Strange to be there without the ever present drone of traffic in the background, it makes the birdsong seem unnaturally load.

The Devil’s Punchbowl is an amazing local feature, a steep sided natural amphitheature which cuts into the side of the adjoining Hindhead common. Easy to forget you are still on the borders of Surrey when you are lost in the bottom of the valley and more understandable when you learn that Hindhead common reaches 900feet in altitude. If you do get lost you’ll be in good company as William Cobbett hired a guide and still managed to get lost in the Punchbowl.

On the steep sides of the Punchbowl the Bell Heather is starting to flower and there will be a continuous display on the local heaths through to mid September another reminder that the seasons are changing relentlessly even if the weather we are experiencing this week makes it hard to rememeber just where we are. Only a week ago it was still pouring with rain and now we have a mini-heatwave.

The main poles Frank was extracting are for a roundwood workshop build he is planning – I think they’ll be just the job and I look forward to seeing how he gets on with the build. Not huge loads, more of a challenge to balance the 16ft lengths for the haul up the track to the top of the Punchbowl.

Puff the Magic Landrover coped well with the +30 degrees C temperatures and the long climb, and after a bigger load of shorted poles we’d filled the truck and finished the job. Great to be able to visit the punchbowl again and a pleasure to help out. Frank has given me some ideas for working with roundwood chestnut on my own shedbuild which is only 3 years behind schedule now.

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Over recent years we’ve become accustomed to blistering heat and endless sunshine at the Sussex and Surrey Coppice Group open weekend, our annual get together where members and guests have a chance to try different skills and swap ideas for new products and generally chat, not to mention buy something you really didn’t know you needed at the Tool Auction.

As for the last 3  years the event was held in Fernhurst at the site of the old Fernhurst Iron Furnace and hosted by Robin Barnes. The weather forecast for this year predicted it would be different this time so we turned up prepared for bad weather – and we weren’t disappointed! I was reminded of Dwayne, one of the cutters on the TV show Ax-men, who in an Oregon downpour in which he just about disappeared he pronounced it ‘A DandyDay!’ and got on with felling the trees. I tend to use the phrase to describe drenched days working in the woods.

To start off the going on the field was fairly firm, but as the downpours continued  eventually there was as much water on the surface as grass, walking on water definitely an advantage and we did give up on the open campfire  – but did that put us off?

Not much, though it was a more select gathering than usually attends and thats not a huge surprise under the circumstances. The rubbish in the foreground is not flood debris it’s the annual attempt to pass off unwanted items to other members loosely known as an auction.

The point of the day is not just for members to demonstrate their skills – we do that at shows throughout the season – but for members to join in and try out some new crafts. Ian Swain was putting new handles on old tools – something that lots of us do on occasion but it’s good to watch a master at work and there is always more to learn and I was keen to have a go but unfortunately too busy setting up for the auction. Next time Ian!

Tony Lucas was a welcome new face at the gathering this year coming over from near Lewes with his fine Landrover 110 – oh and some fine chairs as well. The steam chamber on the table was powered by a small boiler over an open fire, a neat little setup for demonstrating steam bending in the middle of a wet field.

As you’d expect with the Coppice Group there were a fair few old landrovers around and John Sinclair demonstrates a surprisingly deft touch with his Series III. Will he convert Stuart’s Golf to a rear engine model, or gently assist him to leave the field?

Piping hot food (and more than a little local beer and cider) always helps to keep out the rain and The Men in Hats aka Dave and Ritchie did a great job in cooking up the venison – I’ve left out the photos of the butchery you’ll be pleased to hear – and the rest of the local meat feast.

Fresh from his success with his magic goblet machine Roger’s been working on a setup for shaping spoons and utensils on a repeatable basis. It’s based upon a small stock knife (similar to a drawknife in size) which is anchored at one end on a modified bench with a series of steps in it to assist the cuts with the knife on the blank.

Unlike a normal spoon making process the bowl is carved first using a large gouge and then the form is cut swiftly and accurately around it with the stocknife.

Very interesting approach to making utensils. As you can see it knocks out butter knives/letter openers very easily just using the stocknife. Roger’s aim was to investigate a simple and consistent approach to making utensils which increases speed whilst retaining acceptable quality, allowing a lower cost item made from sustainable products. I think he’s got something here and I’m tempted to try something similar for making spatulas.

Though I was busy around the site the polelathe proved popular with people trying it out through the day. Here Rick gives it a go for the first time and as he’s soon to be on his way back to New Zealand – perhaps there’ll be an NZ branch of the APT before too long.

The auction was big hit and with a massive 70 lots to get through Peter Jameson excelled himself and just about managed to keep his voice. The porters were the stars of the show and Roger prooved to be quite a performer as he gave us the background to each of the chainsaw sculptures he’d entered into the auction. I think both buyers and sellers seemed happy with the event and by something approaching a miracle the rain just about held off for the time it took to flog the lot.

I fully intended to buy nothing and one again I failed miserably and returned home with the usual assortment of odds and sods, but more sods than odds I suspect. I was tempted by this intriguing tool, but as Dave seemed keen on it I thought it would have a fine home and resisted the temptation to bid it up. Can you see what it is yet? And why does it have two hooks on it?

Ritchie’s roundhouse become the centre of activities and allowed us to keep the fire on once we’d abandoned the campfire outside. But even inside  it turned in a sea of mud but at least we stayed afloat in the roundhouse just.

As I’ve had a few complaints about the lack of Landrover content recently, here is a gratuitous photo from the weekend where Landrovers outnumbered other vehicles to the extent that you could be forgiven for thinking it was actually a Landrover rally!

The water pouring through the grate and into the spillway of the old furnace in the woods below the fields gives you some idea of the amount of water trying to leave the site. Never mind – I think a good time was had by all.  Back to the usual heatwave for next year?

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During our recent cold snap the temperature reached -16C overnight, a very cold snap indeed for us in the south of England, and in the shed in the morning it was still -10C so a bit too cold for turning on the polelathe. Time to build up the fires inside and the quality of the firewood makes quite a difference to the ability to keep the house warm when its that cold.

I’ve found that the choice of  firewood for the coldest part of the year is well worth putting some thought into.  In recent years I’ve taken to putting aside some of my driest best firewood for the cold snaps when they come.

My mother was a talented caligrapher and some years ago she sent me a version of the old poem ‘Wood for Burning’  – and there is no smoke without a fire as they say – it’s as a good a guide to choosing your firewood as you can get, so here is her version again in case you missed it last time around.

(Caligraphy – Olive Allery 1928-2011)

All wood will burn and per Kg they all give about the same heat, but everyone has their favourite firewood.  Oak, Beech and Hawthorn are common favourites but why is Ash said to be the best?

I think the answer lies in the density and moisture content of the wood. The denser the wood the more heat it can release when it burns but in my experience the densest timbers can take years to season. When you try to burn them the high density of the wood slows the burning process down and if they still have too high a moisture content they burn even more slowly and don’t provide enough heat.

The obvious solution is to split and dry your firewood in the sun then store undercover for some years until you need it. That’s fine, but not everyone has enough Oak woodland or a barn for a log store to enable firewood to be stored for years in advance to season and dry. Knowing which woods will need less seasoning and can even be burnt green can be key to keeping warmer in the winter.

Winter felled Ash is relatively low in moisture content in comparison with other woods and it’s medium density open grain means it will dry faster than the denser woods – hence the references in the poem to burning ash wet or green.  Also it tends to grow straight grained, is easy to chop and split and it doesn’t smell bad on the fire so it comes out as a good all round compromise.

Mind you, I don’t get a lot of spare Ash – it’s too good for turning on the polelathe, so my favourite logs to burn are a combination of Birch with Oak or Beech. The Birch starts the fire and burns very hot and fast, when mixed with Oak or Beech the fire burns both long and hot. Oh and Birch does smell good on the fire as well!


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I’ve been a little distracted of late and you will have noticed I’ve not been posting as much. Sadly my mother died suddenly just before Christmas and I’ve not had much time for posting on the blog as a result. Normal service will be resumed eventually and I will shortly post something appropriate, as if you ever received one of her hand crafted cards, you will know she was quite a talented caligrapher. Meanwhilst the seasons don’t wait and if I don’t get the birch cut soon it will be too late, particularly with the warm weather we’ve had.

On sunday we had a good sized group of Volunteers working on the commons and managed to clear through a patch of birch which yielded plenty of peasticks and few good beanpoles. I even managed to persuade our more enthusiastic burners not to burn them all.

We joined up with some of the Allotmenteers from the nearby Shottermill Ponds allotments so plenty of beanpoles and pea-sticks were taken away but there were still some left for me as well.

I particularly like this way of working on the heathland as it is a living landscape and this is the way it was created and has been managed as commonland for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Completely sustainable, it provides exercise and a sense of connection and continuity with the environment – and it might just have avoided the import of the odd bundle of bamboo or even worse, plastic poles. Not saved a shipload, or even a container load yet – but every little counts as they say!

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