Archive for the ‘Craft’ Category


Yes, the polelathe has been out and about. I know there is a lot of catching up to do since I last posted. It’s been a busy summer seasons of shows, demonstrations, courses and competitions and with plenty of work on the commons to fit in.

As if that wasn’t enough there have been additional projects, some planned and some unplanned. I won’t bore you with the details (not right now anyway) but I’ve also been emptying my parents old house in Somerset as my Dad has Alzheimer’s and we recently managed to get him into to a specialist nursing home near Taunton.

Verging on too much information I know, but it’s not left a lot of mental effort for posting articles and I am still finding more forms to fill in and letters to write  – never my strong point! But here is a flavour of some of the antics this summer that I need to catch on……

DSCF9522Unplanned project no1 – my trusty old 1960 brown landrover – aka ‘The Beast’ – started making unfamiliar noises, as opposed to the cacphony of familiar noises so comforting to old landrover owners. To cut a long story short ’twas the 54year old water pump and with this old engine sourcing the parts and repairing the old pump took the best part of a couple of weeks right in the middle of the season. Just when you don’t have a couple of weeks!


I do like a Green Man. I’d almost forgotten passing some green Birch rounds onto Tony but when he came up to Lynchmere for a Scythe (Oh, oh the S-word is creeping in again already) training course he brought up one of his carvings and I really like it.

DSCF9586One of the big projects I set myself this year has been to learn to make and steam bend traditional English Scythe handles 0r Snathes as they are called around here. First get yourself a nice long straight Ash log and then cleave it.

DSCF9551I’ve been planning to rebuild the garden shed for some years now – I’m embarrassed to work out just how long it’s been waiting – but this is not the garden shed. It’s a shed for a new project – Project Pig Palace.  We could have gone and bought a conventional ark – but no! I knew of some convenient larch logs and it seemed a shame to waste them!

DSCF9893-001All you need for a new Pig Palace is …….Pigs. These two young Oxford Sandy and Blacks flew in from Wildcroft Rare Breeds  just south of the aptly named Hog’s Back  on the North Downs about 10miles north of us.

DSCF9718I seem to be running more courses each year and they are proving very popular, though I do find teaching is hard work and quite stressful. At this year’s polelathe improvers course Dave came with the objective of turning a bowl – and after plenty of hard work he succeeded in making a lovely little bowl.

DSCF9112Back on the commons the bracken just would not stop growing. I drafted in help from Lowell and Christopher (my nephew) here towing the bracken roller with Peter my old Massey Ferguson 135.

DSCF8193All of a sudden the season is marching onwards and it’s never too early to start splitting and stacking the firewood. This year I started around May so the firewood is better than ever – and this winter I shall be splitting and stacking for next winter, which is the way it should be. Famous last words!

DSCF9910We did make hay whilst the sun shone. This photo might surprise those of you who expected to see a team of mowers with scythes but we did the 10acre meadow with modern tractors. Besides I’ve posted on not much but scythes this year so on this post I’m trying to redress the balance a bit.

We had a lot of sunny days in July and August this year – but also lots of rainy ones and never enough sun so we made hay in September. A very different experience to be sitting in a modern tractor and rowing up the whole field in a couple of hours – I felt very lazy!

DSCF9986And then the apples arrived! Early this year, with one of my trees, the Tom Putt, almost bare by the end of August. In September I only managed to press a few gallons of juice from my apples and friends contributions – just as well as time was severely limited. But I have a cunning plan for a late pressing in the next couple of weeks.

DSCF9509Last time I posted on Puff the magic landrover it was just a chassis even if a very shiny one. Living up to his ‘now you see it – now you don’t reputation’.  This falls into the category of Project forced by necessity.  With no space and no time having a landrover in pieces to jam up the yard is not healthy and after a frantic burst of activity Puff was back on the road.  Puff passed the MOT with flying colours and was promptly put to work clearing more of the fallen trees.

DSCF0838Turned out to be Just in Time. As one landrover leaves intensive care the next one enters. Having been put to work on the commons whilst Puff was being ‘Puffed-Up’,  Georgina the green landrover (surely all your cars have names don’t they? I find it so much more satisfactory swearing at and occasionally kicking a car with a name rather than ‘it’) suffered a badly cracked chassis – probably caused by a tree stump hidden in the mud. With Puff back on the road and little time to spare Georgina has taken a bit of a back seat this summer, but she is recovering slowly but surely.


A few weeks ago I visited my parents house in Wells, Somerset for the last time. Over the summer we’ve been emptying the house and finding new homes for the stuff accumulated over 35 years – on a rainy day we took out the very last loads leaving the house empty. It felt strange to be leaving the keys in the house and locking myself out, not just from the house, but from the last tangible link with a county thats been a part of my life since I was born. As if to say ‘Au Revoir’ the clouds parted to give one last typical sunset across the Somerset levels to Glastonbury Tor.

Thats just a small taste of things to catch up on – there will be plenty of work over the winter to post articles  and I will catch up in more detail soon.


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‘I wonder if you could repair my garden table?’  That’s how the conversation started, and I agreed to take a look at the table. As you can see, it’s seen better days. Under normal circumstances this table is barely firewood mainly compost.

Sometimes you get attached to a particular piece, a bit like a fire it helps to instill a sense of place. I guessed this table was like that so I agreed to build a new frame for the owner and see what if anything could be salvaged.

The first job was to make the posts and rungs, coppiced Sweet Chestnut in this case which stands a chance of lasting longer than the original hazel. Convenient size all round, 18 inch rungs, 14 inch posts, top rung (table top) at 12 inches and rung spacing of 3 inches and 6 inches between top and bottom rungs all around. Mortices cut with an augur bit and tenons turned on the polelathe (just in case I need to make another one).

New frame, original table top. Even managed to salvage a few of the original brass screws.

a coat of Linseed Oil (only the best local fresh pressed on the farm linseed oil!) and it’s a new bench. I have the feeling that this bench might become a bit like my favourite beetle (a large wooden mallet) which has only had 4 new heads and 3 new handles!

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With a lot of apples you need a big press or a lot of presses or both. At the New Forest Cider Pressing weekend on the New Forest Cider Farm in Burley we had both and the bonus of great weather over the weekend. This pile of apples ( and you are lucky you can’t smell it on the internet – ripe would be an understatement!) is Kingston Black, the holy grail of cidermakers. By the end of the weekend you’ll find you grow to quite like the smell of smoke and fermenting ripe apples, though it’s an acquired taste.

Despite taking part as a woodturner it won’t surprise you to know that the cidermaking is the major attraction for me. I had to work hard to finish pressing my own apples before leaving for the show.  So the weekend is a great opportunity to finish off the season by talking to more cidermakers than you are ever likely to see in one place, taking in some history and consuming plenty of the product – all in the pursuit of knowledge of course –  as well as turning a bit of wood. It’s more than a little bit indulgent, but in this article I’m going to look at the role that wood traditionally plays in pressing apples and I’ll save the greenwood part of the show for the next post.

There were several presses working over the weekend and all were either manually powered or assisted by steam engines. This steam driven press is trailer mounted and has a mill (or scratter) in the center with a press on either end so that one can be loaded whilst the other is pressing. A great example of the type of mobile press used in Hereford and Gloucestershire at the beginning of the 20th Century.

As you can see, though the metalwork is the key to the moving parts, the press itself is largely wooden – and for good reason – as the cider apple juice is very acidic and full of tannins so will corrode iron if it comes in contact. So wood is used for the press, the tray and originally for the troughs and barrels though plastic and stainless steel have largely taken over these days.

Even the tools would have been wooden – a good wooden shovel was in use on one press. Typically the apple pomace (shredded apple pieces the size of peas) are pressed in cheeses, formed in a wooden frame and held together with hessian, cloth or even straw, built up on top of each other to the capacity of the press before all being pressed together.

You can never have too many presses. Over recent decades many old cider presses have decayed outside or in barns and cider houses and with barn conversions, it’s not unusual for them to be discarded as the apples they used to process are left rotting or the trees are grubbed up. Often only the metal work will survive, so how do you restore a vintage press ?

Over the weekend a team of cidermakers, sawyers and carpenters showed us how to restore a big wooden press.  Here’s the wood in flatpack form, but you’ll need more than just an allen key to put it together. First up is the Stenner rack saw, again driven by a belt from a steam engine,  to convert the oak butt into the big beams needed to take the pressure of the press.

This is a twin screw press and the screws are mounted up through the base of the bottom beam. Even the metalwork is too heavy to move by hand, one screw is almost in and the other is offered up with the help of a telehandler.

With the screws mounted in the bottom beam the top beams await mortice drilling (by chainsaw) to fit onto the top of the press.

By Sunday afternoon the press takes shape. While the beams are persuaded onto the screws the racksaw is busy milling out the timber to make the tray and boards to operate the press.

A great idea to rebuild the press at the show – as all of the woody The press didn’t quite make it into operation by the end of the weekend, but it wasn’t far off and I found it a really interesting demonstration of the skills needed to make, and also to keep these presses in operation year in and year out.

There was a very similar press to the one being rebuilt that was in use over the weekend which I understand was itself restored about 20 or so years ago – though it certainly looks as if the woodwork is older.  It’s mounted on wheels and has a winch to assist in the raising of the top beams. So now you know how to do it there’s nothing to stop you making a press for next season?

Of course you might not want to start with such a big press, and that’s fine there are plenty of smaller presses around, or you can make your own to process the juice from spare apples from a couple of trees. The small fruit press and mill by Vigo are well made – though you pay a steep price and it’s not to hard to make up one yourself if you are so inclined. I started with a similar size of press but I soon built a bigger one though I am still (just) getting by on the Vigo scratter.

All too soon, apples pressed, cider drunk and even some wood turned – but that will have to wait for the next post – it was time to pack up and leave. A great weekend, lovely show and the very best of company – I’m very grateful that they all put up with me. I’ve learnt a lot and I can’t wait to do it again next year.

Before leaving Burley and fighting my way back to Sussex on the M27 I stop at Picket Post on top of the hill for a few minutes to take in the view and in the tranquility I enjoy the afterglow from the hard work of the weekend – not such a great sunset this year, but it’s become something of a tradition for me. 

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This is a long post so feel free to browse through the picture – or perhaps you’ll want to go and get a cup of coffee (or cider if it’s the right time of day) and soak up some of the atmosphere of the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum at its best with a tale of threshing, woodland crafts, some turning (but not much) and plenty of apples. The Autumn Countryside Show is one of my favourite events, a celebration of many of the things that mark out the rapid change in pace of the seasons and preparations for the long winter to come.

Some weeks ago the wheat on the museum fields was harvested, stooked and then stacked in a traditional rick ready for threshing.  With the weather looking changeable the threshing team started early, working hard through Friday and both days of the show to get all of the wheat threshed.

The wheat grown at the museum is a traditional long straw variety (triticale) with a much longer stem than a modern wheat variety which makes it useful for thatching straw. The threshing machine has an extra unit to sort and bundle the long straw so that the thatchers can store it whilst the shorter straws are discarded and baled.

I think it’s very unusual to see a threshing machine working all weekend and really rare to have two working at the same time. I particularly liked the way that Ben used one of the museum waggons as a part of the threshing display.

Normally I demonstrate on my own as I find two polelathes can be a bit of a crowd, but the Autumn show has always had wood at its heart and this year we decided to put on a bit of a show. No longer ‘Billy-no-mates’ I was joined by friends from the Sussex & Surrey Coppice, Hampshire  Coppice and the Polelathe turners and Greenwood Workers groups.  Thanks to everyone who turned up – it was a pleasure to work with you.

If you read the posts on this blog occasionally you’ll be no stranger to most of the talented greenwood workers who came to demonstrate at the show, so I won’t go through everyone even though they do deserve it for putting on such a great display. Thank you!

The traditional Chestnut lathes that Justin, Tony and Freddie make for many building projects were particularly appropriate to the museum and it was great to have them with us at this show.

First time at the show, Martin, Chris and Catherine aka ‘The Special Branch’ added some willow weaving activities for children.

Wot no pegs? The recipe section of the Horticultural Marquee needed pegs, so thanks to ‘the special branch’ we soon had it pegged with some simple but very effective twig pegs. Hardly a big issue, but it’s simple skills like this that are so rarely used today. It’s not that we can’t do it, virtually anyone can make pegs with a twig, a  knife and some wire, but we don’t respect these skills anylonger.

Melvyn made an impromptu appearance to make liggers for the day. And yes I did include this just so I could use the word ‘liggers’ which are the long thatching spars used at the top of the roof to bind the thatch together.

Alan Waters spoilt us all with an excellent freshly baked apple tart on Sunday morning. Thank you Alan! There will be more on the subject of apples at the show, but first…

The Hurdle Making Competition. A great event, which is fast becoming a fixture at the show, takes place on Sunday together with the (thatching) Spar making contest. Luckily the weather held up, though it was extremely windy on the Sunday during the competition.

This year somehow Rosie (Alan’s apprentice and responsible for keeping Alan in line) was persuaded to take part – not an easy thing to do, I remember the sheer terror of the first time I took part in a polelathe turning log-to-leg competition. Rosie managed to find a quiet spot at the back of the area and as she’s none to keen on cameras I had to pretend to be taking a photo of the tractors in the ring (OK so not much pretence needed  – a fine example of a field marshal by the way).

I am often asked if I make hurdles, somehow it’s seen as the epitomy of a rural craft, but as a woodturner I am well aware that it’s just one step too far for me, though stepping on it is something that Rosie demonstrates here with fine style.

At the other end of the competation area Robert (from Wiltshire) is getting there with his hurdle. He claims to be an amateur and amongst his many amateur skills Robert also makes fine cider and country wines, which we sampled over the weekend. A good opportunity to compare notes on apple milling and pressing.

All done. To my inexpert eye a fine example of a wattle hurdle. But the judging is tight and points are lost for using loppers and not having enough twists. Still as Rosie said, it didn’t come last!

Meanwhile back at the farm, up in the courtyard the apple mill and press are busy pressing something like a tonne of apples over the weekend.

We got to taste some of the product around the campfire in the evening, the two year old cider seemed to go down very well together with plenty of music and singing.

Most of the apples are from the West Dean estate adjacent to the museum though the apples from the museums own orchard are great traditional varieties.

Julian tells me that they managed to press about 80gallons of apple juice, and quite a lot of it was given away as samples but perhaps 70 gallons will be fermented on to make cider, which will be ready for drinking in a couple of years.

The show is very much an end of season marker for me, so as we packed up it was auspicious to have such a fine sunset, marking a great show with great friends, to say goodbye for a while and look forward to the coming season as we all return to the woods.

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It’s the First of September! How did that happen? As my friend Richard told me yesterday  ‘Autumn’s here’. I was on the verge of disagreement when I realised I couldn’t really argue. September is not summer.

The still mornings are noticeably cooler, even if the days haven’t changed. The evenings are drawing in rapidly and the harvests are all coming in – especially the fruit in the hedgerows and orchards. The trees at the Weald and Downland Museum are bursting with fruit. I’ve been steadily picking apples and collecting the windfalls at home. I’ll be pressing them in a couple of weeks time.

This is without doubt my favourite time of year, it’s a few short weeks if we are lucky but I wish it could last for months. Walking around the  Museum last week I noticed how good the autumn harvest of fruit is and for me this is another welcome sign of autumn as the unrelenting green of summer gives way to an explosion of fruit colours. The haws on the hawthorn bushes weighing down the branches.

Rosehips on the tree next door.  Rosehips are packed with vitamin C and are a very healthy fruit, but they need to be cooked to be edible (I think).  I found a great website with a recipe for apple and rosehip jelly here – The cottage smallholder.

The next bush was a blackthorn loaded with sloes. The fruit were slightly soft and ready to be picked though it’s still quite early for sloes. Sloe gin (or vodka) is still a popular use for these fruit, at least with me.

No hedgerow would be complete without an elderberry bush weighed down by it’s lush sprays of small dark juicy fruit which make an excellent country wine. I’ve also found they make an excellent red wine vinegar if the wine is not to your taste.  It is slightly amazing that enough flowers escape being picked for elderflower cordial and champagne to become fruit.

I’ve tried a couple of very good elderflower champagnes this year and I’m  a little worried that elderberries could become harder to find! Most elderberry bushes in my area are in field hedgerows which get cut mechanically each year by flail – another good reason for letting the hedgerows grow.

Another sign of Autumn is the steady preparation of firewood for the winter. The museum is well prepared for another cold winter thanks to the work of Jon Roberts in working the coppice and cutting and stacking the firewood. Last year I was caught out, too late with the firewood and a very cold winter meant the stove ran colder than usual just when I needed to be hotter.

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The traditional hay making season is almost over  but it’s brought with it a peak in demand for hay rakes this year and I’ve had a few orders to fulfill.

I’ve recently taken to using a giant pencil sharpener (otherwise known as a veritas tapered dowel cutter) to put a consistent taper on the end of the tines and it does make the rake look neater.

I’ve mainly been making the split handle style – which I call the ‘Sussex Rake’

But I do sometimes make the rake with the bow support which I call the ‘Dorset Style’.I was taught to nail the bow onto the handle, but I know that some people pass the bow through a hole drilled in the handle. I suspect that there are as many variations in style as there are rake makers!

Even though its very fresh cut the hazel hoop will rarely adopt the sharp radius needed for the hoop without breaking so some gentle persuasion is necessary, gradually working the bend into the wood bit by bit until after a few minutes it will take the curve without breaking. Of course you could steam it to achieve the same result as I do over my knee.

I enjoy making and using rakes. Over the coming year I’ll be experimenting with some adjusted designs more appropriate for garden use and also for bracken raking. There are few rake making workshops left in the country which might give the impression that wooden rake making is a dying craft. But I don’t believe so, around Sussex, Hampshire and Dorset there are plenty of rakes being made in a wide range of styles by woodsmen, coppice workers, greenwood workers and estate workers who hand make their rakes alongside other products and supply locally as they always have done. In my view the future of wooden rakes lies more with these woodland workers than in workshops. But then as a woodsman and a self confessed  jack-of-all-trades I am biased and banging my own drum here!

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The High Street is not my normal habitat these days. But I came  to see Mervyn Mewis’ excellent display of his woody creations at Godalming Museum ‘Out of the Woods’.

I rate Merv’s skills very highly and I think the combination of  Trees, Wood and Music is compelling.  The exhibition is a  great mix of  wood shapes and textures.  The natural shape, grain and character of the wood plays a big part in Merv’s work. Sadly I only had my phone camera with me so the photos leave a lot to be desired.

The exhibition will stay on at the Museum throughout August. If you are in the Godalming area don’t forget to take a look!  There will also be a range of activities and events (mainly Saturday’s) throughout the month based upon Mervyn’s Exhibition, trees, music and wood. Take a look at the museum website here for details – Godalming Museum – Out of the Woods Events.

But as well as a tree surgeon and woodworker Merv is also a talented Luthier and for me the instruments that Merv makes and plays are the icing on the cake. You may have seen or heard Merv playing them with Catherine as a duo – if not they will be playing in Godalming on Saturday 13th August (details on the museum website).  They are traditional instruments and you don’t get to see them very often let alone hear them played. I think this one is called a Bowed Psaltery?

The Hurdy Gurdy – I would love to have heard this one being played but unfortunately it was on display in the cabinet.

……..and the hammered dulcimer. Well done Merv an excellent exhibition. But the music didn’t end there because when I spoke to Merv the day before he reminded me to bring my guitar…..oh dear…..

Somehow on the way back to the station I found myself in the Star with Merv and the dulcimer, Catherine and the rest of the Monday evening folk session. As far as I can remember I’ve not played folk music anywhere other than around a campfire at a woody event before. So playing  in a pub with other musicians was quite an event for me – a real Coming out of the Woods for me as well.   They were very kind and tolerant to put up with me! I really do promise to do a little more practise, and if only I could remember all the words…….

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