This blog is continued with older entries on my website's 'Latest News' page, where you can see projects and images going back to February 2009.

There's loads of images of my carvings and projects on the website, going right back to when I first started out carving. There are also, of course, a few stories. To see them or to return to the website, please click on this link

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Seventeenth century carvings, filming locations and stories of ghosts at Chavenage house in Gloucestershire

Chavenage House

Chavenage House is situated near Tetbury in the Cotswolds. It may seem familiar to some readers, as it's been used as a filming location for many films and television series, including being Trenwith house in the most recent adaptations of Winston Graham's Poldark novels.

The house has only been owned by two families since the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The approach that you can see above is very much as it was left by Edward Stephens in 1576.

Edward's grandson was Colonel Nathaniel Stephens, who was Member of Parliament for Gloucestershire during the English Civil War. He was a somewhat reluctant party to the execution of Charles the First and Oliver Cromwell is said to have stayed in the tapestry-lined bedroom which can be seen on the first floor in the wing on the left in the photo above.


Cromwell's bedroom at Chavenage House

The picture of Cromwell on the wall staring down at the bed is more than a little creepy, as is the tiepin on display set with two clear crystals that cover pieces of the hair of Charles the First, which were cut from his head after it had been chopped from his body.



The adjoining bedroom is named after Cromwell's general and son-in-law Henry Ireton. It is also lined with tapestries and is full of Civil War weapons and armour, including these firearms:


civil war firearms

There is also a leather hat cover hanging on a wall, over what looks to be an Elizabethan or early Stuart carved over mantle:



A chair in the corner of the Ireton room is said to have been sat in by Nathaniel Stephens himself.

civil war chair

The house, and the Cromwell room especially, have many ghost stories attached to them.  On the website for Chavenage, one can read the well-known tale of the curse of the Stephens family:

'After the cessation of hostilities whilst Charles I was imprisoned, it became apparent to Cromwell that the King would have to be executed in order to stop any form of Royalist uprisings. To this end he sent Ireton to Chavenage, to try to persuade Colonel Stephens to add his support to the regicide. Ireton arrived whilst Colonel Stephens was keeping the festival of Christmas in 1648. Stephens, known as a mild man, had shown much irresolution in deciding upon sacrificing the life of King Charles I and was on the verge of wavering when Ireton reached his destination. It is said that they sat up all night and eventually Ireton obtained from Stephens his very reluctant acquiescence. 

Shortly after his daughter Abigail returned from having passed the New Year elsewhere, she, in a fit of horror and anger, laid a curse on her father for bringing the name Stephens into such disrepute. The story goes that the Colonel was soon taken terminally ill and never rose from his bed again. When the Lord of the Manor died and all were assembled for his funeral, a hearse drew up at the door of the manor house driven by a headless man, and the Colonel was seen to rise from his coffin and enter the hearse after a profound reverence to the headless personage, who as he drove away assumed the shape of the martyr King, Charles I - this being regarded as retribution for the Colonel's disloyalty to the King. Thereafter until the line became extinct, whenever the head of the family died, the same ghost of the King appeared to carry him off.' 

The Cromwell room has even been exorcised on the orders of the present owner's grandmother. Did I see anything there? I'm afraid not, although I would say that that room felt noticeably colder than the rest of the house (but that could just be due to it being at the end of a wing).

More carvings can be seen in the Oak Room, which dates to Elizabethan times and has carved panelling that is often dated at 1590. However, it clearly shows the date 1627, which was during the reign of Charles the First.  

I think that the representations of the musicians and dancers are some of the most beautiful carvings that I have seen from this period.


wood carving charles the first

More seventeenth century carvings can be seen in the Great Hall, which was also originally Elizabethan but was modified during the Stuart period.


stuart wood carving


There are some fine character heads on the wall of the chapel that is attached to the house. Apparently, this tower was built as a folly in the seventeenth century before being turned into the chapel.

stone carved face


Another folly can also be seen to the left of the driveway, hidden in the trees.


folly

I was lucky enough to be shown around on this visit by a friend who has visited the house many times as a locations manager on productions such as Wolf Hall, New Worlds and Poldark. Thanks to Leon and also to Caroline Lowsley-Williams, the current manager who very kindly gave us access to see the fascinating history and carvings of Chavenage.





chavenage house

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Carving or painting? The emblem of the Hull City Tigers made using woodcarving techniques, wood bleach and stain

hull city tigers

This piece was commissioned as a surprise gift for some fans of the Hull City football (or soccer for readers in the US!) team.

At first, I considered carving the emblem in relief but felt that it would lose something if made too different from the two-dimensional version. The tiger was carved with a Dremel rotary tool and some traditional gouges instead. 

The Dremel gave texture to the fur and more definition to areas like the mouth.



It still didn't jump out enough, so I decided to use stain and bleach to 'paint' the design too. This would hopefully allow the oak timber to show through without covering it over, in the way that paint often can.

The stain was Colron dark oak. This is suitable for indoor use - many exterior dark oak stains such as 'Rustins quick dry' can be very thick and obscure wood grain details. I particularly liked the way that this stain could be painted over to give a deeper tone - similar to watercolour paints.

Next, the bleaching. There are several kinds of wood bleach on the market. Some (such as Liberon wood bleacher) are oxalic acid and are good for removing iron stain and watermarks from wood, but they don't actually lighten it much (if at all). 

Chlorine bleaches (as in domestic bleach) don't seem to do much to oak timber either.

I used Rustin's two part bleach. The two chemicals that are mixed in it are caustic soda and hydrogen peroxide - neither of them particularly friendly. If you use this stuff, read the advice on the label carefully and follow it! 

It certainly did lighten the wood nicely and didn't spread out too much either. If you'd like to try bleaching wood, there's some useful tips on the ukworkshop forum.


hull city emblem

A few coats of Danish oil to complete it and the plaque was finished!



Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Ancient and modern woodworking on the Somerset Levels

Somerset Levels Avalon Marshes

The Avalon Marshes are three nature reserves (Shapwick Heath, Westhay Moor and Ham Wall) on the Somerset Levels, not far from Glastonbury. The wetlands are formed from the remains of peat workings that have since filled with water to form a valuable habitat for many kinds of birds.


westhay moor


As part of new work at Westhay Moor, the Somerset Wildlife Trust had commissioned me to carve designs drawn by children at a local school onto two larch boards, each about 3 metres (8 feet) long.

First, I enlarged the drawings and reproduced them onto the boards using a grid.



Next, the designs were carved using a Dremel, a small drill which had a burr-shaped cutter mounted onto it. I have found that carving into some softwoods (like larch) using power tools can sometimes give a better result than using traditional hand tools, no matter how well-sharpened they are.



The designs were then painted in with durable black gloss paint and finished with a finishing oil.

Somerset woodcarving

While out at the site to deliver the boards to the Trust, we took the chance to explore a bit. 

Westhay Moor

The marshes were beautiful and quiet, with only a few dedicated bird watchers about. We heard a Cetti's warbler and saw a reed bunting; so we got in some birdwatching too. There were several carvings dotted about the marshes that were also interesting to see.





The sculpture shown below refers to the murmurations of starlings, which the reserves are famous for. In winter, millions of starlings roost here and on clear, cold evenings they swoop and swirl in great clouds over the reeds.


Starling murmuratio

While visiting Westhay Moor, I couldn't miss going to see a new bird hide that was designed and built by my friend Tom Redfern and his colleagues at Roundwood Design.


The two-storey hide is reached via a causeway and gives a great view out over a pool that is very popular with many different kinds of birds.


When you go inside, the roundwood framing that Tom specialises in becomes visible. I think you will agree that it looks great.

round wood timber framing

round wood design

Here's two photos taken by Tom showing how the hide looks with my boards fixed to it:




This area has also turned up many pieces of very important archaeology. The marshy, peaty ground preserves wooden artefacts well as the lack of oxygen prevents decomposition. 

The second oldest walkway ever discovered in Northern Europe was found very nearby - the 'Sweet Track'. 


Image by E. Mortalmans from http://avalonmarshes.org/the-avalon-marshes/heritage/sweet-track/

Found in 1970 and named after its discoverer, Ray Sweet, the 2 kilometre (1.24 miles) long track was constructed in either 3807 or 3808 BCE along the course of an older walkway, known as the 'Post Track'. It was only in use for about 10 years before being abandoned but many finds have been made around it, including an unused jadeite axe head that was created from rock which originated in the Alps.


sweet rack axehead
Image from http://www.somersetheritage.org.uk/record/11000
Many wooden artefacts were also found, including pins made from yew timber, a throwing axe, four paddles and a small wooden doll that could have been a child's toy or a votive offering. They are preserved in different museums now but most of the Sweet Track is still where it was found, although not visible to the public. It is buried again, with a system in place to ensure constant immersion in water so that it doesn't dry out and start to decay.


Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Exploring Bristol with Hazen Audel: craftsman and presenter of 'Primal Survivor' on the National Geographic channel

meeting Hazen Audel

Hazen Audel was in Bristol doing some work connected to the show that he presents, called 'Primal Survivor'.  As well as his television work, he is also a very keen craftsman, working particularly with metal and wood. 

A few weeks previously, I'd been running a woodcarving tutorial for Alex, who has worked with him on the series for Icon Films. He knew that Hazen would love finding out more about the handmade objects and historic buildings to be seen in the city and thought that it would be great if I could show him around.

I always enjoy meeting other makers, particularly those with an interest in woodworking, so was very happy to do it. In fact, the prospect of exploring the city that I know pretty well with someone who was seeing a lot of it for the first time (and who is also interested in making stuff) was really exciting!

First of all, we visited the Cathedral. The very first thing was an Anglo-Saxon sculpture that is around a thousand years old. We also got to see the misericords, including one which I believe shows one of the first turkeys ever brought back to Britain. Straightaway, Hazen noticed the beautiful, elaborate hand-forged iron gates and door hinges around the Cathedral; pointing out stunning constructions that I would almost certainly have just walked past if there on my own.

Next was a visit to the Central library to see the Grinling Gibbons overmantle. This had to be included on the itinerary. 


Grinling Gibbons oak carving


One of the librarians very kindly took time to show us the room in which the overmantle is kept and to point out some of the other treasures in there, such as this beautifully designed Arts and Crafts chair which neatly converts into steps to access high shelves.


Arts and Crafts chair

Next, we walked over to St Mary Redcliffe church to see the stone carvings and a whale rib that is reputed to be one of the first things ever brought back from the New World to Europe on John Cabot's ship. A bone seems a curious object to have been chosen but in those days such an object must have been like bringing back a chest full of gold: 
"There are huge whales there and no one is hunting them!"

I also pointed out the roof bosses under the tower. One shows a very rare image of a green man-like dog or cow. Nearby is another carving showing a man defecating! Medieval Christian attitudes to religious buildings were certainly very different to modern ones - see if you can spot both of them in the picture below:


St Mary Redcliffe

After a walk along King Street (which contains many 17th century buildings) and dropping in at Icon Film's offices, we stopped off at the Hatchet Inn for lunch.


Hazen Audel visits the Hatchet Inn  in Bristol

The Hatchet is reputed to have first got a license to sell alcohol in 1606, making it the oldest pub in Bristol. Before that it was Frogmore farm and monastery. Legend has it that the pub door has a layer of human skin from an executed felon, hidden under layers of paint and tar. If you are wondering about ghosts; well, I've had strange experiences in there before - but that's another story!

After finishing lunch, we headed up to Bristol Design. This second-hand tool shop is a must-see for anyone who loves working with tools and Hazen had been there before, so we had a chat about them and then headed on, stopping occasionally to look more closely at things of interest on the way, such as the Cafe Wall illusion.


Hazen Audel visits Bristol Design

After walking down Jacobs Wells Road, we headed over to my studio at Bower Ashton. This route gave a chance to look at the Hotwells area of Bristol, the Harbour and to see the Suspension Bridge spanning the Avon Gorge. 



Several of the members of the Forest of Avon Products cooperative who have workshops at the Bower Ashton Woodyard were about and chatted to Hazen about the wide variety of projects that they were working on.



After visiting my own workshop, the weather had taken a turn for the worse and it had been a long day so he got a taxi back to where he was staying in town.

All in all, it had been a very enjoyable day. It was great to spend time with Hazen and it also made me realise how, even though we packed in a lot of things, there was still so much we hadn't had the chance to see in Bristol in one day. When given the opportunity to explore the place that you live with fresh eyes, it quickly becomes apparent how much is taken for granted or passed by in ignorance each day. 

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

A drum stool with a difference! Making carved wooden drums as seats

The story of this project begins last summer...

I had been invited to make some carvings for Gwalia farm near Machynlleth in North Wales, in return for a stay there at their stunning 'Cabin by the Lake'. This beautiful spot has a private lake, canoe and wood-fired hot tub.


Gwalia cabin by the Lake

Luckily, an oak tree on the farm had just dropped a large branch and so there was plenty of timber to carve!



The cabin was missing some nice seating around the fire, so by the end of the week I'd carved an owl stool...

carved wooden owl stool

As well as a stool with a carving of a Natterer's bat (as a few of them were flying around the cabin at dusk).The second stool also had slits cut into it, to make bars which made a note when struck. They are a bit similar to a West African 'krin' drum:


Natterer's bat carving in oak wood

Krin drum


I really liked the drum idea and showed a few people when back in Bristol. Jono at Touchwood Play realised that the drum stools would work very well in a new project that they were working on. After making a couple more examples to refine the idea, I was commissioned to make six of the stools.

First there was a trip out to Backwell, near Bristol, to look at the oak timber available. It had to be of a certain diameter to make a good stool. Once the logs were back at my workshop, the hard work began!


Bower Ashton woodyard

Firstly, the logs were cut to size, the bark removed using a mallet and chisel and then the stools were smoothed to remove tool marks. I used a chainsaw to cut the bars into the logs.


chainsaw carving

The bars then needed to be sanded and cleaned up, which took a lot of time. Once that had been done, I carved two rows of ridges onto each stool, to make an effect a little bit similar to an instrument called a 'guiro'.



krin drum stools

The drums still needed sticks to play them with. These were turned from locally-grown hornbeam timber. Hornbeam is a very tough wood, traditionally used to make butcher's chopping blocks and the teeth for large cogs, such as in mill workings. It was perfect for this job.


woodturning on an electric lathe

The sticks were chained onto the drums using good-quality stainless steel chain (as stainless steel doesn't react with and discolour oak, unlike normal iron or steel). There was also a hole drilled into each drum to hold the sticks when not in use. The chain is attached halfway along the stick to avoid it making a dangerous looping foot snare when stored in its holder.




The drums just needed a few coats of finishing oil and they were done. Using a tuning app on a phone, we also managed to find out what notes the different bars made. There was a surprising range! Quite a few were A or B, but one played three C notes with an octave between each. Others played Gs and Fs. You can hear them on this Youtube video:



I'd like to refine the tuning methods on future drums, although the tuning on these drums will probably change a bit over time anyway, as the wood dries.  

I did notice that small cracks in the oak, formed during seasoning, didn't seem to affect the sound much at all.



The drums will eventually be mounted in a circle onto a wooden platform in a play tower. They will be fixed down using large screws, so that they can't fall over or be thrown and injure anyone. To allow them to resonate and make a good sound, there will be rubber feet under each one. I've placed wooden sticks under them in these photos to allow a good resonance when playing them in the workshop.


carved wooden drum