As well as this blog, I also have a website with lots more images of my work as well as a few more stories.
If you like woodcarvings, you'll want to have a look.

Sunday, 25 March 2018

The story of a saw

w tyzack and sons and turner saw

Like many woodcarvers and other woodworkers, I have a lot of old tools: some with names of previous owners stamped on them. Sometimes I wonder about these tools. Were they once used to produce pieces that I have admired in some great cathedral or stately home by a journeyman worker whose name is now forgotten?

It's rare that the story of one of these tools turns up unexpectedly. That happened with this saw. 

It is a tenon saw made by the firm of W Tyzack, Sons and Turner. The blade is stamped with the words 'Made specially for John Hall, High St, Bullring, Birmingham'.


antique tenon saw

I inherited the saw from my grandfather Norman. Although still pretty sharp, it had some damage to the handle and so I've displayed it on the wall of my workshop, rather than risk further damage in use.


Norman

Norman was brought up in the slums of Birmingham and wrote about his early years in a few short essays, a copy of which has been preserved in the city archives. I'd never read it until last week.

One of the chapters talks about the Bull Ring, the market area of Birmingham at the time. In a paragraph, the story of the saw came to life:

'Higher up in High Street, stood a gas-lit ironmongers, John Hall. It was from this shop that my father, who had just started work at a cabinet makers, bought his first saw. It was brass-backed and cost three shillings and sixpence, which he paid off at sixpence per week. This saw, of a quality not found today, Is now about 90 years old (author's note: this was in 1989) and is a prized possession in my tool kit.'

I never knew that Fred, Norman's father, was ever a cabinet maker and nothing that he made has been passed down in the family to my knowledge. 


Both men have now passed away (Fred before I was born) but I feel closer to both of them when I look at this saw.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Making replicas of the earliest objects made by woodturning ever found in Britain, from Whitehorse hill on Dartmoor

I like woodturning. It's a nice compliment to my carving work and there's also something that feels quite relaxing about putting the tools to the spinning timber and watching the shapes develop.

There have been a couple of commissions recently that have allowed me to do some turning and which have also been a little more challenging. Making some of the components for the instruments that are now installed in St Werburghs Community Centre meant turning larger pieces than I've worked on before. 

Woodturning on Myford ML8 lathe

I was also asked by a local furniture maker called Dave Porter to turn eight discs, 60mm (2.36") wide, from European oak to decorate some furniture that he was making. It was a nice test of skill to try and make the discs as similar as possible, whilst turning them by hand. Both of us were happy with the outcome. Here they are, with one spare:


woodturning oak

After making these commissions, I came across the story of the Whitehorse hill burial

This Bronze Age burial happened nearly four thousand years ago in what is now the wild, empty middle of Dartmoor national park - a place that is very important to me. This view, taken near Whitehorse hill, shows what the area looks like:


Dartmoor landscape

In 2001, a walker found a small, rectangular burial chamber made from stones protruding from a remanent 'hag' of peat, which had been left standing as the peat surrounding it was cut away. These small stone boxes or chambers are known as kists, cists or kistvaens.

The erosion of the peat stack had uncovered the kist and one of the stones had fallen. The rest looked like it could also fall out at some point soon, so the decision was made to open the burial and see what was inside. This was even more exciting as most kists on Dartmoor have been excavated or robbed at some point but this one, having been hidden underground in a fairly remote part of the moor, was probably intact.


Whitehorse hill Bronze Age kist
Image by Cornwall Archaeological Unit, from https://www.archaeology.co.uk/articles/cist-whitehorse-hill.htm

In 2011, the kist was opened. Inside, well preserved by the peat (which excludes oxygen so preventing the decay of organic matter), was a bundle wrapped in an animal pelt, thought to be from a bear.

The contents of the bundle were the cremated remains of what is believed to have been a woman of high status, aged somewhere between 15 and 25 years old. The presence of a necklace and absence of weapons in the burial led researchers to think the deceased was probably female. She was buried in August or September (from the purple moorland grasses laid on the floor of the kist at the time). On top of these grasses was laid what looks like a woven belt or sash decorated with calfskin leather, then the wrapped cremation on that.



Apart from the remains, the wrapping held a woven bag made of lime bast (the fibres under the bark of a lime tree). This contained several objects: a necklace made from beads of clay, shale, amber and also a single bead of tin, a flint flake, a copper pin, a woven cattle hair band or bracelet decorated with small tin beads and two pairs of wooden discs. 


Image from https://new.devon.gov.uk/historicenvironment/latest-news/bears-and-beads-on-whitehorse-hill/
These wooden discs are the earliest examples of wood turning ever found in Britain. They could have been ornaments fitted into a leather bag or belt, but most people think that they were body ornaments, similar to modern ear expanders. They would have been worn in stretched ear piercings, or perhaps in lip, nose or cheek piercings. 

Some think that the smaller studs were perhaps the intermediate ones used as the hole was being stretched, before the larger ones were worn. Personally, I think they might have been worn at the same time as they show similar amounts of wear and were buried together.

The wooden discs were turned from tough, pale coloured spindle tree wood, a native species which still grows around the edge of the moor. At the time of the burial, this area would have been much more wooded than now. It's strange to imagine what the person who wore these wooden ornaments was like; speaking a language that we wouldn't understand in the present day but perhaps knowing some of the many stone monuments, such as the double circle at Greywethers, that still stand not far from where they were buried and that we can still visit.


Greywethers stone circles on Dartmoor

Radio carbon dating from underneath the fallen stones of nearby Sittaford Tor circle returned a date of about four thousand years ago, so the circle itself is probably older than that. This means the person buried at Whitehorse Hill would have known it and probably visited it as well.

I couldn't resist having a go at recreating the discs myself! We have some idea of what Bronze Age woodturning was like, having images preserved from ancient Egypt. A note about the picture: the lathe would have been horizontal even though conventions in ancient Egyptian art mean that it's illustrated standing vertically.


Image from http://www.turningtools.co.uk/history2/history-turning2.html

These sources helped woodturner Stuart King to recreate the making of the wooden discs for a programme called 'Mystery of the Moor'.



I had to cheat a bit, as the method Stuart King used requires two people to work best and also because I don't have the appropriate reproductions of Bronze Age tools at the moment (although I'm very tempted to acquire or make some now!). It was still fun to make replicas of these objects that connect us to that ancient and mysterious time. 


woodturning

I had some seasoned spindle tree wood that was suitable, and the discs finished well. After turning, I put some natural nut oil onto them, to bring out the colour of the wood and stop them getting too grubby - a beeswax finish could originally have been used but it tends to attract dirt. The larger turnings are 25mm (1") and the smaller ones 15mm (0.59") in diameter.

Whitehorse burial wooden ear ornaments

Here's my friend Sion wearing a pair of discs very similar to those found in the kist at Whitehorse hill, but slightly larger than the bigger ones found in the burial at 30mm (1.18") wide. He said that they are very comfortable to wear and they were also tough enough to withstand a good deal of partying last weekend!


ear stretchers



ear expanders

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Helping to put together the Meadow at Shambala festival 2017

Shambala festival 2017

Shambala is a music festival held in Northamptonshire in August. Since 2014, I've made furniture for the Meadow area at the event every year and was invited to do it again in 2017.

The Meadow houses the Healing Field, at the centre of which is a fireplace surrounded by seating and plants. It's a beautiful spot and I love to see people relaxing and unwinding on seats that I've made, surrounded by tents that healers are working in.


Shambala Meadow yoga

A week beforehand, bundles of scrap wood from sawmills are delivered to each area of the festival to build seating, fences or whatever else is required. It's always exciting to cut the straps, pick through and see what timber there is to work with! It could be oak, larch, lime, cherry or something else and much of it is reused from previous years. Sometimes even the strapping itself is reused in a design...


Shambala festival bench

This particular festival is very keen on having as little environmental impact as possible. To help with that goal, we try to reuse as much as possible from previous festivals when making new furniture. Since a lot of the benches and tables are made from durable timbers such as larch or oak, they last well outdoors and so between festivals they are often used by visitors and fishermen on the estate. At the beginning of the next festival, we wander around hunting out each piece from wherever it has been spirited off to. There is always real excitement when a particularly-loved item of furniture is found!


Shambala meadow African-style chair

Some of the benches from 2014 are still going strong today. When much of the rest of the site has new woodwork every year, I really like that the Meadow has furniture that is really 'of the place' - it stays there all year round. The patina of age suits it well.



Another thing that I really love about working in the Meadow area is that many of the crew have been doing this for years and know each other well. Some benches reuse pieces of timber that were originally part of seating made by Bertie, a stalwart crew member who sadly passed away before I started helping at the Meadow. It's nice to think that his work is still present in some of these benches.



I also enjoyed working with some of the younger crew members on making items for this festival. This seat was a joint effort, using materials found onsite, and we had a great time putting it together!


Meadow swing seat

It's not just seating that gets made for Shambala. For the last two years, one of the featured workshops has been paddleboard yoga. The people doing it head out onto the lake on their paddleboards and do yoga there. 



We were asked to make a jetty, so that the attendees could get onto the water easily. It's now a permanent feature in the grounds. 


Shambala jetty

It's not only useful for the workshops but is also a nice place to sit, surrounded by swan mussels and water plants. Don't try swimming though! The water is quite shallow and the thick, black mud is deep. The swan mussels shouldn't be eaten either, by the way. Just relax and enjoy the view.


Shambala festival relaxing

Friday, 22 December 2017

Demonstrating relief carving techniques at a sign maker's trade fair - SignLink Live 2017

SignLink Live 2017

I've done many things as a woodcarver over the last twenty three years but one thing I've never tried is demonstrating at a trade fair. The chance to do so came in October with an invitation to carve at SignLink Live in Telford.



The stand was part of an area called 'Craftsman's Corner', where traditional skills related to sign making were demonstrated amongst all the vinyl cutting machines and other modern machinery associated with the trade. 

I used the opportunity to produce a charming commissioned piece that was requested just before the show began - a relief carving of a kitten in oak.


wood carving of a kitten


Apart from me, there were four other craftspeople showing their skills: Simon, of Nefarious Pinstriping, was doing pinstriping - a very exacting and skilful craft where precise lines and other designs are applied to surfaces. It is particularly associated with owners of motorbikes and hot rods.


nefarious pin striping


pin striping

Pete, of PKM signs, demonstrated gilding techniques. I couldn't resist buying a copy of Mctaggart's 'Practical Gilding' from him!


Pkm signs gilding

On the fourth stand, Neil of H signs and Tim of Merlin Signs demonstrated traditional sign painting techniques. It was very interesting talking to them about which paints they prefer to use. One useful tip that they mentioned was to undercoat with aluminium oxide as it lasts the longest.


Tim of Merlin Signs at SignLink 2017

Neil Horne of H signs

It was great fun chatting with these folks, as well as interested people passing by. Quite a few visitors were keen to get pointers for their own hobby carving and I was happy to help! They also came along with their own tips and interesting ideas too, so it wasn't all one-way conversation by any means.

Many people also said how much they enjoyed having the contrast there between the modern advanced technology of sign making and the slower, precise ways of the older crafts. I hope to be able to participate in next year's planned 'Sign Show' in Birmingham. If you are in the sign trade, I may see you there!




Monday, 27 November 2017

Making playground instruments for St Werburghs Community Centre in Bristol, using locally grown timber and some reclaimed materials

Recently, one idea that has interested me is making sculptures that can be played as instruments. This linked nicely into a recent commission. A community centre in Bristol wanted instruments to go in their new garden next to the M32 motorway.

playground instruments bristol

The spaces where the instruments were to be installed weren't big, being between already existing planters. This limited the amount of keys, chime bars etc. that could be used in each one . After chatting with the director of the centre I designed and made them some playable structures that we felt also looked good.



The reddish-coloured woods, used for the xylophone keys amongst other things, are sepele and utile. These are both timbers from trees that grow in West Africa. I tend to only use reclaimed tropical woods in my work and these were no exception, having been bearers for timber deliveries to a local company which are usually destined for burning. The posts and other timbers are European Larch; a durable locally-grown timber. 


metallophone and xylophone

One particularly enjoyable part of making these was turning the 'rattle poles' on my Myford lathe, for the last instrument played in the video.


wooden playground instruments

They are quite big pieces and it was a fun challenge to turn them evenly and for both of them to be as similar as possible.


wood turning on a Myford Lathe

I had help from volunteers during the installation, which made the job a lot easier! Everyone was very happy with the new instruments, including me (as you can probably tell by the big smile at the end of the video).

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Carving a kestrel and a nuthatch for 'Woodland Arts'


'Woodland Arts' was a small, two day exhibition held on a piece of woodland next to the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol during October 2017. I was invited by the organisers to show some work in it. I like the opportunity to create work for exhibitions, as it allows ideas to be explored that may not have been suited to previous commissions.

I hadn't carved a bird sculpture for a long time, so decided to make a nuthatch. I'd thought of carving one before as I think that they are particularly elegant birds and also interesting, as they are the only British bird that regularly moves headfirst down tree trunks as well as up them. 

There were a lot of offcuts of European larch around my workshop, produced by other businesses there. This wood is durable outdoors and has beautiful ring markings, but is quite tricky to carve with hand tools. I find abrasive discs, burrs and wheels work more efficiently on it, usually mounted on angle grinders.


carving wood using power tools

The action of the discs also gave the sculptures a smoother, more abstract feel that I like a lot. I did consider painting the carvings, but the smoothness seemed to suit a finishing oil better.



After carving in some simple detailing, I fitted a beak and eyes made from small offcuts of greenheart timber. This wood is a piece of Bristol's maritime history. The greenheart was given to me by furniture maker Jim Sharples and was originally part of a tree trunk fitted to the top of the nineteenth century North Junction lock gates. These gates formed the connection between Bristol's harbour and the Avon Gorge, from which ships headed out to sea. When the gates were replaced a few years ago, Jim was asked to make a bench to go next to the Mshed museum in Bristol and had some trimmings left over, which he kindly gave to me. The dark wood was perfect to depict a small bird's beady eyes.



bird wood carving sculpture

After several coats of finishing oil, I mounted a picture hanger on the back of the sculpture, so that the piece could be hung with its beak pointing down - as a real nuthatch moves down a tree. These timbers are durable outdoors, so the sculpture could end up hung on a real tree. I particularly like the grain pattern that loops like contours around the head.


nuthatch sculpture British bird

After making the nuthatch, I fancied making another bird. So I looked for another suitable bit of larch...


larch sculpture log

This piece was to become a falcon. Until I had started roughing out the block, cutting away chunks with a bandsaw, I wan't completely sure if it would be a merlin or a kestrel. 


roughing out sculpture

Eventually I decided on a kestrel as, like the nuthatch, it lives in that area. The body was also shaped using angle grinders fitted with mini arbortech blades or abrasive discs. Again, I really liked the slightly abstracted form and the contour lines winding around the finished body, especially at the bottom of the belly.


Bird sculpture roughed out

As well as greenheart wood, this sculpture uses a piece of  pale-coloured hornbeam wood in the beak. It originally came from a tree that  grew in the grounds of Southmead hospital in Bristol, which had to be removed during building work. The kestrel looks like it has been to hospital itself in this photo, taken when the glue holding the eyes in was still drying.


bird sculpture

I was very happy with this sculpture too and it got a lot of attention at the exhibition.


kestrel bird sculpture 

The show had a good mix of work, including a picture by Lord Bath. He owns Longleat house and was the patron of the show. I won't show an image of his picture here though, as this blog has people of all ages reading it! Thanks to Jasmine who curated the show and Topper, who organised it, for asking me to be part of Woodland Arts.


Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Building a shelter/gazebo at the allotment garden using reclaimed materials

allotment shelter

Recently, work slowed up a bit. It's a natural part of the cycle of being a self employed maker but can certainly be stressful - wondering when the next job will come in. However, it does give a chance to catch up on things like website updates and also doing projects that are a bit different.

Luckily, this period of free time coincided with some redevelopment work at the woodyard where I have my studio. As part of this work, a quantity of reclaimed European larch was up for reuse. This larch timber is very durable outdoors and so I decided to use it to build a shelter at the allotment that I share with a friend.


building using reclaimed wood


For those who don't know what an allotment is, most towns and cities in the UK have areas that are owned by the local council which are rented out to local people for them to grow their own flowers, fruit and vegetables. There are usually regular inspections and some rules about what can be grown. I find the allotment a great place to unwind - digging all day certainly clears the mind.

Our allotment really needed somewhere to shelter from rain (ah! British weather!) as well as a place to just relax and enjoy the place. As well as the larch lumber and some slab wood left over from milling timber, a couple of larch trunks were available which had been drilled full of holes by wood wasps (horntails) and so were not suitable for use by the businesses that had bought them originally.

I set to making the structure. All of the work was done using hand tools (apart from a couple of battery-powered drills) as there was no power on site. There was also no one else to help with the build but that was quite nice - being free to just do it by myself.



After a few days of work, the main structure was finished. I then fitted a small jettied platform going out over the pond. It was lovely to sit and watch the wildlife around. Brightly coloured damselflies flitted over the water and several different kinds of wasp and bee flew around the posts. Some were large, strange looking parasitic ichneumonid wasps - harmless to humans and looking to lay their eggs on the wood wasp larvae. Others were small bees investigating the holes as nest sites. They were no threat to me and some, in fact, were helpful predators on pests feeding on the plants. Another welcome creature that is happy to eat garden pests is the slow-worm. It's neither a worm nor a snake, being a lizard without legs. I think that they are very beautiful animals and they can live for around twenty years.


slow worm

The next stage of construction was to fit a roof. This meant buying two sheets of FSC-certified plywood - the only timber bought for the project. Getting the sheets up onto the roof was a bit of a struggle but once in place, they could be covered with offcut strips of tough butyl rubber. This was reclaimed waste material left over from building bike sheds. Joined with Sikaflex EBT+ adhesive, the rubber is a perfect waterproof covering.


allotment shelter made from larch timber

That's the shelter done for now. I may fit some removable walling to protect from driving rain that can get under the roof but I'm happy with it the way it is at the moment - simple, natural and understated. The local allotments officer likes it and it is definitely a relaxing spot to appreciate the plants growing and wildlife busying around you.

Thanks very much to Roundwood Design, Touchwood Play and the Bike Shed Company for kindly donating the materials used to make this structure.