As well as this blog, I also have a website and Instagram page with lots more images of my work as well as a few more stories.
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Wednesday 24 April 2013

Woodcarving and working for a living

Whilst looking at the posts that I've put on the blog recently, I've realised how few of them are about carvings that are being worked on!

There's been a lot of work lately that has been more joinery/construction related, but I'm still running occasional carving workshops and making commissioned pieces. I suppose that I see the different strands of what I do as all being part of the same thing. I hope that you enjoy sharing it with me.

The work at Boiling Wells for St Werburghs City farm is something that I'm very lucky to have. As well as a bit of regular money coming in (handy when carving work is sporadic), it also gives the opportunity to work with some really amazing people of all ages and to be outdoors in what is about as close to nature as the British urban environment can get. Even when other work commitments mean that I miss doing some carving, it just makes getting back to the bench even sweeter.

I suppose that the same might be true for others who do jobs that make them wish they could be carving instead. I wouldn't want to speak for everyone (there are some pretty dreadful jobs out there!) but getting back to making feels even better for the time spent away from it.
Do I envy those who carve all the time for a living?      
Hmmm... I'm not sure that I do. It has to be said, first of all, that most professional carvers that I've met do have other work strands to keep them going in the hard times. It's good to be able to leave the bench, meet people and get a bit of sunshine (although British weather can mean that the latter isn't always possible!) Even top carvers frequently do a fair bit of teaching work to keep the money coming in.

It also helps to stop carving from feeling like the daily grind, which is occasionally possible even in a  job that you love. Ian Norbury once wrote:
'Do not envy the slick virtuosity of the trained professional carver - he trained in a hard school that left him with little time for self-expression and he will probably never regain what you have - the urge to transform your vision into wood.'    

Sometimes it's nice to have that space in which to enjoy carving.                                                              

Willow weaving and a little living sedum roof on the strawbale urinal roof at Boiling Wells,St Werburghs, Bristol

We had a bit of sedum mat left over from repairing the Boiling Wells roundhouse roof, which meant that the strawbale urinal building could also get a living roof ready for the 'Spring Celebration' on Saturday!

Just thought I'd post a few images of it here:

While Simon and the Tuesday woodshop crew were putting the finishing touches to this roof, in another part of the site a group of young people were busy weaving our willow hedge, to tidy it up ready for the summer. Most of them have been to Boiling Wells before and it's great to have them back again:

Friday 19 April 2013

Finishing the roundhouse roof rebuild at Boiling Wells!

Today, the last of the sedum mat was fitted onto the roof of the roundhouse. Hurray!!

The terracing timbers still look very new, but hopefully their appearance will mellow at the same time as the sedum grows over them, so that eventually the whole roof will look more 'organic'. The terraces seem to have helped solve the problems of the ridiculously steep pitch that the roof has in places. The roof also doesn't look too regular and symmetrical because the timber frame isn't, which I like.

There are three different kinds of sedum in the mat. Here's a picture of some of it:

We left sedum off the compartments just below the windows, as rainwater running off them would probably wash away any growing medium and plants during heavy rains. Hopefully the gravel will baffle such water flow a bit.

Now to get on with the next bits to be done: sorting out the cordwood wall and fitting doors.

The cordwood wall was put in unseasoned. As it has seasoned the wood has, of course, shrunk so that some of the pieces can now be pulled out of the wall completely. A lot of it is also ash and plum, both timbers which woodworm is very partial to.

I'm planning on spraying the wood with borax solution to deter worm attack and then lime rendering around the pieces. It may take a while, but it will sort out the shrinkage problem and I prefer the look of the lime render to the cob, to be honest. Lime render is also tougher than cob, which can be scratched away with a fingernail in places. I'm not sure when it will be done, as a lot depends on funding and  the number of helpers available.

Watch this blog to see how things go...

Friday 12 April 2013

Fixing the reciprocal roof on the Boiling Wells roundhouse

Work has been continuing on the repairs to the roundhouse roof originally built by Shift Bristol at Boiling Wells.

There have been big problems getting any covering to stay on the roof. The pitch was far too steep, approaching twenty degrees off vertical in places! Therefore, we decided to build terraces of timber which are not fixed down onto the roof below, but sit on it. 

Landscaping textile and old carpet were used to protect the pondliner from being damaged by the timber and also to hopefully soak up some water and prevent the roof drying out too quickly in summer. 

The compartments in the terracing were then filled with a layer of pea gravel. They will eventually have a layer of substrate (70% ground up brick, 30% compost) put on that and, finally, sedum mat put on top of that. Some areas are too steep for even the terracing to help, so may be partially enclosed to make 'window boxes' that can be filled with soil and then have herbs planted in them.

We have been lucky to have had extra help in the last two weeks, from people who are currently unemployed through an agency called 'Pinnacle People'. Their work has been a massive boost to the repairs and moved things forward a lot. Thanks to all of them.

Phil (who was part of the original Shift build crew) and Simon also volunteered and helped a lot. It's a great feeling to see the roof starting to look like it's nearing completion.

Some thoughts for anyone thinking about making a similar structure, as the repairs (hopefully) near conclusion...

I have to say that if I were to build a roundhouse in the future, I don't think that I'd put a reciprocal roof on it. The irregular angles and pitches have been a pain to deal with at times and, although pretty, the whole thing is really a bit impractical.

The reciprocal roof is made using a support called a 'charlie', which is removed to drop it into place. This makes it hard to control the angle that the roof finally sits at, which is made worse by the irregularities in the roundwood rafters causing bumps and lumps in the roof. I will admit that more experienced roundhouse builders may have solutions to these problems, but I'm not aware of them.

These bumps and lumps have made covering the roof a bit of a nightmare - things that need straight lines (such as shingles or tiles) don't fit properly and living cover can slide off. 

One solution may be to use old tyres to make roof terracing, which Shift Bristol has tried on another roundhouse build. This would look okay in summer, but when the vegetation dies back in winter it has an aesthetic that is perhaps not to everyone's taste.

I'd be far more inclined to put a flat roof with a slight gradient (between 10 and 30 degrees) on a roundhouse. It would be a much easier, quicker build and far easier to lay sedum mat on and to maintain. 

It was great to have the roundhouse built at Boiling Wells and Tony Wrench, the Shift Bristol students and the volunteers worked very hard in less than two weeks to do it. The structure is attractive and interesting and it's been fascinating to learn about such things as lime rendering etc. when finishing it. 

I would say to any organisations looking to have such a building built on that kind of time schedule and by a similar group of people, most of whom are inexperienced in this kind of construction, that they really have to have a decent pot of money in reserve to correct problems and to finish the build off (with doors, floor etc.).  Bear in mind that these things will cost you in time and money - possibly at least a couple of thousand pounds. These roundhouses are not necessarily cheap!

Monday 8 April 2013

Woodspring Priory and Tithe Barn. A medieval monastery converted into a Tudor house in North Somerset

Whilst delivering a super-kingsize bed recently (see the previous post!), I had the chance to visit Woodspring Priory. The original monastery on the site was founded in 1210 and housed monks belonging to the Victorine order of the Augustinian Canons. The land would originally have been on an island by the Severn Estuary (although I'm guessing that the ground inland would have been partially if not completely drained by the 13th century). The area is now a National Trust reserve called Middle Hope and is near Weston-super-Mare.

The founding patron of the Woodspring (or Worspring as it was then known) Priory was William de Courtenay. He was a grandson of Reginald FitzUrse, one of the murderers of Thomas à Becket. 

The founding of Woodspring Priory was probably a gesture of penance, especially as de Courtenay is thought by some to have brought his grandfather's remains to the monastery and reinterred them, possibly near the remains of some of the other murderers such as William de Tracey. 
There are regular archeological investigations in the surrounding fields as the grave has still not been found, although other stories claim that FitzUrse was buried in Jerusalem or in Ireland (after founding the MacMahon clan).

Woodspring was converted into a farmhouse in 1536, when king Henry VIII started to break up the monasteries in England during the Dissolution. The house was actually built into the old church. The large monastery windows were filled in with stone walls and smaller mullioned windows as part of this, to reduce their size. 

In 'Church Woodcarvings: A West Country Study', JCD Smith says that some of the misericords (carved wooden rests that folded away, for clergy to lean against during long services) that were originally in the Priory are thought to now be in the nearby church at Worle. They are beautifully carved and one shows a shield bearing the initials PRS, which probably stands for Prior Richard Sprynge who was prior of both Woodspring and Worle in 1443.

You can read more about the history of Woodspring by following this link:

It is interesting to walk around and see architectural features that have been removed or altered during that time, but it's also important to note that the buildings are on private land. The Priory is now owned by the Landmark Trust who hire it out as a place to stay, so their permission is needed to go into the grounds. There is a small museum onsite that the public can visit, but it has very irregular opening times. 
The 15th century Tithe barn is owned by the National Trust but is a working barn, used by the local farmer to store hay and machinery, Potential visitors should bear this in mind. Luckily, friends of mine live next door to the site and know the caretakers and the farmer, so we visited with them.

A carved figure holds a heraldic shield by a doorway into the garden
Corbels and Gargoyles run along a garden wall
The remains of a circular staircase can still be seen in the wall of the Infirmary

There are some interesting decorative woodcarvings inside the Priory, although I don't know if they were originally part of the Tudor house or not:

 The Tithe Barn

Next door to the Priory is the Tithe Barn, which has some beautiful timber work in it's roof, as does the Infirmary (which unfortunately I don't have photos of). It was built during the fifteenth century, when the monastery was at it's busiest.

Tithes were contributions to the church, usually a tenth of whatever the contributor had. This was often paid in a form that wasn't money, such as agricultural produce, so needed a big barn to hold it. My friends got married in the barn, hence the bales covered in red cloths, but it is still a working barn and usually holds hay and tractors.

If you would like to stay in or by Woodspring Priory and explore it further, my friends rent out a shepherd's hut next door. You can find out more by visiting their website:
The Landmark trust's website can be seen here:

Constructing a 'super-king' sized bed from timber milled onsite using a chainsaw mill

Two friends of mine commissioned me to make this bed for them and yesterday it was delivered and assembled in their house.
All of the timbers used came from trees grown in the local area. The legs are Douglas Fir, the slats and rails are European Larch and the sides and large slabs of timber in the headboard are made from some very special Lawson Cypress.

A few years ago, some large trees were cut down in Ashton Court, Bristol as part of landscaping work and some of the trunks were left lying around to rot. After getting permission from the estates department, Alex, Bob and I took chainsaw mills there and cut the logs of Lawson Cypress into usable planks.

The trees were well known in Bristol and it was great to be able to use the timber to make something that would be appreciated, rather than it being wasted. After leaving the planks to season for several months, work began on the bed.

I've inlaid a small rectangle of wood into the headboard, which was cut from a piece of driftwood collected on a beach near my friends' house on the day of their wedding.

Constructed the bed was quite a long job as I didn't have the equipment to cut the mortises and tenons efficiently with  machines, so needed to finish off every one by hand. The timbers were also quite tricky to work with. My friend Simon Nugent helped a lot by allowing me to use his planer/thicknesser machine but the softwoods tended to tear unless all of the tools were kept very sharp. The quarter-round pieces of Douglas Fir used for the legs were also very hard to secure firmly when cutting mortises into them.

All of which meant that the work took a very long time!

However, it's great to have tried my hand at building such a large bed and for it to have turned out so well. 

Friday 5 April 2013

Visiting sign carver Rob Eyley, of Woodcott Signs

Today has been a day of oak signage. This morning, I finished painting in the lettering on a commissioned oak sign and now it is ready to be oiled with Tung oil (a kind of finishing oil that is extracted from a nut growing on a type of tree which originally came from China. It's not derived from anything to do with animal mouths, thank goodness!)

In the afternoon, it was time to drop in for a cup of tea with Rob, who specialises in carving oak signs. His workshop is tucked away in a reclamation yard and it's surrounded by tables and chairs etc. which are for sale. I liked the feel of having the furniture around the carving shop.

We chatted about Grinling Gibbons and carving tools (as woodcarvers do!) and he told me about how he had attended a lettercutting course run by Chris Pye, a carver whose work has always impressed me.

After leaving Rob's workshop, I went back to mine and carried on with an oak sign to be fitted in a pub in Shropshire. No pictures yet, as I'd like the clients to see the carvings before putting them online, but it's a nice project.

If you would like to see some carved signs that I've made previously, you could check out this page on my website:

You can visit Rob's website and see more of his work at

Monday 1 April 2013

Running a pendant carving workshop at Eastwood Farm fun day in Bristol

I was invited to run a pendant carving workshop at Eastwood Farm in Bristol by the Wild City Project. There were several other stalls and a fun dog show and quite a few people came along, even though the weather was very cold.

Lots of the the young people there had a go at carving for the first time and seemed to enjoy it.

It's a lovely green space there, next to a bar and cafe called 'Beeses tea gardens' and right by the River Avon. It would be nice to visit again a bit later in the year when the woodland wildflowers have come out (and it's a bit warmer!)