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Sunday 19 June 2016

Timber-framed houses along Friar Street in Worcester- wonky buildings, planning using geometry and the daisy wheel

Worcester has quite a few surviving timber-framed buildings and many of them can be found along Friar Street, in the city centre. Halfway along the street is Greyfriars, which was built in 1480 as a merchant's house and has been in the care of the National Trust since 1966: 

Not as old (but also looking great) is the facade of this pub on the corner of the street.

One thing that I noticed was how wonky the jettied first floors on some of the buildings were...

The building in the lower photo shown above makes me wonder if the builders got hold of the longest suitable piece of oak that they could find to support the front wall of the first floor and then built the rest around it. The slope on the first floor of the building in the photo above it makes me wonder if they had just been on the ciders beforehand!

When these timber-framed buildings were constructed, timber didn't usually come in regular sizes. Since everything had to be cut, split or hewn by hand, carpenters would make use of what they had available and so if a beam was a bit uneven, that would just be accounted for when building around it. 

I went to a very interesting talk by Laurie Smith a while ago. He is an expert on the geometrical methods that builders used to plan constructions throughout much of history. 

When factors such as irregular sizes of materials meant that exact measurements using units such as inches were not as useful in planning a construction, things were laid out using geometry.

Laurie Smith showed us how proportions and angles were worked out using simple geometrical techniques, meaning that they could be planned using just a ruler, a pair of compasses and a scribe (such as a piece of chalk). 

At one point, he remarked that he enjoyed looking at old buildings and working out how they had been altered from their original form over time. This could be done by a knowledge of the use of geometry in planning. He could tell if a gable had been removed or rooms added because they didn't follow the patterns that were easy to spot if one has the knowledge of these procedures.

One reminder of these planning techniques that can be seen in some old buildings is a 'daisy wheel', like this one from Court Farm at Himbleton in Worcestershire:

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Some believe that these daisy wheels were used to ward off evil in old buildings. Laurie Smith said to me that he hadn't delved into that possible side of their history, but that they certainly were an example of a design used in planning geometry as well.

A pub on Friar Street called 'The Cardinal's Hat' proclaims that it is 'Worcester's Oldest Inn'.  

Apparently there has been a pub on the site since the fourteenth century, when the inn catered to pilgrims and visitors to the nearby Friary (which ended with the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII). The current building dates to the mid-seventeenth century and I took a moment to check out the carvings in the spandrels around the front door. These are over a window to one side:

These carvings are over the main entrance. I wonder if the letters 'D' and 'CB' refer to the pub's owners at the time, the carvers or to something else?

Friday 10 June 2016

Making a sturdy trug - a useful basket for for gardening

A trug is a sturdy sort of basket, often used to carry tools and other heavier items. They are sometimes made of wood and a classic design is known as a 'Sussex trug'. 

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Proper good-quality Sussex trugs are made by skilled crafts people using sweet chestnut for the handle and rim and cricket bat willow for the laths making up the basket.

I haven't trained in Sussex trug making and don't have the moulds to shape the timber. An important birthday was coming up and the recipient is a keen gardener, so I decided to make her a tough workhorse of a trug which would also be a lot more affordable than a good quality Sussex-style one.

The trug measures about 65 cm (25.5") from end to end and is actually a lot lighter than it looks, as well as being able to carry any plants or tools used in the garden. It is made from European larch with an oak handle.

The handle uprights and the laths going across the basket reused scrap wood that had been used to space timber as it seasoned. I chose pieces with as few knots as possible, so they were stronger under a load. 

The larger side bits were offcuts that were destined for the fire. With a bit of cleaning up they look great. They would also be pretty durable outdoors, although the fixings are not stainless steel which would have been my preferred choice if the trug were to be left outside (as a decorative planter, for example). 

I chose not to put any kind of finish on, as it will only look better when a bit used and worn. The larch timber will naturally go a grey/silver colour over time and doesn't need to be treated with preservative.

The finishing touch was her name carved into the side with a Dremel, so no other gardeners can walk off with Cath's nice new trug!

Wednesday 8 June 2016

A kuksa (wooden vessel for food or drink) from Finnish Lapland

My Finnish friend Mika came to visit and had brought along his kuksa. A kuksa is a traditional Scandinavian vessel used for some foods and for drinking.  They are interesting to make and very comfortable to hold.

Mika's kuksa had been made near Raudanjoki (which means 'iron river') in the middle of Finnish Lapland. 

He described to me how a traditional kuksa is made from a burr (or 'burl' in the US) of birch (Betula sp.) that has grown in the far north of Scandinavia. Birch timber has no strong taste and is not toxic. These northern trees also grow more slowly and have denser timber than their more southerly-growing relatives, which makes them ideal to use.

A burr is a rounded growth caused by the tree dealing with an irritant or disease. It would be detached from the rest of the tree and then peeled to reveal the timber, which is then shaped using knives to create the kuksa. The rounded shape of the burr means that the grain travels in a curve around the bowl of the vessel, so it is stronger. The dots of dormant buds held in the grain pattern of the burr also help, as they break up the grain to reduce lines of weakness in the kuksa's bowl and so prevent damage to it.

Mika also told me that the first thing to be drunk from a new kuksa in Finland is usually good cognac. I was surprised, as it isn't a drink normally associated with Scandinavia. He explained that cognac is considered to be enhanced by being drunk from a kuksa and it also improves the vessel too, in a way that more traditional Scandinavian liquors such as aquavit or vodka don't. He used his to drink mainly coffee now and only washes it using water (not detergent) in the traditional way.