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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.

Thursday 3 August 2017

When you wish upon a tree... the curious tradition of wishing trees in Britain and Ireland

coin tree

Uley is a small village on the edge of the Cotswolds in Gloucestershire. It is overlooked by a large Iron Age hill fort named Uley Bury: rings of large ditches and earth banks that are over 2500 years old.

I got the chance to explore Uley a bit more through a guided walk with Cotswold Guided Walks. As we climbed up towards the hill fort, a fallen tree across the path revealed a strange decoration - dozens of coins hammered into it.

wish tree (coin tree) Uley

None of the coins seemed older than the twentieth century, indeed the tree would probably have rotted away by now if it had fallen that long ago. It was completely dead. Not all the coins were pocket change of low value either - there were a few commemorative coins bashed in, with their edges following the line of the woodgrain.

This is a wish tree. These particular ones are known as 'coin trees' and can be found all over Britain. People hammer coins in and make a wish, usually for the end of an illness. The trees may be stumps or fallen, or sometimes living. Apparently the metal toxins may sometimes even be concentrated enough to kill the living trees. 

It seems to be a surprisingly recent phenomenon, the first examples of these being recorded in the early eighteenth century. The one at Uley also shows an example of Christian and Pagan beliefs mixing, as some coins have been added in the shape of a crucifix.

coin tree mixing Christianity and Paganism

This wasn't the first coin tree that I'd come across. There are also some at Portmeirion in Wales. The coins inserted into some of these are so densely packed that, from a distance, they seem almost like a chainmail coat around the timber.

Coin tree Portmeirion

There is another kind of wishing tree in Britain and Ireland. These are the 'clootie trees'. Clootie trees are, I think, an older tradition than coin trees and are trees that are more usually associated with a place that pagans would consider to have particular power: springs of water, ancient burial sites etc. 

A clootie tree will have rags and ribbons tied into its branches, sometimes many of them. The name 'clootie' comes from the Scottish name for a small piece of rag or cloth.

Thorn trees (Blackthorn or Hawthorn) seem particularly likely to be so decorated, perhaps because they are quite commonly found and are also considered to be powerful trees in Paganism. A small clootie tree can be found directly in front of the blind 'entrance' to Bela's Knap Neolithic long barrow in Gloucestershire.

Clootie tree

This little tree is certainly not very old but is already decorated with brightly-coloured rags and ribbons.

clootie tree bells knap

I've also seen clootie trees at Berry Pomeroy in Devon and also the thorn tree on Wearyall hill in Glastonbury in Somerset, which I'm very sad to say has since been badly damaged by vandals.

Why tie things in trees? Some suggest that it could have similar roots to traditions in the Far East. For example, followers of Shintoism in Japan hang paper streamers called shide from ropes around or in trees that are considered especially important and sacred. The two could be an example of ideas spreading along ancient trade routes or may not be directly linked, being instead an example of similar traditions arising in different places.

I certainly like to come across a clootie or a coin tree on a walk: a strange testament to the way that humans perceive and interact with the power of trees.

Tuesday 4 July 2017

Bristol street art 2016-2017

When I'm out and about, pedalling around Bristol on my bike, there's always a lot of great street art to see. Here's a few pieces that I've seen fairly recently and particularly liked. Some go back a while and have long been painted over. I hope that you enjoy seeing them too!

These artworks (including the one above) were painted as part of the 'Upfest 2016' street art festival in Southville, Bristol. The next one is happening at the end of this month, when many of the bigger pieces will be covered over by other work.

This amazing painting was done by the Spanish duo Pichi and Avo.

bristol street art upfest

Dale Grimshaw, who painted this, was originally from Lancashire but is now based in London.

bristol upfest street art

I cycle past this one, by Gamma Gallery, all the time when going to and from my workshop. The billboard sometimes changes and the different adverts seem to make the whole piece next to them read differently.

This one is near to the Gamma Gallery artwork above:

Not all of the bits of street art that caught my eye were the big, impressive ones though...

bristol graffiti

There are also pieces popping up all the time in hidden corners, like under bridges.

Or even in hollow trees, like this one in Ashton Court:

I liked this, painted last Hallowe'en near the M32. It's been covered over by other stuff for a long time now.

bristol funny graffiti

There are also nice pieces in Easton, on the other side of Bristol. This one is by Sepr, a local artist:

sepr street art

And this lovebird is by Kid 30 (aka Smallkid), who is based in the Midlands:

kid 30 street art bristol

These last two were done with the permission of the people living in the houses. They really brighten up a dingy alleyway/road as well.