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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