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Monday 3 December 2018

Woody street art in Bristol

Bristol has a lot of interesting street art away from the Banksy pieces that many people know and the large works done for Upfest in Southville. 

Easton, in the east of the city, has a lot of stuff by less well-known artists scattered through its alleyways and corners. These two pieces have appeared on walls around Bellevue Road. 

Bristol street art

Bristol street art

I like them, especially as to my eye they bring together woodworking and street art!

Saturday 17 November 2018

Green men and a bowing crow - 'In the Downbelow'

I went into the crypt under the church of St John on the Wall in Bristol today, to see 'In the Downbelow', the latest exhibition by the sculptor and model maker Tom Astley

st john on the wall crypt

The crypt dates back to the early 14th century and one of the highlights of the place, for me, was the collection of carved green man faces on the roof bosses. They are quite low down compared to most churches and cathedrals, so can be easily studied from floor level.

st john on the wall green men

This one has a fine set on teeth on show!

The crypt is very atmospheric and had inspired Tom to create some artworks especially to display in this space. It was interesting to see his new pieces, showing the distinctive style that he's developed.

This sculpture is entitled 'Plague doctor' and was based on the physicians, with their strange beaked masks, who tended to victims of the Black Death.

plague doctor tom Astley

The sculpture 'Lady of Letters' came about because a tomb effigy of a wealthy noblewoman in the crypt shows her writing kit tied to her waist.

This 'Lord of Misrule' has a paper crown and would take over his duties during the Festival of St Stephen. The tradition lasted in Britain until the sixteenth century. Other images based on the idea can be seen amongst the misericords in Bristol Cathedral.

lord of misrule Tom Astley

The final sculpture in the exhibition was inspired by the green men carved overhead.

green man tom Astley

You might agree that the darkly atmospheric artworks fit perfectly in the vaulted stone space of the crypt. 

'In the Downbelow' runs from the 17th to the 30th November and is open Tuesday to Saturday, 11am until 6pm.

Wednesday 12 September 2018

The Binaural Diaries visit the woodyard - field recording the sounds of woodworking

The Binaural Diaries is a project run by Ollie Hall. He records sounds and publishes them online. It started as a way of collecting interesting samples for music but has developed into more of a sound diary: 'binaural' refers to two microphones recording sounds which are transmitted separately to the two ears of the listener.

field recording sounds

I chose a few sounds that woodworkers might know but those who don't work with wood may not be aware of. The recordings are of: a sharp woodcarving gouge cutting through seasoned lime wood, detail carving in oak, a side axe cutting larch wood, a drawknife in use on larch and wood being cleaved using a froe and mallet. There was also the chance to talk very briefly about what I was doing in each recording.

It's interesting to think about what you do from a completely different viewpoint. I realised that many of the sounds made in woodworking were things that had previously been taken for granted but which added to the whole process. There is a real satisfaction gained from hearing a tool cut cleanly and some sounds indicate when a change needs to be made (for example, cutting from a different direction as the grain pattern changes). 

Spoon carving at Boiling Wells in Bristol, with the Boiling Wellness group

In July, I got the welcome chance to return to Boiling Wells in St Werburghs to teach spoon carving. 

After four and a half years working there, funding cuts meant that I was made redundant in 2014. I had been back a couple of times to teach since then and it is always good to see the place develop and grow.

This time, I was spoon carving with the 'Boiling wellness' group. It was great to be back in the nature reserve, carving wood with enthusiastic volunteers. We had a lot of fun and everyone got the chance to try a range of woodworking tools, some of which they might not have come across otherwise.

Doing spoon carving sessions with groups is always interesting as people come up with such a range of designs and styles when given the chance to do so. Once they had got the hang of using the tools safely, there was plenty of room for creativity to come out; working with the grain patterns in the wood for example. I hope that people have had the chance to finish their spoons with the techniques we discussed and that they all enjoyed the day as much as I did!

Monday 21 May 2018

Making the Jackie Collins Woman of the Year award for Jacqueline Gold, the boss of Ann Summers

Each year, for the last three years, I've been honoured to be asked to carve this award. It is presented annually by the cancer charity Penny Brohn UK to a woman who is particularly inspiring: not only because of their professional or charity work but also because they have spoken publicly about their fight with cancer.

The recipient in 2018 was Jacqueline Gold, who is the chief executive of Ann Summers. This company sell lingerie and other items to spice up people's love lives, from shops in town centres all over the UK. 

Each award is specially designed for the person who will receive it and this year's was no exception. The charity contacted Ms Gold's Personal Assistant, who told them what things she likes, then that information was relayed to me and informed the first design ideas. 

I used some Lawson Cypress timber (known as Port Orford cedar in the US) from Bristol, as the charity's headquarters are just up the road from the place where the tree grew.

I find that this wood is often easier to carve using power tools than hand tools. No matter how sharp the gouges or chisels, the timber will tear a bit whereas cutting discs and abrasives fitted to power tools give a good finish quickly.

The final design was a rabbit, which was inspired by one of Ann Summers' most famous products. I feel that that the sculpture echoes it in a subtle and fun way. The serene-looking bunny has certainly been a hit at the workshops around my studio and apparently among the staff at Penny Brohn UK. I hope that Jacquline Gold likes it too.

There is a box in the back of the rabbit, suitable for holding small items such as keys, change or batteries. The lid is held on using rare earth magnets and has a really satisfying 'thunk' noise when it closes!

Here's a photo of Jacqueline Gold receiving her award:

Photo credit: Andre Regini

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 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

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
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

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. 


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