30.12.07 Teaming rain for a week made getting firewood a miserable existance. Luckily it was followed by two weeks of clear cold weather. Great I will move lots of firewood while the ground is hard. It actually took most of the first week of frosts to actually freeze any of the quagmire, when it all eventually hardened up I found that the ruts where so deep that the landrover grounded on the ridge between the wheels. As this was now hard as iron the landrover couldn’t power its way through and I became stuck fast. This happened several times and involved emptying the logs off the trailer, unhitching the trailer, driving Arnold onto firmer ground and then dragging the trailer out with a rope, hitching up again and reloading the logs. You think that’s boring to read, you ought to try doing it several times. On the third occasion while suppressing the desire to scream out loud I turned round to find Alex Todd the National Park head forester standing a couple of yards behind me. He has a remarkable ability to materialise when you least expect it. Anyway after recovering from the shock Alex helped with the whole boring operation. This palava is making producing firewood very slow going and un-economic.One of the benefits of delivering firewood is you get out and about around lakeland, the end of Kentmere valley being a favourite.
28.11.07 The precarious nature of self employment has come back into view over the last few months. Luckily it hasn’t involved me being injured but unluckily my wife broke her ankle on the beach near Whitby. It has just meant more time off taking her to hospital appointments and initially shuttling her to and from work and getting the kids out of the house. Combined with the children taking it in turns to be ill its been a bit of a disaster for getting things done. One of the benefits (?) has been that I’ve been catching up with the accounts. This is pretty depressing and if I ever went anywhere near the Dragon’s Den I would be laughed out instantly. In between wandering around like a grumpy old man I’ve had some good coppice moments. The major one is pretty obvious when you think about it. If you cleave a big lump of wood you get more fence rails out than if you cleave small bits. Not only do you get more rails, but you get less sapwood to take off, easier rails to drawknife and the whole process is a lot quicker.We cleft up a 2 foot diameter log and got 30 rails out oaf it, instead of the usual 4-8. Brian also came up from Devon to collect the oak bark from Stoney Hazel. Three of us have been peeling in the wood during the early summer and got a decent pile together for the tannery. Unluckily after several weeks of dry weather it started chucking it down while we loaded the bark onto Brian’s enormous lorry. This isn’t so good as the active ingredient that the tanners are looking for (the tannin!) is water soluble so I hope there is some left.
24.10.07 September has seen the passing of a coppicing era with the death of Colin Simpson who was 76. Colin was a link back to the times when every farm had its own coppice that provided material for fencing, gates, brooms, sticks , pit props and countless other bits and bobs. Colin himself had started making farm gates when he was 12, as he put it the children of agricultural workers were allowed 3 months off during the summer for the harvest and after 3months he just didn’t bother going back. On the face of it Colin didn’t have much formal education but he was in fact a rare combination of practical skills, a very deep knowledge of flora and fauna and a persuasive communicator. He knew what day the warblers would turn up at Dorothy Farrers spring wood and could tell you the latin names of a plethora of identical ferns and mosses. There was no bluster with Colin and he would impart his knowledge to anyone young or old who would listen. He was happy to pass on his skills and many (including me) went on his introduction to coppice management course where he made sure you understood that doing something was a lot less harmful than doing nothing. His knowledge was such that at the recent coppice conference one of the top scientists from the Forestry Commission was asking Colin about the best way to get hazel nuts to germinate. Before his illness curtailed his attendance at committee meetings he would sit there usually fuming at inaccuracies in official glossy documents and would always try to avoid getting grants for anything for fear of sinking into a morass of red tape and delay, he was very much a man of action. A visit to his workshop next to his house was also an illuminating experience where a stack of beautifully finished walking sticks would be stacked up alongside his latest experiment into finding new products to make from coppice material. His funeral was at Underbarrow church which was down to standing room only with lots of local farming families, people from wildlife trusts and lots from the coppice association. Walking back from the church we walked by hedgerows bursting with rose hips, sloes and blackberries in the warm autumn sun to the Punch Bowl where there was a lot of laughter for Colin’s was a life to celebrate. September also saw the annual Woodland Pioneers week at Staveley in Cartmel. The weather was a bit rubbish but everyone seemed to enjoy themselves. Every year BHMAT fills the courses very quickly even though they favour new faces for the daily courses and the week has expanded to 40 plus students. This year I was helping Twiggy to teach the rustic stool course as the last throw of her apprenticeship and I am still amazed at the variation of stools that the students produce from a similar single log. We even had a meditation stool being made this year which had a top seat and a bottom plank. The change between the seasons is strikingly quick. Over the years now I’ve noticed that winter gives way to spring virtually overnight and in a similar way autumn appeared instantly with the ashes (what is the plural of ash?) depositing their leaves first having been about a month behind putting them on in the first place. The swallows and other migrants all seemed to disappear at once and the woodlands have become a lot quieter. Witherslack woods where the kilns are have turned out be very wet with springs popping up all over the place and I am now up to my knees in mud. At Witherslack I’ve noticed loads of these speckled wood butterflies. I don’t think they are particularly rare, but its nice to see something different.
2.09.07 The wet summer rolls on, with the woods frequently too wet to get trailers into. The kilns are in Witherslack woods which is flat limestone covered by layer of mud similar to that at Catcrag which sticks in the tread of the tyres making it like trying to drive on ice. Charcoal sales have been pretty much nil since the start of July but luckily there have been some good cleft oak fence orders to fill the gap.A quiet spell had conveniently appeared in time to let me go on a family holiday to Vancouver Island. This is quite a magical place with forests of huge cedar trees, the seas stuffed full of salmon, whales, killer whales and seals. Mountains with bears, cougars, coyotes, elk and racoons roaming round. The indigenous indians must have been pretty cheesed off when europeans arrived and started depriving them of their paradise .They are now being compensated by the Canadian government for the loss of their lands but it sounded like that was causing some problems as well. There was lots of ‘first nation’ peoples art around which has quite inspired me to do something similar. In particular there are some massive modern sculptures made out of single blocks of wood in Vancouver airport which are spectacular. I saw some pictures of their original settlements expecting to see tipis but of course with huge cedars about they would make a basic box frame with pent roof out of big round beams. The roofs were covered in long planks, slightly hollowed out so that the lips at the edges would hook over into the next plank which was the other way up. The size of the trees was quite something, this cedar had a huge burr high up on it. The burr alone had a small woodland growing from it (not much smaller than some patches of woodland I've worked). Finally the woods round Little Qualicum falls were littered with Arbutus (Strawberry tree).
21.07.07 Oak before ash don’t make me laugh. The cuplet that I’ve recited every year appears to be non applicable anymore as despite oaks being weeks earlier than ashes we had a great deal more than a splash. This has killed the charcoal market stone dead for the last month and a bit, the lack of market and waterlogged woods has meant no charcoal burning. Luckily we have had a succession of orders for green woodwork items which has meant we can stay dry in the barn and do something interesting. James and I have been working on sculptures for an ‘alphabet trail’ in Serpentine woods in Kendal. James has really gone to town with his sculptures and has a produced a huge carved rat for ‘R’ that took 4 people to carry to its eventual resting place in the wood. I had a gate to make and went to town with that making my best gate (well double gate) yet. When it came to putting it in I attached the left side of the gate to a tree and then tried putting a post in for the other gate and found that there was bedrock 6 inches down. The organisers decided to just have the one side dangling in the breeze and it looks quite surreal but fits in with the enormous rat and huge yo-yo. The wet conditions have kept the oak peeling well and we have a good pile of bark for the tannery.Here's me peeling the tree that I used for the gate. And cleaving it And the finished gate from the cleft oak. Besides the opening of the alphabet trail I also made a quick visit to the opening of the National Trust's Footprint building at St Catherines which I helped putting some of the roofing shakes on last year. Its a brilliant building combining straw bale, timber frame and cob construction with oak roofing shakes.Now the straw bales have got the lime mortar on the walls have a rounded 'organic' look. The constant rain resulted in Heike Hanso a local tree surgeon from Estonia asking if they could do some work on their small boat in the end of the barn. They were going to take this small ex-Windermere hire boat (14ft long) put a cabin on it, and then take it down the canals to the south coast accross the channel and through the canals of europe back to Estonia. When I first saw the boat I thought he had a screw loose, but they seem to have been planning the trip for several years and you can follow them via their page at www.2meest6hobust4meetrit.spaces.live.com . Their trip got me a bit jealous remembering past boating adventures.
The kilns have now moved to their new spot at Witherslack, one of the best sites we’ve had. Flat terrain good pile of wood and enough room to get the firewood processor in. The access is across a field with a reasonable track but I’ve yet to meet the farmer whose field it is, which has been a source of friction in the past with various farmers asking ‘who do I lump first’. Usually they calm down then and we get on ok. I’ve done my first show of the year at Holker Hall festival demonstrating shake making. Shows have been a bit thin on the ground this year but as a result I rather enjoyed doing this one. The best questions as usual come from small children including one exchange which went something like Me ‘do you know what I’m making here?” Small boy ‘no’ Me ‘I’m making wooden roofing tiles called shakes’ Small boy ‘oh’ Me ‘what have you got on your roof?’ Small boy ‘bricks’ Me ‘wouldn’t you rather have a roof made of shakes like these?” Small boy ‘hmm what happens if its hit by lightning?’ Me ‘house burns down everyone dies’ Small boy ‘ no then’. Must do something about my sales technique. The cleggs are out and biting.
28.05.07 The coppice cam goes international this month as I have just arrived back from an in-depth fact finding mission to Poland. Where I found that Polish beer is both very cheap and very strong. Actually we spent the week looking at Polish sawmills, craft workers and looking at the rather incredible wooden architecture in the south. We were lucky enough to go and watch a craftsman and his wife making wooden strip boxes. He had a home made planing machine which produced the strips. His wife would then weave them into a basic mat which would then be woven round a wooden former. Finally it was finished off with strips of wood round the top edge. He finished off with the stunning observation that the pine logs he gets ( which have to have perfectly straight grain ) cost £70 a cubic metre. This in a land where everything else is about a third of the price here.
2.5.07 April 20th saw the first swallows at the barn. Colin Simpson who was the warden at Dorothy Farrer’s Spring Wood for umpteen years used to say that the warblers would arrive at the wood on April 20th and would insist that cutting was finished by that date so that they could nest in peace, but I think it’s a bit early for swallows. On the subject of weather forecasting the oaks are in full leaf (and peeling nicely) while the ash is still dormant. If the ‘ash before oak you’re in for a soak, oak before ash you’re in for a splash’ is true we are in for a dry summer. Last months heat wave ended rather abruptly with a few days of torrential rain that turned the tracks back to runny mud and flooded Rusland. I ended up getting the trailer stuck and had to winch it out with the tractor. Despite the weather we are now back to two kilns and making good quantities of charcoal but very quickly getting through the wood at Stoney Hazel. Luckily the National Park Authoriy has a big pile of wood for me to get through at Witherslack.I've also been helping James put in his oak walkway that he did for a garden up near Penrith. Looks great.
12.04.07 Its been a remarkable few weeks of dry weather. In a very short space of time the tracks in Stoney Hazel have gone from quagmire to rock hard mud. The wholesaler is desperate for as much charcoal as we can make and I’ve only got one kiln in action. Each kiln full of charcoal makes around £100 of charcoal , but then I’ve got £25 worth of wood going in, and paying £50 for help filling it. Overheads work out around £30 a day so its probably costing £5 to make this kilnful of charcoal. As soon as you do two kilns a day it starts looking a lot healthier but this just seems to be another of the dilemmas of coppice life, risk loosing the wholesaler who takes large amounts of charcoal when I can actually make it or pay to make small quantities. Strangely with such nice weather there have been more firewood orders and after more inefficient scrabbling around for the last bits of firewood its now officially all gone. We also got to sawmill up a nice bit of ash.
3.3.07 The daffodils are out and you can smell the Ransoms as you walk through the wood. Sure signs that spring is underway and we need to get on with making charcoal. Unfortunately I’ve just run out of wood at Haverthwaite and need to get cutting wood to burn at the new location at Stoney Hazel. To get round the shortfall I’m getting adopted apprentice Vince up to commercial speed with his charcoal burning. He has been apprentice to Brian and Louise for the first two years (who I first did a charcoal course with) but they’ve now retired and handed their business over to Vince. They were never particularly full on with their burning, perhaps a burn every 2 weeks and could afford to take there time filling the kiln to get the maximum amount of wood in. Their first layer in the kiln would tend to look like a work of art with graded sticks radiating out from a central point where leaves, sticks and brown ends were carefully put. The rest of the kiln was then filled in a similar fashion with thin bits towards the edges and bottom and the larger bits towards the middle and top. Vince looked slightly baffled that the ‘bung it in and set light to it’ method could work. Watch and learn! Anyway here's the last burn at Haverthwaite I won't miss the track up to the kilns, its steep and verging on impossible to drag a trailer up it.
30.01.07 One of the problems with coppicing related employment is the lack of money means that everything ends up being done on a shoestring and old equipment has to be coaxed into working harder than it should be at its age. Tommy the tractor is 40 years old and remarkably reliable up to now, has started overheating. After consultation with the tractor doctor he diagnosed new thermostat and new water pump needed and would order the parts and come back and fit them. After a week with no word I rang up tractor doctors to see if the parts had come. “They’ve just arrived this morning, unfortunately the fitter is away for a week do you want someone else to do it or wait for him to come back?” “I’ll wait till he comes back”. As the week progressed the cold weather generated a succession of firewood orders. Eventually I decided to do something and set too removing radiators, proping up fuel tanks, dismantling thermostats, removing water pumps all in a rather dark corner of the barn. Next morning I arrive at the tractor doctors with water pump in hand. “I’ve come to pick up the parts to repair the tractor I can’t wait any longer”. “That’s the new water pump in your hand , we came round and fitted it at the start of the week”. I thought all the bits came off easily.
12.01.07 Happy New year to you. 2007 hasn’t had a very good start with constant rain making the woods a no go area. This has meant that the tool shed is getting some work done on it but even this is being hampered because the workshop was broken into and most of our tools stolen. James has taken the loss of around £2000 worth of specialist hand tools and his chainsaw quite hard and is talking of giving up. Its hardly surprising as returns are meagre at the best of times and setbacks like this take some recovering from. I tried recording the coppice cam update on the video mode on my new camera. While the results weren’t very good the file size was 39 mB. Does anyone know how to cut this down to something more transferable? Here is a rare sight of the sun.
Gransfors broad axe with home made leather sheath
Gransfors carving axe
3 veritas cutters including 2inch
Clifton spoke shave
Oregon chainsaw sharpening grinder