My course dates are now set for the year. It’s always a juggling exercise to fit everything in, especially as I have again been asked to attend scythe course and events around the UK and Europe. This year I’m aiming to run courses in some crafts that are otherwise under-represented. I’m particularly looking forward to the weekend on birch bark when we will dispel the myth that British bark is not good enough for box making and which I hope will act as a springboard for a new movement in working with this lovely tactile material.
My courses are based near Kendal in the glorious Lake District. Sprint Mill is a terrific place in it’s own right, full of old tools, wood and inspiration. There is accomodation nearby to suit any pocket, from camping and hostels to 5-star hotels.
For more information, visit my courses page. To book a place, please send me an email.
Green wood workshops
- Fan Bird Carving 27 May – £70
- Working with Birch Bark 2-3 June – £125
- Spoon carving 12-13 May as part of NW Coppice Association’s ‘Weekend in the Woods‘
- Rake Making 3-7 september as part of NW Coppice Association’s ‘Woodland Pioneers’ week.
As well as greenwood work, I teach the modern art of mowing with a scythe on these popular courses in Cumbria and around the UK. For more information please visit scytherspace.
- Learn to Mow with an Austrian Scythe 26 May, 30 June, 9 Sept 2012 - £60 per day
- Scythe Improvers 11 Aug – £70
- Improve your Peening 12 Aug 2012 – £60 Book both Improvers’ courses together for £115
Please note: you must be over 18 to attend these courses.
On Sunday I organised a group of volunteers, the NW scythe ‘gang’, to do some coppicing in Edward & Romola Acland’s woods. It’s a 2 acre hazel with standards woodland that Edward & Romola have been working for about 20 years. When they bought it, it was overstood and hadn’t been worked for around 30 years. Since then they’ve brought it back to a beautiful example of coppice almost entirely using hand tools. This was a chance for us to see a well-managed and productive woodland and learn about the many products that are cut from each hazel stool including hedging stakes, bean poles, pea sticks, garden stakes and of course firewood.
While we were working, I spotted some birch logs leaned up against a tree which Edward said had been cut last year for firewood. So when we stopped to eat I had a try at harvesting some of the bark. In spring when the sap is rising, the bark peels away easily whereas this needed a lot more coaxing and felt more brittle. Nonetheless I got two good sized pieces and brought them home.
The inner side of this bark is much darker than of the spring bark so I started to wonder if this is ‘winter bark’. In countries with a tradition of working with birch bark, bark is harvested in the dormant season for the darker coloured layer inside. This is scraped away to reveal the lighter bark underneath and make patterns and designs on the finished work, like these baskets by Jarrod Stone Dahl.
I contacted Jarrod for advice who said that they call this ‘purple’ bark. It’s considered a lower quality and folk over there don’t tend to bother with it. One problem could be that there won’t be much contrast between the colour of the two layers. Still, we agreed that you’ve got to work with what you’ve got and, since we don’t have such good sources of birch bark in the UK, I’m going to see what I can do with the pieces anyway.
In response to the request from an earlier post, here are a few more images of the latest two birch bark boxes.
The first box measures 72x95mm (68x53mm internal). £25 + £5 p&p
This box measures 80x90mm (75x50mm internal). £28 +£5 p&p.
More shots, see them (and lots of other photos) larger size on the SteveTomlinCrafts Flickr page.
Pictures of a couple more birch bark boxes that I finished during the holidays. These have bases and lids carved from green willow which is a lovely wood to work with, it was in just the right state and carved really easily and crisply.
After the first box I made I sat and thought about the different stages; what was difficult, what took the most time, what would I like to improve of the design and final product? Asking these questions was really useful and, along with looking at pictures of lots of other bark work, these latest two boxes were much quicker to make and turned out better too. With any new craft, it’s not until you make a few more items that you start to learn the techniques and what are the most important aspects of how to make them.
These latest two boxes are for sale, to order please use the order form.
The first box has a rebated lid and handle inspired by the spoons of Fritiof Runhall. It is 80x90mm, £28 +£5 p&p.
This box has an alternative design of interlocking tabs, 72x95mm, £25 + £5 p&p
Although I make as part of my living it is still also my favourite hobby and now and then it’s lovely to work with a new material and make something just for the pleasure of it. This weekend I got out some of the birch bark that I collected on a North West Coppice Association day in the spring. It’s thin, delicate stuff to work with and needed a fair bit of preparation to clean and smooth out the surface. I followed a traditional pattern, cutting notches into each end of a strip of bark which is then curled round and interlocked. A second piece of bark is glued inside to add strength and so the inside and outside of the pot can have the smooth inner bark showing though I decided I wanted the outer bark on the inside for texture. While the glue sets I used carved blocks and wedges to press the layers together. A handy hazel stick was cleft and shaved to make the base and lid. I carved the lid with a taper so it is a snug push fit and the pot makes a satisfying subtle ‘pop’ when opened. The handle is another piece of hazel with a round tenon carved onto it which passes through the lid and is fixed with a tiny peg inside.
It seemed to occupy a lot of the weekend though I wasn’t working on it solidly and it was very pleasing and satisfying to do. I’m very pleased with the result and will definitely make some others.
On Sunday I met with other members of the Coppice Association NW (CANW) at Moss and Heights Spring Woods for a day of peeling oak bark.
The woods were worked for many years by legendary coppicer Bill Hogarth up until his death in 1999. The woods were then worked by other coppice workers before management was taken on by the Woodland Trust. Just a few weeks ago a deal was made for the woods to be leased to the Bill Hogarth Memorial Apprenticeship Trust (BHMAT) and managed by CANW. The timing fell ideally for us to go in and peel some oak bark, one of Bill’s favourite jobs.
Bark peeling is carried out in the spring, when the weather is warm (even in Cumbria) and the sap is rising in the trees. This makes it possible to strip the bark easily, using a special tool looking like a blunt carving gouge. The bark is collected, dried and sold to the J&FJ Baker in Colyton, Devon, the last tannery in Britain using oak for curing leather. Rebecca Oaks gave us an introduction and demonstration, along with the motivation that 1 tonne of dried bark is currently worth about £600 which sounds a fantastic, but that’s a lot of bark!
A dozen or so people soon organised themselves with a team felling the oak and bringing it over to where the peeling was taking place. These meetings are a great place to catch up with friends and meet new people from the local coppice and greenwood working network. There’s always plenty of news and banter which makes the day fly by. It’s a somehow very satisfying and tactile process and many people commented on the suprisingly sensual nature of it. For me it was much like skinning rabbits or deer – you start off with a tool to begin the peeling but then the best tools are your hands, pushing and teasing off the bark. Inside, the wood is wet with sap and glistens with newness.
In amongst the oak which was being coppiced were a good few birch trees which were also felled but put aside. I’ve got a developing interest in birch and all it’s uses so I decided to see if I could peel some birch bark. In more northern countries birch bark is widely used for making containers, canoes, roofing, clothes and many other items. The bark here in the UK is much thinner but should still be a useful material.
I selected a good clean looking trunk and scored the bark with a knife to remove a small length of bark. Initially I could see it splitting inside and thought I was damaging the bark but this was actually the thicker cambium layer which came away from the wood too. It was then possible to peel the bark away from the cambium though a lot of care was needed at this stage not to damage the bark. We’re a curious bunch and my peeling soon attracted a lot of interest when people saw the sheets of bark and felt how soft but strong they felt, like thin leather. A couple more members had a go and we went away with bark promising to share our experiences of working with it.
By the end of the day we had a several bundles of bark for drying and piles of naked looking oak poles. These can be used for rustic garden furniture making, firewood or charcoal; the secret of making coppice work economical is to use every part of the tree, something that Bill Hogarth was a master of.