Friday, 24 September 2010

birch bark canoes

In 1996 I took my lathe to demonstrate turning as part of the Mary Rose Trust stand at Bristol Festival of the Sea. My lasting memory of the weekend was not the tall shops, wonderful though they were. I stayed with fellow green woodworker Gudrun Lietz and one evening watched a video called Cesar's bark canoe, it was the most fantastic woodworking film I had ever seen, truly inspirational and if you have not seen it before I urge you to make some time this weekend because it is available online for free here.
57 minutes of the most wonderful woodworking, simple tools, beautiful design, tradition handed down through the generations to make a wonderful craft straight from the forest.

And to whet your appetite here are some finished canoes. This one was recently finished by Jarrod Stonedahl a talented woodworker in northern  Wisconsin.
And another from Henri Vailancourt, there is a nice piece on Henri in green woodworking by Drew Langsner. It was reading about Henri years ago and his Trust for Native American Cultures and Crafts that first started me thinking that we should have an organisation for our traditional crafts.

Birch bark canoes for me are one of the pinnacles of the world of greenwoodworking. If you watch the video of Cesar Newashish you will see what I mean. Look out for the crooked knife or mocotaugan, back in 1996 I went straight home, ordered the video and before it arrived I had forged some crook knives out of old car springs. I then adapted the design slightly and still use one of the first I made for finishing the bottom of every bowl I make.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Sheffield grinders and grinding wheels

It is difficult today to comprehend just how vast the Sheffield metalworking industries were, but whenever I am in town I see the evidence everywhere.

Today I was collecting wood for a spoon carving course next week. Anderson Tree Care are cutting trees from the banks of all Sheffield's rivers after the big floods in 2008. This is the worksite, trees are cut on the riverbank, winched 100 yards downstream by tractor then hoisted 100 feet into the air and dropped by the chipper with a big crane. I have a few seconds to spot the bits I want and cut them out before they disappear into the chipper. The cost of an operation like this prohibits any delay to save a spoon blank or two.

Anyway whilst I was waiting for the next tree to arrive I noticed the wall, not unlike many others built of local gritstone.
Looking from the other side though I noticed many of the coping stones were made from old grindstones.

 Where they appeared they were normally in groups of 4 showing that the stone had been rolled to the spot from a nearby mill then quartered.
 A friend lives in Hathersage next door to an old mill where they made needles, now you would not think that needles would wear out grindstones very fast, not like a scythe works say but this is their garden wall.
And a closer look at a few spares. Anyone who has done a serious amount of grinding will know that each of these stones has done many thousands of hours work. The fact that they are everywhere shows just how much a part of the fabric literally of the city grinders were.

Today there is as far as I know only one full time self employed grinder left in the city, a lovely bloke called Brian Alcock.

This is a short film Nicola made a couple of years ago when Brian was teaching our friend Grace how to grind pen knife blades with a suitably Sheffield soundtrack.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

another cool short film

 I may be a Luddite and use medieval woodworking tools but I also love some forms of technology, to me it's not a question of everything in the old days was good and everything today is bad or vice versa. Today we have the opportunity to choose the best from the past and put it with the best from the present, to choose what is best for the people of the world to live fulfilled, happy lives whilst not trashing the earth. We don't always seem to do as well as we could.

One of the technologies I love if used well is the internet and today it brought me this lovely wise old dude. I hope you enjoy him too.

SHELTER from jason sussberg on Vimeo.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Heritage Crafts Association plans and a bridge opening

The life of a craftsman often leaves little distinction between work and play, certainly there are less "days off" than those in full time employment but the work is very rewarding. So this was my weekend.

Saturday was a suit day, a trip to London to chair the Heritage Crafts Association committee meeting. Our committee have been working incredibly hard over the last few weeks as we move toward taking on a part time administrator. In the long term this will help us achieve a lot more and reduce some of the workload on the committee but in the short term it has meant drafting job description, person spec, terms and conditions, equal opportunities policy,  and at the same time we have been writing our strategic plan, data protection policy, organisational risk analysis and responding to a major government consultation on skills training. That is a lot of work for a small group of volunteers but we have a great team and have got through it. Then we got on to the fun stuff of planning our next big meeting, we have booked the Sackler centre at the Victoria and Albert Museum and it is going to be a fantastic day.

Our meeting there last year was inspirational but we had limited places and were very quickly fully booked. Sophie Hussain the stained glass mentor from Mastercrafts said afterwards:

"I had a wonderful time, and am still feeling the huge belonging to the right clan, at last...
It was really inspiring, and very different to the gatherings hosted by the creative chique designer groups..
I loved every minute, and the speaker was amazing, gosh if only I could remember what he said..every thing he said.
It all came to place at the right time for me, it actually meant some thing more important."

The next meeting is going to be bigger better with more places available for HCA supporters and some very inspirational speakers, we will be raising the standards and showing traditional crafts off in the brightest possible light. It is too early to publish full details but I can let folk know the date, March 19th and also I am delighted that two keen supporters of traditional crafts have already agreed to speak on the day. Tanya Harrod is one of the most influential writers on the crafts in the UK today, author of the seminal book "Crafts in Britain in the Twentieth Century" and passionately interested in traditional crafts including the industrial crafts. I really look forward to hearing her thoughts. Then HCA patron Alex Langlands will tell us about his experiences filming traditional crafts as part of the BBC Victorian Farm and forthcoming Edwardian Farm programs.

Back home on Sunday was the official opening of my bridge at Bradfield. The Lord Mayor of Sheffield and lady Myoress did the honours. The scissors provided were plastic handled made in Finland jobs but thankfully I had a nice pair of Sheffield made scissors in the van.

You can see the bridge in it's various stages of production here, here and here

Monday, 6 September 2010

Ancient carpentry and ancient woodland

This is Professor Oliver Rackham talking in the Cressing Temple Barley barn (built c 1205-1235)
Prof Rackham is an acknowledged expert on woodland history and he talked us through the timbers of this great barn, 600 individual timbers which he calculated came from 480 mostly quite small oak trees. In the UK today we have lost the connection between woodworkers, foresters and woodland and there is a great deal of misunderstanding and misinformation. We often hear our woodlands were decimated by the iron industry (cutting for charcoal, or by boatbuilding in Tudor times or by felling during the great wars. It is often said there are few really big trees now but in fact there are far more big trees now than there ever were historically.

The huge Barley barn was built 800 years ago and of those 480 oaks the vast majority were 6" 12" diameter. At the time the Knights Templar who owned the site struggled to find oaks big enough for the job, Rackham remarked that if we attempted a reconstruction today we would struggle to find that many oaks small enough. From Tudor times onwards we started growing bigger trees and cutting them into smaller pieces, in medieval times they grew trees to the size of timber they wanted. The largest timbers in the barn are 16" square which would come from a 2 foot diameter tree. Rackham calculated that a 10 acre woodland of coppice with standards would produce this much timber every 50 years and the Templars had a 110 acre woodland nearby. The vast majority of woodland in the UK at this time was managed as coppice for fuel, that is it was cut every ten years which makes for easy conversion to firewood with hand tools.  UK woodland was already down to around 12% coverage not much more than today. In each acre of coppice a certain number of larger trees were allowed to grow on for 3 or 4 rotations to produce timber trees for housebuilding. The timber though was almost a by product of the woodland having a lesser value than the fuel wood.

I was at Cressing for the weekend meeting of the Carpenters Fellowship. This is the annual meeting of the UK timber framers and as well as Oliver Rackham we had talks by Peter McCurdy who built the Globe Theatre amongst many other projects, Damian Goodburn, ancient woodworking expert and occasional Time Team specialist. I did talks on the Japanese Kesurokai  project and the Heritage Crafts Association as well as a hands on session of carving with knives. So here are a few more pictures of the site and event, the evening in the Barley Barn.
Timbers in the roof of the wheat barn (built 1257-1280)
and what carpenters get up to just for fun, flinging balloons full of water 150 yards.
It was a fun and inspiring weekend. On the way home yesterday I spent a few hours walking round Hatfield Forest, Oliver Rackham said “Hatfield is of supreme interest in that all the elements of a medieval Forest survive: deer, cattle, coppice woods, pollards, scrub, timber trees, grassland and fen,...... As such it is almost certainly unique in England and possibly in the world …….The Forest owes very little to the last 250 years ….. Hatfield is the only place where one can step back into the Middle Ages to see, with only a small effort of the imagination, what a Forest looked like in use.” , 1976, The Last Forest (Dent Books).

I spent a very happy 3 1/2 years working as a National Trust warden at Hatfield from 1991 and wanted to see how things had changed in 20 years, so pictures of some of the biggest and oldest trees in Britain in the next post.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Sheffield council to audit metal trade skills.

Sheffield is famous across the world for steel, cutlery and metal trades. Steel was first mass produced here using the crucible process and stainless steel first made into cutlery here in 1913. Times move on however, the majority of that kind of manufacturing moved out to China and Sheffield Council have successfully invested in rebranding the city "Creative Sheffield"

English Heritage have surveyed and assessed the cultural value of the buildings left over from the centuries of metalworking, many of these buildings have been renovated and found new uses, the best are highlighted in the book "One Great Workshop" The fate of one of the most important, Portland Works still hangs in the balance. The tools of the trades have been collected and aural histories recorded.

The one thing that has been left out is the very thing that made Sheffield what it was, the skills and knowhow of the metal trade crafts. This is what UNESCO call intangible cultural heritage and around the rest of the world folk are working to preserve such knowledge as part of their cultural heritage. The UK is one of few western states that has not signed the 2003 UNESCO convention on ICH and this means our old craft traditions are not recognised and not supported.

At a local level typically councils have a heritage department which is responsible for old buildings and museums, and a culture department which is responsible for arts, music, theatre etc. Traditional crafts fall between the two. Over the last 12 months I have had various meetings and correspondence with Sheffield City councilors highlighting these issues and this week learned that the council has allocated funds to conduct an audit of the surviving metal trade skills. This is a great step forward, the Heritage Crafts Association have highlighted the work of many Sheffield crafts and trades but we have no idea how many survive and which ones are in danger of dying out. The next stage will be to asses which trades are endangered and take steps to promote and preserve them. This is not about propping up moribund industry, often these are viable businesses and potential fulfilling jobs. Trevor Ablett for instance makes simple folding pocket knives, he has an order book till Christmas and can make a good living from his knives but he is 67 and has no apprentice. Few visitors to Sheffield would know he existed and it would be very difficult for any visitor to find a working knifemaker or indeed any craftsman in the city.
 By contrast in Asturias northern Spain where they also have a knife making tradition (though far less famous) the knife workshops are very much promoted on the tourist trail. The workshop I visited received around 300 visitors a day in the summer, many of whom bought knives.
The beauty of this is that not only is it providing good rewarding work (Antonio junior working alongside his father) but the heritage of the town is clearly alive, not presented as some dead way we used to make stuff in a museum. Better still because there is still a market for the product presenting heritage in this way costs a fraction of what it would cost to present a facsimile of a workshop in a museum.