I’m not sure what I expected turning up to a ‘stool’ making workshop at Global Gardens. I’ve had a lot of fun at the other workshops they’ve organised, like willow weaving, salad growing, and the introduction to permaculture session, but I was also asked on the sign-up sheet whether I had any experiences with wood working, and green wood working in particular. *gulp*. Apart from my lopsided birdhouses in year 9 DT and helping my dad with the occasional DIY project, I didn’t have much experience to speak of, but I signed up anyway, in the hope I’d be able to catch up.
Thankfully, the workshop leader, Claire from Coppicewood College took us through the processes slowly and with lots of encouragement. Making the stools involved surprisingly, a lot of gentle work with axes. Hatchets to be more precise. Most of the technique involved lots of tiny, tiny cuts made into the side of logs that still had the bark attached. We started off by trying to split a log for a small bench, but broke both of the beat-alls that she had brought along. We all felt quite bad about this. Beat-alls are a kind of crude mallet, and we spent the first part of the workshop preparing these for later in the workshop, cutting handles from one side of short logs to create a handle, leaving the rest intact.
The bark chipped away easily, leaving the exposed wood beneath. The workshop leader advised we used ‘depth cuts’, holding the hatchets near the blade and letting it cut deeply into the wood a few time with repeat cuts, before scraping the loosened wood away with more vertical cuts. It became interesting to hold the changing shape of the wood in your hand as you shaved parts of it away, and to understand the feeling of the twists and turns of the grain under your hand.
The smell of the wood was fantastic as well. With all the shavings accumulating on the stumps we were using as chopping blocks, a smell richer than sawdust was building up in the air as we worked. Apples fell from the tree beside us as we worked, surprising the people working on making natural dyes on the picnic bench to one side of us, and provided an accompaniment to the sound of our axes and saws.
As the day progressed, we started work on the legs of the stools. This involved sitting on the saw-horse, using your feet to clamp the piece in place as you used a blade with two handles to slice off scrolling slips of wood. This took a long time as, finding the right shape and size was a real challenge. The pointed tenons needed to fit smoothly through the open mortises, at the right angle.
Sitting at my desk I can still see the remains of a blister at the base of my thumb, which turned into a callous on my right hand from the axes. Wonderful tools, well-used but sharp, the axes slid around in your hands easily, becoming extensions of your arm as you explored the wood in front of you. Your hands only start to sting and blister once you stop.
Green woodworking was not what I expected. It felt good to build something that is going to be used so much, and hearing the workshop leader talk about coppicing made me want to learn more, since it is such a long-term project involving care for trees over successive years. Controlled strength and precision is needed to work with the wood, but so is an active awareness of the wood in your hands.