THE CRAFT

For me the craft starts with a tree. I'm well known now to a number of tree surgeons for whom the usual method of disposal was firewood. There are dealers who buy wood for this purpose. Really big trees in good condition have a high value to sawmills supplying the woodwork trade but a local tree surgeon rarely gets trees like that and even when he does its usually trapped amongst houses where it can't be got out whole. I on the other hand work with chunks that must be moved around by hand and transported in my van so what I want is not commercially viable to the big firms. The deal then is anything with good colour, grain and texture and I'll pay twice the firewood rate, cash and fetch it. This produces a working stock of about 6 tons wet, two tons dry and another ton or so in between. I say about because I have to grab  good stuff while its on offer and hold enough to last through periods when its not.

A Yew tree just cut down (local church) roots left to regrow.

In the background end waxed billets stacked for first stage of seasoning.

Operating within a domestic neighborhood I have to keep quiet so I've sound proofed my workshop (a double garage) and use electric chain saws in there. The wood is reduced to billets according to best use of the logs as they come but typically 12 to 14 inches along the grain. I say best use as with most species you must cut at least once through the heart else it will split either to or from the heart and please itself where otherwise. As most trees grow with some degree of spiral twist to the trunk, if I let nature take its course one split can make firewood of the whole of an otherwise good log.

All the billets are end-sealed to prevent splitting and fungal attack. This is done by dipping the ends in molten paraffin wax in a large thermostatically controlled tank (a modified deep fat fryer). Once sealed they are then stacked outdoors but protected from rain and direct sunlight for at least a year. It does not matter how long you leave it, wood outdoors will never dry sufficiently to avoid warping or splitting when taken into a modern centrally heated home.

In the old days with open fires the heat went up the chimney and fresh air came in under the door so fast that the moisture level indoors was the same as outside. If you dried your wood outside at the rate of one year per inch thickness then it never moved again. A centrally heated home is much drier, so to be stable, wood has to be at least 6% drier than ‘air dry’ e.g. residual moisture content 8 to 10%. Outdoors wood will reach equilibrium ‘air dry’ at 14 to 18% variable with the seasons.

I find that if the billets are put straight into the kiln from the wax dipping, the onset of drying is too sudden and wastage to splitting very high hence the wet stock. The large dry stock is to ensure a variety of species and billet size because my stock control system is to hold a very wide range of goods then simply replace what gets sold. I watch what sells and talk to my customers a lot because over the years the various styles and types of product in favor ebb and flow and there is only so much space on a craft fair pitch. Additionally if I am going back to a venue I've exhibited at before I must have some new stuff on offer.

The dry billets are first picked over for grain and flaws seeking out big blanks for important high value products. There are then a whole range of products using smaller pieces right down to the scraps that make paper knife handles bottle stoppers and cord pulls. Big bits are never cut down to make small things unless matching multiples are required. As most of my trees grew in back gardens large sizes are always at a premium.

The kiln stage takes between 6 and 8 weeks so I run two kilns out of step with each other to keep a steady flow through the system, dry storage space is now at a premium.

Converting billets to blanks is done with a bandsaw and the only true waste is the thin slices taking off the waxed ends and the corners from rounding blanks plus of course any split or worm spoilt bits. This stuff is highly prized as fuel in the village, payment is usually in gin.

Sadly the dry shavings cannot be used around animals because of its dust content but chainsaw stuff has no dust and went to an old chap who kept chickens. He has now sadly died so the compost heap is getting very large. Workshop dust and shavings  rot down easily to compost especially when mixed with fresh grass cuttings so this all gets recycled eventually. Currently the waste wood from the chainsaw stage typically the ragged and split log ends and flitches are going to another small business in the village that among other things makes charcoal.

After all this the turning can sometimes feel incidental. The key factors are form, finish and price. Form is key to attracting a potential customer  but unless it can stand close inspection and feel good to the touch it will be put back. Finally price is crucial and I have to beat off a lot of quite good amateurs these days. But here I have an advantage, the amateur typically has to buy blanks already seasoned, which is expensive, especially from sources where moisture content can be fully trusted. I can often sell a completed product for what the amateur pays for a good blank. I rarely sell wood and as I only have premium quality stuff its not cheap.

Finally there is an odd phenomenon that happens at craft fairs especially with good crowds, the organisers lay things out to get people to flow round the show and that is exactly what they do, especially at big shows. You can find yourself with a large crowd in front of you just walking past not even seeing you let alone your goods. I take a portable lathe along and when the aimless mooch sets in I do something noisy involving lots of shavings flying around on my side of the safety screen and the crowd stops to look.

When the crowds don't materialise I just make stuff.