Archive | March, 2013
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Speedster

31 Mar

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We found this little beauty on the wall of a converted 13th century chapel in a tiny fortified village called Cotagnano in Northern Italy on holiday one year. It is the centipede Scutigera coleoptrata – a most impressive arthropod which has been around, unchanged, since before the evolution of insects. Each of its fifteen pairs of legs is slightly longer than the set in front, this is because of the way it runs. It is the fastest arthropod on land. I have seen a captive one catch three blue bottles and subdue them with its poison claws in the blink of an eye, holding each paralysed prey item, conveyor belt like, beneath its body ready for a blue bottle buffet.

Sprinters have to adopt a particular ‘gait’ in order to propel themselves quickly across the ground. They aim to have their propelling foot in contact with the ground for the shortest time, the return phase being much longer than the propulsion phase. Think of a galloping horse – the legs appear to remain airborne for longer than they are in contact with the turf during a gallop. The very opposite is true in a tug of war, or scrum, where the propelling foot stays on the ground the maximum length of time and the return step is very quick – this gait provides maximum traction.

Scutigera runs so quickly that each hind leg over reaches the legs in front – hence the raked appearance of the appendages along the body. Unlike any other centipede, Scutigera also possesses compound eyes and is, therefore, very sensitive to movement in its visual field. It has a respiratory pigment and unusual dorsal spiracles leading to trachea or breathing tubes – feeding a relatively high metabolic rate. This centipede is the arthropod equivalent of a Cheetah.

Humans have for centuries tried to emulate Nature in the search for engineering perfection, speed and power. We can only admire this centipede’s level of pure biological sophistication it seems to me. It is astonishing to imagine how, in the space of a few million years of evolution, Natural Selection, working on the unlikely substrate of the segmented body of a marine invertebrate could have produced this miniature speedster.

Adieu

29 Mar

I have never been very good at ‘goodbyes’, so it is not surprising that I sneaked away from the leaving do I had organised for myself, four other Ranger colleagues and three apprentices last night, whilst the party was in full swing.

For the first time in many years I witnessed almost the entire Sheffield Ranger Service, present and past, relaxing and having fun after a splendid meal at Shapla curry house, in the Devonshire Cat pub. They deserved it.

Sheffield City Council has experienced some of the worst funding cuts recently and for our modest service this has meant several years of restructuring, early retirements and more recently, voluntary redundancies – all under the guise of ‘Achieving Change’. A hideous metaphor for ‘watch your back’, ‘survival of the fittest’, ‘competition for jobs’ and other such works of the Devil.

My friends had gone to a great deal of trouble to construct some thoughtful leaving gifts – a Bonsai Tree for me – which sits proudly in my kitchen window (thank you Tom) as a reminder of the number of massive trees I have felled. As James put it “You’d probably get that one hung up too if you felled it Henk!”. Great words written in leaving cards like Nick’s comment about my ‘obstreperous sagacity’ – a polite way of saying I can be bolshy. Claire had brewed some wine made from the dandelions around the Ranger Base – I shall look forward to sampling this in my workshop – apparently it is rather ‘dry’ so it will cut French Polish rather nicely.

Handshakes from Matt, a volunteer I have gardened with “You really helped me with my confidence by introducing me to the Saw Mill project Henk”. From Bob, the allotments Ranger “Fair play Henk, I don’t know many people who could be as open as you’ve been about having experienced depression and Bipolar Disorder, and used it to their advantage. Whatever you do in the future I reckon you’ll succeed”.

Helen would say “Only Budgies Suck Seeds” and she had persuaded her ex to drive her in from Rotherham to attend the do (she’d broken her toe and her foot was in a cast)  way beyond the call of duty, but a gesture I greatly appreciate from a highly esteemed colleague.

Or Simon, my boss, saying “you know where to come for a cup of tea” in a big gruff bear-with-a-sore-head kind of way, hiding the big heart of a truly affectionate man. The same man, who ten years ago took about a week to suss me out after a meeting in which I had been a bit ‘hyper’ as we Bipolar types would say in the trade. “You were a bit giddy there” he said. Most people do not have his perspicacity.

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And this person, my confidant, business partner, lover and heroin – my wife, Clare who accompanied me to the leaving do, making it feel less like losing something and more like eloping for a grand new adventure. This person made it possible for me to make the right choice, to become a countryside Ranger and work outside for 10 years with these wonderful people. She saved my bacon. For make no mistake, without her and without the Rangers of Sheffield I would not be the person I am now.

Bringing the Rangers together over a curry was my small gift to them. It is in the fervent hope that the damage done to this merry band, by the managerial policy of ‘achieving change’ will be put to one side and that they can under Ted Talbot, the Director of Woodlands’ leadership, once again become the highly respected guardians of green spaces they were when I joined. The woodlands, meadows, ponds, heathlands and parks are well served by this team.

So it is to The Rangers I say “Adieu” and not goodbye. My dear old Oma (dutch for Nan) always said “Adieu” because she could never really know when, or if, we would meet again.

In Memoriam

27 Mar

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I will always be grateful for the Rangers who constructed this lovely memorial bench for my half sister Anna who passed away nearly five years ago. Anna’s very good friend, Helen and I got our heads together at her funeral to try to think of a way to commemorate this wonderfully complex, infuriating and brilliant young woman.

Anna was born, Abigail – one of my favourite names – which became for her a heavy burden literally ‘A-Big-Girl’ – a bullying taunt which affected her relationship with food her whole adult life. She changed her name by deed poll to Anna Beth Iona Wilde, thus retaining the ABI in her initials. Only 35 when she passed away – a brilliant and much loved veterinary surgeon she had saved many pets, farm animals and owners’ heartache through diligent application of her skill and empathy. She was forever rescuing ancient moggies who were duly resurrected, Lazarus-like to become (in my words) Frankencat. I really loved Anna she always reminded me a bit of Dame Margaret Rutherford – an eccentric and slightly dotty Duchess.

I’m thinking of her on the day I leave my job as a Ranger for Sheffield City council, a job which has sustained me by employing my love of teaching, my fascination with natural history and passionate belief in the importance of connecting people with and protecting the environment. What would she say at my decision to take redundancy and move on?

I think she’d approve. As Grandmother Annie Wilde (the Irish inspiration for Anna’s name) said to my dad when he began his apprenticeship as a carpenter at the Co-op in Huddersfiled:

“Well son, if it’s good enough for the Son of God, it’s good enough for you”

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What I particularly like about Anna’s Seat in Fingle Glen, Devon is that the Rangers went to the trouble of building a stone apron in front of the simple oak seat to make it easy to maintain and to define it. A ‘proper job’ as we Yorkshire Rangers would say.

If you are ever down Drewsteignton way in darkest Devon, pop in to the Fingle Bridge Pub, have a pint and then walk up stream on the right hand bank for a quarter of a mile and find the peaceful spot where Anna is fondly remembered.

Rustic

25 Mar

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If you’re ever wandering up in the Limb Valley following the Sheffield Round walk you will come across a traditional piece of construction made by my friend Dave Jackson and myself in 2009. We were asked by the land manager and local farmer to make a stock proof fence at the bottom of Coppras House Field to stop his cattle wandering down into the Limb Brook. We had stockpiled some lovely larch posts made from trees that we had felled in Stocksbridge, to the north of Sheffield. I had also, at the time, been asked to thin out a stand of well drawn oak in Ladyspring Wood near Beauchief Abbey – a stand of ancient woodland bordering the ancient boundary between what was Mercia and Northumberland.

It didn’t take a huge leap of imagination to realise that the best solution to the problem was to make a cleft oak fence using traditional green woodworking methods from the materials Nature had given us.

The technique is simple, yet effective execution takes patience and sensitivity. In essence, long poles of oak, about 3 to 3.5 m long are split into 3 or four pieces longitudinally by inserting a splitting axe into the end grain and forcing the long sections apart by driving alternate steel and wooden (oak) wedges into the resulting split with a big wooden mallet, or mell.

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The split can be controlled to stop it running off and ruining the fencing pole by accurate use of a carpenter’s or small felling axe. The small axe is used to sever adhering ‘cross grain’ fibres which tend to pull the split off line. This is cleaving – the oldest way of making a straight, workable piece of wood by separating timber along the grain – it results in beams which retain their innate strength, which do not warp or change shape significantly (unlike sawn timber which needs to be dried before working).

The resulting long poles are debarked and each end of the pole is carved with a side axe into a square tenon – part of the joint which will allow the fencing poles to meet at the post. The upright posts – rot resistant larch in this case – were dug well into post holes and the mortices (hole in which the pole tenon sits) were carved using box chisels and a mallet. Adjacent fence poles overlap each other within each mortice, locking the whole structure to make a very strong boundary fence.

Access to the Round Walk below Coppras House Field was controlled with a swing gate – also made from cleft oak from Ladyspring Wood, with mortice and tenon joints pegged and drawn with oaken dowels.

Dave on the left and a huge pile of shavings – resting on the frame of the Round Walk gate.

Gate Frame Dave and Henk

 

The final result is, functional (cattle proof), rustic (traditional), sustainable (all materials provided by Sheffield’s woodlands) and easy on the eye.

A ‘proper job’ as they say in these parts.

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Gouge

24 Mar

I thought I would try writing this piece on my iPod – small taps of the finger to achieve a sentence or two feels like trying to whitewash the coal shed with a tooth brush, but it resembles the best approach required to carve hard wood.

Tempting though it is to select the biggest gouge in the drawer to carve a chair seat, belting the tool with a big mallet will only result in pulling out deep scars in the grain, uneven working and the need to keep sharpening your chisels often. It is better to start modestly and build up a rhythm of small even cuts, testing the behaviour of the tool against the wood. In this way, shaving away many fine curls of wood over time ‘reveals’ the shape you desire more surely than heavy handed hacking. There is no way to rush this process, nor should there be.

When we draw something or, write prose, we make constant reference to the subject – a frame work or a theme. Erasing sketch marks and redrawing, editing and re-editing sentences achieves the same refinement as careful carving. Image, meaning and form arise when constant reference to a pattern guides incremental work. Just as drawing is governed by rules of perspective, writing by grammar, style and syntax, woodworking is controlled by the properties of the timber and the behaviour of the tool in our hands.

Think of it as a meditation: many small cuts to remove a large volume of wood, multiple pencil cross hatches to render solidity and depth, words discarded before succinct prose is discovered.

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Metamorphosis

22 Mar

Michelle's doors

Ash framed dining room doors, bevelled Pilkington toughened glass panels

I’m looking forward to hanging these doors for my client. Just a few more passes with the orbital sander, some 000 wire wool and a gentle rendering with Danish oil before a good polish with bees wax should finish them off a treat. Florentine antique bronze handles to complement the decor and they will look lovely.

From 120 year old ash tree to air dried plank in 5 years; from air dried quarter sawn board to finished product in 40 hours.

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Favourite Tool

21 Mar

Henk 2010 Nordic style Laburnum handle

I have hafted a fair few blades in my time and fiddled about with different materials to varying degrees of success. It makes me think about what is my favourite tool. I have so many tools that I use regularly ranging from small hand tools like a superb brass and ebony mitre marking gauge which I use regularly to mark tenons; an old English axe head I found in a farmer’s market in Powys which cleaned up to reveal a 6 pound Elwell bearded axe which I was able to re-haft with a piece of cleft ash to make a superb felling tool, and a japanese saw which cuts on the pull, which is unfailingly accurate when making dovetail joints. Some tools I have made myself.

The knife in the picture was made in 2010 for a friend. I took an ice tempered Polar blade with a long tang and embedded it in a piece of Laburnum, capping it off with a button of buffalo horn. The result is an extremely functional, very sturdy, bush knife.

But even this is not my favourite tool.

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I inherited my favourite tool from my Dad (a master carpenter) and it sits between my ears.