Archive | April, 2013
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Sycamore

26 Apr

Sycamore

Timber from the Sycamore tree has a pale delicate hue with a fine close grain ideally suited for carving and cabinetry. It especially suited the terms of this commission – to support an octagonal alabaster tile inlaid with semi precious stones and abalone shell – which deserves to be displayed in all its finery. The design of the table came about as an attempt to reflect the cursive designs of the lotus flowers on the tile without in any way detracting from the star piece, the tile itself.

Sycamore is an invading tree species, thought to have been introduced over 400 years ago from central Europe, unless it is managed properly it can come to dominate our native broadleaf woodlands and parks because of its ability to come in to leaf quickly and hog the light. Large palmate leaves produce a dense canopy through which little light penetrates, making life difficult for our native woodland plants like bluebell, wood anemone and lesser celandine. This same property makes the tree a welcome guest in farms – their luxuriant summer foliage provides livestock and dairies with a welcome and cooling shade.

The sycamore is a survivor. A hardy immigrant to the British Isles, it can withstand salty sea spray, cold winters, shady conditions, almost any type of soil and usually flourishes wherever it grows. I too am an immigrant.

I was born under a tropic sun in Kano, NIgeria, near the southern tip of the Sahara I emigrated to Britain, never having seen snow before. The first thing anyone said to me when I went to school in Matlock was “Why aren’t you black?” I did not understand the question at all, as I had hitherto grown up as an African.

Accra 1963

 

I am second left from the back, and no, the lady on the back row is not the class teacher, the lady at the front is. I consider myself a pale man with a dark heart, contrariwise the sycamore is a tree, dark externally but revealing a pale heart.

 

It is not known when Acer pseudoplatanus was introduced to Britain but suggestions range from Roman times until as late at the 17th century. I was introduced here in 1964. I quite liked snow.

There was certainly a Sycamore in Dorset in 1834 when a group of labourers met under a sycamore and formed a society to protest against their falling wages. While trade unions were legal by this point, swearing oaths in a society were not, and the members were arrested and found guilty. The Tolpuddle Martyrs, as they were to become known, were subsequently transported to Australia, although they were released within two years. The Tolpuddle Tree has recently been dated and was found to have been around 150 years old when the meeting took place. This puts the tree, which still stands today, at around 320 years, far exceeding the common estimate of 200 years for the tree’s lifespan.

The tree which yielded the timber for this table was about 180 years old, it would have been a sapling around the time Samuel Holberry was a young man. Born 1816, he was a member of the Chartist Movement in Sheffield – an organisation set up to bring democracy, safe working conditions and fair wages to the working classes – he died, broken on the wheel in York prison in 1842 aged 26 after being involved in a plot for armed resistance against the ruling classes – betrayed by a co-worker. Visit his grave in Sheffield’s glorious General Cemetery and read the magnificent epitaph on the expensive headstone made from Brincliffe Blue stone paid for by the workers of Sheffield and chosen by his widow. He lies under the shade of many sycamore trees.

The sycamore, or Acer pseudoplatanus, is a resilient and adaptable tree, which grows quickly and seems impervious to harsh weather and pollution. It is an immigrant, like me. Perhaps being a common immigrant is not so bad, if the core of such a being produces shade for cows, materials suitable for violin backs, or a celebration table for an Indian tile?

Paramecium

21 Apr

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Nothing can match the deranged excitement elicited by my mate finding a couple of deep blue Paramecium ( a single celled predator) hunting Euglena (a single celled animal that can photosynthesize like a plant) in a sample of water from his pond. As he rightly pointed out, invertebrates are far more exciting than vertebrates simply because they are all around us, all the time; hunting, multiplying and evolving in all their miniature savage beauty. With a glint in his eye he quested further with a small pipette in 10 mls of fresh water ecosystem and rapidly uncovered two pale green Hydra waving their tentacles in the hungry hope of a planktonic snack.

This magical adventure came about on his dining room table all because his eldest daughter had decided to follow in his footsteps to study Zoology and it had become my great pleasure to pass on some of my old research tools to this next generation. The same demonic glint could be seen in her eyes as she chased the Paramecium in my old Russian microscope. Like father like daughter.

I shared three amazing years as an undergraduate with my mate – mostly holding up gigantic rock pool boulders whilst he explored the crevices beneath – “Keep it steady Henk! I think I see a cuckoo wrasse here……and some devonshire cup coral…..don’t move……there is a huge edible crab as well…..”, “The tide’s coming in!” “Yes, yes….just don’t drop that rock on me” – whilst we immersed ourselves in the intricacies of crustacean mouthparts, the feeding habits of periwinkles, calculating the size of dragonfly populations and finding slow worms.

“Won’t you miss the microscopes?” my mate’s younger daughter blithely asked. “No, it’s all in my head now”

Everyone should have the chance to hunt for Paramecium in a drop of pond water – the unicellular equivalent to the Cheetah of the Serengeti Plains. Except Cheetahs can’t reverse spontaneously and achieve top speed in a millisecond, and they are not deep and funky blue. It’s like watching a Zeppelin on amphetamines.

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Style

20 Apr

Design

I discovered this stunning Lancia Fulvia parked outside the railway station in Ostia at Christmas 2012, and in case you are wondering what on earth this has to do with woodwork I’ll tell you.

Years ago, when I was a teenager, my dad rocked up with my very glamorous step mum in a car identical to this. He had been made redundant from his job in West Africa so he had flown to Italy and blown some of his golden handshake on a Lancia Fulvia identical to this one. He had then proceeded to drive all the way home to Blighty in some style. I only need to look at this to remember him trying to give me a driving lesson on his brother-in-laws considerable gravel drive in Gloucestershire, and my weak attempts at controlling a vicious clutch. The Fulvia Berlina was designed by Antonio Fessia in 1963, the design winning many Rally Races and the Paris Dakar. The one pictured here is a 1.6 L developing 115 bhp with a top speed of 118 mph. Which, in a 1970’s all alloy body shell and chassis is seriously quick. To me this is a near perfect design for a motor car, it positively screams “drive me and you will become gorgeous”. I try to make my furniture pieces with this intent, it is an aspiration.

The car also represents an external manifestation of desire. I am sure that I get my passion for making and design from my Dad. If we see something this beautiful it stops us dead in admiration. You can keep your Ferraris your Jaguars (with the exception of the Mark 2) and your dull, boring German muscle cars. Give me a Lancia Fulvia any day; light, fast, compact and beautiful – just like my woman.

Here is the old man charming my wife.

VLUU L200  / Samsung L200  C that’s Mrs Littlewood to you

 

Lancia Fulvia

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War Pony

18 Apr

This is the war pony ‘Jos’ Leaking Sump, pronounced ‘Yos’, as in Hoss – named in honour of a most venerable warrior of the same name. Warrior Jos survived right hand index finger amputation in the battle of Iron Mangle aged 3 years and the Invasion of Sumatra by the Japanese Army in 1941 resulting in four years incarceration in a Japanese prisoner of war camp aged 11 to 15 years.

Warrior Jos is still alive and 82 is clinging on like a barnacle to a humpback whale’s chin. Jos Leaking Sump battles on also – 212,500 miles is, by anyone’s standard a long long gallop for a war pony.

war pony

 

 

The irony that this war pony is made by Mitsubishi, whose Zero Planes bombed the crap out of the American Navy at Pearl Harbour is not lost on me. Irony is a fine tradition amongst Native Americans who ride their reservations in ancient vehicles like this one. Amazingly this war pony has passed its MOT again, for the princely sum of £40 and three new tires, the MOT inspector hates this vehicle (because it leaks on his nice clean workshop floor), the garage mechanic hates this vehicle because its owner pays only in laughter. Respect the war pony.

Solitaire

13 Apr

I made a small table in 2000 for woman I met on a train to in 1998. I married her in 2003. The table top is made from Padauk, a blood red African hard wood of exceptional toughness and the legs are made from ripple sycamore (usually kept for violin backs). I made it freestyle (no pattern, no design, just an idea in my head) for someone who loves puzzles. I think it is one of my favourite pieces because it emerged entirely unbidden from the depths of my feelings for her.Image

We had collected the marbles over time from Hamley’s in London, from Fenwick’s in Newcastle and sundry toy shops up and down the land – just because she liked them – and I’d been steadily losing mine at the time she met me. She must have thought she’d found the mother of all puzzles when I completely lost the plot in 2001. I was sectioned and diagnosed with BiPolar disorder after a spectacular nervous breakdown.

Anyone who lives with a person diagnosed with BiPolar disorder has to be exceptionally tough and bloody minded, because we are mercurial mardy bastards, and that is on a good day. She derives solace from being alone, not being ‘mithered’ as she puts it, but by being allowed to just ‘be’. Solitaire is her favourite  James Bond heroin and reading, cooking and puzzles her favourite hobbies. In the story Solitaire had an uncanny ability to judge the veracity of others – Bond picks “The Fool” out of Solitaire’s deck of cards –  Solitaire:  “You have found yourself”. Her powers, as my grandmother (Oma) would say are ‘Voodoo!’

The Greek God Paean healed the other Gods on mount Olympus with herbal lore and medicines. In English the word paean means a lyric song of thanksgiving. Having been shown the cards by a master player and absorbed the lessons, this is the spirit in which I make.

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Carve My Name

8 Apr

Carve My Name

I took ten young novice woodworkers from stick whittling to letter carving in a day at the Graves Discovery Centre at Ecclesall Woods in Sheffield. Only two minor injuries to this doughty band of 8 to 12 year olds – both small nicks to fingers from sharp chisels – meant that about 0.1 of a mil of blood was shed. A fair investment for ten young people to walk away confident that they can wield a mallet and chisel to good effect. The small Gods of the Wood will approve I am sure if even one of these novices develop an interest in woodwork. The day was made all the more entertaining by the presence of local volunteers, green woodworking at the centre, keeping a weather eye on my charges and making them feel part of an ancient heritage. Young an old working together bound only by the discipline of working the grain of hard wood. They can carve their names with pride.

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Eagles blood

5 Apr

VLUU L200  / Samsung L200

This is the Traveller’s Tree. This one can be found at the top of the Limb Valley along the Sheffield Round Walk. In ancient Greek mythology the Rowan, or mountain ash, derived her red berries and feathery leaves from the eagle that fought a demon in the sky in order to retrieve Hebe’s cup. Hebe was the goddess of youth who kept the gods young by dispensing ambrosia in her chalice. She was a little forgetful, however, and was always losing it.

In Norse mythology this tree is the origin of woman (ash the origin of man) and many old cultures revere the wood as sacred.

Rowan berry

Each Rowan berry has a five pointed scar, where the calyx of petals falls away at the end of the spring to reveal the ripening fruit beneath. Pentagrams are ancient symbols of protection against malevolent forms of witchcraft, so it is perhaps not surprising that magic wands, divining rods and wizards staffs were often made of Rowan wood.

Figurative symbolism in plants carried great weight with our ancestors. I have tried a spot of water divination (Rowans often grow preferentially by springs and streams), but I cannot testify to the efficacy of the wood of this lovely tree in casting of spell. It is, however, a superb material for carving spoons and small items of useful woodwork. In older trees the creamy sap wood turns to a chocolate heart wood of close grained timber. It makes wonderful handles for tools, walking sticks and other treen. The berries can be used to make a bitter Vitamin C-rich jelly, excellent with game, and were used by the Celts to flavour mead and beer.

For me, though the Rowan tree’s intrinsic beauty speaks through the tenacious way she hangs on to her fruit long into the cold early winter, providing food for our birds and a radiant feast of colour for our greedy eyes.

Stand firm, repel evil, bear prodigious fruit. A modus vivendi.

a selection of treen made from Rowan Wood by Dave Jackson on a pole lathe

a selection of treen made from Rowan Wood by Dave Jackson on a pole lathe