Archive | May, 2013


31 May


Hanging a gate is one of those jobs to be savoured, especially when the client is a friend and the gate is a one-off. I used to reserve jobs like this when I worked as a countryside Ranger for days when the sun was out and the birds were singing. I used to think of these jobs as a ‘special’ – not really essential, but an opportunity to create a public access of character. A talking point for ramblers and visitors to the woods and green spaces of Sheffield.

My wife used to run a tea shop called Berteas in North Shields down by the Fish Quay and she would always put on a ‘special’ for the school kids who would drop in with their pocket money. A ‘special’ usually consisted of half a slice of chocolate cake and a glass of pop for 50p. It was particularly favoured by the twin boys who lived above the shop. These lads were tearaways – always up to mischief – Clare referred to them as ‘The Krays’. Her rapport with the twins and a whole host of salty, sea faring clients gave the shop security and a solid customer base. It was her way of oiling the wheels of the business and making her day more fun.

This gate is made from a cleft oak frame, morticed and pegged at each corner, the centre is a lattice of rhododendron branches. It now sits at the end of a garden about 120 yards long and opens out onto a public footpath alongside an arable field. It framed a glorious blue sky today:


Installing it was pure fun. Butterflies, wild flowers, sun shine and the wind swaying the barley in the field beyond. Definitely a ‘special’.


26 May



I had a very enjoyable day showing Joe here and a small, but diverse group of people how to carve. As usual I had prepared a structured programme for the day taking the group on a short journey through letter carving to relief carving with some diversionary chisel sharpening tea and biscuits along the way.

During the week running up to the course my wife had collared me in my workshop and asked me what I intended to do on the course. I had hit upon the idea of getting the participants to carve a shield and heraldic crest, which would enable me to demonstrate the various ways in which a number 5 gouge and a skew chisel could be used to carve in relief. I thought I was being clever until my wife said “Not everybody will want to carve a shield”.

‘Bollocks’, I thought … ‘Well I have done some heart shapes too’

“Well if it was me I would want to carve the design from scratch”

‘I just want everybody to go away with something finished, or nearly finished, the course is only for one day’ By now feeling less convinced by my original idea.

“It’s your course” she said.

Well, as it happens neither Joe above, nor Ian below wanted to carve a heraldic shield. Joe wanted to carve a bowl and Ian had the ambition to carve a face in relief. Two out of the group of eight were showing worrying signs of independence.



To be fair I was not phased by their spirit of adventure and both carvers produced work of a high standard: The beginnings of a tasty elm bowl for Joe and a very fine half face in a lump of cherry for Ian. Good job I threw some extra pieces of wood into the boot of my car!

Interestingly all four women on the course stuck with the programme and seemed happy to carve within the parameters I had set. All of them produced highly individual carvings and one, Lucy produced the strongest and boldest carving of the day:



A beautiful imbolc tree imbued with a celtic knot. Not too shabby for a novice.

So dear students I can lead you to the fountain head, but you must drink of knowledge in your own way and of your own free will.

I will continue to find my wife’s astute observations, and a significant proportion of all students’ intentions, exasperating! 



24 May


This is my daughter, Polly. Once a year we try to get together and do something neither of us has done before and meet on unbroken ground. We discovered that this was a marvellous way to share a bit of time together without the tedious dynamics of parent and child, because in the situations we choose we are both kids again. Sure, I am the dad and may be called upon to give what P calls ‘dadly’ advice – a delicate technique involving listening carefully (not my strong suit) and delivering wisdom (saying the right thing), which is bloody tricky. Yes, P is the daughter, but at 30 years of age is an experienced and successful business woman in her own right, so she provides the good humour.

I have come to the conclusion that, for me the most attractive quality in daughters is their ability to make us love and laugh.

This one is an absolute genius at it:


Here is my wife, Clare, taking the piss out of me collecting a hazel rod, which I had cut to make a walking sticks …. “I’m Gandalf!”

Her wit literally saved my life 13 years ago at a time when I was experiencing depression – in a park in Barcelona this acutely shy woman perfumed her ‘Special Ballet’ – just for me – to bring me out from a very dark place. It worked then, I am a sucker for physical comedy, and it works now.

She is of course a daughter too, the youngest of four children from a working class Welsh family, brought up in an atmosphere which promoted earning a decent wage above all else (from the age of 14 in Clare’s case) and limited ambition. Barren ground for a fierce intellect.

Clare’s favourite ‘daughter’ is her niece Percie:

H n Percie

Percie lives in California, here she is explaining to me that “It’s not SUMS Uncle Henk, it’s MATH” ….and making me laugh, a fine quality. Her other Aunt, Anna is no longer with us. I commemorated Anna in the blog ‘In Memoriam’. Here she is chatting up a handsome friend, using her wit to his advantage.


This daughter burned very brightly and she is still greatly loved.

I’m going to give my daughter away in August, when she gets married. A very odd concept, since she was never really mine to give, but I will try to do it with the same dignity as Fred seen here with his daughter, Whitney (Percie’s mum) to my youngest brother Simon.

fred n whit

Whitney was a stunningly beautiful bride on the day, but Fred was the class act. He managed, during his speech, to argue that because his family was descended from the Pilgrim Fathers, and had left Plymouth all those years ago, that Simon (who grew up in Devon) was actually marrying the girl next door. In this way he cemented the bond between two families in a laid back, unruffled way and allowed his daughter to be her lovely self.

If I can emulate this in August I will have honoured my daughter. For she, and all the daughters I have known give us life.



23 May

Spoon for a child in Rowan

Spoon – (Noun) From ‘Old English’ spon meaning “chip, shaving,” or Old Norse spann, sponn “chip, splinter,” Swedish spån “a wooden spoon,” Old Frisian spon, Middle Dutch spaen, Dutch spaan, Old High German span. In Greek the word ‘cochlea’ – which means a spiral shaped snail shell – is the word for a spoon. So whilst our Mediterranean forebears were using sea shells to scoop liquid and broth, early Britons made use of the materials readily available to them – coppiced timber. It is probable that spoons were copied from the cochleare introduced by the Romans.

Making a spoon involves cutting a large number of shavings from a piece of wood, in this case cleft from a branch of a Rowan Tree, using a curved knife called a crook or hook knife. You can acquire superb hook knives hand made by Ben Orford – I made this little spoon in 2 hours using one of his lovely hybrid crook knives. It is not quite finished yet, it needs a bit more sanding and polishing before it is sent to a little baby girl called Edie.

Here is the reverse side:

Spoon 2



18 May

I always look a grumpy old sod when I am concentrating. In fact in this reflection I am rather pleased with myself having just completed a commission for clients who are about to wed.


The clients’ brief was to make a mirror which was both ‘rustic’ and ‘smart’. I managed to find some wind blown elm wood and settled on a simple ‘gate’ design of cross pieces with gentle waney (natural) edges on the outside of the frame and clean, straight edges framing the mirror. The clients were happy with the design which is a good thing – I was aiming to bridge the gap between two very disparate tastes: robust and chunky vs lean and clean.

If marriage is the consummation of love, then a design brief is an invitation to the dance. Clients often have strong views about what it is they want you to make, but have little understanding of how this can be achieved. The important thing is to ‘move’ with the client’s lead and feel the music of their desire.

My mum always said: “C’est le ton qui fait la musique!” Meaning, ‘it is not what you say that counts, but the way in which you say it’. A smart rebuke for the smart-Alec little boy that I was. But I like the sense of it, because listening is the key to understanding.

Most people hear what is said, but don’t always listen attentively to the meaning of the words. Just as a reflection is a poor, two dimensional, inverted facsimile of the viewer, so a conversation can be either a dull exchange of everyday observations – where neither party listens, or a nuanced and rich exchange of ideas.

Rustic, but smart – that’s what I like.



12 May

This weekend the  Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust  organised a cornucopia of smelting, forging, green woodcraft, lace work, spinning, iron work, free machine embroidery, and leather work down at the Industrial Hamlet under the guise of The quality of the maker’s skills and the atmosphere was rich, restorative and inspiring. Even the inclement weather did not dampen the mood.


I invited Katie Bevan to help me make a cleft oak and rhododendron rustic gate at the Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet today. Here she is boldly sawing off a redundant branch from one of the gate pieces using a very sharp arborist’s saw. I was struck not only by the confidence of this young maker, but by the patient ‘hands off’ parenting of her Dad and the silent observation of her proud Grandfather.

Both these gents exhibited what is, in my daughter’s vernacular supreme ‘Dadliness’. The wisdom to stand back and let your child explore the world around her with all it’s excitement, wonder and risk whilst standing quietly in the background and just being ‘there’. It is a rare skill.

And, to be honest, it is your kids that teach you how to be ‘Dadly’.

Poll n H …and the lessons are easier to swallow over a pint.


Thanks to a helpful daughter I managed to finish my gate:



…. and be Dadly.


9 May

In traditional cabinet making, timbers are ‘ripped’ along the grain with special saws which have chisel shaped teeth designed to carve out a narrow channel or ‘kerf’ to produce straight planks or boards. In order to achieve this and be sure of a stable board which will not warp or distort with shrinkage the wood must be dry.

There is a way to produce long wooden struts or laths without sawing using green wood.

To cleave, to rive, to halve – all describe the act of reducing timber by splitting it along the natural grain.


This oak frame is made from pieces of oak which have been shaped from the original oak tree by cleaving. It is the foundation of a garden gate I am making for a client. The top piece retains it’s natural curvature having been cleft from a side branch. All of the pieces were split out of a larger oak beam (about 12 inches in diameter) using steel wedges, an axe and a fro, like this;


Here the felled trunk is being cleft by a combination of steel and wooden wedges and a big, home made wooden hammer, or mell. Once the beam has been quartered, then thinner, relatively straight pieces of oak can be divided further from these billets using a fro. As in ‘too and fro’

Image This is a fro – the blade faces downwards and the wooden handle provides leverage as the billet is being split. Knocking the blade into the end grain and wiggling the wooden handle ‘too and fro‘ opens up the split. The direction of the split can be controlled by applying pressure either side of the beam using a cleaving ‘brake’ – which is a kind of temporary clamp.

Pieces can then be shaped using a side axe on a wooden block:


or using a draw knife or spoke shave.

The resulting pieces tend to hold their shape over time and retain a great deal more strength because the internal structure of the wood has not been compromised by sawing ‘against the grain’. Unlike sawn timber, which warps when exposed to the elements.

To ‘cleave’ also means to ‘remain true’, or to ‘adhere to’. So, if you want a gate to remain steadfast against the elements for years without the need for preservatives or maintenance, use cleft green oak and a bit of elbow grease.


1 May

Manus is the zoological term for the distal portion of the forelimb of an animal. I’m a zoologist, I trained at Manchester University between 1976 and 1979 and stayed on to study centipede leg glands for a further three years. My wife asked me once “What does Ph.D. stand for?” to which I replied “Piled high and Deep”. I continued to pile it high and deep for another twelve years as a postdoctoral researcher, which is a posh word for a ‘drone’ or ‘lab monkey’. Until I finally had had enough and became a school teacher. I had much more fun teaching science to secondary school students and rugby to reprobates.

Until I became ill. Years of very black moods interspersed with periods of intense creativity and manic energy caught up with me and I had a spectacular break down. It has taken me years to calm the Tsunami of emotions and the resulting fall out to regain a confident lucidity I have not felt since I was a boy. Eventually I was diagnosed by a very competent psychiatrist, having seen a rubbish shrink for several years prior who did not help one bit. In fact I suspect the antidepressants that were prescribed for ‘chronic depression’ were partly instrumental in bouncing me in to a full blown psychotic episode.

But this piece is not about manic depression (a much more descriptive and robust term than the trendy BiPolar Type 2 I am labelled with). It’s no longer fashionable anyway, not since Catherine Zeta Jones and Stephen Fry made it cool. It is not cool. In zoological terms it is an annoying trait I may have inherited. This piece is about sanity.



I free carved this bowl from a lump of Australian gum tree using a mallet and a series of chisels. It took me about two days of continuous tapping away at the chisel handle with my mallet to hollow out the bowl. The concentration required and the repetitive nature of the exercise was rather like zen meditation and it left me in a state of bliss. 

I have made plenty of rubbish bowls and lousy carvings in my time, but I still achieved that state of mindful bliss every time I carved. My mind is calmed by this kind of exercise.

I believe that when the connection between the mind and manual work is at its strongest, for example during craft or art work that we move away from mental instability and achieve the centre ground.

The key moment in human evolution was when our ancestors became bipedal freeing not only the forelimbs, but large areas of the cortex for communication. We used to make tools, hunt and gather – now we sit at computer screens and tap keys. We pile it high and deep. Branch out a little and make something, after all a busy manus is the foundation of compos mentis.