Archive | June, 2013


29 Jun


The Crooked Spire in Chesterfield has been a daily feature of my journey to work in Sheffield for many years and it never ceases to be a source of wonder. To me it is as special as the leaning tower must be to Pisa’s populace. You can see it for miles from whichever compass direction you approach the town, and it affords a spectacular panoramic vista of North East Derbyshire on days that you can get access to the turret at the base of the spire.

I had an interesting conversation with the Verger on a visit there a few years back and we discussed the various theories about how the spire had become so deformed.

He first informed me that in olden times the Verger used to carry a ruddy great stick to belt people out of the way as the Bishop approached – literally bashing them into the verge. At six foot four, I could see he would be mighty effective in this role.

As we climbed up into the tower, I Looked at the oak beams and joints within the Spire. I suggested that they showed timber framing, or green woodworking techniques – marks from side axes, adzes, and wooden dowels holding the oak joists together. As the Spire was built only eight years after the Black Death had ravaged the country, could it be that there were not enough master carpenters around to do a proper job on the roof?
Had they employed more rustic ‘woodsmen’ using green woodworking methods?

He said that this was indeed the case, but that there was good evidence that the spire, originally clad with oak shingles (tiles), had been perfectly straight (for 300 years). During this time the oak frame would have had ample time to season properly. It had not twisted as the green timber had dried out.

He believed that it was the later addition of a lead cladding (33 tonnes) which caused the distortion (the sun’s rays being differentially absorbed around the spire, and extreme torsion resulting). The tower leans nearly 3 meters from true. The Spire had additional cross bracing installed in the 18th century to stop further distortion.

A lot of local firms use silhouettes of the Spire on their business logos, but remarkably the Parish Church of St Mary and All Saints gets no benefit from this powerful marketing image. I find this quite shocking – an extreme example of familiarity breeding contempt.

This amazing architectural gem survives solely on parish funds. A lone testament to the resilience of medieval joinery, and I reckon I can aspire to that.


24 Jun

Back in the late 1970’s I was studying Zoology at Manchester University when my younger brother Tim came up to study… Zoology. He is now Head of Life sciences at the British Museum of Natural History. I have two other younger brothers-from-another-mother; Nathan a Geologist working in Australia and Simon – like me, and our Dad a chippy – he lives in California (and has just become a dad for the second time).
This piece incorporates some of the wood from the crates my brother Tim shipped his belongings in back from Jamaica. The doors to be precise are made from Blue Mahoe:

The rest of the cabinet is composed of American oak (legs, side panels and shelved), and the top is made of native figured ash;

I felled and machined this piece of timber from a wind blown ash tree blocking a footpath in Chancet Wood in 2005. This is a lovely ribbon of ancient woodland skirting the historic Mercian/Northumbrian border in Sheffield. The plank comes from the central section if a heavily leaning branch – hence the striated figuring which looks like watered silk.
The timber has been air dried for 8 years in my workshop. A worthwhile wait.
I decided to keep the waney edge of the plank, because it seemed faintly sacrilegious to cut it off square.

This is a multicultural cabinet, a cupboard of the Commonwealth and United Nations if you will. Like my brothers and I, parts of us have travelled far and wide, parts have grown deep roots, but all of us come from a little wood.

And here they are: Dad(The Littlewood) Nathan, Henk, Tim and Simon. All chips off the old block.


22 Jun

Made these salad servers from local cherry for a newly wed couple. Carved the fork so that it partially encloses the spoon.
Kind of sexy salad servers ….




Made entirely using Ben Orford‘s superb cruck knives seen below

cruck knives

The lovely figured as they are sat on is destined for a sideboard I am making for the Graves Discovery Centre where I will be running a carving course on Sunday 18th August.




19 Jun


Jazz is learning how to make a spatula on a shave horse using a draw knife. Her brother George is pictured here shaping a piece of Rowan with a carpenter’s axe for a spoon blank.


These photographs were kindly sent to me by the mum of these lovely children – Lynn. In so doing she has given me an insight into how all of us learn.

At first I was struck by the look of concentrated delight on the little girl’s face as she let me help her pull the draw knife to shape her spatula – I was sat right behind her so I had no idea what thoughts were crossing her mind, or how she was taking the experience. Then I realised just how big I am in comparison to her, and this is echoed in the shot of George who is manfully struggling with an axe which I wield nearly every day (as a natural extension of my arm), on a chopping block that is clearly too big for him.

I could have chosen to miniaturise the experience for these youngsters, but I wanted to make my demonstration as real as possible. In so doing I hoped to be the bridge from the unfamiliar, and faintly scary, to the commonplace and useful: using real tools in the correct way to make really useful things.

I remember long ago an old teacher saying to me that Education was about taking a person from a position of safety to a position of ‘danger’ by helping them to conquer their fear. I would add to that, and say, anyone wanting to teach must find the source of their skill and generosity (for this is the true spirit of education) by acknowledging their true nature.

Teaching is a social enterprise which involves trust. Parents invest an immense amount of trust in teachers, which is a fact often overlooked by professionals in their hunt for better grades, greater performance, compliance with inspections and professional advancement. This trust is a gift which should be acknowledged.

We often forget that in the act of teaching we ourselves are being taught, Lynn, through her trust and generosity has showed me a reflection of myself I rarely get to see – true contentment.

Thank you!




Father’s Day

16 Jun

Father's Day

Alice and Tim Matthews spent several hours using a variety of lethally sharp hand tools making spoons with me at Wood Lane Countryside Centre in Stannington, Sheffield.

Wood Lane spoons

Alice Matthews and her Dad, Tim Spoon carving


This was indeed a Father’s Day




14 Jun


Just finished this gate for a client who wanted to stop his grand daughter venturing out of the back yard and improve the security of his property. A deceptively simple brief made more interesting by the fact that the client’s house is n a conservation area – so the design had to be traditional. I managed to get hold of some wind-blown Elm for the gate and some nicely figured oak for the posts. It got me thinking about the last time I saw a mature specimen of  Ulmus minor.

In the summer of 2010 I was in Wales on the Gower peninsula on a camping holiday with my wife. She and I had followed a rambling footpath deep into the Welsh countryside when we came across three huge (30 m +) trees in the hedge row beside us. We were struck at once by the size of the trunks (2 – 2.5 meters in diameter) and the distinctive oval leaves with serrated edges, puckered and rough on top and downy underneath. I knew at once that we had found native elm trees, and these big specimens had escaped the ravages of  Dutch Elm disease spread by the Scolytus beetle which has changed the landscape of the British countryside, robbing us of a majestic skyline in many park lands and open countryside. This secret corner of the beautiful Gower Peninsula holds three great survivors.

VLUU L200  / Samsung L200

I have found the odd small specimen in Sheffield and continue to come across the remnants of felled elm trees in local hedge rows which continue to coppice. Elm loves to reproduce by suckering. The tree may have withdrawn for a time from the limelight, but it survives discretely in juvenile form all over the British countryside.

Elm has fantastic properties for makers. My dad used to make coffins and guttering for the eaves of houses out of elm – it is renowned for its rot-proof properties (ironic when you think that the living tree succumbs so readily to an Ascomycete fungus). In the middle ages, large tree trunks were hollowed out for guttering, and because of its incompressibility it has been used for primitive gearing (in flour mills) and lock gates on waterways in the past.

I would love to see a resurgence of this magnificent tree, but it will not happen in my lifetime. In the mean time whenever I find a bit I will use it with respect. What better use of a random collection of elm pieces than a gateway to protect the next generation?

June 17th – the finished piece:



Dolce Vita

8 Jun

Dolce Vita

I have had some splendid holidays with my wife, but none can compare with the two weeks we spent in Cotagnano in Northern Italy in the Chestnut forests above La Spezia. A region known as the Cinq Ports, where Byron, Shelley and all the other mad, bad English Poets hung out.

This little medieval building was our home – cool and restful, it could be reached only by following an ancient cobbled footpath on foot. The path was built by Roman soldiers two millennia ago. Half an hour’s walk took us to a neighbouring village where a tiny restaurant with two tables served whatever was good on the day – wild boar, truffles, fresh bread, pancetta, olives – local produce cooked with skill and love.

I have been inspired by every visit we have made to Italy to visit Rome, Pisa, Florence, Assissi and the incomparable Sienna. The food is fantastic, the wine superb and the weather divine. The people are just amazing:

We were passed once on the Autostrada by a boy wearing shorts, an open shirt and flip flops doing 180 KPH on a Ducati 916 – speed, colour, flair and a devil-may-care attitude. It is with such intent that I executed this water colour. Viva Italia, Viva La Dolce Vita.

Mortar and Pestle, Faith and Work, in a Sea of Endless Possibilities

4 Jun

It is rare to find a physical representation of a thought. This is Zen.


4 Jun

I put a troublesome poplar down for a friend the other day and the conversation went something like this:
Friend “Henk, what’s the going rate for felling a tall Poplar at the end of my garden?”
H “Depends, but if I can do it as a straight fell, cross cut and stack it easily I will do it for one of your outstanding fret saws”
Friend “… ok, but only if you are sure”
My friend Wes Hedge is an accomplished wood turner and bowl carver and I always like to use hand crafted tools. Something made with dedication has an inner life all of it’s own. It may just be the knowledge and association with the maker, but for me it is a living essence.
So the morning came around for me to fell the tree and Wes asked me:
“Will we need to put a rope on it?”
To be honest there was only a 5% error margin in the direction the tree had to fall. A little too much to the left and the rabbit hutch was toast, a bit too much to the right and a lovely crab apple would catch the full force
“…Just move the gnome mate” I said
Three cuts later and a 25 meter tree dropped onto the lawn with no collateral damage.
The motivation of getting my hands on this baby was more powerful than money.
So now I am the proud owner of this fret saw.
Wes made it with a longer handle for my big mit’, so now I can make a birthday present for my younger brother Nathan and his new wife Anna’ sprog when it is born.
There is an old English expression which says that a fair exchange is no robbery. I would like to suggest that a fair exchange is the corner stone of good will and friendship.