Archive | July, 2013

Show don’t tell

25 Jul

Years ago when I was learning the ropes a veteran woodwork teacher shared a few valuable home truths – I was on my first teaching practice.

Lying under a plane tree on holiday in Carcassone I remembered the event.

I was on break duty when a fight broke out between two strapping teenage lads and I as I stepped in to break it up the Woodwork teacher said “Steady on bonny lad leave it be”

Shocked I said “I thought we were supposed to maintain order and set a good example”

“The thing is lad, these boys get very little physical affection from their Mams. It’s their way of getting a cuddle. It’ll be over in a sec and they’ll be bezzie mates, you’ll see”

Sure enough after a brief scuffle and a few traded punches both lads, breathing deeply stepped back and shook hands.

This teacher then said to me “son you only need two things to be a good teacher: you need to really like kids, and you need to be able to make them cry. What you know is not what they will remember”. He taught me a most valuable insight – stand back, watch and listen.

This is a short video of me showing a boy how to whittle. Sent to me by the boy’s dad – Jon Harrison – it illustrates another favourite teaching tenet: show, don’t tell.

Trust breeds trust – the boy was very receptive to my occasional interjection to refine his technique. Hopefully all he will remember is that he can do it himself.




20 Jul


I was given this beautiful natural sculpture by a client and her husband to oil and polish. His dad, a wood sculptor named Ken Webb, who possessed some real skill, passed away only recently leaving a number of unfinished pieces behind. He had gradually lost facility in his hands and relied upon small power tools to work on his pieces.

Ken Webb had salvaged the core of an old rotten tree stump and painstakingly removed all the husk, detritus and flaking debris to leave this writhing mass of dark heart wood.

In finishing it I was encouraged to smooth and sand all the intricate curving crevices of the petrified flame and encounter all the tiny score marks of the sculptors tools. With due respect to his memory, and patient skill I have left many of the tool marks under the oil and wax.

If this is the soul of a tree then it dances an arabesque, a fitting tribute to a beloved father.

He seems to appear in this view….




15 Jul


I have always admired Chinese woodwork – not for it’s ornate decorations, nor for the fabulous hardwood’s from which the best cabinets are made. What I like best is the ‘pack it up and leave’ mentality that often underlies antique Chinese furniture.

If you have a chance to spend time in the Oriental galleries of the Victoria and Albert museum, take a close look at some of the ancient cupboards, chairs and tables. The removal of a couple of pegs usually allows the whole structure to fold flat and be packed away ready for transportation in the face of flood, famine, war or pestilence – they build beautiful modular furniture. Fiendishly clever joints allow the piece to retain structural integrity, whilst the timber – Zitan, Huanghuali – fabulously expensive, are so strong that legs, armatures, spindles and chair backs can be made light and airy to the eye.

This little shelving unit is also modular. It is made from spalted beech – beech that has been infected by an ascomycete fungus to leave black marbling in the grain. The shelves and brackets slot together via a T-shaped mortice joint so that the whole piece is laterally stable – it resists shearing forces.

I cut the shelves in the shape of an aeroplane wing – an elegant, semi-eliptical geometry which breaks up sharp edges in dusty room corners.

Spalted Beech 2

it is the first piece I made for my wife, Clare, so that she would have somewhere to put her ever changing collection of detective novels. Being a bit of a gypsy herself – she can take it to bits in seconds and leave for pastures new at a moment’s notice. Hopefully she will always take me with her.


10 Jul



Dry stone walls have been around since the Iron Age in the British Isles. In a sense they remind us of the gradual evolution of an agrarian economy moving away from feudalism in the dark ages to the ever increasing enclosure of land. Mending them is fun if you like three dimensional puzzles. As a technique, dry stone walling reached it’s peak with the ancient Incan builders of Machu Pichu – there are no gaps at all between the interlocking stones of the buildings here.

The building of a successful sturdy dry stone wall rests upon the way you dismantle it.



You can see that every stone recovered has been sorted and graded. Toppers (the triangular stones from the top of the wall), key stones (long pieces which tie the two sides of the wall together), stones graded roughly to size, and hearting (broken infill and shards used to plug up the centre of the wall) each have a separate pile.

This wall had collapsed into Chancet Wood in Sheffield down a very steep embankment. My young friend Tom helped me as the work is physically demanding, and I’m not getting any younger.

In the end we had to completely dismantle 3.5 metres of wall and dig out the embankment about 1.5 m below the garden level. We then built a concrete and stone foundation for the old wall and tied this into the embankment.



Picking up each carefully recovered stone from organised piles allows you to rebuild the wall in the same style as the original builder. Stones are laid in courses (rows) so that their edges touch and their top surface slopes very slightly down and outwards from the centre of the wall. Each course is laid so that stones above span joints below as near as possible – this give the wall integrity. The sides of the wall taper gradually from a wide base to the top – marked by the metal pins either side of the wall. This is called the batter. Throughout the construction it is important to use long stones, at intervals to tie the parallel courses on either side of the wall together and to keep filling the central channel with ‘hearting’.

What I like about the work is that nature, the weather and the client will find you out in short order if you don’t do a ‘proper’ job. It is the best kind of work – it is an ‘honest job’.



4 Jul

I think my favourite bird has to be the humble wren. I have been carving a wren into a chair back for a lovely commission: a story chair for a primary school.
The Head Teacher of this school is on the point of retiring after over thirty years of faithful service to generations of fortunate school children. When she asked for a bird carving, I immediately suggested a wren.

Industrious, discrete, vigorous and enthusiastic, highly intelligent and very smart, and perhaps a little shy – all qualities I admire. Appropriate too, for such a game bird.

The chair is nearly finished, all I have to do is hunt out an interesting piece of gnarly root stock for the arm rests. Then the children will be able to tell tall stories from on high to their fellow students as Jenny Wren continues to watch over her charges.

More pictures to follow!


The finished piece, complete with rhododendron arms:

Story Chair


The chair being installed at Mudella School. Mrs Bush and some of the children sanding it:

Story Chair Mudella School HL

Tell us a story


watch my knuckles


The finished piece before installation and varnishing:

Story chair un varnished