Tag Archives: axe


2 Dec

I felt pretty lousy yesterday having spent a week in limbo with my wife moving house, moving workshop and setting up in Sheffield. So it was a pleasant and restorative Sunday 1st of December spent in the fresh air of Grenoside woods. Glorious winter sunshine found us amongst the Scott’s pine, self-set birch trees, oak trees, bracken and heather at the invitation of the excellent Sheffield Wildlife Trust, the Working Woodlands Trust and a handful of doughty Sheffielders – we joined together to gather winter fuel and build a cord to store and dry wood for fuel.

A cord is literally a stack of wood 8 feet long by 4 feet deep by 4 feet high. About a ton in weight – an ancient standard used by woodsmen of the past and present to calculate value of wood fuel (cord wood). Nowadays a cord of high value hard wood logs (like ash) will set you back about £150 in the USA it is cheaper at a dollar equivalent. The rise in cost is directly linked to the rising popularity of solid fuel burners. Three years ago you couldn’t give the stuff away.

On the day we used both modern methods (chainsaw, felling lever and timber tongs) and traditional methods (bow saw, bill hook and axe) to put down selected trees for the benefit of the woodland, to generate some winter fuel and stimulate the interest of the community.

I persuaded Fay, an Ecologist by profession, and a keen environmentalist in her spare time to ‘have a go’ with my small felling axe. Here she is putting down a self-set birch tree for cord wood.


She overcame her initial slight reluctance to swinging the axe at a tree after I told her a story about my mother. My mum (a single parent) used to say “I can do any bloody job as well as any man. I was a wood chopper and a grave digger in a Japanese prisoner of war camp from the age of 12 to 16 in Sumatra. That is how I earned a bit of extra food for my family, so don’t bloody well tell me how to put a shelf up Henk!” That was me told.

I have always admired women with a steel core in their back bone; I guess this comes from being brought up by such a tough, uncompromising parent. So I really enjoyed watching Sarah, of the Sheffield Wildlife Trust make short work of a Scott’s pine with her Stihl 260 chainsaw, and Fay, fell and sned up a birch tree with my axe.

Fell means many things:

From the old French ‘fel’ meant cruel, fierce or vicious: in Latin fello is the root of fellon or villain as in Macbeth’s ‘one fell swoop’. Faelan or fyllan from Mercian or Saxon means to cause to fall. Think of Lizzie Borden who, according to the nursery rhyme, took an axe and gave her mother 40 whacks. A nursery rhyme based upon a true story of the Sunday school teacher accused of killing her mother and father at their home in Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1892. Not that I have ever been tempted to copy her actions of course…..

Mr. Osborne has been wielding his metaphorical axe to the detriment of local government, charitable institutions and the general public for the past few years. He and the government he represents is our modern day fellon. It is good to see the real thing put to good use in the hands of people giving up their free time for the sake of their woodland and community.

They say a woman’s work is never done, all fellons should remember who wields the axe and ultimately who tends the hearth.


23 Sep

Cressing Temple Barns in Essex are a group of stunning 13th century cruck barns originally established by the Knights Templar.

I had the pleasure of demonstrating here over a busy weekend at the invitation of Joy Allen one of the organisers of the European Woodworking show.
What better place to celebrate the pleasure of working in wood than in this temple to old English craftsmanship.

All the magnificent oak timbers of these old barns have been felled and hewn by hand using axes. Pegged and braced with hand chiselled oak tenons holding the entire structure aloft nestled in the heart of Essex. I couldn’t find a straight beam in any of the roof spaces, and yet herein lies the medieval carpenter’s true skills. Curved limbs, huge ‘S’ shaped bracers, gigantic supporting columns only a handful of axe strokes from a mature tree stand in asymmetric harmony – for over 700 years – because these people could see the forms they needed to create a 3-dimensional wooden lattice within each living, breathing tree.

Likewise, visitors to the European Woodworking Show, hosted by Classic Hand Tools came with similar intent – either to find a fine new tool, learn a new technique, or just rub shoulders with other modern day carpenters, professional and part-time.
My daughter and I demonstrated letter carving on Saturday to several interested people new to carving. A gentleman called Andrew Turner knocked this out for his daughter

a rather fine effort.
We humans often forget the principal reason for standing up was to use our hands. The Knights Templar, skilled in battle and construction were limited only by the materials available in their era. Oak and axes, ash and spear, earth and plowshare. Knight or peasant, we all need to be able to carve out a legacy.


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.