Tag Archives: Elm


7 May


It is not often that I am reacquainted with old pieces I have made, but yesterday, travelling back from an assignment in Box Hill, Surrey I decided to drop in on a dear friend, and there, in his lounge was the telephone table and upholstered chair I made for him, back in the days I actually had hair (about twenty five years ago).

I arrived at a tiny hamlet at about one o’clock and my friend and I set out for a stroll from his lovely red brick and local iron stone cottage up the hill via the Pilgrim’s Way (the very same trail of Canterbury Tales fame) to St. Martha’s Chapel. Conversation spooled out on a congenial ramble allowing us to catch up with each other’s news, walking under a canopy of coppiced hazel, mature oak, tall beech trees, late bluebells, damselflies and bird song.

At the very top of the hill beside the church, my friend introduced me to his parents’ grave and pointed me to the house he grew up in on the other side of the hill. In that simple act he revealed much about his own polish. Throughout his many travels he always returns home to his roots. Kindness, thoughtfulness and a wry wit – the mark of a true English gent – it wouldn’t be too far fetched to imagine him in one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Back in 2001 he dropped everything and drove up to Chesterfield to support my wife after I had been sectioned following a breakdown. It was my small pilgrimage to see him which yielded the simple pleasure of seeing the affection I had lavished on a piece made for a true friend glowing back in the polished timber.

Alec's table 2


Burr elm makes up the cabinet and long legs with a deeply figured olive wood top inlaid with an elm border. The table is matched by an elm stool upholstered in rich plums and blues. The original commission helped me to dig myself out of a big hole caused by the untimely end to my grant funded job as a postdoctoral researcher at Newcastle University. With typical generosity and superb timing my friend suddenly expressed a desire for an old fashioned tall telephone table, with a drawer and matching stool – without stipulating a budget.

I knew he was fond of olive wood, having lived in the Mediterranean and worked for years in sunny climes and luckily I was able to find a stupendous piece taken from the root bowl of a mature tree. It was also the first time I experimented with ‘dishing’ the sides of a cabinet, repeating the concave profiles in the seat design. It is a dangerous technique involving pushing sawn boards perpendicularly across the face of an unguarded bench saw – concentration and push sticks are vital to prevent loss of fingers. He was worth the risk!

I shall now be able to imagine that every time he returns home from his travels, he catches up with friends and family on the telephone whilst sitting at the piece I made for him. He has polished it so much that it positively glows with a burnished patina seen only on fine old antiques like us.








Profumo di Donna (Scent of a Woman)

13 Feb

Profumo di Donna (Scent of a Woman)

In the original 1974 film directed by Dino Risi, a blind army Italian captain, accompanied by his aide Ciccio, is on his way from Turin to Naples to meet with an old comrade who was disfigured in combat. Unknown to Ciccio, the Captain means to fulfill a suicide pact there. While they journey, the Captain asks Ciccio to help him spot beautiful women. Unsatisfied with the boy’s descriptions, he uses his nose instead, claiming that he can smell a beautiful woman. The film was remade in 1992 starring Al Pacino and the story is about growing up and a man’s true appreciation of the beauty of women – even, and especially in the face of despair.

On my travels I found an interesting piece of waney edged elm at a timber suppliers in North Yorkshire. Cut from the edge of a large stem, I was struck by the figuring. Not knowing what I was going to use it for I set it aside in my studio for a rainy day.

As it happens, my wife, Clare has been renovating a small retail unit in Sheffield with me, to open this weekend as ‘Tea with Percie’. A cosy, tea room, furnished with hand made furniture, lovely decor and serving fine leaf teas in a proper pot, with hot water on the side. Clare bakes a mean cake or three, and will also be serving sandwiches and light lunches to anyone who would like to sit down and relax. The shop is at 557 Abbeydale Road, Sheffield, S7 1TA.

The is her logo (drawn by our niece, Percie Littlewood, who lives in San Francisco)

Percie 13

Anyway, I digress, Clare needed more seats for her shop and so I decided to make her a Valentine’s gift of a bench. As I planed and thicknessed the elm board I was struck by the figuring and with a pencil, sketched the outline you see below straight onto the board using the waney edge as a guide. I cut it in one single continuous movement with a jig-saw.


With the remainder of the elm and a slice of ash, I finished this trestle bench in the nick of time, Tea with Percie opens Monday 17th February!

bench 2

The reaction of some of my artist neighbours and the excellent Yorkshire Artspace staff at Exchange Street Studios, to Clare’s bench, has been one of hilarity and joy – which is exactly the feeling I had when the shape emerged beneath my hand.

As in the film, I have been as near to despair as The Captain and very nearly terminated my relationship with this world. Suicide is not an easy word for me – I much prefer ‘scent’ these days.  Were it not for the scent of a good woman I would not be here..

Women are the touchstones in my life – they have inspired great turmoil, despair, love, creativity and great happiness.

For me inpiration, is breathing. Inhale the scent of a woman – mine brings top notes of mischief, mid-tones of hard-nosed common sense and bottom notes of inextinguishable laughter. She is heaven’ scent.


13 Oct

I found a beautiful piece of American Cherry at John Boddy’s Timber in Boroughbridge Yorkshire. Thanks to the knowledge of Arty, who works there, we winkled out a 21 inch wide, 1.8 inch thick by 14 foot long slab of perfectly straight cherry. I am using part of it to make a dished seat for a shoe cabinet.


The trick is to scoop out the central area of the board by running it carefully across the face of a bench saw. The circular profile of a 12 inch radius blade is perfect for carving out shallow trenches along the length of the board to rough out a nice hollow for a seat. The idea then is to refine the dished profile by carving with a decent sized gouge, like these lovely Stubai chisels. By working on the raised timber profiles left in the wood you can gradually smooth out a shallow concavity.


Here the end grain of the board is shown with the dish profile clearly seen in cross section. A soft abrasive pad on a circular sander takes all remaining blemishes from the profile and leaves a lovely smooth seat – perfect for any backside.

This kind of carving also has the effect of enhancing the figuring in the board…


All I have to do now is wait for the glue to set on the seat racks to complete the piece. The carcass is built from oak and elm wood to resist rotting, and all the laths are made from cedar of Lebanon to counteract the stinky boots, trainers and sports footwear which will be tidied away in it.

seat 5

Autumn weather may have descended in dreary grey clouds, but working on this warm, pink slab of american cherry in my workshop has filled my head with colour. I am anticipating the pleasure of a valued client when I deliver his cherry red, burnished seat-cum-shoe store to him.



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: