21 Mar


Timber from a beech tree infected fungus inspired my inlay of an albatross gliding over the vast southern oceans.

Many fungi cause marbling, mottling and discolouration in timber, and whilst this rot may detract from the structural value of the wood, the ‘spalting’, as the patterning is called is much sought after by wood turners and knife handle makers. This discolouration was probably produced by ‘white rot’, which is caused by a common polypore fungus called Trametes versicolor, the ‘turkey tail’ bracket fungus.

Trees, like humans, gain character (and a huge disease load) with age. Beech trees, in particular, are prone to fail suddenly – huge limbs dropping off in a storm, or entire trees keeling over – due to the insidious activity of the fungal hyphae literally eating the tree’s heart out.

Yet, in so doing, we are sometimes left with something which is ‘more’ than the unaffected original. It is as though the humble process of rotting has wrought a truly beautiful transformation.

The albatross is sometimes used metaphorically to mean a psychological burden or curse from Coleridge’s ‘Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner’. I have always thought of them as truly unburdened in their wandering, effortless and epic flights.

I doubt there are fungi in the sea (bacteria do the rotting there), here is an escape from rot.



13 Mar


When I am making I like to think that I am ‘at one’ with my materials and tools – that I am in a calm zen-like state of grace.

I was smartly disabused of this rosy notion whilst talking to a very talented artist colleague who makes the most divine wedding attire in her pristine studio. I was having a convivial cup of tea with a bunch of artists from Exchange Place Studios, when Debbie Carlisle described to me how she had looked in through the window of my workshop door out of curiosity.

What she saw was a man with a fearsome grimace on his face, gnashing his teeth, whilst forcing a screaming machine through a gigantic piece of wood. I had been routing a piece of oak in the process of constructing these enormous gates.

Oak Gates

She mimed my teeth gnashing stance with vivid skill.

The Berserkers were Odin’s wolf or bear skinned warriors who were capable of working themselves up into such a mighty warrior frenzy that they would gnaw the tops of their shields and howl like demons. Probably scarring bejesus out of their foe.

As a man I do experience the emotion of pure rage. Usually when I am in my van (much to my wife’s irritation) and when I am confronted with unkindness toward others.

I have come to accept that it is probably a product of too much ‘juice’ or testosterone. Having taught at a boys school years ago I learned early on that plenty of physical exercise in the form of rugby, PE, hiking, running around and yelling rendered boys quite teachable.

Much is said about the problems associated with uncontrolled male aggression and most of it is true. Brutality towards those unable to defend themselves is inhumane and unacceptable, so can it be controlled?

Without our fathers we men find it difficult to make sense of the Berserker in us. It is only from a paternal figure do we learn to play the long game, patience, kindness, gentleness and courtliness and grace.

In my studio I will continue to be Berserkr (literally – ‘wearing the bear skin’) for it in this transformed state that I can focus my all my energies in honour of the old gods, releasing the demons away from polite company.


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.



9 Feb


I’ve owned some interesting vehicles in my time, but this Mark 1 VW 1800cc GTi Cabriolet has got to be the car which has given me the most pleasure on four wheels.

I didn’t even pay hard cash for her…. In fact at the time I was working for the Friends of the General Cemetery helping them to restore a listed Gatehouse, and I was driving an unbelievably boring Rover 400. Every day I used to pass an old fashioned car dealer on cemetery road and, there in the window was this peach of a car listed at £2000. I had paid £4000 for the dad-mobile. I wandered in to the gaffer’s office and said “Want to do a swap?” “Let’s have a look at your motor then.” said the owner…..”hmm a turbo diesel….ok, list price £3600, what are you after?” “The GTi, straight swap”…”Deal!” said he, and we shook hands.

Well I drove the GTi for about 6 years and every second was pure unalloyed pleasure. She leaked in the rain, rusted to lace and needed constant tweaking at my local garage, costing me a small fortune.

But, man could she move. That little GTi could burn off anything over a short stretch, corner as if she was on rails and with the top down was a thing of genteel, rusting beauty.

Clare, my wife, had to be armed with a large bottle of water when it rained, because the windscreen wipers were somewhat defective, the sound insulation was patchy, so driving down the motorway felt like being strapped to a Mescherschmitt BF 109 and there was bugger all luggage space.

Overheard on a night out with my Ranger colleagues at the pub:

“Whose car is that (indicating the GTi)?”
Pete Slater the Ranger Manager “Well, it’s either a poor drug dealer’s or it’s Henk’s skip”

As the old song goes;

Flies in the buttermilk, Shoo fly shoo!
Skip to my Lou, my darling.
Lou, Lou skip to my Lou!
Skip to my Lou, my darling.

x H



27 Jan


I’m not going to pretend that shifting two solid beech carpenters benches all the way from my studio to the beautifully restored old school that is the Grenoside Reading room was not a complete pain in the lower back.

But it was worth it to provide a decent stable work surface for the students, young and old, who joined my basic letter carving course on Sunday 26th January. The event was part of a Sheffield Wildlife Project in association with the Working Woodland Trust to encourage community understanding of the importance of Grenoside Woods for their own and the landscapes sustainability.

All 18 participants went away with a hard wood plaque with their own, or those of a significant other’s names – carved crisply with the aid of a small sweep chisel and a few gouges.

Max, Merlin, their dad Nigel and Sarah all had a good go with some decent off-cuts of Sapele, ash, sycamore, elm and cherry acting as a substrate. I have developed a method using shadow printed letters (120 pt plus) glued to the wooden plaque with aerosol glue – the students carve straight through the letters; a very simple method yielding a high success rate.

carving 2

When I was eleven my old woodwork teacher allowed me to use the very best tools in his collection, knowing that he could trust me to treat them with reverence. I think this can only be instilled if a teacher is generous with knowledge and the tools of knowledge. Novices may damage the edge of  a chisel, but it can always be resharpened. Students will not learn the respect and patience needed to achieve skill unless they are allowed to make their own mistakes.

Having said that when one young student (not pictured) started playing around with a mallet and waving a chisel around – un-chastised by the accompanying parent – I said this:

“I am not a teacher, and I play by very different rules. If you want to discover my rules please carry on messing about”

He stopped and carved his name rather well.


Special thanks to Sarah Sidgwick of SWT for organising the day.



13 Jan


Princess Velvet Violet was a figment of my daughter’s fertile imagination back in the late 1980’s when we lived in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Her mum made this lovely gown for her so that she could play at dressing up, augmenting the avid reading she used to do (generally under her bunk bed, with a glass of milk and some chocolate biscuits) through dramatic re-enactment.

She would spend hours buried in a novel, or story book developing her life long passion for literature.

On Saturdays, my daughter and I would stroll down to the Tyneside Cinema to watch a matinee with an ice lolly. The little Art Cinema would show runs of 1950 black and white films with Errol Flynn, Claudette Colbert, Marlene Dietrich, transporting us both into the silver screen. It is one of my fondest memories of being a parent – sharing that magical medium with my daughter.

The greatest gift we can give our children is to take responsibility for freeing their minds so that they can develop their imagination. The greatest gift they give us is the courage they express as they show their individuality through the life they lead as adults.

No national curriculum, refurbished education policy, or political cant will achieve this: only the instinct, love, openness, and muddle of a parent will do. Politicians and teachers on the left and right would do well to remember the old riddle:

“What can you be given, but you can never give back?”
Answer = an Education.



29 Nov


Every man should have a shed. In my case courtesy of Yorkshire Artspace I now have a very fine studio, suitable for woodworking, teaching future woodworkers, thinking and making, developing my business.

Various factors made me chose to install myself here in this lovely Art Deco pile below the old Castle Market in Sheffield. My small business has expanded to the point where I need to process timber more efficiently and have several projects ‘on the go’ at any one time. I realised that working within a community of artists and makers was potentially very beneficial, and much safer, and serendipity was involved in it’s discovery. Wes Hedge, a woodworker friend, gave me the heads up a couple of months ago and hey presto – a perfect super duper shed.

The studio has high ceilings with skylights allowing natural daylight in; it is on the ground floor with easy access to a proper load bay and it is an annex to the main building. This means I can work safely and make a bit of noise without annoying my artistic colleagues and neighbours.

Clients can visit and see their commissions taking shape in a generous space which gives them room to think, and they can view finished pieces and stock.

I feel as if I finally have a head space fit for creating rustic, fine and lovingly crafted wooden pieces.

The acoustics are awesome too – my old Dual CS505 LP player and NAD amplifier sound better than ever…. to find me:



7 Oct


Ash is one of my favourite hardwoods for making furniture. Light and strong, tight grained and easy to work, it accepts precise joints – like the dovetail in this little cradle made from olive ripple ash (Professional photographer Alan Howden has taken all the photographs in this blog). Our beautiful ash trees are under threat however, from a fungus called Chalara fraxinea. First spotted in Europe it has devastated 60 to 90% of Denmark’s ash trees. Whenever I use it now I am conscious of the changing status of our woodlands.

The term ‘olive ash’ refers to the distinctive stripy figuring found in older ash trees resembling the spectacular grain found in Zebra wood or Zebrano:

Table 06

This piece forms the top of a lovely long coffee table I made for a friend

Table 05

I am endlessly fascinated by the possibilities of revealing the best in timber, decades of growth, peculiarities of climate and the biology of lignification. The latter process – laying down the thick protective walls in the tree’s plant cells throughout its roots, stem and branches – is thought to be the primary way in which these long lived plants protect themselves against the main pathogens which attack them – fungi. Lignin is a truly spectacularly beautiful polymer made from phenolic (aromatic hydrocarbon) residues with the fearsome chemical formula – C9H10O2, C10H12O3, C11H14O4 n

Lignin plays a vital role in conveying water up from the tree roots via the sap wood to the crown of the tree. If you cut a tree in the spring it will literally bleed with water (sap) flowing up from the roots under the tremendous capillary pressure of the lignin impregnated water tubes – the Xylem – in the sap wood.

In most timbers the sap wood is paler and can be found directly under the bark surrounding a core of darker heart wood.

The cradle shows heart and sap wood:

Cradle 2 copy

In the ash tree the olive coloured heart wood is completely blocked and will not convey water, but the paler sap wood is the principle water highway of the plant. Chalara fraxinea grows within the water tubes of the ash tree to block water flowing to the leaves, which is why the tree ‘dies back’ as the common name of the disease – ash die back – implies. The leaves blacken from the extremities and drop off prematurely. In a way, this fungus exploits the very defence mechanism of the tree (the tubes lined with fungus blocking and strengthening lignin) by blocking the irrigation system with its tiny invasive threads, or hyphae.

The Forestry Commission are doing their best to report and mitigate the spread of Chalara nationally and we can be on the lookout for symptoms in our native ash trees on our walks through native woodland. A useful source of advice can be found on the Forestry Commission’s web site.

In the mean time I will continue to seek sustainably sourced timber and work with it in such a way as to respect and reveal it’s deep underlying structure.

Table 07



17 Sep


The ancient Egyptians discovered the benefits of sleeping on a raised pallet of earth to get a good night’s sleep away from the cockroaches, scorpions, ants and other nasty creepy crawlies which frequented their dwellings. Tutankahmun had a bed made of ebony and gold. Poor Egyptians had to make do with a pile of palm leaves shoved into the corner of a mud-brick hovel.

Wealthy Romans liked to entertain from their beds, eating, drinking, making conversation, running their households etc.. Beds have been around since Neolithic times and nowadays it is the place we go to rest, regenerate and sleep.

I have just finished building the head and footboards for a king sized double bed. I built the base of the bed from oak and sweet chestnut taken from managed woodlands in Sheffield (the base is not shown). The carved sides are made from local ash (a dragon on the right and a swan on the left) and the head boards from Hyedua – a African hard wood resembling rose wood. The sides of the head board incorporate a poem by Andrew Amaning – written to celebrate the marriage of the couple to whom the bed belongs.

Andrew’s poem is called:  I’m Coming Home

I’m coming home…To your arms that hold me up when I’m weak.

To the heart that I love with every beat.

I’m coming home.

I’m coming home…To the love we make just holding hands

To sleeping on your chest when I’m a vulnerable man.

I’m coming home.

I’m coming home…To fun ‘n’ games and sickly sweet embarrassing nick names

To the one who likes me both cultured and untamed

I’m coming home.

I’m coming home…To my love, my happiness, my peace, my piece of me, my husband, my wife, my life.

I’m home, I’m home.

Bed is home. Home should be sweet. Which is why I have knocked this little fellow up for the European Woodworking Show this weekend, in case there are any new born babies in need of a safe, gently rocking, haven.

cot2 figured ash with larch base

I love making cradles, and I love what kids and parents turn them into as they grow out of them. Planters, toy boxes, magic carpets, or just move them on to the next new sprog.

This one is in San Francisco:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA cherry with coloured carving

This one went to Barnsley…

VLUU L200  / Samsung L200 blue mahoe

This one many years ago for a very posh baby…

Ash Cot ash with drop down sides and turned rosewood fittings

This one for a niece

Cot elm and maple elm and sycamore

And this one a bit of fun for a friend

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA figured apple wood

‘Comme on faict son lict, on le treuve’ (As one makes one’s bed, so one finds it)….. the French 1590 origin of the phrase “Make your own bed and lie in it”



31 Aug


I was privileged to be asked to provide some of the backdrop to the handfasting of a lovely couple Sadie and Steve today deep in the forest of Cannock Chase. All the timber used has important Celtic and Pagan resonances.

The entrance arch to the sacred grove was held by the bridesmaids. Made from Hazel – representing magic and healing – rods were twisted together, steam bent and held fast with bast (inner bark) – a tough hand made cordage taken from Elm. Elm is scared to the Earth Mother and in Celtic Lore is meant to add stability and grounding. The red berries are from Rowan, the tiny scars in the berry ends are five pointed and are said to represent a pentagram, and the misty lavender flowers are from the first flush of Heather – a traditional symbol of good fortune and an apt decoration for a faery portal.

entering the sacred grove

Here Steve and Sadie enter the grove surrounded by the circle of their family and friends…..who arrived in this enchanted chariot;

wedding party


The couple were greeted by Bob, the master of ceremonies and organiser of this Woodland Wedding who commissioned me to make the arch he stands under. Oak and Rhododendron made in the shape of two keels (or whale jaw bones) with Bob’s company sigil in ash continuing the pagan theme and creating a space to conduct the ceremony.

Traditionally a Handfasting is a betrothal between two lovers for a year and a day, after which the couple can decide to part or stay together. It has its origins in ancient Norse – handfesta  means to strike a bargain by joining hands. Modern Pagan or Wiccan practises follow this ancient tradition of joining the hands of the couple and binding them with a ritual cord or ribbon and ‘tying the knot’.


For me the best thing about the whole event was the way two people came to together with Bob Worm’s help to create their own magical space and declare their betrothal in the late summer sunshine, observed  by those who love them most dearly – nieces and nephews, children and grandchildren.


It is never to late to find love.