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circular bench for Merton College, Oxford

I have not posted much recently because I have been rather busy with one thing and another. One of these things is making a largish bench for Merton College in Oxford. The person I have in contact with for  this commission is Lucille Savin, the head gardener. I supplied various designs and the College choose what turned out the be the best one for the space.

As you can see from the photos this is not green woodwork, but incorporates skills from the other side of my business, which is making seating. In the past, clients have included museums, country parks, private companies including Forgemasters in Sheffield, owners of public spaces or private gardens; and are most often commissioned  as memorial seating, either in grave yards or places personal to the family or deceased. All this work is made to order and the process from design to delivery usually takes months.

 This bench seats about 10 people, in the newly designed Warden’s Quarters garden.

Lucille kindly gave me a quick tours of the college, an amazing place with centuries of history. I particularly liked the hinges on this door.

Which led into the dining room, which has a very finely finished roof.

Never have I seen such detailed braces, personally I prefer something a little less worked.

Below is some of the other benches I make

These below were made for Ulster Folk Museum in Northern Ireland

Some of my curvy benches which I want to do more design work on, especially the legs

Above was a bench made for Paignton Zoo out of a fallen oak tree in their nature reserve.

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Fan birds, the Raven

The raven and my fan bird making bench.

The raven – the first fan bird that I designed and made to represent a particular species of bird. All the birds I have made so far have been a stylized representation of a generic bird. I like ravens, very intelligent birds, like most of the crow family. A bird for this time of year with Halloween coming up soon. Made in the same way as any other fan birds, but with a bigger belly and a big beak, and then stained black.

It is very easy to get into a rut and just make what you usually make. Changing a design can result in failures and potentially wasted time, it is easier to make what you know.
This raven is hopefully just the start of many different bird designs.

As I said in my last post, I played around with some beech, and the wing tips had this lovely graceful curve. What I did not say was that I found another piece of beech at the Cranbourne Chase Wood Fair and tried to make another one with the same effect, as a public demonstration. Everything was going really well until I started the final thinning of the hinge, and the fanning out of the feathers. They started falling out, and by the time I had completed the interlocking of the feathers I only had half of them left. I gave the bird a small shake and the remaining interlocked feathers came loose. I was left holding a birds body, a complete failure and in front of 20 people as well.
As I explained to my audience it was not a total failure, such failures often hold a few lessons. The beech I used previously was green but had been cut down and left for some time. The beech I had used in my demonstration was very green and had been cut recently. The conclusion is that beech needs to mellow before making fan birds, just like hazel hurdle makers do with their hazel, they cut it in the winter and leave it for a least six weeks before using it, as it splits and works better after it has stood for a bit. I have also always found that beech does not split straight and tends to run off. I have never used that much beech in my career and I am not an expert on it like oak and ash. Is it me or is beech a bit of a sod to split straight?

I have stopped using a shaving horse on which to carve my birds and have made a dedicated bench. It is essentially a post vice that stands up on its own owing to the fact it was made from an ash tree trunk that split into 3 branches. I used a single vice screw and some 3 x 4 inch sections of dried oak beam I have lying about the workshop. All my tools are to hand, hanging off pegs or slotted into holes drilled into the bench.

Seen above is another use for this bench, and it is to make kuksas. I am using a French clog makers hook knife to cut out the inside of the bowl. The great thing is that I can walk all around the bench. I am sure I will find many other uses for this bench in time.

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Bench for Paignton Zoo

Through Andrew Cowan of Arbor Ecology I was introduced to Kevin Frediani, Curator of Plants and Gardens Paignton Zoo, which is only a few miles away from where I live. The outcome is that I am to make a bench for a show garden at the Devon County Show, which afterwards will be installed at the Zoo. Kevin is very keen on sourcing and using local material and craftsmen.
The bench is to be be made from a fallen oak in the wildlife reserve in the Zoo, so our first job was to safely cut the trunk from the root plate and sit it on the ground. In the photo below, you can see this oak partly obscuring a woodland path. The path is an old track way dating back to when these were ‘working woodlands’ and coppice and occasional standard trees were taken out of the woods for use. Paths originally built for carts are quite narrow and, being overgrown, a tractor could not extract the tree; so we had to convert it before carrying it out.
Dave Ellacott the Reserves Warden also participated in this work.

I would have liked the butt to be cleaved into quarters and then into planks, but because of the way the tree fell, we could not get wedges into the bottom end. The butt forked at the top and I did not feel confident that we could accurately cleave through the fork. So Dave ripped down its length and we split that quarter out with wedges.

Jenny is standing on the first quarter to be split out from the butt and its starting the second split along the pith. It is always good to have a couple of narrow metal wedges as fat wedges spring out from the wood. We used 2 metal, 1 plastic, and a couple of wooden wedges to split this open with.

The only things holding the top quarter on are a couple of cross fibres which had to be cut before we levered it round to the chainsaw mill. Cross fibres occur when the wood does not split evenly and strips of wood are attached to both sides of the split.

Dave screwed a flat plank to the top side of each quarter and ran the chainsaw mill across and under the plank. We got 5 good 3-inch thick quarter sawn planks out and a number of split triangular sections, plus what was left that Dave will use for various projects.

The only way of getting them out of the woods was to carry them and we soon gave up the carrying and pulled them instead. These may not look very big but they are extremely heavy. Just as shire horses pulling logs or carts speed up on an incline, we found ourselves doing this quite instinctively as well.
It is great working with other people, as I tend to work on my own most of the time. I really appreciated that Dave could call in help from other people. If Dave and I had had to remove all the oak on our own, I would have not have had the energy to walk back to the van at the end of the day.

We had to tie a rope around the rear end of the plank as it wanted to slip off the track, down the hill.

At around this point we saw the first bluebell of the season.

I wanted to use cleft and/or quarter sawn wood as it is the most stable and will not warp and cup as it dries out, but we would have had to cut the tree into smaller pieces anyway as the chainsaw mill was too small for the diameter of the tree.
The wood is now all at my workshop, and next week I will start making the bench.