Leaving the tool chest for a moment; we go back a few years to the Domesday Book and 1086 and an interesting fact – 13 saws were recorded in the kingdom, bowsaws were common at the time so what kind of saws were these? Probably not sawmills; mills are mentioned aplenty and millponds too but they were agricultural mills.
These are probably pitsaws, a gruelling job for two men; one of them in the pit and the other steering the two-handed saw and balancing on the level tree-trunk as they reduce the mass of timber to more manageable beams and boards.
Royal forests were spread over the whole country and this was where trees were allowed to mature and massive timbers for roofs and naval ships would be carved out by manpower.
The commoners coppiced – they cut trees while still young near the ground to encourage lighter growth, they would cut this every 15-20 years giving them a supply of timber that could be more easily handled with their felling axes, side axes and adzes, and their building techniques developed to accommodate these raw materials. Pollarding is coppicing at high level, i.e. at 2m or so from the ground to allow animals to graze without chewing up the new growth on the tree stumps.
To come nearer home and back to the job in hand; it is The Year of the Rains, nothing is drying very well, including my beech. My main concern is staining – beech can become mouldy and this leaves a dirty grey stain deep in the wood. Stained beech can be very attractive if the “honey fungus” has been at work – this is called spalted beech and we have made kitchens from this.
I moved the wood around in its primitive shelter, cut down the weeds to allow better airflow, and took out the elm and some beech to work on.
I don’t think I have mentioned the elm before but we cut down a small elm which was beginning to overshadow our house door at the Mill about 4 years ago. We felled it with the two-handed saw. The trunk was still lying there when I started this project and I decided to process it along with the beech and make a Chammer chair (Project 14 in our furniture making course), while the beech would be used to make a Carver (Project 15).
Elm is a difficult wood – it is cross-grained – the fibres are interlocked; and it is often difficult to see which way the grain is running. As you will see, this is important when it comes to planing timber. This tree was only about 250mm in diameter so this would also test another of my theories; that it should be possible to make a chair/chairs by hand from small trees. I’m going to experiment with branch wood later on in another project.
Elm doesn’t degrade much from lying around for a couple of years in the log whereas beech does. Again I was taking a risk with this; a small tree, four years lying around in all weathers; will it, won’t it?
As this one was only a prototype and not the chair of the project, I can clear this up now. The wood was OK; some rot, which I was able to avoid, and some staining which I think enhances the look of the chair. I don’t think staining will look good in the beech chair but I have enough wood to be selective.
The finished item was made entirely using the tools from Mr Wake’s tool chest except the feathers for jointing the boards in the seat. The boards were sawn out of one piece by hand with nothing to spare, so I jointed them with slip feathers made on the circular saw at the Mill. I will be prepared for this when I make the beech chair, perhaps I can make feathers with the slitting blade on the multi-plane, or maybe I’ll have enough material to make tongue and groove joints. You may be tut-tutting (circular saw?) but this is not the chair of the story!
Another risk I have taken is to assemble it before the wood had dried to 11% moisture – it was at 15%. However, it is made entirely of quarter-sawn timber, so I don’t think it’s a big risk.
Last year, when I was working on the shed, a blackbird built a nest on the gate – outside the shed there’s a gate which had a wheelbarrow upended against it. The wheelbarrow provided some shelter for the young family and they survived. This was brinkmanship which I respected but not something the cat would have reflected upon for long if it had come to her notice.
A wren built a nest in the shed roof this year between two neighbouring purlins, as I mentioned earlier. I had to work in there so we shared the place and I tried to ignore her although I would see her from time to time, perched on the gate, with worms dangling, wondering when I was going to get out. She got in through a gap above the doors and would occasionally be there when I came in, and would flutter around the place before flying out. I never heard any noise from the nest and was beginning to suspect that her family were no longer. Maybe she was in denial and was still busying herself about the place, because that was her job. Maybe it was my fault they had died.
One day, while I was working on the elm chair and the rain was pouring down outside (nothing new about that), I heard her fluttering around but didn’t look up so as not to startle her. She kept fluttering around, I looked up, and I was startled – she was everywhere, bumping into walls, sitting on the floor, perched on planes and poo-ing on the tool chest. She had multiplied. There were now four or five of her and I realised that this was her and the family, and this was a flying lesson. Even though the door was open they flew round and round gripping onto tools, bouncing off walls getting up off the floor for another 15 minutes and then one by one they flew off. Never to be seen again – but what a privilege!
-- Allan Fyfe, Lethenty Mill Furniture, http://www.lethenty-mill.com