First steps in Green Woodworking
With John Aiken
Nowadays most wood working projects seems to begin when someone goes to a shop and buys a sawn-up, planed up
(often chemical-treated) piece of timber. In the past of course, people had to start with the tree.
The first green woodworking project I ever carried out was on a 5 day workshop at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales about 20 years ago but its still carved into my memory. I wanted to make a handle for an axe head I had picked up at a car boot sale for just a few pounds. A group of us set to work on an ash tree of maybe just under a metre in diameter that had blown down in a recent gale, splitting it with wedges until it was in sections small enough to tackle with a froe.
Crosscutting a tree by hand into poles or logs of the required length for whatever you plan to make is not too difficult. However anyone who has rip sawn wood by hand will understand why woodworkers in the past generally chose to convert logs and poles down to dimension by splitting or cleaving them rather than sawing along the grain. Larger trees such as the ash we were working with need to be split first with wedges. Short logs up to 10 inches (250mm) and 2 ft in length (600mm) can be cleft using a splitting axe and mallet. Longer poles are best cleft with a froe and supported in a cleaving brake.
Once I had a section of the ash small enough I had to use a rough wooden club or maul to drive the froe into the end-grain of the wood leaving an even volume of wood either side of the split. The split tends to run into the fibres of wood under tension so that if one side of the split is smaller than the other it will start to run out on that side. Once the blade of the froe had been fully knocked into the wood, I put the work-piece in the cleaving brake and used the froe as a lever to carefully rive the wood in two. If the split does start to run out on one side then levering the froe back the other way can correct it. Some tree species cleave more readily than others do (e.g. catalpa, sweet chestnut, ash and willow) and all are easier if they are straight-grained and knot-free.
Working with hand tools out in woodland is a very different experience from chainsaw work. There is no harsh engine noise only the wind in the leaves and the calls of birds; no pollution just the scent of damp earth, of the timber and of woodland flowers and no constricting heavy safety gear separating you from the rest of nature. I was quickly hooked on this gentle and sensitive way of working with wood.
Working with nature is inherent in the very processes of green woodworking. For example in making my axe handle I was starting the actual carving stage of the process with a piece of wood that was a radial section of the tree’s trunk like a slice of the cake. This is already a close approximation of the cross-section of a finished handle where it sockets into the axe-head and furthermore means that the annual rings of the tree are now aligned at a right-angle to the blade. This means that what the tree has produced for you as it has grown is the ultimate natural laminated spring with all the flexibility of the tree as it blows in the wind now in the plane that absorbs the shock of actually using the axe!
Before starting to carve the shape of the handle our tutor encouraged me to draw around a suitable axe handle on the side of my cleft blank to give me a visual guide to what I was cutting to.
I used a side-axe to do the initial rough shaping making sure I kept my fingers well above where I was cutting with its razor-sharp blade! The single bevel and flat side of a side-axe make it possible to trim wood very accurately with practice but I do recall that it can be hard on the wrist for the uninitiated!
Once I had used the side-axe to go as near as I dared to the outline I had drawn it was time to move on to the shave-horse. What a fantastic piece of kit this is! They have been around for at least 500 years so I doubt that whoever genius invented it had ever heard of ergonomics but no modern expert could improve on the simple elegant efficiency of its design. (My definition of an expert of course is someone who knows more and more about less and less until they know everything about bugger-all!)
Essentially a shave horse is a bench with a foot-operated clamp which holds a workpiece stable at the right height and angle for it to be worked on with a drawknife (just a two-handled sharp blade used on the pull stroke) or spokeshave. And so I set to work with my drawknife carving down to the outline and transferring its shape into three dimensions. I quickly became fascinated by the smoothness of the wood left behind the cut of the drawknife and the shape of the handle with its elegant flowing lines emerging under my hands.
In these traditional crafts the wood is usually shaped unseasoned or green, hence the pun around the modern term ‘green woodworking’ (the wood is “green” and the techniques are “green” in the “clean, green” sense). The fibres of wood are much softer when green and so tools like drawknives leave a beautiful planed finish behind it. As the wood will shrink as it dries anything that needs to be a precise fit, such as the where the handle sockets in to the head, must be left oversize until after it has fully seasoned. However it is much easier and more satisfying to carry out as much as possible of the shaping before the wood has dried and hardened.
I quickly learned that you cannot successfully shape and smooth wood working against the grain. A wood like ash tears very easily and after a while I shifted to using a spokeshave which on this task is very useful as it can be used on the push as well as the pull-stroke. I became so completely absorbed in this work that people had to practically drag me away from it to make me eat my meals which, built like a whippet as I always have been, is most unlike me!
I have made many axe and other tool handles since then; here in New Zealand as well, using tea-tree rather than ash, but have never lost the excitement of producing something both useful and beautiful or the pride of actually using something that I have made myself. Nothing out of a shop could ever give that satisfaction!