Woodland Crafts: An Essential Part of Self Reliance

Woodland Crafts: an essential part of self reliance

When Gail & I first came to Kohatu Toa Eco-Village four and a half years ago and became acquainted with the work of Koanga one of the things which most impressed us was the emphasis on self-reliance for the workshop programme.

Self-reliance is a key element in the way we are trying to live –we do not want to be dependent for goods and services on a system that pollutes, destroys and consumes our world and exploits people and other living creatures. The more we can stay out of that loop that happier we are!

Seed saving is the obvious example and the primary focus of Koanga Institute’s work, reducing our dependence on the imported products of multi national seed companies (many dabbling in bio technology). This, along with growing food (reducing food miles, waste & so much healthier and tastier) are Gail’s passions – mine are working with trees and the outputs of managed woodlands.

In the past woodlands supplied people with many things from fuel to tool handles, plates and dishes, that are currently (and temporarily, in the sense that reliance on a finite and dwindling resource can’t be permanent) provided by the petro chemical industry. Woodlands have the potential to be a completely and genuinely sustainable resource if properly managed. In Britain, organised woodland management (mostly coppicing) has been carried out for thousands of years and, if anything, has helped to increase bio-diversity rather than damage it over that time.

Coppicing is a management system that utilises the natural ability of certain tree species to re-grow from the stump or stool after being felled. Such trees can throw up a crop of a six or more poles off the stool after each felling almost indefinitely. The rotation length ranges from 4 to 30 years depending on a variety of factors: the particular species; how fast it re-grows; its location; and also what the poles are to be used for (so how large they need to be). There are examples of coppice stools in Britain that are over 2000 years old. Suitable coppice species in NZ include willow, poplar, acacia, eucalypt, ash, alder and catalpa. By comparison with UK conditions the rotation times here are much shorter with firewood sized poles being obtainable from established coppice stools in as little as 4 years.

For over 20 years I have been learning and practicing the old and almost forgotten skills of traditional woodcrafts. These crafts use a minimum of simple hand tools and various self-made wooden devices to produce a huge range of products. Thankfully in Europe these crafts have had somewhat of a revival over the past few years but they are less well known here.

Most of the products of these crafts use “cleft” wood. This is where round poles are split radially into sections or billets before being shaped into their final form. This has several advantages over rip sawn wood – it can be done without powered machinery using a cleaving axe or an L-shaped tool called a froe and a rough maul or wooden club. As it works with the grain of the wood rather than cutting across it, it also preserves the strength of the billet and reduces its exposure to rot.

Rough shaping of these billets is usually carried out with a side axe. These are the smaller relation of larger hewing axes or broadaxes that can be seen in places like the Kauri Museum at Matakohe. They are flat on one face and have only a single sharpened bevel. I have no idea why these tools disappeared from use over the last 60 years – I use my side axe regularly for many different purposes from putting points on stakes through to rough shaping billets for tool handles. I couldn’t do without it.

Out garden is full of the products of our community woodlands including bean poles, plant supports, gates, fences, trellises and hurdles and many of our tools have been repaired with handles I have made myself.