It’s been a month of disasters and disappointments. Not that it started out that way. It began with a phone call from an old friend of mine, Dennis Sutton. I have known Dennis over fifteen years since the time he was a student with me. Dennis called and said “would you like a log of holly”. Now I’m not set up for dealing with timber in the round and I don’t buy in much green hardwood, mainly because I don’t know what I’m going to be making next month let alone next year but the opportunity to buy holly was almost irresistible. “What’s it like” say I. “Well it’s quite big” – he says “but the best thing about it is it’s very cheap”. “This tree is coming down in a friend’s garden and all we’ve got to do is take it away and give a bag of daffodil bulbs, (which incidentally I haven’t paid you for yet Dennis), and a donation to the church.” This to a furnituremaker like myself with notoriously short arms and long pockets became totally irresistible.
Holly is a wonderful clean, creamy green timber. It’s a slow growing hardwood and that gives it an extremely close grain that takes detail superbly
So we called in to see Dennis and took a look at this tree. His description was “it’s about 11 ft long to the point where the trunk divides and about 12 – 13 inches in diameter” which made it very big for a holly tree. I was excited because it’s so rare to get good holly and most holly trees are much smaller than this chap. Holly is a wonderful clean, creamy green timber. It’s a slow growing hardwood and that gives it an extremely close grain that takes detail superbly. This is borne out by one of its more unusual uses, this is for the wooden blocks used by wood engravers. Wood engravers would use holly or the end grain of holly for the carving out to make wood engraving blocks that were subsequently inked up and used for printing. The idea is the negative areas are carved away and the areas left gets a coating of ink and transfers the ink and the image to the paper. Herr Gutenberg you were a clever chap.
Holly’s not a cabinet making wood. It’s not very wide and the lengths you are going to get out would not be probably more than 5-6 ft long. The way we were going to cut this log was into a 5 ft and a 6 ft length. That would have enabled us to drag it out of the garden and manhandle it onto the back of a trailer. But more of that later. So the timber was earmarked in my mind as chair making timber. I wanted to make a pair of really large majestic chairs. I hoped that the largeness of the chairs would be visually opposed by the blondeness of the timber, and the consequent lightness of the forms. I almost had the ideas for these two chairs in my head. But more of that later.
“You have to come on a Saturday David”, said Dennis. “That’s when the gardener is here”. “He’s a strapping young chap and he’ll be able to help us get it on to the trailer”. I don’t like giving up my Saturdays at the best of times and Dennis lives in Dorset which is a good way from my home and our Devon workshops but this holly log my pal Dennis and now his neighbours requirement that the log be removed a. s.a.p all drove me on in the hope of wonderful wood.. On Friday I arranged to borrow from another Devon furniture maker, Mike Scott, a very big decent sized 4-wheel trailer which hooked on to the back of my elderly estate car. Now comes the first instalment of the miserable motorcar.
I’m not one for early mornings but I must admit it was really quite nice rattling round the countryside before anyone else was up.
I have taken to driving a decidedly elderly Mercedes estate car. I told one of my wife’s girlfriends that an 18 years old blonde German girl had just entered my life and her eyes nearly popped out of her head. She didn’t realise I was talking about a motorcar. Since then we’ve almost adopted this vehicle as a family pet. The children call her Melissa and cheer her on as she climbs the mountains loaded with the entire family pots, pans, tents and luggage. “Come on Melissa, you can do it, come on Melissa”. Anyway Melissa and the trailer wended their way back home in a cloud of white smoke. Ah – head gasket gone said my engineering friend. Put the trailer in the car park, Dennis wants me in Dorset by mid-morning, I’ve got a car with a blown head gasket. Nick’s car is the only one with a towing ball but that was nearly 50 miles away. I’m not one for early mornings but I must admit it was really quite nice rattling round the countryside before anyone else was up. Nick’s car managed to pull the trailer beautifully and I had a decent breakfast somewhere south of Axminster. I’m not an expert with trailers, my expertise extends to batting about in the summer with a camping trailer demolishing small bushes and fellow campers property. I have however learnt to park them wherever I can in a straight line. So when Dennis asked me to reverse the car with the trailer up this muddy hill and place the trailer as near to the fallen log as possible I gritted my teeth and thought of England. With a great buzzing of tyres, mud flying in all directions trailers slewing wildly this way and that I finally shoved it up the hill .
Dennis and I are neither of us in the first flush of youth, we were further handicapped by the fact that Dennis as turned one of his finger ends into a red mist by passing it too close to a table saw. Dennis was being very brave and bandaging himself up and covering his wound with a heavy glove. The gardener hadn’t appeared, probably because it was raining. “We’ll have to lug this whole log on to the back of the trailer”. Wet holly can be surprisingly heavy but we managed it. God bless you Dennis.
So I was on my way back to Devon and having got the wood the car and the trailer back to their respective homes. I retired for a well earned Sunday rest. The next week Melissa returned from the car doctor with a top end cylinder overhaul and new head gaskets and a £350 odd bill and John Bowden turned up to cut up the holly log. John and Mark, his son, have a Wood Miser portable band saw. This is an incredibly clever machine. It’s like a band saw set on its side that runs up and down on a track. You place a log and anchor it with dogs in front of the blade of the saw, set the height and then push the running band saw through the log. It’s a little bit slower than a conventional saw mill but the benefit is you can take the saw to where the log is rather than the other way round. So they set themselves up in the yard outside our workshops on a blustery March morning and I had great hopes for this log.
You place a log and anchor it with dogs in front of the blade of the saw, set the height and then push the running band saw through the log.
Usually it’s unwise to just cut up one small log the saw takes a bit of time to set the machine up and sawyers don’t charge until they start cutting. Both Mark and John are decent obliging chaps and where quite happy to cut this one small holly log and show my students and readers all about it and I am obliged to them for doing it for us.
I’ve had as much heartache as I’ve had joy out of opening logs and boards of material. But it is an exciting time. The saw started to buzz and slice into the timber and till you turn that board over you don’t quite know what to expect. What you do know that nobody else has ever seen what you’re going to see . The nearest we come to this in our normal work is in cutting band saw veneers where we are opening a 2 inch board and turning it into a dozen or so 2 mm thick veneers. Because I wanted this log for chair making I left the thickness at 2 inches but was quite prepared to change this strategy if something really exciting happened. The first piece to cut up was the shorter of the two main lengths but with the fork of the tree at one end. This fork is often called a crotch area and can have considerably good figuring. As the saw buzzed off the top board I could feel the tension rising. As we lifted off the first piece it became clear there was not a lot of figuring around the crotch area and there was disappointingly large knots inside the bole of the tree. Knots are caused usually where a branch grows out and you can generally see on the bark of the tree where knots have been. This log looked very clean and very free of knots so I was hoping for nice clean boards. But that sadly was not to be. The knots went right through this entire section of the tree leaving us very little clear clean timber. Hay-ho! The main bole of the tree was still to come. That was cut up in the same way. 2 inch boards and I was disappointed again at the start to see when we took the top board off the same occurrence of large evenly spaced knots. As we cut through the bowl however the knots tended to disappear and we got one very good board and two other certainly usable boards so I am hopeful that in a couple of years I’ll be telling you about a holly chair. I’m in no doubt that we will not get a pair of chairs out of this as I’d originally planned but we may get a single chair and we may have to make this chair a bit smaller than I had hoped. But I do think we’ll get something out of it so Dennis’s phone call was worthwhile after all. Thank you Dennis for thinking of us. It’s wonderful to have the opportunity to make a piece of furniture, hopefully a piece of exceptionally good furniture out of a disaster like losing a superb old holly tree like this.
The miserable motor car saga didn’t end there. Melissa took us all up to London for a long weekend. I was going to see a client, Carol and the children came up to for a few days in London, except we didn’t quite get there. Wednesday night at 11 o’clock on the M4 and Melissa showed signs of getting hot, losing oil pressure and losing power. We struggled our way into the Reading service area, rattling like a diesel taxi. Mother, 3-year old and 6-year old in the services with Dad flapping around like a demented chicken because he’s lost his car keys. Not one of my finer moments. The RAC man arrived promptly thank goodness but he couldn’t tow me more than 10 miles which wouldn’t get me to my friends house but he kindly got a quote of over £800 to tow me back to Devon. A more ‘reasonable’ quote was knocking on to £400 but I politely declined his offer and call my friend out of her sleep to come and rescue us. Never mind. All in a woodworkers year.
A more positive note are these funny looking tables. A client of mine asked me if I could make something like a table she had seen in a Paris gallery that was for sale for an enormous amount of money. This was a table made in the Art Deco period but it had no provenance and she wasn’t prepared to pay the huge price. I said of course if I can make it work and look good, I’ll be happy to. The design is interesting because unlike most low occasional tables where the grain runs from end to end, the grain on the timber on these tables runs from side to side. This depends on us using relatively thick timber to start off with. Giselle’s original table was very dark and lustrous. I did not want to make a solid rosewood table without really knowing what I was doing because Rosewood is so rare and expensive. To get around this we made a prototype of the design in the total opposite of this dark lusterousness we did it in bleached American ash blonde loveliness.
We struggled our way into the Reading service area, rattling like a diesel taxi. Mother, 3-year old and 6-year old in the services with Dad flapping around like a demented chicken because he’s lost his car keys. Not one of my finer moments.
Tim Hodgkinson, a former student of mine, some years ago and a very skilled craftsman made this piece for us. The bleached Ash has been a great success and shaping the edge didn’t turn out to be as complicated as I feared. Tim described to me how he roughed this out using an Arbor tech. This is a fearsome implement that is a bit like a chainsaw wheel fitted on a disc cutter. Its known in this workshop as the “Death Star.” Anyway Tim took the death star sat “with a broom stick up my bottom and my elbows tucked in to cut downwards to join a line on the table top to align on the underside of the table.
I wanted the rosewood one made in our workshops so Martin had been cleverly joining up 3 x 3 lengths of plantation grown rosewood when the rosewood arrived from Bob of Timberline. We thought this table would weigh something like two and a half hundredweight. The original consignment of rosewood weighed 3.3 hundredweight but it looks like it may be possible for two people to lift the table without doing themselves irreparable injury. As I write this the rosewood table has still a few days of work on it before we can be sure that it will be a 100% success, but already I’m confident the darker lustrous wood will have considerable qualities that the light and airy blonde version does not have and I can’t exactly work out what it is. It’s something to do with weight and presence and the difference between a light large object and a dark large object. Somehow dark big objects have a greater presence and gravitas and when you do it in a blonde wood it works against the weight and gravitas. At least this weight and gravitas will be going up in the back of Nicks car rather than mine.
The two tables have workshop names I was talking to a gallery owner who is expecting the blonde table to be in his gallery soon. “What’s it called” he asks, “I need to know for the catalogue.” “What on earth do we call it” I yell to Nick “Lauren Bacall” he says quick as a flash. So, Lauren Bacall she is. The other dark moody so and so is probably going to be Elvis. I don’t know what’s going to happen to Melissa but hopefully her journey has only just reached the doors of the scrap yard and she may have been reprieved from the death sentence more later…