“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity… and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.”
– William Blake
“A sure cure for seasickness is to sit under a tree.”
– Spike Milligan
Hello! My name is Suz and I am a coppicer. Well… not quite yet. But I was lucky enough to be chosen to be part of the National Coppice Apprenticeship Scheme, which is a partnership between Small Woods and the Bill Hogarth MBE Memorial Apprenticeship Trust and funded by The Ernest Cook Trust – you can read more about that here.
This blog is a diary of my journey from London based care worker to fully fledged woman of the woods. It will document the lifestyle of a modern day coppicer and all the techniques and tools that are involved. This is such a great sustainable industry so it’s an honour to be part of the resurgence of the coppicing community. I hope you enjoy this journey with me!
P.S. Please feel free to correct me on any errors I’ve made in the comment sections below the offending post. This is a learning diary and any corrections will be greatly appreciated and will hopefully help others as well.
P.P.S. Please subscribe and pass on to anyone who you think will find this interesting. Cheers!
The truth must be told… My name is Suz and I am a basket addict. It’s been two weeks since my last basket and I’m already having withdrawal symptoms.
I made my first willow basket a few months ago at the Greenwood Centre with the lovely Rachel Evans of Wheatcroft Willow and the group agreed to start with a more advanced type of basket, an oval shopping basket rather than the easier round basket. At first I didn’t understand the pattern at all. I felt a swell of frustration rise up but persisted and under Rachels’ fine tutelage she got me past the first hurdle and I left the weekend with a beautiful shopping basket.
It is a sign of an excellent teacher to be able to guide eight or nine people in making a full blown oval based basket, especially as some of us were first timers, and then have them go away with something decent. I know this because, since the course, I have had a go at teaching and although I understand the technique and can make a reasonable basket shaped object myself, teaching others to do the same takes some skill.
My first attempt was to run a bramble basket making workshop at the farm where I often visit. Everyone was eager to learn this skill, and cut back the ever encroaching brambles, and with only four others it was fairly easy to get the basic techniques across. However, my second attempt, at the crafty Treehouse Festival, things became a little more tricky. Firstly, we were using pieces of willow from a tree that hadn’t been pollarded in a while so all the lengths were trimmed from this years growth meaning they were short and branchy. Secondly, everyone wanted to make a basket! I kept the group down to seven but that was still a tough amount of people to work with, especially as I was keen to make my own basket as well.
The art to teaching is to keep calm. It requires projecting confidence onto your students and giving them the patience that they need to give themselves as they learn a new skill. It requires empathy as one remembers ones own frustrations and keeping them focused on moving forward. It requires the right language and turning that language into visual instructions. No one will understand what you mean if you say ‘now this bit goes into this bit’ – as I soon discovered. It also required a never ending enthusiasm to answer the same questions over and over again. But with all that said, I loved every second. Some people even went away with something that looked very much like a basket. Both of these opportunities were invaluable and were great steps towards doing something I really love to do – to teach.
At first it seems like an odd combination but there was a common thread, namely our relationships to trees and woodlands and the threat that they currently seem to be under.
From a forestry perspective a tree is a crop. It is grown in large quantities and harvested for economic and resource based reasons. We all rely on wood and wood based products in our homes and going forward we may rely on them even more as we reduce our plastic usage and find other ways to create energy through biomass. The seemly chaotic climate along with the increased threats from pests and diseases are a serious issue to this industry and organisations such as Forestry England are thinking hard about alternative trees and ways to grow them that will cope in an uncertain future.
The artistic perspective brought in the emotional aspect of our relationships with trees and woodlands. It’s undeniable that we have been enamoured with trees for a very long time. They are present in our myths and our stories and hold a special place in the hearts of many cultures.
It is this emotional response to trees that can be helpful, and sometimes unhelpful. My own perspective has changed dramatically since I became a coppice worker. Before, as a city dweller, I’d bristle at the thought of any tree being cut down. But now I understand that a woodland is a living entity, and the individual tree is a part of that entity along with thousands of other lifeforms. Even so, respect is due to the individual tree and allowing a certain amount of emotion and reverence for the life of that tree influences the decisions that are made about it.
The question of the conference seemed to be; how do we bring both of these perspectives together to create a culture of respect when managing woodlands and harvesting timber? To encourage Each of the delegates were invited to step outside of their comfort zones and go to a lecture they may not be familiar with and that represented the ‘other side’. There was a delightful moment when a grey haired gentlemen working for Forestry England gushed at how much he had enjoyed a particular lecture and that it wasn’t something he’d usually engage with. Later on I saw the same gentleman enjoying a performance piece by Tom Marshman – We Need to Talk About Bambi, and I over heard him afterwards reflecting emotionally on the deer that he’d had to cull, a necessary but clearly not heartless act. In another conversation an artist lamented over the need to kill deer at all and the forest manager student next to her explained why it was necessary to protect our woodlands from over browsing.
These were the moments that made this a very special and unique event, an event that will hopefully be repeated again in the future and perhaps include a speaker on the benefits of supporting coppice workers and the woodlands they manage.
It’s almost summer so it must be time for charcoal making! This week I was at Westonbirt Aboretum where Brian Williamson has been restoring their coppice and making, among many other things, charcoal.
Charcoal making has this air of romance. I don’t know if its the plumes of smoke – that is actually mostly moisture – the site of people covered in black dust or the anticipation and skill in actually cooking the wood and not burning it all… or leaving it half baked, but it harks back to something earthy and oldy worldy.
In those olden days people would use earth mounds to cook their wood and this can still be seen at events such as Char Fest, which is hopefully being held again this year for new enthusisasts such as myself. Up until recently the ring kiln was the charcoal makers tool of choice. This involved lighting a fire inside the kiln and adjusting chimneys and vents to control the air flow and temperature. It also involved climbing in the kiln to shovel out the charcoal… which, I am told, is a very messy job indeed!
These days we have a marvellous instrument called a retort. Not only does it have an almost 100% converstion rate, (we only had two or three ‘brown ends’ – the name of undercooked wood – out of the entire burn) it also resuses the gases expelled by the wood as it cooks. A fire is needed to start the whole thing off but when it reaches 420 celcius the retort will use the methane gas from the cooking wood and it becomes self-perpetuating until the gas has been used up. And you don’t have to climb in the thing to get all the charcoal out.
I didn’t get a chance to try out the ring kiln but I did see how a retort, an oil drum and even a tin can will turn wood into charcoal and I’m looking forward to practicing the latter two when I get home.
“Why use charcoal?” I asked, hoping I wasn’t about to shoot myself in the business foot. But Brian gave some good answers… charcoal burns at a hotter temperature, turns into embers quickly and has no smoke. The charcoal that is made by local woodland and coppice workers also has the added benefit of being additive free, has reduced transport miles and of course it supports us woodland folk to support our woodlands. Sounds good to me!
At this time of year woodland lovers marvel at the beauty of bluebells woods. Suddenly the usual green hue is carpetted in a luminous blue and sweet aroma. People tread carefully, if at all, so as to not trample all over these very welcomed inhabitants.
But its not just the bluebells that inhabit our woodlands at this time of year. When given some light through woodland management, such as coppicing, many other species of flower adorn the woodland floor. As I took a stroll through last years coup at Greenbroom I was astonished to see the variety of woodland flowers and it really hit home how important woodland management is for the biodiversty of this ecosystem.
I have no idea what most of these flowers are so please enlightenment if you see any you recognise!
Well, the bluebells are out in force, the leaves are bursting into life and I am exhausted. So it must be spring! With my first coup nearly finished and ready to enjoy all the lovely sunlight it can now receive I am ready to settle down into making and selling mode.
I’ve been really lucky to have three woods to work in this winter and each have offered a different experience. Iain Loasby showed me how the professionals do it – well finish it, because I actually missed the cutting part – and then I got the chance to work in a fairly productive woodland in Worcester filling real life orders for real life clients. Finally I was able to put my heart and soul into a little coup in South Oxfordshire where I have been given to chance to practice everything I’ve learnt.
The coup in South Oxfordshire is rented by a farming co-op called GreenBroom. It was a very small and very over-stood so was more of a restoration project rather than a fully functioning coppice. Even so, there has been a chance to sell a few products and have already sold some bean poles in the farm shop. I also have plenty of pea-sticks if anyone is interested!
The hazel is quite sparse in this coup so I’ve layered some of the trees. This will hopefully increase the density for the next cut. I’ve also left small piles of wood to rot down and turn into habitats for the local small mammal population. The chickens also seem to like to use the brash piles as secret laying spots.
All the material has been put into a hedge around the coup so that over the next year, once the material starts to dry out, we can use it for firewood and kindle, as well as making pretty fences and other various crafty things.
I’m shattered but its been great fun and now I get to think about what I will make!
I had a chance this weekend to really get my teeth into woodland management. After spending a lot of time in the woods over the winter and taking part in coppicing, felling trees and watching tree surgeons top and lop, I was excited to be able to correlate some of my practical experience with the management side of things.
The workshop was led by Jim Waterson, who has managing woodlands for many years and now teaches other newbies like me.
Of course, my main interest is the coppice aspect of woodland management, but it was also interesting to learn about what is called High Forest – the trees that you don’t coppice.
Making a woodland management plan involves quite a few considerations. These are short-term and long-term considerations, often thinking beyond your own lifetime. A plan also needs to be clear and easy to understand so that who ever inherits the plan can understand what you were on about and what your vision for the woodland was.
A big consideration at this time is climate change/chaos. We are in a period of unpredictable weather that could adversely effect our native woodland species. With the prediction of rising temperatures and water levels we need to be thinking about what tree species are going to thrive best in this environment. Some species of french oak might fair better in hotter climes and species such as lime and sycamore might be more hardy in hotter weather. (Ideally, we’d be holding the industries responsible for climate chaos accountable and not needing to apply any damage control – but there you go.)
Pests and diseases are also on the up. This is due mostly to imports but is compounded by climate chaos which stresses the trees, leaving them more susceptible to attacks.
Management of a woodland comes with a fair amount of responsibility, especially if one has public paths. However, even if you don’t have the public wandering through your woods you are still liable for taking measures to ensure that the woodland is well-managed and that any dangerous branch or tree is dealt with. Public liability insurance is a good idea.
When it comes to the legal side of things most small woodland owners won’t need a felling licence. One is allowed to fell up to 5 cubic metres per quarter and if you’ve just bought a 6 acre woodland.co.uk property you could probably cut your entire woodland down in a year with that (please don’t). Some types of felling are also exempt and coppicing trees under 150mm comes under this, which is handy. But make sure you check with your local tree officer before undertaking any work. Any trees cut down that are in a designated area and require a license or have a Tree Preservation Order could leave you in court.
If you are interested in taking one of these courses then get in touch with the Small Woods Association or do a quick search online and look out for Jim Waterson.
As soon as I saw Sebastian Cox’s website I knew I had to meet him. Here was a person who was doing exactly what I’d like to see happen with coppiced material – turning them into modern, high-end furniture.
Traditional, rustic furniture certainly has its place, and its audience, but there is also a wider potential audience that enjoy a more contemporary look and who are keen to support british makers and British woodlands.
Sebastian began his journey in 2010, noticing the disconnect between the customer and the supplier of the material. A visit to a timber yard brought home the odd experience of passing acres and acres of woodland only to find all the timber in the yard was imported. Our woodlands are severely under-managed in this country – up to 50% – yet we continue to import wood.
How we change this practice is a question that both myself and Sebastian share. Our relationship with food, and where that comes from, has changed dramatically over the last decade or so. How do we do the same for wood?
Sebastian is answering this question through design, and educates his customer base through the products he offers. Rather than using whatever the customer requests instead he offers and informs the customer of what wood is available this year and designs something beautiful out of that. It means that the customer still gets what they want but they use up surplus timber supplies such as beech and ash.
As for the box. I had a good go with some American Walnut that was grown in this country. I loved the beautiful purple hues in the timber along with a dark brown waney edge. Dove tails are a lovely joint to work with – as long as you get them the right way around. Thank goodness for mallets and ample supplies of wax to fill in the gaps!
It was great to see the master at work and get lots of useful tips. I definitely recommend it as a good day out.
(A full interview with Sebastian Cox will be published in the Small Woods Magazine shortly!)