Thursday, 22 October 2009

To the Woods...

Poet-in-Residence left a short comment about coppicing on this blog today. I started to frame a reply and soon realised my comment was turning into a post in its own right - and one which quickly turned from metaphorical to literal coppicing.

Some years ago I tried coppicing -or something very like it- for a living. My great plan was to find bits of old woodland people wanted cleared and offer to do it in exchange for the wood I cut out. This I'd make into charcoal and other green (as opposed to seasoned) wood products. The charcoal (which I made in oil drums - at least I hadn't invested in an expensive kiln) was a flop, along with the besoms, but scout patrol poles, tree stakes and clothes props sold like hot cakes. Well, almost. Pickup-loads of logs were reasonable money makers too, but exhausting to do with a chainsaw and an axe. The most interesting part of it all was building a traditional shaving horse and learning to make traditional wooden tent pegs with a draw-knife. Had I been doing this during the First World War, when many thousands of them were needed, I would have been onto a good thing. The demand, though, is not quite the same these days.

It might not have been a great success as a business but it was great fun. There's something about working with iron tools and fire that makes you feel like a minor operative in Mordor. Climbing trees to lop off their branches was like being paid to play. But not enough. In the end, I was making 80p an hour, so I sold my chainsaw. This was a bit of a wrench, as I had worked hard to get a certificate (and I can recommend the course to anyone looking for a holiday with a difference). I bought a cello with the proceeds. I never looked back.

All that remains is the pleasure of walking round woods when you can recognise the old ways people used to use them. For example, you can often find the remains of hazel coppices with oak trees (known as "standards") left to grow in the open spaces left by the lower-growing hazel. The theory was that with space to grow, the branches could curve outwards in the shape necessary for the prows of ships.

11 comments:

Totalfeckineejit said...

I always had a notion of being a charcoal maker.Notions are always as far as i get.You actually did it, brilliant, what great memories and experience.

Dominic Rivron said...

Had a great time.

Artist's charcoal, I'm told, is easy to make, although I've never tried it. The instructions are probably out there on the net somewhere...

John Hayes said...

What a great post--I did some woodworking & have actually worked on a hand-made shaving horse with a draw knife (I didn't make the shaving-horse, but I did make various poles & furniture legs. They are interesting contraptions. I say if you got a cello out of it, you came out on top!

The Solitary Walker said...

I really liked this post,Dominic. I had no idea you had tried this.

swiss said...

i like the way you move from woodland artisan to 'i bought a cello with the proceeds'! nice!

have been looking at buying a swatch of woodland in these parts mainly for mountain bike and general lolling purposes. but then the reality of realising we'd have to conform to the access code here. ah the irony!

still a plan tho . want that chainsaw!

Poet in Residence said...

I'm glad I 'made' you write this post. The sense of enjoyment comes through in your interesting and illuminating account. The reference to 'holidays with a difference' reminds me that I almost went to the Isle of Bute to spend a holiday cutting back the undergrowth. They probably advertise for people on the web. In the event I finally decided to go to Arran, Islay and Jura and do a bit of walking. You see Dominic, now you in turn have stimulated my old memory buds.

Frances said...

I think the cello was a perfect ending to that story. Like making music from trees.

the watercats said...

fair play to you for trying! charcoal is notoriously dodgy to master so I've read.. there is a fella in town who runs traditional skills courses and is fascinating to chat to. H emakes beech pole wood turners etc and apparantly there is quite a bit of pocket money to be made in making bales of thatch pegs to sell.. sally willow I think they are.
Over here chainsaw courses go thus;
Buy a chainsaw... go out and play.. I love it and it's an absolute necessity for us, it lives in the shed with the strimmer.. my two favourite inanimate objects :-)

The Weaver of Grass said...

I will never forget the sight of you sitting cross legged looking at your charcoal "drum" smoking away - as the farmer said you looked like a gnome out of Lord of the Rings! Still chain saw for cello is not a bad swap I would say.

Dominic Rivron said...

Thanks for these comments everybody.

JH: It's just a shame I didn't make the cello on the shaving horse. That would have been quite a feat.

SW: Now you know :)

swiss: have you come across FWAG (google it if not)? They certainly used to put interested people in contact with farmers who want their woodland thinned for nowt (you keep the thinnings). (Thin out the woods between lolling/cycling?)

PiR: I'd go for the walking anyday.

Frances: As I said above, shame I wasn't up to actually making the cello.

watercats: The making of the charcoal went fine - I love making it! Problem was selling it. People were more interested in other products. As with most things these days, I think, running courses is a shrewd move and can often bring in more more easily than actually doing what you're teaching (be it making bean-sticks or playing the guitar).

WG: I remember it well. A bucket of oil went up that day, burned off my eyebrows and left me with a bit of a tan. Great fun.

Rachel Fenton said...

A single note from a cello can make me weep. The sound of a chainsaw can also bring tears to my eyes. Great contrast.