Traditional woodcraft demands a whole new vocabulary. Or, should I say, a very old vocabulary – and one I began to master in a forest clearing, flanked by gleaming silver birches and brambles and bracken, clutching a froe. Till yesterday I’d never even heard of a froe. Yet here I was, brandishing one with intent to maim.
A log, that is. A froe, as I’d learnt mere seconds earlier, is a kind of axe, a tool for splitting timber – the first stage in a process that would, hopefully, culminate in the creation of a rustic stool. So far, so wood.
I was enjoying a taster of the treats on offer at Greenwood Days, an al-fresco workshop for traditional crafts in the heart of The National Forest. While I was becoming acquainted with that unfamiliar handtool, the aptly named Peter Wood – master chairmaker and my tutor for the morning – was bustling about, gathering the materials and equipment needed for the first stage of our project.
Peter, a true mild man of the woods, built this sylvan studio in the depths of Spring Wood, where he hosts courses in furniture-making with pole-lathes – Windsor chairs his speciality – as well as willow-weaving and longbow-shaping.
Wandering to his woodpile, Peter picked out what seemed like just any old chunk to me. To his eyes, though, it had potential.
“Look thoughtfully at a piece of timber and you can visualise what can be created with it,” he told me. “Oak or ash is best for furniture. For a smart piece I’ll select lengths with a straight grain, but as we’re making a rustic, bow-legged stool, these are right, with a curve to them.”
Then the froe began its work. Peter showed me how to position it along the grain and tap at its blade with a hammer, levering the handle to split each log with a satisfying rip. Moving on to a block, I wielded a small handaxe to chip off the bark and carve three roughly hexagonal rods, stool-legs-to-be.
Time for Peter to introduce another couple of crafting terms: first, a shaving horse – a narrow bench with a foot-operated clamp to hold the wood – and a drawknife, a double-handled blade for shaping the timber.
“Angle the drawknife so you’re pulling across the wood and along the grain,” Peter advised, “as if you’re slicing a tomato.”
When the roughest patches were removed, I picked up a spoke shave – a miniature winged plane, held between both thumbs and forefingers.
“Accentuate the curves and work with the grain to bring out the shape and texture of the oak,” Peter hinted. I found myself slipping into a meditative state as I massaged the rough edges, easing the spoke shave gently towards me to stroke out the bumps and dimples. Every so often the blade would catch a little, and Peter showed me how to read the contour lines. “Smoothing wood is like stroking a cat,” he said. “You can feel when you’ve working with the grain and when you’re against it.”
With a one-inch rounder, we shaped the tenons on the three legs. Peter then cut a round biscuit of tree-trunk – the seat – and clamped it to a bench, picking up a bit and brace to augur holes for the legs. Cranking the handle, I yearned for a Black and Decker; my feeble, non-woodland-hardened arms struggled to make an impression on the oak platter. Eventually, though, it started to bite and wood shavings flew out of the deepening holes.
Finally, we knocked in the three legs and I gazed at my handiwork: a stool, hewn from four random-looking chunks of oak. It leaned a little, admittedly, but it was – for once I could say proudly – a proper bodge job.
FIND OUT MORE
Greenwood Days – Peter Wood
Ferrers Centre for Arts and Crafts
Staunton Harold, Nr Ashby de-la-Zouch, LE65 1RU
The National Forest
The Three Horseshoes
Main St, Breedon-on- the-Hill DE73 8AN
Superior gastro fare plus bar food – with bonus chocolatier on site.
124 Main Street, Ticknall DE73 7JZ
Friendly B&B in a Grade-II-listed house.
Calke Abbey, Ticknall, Derby DE73 7LE
This ‘un-stately home’ is a fascinatingly decrepit mansion amid spectacular parkland boasting fine veteran oaks.