Green woodworkers aim to expend as little energy as possible,” explains Guy Mallinson, my tutor, as I pound the wooden club onto the froe tool for the umpteenth time, attempting to cleave a sycamore log into quarters. “With no machinery to do the hard work for you, it’s vital to pace yourself during the tree-to-product process,” he continues. Finally the stubborn chunk of wood divides. Wiping the sweat from my brow, it’s clear that I have a lot to learn about the age-old craft of green woodworking.
Guy’s woodland workshop, hidden in a seven-acre wood near the west Dorset village of Holditch, is not only an idyllic place to learn such skills, but as a master craftsman in woodcraft, I’m in capable hands. After 20 years running his own furniture business in London, Guy relocated to Dorset with his family to set up and teach green woodworking courses. A career spent working with timber that had numerous wood miles attached to each plank heightened the appeal of using unseasoned, green wood from local and sustainably managed sources.
Underneath one of the workshop’s covered areas, offcuts of green wood smoulder in a large brazier, creating an authentic woodland camp aroma. As I stare at my quarter of sycamore log lying on the floor, I try to envisage the beautifully crafted spurtle that Guy assures me I’ll be taking home that evening. At this early stage of the tree-to-product process, my spurtle is far from cylindrical, and with no machines in sight, only various wooden contraptions and hand tools, I wonder how this piece of wood is ever going to help me stir my porridge.
It isn’t long before I’m straddling a wooden shaving horse (see right), armed with a drawknife, effortlessly shaving off layers of sycamore to roughly shape my piece of wood into a billet (a cylindrical piece of wood), ready for the pole lathe. The ease with which I can slice through the wood is one of the rewards of using freshly felled timber – green wood still contains sap, meaning it’s soft and easy to work with. However, since green wood is cut along the grain, it remains strong and can be used to produce long-lasting objects.
FINDING THE RHYTHM
The next stage in the spurtle-making process is shaping the billet using a pole lathe, a simple woodturning apparatus dating back to the Viking era.
“It’s a gently rhythmical way of working that uses both sides of the brain as you have to look, listen, feel and smell, all at the same time – it’s a bit like rubbing your belly and patting your head,” explains Guy as he fits my piece of wood between the poppets on the lathe.
My pole lathe rhythm takes time to materialise, but when it finally does, I’m hooked. Listening intently to the gentle whistling sound of the chisel as it shaves off fine layers of wood, I steadily press and release the treadle with my foot, spinning the billet faster to produce a perfect cylindrical shape. It’s therapeutic but addictive, and it’s tempting to forget about the end product and find yourself holding a matchstick instead. “You wouldn’t be the first person to get carried away on the pole lathe,” Guy assures me.
However, before I ruin my creation, Guy sets me up for the final flourish on the pole lathe. Using a burning wire, I treadle like fury to scald a circular pattern into the top and bottom of my spurtle’s handle. Removing the near-completed utensil from the lathe, I saw off the untidy ends and neatly round them off with a whittling knife until I’m holding my own finished – if slightly wonky – porridge spurtle. I’m delighted.
Of course, I could easily buy a machine-made spurtle, but that defeats the purpose of Guy’s course. The traditional, labour-intensive process of green woodworking is about the experience of spending time in a peaceful woodland setting and the sheer satisfaction of creating a unique object from a sycamore log, entirely through my own efforts.
Higher Holditch Farm
Holditch TA20 4NL
The two-day Pole Lathe and Green Woodworking course costs £287.50 and includes lunch, tea and snacks.
Hill Farm, Ledbury HR8 1HE
This two and half day course in Herefordshire is ideal for beginners.
COTSWOLD WOODLAND CRAFTS
Weavers Cottage, Rodborough, Stroud GL5 3TZ
Taster days and weekend courses.
The Old Inn
Hawkchurch, Axminster EX13 5XD
Just 3 miles from Guy’s workshop, The Old Inn offers tasty homemade dishes in a 1543 Church House.
Chapel Thatch B&B
Holditch TA20 4NL
Set within 10 acres with lawns, bog garden, orchard and chapel remains.