Like any other natural resource that our lives depend on, timber is only a renewable resource if we manage it sustainably. It is estimated that 23% of global carbon emissions arise from the clear-felling of the world’s forests.
When humans enter a forest with vast logging machines or even only a small chainsaw we don’t necessarily put much thought into which trees we are going to cut down, what eco-systems we are destroying or how we are going to replace them.
But if we enter the woods with an axe or a bow-saw and a functional end-use in mind, we are likely to think harder about which tree or sapling we want, its location, its ease of extraction and whether we really do need it before putting all that physical effort into harvesting it. We make a direct and immediate connection with the natural systems that provide for our needs that is all too rare in our modern high-tech age.
‘Green woodworking’ is the collective name for a range of wood crafts that date from a pre-industrial time when we did think more carefully about how we use the resources that sustain us. Using only simple manual technology, bowls, spoons and other small utensils, furniture and even buildings to live in were made from fresh cut ‘green’ wood locally sourced from wherever we called home.
Our ancestors were knowledgable about the varied properties of different timbers; the flexible strength of ash, the water resistance of elm, the antiseptic qualities of beech and sycamore, the durability of oak – and so were skilled in using the right material for the right purpose. Clogs were made from alder, ships and building frames from oak, hazel was used for hurdle fences and wattle walls, willow for baskets, elm for water pipes.
Once hardwoods have dried out they generally become more difficult to work whereas unseasoned timber can be tooled very easily. So working with green wood uses less energy and requires no power tools, but does need patience, knowledge and forward-planning as freshly-cut wood shrinks and distorts in shape as it dries out. Amongst the many advantages of green wood construction is the high tensile strength of round poles and timber cleft with the grain instead of machine sawn straight through it.
So despite our modern reliance upon machined timber in stock dimensions, green woodworking still has many practical uses that range from simple turned or carved domestic items through fencing and small rustic outdoor constructions to large scale timber-frame buildings.
It also enables uncommercial coppice timber and thinnings to be put to productives uses other than firewood and charcoal and contributes to the restoration and sustainable management of otherwise often neglected small woodlands.
It is also immensely satisfying as an eco-friendly hobby. Without the dust and din of circular saws, power planers, routers and belt sanders, there’s no need for dust masks and ear-defenders and you can happily work in the shed, out in the garden or in the woods without disturbing either the neighbours or the wildlife.
For a number of years, I have practised and taught pole-lathe turning and other greenwood and traditional wood crafts – though not for the money because, in terms of man-hours over financial return, it does not make for an easy living. Nonetheless, green wood crafts have seen a revival in recent years and the 600 or so craftsmen who do earn a living from it often combine making furniture to commission with teaching courses, demonstrating at country shows, fencing and hurdling contracts, producing and selling charcoal and so on. But as more and more people become interested in simplifying and relocalising the way we live, along with other vernacular and traditional skills and crafts, green woodworking seems set to make a comeback.
(Useful Links follow picture galleries)
Turning green ash ‘billets’ into chair legs on the pole lathe
Legs and stretchers turned on the pole-lathe, seasoned, drilled and loose fitted prior to assembly.
Elm being chopped out with an adze to provide a comfortable seat.
‘Scorp’ being used to smooth and shape the rough hewn adzed surface. Spokeshaves and scrapers are also used.
Assembling the components of a ash ladder-back chair prior to weaving a seat with rush, bark or seagrass. The back slats have been steam-bent to shape for comfort.
Mike Abbott – Green Woodworking – http://www.living-wood.co.uk/
Robin Wood – Traditional Bowl Making – http://www.robin-wood.co.uk/
Ben Law – Woodsman – http://www.ben-law.co.uk/
Gudrun Leitz – Green Woodwork – http://www.greenwoodwork.co.uk/
Tim Gatfield – Cherry Wood Project – http://www.cherrywoodproject.co.uk/about_tim.html
Guy Mallinson – Greenwood furniture – http://www.mallinson.co.uk/furniture.html
Association of Pole Lathe Turners & Green Woodworkers – http://www.bodgers.org.uk/index.php
Small Woods Association – http://www.smallwoods.org.uk/
Hampshire Coppice Group – http://www.hampshirecoppice.org.uk/
British Horse Loggers – http://www.britishhorseloggers.org/
UK Traditional Timber Framing – http://www.carpentersfellowship.co.uk/
US Traditional Timber Framing – http://www.tfguild.org/
UK produced charcoal – http://www.bioregional.com/what-we-do/our-work/bioregional-charcoal/
Basket Makers Association – http://www.basketassoc.org/index.php
Woodlands TV – videos on wood crafts & woodland management – http://www.woodlandstv.co.uk/
Low-Impact Living Initiative – Green Woodwork Books – http://www.lowimpact.org/acatalog/books_green_woodworking.html
Woodland Craft Supplies – Green Woodwork Books and Tools from Jon Warnes – http://www.woodlandcraftsupplies.co.uk/