The greenwoods of New York City

Hello from Brooklyn!

We arrived in New York yesterday to visit my son and his wife and the first place we visited was The Museum of American Folk Art.  Just up my street! Quite a good proportion of the artefacts in there are labelled “Artist unknown”. Putting aside the fact that these were almost all what I would call craft items and therefore made by craftsmen and women rather than artists, the exhibition was very inspirational.  My favourite, I think was a case of exotic fantasy animals made out of painted and decorated tin cans.  These had been hand made by a person(s) unknown and bought from a thrift store (in UK read charity shop).  Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera to hand, but the message is all these little 2 to 4 inch animals were very much hand made and asymetrical.  So next up at the museum was an amazing exhibition of quilts.

This one was a marriage quilt, prepared fora forthcoming marriage which unfortunately never happened, hence the lady, top right has no matching man panel at top left.  The elephant called Han e ble on the quilt, was a circus elephant which toured New York and the Hudson Valley at the time the quilt was being made.  It strikes me that in North American there is a stronger surviving link between the handicrafts of a couple of centuries ago and now, there were several quite recent quilts on show:

There must be hours and hours of hand work in these quilts, and they really are beautiful.  The important thing for me is that it is clear that they are made by hand and their liveliness comes from the lack of ‘perfection’ and from the skillful choice of colours and design.  Consider this one:

This is a “log cabin” design, not because it was for use in a log cabin, but because of the method of construction. The common feature was that the quilts were made for a useful purpose (although there were a couple of show ones which decorated a bed or sofa) and were there for craft products, not works of art.  There was a wonderful one made by a Methodist church sewing society and the individual panels were made by different women (and some men!) several panels were signed in a beautiful copperplate handwriting (another once common skill, now sadly rare).

It seems to me that in England we are in danger of losing a lot of these traditional handicrafts, or at least they have become less widespread.  Even knitting seems to be more or less marginalised now, whereas it was a very common skill not so long ago, my mother constantly had something on the go, and I remember some of the jumpers she knitted me with affection. There are many other hand crafts like that where their practice has waned.

Anyway, it gives me great pleasure to be able to pass on and encourage working with the hands, as I know how much satisfaction it brings people.  Last week a lady came on a half day course to learn skills to enable her to make rustic dividers for her garden, using materials growing there.  The skills were simple – sawing, sharpening a pole, pre-drilling holes for nailing, how to make a strong shape by bracing, and thinking about design.  She went away with hopefully enough memory of the techniques to remember, and as reminders a birch long low divider and a mini hurdle that she’s made (very good they looked too).  Just sorry I failed to get a photo!

New shaving style

OK, new shavings flying about today, now I’ve got the stock knife in action.  It is a very useful tool, and is going to be really useful getting the meat off the outside of bowls:

This tool was used by makers of wooden clog soles.  The blade itself is about 1 foot 3 inches long and the whole thing is just short of 3 foot.  Although it is a very powerful tool, it is capable of great control too.  In fact cloggers only used the knives and no further finishing implement on the soles.  I bought mine from France in a set of three; the other two are a hollower (like a massive gouge) and a gripper the latter puts the rebate round the top edge of the clog sole to take the leather upper and trim which are nailed on.  The two last knives need a lot of work on the edges to restore them to a usable condition, but I’ve already re-handled one.

Sadly there are very few clog makers left in the UK, but I was in touch with the last one I bought a pair from – Rik Rybicki who used to have his shop in Todmorden, Yorkshire (now retired). He gave me a tip about using a leather butterfly between the eye in the stock bench and the hook of the knife to smooth the action, you can see it here:

The stock knife certainly makes light work of wasting wood, even on the end grain.  I now need to finish off sharpening it (it was very pitted with corrosion when I got it) and improve my technique, like not bending my back so much!

The first bowl I’ve made using the knife is much thinner walled than my previous ones bececause it is now so easy to remove excess wood.

Thanks for the pictures Richard D.

OK I gave in.

I was axing the bases for two kitchen towel holders (they have to go somewhere don’t they?)  When I split the ash log, I just couldn’t bear to axe the thing down flat as it looked so good in its raw split state.  I’ve had this before, where the work required seems to destroy something worth keeping.  So this time I just said, “OK, this is too good for what I intended, how can I use it to its full?”


Used it as a backing board for some pegs, I rather like it.


What is all this machining things flat anyway?  I flattened the back as it will need to be mounted on a wall or door, but the riven texture is just too good to waste, all the variation in the wood comes out in its raw state, and this is quite rare these days.  Not for me, as I’m splitting wood every day, but most people never split wood or see the results.  Reminds me of drift wood.

A weekend in London

London is a very complicated place.  It has very large things, like the new Shard skyscraper going up near London Bridge 71 stories finally, plus another seven of roof:

But in between these large modern buildings are some little gems:

And then there are grand old buildings like the Hop Exchange:

With a beautiful tympanum above the entrance showing the process of growing and harvesting hops:

There’s a bigger version where you can see the detail more clearly, here:

However, despite man’s best endeavours, nature always stands waiting to take back everything for its own:


Buddleia roots anywhere, and we were followed at close quarters by a thin-looking fox later that night near Deptford.

We also had a look round the newly opened medieval galleries in the Victoria & Albert Museum, it was stunning.  Especially this breton staircase:

It has some fine detail, besides an interesting structure and function:

And even it’s own Green Man

And a jolly little griffin, from what I can make out on the top gallery:

There is also a host of amazing medieval ironwork, these particularly took my fancy:

Here’s the one in the middle in close-up:

The weather was kind to us too, and we enjoyed some decent ale outside in The Albion in Hackney with our son Will on a surprise visit from New York:

A little steaming in the woods

I used to do my steam bending on top of my brewing kettle whilst making beer.  That was a little too stressful, doing two things at once with a high time investment,  and potential for things going wrong, and involving gallons of boiling wort.  So I decided to do it properly, in the woods.  I’ve been building and rebuilding a little informal stove from fire bricks and thick mess wire grid for a while.  It’s main purpose has been to drive away the pesky midges that hang around otherwise and bite me.  I’ve been running it with a short chimney which causes a good draught, but to steam I needed a ‘kettle’ on the fire.  I rebuilt it into an approximation of a rocket stove.  Basically this is a heavy firebox to retain heat with a hole where the sticks are fed in and air is taken in immediately below the grid that supports the sticks.  I used an old malt extract bucket a quarter full of water ans then set my steaming cabinet on top.  Not as precarious as it sounds.  Although it took a while to generate sufficient steam, once up to temperature there was no shortage.  The aim was to make a handle for a trugg repair a customer has asked for.  I’d split and shaved down a length of hazel previously and fixed up a temporary jig to hold the handle in shape once bent.  It seemed to go OK:

You can see the trugg with the old worm-eaten handle here:

Sorry, no after picture, but it looks OK.

Call off the search for stock knives, I’ve bought a set from France that are winging their way over the Channel as I write.  They look to be an English pattern set, so it will be interesting to see if there is a maker’s name on them – a lot were made in High Burton, near Huddersfield not far from here. This is the true stock knife as seen on

The bend on the handle looks pretty shallow, which is a plus for the bowl-carving I’ll be using it for.

An order of gavels

A collection of gavels. I’m selling one to a toastmaster who ordered it at Kilnsey Show, he knows a couple of others who are always borrowing his gavel so maybe there’s an opportunity for a couple of sales there.  Anyway, I ended up making a few for choice, and maybe it would make a good Christmas present for some chair chap who has everything but a gavel.  They are apple wood and 8 inches long.tall.

I also finished off the spalted beech bowl I started at the APF Show, I think it looks a bit like a speed boat this one!

The spalting/decay is rather good I think: