Swill baskets

Jane and I have been away for a few days in The Lake District.

We camped on a farm in the Furness Fells and enjoyed some late evening sunshine in a very peaceful landscape.

There was only one other tent and that was Emerald’s who was also attending Owen Jones‘ swill basket-making course.

I awoke on Wednesday to the slow drone of a distant tractor cutting grass for silage, and an otherwise peaceful sunrise.

I’ve been building up a new cyclocross bike on a new frame and adding in new 10 speed parts to the re-usable parts from two bikes that are well past their prime (but faithful servants for many years).  The final piece in the jigsaw build arrived in the post the day we were setting off.  It was the bottom bracket and so I had to do a rush job setting up the cranks and gears.

It was very sweet to ride a new bike without creaks and groans from a dangerously cracked aluminium frame (the new one is good solid steel.)  Looks quite good too (or would on a proper photo rather than a phone one).

I rode up the side of Lake Coniston, headed for Brantwood, when I felt some play starting in the near side crank – result of the speedy build.  Limped back home for breakfast on one pedal so as not to damage the inside of the loose crank.  It was a good morning for walking the bike up the hills, and quite novel for me!

When we arrived at Owen’s a couple of miles from the campsite, the first job was making the wood ready.

Owen is a great teacher and carefully explained the method of picking the best coppice oak timber and how best to make use of its length and avoid dodgy areas like the very butt end and the top end where live knots start becoming prevalent.  You can see above, behind Owen the hazel measuring stick.  It’s marked to give the two shorter lengths for spelks (pronounced – spells) which are the thicker ribs of the basket and the two longer lengths for taws (pronounced – tars) which give the finer weavers.

So this makes a bit more sense have a look at a swill basket:

This is my basket prior to finishing the weaving of the taws, which run the length. The spelks in the picture run top to bottom.

So after selecting and splitting the young oak saplings we ended up with four piles ready for boiling.  Enough material for 10 swills (or thereabouts, it was a full-on course with a lot to take in, and I’ve been to Spoonfest and slept since then!).

The boiler is wood powered and sits at the back of Owen’s workshop:

The hazel rods prepared to be boiled and bent into the bool which forms the rim of the basket can be seen siting atop.

Riving was the next job after the oak had been boiled for a couple of hours, soaked overnight and re-boiled.  A heavy splitting/riving knife is used to half the billets and then a lighter riving knife as the subsequent splitting progresses until really thin malleable spelks and taws are produced.  Learning to feel which way to bend the material to keep each side of even thickness is very satisfying.

Pretty hot work for the hands and knees, so some protection is added to the knees in the form of towels fastened with thin oak ties.

The material is dressed to the correct thickness and roughly shaped to form the various parts of the swill.  Quoting from Owen’s excellent little booklet on the whole process they are named: Lapping spelk; Narrow bottom spelk; Broad bottom spelk; Top spelk; 1st turn down spelk; Kessen; 2nd turn down spelk; Bool spelk.  Then the taws: First taw; First straight’n; Second straight’n; tacker; narrow working up taw; Second working up taw; narrow bottom taw; broad bottom taw and Finisher.  Few, when you’ve worked them up and woven them in – each one in it’s own way, you have an oak swill basket.  It is not easy but very satisfying.  Here are some of the crew with their li’le nicks (the technical term for this size of swill)

Owen’s courses are very popular and fill up rapidly once announced – all full this year I believe.  Check out Owen’s web site for courses or ready-made swills here.  He also appears at a host of agricultural shows etc, details on the website.




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