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A few years ago I was at an event in Rochester, Kent where a guy had attached sensors or microphones to trees and there were headphones dangling down so you could listen to the inner sounds they make.

On some recent dog walks in the Forest I decided to just put my ear against trees and see if I could hear anything.  Wow! yes there are all sorts of noises going on in there and it’s FREE.

Oak isn’t good with this technique as the bark is too rough and you need good contact with your ear and also with the side of your head.  So the smooth barked Beech, Birch and Hornbeam are good.   Old or injured trees seem quiet whereas vigorous youngish trees around eight inches to a foot make quite a racket. Also may be sluggish early in the day as it warms up and the crown is in the sunshine.


Jack's Hill Epping Forest


Some of the sounds are like human peristalis, laboured breathing, washing machine on wash cycle, toilet flushing, drip drip noise, banging on pipes, steam train, low foghorn, hooting and plenty of gurglings, poppings and squeaking.

I think the time of day is quite important also, possibly, whether it’s rained recently or if it’s warm, cool, overcast or windy.  Also check the trunk for ants as I got an earful the other day.
Try it and see if the Trees tell you anything!
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I was sent a copy of this article by the Secretary of the Register of Professional Woodturners on behalf of the Worshipful Company of Turners. 
It's from Jerome Nichols and by The Gentle Author at Spitalfields Life.  I found it most interesting and quite moving - I hope it's not just a finish to a bygone history and I trust that someone wil step in to keep that tradition going onwards into the future.  Anyway here you all go...



‘We are the last proper woodturners in London,’ boasts Geoff Nichols of Nichols Bros (Woodturners) Ltd in Walthamstow. It sounds like quite a bold claim, but since I have learned the story of Geoff’s family endeavour stretching back over a century, examined their work and enjoyed a tour of the premises, I am more than happy to endorse Nichols Bros as ‘proper’ woodturners indeed.
An undistinguished single storey building in a side street gives no hint of the wonders within. For eighty years, the Nichols family have been woodturning at this location and proved themselves masters of the art and the craft. Passing through double green doors from the street, you turn directly left and discover yourself in another kingdom, filled with glowing golden timber and lined with wood chips.

In a long low-ceilinged brick room sit venerable lathes surrounded by stacks of new pine and off-cuts, while the walls are adorned with intricate examples of woodturning hanging like stalactites. Geoff Nichols and his trusty partner Harry Morrow have worked here for the past half century, and they step forward to greet you – looking the epitome of master craftsmen in their long blue twill coats.
Yet further delights await your gaze. Widening his eyes in excitement, Geoff leads you into the yard beyond where blue tarpaulins conceal a unique spectacle, accumulated in a series of old sheds. One after the other, he lifts the tarpaulins to reveal rooms filled with a seemingly infinite array of spindles, all meticulously organised by style and disappearing into the gloom like gothic grottos.

‘We have a collection of in the region of three thousand different spindles,’ underestimates Geoff proudly, ‘We try to display as many as we can for ease of reference but we have lots more that are stored in boxes too.’

Unquestionably the largest collection in London and perhaps the largest collection in the world, this is – in effect – our national archive of stair spindles. It is a secret museum that tells the story of the growth of the capital in spindles – a cultural asset of the greatest significance and it will not come again. Perhaps most fascinating was the ‘London spindle’ – the most common design in the capital yet also the one with the most variants.

After half century of woodturning, Geoff Nichols needs to find someone to take on his astonishing legacy. Is there a craftworker reading this who would like to take this noble craft onwards for another fifty years and earn a lifetime’s income in the process? Is there an institution that can give a home to the largest collection of spindles in existence?

All these thoughts were buzzing in my mind as Geoff led me to the tiny cubby hole which serves as the office, where we competed over who should sit upon the only chair in the place, before I plonked myself down upon a trestle and he told me the full story of Nichols Bros.

"My dad Stanley Nichols and his brother Arthur started on this site in Walthamstow in 1949. They were two youngest out of five brothers, the two eldest – there was about a twenty year age difference – already had a woodturning business, Nichols & Nichols, in the Kingsland Rd in Shoreditch which they started before the First World War.

After Stanley and Arthur left school, they went to work for their elder brothers until the Second World War began and they went off to the forces. After the war, they carried on with their elder brothers for a year or so before they decided to set up their own woodturning business here, Nichols Bros.

I came into it the day I left school at fifteen, that was fifty years ago now in 1969, and Harry joined about four or five years after me. My Uncle Arthur retired about five years after I started, he used to handle the paperwork, so Harry took over from him. I was more involved in the practical side of the business, especially hand woodturning.

We probably had about five or six employees at our peak which was about twenty years ago. Since then the trade has changed quite dramatically because the trend has moved away from wood towards glass and metal. In pubs in the East End, all the glass racks were made of turned wood spindles but that is no longer the case. Once upon a time, we made a lot of mangle rollers but obviously that is work we will never get asked to do again. We used to do a lot of table legs and when I first joined the business all we were really doing was standard lamps.

The furniture industry disappeared in the East End a quarter of a century ago and we are now tied in to the building trade. People spend a lot of money on their properties these days, adding rooms in the loft which needs staircases – newel posts, handrails and spindles. Spindles for staircases is the work we are asked to do now, although we still make the occasional four-poster bed and table legs for the furniture trade which does exist.

A lot of woodturning is imported from China but where we do not try to compete by producing volume, we do bespoke woodturning if a customer wants spindles or newel posts matched up. Skill is very important. When I first started working here, we used to get an influx of people asking if there was a job or could they learn the trade, but it seems the younger generation tend to shy away from manual trades today.

My dad was an exceptionally good woodturner, better at some things than me although I think I am better than him at others. You can be the most skilled woodturner in the world but you have to do it within a certain time, because time is money. It is all about earning a living, it is not a hobby. If you turn one spindle by hand, you have then got to be able to replicate it again quickly. Being able to get sharp definition in your work is very important. I can look at any piece of woodturning and tell straight away whether it was made by a highly skilled turner or not.

In woodturning, the trick is you must not pick up and tools and put them down again too many times. You have to do as much as you can with either the chisel or the gouge. When you change tools you are wasting time, so you must be able to do the maximum before you change tools. That is the secret to fast woodturning and to be able to turn nice bead, a fillet or a jug. The ridge around the shaft is called a ‘bead,’ like beading. The ridge between the bead and the shaft of the spindle is called the ‘fillet’ and it gives definition of the bead. The ‘jug’ is the wave profile, like on a jug. Any woodturning you see is beads, fillets, bands, hollows and jugs. That is all woodturning is.
We have a collection of in the region of three thousand different spindles. We try to display as many as we can for ease of reference but now we have lots that are in boxes too.

It gives me pleasure to take a square blank and turn it into an artistic shape. You alone know the difficulty in turning it. You can see that you have made something that looks beautiful and will be there for a long time. When you visit old buildings, you appreciate the tremendous work that was involved in the woodturning, especially since they were working on primitive lathes compared to ours.

My children will not be coming into the business. My son works in the City and my daughter has an Estate Agents, so no-one in the family can take it over which is a real shame. I would be open to train someone if they came and asked me It would be lovely if we could find someone who wanted to start a woodturning business, because over the last seventy years we have collected so many machines and tools which are irreplaceable."

Nichols Bros (Woodturning) Ltd, 2A Milton Rd, Walthamstow, E17 4SR






Geoff as a young man with his father Stanley Nichols



Stanley Nichols working at his lathe





Geoff at work on a barley-sugar twist spindle




Harry Morrow and Geoff Nichols at work at their lathes


Harry Morrow






The yard where the collection of more than three thousand spindles are kept



Some of the collection



Geoff Nichols



Multiple variants of the ‘London spindle’
A distinctive style which evolved during the nineteenth century
with the expansion of the capital

 
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Very pleasant start to May walking in the forest at Theydon Bois just off Jack's Hill and then onto visit a mate who had some box and walnut for me.



Theydon is an interesting place - right out in the countryside yet on the the tube with a direct line into the West End in around 45 minutes.  The Bois bit is not pronounced in the French way but as 'Boys' in good ole East London manner!  My destination was just off the Green and after some guitar chat involving Gibson Fender and Heritage we repaired to the garage to fine the wood.  Alas the walnut which Roy had intended to make into gun stocks was full of woodworm to Roy's chagrin but the box was intact to my delight and he was glad to get rid of it to a good home.  I'll be using the box to make threaded lid boxes which is a new challenge I'm up for and is most satisfying.
We then went for a bit of a jaunt through the countryside to another estate where we met up with Mark and his young dog Zena (after the warrior princess!) and felled an ash which I'll be using for tool handles. spinning tops, bilbouquets and loads of other things.  So all in all a good load of wood in the back of the car and plenty of chat.

Time to unload and get busy...  
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Interrupted whilst fiddling around, with some adjustments to the pole lathe in the Waltham Abbey Workshop, by a neighbour, who wanted some bits of wood cut to size and shape, to mend kitchen units I was drawn into one of those mad conversations about why I've so many tools and gadgets in the 'shed' as he calls it.

















Obvious - I need all the stuff I have so I can fix things for all the people dropping in who think I have nothing to do except drink tea and chat.  Having said that I do like to keep my ear to the ground or should that be work bench, and sometimes it can be quiet working alone day in day out, so I walk my dog first thing every morning in the forest and I meet some very interesting folks as well as some who are quite peculiar or perhaps that's me!  It's a good time to watch out for tree surgeons doing garden jobs and I often pick up a nice bit of apple wood or more exotic things such as lilac and sumach, you never know, just have to be a bit nosy when you see their trucks and walk on in and ask.  Sometimes it's just hedges being trimmed or leylandii being brutalised but sometimes you get lucky.  Being in the right place at the right time and that's how I've just come across some rather tasty damson, usually a bit scrubby and tortured but this is chunky and reasonably straight - perfect for a new range of spatulas and salad servers which are things I can't seem to make quickly enough at the moment...  
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Turning Times
Having a gas in the workshop and have reverted to making scoops and salad/pasta servers in pairs - it's a fun way to make four items at the same time.  Big BUT here - you have to be accurate when splitting them!  Sometimes it works sometimes it doesn't but you always end up with two items and I always save the others although they don't make up a matching pair.  You've still got to carve out the bowls but that's a pleasant job, quite relaxing and i often do it in the evening whilst chilling out...
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I've just been made aware of a new series of YouTube videos by Michael Dunbar.
Michael and his wife are retiring from teaching Windsor chairmaking and have produced this set of videos of the making of a Sackback Windsor.  Enjoy it - this guy really knows what he's talking about...
"I made Windsor chairs for 45 years. Beginning in 1980 I taught Windsor chairmaking around the United States and Canada. In 1994 my wife Susanna and I gave the craft a permanent home when we opened a school named The Windsor Institute.  Our program of classes was recognized throughout the world.  We taught as many as 35 classes a year with a maximum of 28 students.  We estimate we taught Windsor chairmaking to some 6,500 people."
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In Yorkshire for a couple of days giving youngsters a taste of what can happen in the countryside with the excellent children's charity Countryside Learning who organise many different activities for inner city kids who are just not aware of all the different opportunities there are waiting for them in the open air.
So onto the asks & answers...

And how often do you dye your beard when you're working?    Wasn't ready for this one!  Has never crossed my mind to dye anything except for a T shirt...

Why are you so old?!  Well well well & my response - Why are you so young?  Further response from said youngster - I'm not that young, I'm 10 and 3/4s and so I'm older than her!

Does this spoon work properly?  I've never had any trouble making spoons work!

Why is your shavehorse too big?  It's not too big for me, you're just too small!

Did you grow so tall to make it easier to climb trees?  Oh yes and my mum stretched my legs every night so I don't have to jump so far.  Further response - Think I'll get my dad to do that, he's stronger than my mum...

There's a constant patter of excitement and interest.

How many axes have you got?

Does your grandad know you do this?

How many grandads have you got?  Me - I had two, sadly they both died long ago.  Further response - How many of them were murdered?  Me - left speechless!

Does your dog like doing this? Me - Why don't you ask him?

Mister your dog's dead - I've just pulled his tail and he's not moving!  Me - No he's playing dead so you all (around 1500 kids a day for two days) leave him alone!

It's all good fun and at least they get a chance to get hands on with everything.

The two man saw was a big hit with them all and I got my logs sawn up so they'd fit easily in the back of the car!  This was some beautiful laburnum from the Borders which my mate James very kindly schlepped down to Ledston for me.  In Scotland they are a common hedgerow and street tree. Very popular for making into quaiches for single malt and are known Scottish mahogany.

Full details of my courses & demonstrations at Treewright or send me an email to treewright@mac.com  
 
  
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Billhook Found in an Ancient Layed Hedge
I was asked recently to replace a wormy old stick that had been the handle of this rather lovely old Elwell billhook.  The client, who I've done quite a few strange woody things for, remembered his grandfather talking about a billhook that vanished whilst he was having his lunch in the orchard in Cambridgeshire.  Apparently he talked of this tools right up until his death at the ripe old age of 92!  So he must have thought it was an awesome piece of kit.  In fact this billhook became a bit of a legend in the village and a lot of the younger folks in the pub who'd heard the story so many times thought it had probably never existed.
However one fine spring day an old hedge was being thoroughly inspected and it had been decided that rather than hacking it all down with a chain saw it should be restored and layed professionally to make it sheep proof once again.  It was during this prickly look see expedition that a rather lovely billhook was discovered grown deep into the hedge where it had been purposely put and then forgotten.  So the mystery of the vanishing tool was solved two generations later.  Word went round the village like wildfire and I understand there was a mini full on party in celebration of the discovery.
ELWELL BILLHOOK

I roughed out the handle with some excellent fast grown ash from and overgrown coppice in Brentwood and having had it drying out for a couple of months to allow for shrinkage I fitted it and it feels great.  The balance is superb and with a new edge it'll hopefully be around for at least another hundred years if not longer - that's as long as it doesn't do that vanishing act again.
I think that tools were often mislaid in the woods and in hedges, I always keep my eyes open when I'm walking along old outgrown layed hedges, I've found several small hatchets and billhooks.  Sometimes in the thick of blackthorn and hawthorn.  They are well and truly knotted in with strong branches and it's not an easy job to extract them but very satisfying.  The handles are nearly always rotted but the blades generally in good condition and just needing a little tlc to bring them back up to par.  The main thing to remember when making the new handle is to keep it oversize so that when you go to fit it you can carve it down to give a good snug fit - nothing worse than a loose handle on a sharp tool...
For new handles and courses on how to make & fit them www.treewright.co.uk
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An axe is a tool for life and I was thinking that's not just mine but the person who takes it on when I've finished with it.  Just like my old Brades side axe and my favourite old Elwell - how many hands have they passed through in their lives, the treatment they've received in use - not always the best.  They've already served more than a century, give them a few more years and it'll be getting on for two centuries.  So if you feel like a present coming on - treat yourself to one of the new Council Tools axes at an affordable price.
  COUNCIL AXES - fine quality US axes

COURSES TO USE AXES & FROES OLD & NEW
 
Perhaps that's part of the fascination, the longevity of metal.  Handles get broken through misuse, age, woodworm and leaky shed roofs.  The steel will withstand plenty of ill treatment, bar the leaky shed roof, although much damage can be caused by the inexperienced novice who's just broken the handle and thinks the best way to remove it is to put the axe head into the bonfire to burn out the remains of the haft.  Little do they realise that in their enthusiasm to remove said handle, they build that good old bonnie up into an overwhelming blaze and ruin all the tempering that was originally put into that treasured tool by the smith.
THE WOODLAND WORKSHOP

So I love my old tools but there are modern makers out there and the new additions to my workshop are the Council axes.  These are made of a very high quality steel with much thought to the design and whilst some folks think and axe is an axe there are many finer points to be discussed amongst the Axe Junkies of this world.  One that I find most fascinating is this lovely double header I received from the US, packaged perfectly and what a beautiful piece of kit to use - didn't really need a new axe but something as wonderful as this is an essential - you can always have a go on mine to try it out when you come to the Woodland Workshop - be prepared for fun...
DOUBLE HEADED AXE  
 
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TURNING in the HEATWAVEThe English heatwave continued throughout the weekend with unheard of temperatures in April, not certain exactly what they were but it was as if June had arrived early.  So we spent Her Majesty's 92nd Birthday just south of Oxford in the leafy setting of Harcourt Arboretum, part of the Oxford Botanic Gardens, in the leafy shade with blossom in the breeze.  The company was excellent with folks from all walks of life, a large number being part of the different universities, and lots of children wanting to have plenty of fun and games.  I had my child powered lathe in action with quite a queue at peak times and made dozens of twig crayons with blue being the most popular colour chosen.  We had plenty of help with turning and did complete one dibber!
Sunhat sales rocketed in Oxford!


I haven't seen so many peacocks all in one place for ages, white ones & black as well as the most vibrant pirate's colours and my goodness I'd forgotten what a raucous call they have - obviously very appealing to the peahens and there was much rushing around and shaking of tail feathers.

This handsome chappie was strutting his stuff all over the place and was fearless when chasing the competition away.  Has anyone ever tried peacock?  Guinea fowl are very tasty so I wonder if these are in any way comparable - must ask my butcher although I'm sure they could be obtained from Harrods or Fortnums.

There was a chap set up just a few yards across the lawn selling some great old tools and he had been a cabinet maker before retirement.  There was a lovely selection of traditional hand tools for sale but the thing that tickled me pink was his ladderback chair.  It was a sweetie and destined for life in a bottle - you know like a ship in a bottle to collect dust on the mantlepiece!  Absolutely fascinating.  It's seat was woven in strands of raffia and all made to collapse for insertion into the neck of the vessel - I'm so full of admiration of the craftsmanship - it's tricky enough making a full size chair, childrens furniture is a bit more difficult - I tend to find smaller things always take longer than full size ones to make but a miniature chair that folds down that will then pop open when inside a glass bottle - fantastic...


 
 
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