Aaron Sterritt Woodwork - The Full Circle - Spring 2020
I’m a furniture-maker, based near Forres, over the past five years I have developed an interest in greenwoodworking, and in the last couple of years i've started running courses in a “Woodland Workshop” overlooking the river Findhorn.
First, I’d better tell you a bit about #greenwoodworking. All the work is done with traditional techniques and hand tools, tools like drawknives, spokeshaves, and travishers (used for scooping out seats). We use the wood green, that is fresh wood still containing sap. Apart from anything else, green wood is softer and easier to work than seasoned wood. We use mainly short logs or pieces of branchwood – bent branches can be used to make chair backrests. Logs (roughly firewood diam) are cleft (split) into smaller pieces using metal and wooden wedges at first. After which a #handtool called a froe can be used to cleave the wood further into smaller workable sizes, this is best used in conjunction with a cleaving break - a simple holding device which enables you to control the direction of the split. Because the wood is split along its grain the integral strength of the wood is kept intact and components can be thiner and lighter whilst still being incredibly strong.
Greenwoodworking is ideal for certain components of #furniture – for instance legs (of tables, chairs and stools), rungs, spindles and stretchers. I use air-dried hardwood from larger sawn or cleft logs for the tops – chair seats, table-tops and the like, it's also possible to use no sawn wood in chairs and stools by weaving materials such as bark/seagrass/willow/danish cord or tradition rush seating. All these methods combine very nicely with greenwoodworking as they have envolved together.
For the last 5 years I’ve been making pieces from greenwood and selling through local galleries. I also work to commission and I run the courses year round. I spend about half my time teaching and half making. I started as a #craftsman furniture maker in my own
workshop with all sorts of machines, before I developed an interest in greenwoodworking. I did a course with Mike Abbott, who was a great teacher and has devoted a great deal of his life making greenwoodworking accessible and practically relevant to the times. His books are well worth a read for anyone thinking of giving it a go. It's worth emphasising the point - greenwoodworking is accessible to anyone, I often have a mix of both folk who don't often work with there hands and experienced woodworkers.
I still use a few machines for finishing timber, especially the sawn timber used for chair seats and table-tops. But I find that if you use a machine to cut the timber it takes you down a path involving more machines, whereas if you cleave the log, it takes you down a path using enjoyable hand-tool work which reflects the character of the wood. This is why it lends itself so brilliantly to running courses! Hand tools are quieter and tend to produce shavings rather than dust. I believe cleaving will always be the quickest most efficient way for one person to break down a log into workable sizes. On the courses, people are involved in the whole process through from log to finished piece, so that they can understand the whole process. I try not to get participants to do too much measuring (which can be a frustrating process, especially if they have left there specs behind at home!), but rather work by eye and estimation, although I make simple jigs for people to get dimensions and positions of joints right – to help eliminate mistakes which could dishearten a new maker. I want to make the experience pleasurable for the new makers, but still help them to develop the skills they need to make furniture by themselves. My courses are different from other greenwoodworking courses elsewhere in the UK because of the forests and woodlands we have around here – there isn't an abundant supply of straight hardwood (especially ash). But that makes it more interesting for the trainees, for example chair legs might have a knee/elbow or a curve to build into the piece – I'd like to think we’re continuing and developing a #Highland Vernacular because of the peculiar bits of wood we have to use, harking back to the days when crofters in the highlands would incorporate forks and crooks in the wood into stools and chairs. Local resources tend to define the products, this I feel adds to the quality of a piece and is something I'm passionate about. During the courses, we mostly work outside, and participants enjoy this aspect – working away in a natural setting to produce pieces of furniture born out of the surrounding woods. I run a few courses in winter in the workshop when it’s too wet and cold to work outside. There’s always plenty of demand for courses. The participants are a mixture of existing woodworkers learning new techniques and people learning a new skill for a hobby. I think that the more people working with wood in the greenwood way the better. You have a real awareness of where the wood comes from and also of #woodlands, woodland ecosystems and of stewardship. The making process is the most important part - working the wood is the core thing for me and the students. For me, it’s less about what the finished product looks like and more about the pleasure of making while working with the wood (note working with, rather than doing things TO the wood). With greenwoodworking, often the grain of the wood determines what shape you end up with. As we go along, I try to explain where the log has come from, why it’s been felled (some due to road-building which would have gone to firewood, others from thinning of woodlands). All of the wood we use comes from woodlands in the surrounding #Moray area. I'm fortunate to have have worked as a cutter in the recent past so I have a few contacts. Sometimes I work on thinning jobs and take wood in lieu of money as payment. Currently i'm working with another green woodworker to thin a local wood that was planted as a new woodland 20-30yrs ago. It wouldn’t have been financially viable for the owners to thin the wood using traditional contractors using a forwarder, but we are able to thin it slowly over several years at no cost to the owners in return for a half a dozen suitable logs each time. Since all of the timber we use is local, that determines the range of species we use. Ash is ideal – it’s easily worked, has low moisture content, so dries out quickly after working. Willow is good if it’s big diameter. It splits easily and straight but we avoid heavily branched trees as the knots make working it difficult. It’s much wetter than ash so I split the logs a few days or weeks before the course to let it dry out a bit. Gean is soft, splits easily, but again is wet. Yew branchwood is mainly used for steam bending – I have a simple plywood steaming box and steam pieces of wood for up to 2 hours. We also use hazel rods from woods we coppice upsteam of my workshop.
My #courses evolve all the time – each year I've added an extra chair course (1 week with 4 people) due to increasing demand and the way we use materials for making chairs evolves every year, which makes the courses more enjoyable for me and the participants. There's lots of time for tea/coffee breaks and we eat lunch together. The social aspect of the courses is really important, you can see connections being made and people being more accepting of others’ views. I hope in future there’ll be more #greenwoodworkers and more foresters with experience of working with greenwoodworkers and similar craftspeople who can use wood at a scale that wouldn’t be financially viable using traditional contractors. I think that, where possible, woodlands should be managed slowly – only taking what nature can provide and all the time creating new woodland habitat for both us and wildlife.