New charity

I’m off tomorrow to meet the founders of a new charity called Sylva, which aims to promote the economic development of woodlands and forests. I think it’s a bit like Woodland Heritage, but with wider aims. We’ll tell you more in the next issue of Living Woods, which is out at the end of April.

My trip next week to my shack in Normandy is developing nicely, mainly because we’ll have so much to do. My mate, David, who is joining me for a festival of felling and general hilarity, has advised me to bring a second chainsaw, just in case my beloved Stihl breaks down. I’ve put it in for a service anyway, which contradicts my normal edict not to service anything until it fails, based on the observation that machines tend to pack up just after they’ve been given some care and attention. If it’s working, leave well alone, I say. Instead of getting hold of another chainsaw I rang the Sheffield sawmakers, Thomas Flinn, and asked if we could borrow a 4ft, two-man crosscut saw for a week to fell some trees and cut up some firewood. It arrived the other day, and is a terrifying object. I can’t wait to see David’s face when I show it to him. He has legs that could kickstart a jumbo jet, and arms that can stop the Titanic, so it could be an interesting experience sharing a saw with him.

We’ll probably have to declare it to customs before we embark on the ferry though at Portsmouth. Last time I went over there I forgot I was carrying an air rifle, and got a bit of a ticking off from customs who said I had to stow it in the hold. Previously we went over there once during one of the fuel strikes in the UK and France. We weren’t sure if we’d be able to get petrol in France, so I stored an army jerry can of petrol in the boot. I wasn’t sure this was legal, in fact I suspected it was not, to I also added a decoy 5litre carry-can of petrol where it could be seen. When, sure enough, the customs asked if we were carrying petrol I was able, with hand on heart, to say, “Yes, we’ve got this 5 litre can.” They forced us to empty it. And then, when we got stopped again by customs, I was able to say that we’d just emptied 5 litres of fine fuel into the tank of some lucky taxi driver’s cab. Ironically, there were no problems in France, and we ended up bringing the jerry can back to Britain, still full of juice! Did the nice French officials care? Not a jot!

So this trip to the shack will feature some cutting and felling. But I also want to take an inverter and a large 12v battery to see what we can charge. I love it at the shack, with no electricity and just candlelight, but life is made easier with some power, especially as David has great plans to watch the box sets of the two great Ashes series, in 1981 and 2005, I think. We’ll also be taking a Tormek T3 wetstone grinder with us, because I’m told you can use one of those from an inverter. Of course we’ll have a generator, if all else fails, but they’re noisier, and we’ll have to play our music even louder to cover that racket. I’m taking my drums and David his guitar, I hope, so we should have some good jams of an evening, over a few beers (probably!), some wine and great laughs. Can’t wait.

Aga stove

My daughter Lara stoking the small stove we fit on our Aga for spring, summer and autumn

My daughter Lara stoking the small stove we fit on our Aga for spring, summer and autumn

We have a perpetual argument in our kitchen about the future of our very old Aga, which was installed by my grandmother (not herself, I expect) in 1946 when she bought our house. So it’s a bit of a family heirloom. But I’m embarrassed by the oil it consumes and the fumes it exhales, and would love to see it go. I’ve looked at an Esse, which we wrote about in the second issue of Living Woods last year, and I’m told a Lohberger is fantastic, and we’ll certainly be featuring them in the future. My compromise has been to buy a very small woodburning stove which goes on the top of the Aga in spring, summer and autumn. I disconnect the Aga flue, and shove the stove’s pipe up the chimney. I had seen a small Husqvarna woodburning oven, which I’d love to find, because it combines a woodburning section with an oven, so is great for cabins, caravans and the like, but I’ve yet to find one. However, last year I did come across Kevan Vaughan, who makes delightful little stoves for about £100. We bought the smallest, but could probably have done with the next size up, though most people suggest you should opt for a smaller stove if you can because then you can run them hot and more efficiently. A large woodburner has to get too hot for a lot of rooms to burn really well. You can email Kevan on kvaughan150@aol.com to find out more about his stoves. I couldn’t recommend them, and the service he offers, more highly.

Splintered history

carlsensplinteredI have to confess to be writing about the same topic on both this blog and our British Woodworking journal. Today, through the post, arrived the most remarkable book about wood I’ve seen in many years. Spike Carlsen’s Splintered History of Wood is a study of all the great uses of wood, from guitars to boats, tennis racquets, snooker cues and much more. It’s not full of colour, it’s not got many photos, but my it’s full of life.

I have a way of judging good writing when someone sends me an article. I half close my eyes and scan the text for capital letters and numbers. These indicate the number of names, places, dates, quantities and generally facts that fill the pages. If there aren’t many capitals and numbers the chances are it’s puff. Spike Carlsen’s book is fact after fact, but written in the most engaging style, and full of humour and enthusiasm. The only problem is that it is the book I’ve always wanted to write (but never considered doing) and it pains me to flick the pages. Thanks, Spike. You’ll be seeing more of this in Living Woods in issues to come.

Jobs running woodlands are rare enough, and then two come along on the same day. Wilderness Wood in East Sussex has two job opportunities, and are looking for people with practical and business skills and a willingness to take responsibility for strategy and day-to-day running of the small private estate. The 61 acres of chestnut coppice, plantations and Christmas trees has been developed into a commercial concern over the last 25 years by chris and Anne Yarrow, who are now retiring. The new owners are Joanna Yarrow and Jonathan Smales, who together founded Beyond Green, and they intend to run the woodlands with the same focus on sustainability and social responsibility that has won Wilderness Wood a Green Tourism award and the Duke of Cornwall’s Award for forestry and conservation.

They are looking for a Woodland Business Manager and a Visitor Business Manager, reflecting the way the woods survive through commercial forestry and product manufacture, plus education and recreation. Applications must be in by 26th March and interviews will be held in mid April. ‘You will need to be highly flexible,’ says the advert, ‘and take a hands-on role in most areas of work as and when required, and flexible working hours with some weekend work will be necessary.’ Sounds fantastic. For details or to apply email enquiries@wildernesswood.co.uk or mia@beyondgreen.co.uk.

Wilderness Wood: www.wildernesswood.co.uk

Beyond Green: www.beyondgreen.co.uk

Firewood moisture

I’ve been asked by a friend to see if you can buy a moisture meter for firewood, to check if it’s ready for burning. Ideally you want firewood to be 20-25% moisture content to burn well, without giving off too much water vapour, which will condense in the flue and cause build-up and decay. Most moisture meters that are designed for furniture makers, to show them when a board is ready for use only go up to about 25%. So they will tell you when the firewood is dry enough, but won’t give enough detail to show how much longer you’ve got to go if the content is off the scale. A moisture meter for firewood doesn’t have to be nearly as sensitive nor as accurate as one for furniture making, but we’ve not heard of a dedicated meter for woodfuel. If you’ve heard of one please leave a comment, or return in a few days when we’ll probably have the answer.

Scottish Wood

Maggie Birley with evidence that there are red squirrels in the woods. Red eat the cones of Scots pine, while greys strip the bark on sycamore and beech

Maggie Birley with evidence that there are red squirrels in the woods. Red eat the cones of Scots pine, while greys strip the bark on sycamore and beech

Maggie and Jim Birley at their community sawmill, with the house they built in the background

Maggie and Jim Birley at their community sawmill, with the house they built in the background

I was in Scotland yesterday, at the funeral of a friend in Dunblane. In describing James, the minister quoted that great philosopher Henry David Thoreau, or Toro as he pronounced the author of On Walden: ‘If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.’

I went on, afterwards, to see Maggie and Jim Birley who run Scottish Wood, a community sawmill, at Inzievar Woods between Alloa and Dunfermline, on the north bank of the Forth. In fact you can see the Forth bridges from their 55 acre woodland, which they bought 15 years ago as somewhere to live. When they couldn’t sell the oak trees they felled to make room for the home they’ve built, they decided to rent a Wood-Mizer mobile sawmill and see if they could sell oak boards themselves. They haven’t looked back, and from those small beginnings they have created a sawmill that employs five people, and is no overwhelmed by demand for local, Scottish wood, particularly larch and oak.

They too live their lives to the rhythm of a different drum. Their woodlands were previously part of the Inzievar estate and very much off limits to local folk. Now Maggie and Jim have made paths everywhere and encourage locals to walk and play in the woods. They’ve suggested fires can be made around the pond, so that young adventurers can have their own fun and build dens and do stuff. They work in partnership with local organisations to use parts of the woodland for mountain biking, with the kids building their own tracks. They try to take a soft approach to litter, leaving it to walkers to pick up what’s left by less thoughtful visitors.

There will be an  article about Maggie and Jim’s woodland in the next issue of Smallwoods, and an article about their community sawmill in a future issue of Living Woods.

Scottish Wood: http://www.scottishwood.co.uk

Squirrel crisps

Anyone who has read Living Woods will probably know that we have a section entitled the Wood Food Guide. The idea of this is to promote food related to woodlands, forests and trees: anything from apples, to chestnuts and wild garlic, plus venison, smoked fish and rabbit. In the current issue we’re looking at the many uses of birch sap, medicinally and for the brewing of wine and beer. So it was with excitement that I discovered that Walkers are now producing Cajun Squirrel crisps. The grey squirrel not only damages and kills trees, but also undermines our dwindling population of native red squirrels. It transpires Walkers are experimenting with flavours, and you can vote for which one you want to keep, but sadly claim ‘no squirrels were harmed in the making of this crisp!’. There are woodland and forest owners out there who’ll be very sad to hear that. They’re quite nice though!


Is an Ecofan really of value?

Is an Ecofan really of value?

One of the products we’ve been testing recently at Living Woods is an Ecofan. This is a seemingly clever device that you place atop your woodburning stove. The heat in the stove is converted into electricity to power a fan that distributes the heat around the room. It certainly alerts you that the stove is warming up, if the flames and glow weren’t enough. But is it worth the £100-odd that you could be spending on firewood??? The trouble is we can’t think of an objective way of testing the Ecofan. We want to find out if the resources and effort spent in its production are in any way balanced by the benefits it offers the home. Any ideas and thoughts on an e-postcard please.

Ecofans: www.calfire.com

Thursday’s Postbag

Tormek's jigs were in today's postbag

Tormek's jigs were in today's postbag

Today’s postbag at Living Woods included two Tormek jigs for axes and knives. As you’ll discover in the next issue of Living Woods, we’ve been testing Tormek’s T-3 wetstone grinder, which is well suited to taking out and about because it is light and portable. In subsequent issues we plan to discuss the sharpening of axes and other woodland tools, using powered and hand sharpening systems.

Farm for the Future

If you didn’t see BBC2’s A Farm of the Future episode of the Natural World on Friday 20th February I strongly recommend you watch it asap on iPlayer. Film-maker Rebecca Hosking returns to her family farm in Devon and realises its survival is predicated by a reliance on oil: not just the price but its very availability. She visits various farms and talks to various experts, with the highlight for us wood-lovers of a guided tour by Martin Crawford of his forest garden at the Agroforestry Research Trust in Devon, where he is growing (amongst many other things) nuts to see if they can be used instead of cereal crops (which rely so heavily upon petrochemicals).

Rebecca also visited a woodland farm in Wales where they feed tree leaves to cattle and sheep. This is a fantastic film, which will be on iPlayer, I think, for 30 days. So hurry. Do tell us what you think.

Here are a couple of useful links relating to this story:

Permaculture Magazine: www.permaculture.co.uk

Agroforestry Research Trust: www.agroforestry.co.uk

Farm of the Future: www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00hs8zp/Natural_World_20082009_A_Farm_for_the_Future/