Woodlanders

Somehow almost six months have slipped by since my last post.  In that time a lurcher pup has come to share my life and I seem to have found a new home in deepest, darkest Devon on the edge of Dartmoor National Park.  How these things have come to be are something of a mystery to me, but it started with a long drive to Steward Wood in Devon where I was to look after Kate’s low impact dwelling from January until March while she was working in Bristol.  Our arrival at the wood coincided with a few weeks of heavy snow.  This is what our temporary home looked like a few days after we arrived…

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…and this was the communal kitchen and long house that morning….

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I mentioned Steward Wood in a previous post, but to sum up; it’s a 32 acre woodland with an off grid community of people who live on site in low impact dwellings.  Situated on the edge of Dartmoor National Park it’s a wild and rugged and beautiful location.  Living off grid is hard work in many ways, most things take much longer than if all modern conveniences were available.  But living close to nature brings so many moments of delight; encounters with wildlife, beautiful starlit nights and falling alseep to the sound of owls calling…and now that spring is here the dawn chorus echoing round the woods at first light is such a great alarm clock.

Fern and I have known the community for several years so it always feels like returning home whenever we’re there.  So it was music to our ears when a few people asked if we’d like to stay on after the winter.  Fern is doing a post graduate diploma course in Photography at the LCC in London, but will soon be done there and as we’ve been fairly nomadic for probably far too long the thought of having somewhere to settle was most welcome.  So at the start of March, and after a vote from the whole community it was agreed that we’d begin a three month trial with a view to becoming full time residents in the woods. Kate has decided to stay on in Bristol for another year, so we’ll be caretakers of her place until Spring 2014 by which time we’ll have had to sort out some kind of living arrangements of our own.  To say that all of this this has made us happy is quite an understatement.  Kaiya made herself at home right away and seems to be in agreement that it’s a Good Place To Be.  Here she is at about 13 weeks old in a chair she already can’t fit in to anymore…

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I’ll be running most of my future spoon carving workshops from Steward Wood now, with one or two trips to Hertfordshire now and again.  So if the option of camping in a Dartmoor woodland, getting a taste of low impact living and learning to carve spoons is of interest then please get in touch or spread the word to anyone you know who might be interested.

So for the next year we’re going to be dwelling in this little wooden, woodland home.   This is what it looks like now that the snow has melted and the spring has finally arrived…

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It’s very basic, very simple…a woodburner, a tap outside, a tin bath for washing with a kettle and a jug…and a big window with views across the valley to the moor.

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In the winter Owen and Chris worked hard on opening up some of their plot next to the forest garden to allow more light in for the hazel coppice.  While Owen felled some sycamore trees, I helped Chris make a deer proof fence around the bounadry using the brash from the felled sycamore.  She’d been working hard already so much of the boundary was already protected.  In return for my help I recieved a lovely stack of sycamore poles.  Some of this will be made in to spoons and ladles and the rest will be left to mellow for a while before I turn it in to bowls.  The picture above shows me cutting off a piece which I turned straight away in to two bowls. It turned nicely considering how green it was. I’m still working with just hand tools, but realise now with some sadness that I really must invest in a chainsaw.  I’ve got three large larch trees down for my firewood for next winter.  If i was to saw it all in to rounds ready for splitting using just my big hand saw I would have very little time for anything else.  Living off grid is wonderful but very time consuming and I need to allow for time to turn bowls and carve spoons ready for the summer street markets.  Having a chainsaw will not only mean I can keep on top of fire wood processing, but also that I can turn larger diameter bowls in less time as much of the work for me now is taken up with the slow crosscut saw.

I had a visit from a photographer; a recent graduate called Sam Gill.  He contacted me in the winter to tell me about a project he’s doing called Not Made In China.  It’s about people who make things by hand in a traditional way.  He intends to make timelapse movies of lots of different people who work with their hands.  He stayed for three days and shot lots of pictures then edited them to make a short movie of me turning a bowl and carving a spoon. Below are some stills from the sequence, including the picture above of me sawing the end off the sycamore log.

The first cut with the axe….

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…removes the corner to begin shaping the half log to a rough bowl shape ready for the lathe.

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Once the bowl is roughed out with the axe I hammer in the drive shaft or ‘mandrel’ and I turn the back of the bowl.

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Once the outside is done I reverse the mandrel in the lathe and hollow out the inside. The shavings pile up on the bed of the lathe…

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The final cuts are with a curved knife to remove the excess wood where the core was snapped out from the inside and where the metal centre was located on the base of the bowl.

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As you can see I now have an indoor space to work on the lathe.  Until very recently all my work was done under a tarp in a wood.

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Sam is keen to make timelapse movies of various traditional crafts..his website is www.samgillphotography.co.uk so if you are a maker then get in touch with him.

I was over the moon to learn that Sean Hellman lives and works just a short distance from Steward Wood.  Sean is a highly skilled craftsman and a thoroughly nice guy. My friend Ollie needed to have his axe re-ground and knowing that Sean is a bit of an axe junkie with various grinding wheels I made a phone call and a few days later we arrived at his workshop where we were treated to a viewing of some wonderful tools and numerous craft items made by Sean, all of which had us practically drooling and in awe of his skill.  Ollie got the lowdown on axe care from Sean and left with a masterfully re-gound axe. Sean couldn’t resist showing off his latest axe; a lovely 4lb Elwell…

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…and Ollie listened carefully as Sean explained the finer points of honing an axe…

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Back at the ranch lots of community members have expressed an interest in having a go on the bowl lathe.  Chris took some time out from looking after her goats and from tending the forest garden to turn a bowl.  She made it look easy considering she’d never used a pole lathe before.

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I had two visitors from Singapore over the winter.  They had seen a video of a spoon carver on the internet and decided that during a visit to England they would like to learn to carve a spoon.  They were a lovely couple and my first International students!  I wonder if I’ll ever have anyone else travel so far to spend a day learning how to carve spoons!?

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On the subject of spoons…there has been a lovely project started recently by an online group of spoon carving enthusiasts…’The First International Secret Spoon Swap’.  The idea was to get loads of ‘spoon nerds’ to agree to carve a spoon for someone in the group and post it off as a gift.  No one would know who was going to send them a spoon until it arrived.  There were first time carvers and very talented veterans like Fritioff Runhall involved; over 100 people got involved.  I carved the sycamore spoon below and posted it off in the hope that it would be used and appreciated by Lee who was to be it’s new owner.  It felt great to send off a spoon in this way, in the spirit of sharing freely with other carvers with a similar passion for working with wood in it’s natural state.

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A few days later a parcel arrived in the post with a spoon and a letter from Leo Wirtz who had carved me a really lovely cherry spoon, made from a piece of radially split cherry from Wiltshire.  Every time I use it I appreciate the work that went in to it and smile to myself; the idea of a spoon swap is just so nice.  World peace could well be in the hands of the spoon carvers! Here’s a photo of the spoon from Leo…

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Thanks Leo.

I’ll finish this post with a few photos of a couple of hours spent with some of the young residents of Steward Wood.  This is Asha, a natural whittler carving her first wood elves.  Wood elves are a great project for kids, just a few simple cuts are required.  Asha enjoyed making them so much that she made a basket full and when I set up a stall a week later at a local food festival I had them all out for sale beside my bowls and spoons.  Needless to say she sold every single one of them and the look of pride on her face each time she received her payment from a customer was just magic.  Well done Asha!

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I’d like to thank Richard Dyson for first telling me about wood elves and if anyone else is interested there is an online tutorial which I can forward on via email.

Finally some pics of a few recent bits I’ve made; a couple of beech plates, some little turned cups, one of which has some milk paint added, a selection of bowls, some cherry, some sycamore and few spoons too…

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21 responses to “Woodlanders

  1. Nice post (as ever) Dude.

    I was thinking of you recently, I mentioned to my young nephew I was your first (guinea pig) spoon carving student. Immediately he wanted to have a go… Young boy + axe + knife = he didn’t need any persuading! Watching him working very carefully with the axe was still quite nerve inducing I can tell you. He survived unscathed thankfully.
    I surprised myself how much I remembered, no credit to my teacher there of course! ;o)

    In terms of recent developments, sometimes the universe unfolds just how you would like it to do so hey… :o)

    • It does indeed old friend! More often than we give it credit for I imagine. Great that your nephew had you to watch over him; I’m sure he appreciated that very much and will most likely always remember the day he first used those very sharp tools under his uncle’s watchful eye….

  2. A lovely catch-up, Sharif, and a taste of your new life down south. Please remember my spoon order, and perhaps next time you’re with your nephews, the big brother would like to make a wood elf, with your careful supervision…

  3. Hi Sharif

    Great to hear how you’ve settled in to life in Devon, I’m not surprised it suits you down to the ground.

    Kaiya must be growing up now – any recent photos? Bert would love to meet her one day.

    Thanks to you, I am still trying to carve spoons. Seeing that lovely sycamore spoon inspires me to try harder. You can see a few of mine on our website at http://www.anything-arty.com

    Sorry we missed you at the Bodger’s Ball, Steve, Ani, Jane and I went on the Sunday. So many nice wooden things, nice people and nice tools!

    Badgering Steve to build a pole lathe, so it’s good to have photos of yours in action.

    Jane says she would like to try carving a wood elf, could you send me a link to the tutorial you mentioned?

    I do fancy a catch-up course down there in Devon sometime…

    Love from Ed, Jane & Bert

    • Hey Edwin, great to hear from you. Yes; shame we missed each other at the gathering in Cambridge…I had a demo day at a wood festival in Ruislip on Sunday so had to slip away early. Your spoons look great by the way! I’d love you to visit me in Devon. I’m running another course on June 15th in Hertfordshire, let me know if you would like to get on board for that one. Perhaps we should aim for a wander with the hounds around that time? I’m back for a week from 8th to 16th. I’ll email that tutorial to you right now. Keep the pressure on Steve to build that lathe…and please let him know that I’d be very happy to offer suggestions etc as he goes along with it if need be, you’ve got my number…happy carving!

  4. Very nice post Sherif,you got me curious about “The First International Secret Spoon Swap” this sounds like a lot of fun. Will there be a second spoon swap?

    What beautiful wood did you use for the top bowls on your stack( third last image)? Really like them! Right now one of the children peared over my shoulder and asked: how are those dwarfs made? I will have to get the tutorial…
    Cheers Frederik

    • Hi Frederik, thanks for you comment. The spoon swap was organised on facebook, the page is called ‘spoon carving, green woodworking and sloyd’…if you do the facebook thing go on there and join and if it happens again then get involved. The bowls on top of the stack are turned from cherry wood. It’s really pretty wood; the heart wood being a nice red and the sap wood being paler, sort of creamy almost white. I’ll email you the wood elf tutorial…cheers!

  5. I was with lee Stoffer Today collecting some scorps he has furnished me with, and he showed me the spoon you sent him. Truly a thing of beauty!

  6. Hi Sharif , good to read that you are doing well. Credit for the elves should really go to Richard Law – I’m more like the sorcerer’s apprentice.
    I like the look of your chopping block – could you post a picture of the top – it looks to have a hollow on it?
    Cheers
    Richard

    • Hi Richard,
      the hollow is just from roughing out lots of bowls, will send you a pic at some point; we don’t have power here all the time for internet though. I’ll thanks Richard Law when i see him next for the wood elf idea. Good to hear from you, hope you’re well…

  7. 🙂 It’s good to hear how you’re getting on. Excellent carving, looking forward to buying another at spoonfest. Have you any plans to run and advanced spoon carving course?

    • Thanks Alex. Was good to see you at the BB; thanks for the encouragement to get another post written. I do have ideas about running other courses soon yes, but for now just beginner courses. Watch this space though…see you in August.

  8. Hi Sharif,

    Great blog, thanks! If you get a chance, can I ask for a copy of your wood elf instructional? They look fun, and would be great for my 2 year old! I’m just starting playing with knives, and it would be a good practice! I’m at

    By the way, I found your link through Robin Wood, who had great things to say about you on his blog and a link to your page.

    Cheers!
    Derek

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