The woodworking techniques used by green woodworkers today date back hundreds of years.  The spring pole lathe, a treadle powered device used to turn round wooden parts, and the shaving horse are woodworking devices that have been used for centuries

In Britain, the lives of a unique class of craftspeople revolved seasonally around woodland work.  As the ancient forests of the island nation had essentially been decimated by the year 1000, a new system of woodland management evolved called coppicing.  Trees were cut during the dormant winter season and the harvested product used to make a range of useful items including fuel, fencing, furniture and building material.  In the spring, the undamaged root systems of these trees resprout and a copious supply of new shoots begin to grow.

Coppice worker Marcus Smart inspecting second year coppice regrowth on a chestnut stool (stump)

These craftsmen and their families lived a semi-nomadic life, each winter moving into a new section or ‘cant’ of coppice woodland, cutting the standing timber and transforming the raw material into their particular product or craft.  Too poor to purchase their own land, these workers bid on the seasonal use of uncut cants owned by noblemen.  Some of the better known crafts include hazel sheep hurdles, charcoal making (essential for early industry) and bodging (chair part production).

Chair leg turner Albert Carter of Oxfordshire is shaping a ‘billet’ or chair part with an ax - 1937

Silas W. Saunders, seated at a shaving horse, is shaving a chair leg with a drawknife in his woodland shelter - 1940

Spring Pole Lathe from Joseph Moxon’s Machanick Exercises, 1680

Bodger Sam Rockwell stacking chair legs to dry outside his workshop

Charcoal burners seated beside their sod covered hut in Epping Forest - 1908

American colonists brought their woodworking traditions with them to the New World.  These industries formed the backbone of early American settlement.  Chair and furniture making, cooperage (barrel making for wet and dry goods storage and transport), wagons and agricultural implements, timber frame construction and charcoal making all contributed to the expansion of the young American nation and massive deforestation of the remarkable old growth forests of eastern North America.  Plimoth Plantation (above, right) in Plymouth, MA, is a modern reconstruction of the early Pilgrim settlement.  Virtually the entire built infrastructure of the village is made from riven white oak, even the cladding on the buildings.

 

During the industrial revolution, these traditional crafts began to face competition in terms of production and efficiency. By the Second World War many of these traditional crafts had effectively vanished and were nearly lost forever.

In 1978, John Alexander wrote a book called Make a Chair From a Tree: An Introduction to Working Green Wood that helped resurrect the craft of traditional, ‘green’ woodworking.  His experiments with turning green wood, led him to research the use of unseasoned, riven wood in craft work.  His book provided an invaluable resource for modern green woodworkers.  British green woodworker Mike Abbott has done much to salvage and restore his nation’s bodger tradition, writing books and teaching workshops on chair making and the use of the spring pole lathe.  Since then a number of books and schools focused on traditional woodworking and craft have sprung up throughout the eastern US and Great Britain.  For a list of contacts, visit the Links page.

Mark Krawczyk

rivenwoodcrafts@gmail.com

Burlington, VT

(802) 999-2768