“Do you know your trees?” William Warren asked us.
An awkward pause.
Although the desire to be able to identify tree species grows in me the more confident I become with woodworking, I must unfortunately admit that I am not yet in tune as much I should be with our natively grown trees. Therefore the chance to have a guided tour through the arboretum on The Fonthill Estate was really exciting, and so our tour started on a muddy track at the edge of the woods close to a stack of pine logs.
I really admired how the estate manages their trees and processes all the timber on site to reduce pollution. I am aware of a few contemporary designer-makers, Alice Blogg being one of them, who utilize locally sourced timbers for their pieces and have taken to planking and drying their own boards. This approach supports local economies and as a result is more sustainable and produces designs that benefit from a stronger narrative. Particularly after reading Robert Penn’s The Man Who Made Things Out Of Trees whilst camping in the New Forest (which proved a rather apt setting) and having this opportunity to learn more about the growing of timber, has given me more of an appreciation of where our materials come from and an appetite to learn more- and hopefully to one day give it a go!
Our tour was guided by two forestry experts who explained about the tasks involved in maintaining the woodlands; for example the culling of pests, such as squirrels and deer, to a sustainable level for the benefit of the trees’ growth. We stopped so that a patch of Ash trees with brown crowns could be pointed out to us; this is a sign of Ash Dieback. Although it would make sense to fell the majority of Ash early, so that saw mills can ‘cash in’ on Ash before it is infected with the fungus, the Woodland Trust have advised that the trees should be left standing. Their reasoning for this is that some strands of the Ash family may be resistant to the disease and therefore survive the epidemic; having learnt from their mistakes when mass amounts of trees were felled due to Dutch Elm Disease, reducing it from a common occurrence in our country’s landscape to a real rarity by the 1990s.
Having this molecular level knowledge of wood, no doubt increases your knowledge of the capabilities of it as a material and therefore your abilities as a craftsman. Every time I have heard Sebastian Cox speak about his practise, I am blown away by how informed he is, not only of the different species of wood, but also of how the whole industry of timber production operates. This understanding of woodland management also helps inform designer-makers when they are making consumer choices at the timber yard or during their design process. The concept of ‘fashionable timbers’ should be shunned, as woodlands- for the sake of biodiversity- should be rich in variety. As we continued to walk through the arboretum, it was demonstrated to us that as furniture makers we have a responsibility to select timbers that are sustainably and ethically sourced, as well as trying to make undervalued materials more desirable and marketable. After seeing so many Beech trees in the woodlands during our visit, I would like to use it for my own projects during this next year.
It struck me that for those who are mindful of what they put on their plate and eat; it makes sense to pay as much interest in where our materials have come from. As well as wood, this can definitely be said for those choosing to work with leather, as we returned to the barn for a talk and practical session with leather expert, Bill Amberg. Despite being vegan, I found his talk really interesting, and similarly to how I described my feelings when I hear Sebastian Cox speak about wood, I felt the same hearing Bill speak about his material. He knew so much about the sourcing and processing of the material that my confidence in his making abilities was faultless. Is this what the next level of craftsmanship looks like?
The day made me really consider all aspects of craft: from selecting natural resources through to applying the finishing touches to beautiful objects. And– particularly after hearing that Poppy Booth intends to make her own leather from frog skins, I am keen to try and make my own materials, whether that is weaving my own fabrics or dare I say, creating my own leather too!