Wednesday 3 August 2011

wood (for the trees)

Am just beginning work with the designer Kevin Mount on a new book, about Lone Twin's Boat Project, and immersing myself in wood as a material - in Chinese culture, conceived as the 'fifth element' - and related readings, all of them unfamiliar and wholly fascinating. Colin Tudge's The Secret Life of Trees, Roger Deakin's Wildwood: a journey through trees, George Nakashima's The Soul of a Tree, Harvey Green's Wood: Craft, Culture, History, R. Bruce Hoadley's Understanding Wood, and, for a wider discussion about the histories and tacit knowledges of the craft of making something well, Richard Sennett's extraordinary book The Craftsman.

Working my way through the catalogue of the 1,200 odd donations of wood made to the Boat Project, I've assembled an initial listing of the kinds of wood that will be present in this exquisitely crafted floating archive of objects and stories:

aframosa, American white oak, apple, ash, bamboo, beech, birch, boxwood, cedar, cherry, chestnut, crab apple, douglas fir/pine, ebony, elder, elm, eucalyptus, fuchsia, hawthorn, hazel, holly, iroko (African 'teak'), iron bark, juniper, kauri, laylandii, lime, mahogany, maple, monkey puzzle, oak, olive, padauk (African wood), parana pine, pear, pine, plum, plywood, redbeckia, redwood, rosewood, Russian oak, sandalwood, sapele (African wood), satin wood, sequoia, silver birch, spruce, strawberry tree, sycamore, teak, walnut, willow, yew.

In the last couple of weeks, I have also enjoyed stimulating email exchanges with Bryan Saner in Chicago, and the British furniture designer Matthew Burt who conceives of wood as 'recycled sunshine and rainwater'. A couple of days ago, Matthew described to me at some length his enduring fascination with and enthusiasm for the 'end grain of timber':
It looks into the time taken to grow the material and each tree has its own unique narrative. I have one piece whose entire front is made of lots of small blocks of end grain. This particular tree was growing out of a bank alongside a track in Somerset. It curved towards the sun and as a consequence had a large “belly” at its front. It fell down in a storm, toppling forwards, no longer able to support its ample belly; it was subsequently sawn, and revealed annular rings/ growth rings that were about 13mm apart in this front part of the tree. The rings at its back side, where it took the strain, were only 2mm apart.

Solitary grown ash trees often pick up nutrients in their old age that begin to discolour their grain. These colours often add interest to the timber, and in the case of these old ashes they impart a greenish brown series of streaks which timber merchants, not slow to embellish their product with silky marketing words, refer to as “olive” and then charge twice as much as normal ash. This tree was very olived and because it was straining to support its considerable belly, the back part of the tree had stress ripples running through its grain. The tree was also curved because of its hungry pursuit of the sun. Hence this tree was olived, curved, rippled with hugely varying widths of growth rings. A story in itself.

Add to this that it had been growing in this spot since the battle of Trafalgar and you begin to get a feel how precious this material is. So when you look at the end grain blocks that make up the front panel of the “bench chest” made out of this particular tree, you are looking into the time taken to grow this wood and the story it tells. In some ways the piece is a memorial to the tree, and hopefully an eloquent one.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hello David,

I enjoyed this very much (redirected here via Pete's FB page) having spent the past 6 months building a yurt with my other half to live in.

It is such a beautiful process, working with wood, and having coppiced, stripped, sanded, oiled etc.. and made the structure ourselves from Hazel in the woods where we live, it is quite something to work with this living material so closely. When the material stops being coppiced branches and becomes yurt wall or roof poles is a special transformation. Especially when you move into steam-bending large pieces. We put the structure up complete with roof on Wednesday and it was an emotional and proud moment.

I look forward to reading more of your blog (and the book of course). Specially seeking out those readings you mentioned.

My very best wishes to you David

Amy Jones