Adam Thorogood, our woodland management officer, manages CAT’s woodland at the CAT site and at Coed Gwern nearby. In this blog, he explains the intricacies of making gates from chestnut.
The mallet, heavy in hand, smacks down onto the back of the froe and a reassuring cracking sound follows as the chestnut log I’m splitting cleaves lengthways. Nothing else sounds like it, a tinkling, crinkling sound as the wood fibres spring apart, relieving long-held tensions. A few movements with the froe handle and the two sides of the log ping apart. I’m making a gate. These two pieces will be the head posts, I’ll shape them with the side axe then smooth things off with the draw knife and spokeshave and move on to the next component.
The wood tears slightly around a knot and I turn the piece around, come at it from the other direction, smoothing the knot down so it becomes a feature rather than an obstacle. I’m absorbed in the work, slowly all the components emerge from a stack of round wood logs. The shavings peal away from the wood, yielding to the blade of the draw knife, tumbling onto the floor, adding to the great pile that is amassing there.
The auger bit bites deep into the chestnut, this is where the elbow grease comes in. It takes concentration and patience to guide the bit in, keeping the brace steady and at the right angle whilst turning at the same time. Despite the many times I’ve done this, I always approach this part of the process with trepidation, it needs and clear head, not to be done with too many thoughts flying around. It’s in this way that the material influences the craftsman, shapes them as they shape it. If anything, working with wood has taught me patience, that oft touted virtue, its something inherent in wood, embodied in it almost, in the long years it has taken this tree to grow, on the same spot, watching the seasons come and go. Approach the wood with a confused mind or a head full of frustration and you’ll double it, let the wood lead you and you’ll end up with something beautiful…hopefully.
This chestnut is from the woods on site here at CAT. Planted forty or so years ago, it’s seen a lot of seasons and been witness to the CAT emerge from the abandoned slate quarry that it was before into a thriving education and demonstration centre. The decision to fell the tree wasn’t made lightly, but is part of a long thought out management plan based on the principles of sustainable woodland management. The stump or “stool” that is left will throw up new shoots this spring as sweet chestnut coppices well, and when several years more have passed, we’ll have more raw material for products.
This gentle interaction between the woodland and the woodsman, between wood and craftsman, is something to be cherished. The natural environment is our life support system and through understanding it we can step closer to making our communities more sustainable. CAT is a place where such an interaction has been nurtured over the years, as the old slate quarry has flourished at the hands of its inhabitants.
If you’re interested in learning about sustainable woodland management or greenwood crafts, why not take part in one of our short courses taught by master woodsmen? Or, if you live locally to CAT, get involved in our woodland management work by volunteering on our ‘woody Wednesdays.’