Friday, 29 August 2014

So, who is Holt and who is Heath?

On Monday this week, Julian and I braved the British bank-holiday weather to attend the National Forest Wood Fair and took some of our wares along, to display and show other people and with the vague hope of selling one or two pieces.

We got there a little later than we'd planned, my eldest daughter Chloe came along to help, and we set up a rather tiny gazebo and tables in the pouring rain, resolved to the facts that we were going to get very wet, probably very few if any members of the public would be fool-hardy enough to get out of bed for such an event on such a day, and that we would most likely not manage to sell a single item.

Nonetheless, and with our moral undaunted, once set up, we stood and smiled and chatted with the slow trickle of people who had no doubt pre-purchased their tickets for the event and thought that, since they had already spent the money, they may as well see if it was any good.

Though I was glad to have had some shelter with us, the rain dripped through, filling the bowls on the top shelf and, if you look carefully, you can see the river that ran constantly across the middle of the table with the bowls on.
Bad weather aside, and at about 2 o'clock it actually stopped raining for about fifteen minutes, we had a most enjoyable time. We sold some spoons, some bowls, spatulas, spreaders and coat hooks - thanks to all those who offered advice on pricing our products. But the most enjoyable thing about the whole day, the best thing by far, was the great, friendly, helpful, encouraging, complimentary, appreciative people that we met.

So, thank you to all those who bought something from us - it is the most flattering thing ever.

Thank you to those who offered advice, especially those who have been doing this a long time and were very free with their wisdom.

Thank you to those who sought us out, having communicated via the net for some time - it was good to finally put a face to a name (James, don't forget to be in touch about how we can be involved in you grand scheme).

All in all, a worthwhile activity and well worth getting soaked for.

Sorry for all the pictures of spoons - I was kind of trying to catalogue the different styles I had carved before they went flying off the shelves - and I don't mean because of the wind gusting across Beacon Hill!

And not that it matters, but in way of clarification, Julian and I are both called Heath - there is no Mr Holt. I took the name 'Holt and Heath' from a line in the general prologue of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales:

'When April with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root
And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
When Zephyr also has, with his sweet breath,
Quickened again, in every holt and heath,
The tender shoots and buds, and the young sun
Into the Ram one half his course has run,
And many little birds make melody
That sleep through all the night with open eye
(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)-
Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage...'
It means woodland and field and with Heath being our surname, and me liking Chaucer, I thought it sounded sufficiently arty-farty. Sorry for the confusion (and disappointment for all those hopping to meet the elusive Mr Holt).

In a bit of a pickle....

I was at a local auction house a year or so ago. I like to go every now and then to sit and look at what is on offer, get my hopes up for a purchase, only to have them dashed when the bidding goes way over my limit and I go home empty-handed. On this particular occasion I bid for and won a box of ephemera - I can't even remember what was in it that attracted me, a bunch of old wooden bow saws I think - and when I got it home I found a couple of interesting items buried inside, one of which I was hoping someone out there could help me to identify.

Firstly there was this rather nice little jointed box.

It has a hinged lid and wrought handle. It is rustic and roughly made with a nice carved pattern front and back. Whilst I liked it, and it has lived ever since on our hearth, and whilst it had clearly been made to look old (there is  a lot of surface gunk and muck), I didn't for a second think it was anything but a replica, mostly because there was something quite modern looking about the staples that hold the handle and lid ring on.

Then there was this:

Again, its wooden, roughly carved from a single piece of timber, with some basic decoration and five semi-circular hollows. Now, I am certainly no historian, but I thought I recognised this item as soon as I saw it. I seem to remember seeing one just like it in an old history text book from way back when I was at school. In this particular book it was called a Tudor pickle tray. It would be placed on the table at a meal or feast with various preserves, pickles or chutneys in the hollows to enhance and embellish the otherwise rather plain food.

I have since scoured the internet, convinced that if I searched for Tudor or Elizabethan or medieval pickle tray or condiment tray, I would be sure to get a positive result. However, try as I might, I have as yet found nothing.

What I was wondering was, does anyone out there recognise this item of treen? Does anyone know what it is - is it my illusive pickle tray? And if so, how can I go about discovering if it is real or not? I am not naive enough to think I have a genuine piece of Tudor tableware, but equally, I'd hate to think it was the real thing and all this time it has sat in my garage, gathering dust and rotting away.

Any suggestions?

Saturday, 23 August 2014

That old chestnut...

So, I have my spoons labelled ready to take to the National Forest Wood Fair on Monday, in the hope of selling a couple. The question is, how much do I charge for them?

Oh yes, that old chestnut. I know there have been countless articles and numerous blog hours given over to this subject. I have read the advice of experienced and veteran crafts-people, the opinions and musings of others like myself, and still I do not know the answer. A Wilkinsons' wooden spoon is 50p; a Peter Follansbee spoon is around £30-40. I might not be a Peter Follansbee, but I would hope my spoons have more value than a mass-produced wooden cooking spoon.

It's such a dilemma. On the one hand I would like to get some monetary return on all the hours I have spent carving, I have more spoons than I have places to put them; whilst on the other I feel cheeky even asking for someone to pay real money for one of my spoons. Who do I think I am?
Then again, I have seen and handled enough spoons by other people to know that, modestly speaking, mine are as good as most, better than some, and other people manage to sell their spoons without causing a public affront. What a dilemma.

One thing for sure, I was determined this time to label and price my pieces before hand - I made the mistake at a previous craft fair (the only other fair Julian and I have done) of not pricing anything but just waiting for people to ask the price, then sounding unsure and generally apologetic. As a result I think I managed to sell only three spoons and a couple of handmade knives that time. Why should I feel apologetic about charging a reasonable amount for the things I have made? I know Robin Woods has said in the past not to under value what you have made, but don't over price yourself either. It's just that finding that happy medium is what I'm finding so difficult!

On a different note, my wife was insistent that we should have a sign of some kind on our stall so that everyone would know who we were. So, here is the hand painted sign, made from an old pallet, that I knocked-up yesterday. If you visit the fair on Monday, we're down the bottom end of the field - keep an eye out for it and come and say hello.

How To Be Free...

I know I don't often post book reviews on this blog, more likely spoons and tools, but I think I can be forgiven on this one instance, since I am after all an English teacher and therefore have an invested interest in literature. I wanted to give a recommendation for a book that a friend gave me at the beginning of the summer and which, not only have I thoroughly enjoyed reading but which I would even go as far as saying might actually change my life - just a little bit, maybe.
I feel like I should know about Tom Hodgkinson - perhaps I have heard him mentioned before but I don't remember. To quote his Wikipedia page (I can't be held responsible for any inaccuracies) "...Tom Hodgkinson is a British writer, socialist and the editor of The Idler, which he established in 1993 with his friend Gavin Pretor-Pinney. His philosophy, in his published books and articles, is of a relaxed approach to life, enjoying it as it comes rather than toiling for an imagined better future."
As a self-proclaimed anarchist, Hodgkinson's book claims to present the formula for a free life - free of social constraints, financial pressures, the evils of supermarket chains, the snares of political activity, and many other modern annoyances. And whilst these are all interesting themes on their own, and something that I find generally interesting, questioning my own relationship with some of societies more insidious constructs, what I found most interesting were his insights on crafts and making things with our hands versus mass-productions and industrialization, with the notion of celebrating difference. Let me give you a little taste:

".. I understand that there is a tradition in Chinese pottery deliberately to create a slight imperfection in the object to ensure that every piece is different and unique. Perfectionism itself is a kind of death; the machine can turn out thousands of perfect objects, but they have no life.

So, what can we do about the uglification of life? Well, there is an easy answer. Avoid ugly things, ignore them and instead embrace craft, which is what the arts and crafts movement was all about. Let each man and woman master one or two or three crafts. I look forward to a craft revival [bear in mind that this was written in 2006]. Crafts are people-based, pleasure-based; they represent an equal society, they represent quality and joy in the making. Crafts mean the triumph of quality over quantity, of self government over exploitation. Bring beauty into your home. A pot if geraniums on the windowsill. A Pelican paperback. Make your own clothes. See red diamonds on you sleeves. With less time given to work and the Thing, the Combine, the Construct or the Man, you will have more time for yourself and more time to be creative, more time to produce than consume.

Only buy beautiful things [by this Tom does not necessarily mean things that look beautiful, but things with an intrinsic beauty endowed through the creative process, embed through human contact and not machine made]. Only make beautiful things. It is surely better to to buy on shirt of high quality each year than to buy five cheap ones which will be in the garbage within months. And things that you make, however ugly [in the conventional sense] are always more beautiful than the mass produced option, simply because they radiate care even if they are wonky and erratic and funny looking..."
Good stuff, hey?

 I guess my main criticism of the book, if I had to have one, is the almost chocolate-box impression that Hodgkinson sometimes paints of pre-modern, medieval societies, to whom he often turns as the archetype and exemplar for the perfect society, very much papering over the awful conditions and short life-spans that many endured during those periods, at times making bubonic plague sound preferable to a shopping trip at Tesco. I'm no historian but having studied and taught literature of the medieval period, I know it was no picnic for the peasantry. There are also a few apparent contradictions, such as on the one hand heralding as a virtue a friend who is able to do as he likes without considering the effect on others whilst in another chapter encouraging us all to be thoughtful of others and promoting courtesy and politeness - though the error may be more in my reading than in his writing. Otherwise, I love what Tom says in this book, have found it very thought provoking and, at times, a little uncomfortable as I try to reconcile what I am reading and tending to agree with, despite it being in contrast with some of my long-held, modern, societally constructed wisdoms.
HEALTH WARNING - Don't get taken in too much by it all though - Hodgkinson himself has since grown weary of the simple, idyllic, rural life that he seems to promote in the book as the zenith of a fulfilled and idle life, free from the stresses and anxieties of modern consumerism, and headed back to the smoke and bright-lights of London, exclaiming "...goodbye bohemianism, hello bourgeois life!" A little disappointing. All that aside, and Hodgkinson's seemingly unapologetic hypocrisy and apparent cynicism (I was so disappointed to read his article in the London Evening Standard about his move from rural Devon back to London as if the life he had been promoting and heralding as a more perfect existence was nothing more than a public school boy's wheeze, a jape or an indulgent distraction), there is plenty in this book, if taken with a pinch of salt, to make you think - it's certainly made me think.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

A couple of knife jobs....

Having made this knife some weeks, maybe even months ago, it has lived precariously and dangerously, simply dropped into my bag of tools, waiting for me to reach in and blindly rummage and give me the cut of a lifetime.

I thought it was time I made a sheath of some kind before I regretted it.
The problem with these little Frosts knives is that they are so lethally pointed and sharp that a regular stitched leather job is probably not sufficient to ensure against injury - certainly unless you use sheath liners the blade is going to find itself poking through at some point. I know that for this reason lots of people opt for boxes in which to keep their knives. I had contemplated this but thought I would try something more along the lines of a traditional Nordic type sheath. I really love the Sami knives that have a bottom section (the bit where the pointy bit of the knife is going to be) made from wood, antler or bone. This has obvious benefits in protecting yourself from accidental cuts.

So, I used another piece of the same wood I had made the handle from, drilled it, cut it to size, filed, made the horizontal ridges where the leather would be shrink fitted to the wood, cut and stitched the leather, wrapped the knife in cling film, inserted the knife and left it over night to dry.

I was very pleased with the results this morning and thought I could finish it off with a little decorative chip carving on the wooden section. However, I cut the first chip to find the side wall was thinner than I had thought and I had broken through the wall to the cavity inside. I couldn't believe it - I had ruined the sheath!

Then I had an idea. I made a few more shallower chips, filled them all with wood filler; rubbed them down, waxed and low and behold - an inlaid sheath.

It's not perfect, but it will certainly keep my knife safer in my bag.

The second job was to make a sheath for a little knife I made two years ago. A friend of my son's had asked if I could make him something from a small section of an apple tree that had grown during his childhood in his back garden. His father had cut it down and was using it for firewood and he wanted something to remember it by. I think he had hoped I could turn something from it, but there wasn't enough and it was pretty dry and cracked. So, I made a small blade from an old steel file. Handled it with the apple wood and filled the cracks with apoxy before finishing.

The young man who I made it for has since been away and I haven't seen him for two years in order to give it to him. No doubt he has forgotten all about it but I am expecting to see him at the weekend, so I thought it would be good to make a sheath for it.

It's actually quite a sweet little knife - razor sharp and handy enough to slip into a pocket if needed. The sheath is made from a sample of leather that a shoe designer friend of mine gave me. It is actually football leather, hence the texture. It is cut and stitched then cased and water-formed to hold it's shape. Should do the trick nicely. I hope he likes it.

Struggling for Perfection and Failing

I've taken a bit of a break from making things over the last two weeks as I've been busy with the arrival of our third son Levi. Things are starting to calm down a bit though so I decided to do a bit of turning. I really like the idea of the things I make being used and not just being ornamental pieces. I use wooden bowls and spoons every day. For me, they enhance my eating experience and I think that they look even better after being used for some time. So, with this in mind I decided to turn my first set of bowls.

I contemplated making a template for the outside profile that I could use to get all of the bowls the same, but decided against this approach. I think that to have them all exactly the same would take something away from the handmade feel and so I decided that I would copy them purely from comparing them to an original.

For the most part I think that it worked well. I especially liked the fact that I did the three copies together in a sort of mini production run, preparing all three blanks, then turning the outside and finally hollowing them all out. That helped me to get them the same and also sped up the operation.
They're not clones and you can even work out which pairs came from the same side of the log, but I like that. After finishing them last night looked at the Lost Art Press blog and came across this quote from furniture maker David Savage, which kind of sums up my feelings: I am hanging on for this, as it fits my need to put clear blue water between my furniture and the robot-driven, manufactured surface. That routine, intimidating perfection of industry that surrounds us. I wanted a human, imperfect surface, a surface that reminded us of the skilled hand struggling for perfection and failing. I wanted failure.