Tuesday 2 February 2021

The Pole Lathe: Part Two - Design And Fabrication

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The Pole Lathe: Part One - A Complete History

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Monday 13 July 2020

Celebrating the Heritage Crafts Association

What does the future hold for our traditional crafts? Once upon a time, the knowledge and skills associated with a particular craft were passed down through the generations or from master to apprentice. However, with the rise of mass production and assembly-line manufacture, demand for these crafts is dwindling and their future uncertain. 

Enter: The Heritage Crafts Association. 

This incredible organisation seeks to fund, support and bring attention to craftspeople from across the UK who are continuing our traditional crafts, using the same methods, processes and skills of the past. Their aim is to preserve, document and promote, ensuring that these crafts are not lost, but continue to be passed on through the generations. I found the HCA while reading “The Man Who Made Things From Trees” - an incredibly insightful and gloriously detailed book written by Robert Penn who communicates his love for traditional crafts with boundless enthusiasm and literary grace (unlike me!). I have just joined the HCA and am incredibly excited to be a part of an organisation whose work matches so closely with my own interests. So to begin this article we’ll have a brief introduction to the HCA and then move on to explore some of their work and outreach projects. We’ll then finish by looking at some of the craftspeople represented by the association as well as their work.

What does the Heritage Crafts Association do? In their own words - 
“In the UK traditional crafts are not recognised as either arts nor heritage so fall outside the remit of all current support and promotion bodies. At the Heritage Crafts Association we are doing what we can to address that situation and safeguard craft skills and knowledge for the future.” 

The HCA was founded in 2010 when “a small group of makers and others interested in craft gathered in a windowless cellar to look into the possibilities of setting up an association to be the umbrella body for heritage crafts”. From these humble beginnings and in the intervening decade, the HCA has become the leading representative and advocate for heritage crafts. In 2012 the Heritage Crafts Awards was set up and has since run as an annual event every year. The awards celebrate individuals who are involved in heritage crafts either as craftspeople, trainers, volunteers or apprentices. The event brings attention to the crafts community as well as supplying much needed funds to individual craftspeople. As well as this event, the HCA also organises regular Craft Skills Forums and the annual HCA conference. The HCA’s ‘Red List of Endangered Crafts’ identifies and assesses the viability and health of our heritage crafts and identifies those that are currently viable to those which are critically endangered. The HCA states that they hope this research “will act as a call to action to those who have it within their power to resolve or alleviate these issues, and that this project will mark the start of long-term monitoring of heritage craft viability and a shared will to avoid the cultural loss that is borne each time a craft dies.” The Red List can be found here, where each craft has a page explaining the history, techniques and issues which affect it as well as a directory of current craftsmen. In support of the crafts found on the Red List the HCA has set up the  Heritage Crafts Fund which provides direct financial support to the makers and trainees practising the endangered crafts. 

Now let us take a closer look at the Red List of Endangered Crafts. A total of 212 crafts now feature on the list, with 4 crafts listed as extinct, 36 considered critically endangered, 70 as endangered and 102 as currently viable. Daniel Carpenter, who is the Red List Project Manager acknowledges that some may view the venture negatively. Indeed, should we not focus on the technologies of the future rather than those of the past? Our cultural practices change and develop over time and so why should we attempt to preserve these crafts which, to some, do not appear to have a place in our modern world. Carpenter suggests however that these are the very reasons why we should, and with great urgency, strive to protect our crafts. It is “not for the sake of our past, but for the sake of their future” that these crafts should be kept alive, allowing the cultural touch stones and knowledge of the past to inform the present. In doing this, the modern craftsperson will have access to the knowledge built up over centuries, guiding him in his own practices and informing its future development. The Red List then, is not a nostalgic attempt at preservation, but a prescient endeavour seeking to enhance and enrich our future, benefiting not only our craftspeople, but the cultural experiences of all. Opening up “Opportunities for our society to have a debate about which parts of our culture we want to carry with us into the future, and for the individuals to use these repositories of knowledge to create rewarding livelihoods for themselves in ways we might not yet even be able to imagine” 

A review of some of the crafts on the Red List

Watchmaking - Critically Endangered 
Between 1630 and 1890, watchmaking in the UK was a booming industry, employing around 20,000 watchmakers in London alone (then around 1/50th of the whole population!). By the end of the 19th century however, the industry in the UK shrank and Switzerland (due to its early adoption of machine production and new construction methods) became the largest manufacturer of watches - a title it still holds to this day. Though restoration of watches is still quite a prominent industry in the UK, the manufacture of hand-made watches is a dying trade, with less than twenty craftspeople still practising the craft. In addition to this, our watchmakers also struggle to find enough work in the UK and many are moving to Switzerland for employment. The rate at which we are losing such craftspeople is also related to the amount of time it takes to train in such a specific and specialist trade. Financial limitations are also a concern as most apprenticeship schemes do not offer any financial support beyond the £3.70/hr apprentice wage. Many of the allied trades in the UK which supply the components for watchmaking are also struggling and need financial support to continue. The watchmaking industry here also does not receive as much trade support as in other countries making UK manufactured watches much more expensive to produce. However, so as not to focus entirely on the negatives, let’s take a look at a watchmaker who is still operational in the UK -
Roger W Smith 
Roger Smith set up his watch making business in 2001 on the Isle of Wight and practices the so-called “Daniel’s Method” of hand-crafted watchmaking which was devised by his mentor George Daniels. Smith’s attention to detail is reflected in his output - with only 12 watches produced a year, there’s no wonder his watches are considered to be some of the finest in the world!  Roger attended a Horology course in Manchester after leaving school and first came into contact with George Daniels (who was one of the most respected watchmakers and the first person in history to make every component of a watch from scratch and by hand.) when he came to do a talk at his school. The meeting turned out to be a pivotal moment in Smith’s career and made him realise the possibilities within his field - “I had no idea who he was, all I knew is that he was someone who made watches by hand. I didn’t even believe that was possible – all the watches around us were industrial. Seeing that watch just blew me away.” After graduating, and with the hope of becoming an apprentice, Smith took a pocket watch he’d made to Daniels. To Smith’s dismay however, Daniels was not impressed and said that the watch looked “hand-made” rather than “created”. Though this was quite a blow to his confidence the event helped him to understand the level of mastery he needed to reach in order to become a professional watchmaker. Daniel’s philosophy was one focused on absolute perfectionism - “A watch should seem to have simply appeared from the air, without any sign of the maker, other than the realisation of their aesthetic”. Smith spent the following half a decade perfecting his skills until he felt he could return to Daniels and prove he was a worthy apprentice. In 1998 (after smith had shown him his latest work) Daniels asked Smith to join him as a collaborator, rather than apprentice, feeling that his skills had developed far beyond that of a trainee-novice. Now with his own business, and prices starting at £100,000, Smith’s watches are known across the globe. What I find most impressive is the fact that all the components (some 225) for his series two watches are all hand-made in his workshop - a point that no other studio in Britain can claim. Smith is optimistic about the future of watchmaking and currently employs eight other watchmakers in his studio.

-Some Pictures from the studio-

Bowyery - Currently viable
Bowyery (bow making) in the UK is considered to be in good health with many people involved and training in the craft. The main body representing the craft in the UK is the Craft Guild of Traditional Bowery. 
There are currently 45 members of the Guild where each member is “approved as a bowyer, fletcher, stringer or arrow-smith capable of producing items which meet the criteria of the British Long-Bow Society”. The Guild “has modelled itself – as far as modern circumstances allow – on the historic Craft Guilds which once oversaw the quality of the work produced by their members. It arranges for apprentices to learn their skills under the tutelage of more experienced members.” The Guild also provides a forum for craftsmen involved in the trade to communicate and network. The knowledge needed to craft traditional bows was almost lost until the Guild was formed in 1986. Now, to become a member you must submit a “masterwork” to the guild and prove you have the knowledge and skills to be considered a master bowyer, those who earn the title can join the guild and also take on apprentices. There are two other main organisations that represent the craft, one being the Worshipful Company of Bowyers and the other is The British Longbow Society, both of which seek to advance and perpetuate the skills and practice of bow making and shooting. One of the main (and most powerful) types of longbow produced by bowyers today is the English War Bow which is generally made from a single piece of yew (bows fashioned from a single piece of wood are also called “self-bows”). The other type is used for target practice and clout shooting which tends to be smaller and less powerful and made from two pieces of wood fasted together under the handle binding. Much of what we know about the longbow today comes from the wreckage of the Mary Rose, a ship belonging to Henry VII which sank in 1545 and from which 500 arrows and 137 whole longbows were recovered. Yew is the predominant material used for making longbows, but ash and elm are also popular. The demand for yew in the 1500s meant that the yew tree population declined rapidly across the continent and caused much political strife across Europe as countries sought to secure supply. After the battle of Crecy in 1346, which is marked as one of the most successful uses of the English longbow in warfare, new strategies developed which lessened its effectiveness. An example of which is during the battle of Poitiers in 1356 where the famous English chronicler Geoffrey the Baker (died c. 1360) remarked that the soldiers formed a shield wall “protecting their bodies with joined shields, [and] turned their faces away from the missiles. So the archers emptied their quivers in vain"
Tom Mareschall
Tom made his first bow at age seven. As a teenager he was taught to make long bows by a local estate gardener and talented bowyer - in exactly the same way they would have been made 600 years ago. At age fifteen, his mentor died and Tom inherited a fully equipped bow making workshop. Tom now runs Now Strike Archery along with Adam Jenkins and is an accomplished bowyer, wood and metal worker and all around epic craftsperson. Now Strike Archery run a series of classes in bow making, shooting, forging and various other subjects related to the field of archery. Tom says that though he prefers yew when making historically accurate bows, he uses Ash for the demonstration bows he makes as well as the ones made during the courses. Ash is much easier to work as well as being easier to shoot and he says that “shooting a yew war bow [would take] a lifetime of training, just to develop the strength to get maximum power from it”. 

- Tom Mareschall pictured crafting an arrow -

Harp Making - Endangered
The Harp is considered one of the oldest instruments in the world and (though it has gone through many design iterations through history) its use can be traced back to at least 2500BCE. The earliest harps we know of today were excavated from burial pits at the royal tombs of Ur . These harps were shaped like bows and had few strings as the shape could not support a lot of tension. The Frame harp which had a straight forepillar and is one of the earliest iterations of the modern day harp ( though it still only had around 10 to 12 strings) developed in western Europe in the eighth century. The first harp to have a hollowed sound box dates back to Ireland. This harp also had a stronger neck, curved forepillar and around 30 - 36 brass strings. The earliest known depiction of these harps in the british isles is on an 8th century stone cross. These early harps were fixed to a particular key and could not be tuned, this changed however when a mechanical device was invented in the latter half of the 17th century which allowed the harp’s strings to be raised a half pitch by way of a tuning lever. After this invention, tuning technology has continued to develop and in 1810 the most significant step forward was made with the “Double Action Harp” which can be played in all keys. The invention revolutionised the harp and the technology is still in use today. Now let us take a quick look at a maker representing the craft -
George Stevens 
Stevens is based in Kent and has been building harps - along with lutes, gitterns and citoles - in his workshop since 1998. In 1994 he completed a BSc. Hons in instrument making at the London College of Furniture and has since made 250+ instruments. Though he has made some guitars, he specialises in instruments from the medieval, renaissance and baroque periods. Most of his harps are made from sycamore, but he sometimes uses poplar, willow and lime. Stevens is also a published author as well as an accomplished musician and historian. His incredible depth of knowledge of both  instrument history and luthiery shines through in his instruments - works of true “musical sculpture”. In the “processes” section of his website, Steven mentions that his workshop is kept at a constant humidity level which ensures the wood he uses remains stable (does not expand or contract due to moisture gain/loss) during the construction process - a factor he says is essential for instrument making. Stevens lists two specific types of Harp which he makes on his website, the first being the Gothic Harp which has gut strings and is quite small. We then have the Clarsach which is traditional to Ireland and Scotland. Along with these, he has also designed his own line of lap harps which combine modern materials with his knowledge of historical design. Let’s take a closer look -

                 Gothic Harp in Sycamore                              Gothic Harp in Sycamore with antique finish

                     Clarsach Queen Mary style harp                    Clarsach in walnut with brass cheek bands

Coppice Working - Currently Viable 
Now this is a subject I am truly excited about and one I plan to focus on particularly in the future. For now though, let’s have a quick look at the subject and some of the organisations which represent the craft. First let’s understand what coppicing is with this excerpt from Bill Hogarth Memorial Trust’s website: “Coppicing is a traditional, sustainable and productive form of woodland management. In a coppiced wood, trees are regularly cut off at ground level, causing many rods (rather than one large trunk) to grow from the stump or 'stool'. The rods that grow from the stool are straight and long and can be used for many crafts and products . Most of our native trees will coppice well, with the most common species including hazel, ash, oak, birch, alder, and sweet chestnut. A coppiced wood is cut on a cycle, which can be anything from 5 to 30 years, depending on the size of the poles required. The wood is divided into areas or 'coups', equal to the number of years in the cycle, so one area is cut each year until you are back to the beginning.” I also want to offer you a brief history on the subject which was written by Edward Mills who is the Project Manager of Cumbria Broadleaves: “Coppicing has been traced back to Neolithic times by archaeologists who have excavated wooden tracks over boggy ground made entirely of coppiced material. There are written records, going back to at least 1251, which describe the value and type of material cut for woods in East Anglia. Coppicing can provide a constant supply of material for a wide variety of uses. The material is of a size which is easily handled. This was very important before machinery was developed for cutting and transporting large timber, when anything more than 20 miles from a large river could only be used locally. Through the 18th and 19th centuries, coppiced woodlands provided industrial charcoal for the smelting of iron, and bark from which tanning liquors were prepared.” The National Coppice Federation represents regional coppice groups across the UK and helps to promote coppicing as a positive economical, ecological and social force. The Bill Hogarth Memorial Trust is also a leader in the promotion of the craft and aims to “ensure that the coppicing skills of Bill Hogarth [a luminary figure in coppice working and respected teacher] are recognised for their full worth and their continuity secured by setting up a broad based apprenticeship scheme. We are a group of concerned individuals involved in various ways in the coppice industry.” They run a yearly four day long course in coppice working as well as an incredible three year apprenticeship programme. The last organisation I will mention is the Small Woods Association who are one of the leading forces in the promotion of suitable woodland management, coppice training and woodland crafts. Their courses cover a wide range of topics related to the subject and also run the The National Coppice Apprenticeship (based on the Bill Hogarth Apprenticeship model). They also have a membership scheme where members benefit from a quarterly magazine, course fee reductions and a 1-1 forestry advice call line.     

And lastly I will leave you with some reserved, yet hopeful remarks from BHMT on the future of coppicing “Although coppicing is a traditional way to manage woodlands, from the 1960's coppicing as a trade started to decline as modern, synthetic materials came in which were cheaper and more easily available. Sadly, throughout Britain there are acres of derelict coppice that badly need managing. However, there has recently been a resurgence of coppicing, as it is a totally sustainable and environmentally friendly woodland management system.”

...As well as this wonderful video from the BHMT about their four day “Woodland Pioneers” coppicing course.

Friday 10 July 2020

Ring Bearer Box

During lock-down I received a commission to make a ring bearer box for a wedding set for next year. Luckily I had just converted the family garden shed into a mini workshop so felt I was prepared to  take on such a task. Now as you may have noticed, the content of this blog has strayed some what from it's original focus and if you've been following since 2014, you will know that I was concentrating mostly on prop making and a career in the theatre/film industry. Although my love for these things has not changed, my interests and career aspirations have. I am now focusing on building my skills and knowledge in carpentry, traditional woodwork, coppicing and green woodwork. My next big project to come will be a wooden electric bike, made from Ash (read this book if you want to know more about this incredible wood!) which will hopefully test and improve my skills in this area greatly. For now however and while I am separated from my uni workshop and machines I'm focusing on smaller projects as well as researching and writing about various things related to woodworking and trees.

So, without further ado, here is the box:

*This build write-up will be shorter than most as I am busy working on another project!*

I began by looking through Pinterest for ring box ideas, then moved onto a sketch book to scribble down some rough designs. During this process I was also sourcing materials and suppliers to make sure that my design was practical. After my initial designs were finalised I moved to Rhino 3D and began to build a model of the box. 

I wanted to challenge myself and so designed the box in a triangular shape with lots of angles. I love brass and walnut together and so decided to inset brass triangles into the top portion of the box. To add a little extra detail I decided to have a strip of Ash (I had to use mahogany in the end) running through the top and bottom pieces. I only have a few hand tools at my home workshop which made things a little difficult, but with a little ingenuity (and lots of time) anything is possible! The first task was to cut strips of walnut and sandwich the mahogany detail in the middle. The long strips would then be cut into the specific pieces for the box. Creating strips rather than individual pieces is much quicker and allows for more accuracy and uniformity between pieces. I made a DIY coping saw to cut the pieces as I'd lost my own. The walnut is 3.5mm thick and the mahogany sticks are 3x3mm.

Unfortunately the walnut I had bought was a little dull and lacked any interesting grain patterns, however once it had been sanded (up to 600) and a coat of Danish Oil applied, the appearance improve greatly. The picture below is before any sanding or oil .. not pretty!

The next step was to create the angles along the edges of the strips. This turned out to be quite difficult, but fortunately (and after a lot of trial and error) I found a method that worked really well: I had some blocks of lime wood lying about and cut the specific angle required along the top. I then aligned this piece with the top of the walnut strip and used a sanding stick/rasp resting on the guide to make the angle. I repeated this for each edge of the walnut until they all had the correct angle. 

A photo of the lime guides being cut.. you can never have too many clamps! 

 I forgot to take pictures of quite a few of the intervening steps here, but as you can see below, I cut all the individual pieces from the strips and then sanded the angles of the two freshly cut edges.

For the top pieces, I first cut the holes for the brass triangles to sit inside. I drilled a pilot hole at the bottom of the triangle, then used my DIY pin saw to clear the rest of the wood out. I then used a sanding stick of various grits to make all the edges smooth. The brass piece had to fit exactly so this took some time and precision sanding. 

I then used a print out of the base of my 3D design to align and glue all the pieces together. I found some chunky gel gorilla tape which was really great for holding the pieces in place. 

I used Resin 8's Fill It epoxy resin mixed with their beautiful mica powders to create the base of the box. I love the contrast between the natural material of the wood and the crisp, bold colours of the resin. The deep blue also brings out the simple beauty of the gold rings that will sit on top. 

Now its time for regaling the tale of the epic fail.. So I wanted the triangles on the inside to match the blue epoxy in the bottom, but I didn't want to use the epoxy as I was worried that a) the epoxy would leak through any tiny gaps between the walnut and the brass triangles. b) the resin would not cure as the epoxy I had bought was for deep casts and is un-accelerated. c) I was being impatient and didn't want to wait for the epoxy to be delivered. 
So I decided to experiment ... 

To make this rather striking blue sludge I mixed together a standard batch of saw dust and wood glue to create some woodfiller. I then added some mica powder to the mix, giving the concoction a rather lovely blue tinge. I decided to add a little more glue as the mica powder had made it turn into quite a thick paste. Unfortunately the glue lid popped off as I was squeezing the bottle and sent a whole dollop into my filler mix making it extremely runny. Rather than discarding the whole thing and starting again as I should have done, I decided to spoon it into the triangular holes anyway and hope that it would dry regardless. This did not happen. The filler took around 24 hrs to dry and shrank and cracked massively. Fortunately I was able to save it by covering the disaster with a new, thicker mix. After the second batch had dried, I sanded it smooth and reminded myself of the lesson learnt from the blunder - patience is everything! 

I sanded the whole thing up to 600 grit and finished with Danish Oil. I'll end this write up here, I'm sorry that it's such a quick one, but I've got a lot of other things on the go right now that are taking up most of my attention :)

- Stay Safe -

Friday 12 June 2020

What type of wood is best for bike construction?

For my next big project I intend to make a wooden electric bike and for the first article on this subject we are going to look at what type of wood would be best for the project.  To begin, we will look at examples of other wooden bikes and the techniques and materials that were used in their construction. We will then look at specific types of wood in more detail and explore how they might be used in other situations.
Let's first take a look the Rocsie electric bike, the specs of which are as listed below:
Weight of Bike: 6.2 Stone
Battery: 48v 20Ah
Average Speed: 18mph
Top Speed: 28mph
Motor Size: 1000w Hubmotor
Range: 24 miles

The beautiful design of the Rocsie bike takes its inspiration from cafe racer motorcycles. As well as the cafe racer, I also love the Scrambler motorcycles from the 50s and plan to base my designs on these beautiful bikes. The Rocsie is also electric, sporting a huge 2000w hub motor and a battery of 20Ah - a proper beast. Unfortunately it seems the website and social media pages for the bike have been inactive since around 2017 which probably indicates that the venture didn’t work out. However this shall not stop us admiring the beautiful design and incredible amount of work that went into this bike.  
The frame of the bike is made from Beech and shaped using bent wood lamination. Let us take a look at how bent wood lamination works:
When it comes to shaping wood into curves, you have two main options: Steam Bending and Bent Wood Lamination. Solid wood is incredibly strong however this structural strength depends on the integrity of the grain. If you were to cut a curve in a straight-grained piece of wood, you would create areas of extreme weakness in the piece as the curve will cut across the grain. This is why we have to use one of the techniques mentioned above. Both techniques are different, but achieve the same result - allowing the grain to flow with the curved piece rather than cut across. Steam bending involves heating and moisturising the wood with steam until it becomes flexible and can be bent to shape, while bent wood lamination involves gluing thin strips of wood together and clamping them to, or between, a shaped form. Let’s look at this technique in more detail.
The principle for bent wood lamination is simple - thinner strips of wood are easier to bend than thicker ones. When cut, each strip is glued together and clamped to (or sandwiched between) a curved form. When the glue dries, the laminated piece can be removed from the form and it will keep its shape. Laminated bent wood pieces generally hold their shape better than ones that have been steam bent. One of the drawbacks in using this technique however is that when cutting the strips from a solid piece of wood, you lose quite a lot of the material to the kerf of the saw blade. Many suggest a polyurethane, epoxy or resin glue work best for lamination, however standard PVA wood glue is also used by many woodworkers.
Let's take a quick look at steam bending:
Steam bending wood is a process that uses steam to produce moisture and heat which makes the wood become more flexible. The piece is usually left for some hours in a steam chamber and then clamped into a form. Once the wood has dried out, it can be removed from the form and will hold its shape. As the technique usually involves bending a solid piece of wood, the grain pattern will be continuous and there will be no glue lines as with bent wood lamination. This method also creates a lot less waste. Steam bending however is notoriously difficult to get right as you are very much dependent on the quality of the wood. Defects in the grain as well as knots etc can create problems when bending and cause the wood to tear apart or splinter. Steam bent wood is also more likely to lose its shape (a process called creep) than bent wood lamination. When using this technique it is best to find timber with a straight grain as well as cut pieces with no run-out (grain run-out refers to areas in a board where the grain ends along the edge). Air dried stock rather kiln dried is better to use with steam bending. If you are using kiln dried wood, it's a good idea to soak the timber in water for no less than 24hrs before putting it in the steam chamber.
Good video Explaining Steam Bending
Good video Explaining Bent Wood Lamination
Now let us take a closer look at the wood they used for Rocsie - European Beech
European Beech usually has a pale cream color with a tight, straight, grain. The wood becomes darker if exposed to higher drying temperatures or when exposed to steam.  Beech is one of the best woods for steam bending. It is easy to machine and work, however sharp blades must be used to ensure the cut surface does not burn. The Wood Database states “Beech is an important and widely-used hardwood in Europe. Its hardness, wear-resistance, strength, and excellent bending capabilities—coupled with its low price—make this hardwood a mainstay for many European woodworkers.” If Beech is plain sawn the surface tends to be very simple and plain, while quarter sawn pieces have a lovely silvery fleck pattern.  A Beech tree can grow to around 35m in height with diameters ranging from 40-90cm. Toys are often made from beech as it is such a strong and hard wearing wood. I don’t particularly like the appearance of Beech on it’s own, but paired with a warmer, more delicately figured wood will bring out it’s simple beauty. Its extensive use in the cheap furniture market may also have had some influence on my negative feeling towards the wood. It’s straight grain can also make it feel a little too uniform and dull.

Now for some sweet sweet eye candy let’s look at a few other Beech wood projects-

Volk Bikes

Volk bikes are based in South Africa and are a small company run by Daniel Hoffman who believes that bikes are an “instrument of freedom" (I definitely agree!). He aims to build wooden bikes which are environmentally friendly and use materials from sustainable sources. The Volk bike is built from a combination of ash (which I think is American White) and Beech which is CNC milled and reinforced with carbon fibre in some areas.

There are also some great behind the scenes pics on his Instagram page:

American White Ash is a hardwood. The sapwood has a white to pale yellow appearance while the heartwood can be light to dark brown. The wood is quite dense and has a straight rather coarse grain, is very strong, shock resistant and if treated with preservative it can be used outdoors. It’s also great for steam bending and is a very stable timber once dry.  

I also want to take a moment to profile the European Ash tree whose wood has been used for centuries in Europe. Its strength, durability and shock absorbent properties make it one of the most popular timbers amongst woodworkers to this day. Ash has been used to make wagon wheels, baseball bats as well as in the creation of The Dandy Horse - a contraption regarded as a precursor to the bicycle. In the book “The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees” Robert Penn explores all the possible things one could make from a single ash tree. I also recently found an article Penn wrote in which he interviews Liam Murray of Woodelo, a company based in Ireland who build bikes from.. You guessed it.. Ash! In talking about the choice of material Murrays says: “Ash timber is used in the manufacture of hurling sticks in Ireland. So we knew about it’s strength, and it’s easy enough to machine. It seemed an obvious choice, so we had a go [...] It’s lovely material to work with. It’s very tactile and we can machine it and strengthen it where we want. But really, we use it because it dampens the road like nothing else. It’s better than a carbon frame in my opinion” Let us take a quick look at some awesome European Ash woodworking projects before looking at Woodelo in more detail.

And how could we forget Bruce Springsteen’s custom Fender with its beautiful ash body and maple neck. The man has good taste. “It still is unique amongst all my guitars the way it sounds [...] For me, when I put it on, I don’t feel like I have a guitar on. It’s such an integral part of me.” - Bruce Springsteen.

Now let us take a look at Woodelo bikes:

Liam Murray who runs Woodelo bikes says that one of the great advantages of using wood is that it allows for such fine tuning of each individual frame, from adding extra material in places where it is needed to changing the direction of the grain, the weight and feel of the bike can be tweaked and refined to suit the individual completely. Woodelo use laminated wood to create the chain-stays which ensures strength while also keeping thickness and weight to a minimum. Murray says he chose to work with the wood as Ash is one of the more flexible hardwoods and is extremely good at absorbing vibration. The selection of the timber they use is one of the most important steps in building a successful bike and they make sure to choose timber with a straight grain, few knots and from a healthy tree. Woodelo also only use the sapwood of the tree to build the frames because “as a tree gets older the heart[wood] develops a browny red timber which has different characteristics and would affect the balance of our frames”. The wood they use is from trees of around 30-40 years old. Apparently in Ireland, such timber is called “Hurley Ash” as wood of this age is also used for making the playing sticks in the Gaelic sport of Hurling. Woodelo also only use quarter sawn planks to construct the frame as they try and maximize the amount of continuous grain that runs through the boards.  

Since we mentioned “Quarter Sawn” lumber, let's take a closer look at what this term actually means and the larger subject of timber production. Unfortunately this is quite a complicated subject and there seems to be as many names and techniques for cutting logs down to lumber as there are tree species, there are also different standards depending on which country you live in. As I’m from the UK I'll be focusing on the techniques we use in this country. But first watch this video from the Woodworkers Guild of America which does a good job in explaining the different techniques and outcomes.

The two main cuts produced by modern machine methods are “Quarter Sawn” and “Plain Sawn”.
Plain sawn boards are cut at a tangent to the growth rings of the tree and this cut produces boards with decorative, elliptical, catedral figures. Quarter sawing produces a board with straight grain where the growth rings are angled at almost 90 degrees to the surface. This cut produces boards which are more structurally strong and stable. Oak is a popular wood to quarter saw as it reveals attractive ribbon like patterns through the wood. In general however, Plain sawn lumber produces the most attractive figure. 
Plain Sawn timber Is the most widely available and cheapest sawn timber to buy. Plain sawing a log is quick and easy and requires the least specialised machinery as the log is just sliced into planks along its length, it is also the least wasteful method. Plain sawn timber however also has its drawbacks which include less structural strength and less stability than quarter sawn timber. Due to the tangential grain of plain sawn timber, when the wood begins to dry the tension of the tangential grain can make the planks cup, twist and bow quite significantly. Plain sawn planks also tend to absorb more water from the air which may cause unwanted movement.

  • Faster to produce
  • More affordable
  • Displays varied grain patterns & the unique "cathedral" appearance
  • Readily available
Quarter Sawn
Quarter sawn timber is much more stable than Plain sawn timber, however more time and advanced equipment  is required to cut a quarter sawn board. A plank which is quarter sawn will have the grain running at almost 90 degrees from the surface making it much less susceptible to warping and cupping and a straight running grain. There is much more waste involved when using this method as not all of the log can be used.

  • More stable than plain sawn lumber
  • Increased moisture resistance
  • Less likely to cup, twist & warp
  • Beautiful ribbon aka "fleck" patterns are prevalent in species like White Oak & Red Oak
  • Less expensive than rift sawn lumber

Rift sawn lumber is the most expensive out of the three as it incurs the most waste and is the hardest to cut. When timber is rift sawn the grain of the wood will be angled at exactly 90 degrees from the surface. This method is best used when you need to maximise the strength of the wood and ensure it has straight grain going all the way through.

As a general rule:
Plain Sawn = Less Expensive, but less stable (prone to warping, expansion and contraction), with more attractive grain patterns
Quarter Sawn = More expensive, but more stable with straight grain.
Here is an example of how quarter sawn and plain sawn timber is affected by the grain orientation.

Now here are some wonderful pictures of the Woodelo bike:

Walnut Road Bike
This magnificent road bike was made by Jake who has very kindly posted an instructable about how he went about making it! It took him around 5 month to complete, but I think you will agree the outcome was definitely worth it. To create the frame he first laminated a total of 8 layers of black walnut of 6mm thickness. The frame is completely made from wood (no carbon fibre inserts), but uses metal for the mechanical components such as the dropouts and bottom bracket. He also used the front forks from his old bike as these will receive a lot of abuse, something I plan to do in my own design. To begin the build he began designing the frame in solidworks, using his old bike as a guide to get the correct dimensions. He stresses that the seat post, steerer and bottom bracket are all important sizes to get right. Once designed he began to cut the strips of wood that would make up the laminated frame of the bike. By layering the wood with the grain facing in different directions, you can create a frame that is incredibly strong and resistant to shock. From what I can understand, he layered the walnut strips at alternate 45 degree angles on top of each other, creating two halves of the frame that would later be glued together. Once he finished laminating both pieces, he hollowed out some areas and then glued them both together to create the finished frame. For the chain stays and seat stays he used the bent wood lamination technique we talked about earlier .

Behind the Scenes.. 

Black walnut is native to eastern North America and is one of the most popular hardwoods amongst american woodworkers. The European walnut is also extremely popular amongst carpenters across the pond, but the wood from this tree tends to be quite a bit lighter. The Black Walnut’s botanical name is the Junglans Nigra and is one of two main species from the Junglans genus, with the other being the European Walnut (called the Juglans Reiga). Interestingly, the origin of the Juglans name comes from the roman god Juipter who was said to have dined on walnuts when he lived on Earth - pretty cool eh? Black walnut is prized for its height and width as well as the impressive strength and durability of the wood. In distinguishing the tree from its European brother, we can look at the bark which is far darker and more heavily ridged. The black walnut also has a greater number of leaves which are far thinner and smaller. In 1629 the tree was introduced to Europe and has thrived in the south of England ever since. The light sapwood of the Black walnut contrasts beautifully with the richly hued heartwood which often features even darker streaks.  
Komar Project - Wooden Low Rider Bike
This guy is very cool. When he began this incredible laminated bent wood bike build, he didn’t know much about bikes, their construction, mechanics or bent wood lamination! But look at what he managed to achieve - a wonderful, organic, flowing bike frame which is completely made from wood. Not only is this feat pretty amazing, he also created a fantastic video documenting the whole process! This is what I love about the online maker community - a place where an almost endless supply of inspiration and knowledge can be found. So, now onto the bike build - The frame is made from laminated strips of walnut and maple which he formed using a series of jigs and many, many clamps. As well as creating the frame from scratch, Komar also made his own custom drop outs and head tubes from sheet metal and tubing. Welding is definitely something I must learn more about. He also built the head forks for the bike combining both steam bending and lamination techniques, though for my bike I think I’ll use metal forks as wooden ones might be a little too fragile (especially as mine is going to be a high powered electric bike).


I assume the wood Komar used was Hard Maple as opposed to Soft Maple. Hard Maple is around 25% harder than soft maple and also has a higher density and is the type most used to make furniture and instruments. A good way to tell the two types apart is the color, though both are a light cream, Hard Maple tends to be much lighter and uniform in color, while Soft Maple is much darker and varied, with tones of red, brown and grey. Hard maple also grows at a much slower pace than soft maple, so the growth rings will be much closer together. Both Hard and Soft maple are the most common hardwoods found in North America. Hard Maple is quite easy to work with, though due to its high density it can be a little tough on tools, it may also burn if high-speed cutters are used. The wood is commonly used for flooring, as well as furniture, baseball bats and instruments. In tree form, Hard Maple is often referred to as the “Sugar Maple” which is the tree most often harvested for Maple Syrup. Hard Maple wood is often sort out for its “Birdseye” grain pattern which is actually a product of difficult growing conditions - the tree attempts to grow more buds to maximize its light intake, but with poor growing conditions, the tree does not have enough strength and the buds die, leaving the birdseye knot pattern in the wood.

Now let's take a look at a few more Maple wood projects:

Now that we’ve looked at some examples of the wood used to build specific bikes, I’ll just list a few more popular hardwoods that could also be used for the construction of my bike.
Oak is the most widely used wood for furniture, it’s strength, resistance to rot, workability and economical price has ensured its popular use amongst woodworkers. There are two main types of Oak: Red and White Oak, with the latter being most popular for fine woodwork as it is thought to have a more attractive figure. A good way to tell the two apart is to look at the endgrain, Red oak has larger, visibly open pores, while the pores of the white oak will be sealed. Due to this fact, white oak is also more moisture resistant and is the variety of choice for boat building. When taking a sample from the white oak, be sure to take it from the heartwood as the sapwood pores are generally not sealed. Another way to tell is by looking at the rays on the surface of a board (rays carry nutrients perpendicular to the growth rings). White oak has much longer rays than Red. If quarter sawn, White oak will reveal lovely ribbon patterns throughout the surface. The wood of the White oak is extremely strong and heavy with a light to medium brown heartwood and olive tinge while the sapwood can be whitish to light brown. It is a ring porous wood (meaning that it has larger pores in the earlywood and smaller pores in the latewood) which gives the wood quite a coarse texture and prominent grain.  

White Oak                          Red Oak 

Now let's take a look at Hickory
One of the reasons I’ve chosen to look at this wood next is that I heard Nick Offerman (*the most famous celebrity woodworker***besides Harrison Ford***) mention it quite a bit in his interviews/books. Other than this, I don’t know much about Hickory, so let's take a look:
Hickory is known as the hardest of hardwoods, so hard in fact that after the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, General Andrew Jackson was nicknamed “Old Hickory” by his soldiers as he had fought so tenaciously. Historically, Hickory was used by the Native Indians for bows and baskets and was also used to build the wheel spokes of the first automobiles! North America is home to some 16 species of Hickory, but the one most commercially available is the Shagbark Hickory. The sapwood is white to cream colored while the heartwood is a tannish red brown. There is a stark contrast between the sapwood and heartwood which visually sets it apart from other hardwoods, this characteristic is popular with furniture makers and pieces are often designed to showcase this particular trait. Hickory is regarded as stronger, denser and harder than both White Oak and Hard Maple and is often used in situations where strength and shock-resistance are needed. The wood takes stain and oil very well as it is so dry, but this also means it can split quite easily. The hardness of Hickory makes it a tough wood to work and can blunt machine tools very quickly - carbide tips are a must. It’s grain is coarse and straight. Hickory has a slow growth rate and can take up to 200 years to mature.
The Cherry we are talking about here is the North American kind, also called Black Cherry. In Europe we have Sweet Cherry, but the wood from this tree is only usually sold in smaller sizes or veneer. The fruit of the black cherry is small and bitter and is used to flavour jelly and drinks, though commercially its grown mostly for its lumber. Cherry is one of the most popular hardwoods and is known for its good all-around workability. The grain is straight with a fine, uniform texture and machines well, but it does have a tendency  to burn so best to use carbide tipped blades. The heartwood is a light, pinkish brown when first cut, but with aging and exposure to sunlight this changes to a dark orange-red (not too dissimilar to Mahogany). The sapwood is a light cream color which never changes to match the dark heartwood. Though Black Cherry is lighter and less hard than Maple, it still matches in strength and stability. Cherry takes glue well, though one must take care to minimize squeeze-out as it can marr a clear finish.
There are many other beautiful hardwoods (and softwoods) to explore, but they shall have to wait for another time. The next topic I’m going to tackle will be “The Anatomy of Wood”
Thanks for reading!