Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Oak Swill, with Owen Jones

Oak swill baskets
clicking to enlarge this image will also open up all the photos.

I have been meaning to attend one of Owen Jones' courses on Making an Oak Swill Basket for some years. Eventually, I booked up and headed to the Lake District in Cumbria for a long weekend. 
Owen runs these courses from his workshop next to his house. This is at the southern end of lake Coniston. Unfortunately Owen had a cancellation and there were only 3 of us.
We soon got stuck in after Owen showed us how to split the small diameter green oak logs into the correct sizes. We used simple time honoured techniques and tools. an axe, saw, wedges and froe.
After halving and the quartering we sawed the billets to length.

Using a froe and bobbin the quarter was split again. Note the bobbin keeping the split open and saving the fingers from being pinched
I was really surprised that we rived out enough wood for about 15 baskets. This wood came from 2 trees about 20 to 24 feet in total length, the maximum bottom diameter of up to 9 inches. It is only possible to rive the wood as thinly as Owen does because it is boiled, it would not be possible to do it in its green state
The boiler was then filled with wood
Filled with water from a manhole cover over a stream that runs under the garden

The bools were then prepared on the Mare, a traditional oak swill shaving horse.
The hazel bools being put into the boiler to steam for half an hour.
The hazel is then bent around the former

Nailed and tied together. Just 2 nails and they must go exactly in the right place.

The spelks are dressed to an even thickness on the mare with a drawknife. We had to manipulate and check the evenness of them often. The spelks are the ribs that run from side to side.


The taws are thinner and are dressed with a knife on the knee. A piece of leather is absolutely necessary. This I found more difficult and thought it must be Owen's knives, so I tried my own. It is technique and Owen's knives are more suited to this process. The knife is fixed, it is the taw that is pulled under the knife. The taw should be able to be wrapped twice around a finger. I never thought oak could be this supple, almost like leather.

This was the only knife Owen had with gaffa tape wrapped around it.
Jeff and Tom dressing taws.
Just a minutes walk away is the southern end of lake Coniston and one of Anthony Gormley's cast iron sculptures of himself. Very impressive


Dressing the bool before starting weaving

3 oak swill mares (shaving horses)

This is the wood that Owen works and were the wood for our  swill came from. Owen makes charcoal, strips oak bark for tannin and cuts fire wood.

The oak has been boiled for long enough and is split with cleaving knives. This is done straight from the boiler.

All the spelks and taws are split tangentially. This is an easy process, for me anyway, but to watch Owen do it is poetry in motion. I was so slow in comparison. With practise things would speed up and it can be done just by feel.
The bodkin, not only used in making a split in the fist taw but also as below for making a split in the bool where the 2 broad bottom spelks are pushed through. At this stage everything looked and felt rather crude, only when the basket is finished does everything look right.






The same evening that Owen showed us his wood, I went to see my friend Steve Tomlin who makes rakes, forks, spoons and who has also made some lovely bowls. I wish we had had more time to talk, but I wanted to get back before midnight.
 Above is Steve, modelling one of his gorgeous hay forks with a couple of rakes in the background.
Below is one of Steve`s spoons, which caught my eye.
 The next day we continued with the weaving. There is a lot to remember as the spelks are all different sizes and shapes, and they all fit in in different ways. The weaving of the taws is just as complicated. Luckily Owen gave us a CD with instructions, on how to make a basket.



Making a basket is quite forgiving, if you make a mistake another taw can easily be woven on top. Old baskets can easily be repaired.
You will notice that the weave on the baskets is nice and tight. My finished swill did not take long to dry out in the car and gaps appeared in the weave. Owen reckons on about 10% shrinkage.

After the course I went to see another woodworker Richard Law who works in Stride wood at Bolton Abbey. We met up in the Yorkshire Dales to visit the Moughton Scar whetstone quarry. You would have never known it was a quarry. This whetstone is really nice in use and in its appearance.





Richard has his workshop set up on the side of a woodland ride and has lots of walkers passing by. A very beautiful setting in which to work, just next to the river.


I really enjoyed Owen's teaching, and and somewhat envy him. I love the way he works; it is essentially the same way as traditional craftsmen throughout the centuries have worked, often from home. No fancy tools or equipment here, just blacksmith or craftsmen made tools, just that which is necessary to get the job done. I know Owen really enjoys his work and he sticks to doing a few things very well. I, on the other hand, love to play, experiment and innovate. I also am Taurean and have a personality that collects and loves the material world. I have a workshop stuffed with tools and wood. This does sometimes feel like a burden and at times I long for a simple life just making fanbirds and shrink pots, oh and a few plates and bowls and... here I go again unable to limit myself.
I do not think I will be making swills for a living, I already do too much, and the time involved in getting up to speed would seriously impact on my business. But the process has informed my work and reminded me that we do not need the 'latest' tool. What is most important is the technique, not the tool.
But  I will be boiling up some wood. I have a few ideas.