Tuesday 17 December 2013

Lepcha homestay

Travelling in Sikkim is hard. The roads are hard, and if they were like that in the UK, parts of them would be classified as not suitable for motor vehicles. In mountain regions landslides always happen, and during the monsoon season the constant rain easily washes tarmac away.
The main way of travelling is by public jeep that you can book at the jeep and bus stands. At around 120 Rs, that is £1.20 per person, they are more expensive than the buses but are far quicker and more reliable.
The issue is just how many people they fit in. 3 rows of seats and 4 people to a row, including 3 next to the driver. Try it one day in a 4x4 and then go off roading. We often booked 3 seats instead of 2 for that extra bit of comfort, if indeed you can call a 4 hour journey bouncing up and down and being thrown side to side as the driver tries to overtake a lorry on a blind bend with a 300 foot drop next to you and no safety barrier on the road, comfort.  The average speed is 13 miles per hour.

We got to Mangan in North Sikkim, and met Tenzing, who we had arranged to stay with. We waited for hours while he got the necessary permits to stay in this part of the world. This is traditional Lepcha land and foreigners need permits to visit for up to 5 days at a time. 

Lepcha houses usually have the kitchen as a separate building, in this case the orange one on the left
 The kitchen is the heart around which daily life revolves. The stove is built from local clay and has 2 hotplates. Smoke rises into the roof and out through the eves and covered chimney hole on top of the roof. Most of this building has a ceiling, apart from above the stove. The slatted platform above the stove is used for drying stuff. The red meat hanging from the ceiling is mainly fat which is used for frying.

Lucy and  Tshering. This is the view opposite the stove. 

Prayer flags on the walk up to a traditional Lepcha house

 As with the rest of the world concrete is taking over as the building material of choice. This is expensive and not environmentally friendly. I had a few talks about this with our hosts. Concrete houses cost more than traditional wooden Lepcha houses.  Another issue is earthquakes. A concrete house is destroyed and cannot be recycled or reused, a traditional house has more flexibility built into it. Centuries of design have considered material and environmental needs, and with traditional materials, if the worst happens then they can be reused to some extent.
The square holes at the bottom of this post are for tying animals to. This understorey is used for housing animals, often year round, as there are no fields on the very steep mountain sides.

 I have a very understanding wife, and how could I survive 3 weeks without any knife work? So I took a basic spoon carving kit along with me. The only thing missing was an axe but I used the local banpok. These are used widely used traditional Lepcha tools. Tshering asked  me to carve a spoon for serving rice, and I was given a very dry plank of local wood.

Tenzing having a go with my hook knife. 

Tuesday 26 November 2013

The great banyan tree of Kolkata

This post is mainly just photos. Click on the images to see them bigger so you can read the writing. I find it strange that this tree has not taken over the world. It drops aerial roots which soon thicken up once rooted in the ground. The tree that walks. As you will see, a road will not stop it. What's more it is not really that old, compared with some of our ancient and big trees in the UK. The Botanic garden is run down, especially compared to similar places in England. Lucy and I had a great time and I would like to visit again, if the opportunity arises.


Sunday 17 November 2013

The most amazing fretsaw I have ever seen

When watching this student cut out the shapes in this plank of wood, I was wondering where you could buy fretsaw blades 14 inches long, and how much they would cost. The blade broke and the young man had to make another blade.
I have seen the work produced by these saws and they will produce a good cut, obviously the better craftsperson you are the better the result. The frame is bent bamboo. The wire is just steel wire. I have made my own blades, and used them on my small frame saws.
This amazed me because of just how simple, assessable it was, and because it showed me, yet again, what could be made with materials around us. No need to rely on expensive consumables, or the latest highly designed tool. It also showed me that we can make our own tools. That also it is not something that needs years of training to do. 
Do not get me wrong I love a well designed and made tool and I do have a few in my workshop. I also have lots of mass made tools of varying quality. These tools, with a bit of time and knowledge, can be made to work as well as any top line tool.

The Handicraft centre in Gangtok. Set up in 1957 to preserve and teach traditional Sikkimese crafts.

In the shop at the handicraft centre I bought a couple of beautiful hand cut and carved carvings. These are of traditional designs and painted. 

The museum at the centre has the most amazing craft of Sikkim displayed in it. Photography was forbidden, unfortunately, as I would have loved to have shared some of the awe-inspiring artefacts I saw. It is well worth a visit if you are ever in Gangtok.

Thursday 14 November 2013

Log conversion the traditional way

Very few people in the western world regularly use a ripsaw to convert timber these days, but it is still common practise in India. Pintso took Lucy and I up to the Buddhist monastery that was being rebuilt near his village, we passed these two men working in the jungle. They were hired to convert a load of trees that had grown up on an abandoned rice terrace. These planks were for a house just up the hill. When I say hill, I mean mountain, everything is either very steeply up or down.

 This is a covered saw pit for when it rains
 The sawyers stayed onsite for the duration of the works. Accommodation is a tarp each and a very uncomfortable looking sleeping platform, plus a few pots and pans etc.

The one thing that I noticed straight away when watching these sawyers work was the pace they worked. It was relaxed, and rightly so if you are spending days at the same job. The most interesting action that these craftsmen performed was that with every stroke they relaxed their hands. Watch the video and you will see this clearly. I think this is something that we should all take note of. When we learn something new we tend to tense up. This tension can become embodied and we never learn to relax properly. Over gripping or holding on too tight can obviously cause strains and injuries to our bodies, especially after years of doing it.

 When using the push knife to make fan birds I grip it too tightly, this has become habit. I have to consciously relax my hands at the end of each push. To be honest this does not yet feel natural but I have to embody this new habit otherwise I could at some future date find I have damaged my hands. Watching the pace and how relaxed these guys are working, was a pleasure, as is watching anyone at the top of there game.
 The planks never seemed to be stickered and I often saw planks left upright in the sun to dry. I shocked my hosts by saying that the wood that I saw being converted would take between 1 and 3 years to be seasoned and ready for use in the UK. Even more shock when I said that trees took between 50 and 150 years to grow before they were ready for felling.

Monday 11 November 2013

100% eco friendly plates

Sikkim is a beautiful place, it is not perfect but they have policies in place that put some western countries to shame. No public smoking, and 6 months in prison if you use plastic bags. In Mangan we where given a type of donut on the ultimate in sustainable plates.
I saw these plates in other parts of India as well as Sikkim, I also saw a lot of street food being served on fresh leaves. Being tropical, and sub tropical, plants grown so fast and in such abundance.

The plates are held together with a few thorns, they may not be, but that is what I thought they were. They are also made in huge quantities. I did a post on some wooden disposable plate a long time ago, but I think these are even more sustainable.
This sign is at the Sikkim border. The sign says " In Sikkim use of plastic bags and littering of plastic waste and materials is an offence". 5000 Rs is about £50. As aliens we had to get a 30 day restricted area permit, which we did in Bagdogra airport, to get through border control.

Friday 8 November 2013

Workbenches of the Indian carpenter

We in the developed western world seem to have a major fetish over our tools, a desire for spending huge amounts of money, and/or time on making or buying the best. To me, much of this is about buying status. The person who makes for a living often just makes a bench that works, as I certainly have over the years. The only requirement is that it functions. In India I only saw benches in towns and villages in roadside workshops, and I was intrigued by how most of them did not have a vice as we know it. If any one of us inherited one of those benches we would probably immediately chop it up for firewood. They are definitely not things of beauty and often are cobbled together with bits of wood. They function, as tools for holding wood to be planed or sawn. A lot of mortise work can be done on the floor. 
I saw a lot of hand planing being undertaken, both surface, with 2 people, and jointing. The average length of board seems to be 7 to 8 feet. 
Jointing large boards is done by placing the plank in a slot on the front of the table and locking it in place  with a wooden wedge. This slot can also be used to help cut tenons and short rails.

Watching these guys sharpen was interesting, as most of them only seemed to have one stone, some of them were not particularly flat either.

 Most planes have quite a crown on them which produces a grooved cut, basically like a scrub plane. This can be seen on the floor boards above. One of the guest houses we stayed in at Dr Grahams was wooded throughout and you can still see the plane marks on the wood. It was apparent that if the grain direction changed in the wood that the planing direction just carried on, no turning the board around, and planing with the grain. So in a lot of the woodwork  you could see chip marks in the wood, in the whole scheme of things it all looked great. I actually loved seeing the imperfections and the tools marks in the wood. It made everything feel authentic and real, it had been made by craftsmen, not machinists.

The workshops did not have many tools in, just the basics, but what came out of them was amazing. I am a great advocate of the "just do it" school of woodworking. As long as it functions then that's great. It is best that we learn techniques, and practise, rather than chase after that next tool.

Tuesday 5 November 2013

Travels in Sikkim and India

I have been travelling in India with my wife, Lucy, for the last  3 weeks. Lucy is researching her family history for a book that she is writing about her Lepcha tribal heritage, and pre-independence India. This is her second, but my first trip to West Bengal and Sikkim, and it has been an amazing experience for both of us.
First, we stayed in Kalimpong, where Lucy's father and his siblings attended school after being orphaned.  We then travelled further up into the lesser Himalayas to Sikkim, which is a small Indian state bordered by Tibet, Bhutan and Nepal and it is the foothills of the Himalayas. Sikkim requires an additional visa than just the Indian visa, and then, in Gangtok, the Capitol of Sikkim we had to get another visa to allow us into the protected tribal territory, Dzongu. The special part of the trip was visiting Dzongu. We stayed with Tenzing's family as home-stay visitors and spent some days experiencing traditional life on a small family farm. These Lepcha people are the most friendly, honest, cheerful and strongest people I have ever met.
What has moved me most on this trip are the people of India and especially of Sikkim. They are gentle, honest, happy, and innocent - not the best word to use, but I think it best describes a beautiful, magical aspect of humanity. We were very deeply touched by the people and their spirit, qualities which I would love to bring into my own life and relationships with people.

There are going to be wood and tools related posts from my time in India as well as posts about traditional houses and the land, in this blog. 

View Larger Map

We stayed in Dzongu which is to the south west of Mangan. This area is under special protection and is a reserve for, primarily, Lepcha people. I tried looking on google maps to pinpoint exactly where we stayed but failed, the roads are not marked in this area and the zoom and definition of the satellite images are very poorly defined.

Kanchenjung is the protector-deity of the Lepchas and their lands, and is the third highest mountain in the world. This is a view of Kangchenjunga from our hotel room in Gangtok.

Friday 6 September 2013

Ben's shaving horse

Ben has been a student with me on my afternoon class for quite a few months now and has just completed his first shaving horse. This is no lightweight, which is not a problem as it will sit in his garden. To give an idea of scale, the bench part is made from 3 inch thick green oak.

I like to stretch my students and if we can use new joints and various construction techniques then all the better. No metal is used in this shave horse. The table is held onto the bench by oak dowels. The legs are the sliding tapered dovetail joint, one of the best green wood joints of all time. For easy knock down these legs will tap out with a light hammer blow even when wet. Try doing that with a round mortice and tenon joint. The wood is green so this type of joint will still work after warping and drying.

 The shave horse has 3 leg the one at the front will act like a wedge in the bench forcing a split down the length of it. To overcome this Ben carved a special joint in the rear table support, so no matter how the leg acts as a wedge the wood will not split.

I will be working, over the winter, on plans and instructions of how to make these shaving horses, pole lathes, benches, saw horses and cleaving breaks. In the autumn I will be setting up a dedicated photographic studio in part of my workshop, so I can get consistent lighting and more importantly a single colour temperature. I have a mixture of tube and tungsten lighting in my workshop which makes colour correction of my photographs a nightmare..

If you want to see another bench made using the sliding tapered dovetail method have a look at this post: http://seanhellman.blogspot.co.uk/2010/11/tapered-sliding-dovetail-bench.html

and this one for green wood: http://seanhellman.blogspot.co.uk/2010/04/tapered-sliding-dovetail-joint-tree.html

Thursday 22 August 2013

FolkStreams » The Last Shovel Maker

Thanks to Joe DesLauriers who posted this up on the Bodgers Forum.

A great film, with some fantastic axe work. I can get such immense pleasure from watching master craftsmen or women at work.

FolkStreams » The Last Shovel Maker

Friday 16 August 2013

Beware cracked drawknife handles

I have bought a fair few secondhand drawknives over the years and this time made a bad call. The blade is good, the maker Cornelius Whitehouse. The handles where both cracked, always a bad sign. Take a look at this.
 This drawknife will need a new tang welded onto it. I do not do welding so this is more time and expense to renovate this knife. Note the bit of the tang still left in the split off handle.
Split handles often mean that the tool has been stored in the damp. The handles being wood tend to soak up any moisture making the tangs rust, and then due to the rusting process the handles can split.

When buying old tools with tanged handles, beware of split handles, it often means the rust has blown them apart.

If you want to know how to put new handles on a drawknife then have a look at this post I did a few years ago. http://seanhellman.blogspot.co.uk/2011/09/how-to-handle-drawknife-and-other.html