I met Tamsin Abbott first in the pages of Earth Pathways Diary. Her work shone out from the pages. We met in person at Art in Action and became friends, and so we met Mike Abbott, her husband. I’ve stayed with them many times, and love them both very much.And ever since I have met Mike I have wanted to go on one of the courses that he runs.
So, what did we learn?
I learned the names of some tools, some familiar, some new. The saw (hasume crosscut saws from Japan), the froe and the greenwood club, the draw knife, the push-knife, spokeshaves, tenon cutters, sawhorses and auger bits, clamps and vices.
Then there’s the chair. Rungs, seat rails, legs, spindles, crest-rail, cross-rail.
How to measure. That’s another thing I learned and how to use the tools to take greenwood logs and make a chair, in the company of good friends and with the help of a marvellous teacher, because that is what Mike became for us during that week.
He took three people who were convinced that by the end of the week they might have made some curiously shaped firewood, and one woodworker, Astrid, and he gave us the knowledge and confidence to fashion the most beautiful chairs. As I write this I am sitting on the one I made.
Sometimes we worked together, helping to site lines and angles for drills and saws, lending weight to cleave logs.
And this was one of the most fascinating things to learn- how to go with the grain to use the growth of the wood to split the log and use the strength of the wood and the shape of the drying to hold the joints. No glue, no screws, just the natural material of the drying of the wood, holding all together.
When to cut with the grain, how to saw across the grain, when to work together, when to work alone. Learning to size things by eye and not to be overly worried by measurement.
And through it all Mike was patient with us, empowering, never laughing at our failure to understand how to do the simplest tasks, but showing us again until we understood. Bending the wood for the legs and the crest and the cross rail, after steaming it was amazing, then holding its shape with drying.
And most of all I loved these things:
Using the draw knife, which silvered the wood and smoothed it.
Hearing how the wood sang, from the spokes to the legs and then how the squeezing of the separate parts, with the force of the vice made the wood sing.
Learning to go with the truth of the wood.
Working on the seat weaving while Nicola sang.
The frog that we found, under a platform, so green, like a jewel.
The robin and the wren, the blackbirds and the butterflies.
The wonderful company and the lunches and suppers we shared.
And the moment of confusion on Robin’s face when he stood back having squeezed together his chair, and realised that what he had thought was random collection of sticks he had been shaping and sanding was now a thing of beauty. That he had, indeed, made a chair. And that is is, indeed, beautiful. And even now, with the woven seat, and the chair complete, he still seems beautifully bewildered by how that happened.
Mike’s knowledge of wood and the growth of trees is wonderful. He reckons to have facilitated the making of over 2000 chairs over the years he has been teaching. Probably more when some people go on to be chair makers. I wonder if some time a ‘bring your own chair party’ could happen, a celebration of so much learning given to so many people.
This blog post could also have been entitled The Philosophy of Wood.
And there’s something more. Nicola Davies wrote the most powerful book, as a reaction to our government, our parliament, voting against allowing 3000 lone child refugees to find a home in our land. 3000. That’s not many. But even one child left alone and vulnerable in this world where mankind can be monstrous is one too many. She is going to auction the chair that she made to raise money for Help Refugees. There will also be many drawings of chairs for sale.