Earlier this year I had the privilege of being invited to go coppicing with furniture designer Sebastian Cox. Coppicing is an ancient method of forest management which involves cutting trees down every seven years – the trees regrow and in fact a well coppiced hazel will never die of old age. A section of the woodland is cut each year, so there are always parts in different stages of growth, providing a unique habitat that many species of plants, birds and insects have come to rely on.
Seb is absolutely passionate about using coppiced wood in his work. “I am so in love with my material and how it ties in with a more sustainable life, I sit up at night thinking about it, reading up on it and watching TED talks about it. Planing a board of quarter sawn English timber to reveal its medullary flecks and rays genuinely makes my pulse race. And my work hasn’t even scratched the surface of what’s possible using coppiced hazel. I’ve got so many ideas,” he says.
His intention is to use contemporary design to create value for the wood so Britain’s woodland become as well managed as they once were, so that people can enjoy them, and so that the species that have adapted to live in them, currently in steep decline, can thrive. He’s now working with furniture company Benchmark, who also came coppicing with us, to enable him to scale his production and reach a larger audience.
“My favourite days are in the woods, harvesting hazel. It’s hard work but is so rewarding; it’s such a special treat to spend a day in the woods for work,” Seb says, and I can confirm it is very hard work, and also very rewarding. Seb cut the trees down for us – a clean cut right across the trunk allows them to grow back with nice straight ‘rods’ which are the most useful part of the tree for making furniture.
We used ‘billhooks,’ (medieval curved blades), to remove the ‘brush’ (tiny twigs) from the ‘rods’ and ‘poles’ which are the straight branches. The brush is the only part that can’t be used in furniture, so it all went on a big bonfire to keep us warm while we worked! Using saws, we cut out any bent or knotted sections, leaving nice straight pieces of wood that Seb uses to make furniture. He leaves them in the forest over the winter and collects them when the ground is dryer, so he can get a vehicle into the woodland without damaging the forest floor. He then dries the wood in his East London studio and cuts it into planks ready to be turned into chairs, tables and sideboards.
Seb has designed his furniture to use every shape and size of rod and pole and is even learning to carve spoons out of the bent and knotted sections of wood, so even those aren’t wasted. Once we’d cleared a good section of forest, and had a hearty lunch provided by Nana Cox, Seb taught us some of the skills involved in spoon carving.
First, he showed us how to shape a ‘blank’ using a carving bench…
And then how to carve the basic spoon shape with an axe…
And then he let us loose with various knives to refine the shape of the spoon and carve out the bowl. There’s a definite knack to it that was tricky to master, but once I started seeing a spoon emerge from a piece of wood that had been part of a tree just hours previously, there was something very satisfying about standing next to a bonfire in my wellies making something with my own bare hands.
With thanks to Adam Hollier for the gorgeous photos.
Further reading for the especially geeky:
- out and about :: clerkenwell design week 2014
- out and about :: clerkenwell design week 2014 preview
- out and about :: pulse london
- out and about :: pick me up 2014