In autumn last year, I spent two weeks in a forest on the outskirts of Hamburg, writing. For my research, I’d be working with a forester at Gohrde Forest to understand how forests are managed in this part of Germany, and to learn about the eco systems, wildlife and the environmental superintendence in place. I’d also be working with a green woodworker who works with material straight from the forest, making the most beautiful things with it. This was vital to my writing. Our instinct is to turn to wildlife when we think of forests – to birds in the trees, animals underground, seasonal flowers and ferns. This is a good instinct – forests are sanctuaries to this (even still with all the destruction we bring to them). But they are also incredibly peopled spaces. Not just visitors like me, but foresters, field workers, scientists, tree fellers, creatives, woodsmen and women. And more. I wanted to know about these people, how they work in the forest, how they work with the materials that forests give us – this might be wood or resin, but it might also be data, species-experience and understanding (flora and fauna), the materials might equally be quietude, clean air, peace. I will write another time about my time with the forester, but for this piece I’d like to share a story. The story of a three-legged stool called JuMa. It’s starts with a green woodworker.
Autumn is a good season. It’s left the busyness of summer behind it and is working hard in a different way to settle the world down, to let it bed in for winter. The light is bright still, but on some days the air has icy thorns when you breathe in deep. And your breath reminds you of its heat as you let it out and it curls as mist in front of you. If you’re standing close enough to someone, you can see it land on their face, the fabric of their coat or scarf.
And you wear their breath, too.
In a workshop in the small village of Nieperfitz, a group of people stand by the warmth of a wood burning stove drinking good coffee and listening to a man talk. He speaks in German, and then in English. There’s a kindness to this act, but also a necessity. In the group there is one person who is English. That person’s me. I speak German like I’m reading from a basic text book, but I hear German like I’m in a crowd of voices – I understand a lot, but not always enough, and often it’s broken up.
The man is called Michail. He is real. He is not made up. This isn’t that kind of story, this is the kind of story where people are the people they are, and they do the things they do. It is the kind of story that relies on my memory and the few notes I made on that weekend course, so at times there will be inaccuracies.
Michail talks to us about tools, safety, how his courses came to be, but mainly he talks about wood. That’s what we’re there for. This workshop is a woodworker’s shop. Our course is on green woodworking. How green woodworking differs from other kinds of woodworking is in the material we will work with. The wood is fresh – green. It won’t have been standing for months or years, seasoning and hardening until much of the energy of nature has left it, until it is stable and workable; this wood will be cut from the tree that season, possibly even a few weeks beforehand. From Gorhde trees. Hand picked, hand-sawn. Some of them already dying.
Sunlight comes into the room from the window and greets the light Michail brings with his words – amber, warm and practical. He shows us the things we could make – a stool, a bowl, a rolling pin. We should choose carefully; the wood will dry after the thing is made, shrinking into its beauty and the shapes we find in it. It can wrong-foot us if we let it. Be mindful of how it changes in just a day, like any good friendship.
I choose a stool.
We go outside. It’s cold. My gloves are balled in my coat pocket. I’m glad I remembered them. They aren’t as warm as most gloves, but the rubber fingers give me a grip that my own fingers are losing over time. There’s a hole in the forefinger of the left one, and glue streaks across the palm. I hold my gloved hand over my eyes to see better. Beside the wood store, the light is diffused from a row of half-bare branches in the hedge but it’s still bright enough to hurt.
We choose our wood from a pile of ash, apple, cherry, elm, birch. Already it’s cracking as it dries in the air. It gives us a starting point. It will break down the middle, we hope. We lay it on a block of wood. At these moments, it’s easy to think of the sacred, the act of breaking into the wood as something brutal. It might be, but if it is sacred, then it might also be a release of sorts. A letting the soul of the tree free. Or, it’s just a way to open the wood up.
We place a wedge in the crack and hammer in. Be careful for the wood. Let it break, where it will break. That’s all we can ask for.
It breaks cleanly, answering an out of place prayer I whispered into my collar. Next comes the axe. A heavy head, long handle. Hold it, here. Pin in the axe-head with your foot. Let go, gently. Bring the mallet you’re about to swing down to the metal and listen. The thunk is only the beginning. Thunk, thunk, until a sound like hemp rope being stretched, then thunk, thunk, and the crack of the wood splitting. The hemisphere of trunk is cut into three long wedges.
The trunk is good wood, easy to work. And though its grain might not have the complexity of stock taken from right down by the base of the tree, neither does it have the difficulties of working with the roots’ twists growing intwined and dependent as family.
It’s heavy, this sixth of a log, and takes two to carry it to the saw horse. Two also will saw it into blanks, pieces of wood waiting for their futures.
Wood is the heart of this place. Wood for mallets, for saw-horses, shave-horses, lathes and handles. Michail shows us the framesaw, and how it works. The saw is ancient. A mediaeval thing. Wood, metal and rope. One for cutting, one for holding, one for tightening the blade.
We stand on either side of the saw horse; me and a co-learner, Sabine. The action of the saw is pulling. The starting off pulling, too. Lift, place, pull. Lift, place, pull. Sabine starts it off, then, on the bite of blade and wood, I join in. Always pulling. I take the handle, pull, release a little, let Sabine take the pull. The blade cuts on each stroke. Mine, Sabine’s. It voice is a growl then the ting of a tiny bell as the metal relaxes. It sounds as if the metal and the wood are talking to one another, but I can’t translate them.
The blank falls to the floor. When I stand it up, it comes to my knees. I need to make three legs from this. It doesn’t look enough wood. I worry about it.
A froe is a surprising tool. Its blade sits at a right angle like a straight scythe, but the edge is turned away from you. It’s a contrary thing, froward in its nature. I struggle with it. Find a pleasure too; the way is goes where it wants to, finds a point of release in the wood and fills the space. My mallet works down, to the side, against the blade, the handle. I swing it like the long tolling of a bell. Eventually the wood splits, and my breathing settles against the three new blanks I’ve made. I mark their shape. I drink tea. Let my right shoulder be for a while. And Michail, like a welcome voice is there, guiding, advising, teaching. He shows me the shave-horse, the draw knife, but first the way to shape the legs with an axe. Blade, sharp as light, cut a notch, then another, another; increments of wood, low to high.
Chnk, chnk, chnk.
Work to a rough shape. Lean in. Forget everything you know about marking up, sawing, chiselling. The exactness of it all. Let it go for the moment. It’s only knowledge.
Lunch is had, simple, communal and delicious. Soup in wooden bowls from wooden spoons. Good bread. Cheese. A bolster for the work.
The draw knife is hard work. It’s all hard work. I’m moving toward approximate spaces, trying to understand the energy of my actions, the energy, too, deep within the wood. I brace the piece in the shave horse (shaped like the mongrel of a wooden rowboat and exercise bike) place the blade and pull. My two hands are in place on the handles, I’m told I’m in no real danger of slicing my stomach even though the blade is a razor.
Rhythms are easy to find. The shave horse has many, the slice, chip, scrape, slice. Chips of wood falling like musical notes. Like snow. The floor is covered in it. It’s warm work, and I can feel the sweat on my back. I stand up and out to one side to watch me working in a mist of cold air and body heat. I’m working in a haze. The wood whittles. Time is somewhere at my back, the time in front of me shortening as the day is ending. The light working down. Tomorrow, the clocks go back, and I find it strange to think it happens here in Germany.
I shape the legs roughly. There’s something important to do before I leave for the night, and if I spend the attention my habits of planing and smoothing might give this wood, I’ll have no time left. The legs look like ham hocks. I worry about them. We need to shrink the ends so that when I’ve shaped them for the stool top, drilled the holes for them to fit in, they’ll be a good, close fit. They won’t shrink down the line, fall out like an old nag’s tooth. We upend the ham-hock legs into a pail of hot sand sitting on the stove top, bundle them with other set, and leave them overnight. By the morning, they’ll have shrunk a quarter of a centimetre.
I go back to my friend’s house, have a bath, eat some food, drink some wine. Sleep well and dream of growth rings.
Framesaws come in every size. It makes sense, but is still surprising. I like the framesaw. I like it the same way I like my plane. Simple tools. Logical. You can imagine how they evolved, how someone thought: I need to do this, then made a thing that did just that. Again, and again. And then stopped when it became a different tool. A plane into a thicknesser, a saw into a bandsaw.
The framesaw that I use to cut the seat out of elm is tiny. Still weighty in my hands, but a shrunken down version of the two-handed saw I used to cut the blanks. I draw my shape, not quite circular, but not arse-shaped, clamp it in place, and start to saw. I’m indoors now, at a work bench. Sawing around bends, trying to keep the saw straight, working it like a coping saw. I hate using my coping saw, so what is it about this saw that pleases me so? I think it’s because I gave up being afraid of it and just moved the wood around the vice to make it work. It felt the right thing to do.
As I work, words jump around me. I have to stop, take a note, carry on.
The circle is cut. It could have come from the Inferno, how hot it was to work. It’s not even a circle, so it has a lie imbedded in its inception. I re-position my thinking. It’s not a circle, it’s a seat. I take another draw knife, smooth the edges, the top, leave the bottom rough as chairmakers do to prove it’s a hand-made thing. I’ll put it to one side, drill the holes for the legs after lunch.
Lunch is had, simple, communal and delicious. A different soup in wooden bowls from wooden spoons. Good bread. Cheese. A bolster for the work.
I like to sharpen pencils. It’s pleasing to hold the stock, keep the sharpener balanced, put the pressure on, pull it back, careful not to go too far, not to break the graphite leads. Test the point. The legs of a chair are treated in such a way. The shrunken end, still a little warm from the hot sand, is marked out, clamped to a vice and sharpened with a tool I don’t know the name of. Its sounds are small and discrete. Qurrrrr. Qur Qurrrr.
It’s easy to lose the balance if you let your concentration slip and then the end you shave might be elliptical, not circular at all. I find the centre of the seat with some arcane calculations and mark a hole. I listen to the wood. Its roughness speaks to me of energy. Decide where to put the legs. Trisect it with a newly sharpened pencil. Mark which leg will go where with Roman numerals.
It takes two to bore the holes for the legs. I think of the things it takes more than one to complete – a chorus, a child, an endless list, poetry not in it at all. The brace drill is tall. If I was shorter, I’d be on tip toes, but this is not reason for a companion. He will keep the angle true. Too straight and the stool’s centre of gravity will be misaligned and the thing might fall over; too splayed, and the legs could buckle under any weight. A new-born giraffe trying to stand. We use an angle bevel made of wood.
‘To you. To me. Forward. Side’. And eventually the holes are bored.
This could be the end of my task. I could stop it here, and that would be fine. I could glue the legs in place, wedge them in, measure the height, cut the legs straight, and rough as it is, it would still be a stool. But I want something more. It needs to lean in to something more beautiful, more finished. A poem, not a draft. I’m a slow worker, I know. I come back a third day.
On this third day, I take the legs from the holes, set up the shave horse inside the workshop and work with the draw knife. Sunlight is simple in autumn. Clean. It’s only the clouds, the fretwork of bare branches that complicates the light.
The stove burns. Cut offs from past chairs and seats, from bowls and spokes, feed it. Even warmth is something to resist when you’re working with wood. Something for me to resist. I strip off my jumper, lean in. I’m alone in the workshop. It’s a generous act, to let someone you barely know sit alone in your workshop, cleaning up legs with a sharpened knife. A act of trust.
I can hear Michail’s industry in the other room. Preparing for the Weihnachtsmarkts round the corner
I have to pause often. I’m sweating, and the fatigue in my shoulder and wrist is dull. I wipe my face, careful not to get the grit of saw-shavings in my eye, and notice the miniature stick chairs on the windowsill. I imagine, sometimes, I might be that small. My ego, soul, pulling out a chair the size of my hand to sit down on and drink tea. They look like the kind of chairs you might drink tea from. The tea is green and tastes like nuts.
Cleaning the legs up gives them shape. Eventually I’m happy. I can glue them in, cut them down. I love the look of a Japanese saw. Simple. Jagged as a knife. I saw the wastage from the wedges securing the legs. I saw the legs themselves. This stool has more balance than I ever have.
‘One good thing,’ says Michail, ‘because it’s a three-legged stool, it won’t wobble.’
‘Ooh, I don’t know,’ I laugh. ‘I bet I could make one that wobbles.’
‘It would be a first,’ he says.
We stand the stool up.
‘Every stool will one day become a step ladder’, says Michail. It’s good to remember that.
And then the stool is made. Ash and Elm. Two dying woods.
It’s heavier than you’d think, as I carry it over the road to Philine’s house. My back is tired, my legs. My arms shake in their fatigue.
I take it inside. Put it on the floor.
“It’s an Überaschung. For your kindness, for organising everything.”
Philine smiles, hugs, laughs, accepts. “I’ve called it Houdini, because the wood kept escaping from my grip. But you might want to give it your own name.”
She calls the stool Joudini at first, gives her a pronoun right for her, I think. Then she finds a better name, a Philine name, a compound name: JouMa. JouMa. It suits her.
My deep thanks to Michail Schütte for his care and patience in showing me how to make JouMa, for telling me about his wonderful woodworking life-story, and for welcoming me into his workshop and home. And to his partner, Katy, for sharing her love of greenwoodworking and also poetry. Thanks too, to my co-learners on the course at Gruenholz in Nieperfitz. Atelier Gehölz & Gestalt, 21369 Nieperfitz Nr.7 Germany
© Photographs by me and Martin Parker silbercow.co.uk
This is part of a mini-series of blogs for the Dovetail Sonnets project, looking at the writing process, woodworking, foresting in the UK & abroad, and climate change.
Dovetail sonnets: Time to Write is supported by Developing Your Creative Practice funding from Arts Council England.