The Permacultivator - Journal of Cool Climate Permaculture
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Rustic Carpentry

Jeff Keyes on reviving this craft.

Historical Background

Exploring the underwood [coppiced wood growing under standard or timber trees.]

The recorded traditions associated with the sustainable management of woodlots, in particular the Underwood, date back several thousand years, and artifacts suggest much further in many indigenous cultures. Recent finds in Somerset England uncovered wattle hurdles, portable gating and fencing, from 3,900 BC. These displayed a clear understanding of pole and species selection.

The Romans understood the importance of coppice. Coppice is a method of managing a woodlot for poles by cutting close to the ground every few years. But it wasn't until Medieval times that woodsmen raised sustainable woodland management to the peak of rustic efficiency. They produced a continuous supply of poles and rods, fencing, tools and weapons, especially the yew longbow.

Records exist of a fell, an area of coppice cut or sold in a season, in Bradfield Woods, Suffolk which has been continuously harvested for over 800 years.

Many large Medieval houses kept records of their estates. They describe the size of the woodlots, how often the coppice was cut, the products that were produced, and how much was sold and for what price. The first great book on trees and woodlands was written by John Evelyn in 1664, with much of the discourse encouraging the planting and raising of forest trees. Evelyn recorded with great accuracy the practices of woodmanship.

From 1000 AD to the start of the industrial revolution, woodland management reached an intensity and efficiency never matched before or after. However the lack of organisation within the woodland trades was the catalyst of the demise. A Survey of the Rural Industries and Wales, 1925 highlighted the woodsmen stubborn independence of centuries, which assisted in their inability to compete with the new age.

However renewed attention for sustainable agriculture has saved many neglected woodlots and new uses for underwood is being sought.

The underwood in its myriad of shapes and sizes can be used to create tables, chairs, sideboards, wallframes, aviaries, trellis, gates, hurdles, arbors, window boxes, fencing, hedging, rakes, brooms, easels, decorative framings, faggots, sawhorses, thatching, handles, fascines (long faggots for dam, river or coastal defence work), hoops, basketry, staves, charcoal, and kindling.

Local Trees and Shrubs

Here in the Southern Highlands many gum species are particularly suited to light timber work, if cut and stored appropriately. Tea tree is a favourite as the often thin branches are very strong and flexible.

Hawthorn and Blackthorn are found a plenty throughout the shire, giving us a direct connection to part of the sustainable practices of the woodsmen from the past ages.

Many of the European gardens, have Alder, Holly, Cherry, Lime, Maple, Sallow, Aspen, Elm, Oak and Chestnut, which are all suitable for craftworks.

Rustic Furniture

Modern rustic furniture now competes in the market place with steel and glass, architectural and designer magazines extol the asthetic virtues of well crafted pieces which can fetch high prices as unique items. On a more practical front, locally produced rustic crafts assist in establishing bioregional boundaries and at once identifies an area for its producion of beautiful objects. Permaculture, which strives to establish and maintain stable landscapes as well as rehabilitate degraded ones provides harmonious integration with rustic furniture making. Without dwelling on the wealth of history and inspiration available throughout the world, modern rustic pieces are vitally relevant today, probably even more so than ever before.

Rustic furniture making is a journey of discovery, as very probably no two pieces you make will ever be the exactly the same. STICK furniture is largely ignored by most people as insubstantial. However, the use of saplings to produce functional household items is a satisfying enterprise. The finished product is a direct reflection of the natural world, and anyone can make them, cheaply! The maker will be surprised just how quickly they develop their very own style, and as a consequence will be following on a great tradition.

Stick makers can find ideas and draw inspiration from the North American Indians, Africa and Europe. Publishers Cassell and Co, produced technical books specialising in STICK in 1916. The Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York have a distinctive style of stick furniture, which is held in Museums and Galleries the world over. Australia has a rich history in rustic furniture making, from the now famous Jimmy Possum chairs of Tasmania, to contemporary makers such as Gay Hawkes, working with found driftwood, and Pip Giovanelli, whose Mount Budawang Couch was designed to follow the contours of a mountain in his area !

Observation is probably the most important tool needed in fashioning a piece of stick furniture, followed by a hand saw, knife and a mallet. There is no need for set squares and tape measures. When working with found bush timber it is the irregularity of their shapes which will characterise the finished product.