Old Castle Wood
Living during a pandemic has refocused our interest in sustainability and increased our thinking about what is required for a healthy life and a healthy planet. Like many we thinking more about where things come from and how they are made. It is often difficult to see the whole supply chain, the conditions for workers and end of life disposal and we want to be as transparent as possible in our business.
‘Sustainable furniture making’ might mean as little as using wood – a renewable resource – however it has to be much broader and deeper than that. We find Kate Raworth’s model of Doughnut Economics helpful for thinking about sustainability. Her model has two rings and looks like a doughnut. The inner ring represents the basic needs of people to keep them healthy and happy including housing, work, education, healthcare, community, air, water and energy. The outer ring represents the need of the planet to remain in balance, and human demand must not exceed certain limits, to prevent damage to atmosphere, oceans, soil, bio-diversity and natural resources. There is a sweet spot between the two rings where people have what they need without damaging the earth. At the moment there are many people who do not have enough to meet their basic needs and we are damaging the planet by over-consumption of limited resources and generating too much pollutants and waste.
As a micro-business we are thinking about what we can do to thrive in the sweet spot in the short, medium and long-term. At a basic level we transform local hardwoods into treasured furniture but it can be useful to analyse the steps.
We are lucky to have a small team of dedicated people who derive job satisfaction from making museum quality furniture. Individual makers are responsible for whole projects where possible (for better job satisfaction and learning) and frequent discussion about the best way to do things leads to highly skilled makers and efficiency, helping to make our furniture as affordable as possible. We have annual occupational health checks and improve the working environment through investing in the best machinery. Normally we offer paid internships and apprenticeships but sadly this is on hold during Covid-19.
We source some oak from our collectively owned, local bluebell wood (above) and we fell and mill as part of a sustainable woodland management plan designed to increase bio-diversity and the overall health of the woodland. We also use Perthshire grown oak, ash and cherry which are felled and milled on a micro-scale by other tree surgeons and saw-millers. The process is skilled and time-consuming but having a continuing local supply of timber has been helpful during the pandemic.
Recently we were offered two large oak trees (being felled as concerns that they were old enough to drop limbs and block a crucial access). These trees are too big for us to manage alone. They were prepared and felled by a tree surgeon (below left), then split by Pol Bergius from Black Dog Timber , who will return with his wood miser and Angus to mill into planks. The wood will then air-dry in stick (for minimum of a year per inch thick).
It has really helped our furniture making to be very close to the felling and milling. It has stimulated experimentation and Angus can work with the miller to prepare the tree as efficiently as possible for our unique combination of furniture making processes. It has also reduced transport miles, supports local businesses, and helps celebrate our local timber and woodland.
We are licensees of the Scottish Working Woods Label.
The Scottish Working Woods Label benefits both the environment and the local communities in the following ways:
“The label supports local growing, harvesting, processing and production which in turn mitigates climate change and supports local economy and employment.
The label endorses the value of local biodiversity, character and identity in the woodland resource.
The ‘chain of custody’ from raw material to finished product brings producers, customers and communities into a meaningful relationship with each other and with Scottish woodlands.
The label supports and promotes the value of traditions in the areas of woodland management, craftsmanship and use of resources, encouraging the development and retention of the associated skills.”
We specialise in steam-bending which allows us to use air-dried oak and ash. Steaming for an hour requires less energy than the more usual kiln drying for weeks or months. Bending with steam means we can achieve interesting curves and shapes with minimal waste.
We use harvested rain water for steam bending.
We use traditional cabinetmaking or green wood-work techniques for jointing, rather than faster screws, as we believe it is ‘better’: it will be longer lasting and is more beautiful. We have also developed innovative ways to simplify jointing and we harness the inherent strength in woods long fibres.
Most of our work is bespoke and therefore our making process is always evolving. There are frequent discussions about the best way at all stages including selecting, machining, joint work, construction and finishing and we are proud that we have been selected four times for The Wood Awards best new bespoke furniture design.
Although we hope our furniture will be treasured for decades (even centuries) it can be repaired, up-cycled or recycled in the medium to long term, and at the very end of life it could be burnt or bio-degraded. This fits with notion of a “circular economy” – keep a resource in use as long as possible and think about disposal from the outset rather than a “linear economy” – make, short life span of use, and no responsibility for disposal.
We are always happy to assist in the unlikely event that our furniture needs to be repaired and we provide advice on care and maintenance.
Wood waste is recycled or burnt for fuel.
Our furniture is finished with natural oils. This is easy to repair and refinish and is not damaging to human health or the environment.
We are trying to minimise the use of plastic in the workshop and we are improving our packaging so that smaller furniture can be sent in totally bio-degradable packaging.
We have recently switched to Bulb – a 100% renewable electricity supplier.
We had a lovely visit to our woodland last week during bluebell time. The best time to visit varies each year varies depending on the weather but it is usually late May / early June (about a month later than the south of England). We usually have Open Days and guided tours organised but unfortunately these were cancelled this year due to Covid-19.
The trees above left of the image are oak. We have large swathes of these trees that were coppiced until 1920’s (for tannin) and as they are now over-crowded we fell a few each year. This is beneficial to the remaining trees, allows space for natural regeneration which in turn improves resilience and bio-diversity. Working gently and respectfully with nature always reaps rewards.
There are several open areas with bluebells which were probably browsed by cattle in previous times. Scottish beef cattle, and Highland Cows, love to graze in woodland.
The fifty acre, co-owned woodland is about five miles downstream from our workshop and now provides small-section characterful timber, not at all like the wide clean planks usually used for fine furniture making. This supply of unusual timber led to a deep exploration of steam-bending, and incorporating this technique into our furniture helped establish our signature curvaceous style.
Please see a short film below and spot us having a picnic between the bluebells and the river.
Woodland and Workshop Open Day on 25th May
Our workshop in Aberfeldy will be open 10am – 4pm and a tour of Old Castle Wood will start at our workshop at 10.30 am.
The tour will last around two hours and will include at least one hour of walking. Angus will talk about using trees for fine furniture making: selecting, felling and milling and we will discuss managing a small woodland for bio-diversity and sustainability and improving access for the public.
This is a chance to walk in a lovely mixed native woodland with an under-storey of wild flowers. At some point there is always a wonderful carpet of bluebells. They have started early this year so hopefully the bluebells will still be good on the 25th!
Please contact us to book a place on the tour. Places are strictly limited.
Old Castle Wood is a beautiful mixed ancient woodland a few miles downstream from our workshop and we are actively involved in sustainably managing the woodland for timber, improved bio-diversity and to control non-native plants. Very selective felling happens in the winter and supplies us with our unique characterful oak.
You can read more about why we selectively fell these veteran trees, on our blog here.
Our studio-workshop is in Aberfeldy, Perthshire on the banks of the River Tay in the centre of Scotland. The workshop will be open 10am – 5pm for a rare chance to talk to our craftsmen/cabinetmakers. Do pop in if you can. There is no need to book to visit the workshop. I understand this is all too far away for many readers, and if so please contact us to arrange a visit at a time to suit you.
Old Castle Wood is the inspiration for much of our craft practise. We have been in the very fortunate position to be a co-owner of this beautiful, mixed, broadleaf woodland since 2004. This allows us to spend time there “working” with the other owners (we are a group of ten people/five families) and the many friends who come to help. A lot of that time is spent wandering about or sitting around a campfire, chatting and planning work, however in the last month a tree planting task was actually completed. Last year we planted 100’s of sprouted acorns (collected from the wood and kept cool) but none appeared as seedlings. Perhaps they were eaten by red squirrels or mice. So this year, we decided to plant bought in British oak saplings. (Looking after a wood is like gardening on large scale so this was like giving up seeds and buying seedlings from a garden centre instead.)
First we had to fence an area to keep deer out and as time goes on we will attempt to keeps weeds around the saplings at bay. Everything in our wood is on a small scale and therefore everything is done by hand with simple tools (not like commercial forestry). The first step of fencing was to insert posts. We started by creating a narrow metre deep hole with a metal spike, then lined up a round wooden post at top of each hole, and bashed the top with a post thumper to ram the post deeply into the soil.
The wiring and netting took another few sessions followed by an afternoon planting well over a hundred saplings.
The surface was scraped back, hole dug (or spade wedged back and forth to create a slot), sapling popped in, covered with inverted soil and firmed in.
You may wonder why we plant oak in an oak wood? Most of the trees in our wood are the same age and it is good for the overall health and resilience of a woodland to have trees of a wide age-range. This used to be a coppiced wood and the trees have roots of perhaps two hundred years old, with trunks at least a hundred years old. Coppicing oak provided tannin for the leather industry (to tan leather) and this stopped after the introduction of artificial dyes and lack of men to work the land after World War 1.
We have protected naturally regenerating saplings for the last decade but wanted to plant up one of the larger open areas in the wood. Fortunately when we started digging we realised the area had been previously cultivated and was possibly the garden for the substantial medieval building nearby. This is now just a rubble of foundation stones but we think it might be the site of the original Grandtully Castle.
All images below are thanks to Danni Thompson Photography. We were lucky to have Danni working at the woods that day.
We always enjoy our time in the woods; time seems to stand still, there is a sense of peace and work seems easy. Therefore I have been intrigued by recent articles in the press extolling the benefits of “Forest Bathing”. These are often based on research by Japanese physician Qing Li who has researched and quantified the physical and mental health benefits of spending time in a forest. For example he found that a two night stay in a forest increases Natural Killer cells (which combat cancer) and reduce adrenalin (a symptom of stress). The effects lasted for more than 30 days.
Trees have been found to give off essential oils which can boost your mood and immune system, reduce heart rate, stress, anxiety and confusion, and improve sleep and creativity
As little as two hours taking time to look, listen, smell, breathe, touch and tune in to your feelings in a forest is beneficial. To find out more look for Qing Li’s book Shinrin-Yoku: The Art and Science of Forest Bathing.
The Japanese government introduced the concept of shinrin yoku or The Japanese Way of Forest Bathing for Health in 1982. How lovely that the Japanese government will support research into the effects of being in a forest, and promote it as a treatment for ill health and to promote well-being. In Japan, appreciation of nature is deep in the DNA and part of religious and traditional life. Sadly in the UK health research is far more likely to be by drug companies hoping to introduce a new pill.
I am sure the effect of being immersed in a forest can be recreated in a garden or park if you can be there mindfully or meditatively. I would love to see scientific comparisons between the effects of Forest Bathing with the effect of being on a mountain or swimming in a river or sea. Subjectively in my experience being in our wood seems to engender feelings of calm, like walking in mountains rather than the exhilaration of bathing in cold water.
Our woodland is mostly oak with beech at the eastern edge and alder to the west. Our woodland is privately owned by a group of ten and we gather for work days. Beech trees create a dense litter of beech nut husks which are very effective at suppressing any under-storey. One of our tasks is to prevent the beech becoming so dense it covers paths or encroaches into the oak wood (as it will end up dominating it). We achieve this by pulling up beech saplings using a hand winch. This is surprisingly hard work. The large tree to the right of Angus is being used as an anchor and the winch extends to the left and is attached to small beech trees. As the winch is tightened it pulls the beech out by the roots. Work days always involve heading to our shed or campfire for a cup of tea.
It may seem counter – intuitive but one of the best ways of improving a native woodland is to fell some trees. Our woodland, which we manage as part of a group, is a beautiful mixed native woodland of 50 acres. It has a great number of veteran oak trees, planted over a hundred years ago, which were initially coppiced for tannin used by the leather industry. Our woodland, called Old Castle Wood was largely neglected since WW1 (after the dramatic demise of men working on the land) combined with a move to chemical processing in the leather industry. These veteran oak trees are now very over-crowded.
Selective felling brings light and into the woodland, helping the remaining trees to thrive. Selective felling as part of a sustainable forestry management plan bring life into a woodland; it results in greater bio-diversity of plants, fungi, insects, birds, bats and other creatures.
Perhaps surprisingly we are not selecting the “best” trees to fell but planning to create the best possible timber in the future. Angus now knows the lengths and widths of timber he can typically use in his furniture making practice and the decision about which few trees are felled each year is made with an extremely knowledgeable forester in our group – Rick Worrell. Felling starts with a good look at the trees.
Images by www.ciaramenzies.com
Most of the timber from our woodland is the native oak ‘Quercus robur’. All the timber will be used by Angus for fine furniture making or by the group for firewood. The timber is milled by Angus and Rick and can be assessed at the time as whether good for steam-bending (if long straight grain) or best to be kiln-dried (interesting characterful grain pattern). We do all the processes from standing tree to finished fine furniture and our designs make best use of this precious timber.
This micro scale selective felling is very different from ‘clear fell’ which occurs on an industrial scale. This is the norm in many countries out-with the UK and will be the method for all mass production of “oak” furniture. This will be the subject of another blog post. However please do note that if ‘solid oak’ furniture is cheap and the source of timber has not been clearly stated it will be clear fell timber, not our native oak species Quercus robur, and being manufactured in the Far East whatever the branding may suggest.
For a little more see
We are licensees of Scottish Working Woods label – http://www.scottishworkingwoods.org.uk
which guarantees that wood is local, ethical and sustainable and members of the Association of Scottish Sawmillers