Woodland Heritage very generously sponsored The Dean Oak Cooperative in The Forest of Dean to purchase a Trekka saw mill. Having taken delivery of the saw we were immediately aware that we had a lot of work to do setting it up. We were aiming to start milling timber to supply the local market so we needed to prepare the ground ready for the delivery of our first logs. We paid for some ground to be levelled and laid with compacted loose stone which came from a quarry two miles away, so we are adhering to our sustainable principles.
We set the saw up making sure everything was level and secure, and then encountered our first problem. We had taken delivery of 180 oak logs that were due to go for pulping as we thought we could put them to better use. They were only 1800 mm long and averaged 350 mm mid diameter, but even these small logs are very, very heavy. It seems bizarre to think now that we didn’t consider how we were going to move the timber that we proposed cutting. Though we are all woodworkers of various persuasions, none of us had any experience of moving anything but planks!
After struggling for a few weeks moving timber by hand, we realised that we would need some mechanical help if we were going to make progress. We were already selling all that was cut and more orders were coming in. Our bank balance was growing steadily, so we started researching machinery used for moving timber. We were immediately horrified at the cost of even the most beaten up old machines, so we ended up hiring a very old Volvo BM which has been Christened ‘Frank the Forks’. We aim to acquire our own machine in time, but that is another story.
We are now able to move logs up to two tons in weight and can move large stacks of timber with ease. We’ve been following Peter Goodwin’s advice when creating our stacks, ensuring bases are level and sticking is evenly spaced. We have such steady orders coming in, that we had to start thinking about our future stock. We were being offered trees by people who had heard about the Cooperative.
After a bit of research, we established that our minimum sustainable load is around 25 tonnes, but even this is considered to be not worth bothering with by most timber haulers. We finally made contact with the very helpful Dave Parker. He is the only local contractor we have found who is prepared to visit up to six different locations in order to make up a full 25 tonne lorry load. This included picking up a single cherry tree and root ball that was offered by a local man who had read about the Cooperative in the local paper. This lovely tree was being felled because it had grown too large for its setting and was damaging the neighbour’s boundary. It would have ended up as firewood if we had not been able to take it for a better use.
The Woodland Heritage field day at Miserden was very enjoyable, if a little stressful. We really enjoyed meeting and chatting with members. Everyone was very interested and supportive of what we are trying to achieve.
We liked demonstrating the saw, but felt that we weren’t getting the best out of it. We had only three full days running the Trekka saw prior to taking it out for the demonstration. When we got the saw back to base we discovered that the blade was over tensioned and wasn’t running true, also that each blade is slightly different in length and sits in a different position on the drive wheels.
We now tension and align each change of blade with much more care.
The ash that was cut at Miserden is drying nicely and will be used for a project next year. We had decided that another ash butt was far too wet to be milled, so put it aside for cutting later. Just as we had piled the log, up walks Tim Oakes, local coracle maker, musician and story teller. "Have you got any ash" says Tim, "It needs to be very green, in fact the wetter the better". We were about to learn yet another lesson!
Tim Oakes takes up the story: "Coracles are tiny boats constructed from a basket-like framework, covered in a waterproof skin and are now confined to a few of their traditional rivers in west Wales and on the upper Severn. Coracle history actually goes back into deepest antiquity and there have been claims that they were the real forerunners of planked boats and ships. Rock carvings of long, skin-covered ships are to be found throughout Scandinavia and across the Baltic states. These intriguing carvings clearly show the ships’ ‘ribs’ through the skin covering. Having built numerous coracles of various shapes and sizes over the years, I was very keen for some years to have a go at recreating the boats that were ‘set in stone’ some 3,000 years ago.
Coracle building is a strange art, which starts with the freshly cut ‘green’ trunk of an ash tree. This has to be split, or sawn down into long, thin laths, which are surprisingly larger than the craft they will eventually make.
I paid a visit to The Dean Oak Cooperatives’ mill, where the new saw was buzzing away. Over the racket the guys pointed at a great grey shape beside the woodpile. It was a truly massive ash tree-trunk, and seemed to have almost no side branches, or shoots, which cause knots in the timber - knots that are fatal to all watercraft and especially fragile coracles.
The log was sawn through into 1 1/2" thick planks, which were then clamped together on edge and put back onto the saw to be cut into 5/8" strips. As they slaved away on midsummer’s day, I watched the laths emerging, clear creamy-white with a very soft grain. In other words, just about perfect for some (very) green wood work.
First job on getting the laths home, (jokingly referred to as ‘wet’ by the sawyers) was to give them an overnight soak in the stream at the bottom of my garden. The laths are then laid out on the ground in an interlocked pattern, the proportions of which have to be very accurate, before the protruding ends of the laths are bent upwards to form the bow, stern and sides of the boat. Then a gunwale is fitted. Upsizing the basic coracle building process was not straightforward, and led to some frustrating days. But I stuck to the principles of those prehistoric craft outlined in the rock carvings, while assessing the practical arrangements for my boat along the lines of the Curraghs, still used around the Aran islands off western Ireland. ‘Hafren’ (the pre-roman name for the River Severn) proved to be a very difficult boat to complete, since the forces involved are far stronger than usual. Eventually the shape began to emerge - and what a shape! Sleek, streamlined and twin-ended, Hafren looked rather like a strange cousin of a modern open Canadian canoe. That is, until her tiny mast and sail was fitted, then she looked like nothing else but a tiny little Viking ship. The design for the rigging came from standard rigs used on all square-sailed ships from prehistoric days up to the end of the sail era with the great tea clippers. The idea was that the forward thwart would take the mast, while I would sit on the rear seat and control both the rigging and the long steering oar. Fitting the external ‘strake’ was the last task, adding the vital extra ‘bowsprit’ to her profile. Hafren was complete."
Back at the sawmill - we still have regular orders coming in for timber and are generating enough income to allow us to pay the bills and purchase more logs. As well as supplying timber to customers, we are setting aside planks to dry from each log we cut, so that we accumulate stock. Hopefully this will enable us to increase our income to a point where we will be able to employ someone to operate the mill. The mill is currently operated on a voluntary basis, one day a week on Tuesdays.
The Dean Oak Cooperative is very grateful for the supply of timber from Miserden and the ongoing enthusiasm and support from Woodland Heritage and its members.