Archives for the month of: March, 2011

Matt and I have made a start on our underfloor beams today, its a bit of a challenge and quite a tricky job. The timber came from the nearby Devils Punch Bowl, it was felled in the appropriately named Sawpit Field as part of a project aimed at creating a habitat link for butterflies and other heathland wildlife between the Punchbowl and Highcombe Edge.

This is the timber being loaded for the journey back to Swan Barn farm. As you can see they are not exactly small logs. At over seven metres they are at the limit of what our timber trailer can cope with.

In fact they are too heavy for the crane to lift in one go and had to be lifted off end over end. We brought four of these back to the farm, they are to provide four beams which will support the floor of the Speckled Wood building. They are also over a metre to long to fit on our sawmill (we new that before we bought it, a longer mill was prohibitively expensive and all the other sawn timbers in the build are much smaller) meaning a little bit of inginuity was required to saw the beams.

The plan was to cut the beam out of one end of the log, then move it down the mill and saw out the remainder of the beam. If that sounds simple I can assure you it wasn’t!

After the log was positioned on the mill we made measurements and cut up the length of the mill to the right point.

We then had to knock in wedges to release the trapped blade so it could be backed out of the cut.

Once the sawmill blade was backed out of the cut we had to use a chainsaw to remove the piece of timber we were milling away from the beam.

Once this had been done all around the beam we ended up with the worlds biggest lolipop.

This lollipop was slid back along the mill on rollers so the saw could be brought back in to finish off the far end.

It was a bit nervy milling off the end bits, hoping that all the cuts were going to line up properly and we weren’t going to end up with a wonky beam. But things seemed to be coming together well.

You can see above the point where we just had one final cut to make, by now sighs of relief were starting to be drawn, I definitely fealt like this was quite a big challenge, and was chuffed to bits when the last cut went through and the finished beam came off the bed of the mill.

We have three more of these to make this week, along with the challenge of getting all of the long timbers back to the build site. All in all quite a tricky week. Wish us luck!

Today we have been working in Valewood, felling and extracting the ridge pole (it runs along the middle of the top of the roof) wall plates (they run along the edges of the roof) and some beams for the Speckled wood building.

These should hopefully (unless we have forgotten anything or make any mistakes when sawing!) be the last trees we need to fell for the building.

These are larch trees, a deciduous form of conifer, by which I mean they shed their needles in the winter. They are native of the high mountain places in mainland Europe and the far east. Its thought they evolved the ability to shed their needles so they don’t get too heavily burdonned with snow, this enables them to grow higher in the mountains than other species.

Larch is a pretty durable type of softwood, which is one of the reasons it has been extensively planted for forestry in the UK. Like all softwood plantations this one in Valewood requires regular thinning in order firstly to encourage the remaining trees to grow on to their potential, but also to ensure it doesn’t become a desert for wildlife. In this wood where it has been thinned over the years there are some really nice patches of wood sorrell growing.

Its another of my favourites, its leaves are a really nice edible adition to a wild salad, and its flowers always look so delicate in the spring sunshine. Its quite a clever plant as well, it has evolved the ability to fold up its leaves and petals at night to protect itself against frost, one of the dangers of flowering in March during the gap before the leaves grow on the trees.

These are the longest timbers in the building, and getting them back to Swan Barn Farm is going to be a bit of a challenge. They had the first part of their journey today.

They had to be winched out of the woods, skidded through two fields and another wood and then across a small bridge…

The picture above also incidentally shows them leaving West Sussex and entering Surrey as they cross the small stream which is the first tributary of the River Wey.

When we got them into the main meadow on Chase Lane they were stacked up to wait for the next part of their journey.

That will come next week when we borrow a big hay bale trailer to get all the long timbers back to the build site, I am looking forward to that as its going to be another challenge!

It was a really beautifull day today at Valewood, it was nice to see the plantation grown wood going to such a local project, its only half a mile or so from Swan Barn Farm. Normally I don’t get involved emotionally in the journey our timber makes, it seems that the shortest journeys can sometimes prove to be the most interesting. One of the great things about the new building for me will be looking at the timbers and knowing where they came from. These came from a plantation next to Winding Meadow in Valewood, Winding Meadow is one of the nicest fields we look after. When I look at these timbers I will be reminded of the stunning displays of orchids that come up there every summer.

For a long time I have fealt that sourcing food locally can make a really positive difference to the world around us, and am more than happy to extend this philosophy to alchohol as well. The countryside is stacked full of all sorts of fermentable treats, and as spring gets going and the days start to warm up one of my favourites comes from the silver birch tree.

There are two native species of birch, but in practice both are fine. Find a nice open grown one with a clean looking stem that it is at least 18 inches diameter at the base. I always try and choose a healthy looking tree that is tucked away in a nice location.

Using a drill with a bit the same size (or preferably ever so slightly smaller) as the plastic tube you have brought with you, drill a hole at an upward angle into the stem of the tree. You don’t need to go very far in, about an inch is plenty.

You should see the sap start to run out of the hole straight away. Its best to try and do it when there is a couple of days of nice weather forecast. The sap flow is usually best at this time of year, but the exact timing varies depending on the weather.

Put one end of the tube in the tree and the other in your collecting vessel. It can up to take a couple of days to collect a gallon, but if you catch the flow just right you can fill a demijohn in less than a day. I usually seal the top of the demijohn to protect against flies or bits of twig falling in and then hide it with some bracken so it can’t be seen.

When your demijohn is full its important to stop up the hole in the tree so as not to leave it bleeding.

FInd a twig or bit of wood and chamfer the end to make a peg. This peg should then be knocked nice and tightly into the hole and cut off just proud. This will allow the tree to heal itself without further loss of sap.

If you forget to take a bung with you when you collect your demijohn the same technique can be used to make a demijohn stopper!

The sap is a clear watery liquid, which I always think tastes slightly of twigs!

There are loads of recipies out there for turning the sap into wine, I have used a number of different ones over the years, at the moment I am using one based on the one in Ben Law’s “woodland year” book.

You need:

1 gallon of birch sap, 2 lemons, 1/2 lb of chopped raisins, 2lb of sugar and a sachet of wine yeast.

Add the juice and some of the zest from the lemons to the birch sap and bring to the boil. Turn off the heat and add the raisins and sugar. Stir until sugar has dissolved. Leave until lukewarm and then add a general purpose wine yeast. Put in a fermenting bin until initial fast fermentation has slowed down. Then transfer (leaving behind the raisins etc) to a demijohn and fit an airlock. After a couple of weeks when the sediment has settled out rack off into a clean demijohn. Then leave to ensure fermentation has finished and all sediment has settled before bottling. It should be ready to drink by the late summer, but will be even better if you leave it till this time next year.

I’ve seen quite a lot of this view this week, as I have been driving the crane and stacking our timber. I’m afraid you just have to forgive the slightly agricultural looking hole in the window where the crane control levers poke through!

We have had a good week, as can be seen by the stacks of timber in the photo below.

Justin Owen and his small team of coppice workers have been working in Ridden Corner Copse as well this week. They are going to be making the laths for our lath and plaster walls from a section of the coppice, they have also kindly let us have some of the oversize stems from that section of coppice for shingle making, this stem in particular will provide a whole load of really good quality shingles.

Its been a bit wet here today, but other than that we have had a pretty nice week, the first wild flowers are starting to come out in the hedgerows. I took this photo of a celendine this week at Swan Barn Farm, in a hedge just near where the Speckled Wood building will be going.

I think I have said before how much I like them, in the right light they shine like little tiny suns in the base of the hedges. Spring is definitely here.

Guest Blogger and Black Down birder Dave Burgess has sent in another update as well, you can catch up on the wildlife postings page.

If that sounds a bit odd, then bear with me! The crucks are the uprights of the A frame sections around which the main frame of the building will be constructed. They are being made out of some of the larger more sturdy timbers that are coming out of the coppice. Here you can see a couple of them have just been brought up to the track using the winch and crane.

These are measured and cut to length like the other timbers, it was a bit more exciting cutting this one out though, its going to perform such a key role in the house.

They are pretty long, 9 metres in fact, so getting them back to Swan Barn Farm is a bit of a challenge. The first bit of their journey involves skidding them out of the wood. The long lengths are attached to the butt plate of the winch with chains.

The tractor then drives out of the wood dragging the poles behind it.

The poles were skidded out of the wood and across the heath to a place where we can get to them with a big bale trailer. When we have all the long lengths we need stacked up like this we will use a bale trailer to take them to Swan Barn Farm.

Unfortunately the load will be too long to fit into the lane at the other end, so we will have to use a bit of inginuity there too, there will be more on the crucks journey to the build site soon.

We have set up a new shingle making camp at Ridden Corner this week.

This weeks volunteer group have been doing stirling work there the past couple of days knocking out some very nice shingles. They are making use of some of the bigger ofcuts of timber from the coppiced chestnut we are currently busy extracting to trackside.

The new shave horses seem to be performing well too. Last I heard we were up to about 3000 or so, still lets more needed, but we are going well. If you are coming to help this year on the project I guess some of your time at least will be spent in one of the two shingling camps.

In the forground here you can see our shingle camp stove, I made it out of an old washing machine drum. I can’t claim the idea as my own, I saw one that a friend had made and copied it. They work really well, the small holes let in a good supply of air to feed the fire and help boil your kettle quickly. It looks particularly pretty if you see it lit after dark as the light from the fire flickers through all of the little holes.

The new camp seems to be well placed to gather the afternoon sun, it was actually getting warm up there at lunchtime today. Spring is definitely moving in the woods around here this week. As if to prove it as I was having lunch the first butterly I have seen this year fluttered past, it was a Brimstone, a beautifull bright yellow butterfly, in my mind they are always a precursor of lots of nice spring sunshine.

Back at Ridden corner again today, we have shifted most of the easy to get at wood, so it is time to bring some of our machinery to bear.

To save having to move the wood by hand to the track we use our tractors with a winch and a timber crane mounted on them. First of all a bundle of the coppiced stems are selected and have chains attached to them.

The hooks on the winch cable are then attached to the chains and the winch pulls the stems out of the wood. Taking the tractors throught the middle of the wood would damage the ground flora and the stumps so we need another way to get the wood out. We don’t want to damage the stumps as later in the spring they will be sending up the new shoots which will regrow and replenish the woodland.

You can see that the winch has pulled five stems out to the edge of the wood, this saves us a lot of back breaking carrying. Next the timber crane takes over. This helps us keep manual handling to a minimum, hopefully meaning I will be seeing a bit less of my chiropractor than I have been doing the last couple of weeks!

The crane picks up the stems and places them alongside the track that runs around the coppice. The stems are pretty long, it takes a while to learn how to manouver them to the right place. Its a nice challenge though, and as the wood is coming out you can start to think about what each section might be used for.

When we have a big stack of these poles alongside the track we go back to measuring and cross cutting.

Once all the stems have been cross cut the material is put on the stacks alongside the track, the crane comes in useful again here for the bigger sections. We had a good day today, and fetched out quite a lot of wood, still a long way to go, but today it fealt like we were making good progress.

Hello everyone, sorry I went quiet for a week, I hurt my back and had to have a few days at home lying on the floor. The chiropractor has worked her magic though and I am starting to feel much better again now (its not just a plea for sympathy, honest)

We have been up in Ridden Corner today starting to extract and stack the timber we coppiced for the main frame of the building. I have been being good (to my spine) and have been operating the crane today. It makes light work of moving heavy logs.

We are used to extracting coppiced chestnut in quite large volumes for fencing materials, but the material for the frame of the house is needed in quite a number of different sizes and lengths, we have a long cutting list we all have a copy of, we look at each log in turn and decide what to make out of it.

Selecting the right piece of wood to cut for each item on the list is quite a skill, it takes a while to learn how to see the materials within the wood.

I really like working in the chestnut coppice’s, first of all you know that it is a very sustainable method of producing wood, but I also like to think of the many people who have worked in these woods before us, coppicing the tree’s and producing all manner of materials. Then there is the smell, when you work in amongst the chestnut tree’s all day cutting and moving timber the smell of the wood permiates the air.

We made a good start on it today, but there is lots more left to do. A busy month lies ahead of us.

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