I was asked recently to make a flowerbed for a friends primary school class. It’s been a nice little collaboration project; with the children contributing to the design, recycled wood from another local building with links to the community, and an opportunity for me to spend time with a local crafts person.
When I was first asked to make a flowerbed I thought it might be nice to have some patterns to make it a little more interesting. Initial thoughts were that I would use my router and some patterns to carve rounded grooves to outline the shapes.
That was until I was introduced to local wood carver John Bye. To say he is a master craftsman is somewhat of an understatement. His work is exquisite, not that he’d ever tell you, he’s one of the most modest people I’ve met, and just a lovely person to be around.
I have spent some time with him recently in his workshop. 80% standing in awe, looking at his work, 5% trying to carve something, and 15% drinking tea and fussing his beautiful dog!
This is some of Johns work. Chairs in the Hall of Christ Church, Oxford. Known to Harry Potter fans. His work can also be found throughout Windsor Castle.
He gave me a few tips and, with an old gouge freshly sharpened I put the router aside and began carving.
Carving is something I haven’t really done before, and this is pretty simple stuff really, but it’s ok, and I’m happy with it. I was slow to start as I took care to read the grain and feel for the run of the cut. My marking out lines were key here, and it quickly went wrong if I tried to cut corners and work without them!
After a while though I got in the flow of it and my left handedness came into play as I found I was able to switch hands in between cuts to come at a cut from either end as the grain of the wood dictated. It was a real pleasure to do, and a bit of a dance in the end.
Its worth saying also that I never intended to paint it to begin with, so the carving would be the main feature. Although to look at the finished pictures here, the carving is barely visible, but it is there, and I hope provides a tactile interest for the kids.
Some of my design sketches here (below), I won’t talk through them as I think they’re pretty straight forward. I try to draw as often as I can, and after a ten plus year dry spell, I am drawing more now because it really goes hand in hand with my woodwork. It’s critical to really seeing things when observing the world, and important for recording ideas, and seeing how they grow and change.
I keep a small sketch book on me all the time now to record ideas as and when they crop up. When time is short I have a camera too for snapping things of interest from snazzy architecture to shapes or patterns in nature that catch my eye.
The area where the flowerbed would live was extensively photographed before hand too, along with taking some measurements they allowed me to make a basic 3D model to check the scale of the bed prior to making.
The sides would only fit together as tiers and so would have to be separated again prior to final assembly
The initial build of the flowerbed was fairly straight forward. The corners would use butt joints that are staggered between the top and bottom tiers of the bed. Then the corners would be locked together with small stiles that would be screwed in from behind.
This would make it quite strong but I was worried that if the bed was filled with soil the weight might be too much for that joint.
The answer was to create a half lap joint that would run down the length of the boards, stopping short of the ends so that they don’t show through where the ends butt.
Once this was all done I temporarily attached top and bottom of each side together to mark out and cut the patterns.
The sides would only fit together as tiers and so would have to be separated again prior to final assembly such was the nature of the combination of end butt and long lap joints. (It confused me too on more than one occasion, but it was all for the strength of the piece!)
One of the little problems to overcome was filling small holes which were on some of the beams. They were probably cut to allow services like gas or electric through the roof, I’m not really sure. What I did know is that they were the perfect size for an inquisitive child's fingers. And they were really rough inside, not a good combination!
I decided I’d turn some pegs that would plug the holes to keep little fingers safe, and to give a nicer finished surface with no holes. To keep to the brief of using recycled wood I used some off cuts from the original beams.
The piece (left) has been sawn down its length, cut into lengths and then turned on the lathe in pairs.
Each peg is sized close to what I know I’ll need from the size of the hole, then tapered. This isn’t fine work, and while they fit tightly without glue, a little touch will keep them in place for good.
They’re then cut off with a flush saw and planed flat for the final finish.
With the joints made, the carving done and the holes fixed it was time for finishing. Again things weren’t straight forward.
The whole piece would have to be finished in something hard wearing to protect it from the combination of the elements and moisture from any back-filled soil. But I also wanted to colour some areas with strong, vibrant colours.
The risk was that the finish might disagree with the coloured paint and dis-colour or worse still peel or not dry at all.
Seeking expert advice I visited Brewers (Decorator Centres) in Abingdon. I very patient Andy listened to my problem and was able to offer some good advice. When he found out that the project was for a local school he was also very generous when it came to paying.
The finish we came to worked just fine in the end which was great. Everything was hand painted first with an undercoat layer then followed carefully with each colour. All done with a small brush and a steady hand. More finish was then applied over the top to seal everything in.
By the time I got to painting the Earth (above) I just about had my hand in and I was being reminded of my art days at school. (Happy times!)
The design language of the painting was one of quite simple blocks of colour, mainly because this matched the scale of the piece and the fun, playground setting, but it also matched my skill level with a brush!
I bent this rule a little when it came to the earth because I felt to make it more detailed and realistic would hold more educational value and draw importance to our one and only earth. Painting the planet the rocket is heading to red, was also intentional. By having Mars and not the Moon I felt it was a better reflection of the future ahead of these kids, and not kids from the 60's.
Many thanks again to Laura for taking pictures for me, here are some more…
Thanks for reading, see you next time!