A crook of Elm


 

It’s not hard for anybody to look at a tree and see that it has more to offer than thin straight boards, and as a boatbuilder, using the natural structure of timber in the right way is something that becomes natural.  Natural bends will be hard to find at a timber yard and the first to be chopped into small sections by most tree fellers.  I like to try and use what most people overlook and make work that is a result of knowing about timber as more than an inert material.

One day one of my customers came by with two crooks of Elm from a tree he had  to fell on the beach in our village.  Elm is one of my favourite timbers, it is strong, beautifully figured and finishes well with a pleasing colour.  To be given a nice thick bend was exciting.  But what to do with it…..

The bends sat in my workshop for a year or two while I eyed them occasionally wondering what they will become.  This was a case of starting with the material and deciding what it would become rather than beginning idea and then finding material to suit.  By the time I was brave enough to cut into one of my precious bends I had a vague idea of a table surround made by slicing the bend into four and matching them around the circumference.  To fill the space inside the surround I needed a material that wasn’t timber, this was a question of balance, timber has grain and as such indicates a direction and in a circle would to me be unbalanced.  I liked the idea of a clean even but natural material that would contrast with the timber, Slate was the clear answer.

I decided to use Welsh slate from the Berwyn quarries in North Wales, it’s important for me to find materials from as close to home as possible, and this small family run quarry both extracted and dimensioned the slate for me.  Slates natural use is for flat surfaces, it’s plain enough to give not to dominate but when closely looked at has subtle patterning hinting at its own history and story.

I think it must be as a result of my boatbuilding background that I find it hard to settle with a straight line, the only straight lines in the picture of the framework above are the temporary battens used just for clamping alignment.  Perhaps also it’s also an appreciation for a natural aesthetic in the world generally; nature presents us with forms and structures that we have grown up with and appreciate as “correct” and pleasing,  I try to put this natural code into my work.  I was very pleased when a respected bridge architect told me that the structure look “right”.

Letters are beautiful.  Incised lettering in timber or stone when cut well not only has the form of the letters but a three dimensional quality that brings light and shadow into play.  I knew from early on that I wanted to lettercut around the circumference of the Elm, I wanted light and shade to play more of a part in the feel of the piece, the overhung central bowl also satisfies this as well as breaking the dominance of the slate.  An extract from a poem written by Devon poet Guida Swan provides the wording.   Soon after finishing the table lost its leg structure to a sister table shown above, this had no bowl or carving and an ash surround as was the wishes of the customer, the original table will have new legs at some point, and I will have the opportunity to make some changes along the way.

To me this is a table of contrasts, of light and shade; very much a reflection of myself.

Jb.

Categories: Furniture

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