Charcoal burning

Part of the Walter’s Tools project plan over the summer is to run a series of five weekend workshops in woodland trades and crafts, run by expert tutors. We lined up a charcoal maker (as Walter used to be), a blacksmith, a tool handle maker, a scyther and haymaker, and a willow basket maker.

charcoal kiln group

Photo: Dayve Ward

First up back in June, coppice worker Sam Ansell from the Coppice Co-op ran a workshop for us  at Stott Park Bobbin Mill, where our tool library will end up, showing participants how to make BBQ charcoal.

One of the participants, Adam, wrote a thorough account of the process:

On Saturday morning we began stacking the kiln. The kiln we were using was a small ring kiln, comprising an open-ended metal cylinder with a sealable lid and 6 vents that over the course of the burn alternately acted as air intakes and chimneys. Sam had already sited the kiln, surrounding the base with sand to prevent smoke from escaping from under the edge.

Our first task was to create an open bottom layer that would allow air to be drawn into the middle of the kiln from all of the vents. In order to do this, we selected longer lengths of wood and carefully placed them in a form similar to the spokes of a cartwheel, so that each vent opened into a wooden-sided passage that led to the middle. We roofed over these passages with smaller logs and filled in the gaps between, added a layer of kindling and then proceeded to fill the kiln, placing the logs in a parabola pattern, larger logs to the centre (which burns hotter than the outside). We stacked logs to above the height of the top of the kiln, so that the lid rested on top.

We lit the kiln by pushing in a paraffin-soaked rag, and watched as thick white smoke began to billow out from under the lid. We left vents open and lid unsealed for around an hour, creating a high air flow and encouraging the kiln to burn hot so that enough heat would be retained throughout the burn. At this point we made the seal around the bottom of the kiln more robust, building a small earthwork of turf and mud.

charcoal kiln vent

Photo: Dayve Ward

After around an hour, when the lid had begun to settle, we removed the chocks and carefully lowered the lid, resulting in an exciting burst of flames from the vents. Once that had settled down we placed metal chimneys onto three of the vents and sealed them with turf and mud, leaving three open to draw air into the centre of the kiln. We also dabbed sand into the rim to seal there.

From then on the process involved much philosophical debate and tea-drinking. Every two hours we swapped chimneys onto the open vents to ensure that the wood was charred evenly throughout the kiln (the hottest part of the burn occurs where the air enters). We allowed the kiln to burn for around ten hours, which was a little on the short side but fit the purposes of the workshop and allowed us to get a good night’s sleep while the kiln cooled. We shut the kiln down by removing the chimneys and sealing the vents, preventing air intake into the kiln and suffocating the burn.

earth burn

Photo: John Ashton

We removed the lid from the kiln at around 11am the next day and stared into a half-full can of shiny, crunchy black charcoal. As the kiln was going to be taken back to Sam’s yard, we simply rolled off the ring after removing some of the sealing turf – the larger ring kilns that he uses to make charcoal to sell are well-sited and remain in the same position, although generally it is most efficient to make charcoal in situ, in the woods, as it is a lot easier to haul out than the much heavier logs.

Adam & Sam open kiln

We shovelled our pile of charcoal (which could have done with an hour or two longer to cool, as some was still smouldering) onto the grader, which we spun by hand to separate the ash from the charcoal, ‘brown ends’ (bits that hadn’t completely converted into charcoal and can be used to start the next burn) and tiny charcoal fines (which can be used as a soil improver and in recent years have been hailed by soil scientists as a potential world-saver and given the superhero name ‘Biochar’).

adam shovelling

Larger pieces needed to be checked by breaking them apart, to enure that they had converted to charcoal all the way through. Those which had not were discarded.

grading charcoal

We bagged up our product and stacked it, ready for the barbecue, tidied up, and had another cup of tea.

bagging

charcoal sacks

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This workshop was part of a public open day at Stott Park, and our kiln charcoal burning workshop was run parallel to an earth burn with Windermere Reflections.

Here they are putting out the fire ~

charcoal sign

Uncovering the earth burn

In amongst it all were several tins of willow.

lifting out artists charcoal

These were dug out and opened to reveal artist’s charcoal.

artists charcoal

That evening I had a barbeque with some of the charcoal and it was delightful. It got going quickly, without being coated in nasty flammable liquid that is characteristic of commercial charcoal. It was also very special to be cooking food with fuel that was from within a short distance of where I live.

Below are some charcoal burners in the woods near here at the turn of the 20th century and as you can see the scene has not much changed.

charcoal-burners-599x224

(source ~ http://www.armitt.com)

Making Stories :: Making Rope

One of our volunteers, Bill Gilson, hails from New England. “I don’t know that much about tools” he said. “But I am interested in their stories”. It turns out Bill is a writer, and it was a perfect addition to the pool of talent we have amongst our volunteers. Here is a piece he wrote about his first volunteer day working on Walter’s Tools, and you can expect to see more of his writing on here in due course.

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fettled tools

Old hand tools speak with an eloquence both heartening and sad.  The simple beauty of design, modified by trial and usage over centuries, can be as inspiring as a great poem or song; but the stories of the persons who used particular tools are most often revealed only by signs of wear, surfaces shaped by anonymous hands long vanished.

Walter wagon portrait©Dayve Ward 2014

Walter Lloyd, who is 89 and lives on a farm near Newby Bridge, has worked with hand tools for most of his life, has given them serious study, and speaks eloquently about them.  He has also amassed a large collection of tools needing proper care and  preservation.  Fortunately, his recent encounter with the writer Sarah Thomas has resulted in a project which will not only preserve and catalogue the tools but will result in the creation of  “library” such that they can be borrowed and used.

Bill & Paddy

A call for volunteers to help on the project appeared in the Westmorland Gazette; I was one of seven persons who showed up at Walter’s place the first day.  The idea was to begin to sort the billhooks and saws and scythes, to label  and clean and “fettle” the tools needing repair.  I noticed right away that I was the person most lacking in practical tool-repair skills, so I did a bit of sorting and cataloguing, helping where I could; but mainly I took the opportunity to talk with Walter, who is very smart, very experienced with many vanishing country arts and skills, and a great talker. I also watched what the others were doing and asked them questions. I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Saen throws coke

Probably the key member of the group was Sean Bainbridge, a blacksmith. He set up a small forge, filled the pan with coke, built a fire and set to work.  He very willingly explained what he was doing and seemed not at all annoyed at being relentlessly questioned by myself and others.  He took an old side-axe head and heated it, explaining how the sharp edge had been “heat-welded” to the body, demonstrated the way in which the colours of the steel changed as he hammered and filed and quenched.  Later he recovered and expertly re-shaped the points on  a pick that had probably been used by a coal miner.
I helped Walter extract from a crowded corner of the barn a simple device consisting of a wooden frame on wheels and four metal cranks with which he gave a demonstration whereby he turned a length of sheep’s wool into a rope.  Later, when Walter told me that he had for several years earned his living making charcoal by the old woodland methods, I asked him how that was done. His step-by-step description was long and precise and humorous and left me convinced that not only should Walter’s tools be preserved, but his words as well.

By the time I left in late afternoon other volunteers, having been at work at the outdoor tarp-covered benches, had produced a pile of  billhooks – polished and clean and oiled with edges freshly ground – looking ready for use.  This is a great project.

FREE heritage craft workshops in the Lake District

WT workshop poster final

As part of the Walter’s Tools project, we shall be running a series of 2 day workshops over June and July in various woodland crafts – charcoal making, blacksmithing and tool tempering,  hand tool re-shafting, scything and hay making, and willow basket making.

Places limited to 6 for each course (over 18s). Free of charge with materials costs for some. Please subscribe to Sarah Thomas at walterstools@gmail.com, whereon you shall be given more information if you are allocated a place.

June 14th & 15th – Charcoal making with Sam Ansell, Stott Park Bobbin Mill, Lakeside (West side of Windermere)/ Sat 10 – late , Sun 10-4

June 21st & 22nd – Blacksmithing with Sean Bainbridge, Walter’s barn Staveley -in-Cartmel / 11-5

June 28th & 29th – Tool handle making and restoration with Sam Robinson, Walter’s barn Staveley -in-Cartmel / 11-5

July 10th & 11th – Scything with Steve Tomlin/ Walter’s field, Staveley -in-Cartmel/ 09.30 – 4.30

July 19th & 20th – Willow basket making with Helen Elvin, Walter’s barn Staveley -in-Cartmel / 10-4

The Tool Restoration Process

Tools pic sm

We’ve had quite a production line going on down at Walter’s Tools HQ, with seven volunteer workdays achieving an incredible amount and the volunteers really taking ownership of the project and teaching each other what they know. We’ve had volunteers from Reading ,Yorkshire and Lancashire in addition to the majority who are from closer to home.

Once we’d dug out the tools from Walter’s barn full of various trashes and treasures, we were advised by Greta Bertram, the curator from the Museum of English Rural Life, to give them all a temporary code so each tool can be referenced without confusion during the course of renovation. So they all got a code WT  ____

label

We then sorted them into crates according categories of what work was needed to get them usable:

course of action

tools in crates

Thankfully over a hundred of them needed only simple sharpening and de-rusting.

Adam

But for those that needed a bit more specialist forge work, we were very grateful to have a blacksmith and tool expert, Shaun Bainbridge, on hand with his mobile forge.

Sean checks tool category

Meanwhile, Walter (above, left) reacquainted himself with many of his tools that he had not laid hands on for years, and retrieved their stories from his deep well of knowledge. This was aided by the attendance of George Haugh (above, right) who used to run a hand tool stall in Kendal market and from whom Walter had bought (or begged as the case may be!) many of his tools.

Geordie & Walter rummage

Gaps in Walter’s knowledge were complemented by referencing tool catalogues sent in by helpful folk such as Alistair Simms – the only remaining master cooper in Britian, the excellent Salaman’s Dictionary of Woodworking Tools  and heritage crafts and trades books.

Walter & Paddy w billhooks

coopering catalogue book

The renovated tools were then catalogued according to quite in depth catagories, as advised by the curator from MERL – name, local/ colloquial name, trade used in, how used, materials, size, maker/ manufacturer, maker’s mark, measurements provenance, course of action required .

cataloguing close up

The catalogue sheets are and will remain a lovely relic of this project, with all the different volunteers’ drawn representations of the tools, Walter’s stories, and dirty fingerprints!

catalogue writing

They will all be digitised into a database to make borrowing the tools an easier process. So that we can add a visual database, I have also been photographing all the tools, thanks to a really effective set up provided by the amazing Dayve Ward, who has also been a dedicated volunteer.

me photographing

coopering draw knife cata image

This almost completes the process. Once we have all the renovated tools together, we shall label them permanently with codes which refer to their original catalogue sheets, with the addition of a suffix referring to tool type.

me w tools & catalogue

For now they are stored in boxes awaiting the remaining tools. Soon we shall label them and hang them on display boards, ready for display at Stott Park Bobbin Mill.

catalogues tools in crates

We are very pleased with progress and enormously grateful to the volunteers for being so committed to seeing this project through. We could not do it without them, and they have learned a lot through doing it. Walter is a unique character whose knowledge must be treasured.

If there is anybody who would still like to volunteer in the final stages of the project (a bit of sharpening, labelling and mounting on display boards) between August and October, please do get in touch ~ walterstools@gmail.com