An Awareness of Natural Timber

At the larger end of the scale, a number of timber-framed cottages at St Fagans demonstrate the use of curved tree trunks that have been book-matched to provide gable ends, the shape of the roof being determined by the natural curve of the trunk. This is an efficient way of working given that once felled, the tree would require little shaping before being incorporated into the frame of the cottage, and the use of curved timber ensures there is little grain runout (which would reduce the strength of the frame). This raises the question in my mind at least: Might the craftsmen who were framing cottages also have been building stick chairs? 

A similar approach has been identified in extant examples of traditional walking sticks, which also make use of curved stock for comfort and maximizing strength. Similarly, within the archive at St Fagans is a tremendous pole lathe, the ends of which are forked trunks that have been inverted to provide two stable feet and a stout upright to support the centers and lathe bed. Not only is the use of such timber an efficient way to build a lathe, avoiding as it does the need for joinery to create the uprights, but it also adds significant mass which assists in stabilizing the lathe while in use.

To my mind, however, one of the most distinctive, and instructive, examples of Welsh vernacular woodworking is the spoon rack. These racks can be found hanging by the fireplace in several cottages at St Fagans, and comprise a triangular arrangement of thin sticks, much like a modern-day wire coat hanger. To create a spoon rack, a thin forked branch would be located in a hedgerow or tree, and one arm of the fork would be gently bent at an angle and spliced into the other side of the fork to create a triangle. The branches would then be left to grow and fuse together as they healed before cutting them free of the tree and finishing making the spoon rack. Not only does this require an awareness of the natural timber available, but also knowledge as to how that timber will respond to being cut and spliced, and, finally, patience in waiting for the finished item – the spliced branches may be left for as long as a year before being cut and used as a spoon rack!

–Kieran Binnie, excerpt from “A Gentler Way of Working: Investigating Welsh Vernacular Woodwork,” in Issue Seven


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