The November/December chair making course was the last of our 2010 season. It will be remembered as one of the most eventful of all. Heavy and lasting snow in Dorset is a rare thing at any time, let alone in November, so I can only take my hat off to our seven hardy chair-makers for not giving up, battling against all the odds to get here and then going on to make seven beautiful chairs - on time and without a word of complaint.
I don't mind admitting we were really tested for the whole week, one way or another. The emergency calls from some of the guests needing collection from various places in the lanes between the main road and the Woodland Workshop set the tone! Both Adam and I have Land Rovers so we were easily able to rescue guests from wherever their cars had become stuck, a pattern that continued throughout the week, both collecting and dropping off at various lay-bys and pubs.
Once here we were met with frozen pipes throughout the Woodland Workshop, but by day three we had the defrosting down to a fine art and this routine just became part of the daily fire lighting and tool sharpening preparation. That said, it was nice to make use of the Kelly Kettles again, heating our tea water at the beginning of the week.
Those readers that have been following our experimentation with boiling elm logs to remove the bark for the seating will know that we now have this cracked, so we can include bark stripping in winter when the sap is down. If only ... With eight logs draw-knifed and scored ready for boiling, you can probably understand our disappointment - and mild panic - when, come Tuesday, we discovered that however hot the boiling tank was, dropping a frozen log into it soon cooled it down and rendered it ineffective.
Yes, this did constitute a disaster, and there's no more stock of elm bark in the country, anywhere, even if it could have been delivered.
Time for 'Seating Plan B' - use leather strips instead. It is pure good luck that the only oak bark leather tannery is just a few miles away and after a few frantic phone calls Adam was ready to brave the blocked lanes to go and collect enough leather sides and a very specialist saddle-maker's strip cutter to do the job. It was all a bit too 'seat of the pants' for my taste but the end results were absolutely stunning. Indeed, so much so that we are now seriously considering using leather strips instead of bark on all future chair courses.
The trials and tribulations didn't stop there. Our heroic caterers, the Nettle Pickers, made it for the first three days but were snowed-in for the last two. Time for 'Food Plan B' and back to the old days with my wife, Boo, preparing meals up at the farm and then transporting lunches down to the heated tipi on the back of the quad bike. That sounds like a good Plan B and in summer it would have been fine. In the snow though, the track down to the woods had become something akin to the Cresta Run in St Moritz. We had some very hairy moments balancing roast chickens whilst side-slipping down the chute on the quad. By luck and luck alone, all went well and lunches were enjoyed in the toasty-hot, log-burner-heated tipi on the last two days. Again, just a bit too close for comfort.
No, it doesn't stop there. There were the lithium battery drills that we discovered won't hold any charge when frozen, but this turned out to be quite easily solved with half an hour in the heated drying cabinet. There was also the small matter of cleaving - the wood was so brittle that cleaving was unpredictable to say the least; yet another steep learning curve for everyone.
But, for all of that, it was a magical week. The woods looked stunning and the atmosphere the whole time was really special. It was certainly a break with a difference for our guests. Seven beautiful chairs were produced on time and I shall never forget the sight of everyone walking back through the floodlit woods in the snow and dark. An hour after the course finished it started to rain and in no time all the snow had disappeared. It could have been a dream.
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