Sunday 24 November 2013

If spoons could talk...

Just looking at some of the whittled spoons I have hanging around in the kitchen whilst waiting for the toast to pop up and the kettle to boil this morning. Every one of them has a story to tell – many are the product of heading out to the woods, sometimes with no agenda other than to go home with a new creation. A spoon is clearly a functional item, as is a basket, bowl or cup, a bark container but carving a spoon goes way beyond the need for a tool to shovel food into face. The materials have been harvested paying close attention to the type of wood and their differing properties, the condition of the timber, maybe even the time of year. The finished piece bears the ever-lasting marks of your hard work, perhaps giving others an indication of your craftsmanship but more importantly on a personal level, serving as a physical reminder of where you were, who you were with, what you were thinking as you carved. Such an investment of time and labour imprints these memories deep within the wood grain itself, far better than any photograph. As time passes, a unique patina develops through use telling a story all of it’s own… 

Here's a handful of favourites, starting at the bottom with the crook knife (don't try and eat your cereal with that one..) and turning clockwise through the photograph:

1.     A Ben Orford small standard crook knife with a hybrid handle which lives in the lid pocket of my daysack. Excellent for spoon hollowing and thanks to the extended, curving handle great for larger projects too. You need this tool in your life!

2.    Oak spoon – carved on a winters day whilst being not particularly successful at hunting rabbits on the Sussex estate where my brother in law works as a game keeper. The green oak was easy to carve and showed the characteristic oak medullary rays in the spoon bowl before greying through use. This one is probably about thirteen years old.

3.    Little Cedar spoon – carved whilst sitting next to a campfire in Morocco around ten years ago, surrounded by sand dunes and stars. The bowl is shallow because I hadn’t packed a crook knife so used the curved tip of my pen knife instead. I increased the bowl depth slightly through burning using a glowing ember from the fire, then sanded it smooth with sand grains and cloth.

4.    Small Ash spoon – carved as a demonstration several years ago, this little spoon became the camp coffee spoon, hence the dark colouration in the bowl. I lost it after a course and suspected a shady character who had been admiring it all week, of it’s theft. Six months later I found it again hidden under the leaves where the washing up bowl is often emptied and had to forgive the formerly accused and entirely innocent person quietly to myself.

5.    Extremely curvy birch spoon – Again, another demonstration piece however, this one started life as a dramatic failure. Whilst demonstrating the benefits of a ‘stop cut’, I didn’t stop at all and ended up shearing off the whole of one side of the bowl. I can still hear the laughter (not mine obviously..)! After this shameful episode I persevered and ended up carving a smaller spoon using the extra bit I normally leave on either end of a spoon blank ‘just in case’. So the shape is a little strange but it has it’s own unique elegance and is probably perfected suited to some sort of role somewhere….just need to find it.

6.    Ash spoon, also from the lid pocket of my daysack – the last remaining (not finished) member of a set of four similar spoons. The other three were slowly seasoning in a bin bag when they were mistakenly included with the rubbish and chucked out! A warning to fellow forgetful folk…

7.    A beech eating spoon – this is my current eating spoon. The bend in the handle isn’t intentional, instead the result of warping as the wood seasoned. As it happens it curls round my hand perfectly! The other half of the split beech limb was carved into a spatula and has also warped in the same way to make a perfect matching set.

8.    Sweet chestnut spoon – made during a bushcraft course attended after leaving the army quite some time ago. Made some good friends and learnt some fantastic skills. The lead instructor was a quietly understated but extremely skilled Swedish chap. He had a good look at the spoon (my first ‘proper’ hand-made wooden spoon) and told me to go away and make another, but this time just using an axe. I think it was his way of telling me I’d passed that particular test.

9.    Black oak spoon – carved in Portugal from seasoned wood about eight years back. Extremely hard work, my thumbs never forgave me! This served as my eating spoon for a while and could probably have doubled as a club for knocking out tiny assailants.
Make some memories - happy carving! 

Monday 18 November 2013

Packing your kit for winter:

With the winter of 2013/14 apparently about to be the worst since 1947, we're set for some seriously chilly weather. Despite the seasonal media doom mongering, it's no revelation that winter is cold in the UK! This should most definitely not mean putting your outdoor kit into storage until spring - the colder months are some of the best times to get outside. You'll probably have the place to yourself for starters! At first glance, the stark landscape and sleepy, quiet woodlands suggest that there’s not much going on and that the best place to be is snug and warm indoors, but it’s well worth pulling on your thicker socks and silly hat with the ear flaps and going to take a look for yourself.  The winter snows bring their own set of seasonal bonus’s to the bushcraft enthusiast; greater opportunities for tracking is just one. Not only is it easier to pick up sign but it’s far easier to interpret and follow a track from start to finish. This is helpful for confirming certain theories that are otherwise difficult to interpret correctly at other times of the year. This information, once confirmed can be of great use when using knowledge of a certain animal’s behaviour to fill in missing gaps along a trail at other times of year.

If you have set out to learn bushcraft skills as a form of insurance should something ever go wrong then to gauge progress, occasionally it helps to test yourself. Skills that come easy in the summer will be that much harder in the winter months as the harsh weather and difficulty in identifying resources throw up all sorts of additional limiting factors. Fire lighting, tree and plant identification, navigation are all outdoor skills that require a real in depth understanding which is fully tested to the limit in the winter. By practicing and mastering important skills such as these in the winter time your confidence will be increased dramatically at other times of the year. Train hard, fight easy as they say...

Above all, waking up in a snowy forest is the stuff of fairy tales. If properly kitted out and equipped with sound knowledge of the winter environment then to a certain degree, snow can be your friend offering insulation, building materials and even drinking water. Any light from the moon is enhanced greatly on the surface of a snow covered woodland floor allowing some fantastic night time wildlife encounters that would otherwise be missed.  But cold, wet conditions can rapidly increase the speed at which things go wrong if caught out unprepared. Practicing skills that could save yours or others lives is important but you must have a back up plan when the cold weather hits. Before venturing out it’s a good idea to spend a bit of time preparing to ensure that you could take care of your own survival should the unexpected happen and you find yourself stranded between A and B at the mercy of winter at it’s most wintry. 

Keeping things simple is always important and initially it makes sense to settle on a packing system that works pretty much all year round, only needing a bit of tweak for extreme weather conditions or different environments. When tweaking your packing system for a trip in winter, give some thought to whether or not your kit would realistically keep you sheltered, warm, hydrated and fed if you had to spend an unexpected night outdoors. Additionally, could it enable you to call for help, guide in rescuers or even self rescue before things got out of hand?  In light of the annual stories of unfortunate travellers stranded overnight on snowy motorways, it seems that any winter journey could result in a chilly, potentially life threatening experience if things don’t go to plan. It pays to be prepared and a well thought out, fully packed winter survival bag could serve you just as well kept in the boot of your vehicle as it could out on the hill. Additionally, if the zombie apocalypse begins while you’re out doing the shopping you’ll be laughing all the way to the fortified survivors compound.

Here’s a suggested winter packing system for a day out walking or an emergency bag to be kept in the back of the car. The rucksack shown has a 45 litre capacity which should really be seen as the minimum size for a winter day sack:

Lid / outside pocket:  Items you might need in a hurry:
Keep the following items in the lid pocket or a side pocket so they’ll be close to hand without having to tip the contents of your bag out all over the snow...

1.  Good head torch with new batteries, powerful beam and preferably some additional features (the Alpkit gamma shown has all sorts of flashing, different coloured and different strength beams).
2.  Tough, flexible, waterproof pouch containing phone as well as a spare battery or reliable, portable charging system. My waterproof pouch has a lanyard so it can be attached to my rucksack. I also carry a second ‘cheapy’ phone that uses a different network to double my chances in areas with poor signal.
3.  Compass, whistle, notebook, pencil and waterproofed map (map not shown here). Forward thinking mountain navigators also have a spare map, sometimes of a larger scale hidden away in the main body of their pack. Maps can suddenly become tiny un-piloted para gliders without warning on windy days...
4.  Back up mittens: In winter time, especially out on the hill if your hands are frozen you’ll get into serious difficulty. Putting up shelter, lighting a gas stove, even using a map and compass becomes virtually impossible with numb hands. In the event that your primary pair of gloves becomes ineffective after a good soaking, or even whipped out of your hands by the wind, you won’t want to faff around too long looking for replacements. Keep a warm, weather-proof but easily packable pair sealed in a small drybag (Buffalo make excellent pertex and pile mitts for this purpose) in the hood pocket. Basically somewhere you can reach with your teeth if needs be!
5.  Toilet kit: the last third of a toilet roll and some anti-bacterial hand gel in a ziploc bag is a better option than looking for soft leaves on a hill side in winter!
6.  High energy snacks (not shown, or eaten. Probably eaten)
Main body of the rucksack - top layer:  Shelter and warmth

1.     If not already worn you’ll want your waterproof jacket right at the top ready to don if the heavens open. In this day and age, your main jacket should really be made from a waterproof and breathable fabric with taped seams, weather-proof closures, a good hood and pockets. I hate wearing too much when on the move so avoid wearing mine whenever possible, instead opting for a lightweight windproof hooded top and thermal shirt underneath. If you feel the same then you must ensure that your winter walking top is at least windproof, preferably showerproof. Constantly battling the wind chill will use valuable energy and mean that you’ll rapidly cool to the point of shivering whenever you stop moving. A windproof top keeps the wind-chill at bay and traps much of your own generated body-heat next your body where it belongs. There are loads of windproof, quick drying, lightweight and highly breathable fabrics out there that don’t feel like you’re wearing a bin bag. Montane, Rab, Paramo and Buffalo all make good lightweight windproof tops.

2.    I also keep a warm hat in the pocket of my waterproof jacket and make sure the jacket is arranged with that pocket being the first thing I see when I open my rucksack. It’s amazing how much warmer you feel if you pop on a hat when you stop for a brew or to check the map. Almost like putting on another layer! A snood, buff or whatever the latest strange name for a warm neck covering is, should also be kept here for the same reason.

If you carry them, waterproof trousers should be stowed here too.

3.    Keep a mid-weight windproof and warm top near the top of your bag, just under your waterproof jacket. I favour a gillet if I’m on the move or working hard as it’s less restrictive on the arms; synthetic fill insulated job when out in the hills and dense wool if mucking about in the woods. Top tip; if your warm top has a full length zip then keep it zipped around a third of the way up and pull it on over your head. Trying to get the two halves of a zipper to connect with cold fingers or big gloves on when the wind is picking up is not easy. Also, when removing clothing such as jackets to add another warm layer underneath, keeping the bottom section of the zip, zipped means it can drop down out of the way still fastened around your knees but not be completely free to be suddenly blown awaaaaay across the hills.

Also shown here, sunglasses are handy for protecting your eyes from the glare of the snow and more importantly, will magically transform a boring looking rambler into a polar explorer or adventure racer!

4.    In the winter, especially if walking primarily in exposed areas it makes sense to carry a lightweight shelter of some sort. If stopping for a rest it can be quickly set up to provide protection for you or a small group and if stranded out overnight it could be a lifesaver. When I’m in the woods I take a lightweight, waterproof tarp (currently an Alpkit rig 7 – fantastic) with guy-lines fitted so that I can set up some overhead cover to work under in the rain. When out on the hill an emergency ‘bothy’ bag would be your best bet. These can easily be whipped out and used to create a sheltered place for lunch. My rig 7 tarp is about the same size as a two person bothy bag when all squished up, basically very small indeed. If you carry walking poles a tarp can even be set up like a small tent out in the open but you’ll need some origami training first.

5.    If you have an old foam sleeping mat then it’s a good idea to cut out a section as long as the height of your rucksack and twice the width. Fold it in half along it’s length and slip it down inside the main body of your rucksack to sit against the existing back padding. This can be pulled out to sit on whenever you stop for a rest or in an unplanned overnight emergency, used to provide vital insulation between your body and the ground. Although smaller than a full size mat, you can at least provide protection for your torso with your empty rucksack and other kit providing some ground insulation for your legs. It also gives a bit more padding to the back of your rucksack when packed!
Middle layer:  Food, water, stove, essential kit

1.    Drinking system:    I’ve had problems with hydration systems in the winter (frozen hoses) so carry my water in a hard, plastic 1 litre bottle with a wide mouth. Hunt around for a bottle that will fit neatly inside a large metal mug so that these two bed fellows can stay permanently locked together in your kit. A metal mug can be used to cook in, melt ice or boil wild water to make it safe to drink. Keep your water bottle/mug combo in a pouch along with a spoon, a metal lid for the cup (to speed up the heating process), a cloth water filter bag and some water sterilization tablets or similar water purification device.

2.    One litre of drinking water isn’t really enough so carry a second water container. In the winter months this may as well be a small stainless steel flask filled with a hot, sweet brew! Looking for a good place to keep your gaffa tape? Wrap a load around your flask and water bottle.

3.    Food:    Winter walking grub needs to be highly calorific offering both quick and slow releases of energy. Time to raid the Christmas selection packs! If heading out for the day then choose food that matches this criteria but also concentrate on foods that don’t necessarily need to be cooked. Obviously heating your food in the winter is recommended but if stove fuel is low, it’s good to know that your only available meal option doesn’t involve crunching your way through cold powdered potato sachets (been there...). Also, take more than you need for the day – pack for an unexpected overnight camp out. If you’re packing a rucksack for a potential emergency then 24 hours of highly calorific food needn’t take up that much room if you spend time shopping for the best options. If you’re annoyingly organised you can separate meals into different ziploc bags with a separate one for brew kit. Incidentally, replace milk or milk powder for the sweet, condensed stuff in a squeezy tube which can also be guzzled in an emergency and tastes yum in a coffee.

4.    Cooking pot, stove and fuel:    If you won’t be able to light a cooking fire (open terrain or not permitted) then a cooking stove is essential. Ideally, carry a small but effective stove that will fit inside your main cooking pot for protection. To stop everything rattling around your stove should also be kept in a cloth bag or wrapped in a tea towel within the cooking pot, along with a lighter and spare fuel if it fits. As your pot is likely to be dirty on the outside this should be kept in a dry bag of some sort leaving room for a flexible or folding windshield to speed up cooking times and save fuel. A word of warning though, always make sure that gas stoves which have an integral fuel compartment don’t get too hot due to your reflective windshield being too close and surrounding the stove completely, or you could end up wearing your dinner as a hat. Leave the windshield open on the leeward side to keep the fuel compartment cool. Never cook inside a tent without proper ventilation due to the risks of carbon monoxide poisoning and it goes without saying that in the event of a vehicle breakdown or becoming stranded overnight in the snow, cooking inside or even near a vehicle is an extremely stupid thing to do!

Obviously there’s a limit to how much stove fuel can be carried so if carrying extra food, and travelling somewhere where lighting a fire may not be possible, it makes sense to also carry an emergency cooking source and for this you can’t go far wrong with a small packet of solid fuel tablets. A small pot support can then be improvised with sticks or rocks. There are also a number of ingenious little portable wood burners which maximise the effectiveness of natural fuel sources (such as dry bark, pine cones etc), leave nothing but ash, are much safer than a full on campfire, weigh virtually nothing and take up little more room than a birthday card when packed. Worth adding to your stove bag for sure. 

5.    Bits and bobs bag:    This bag contains a number of essential items which may be needed during the day as well as spare back up kit to some of your most important gear. It’s also a stand alone survival kit if needs be. A detailed breakdown of mine can be found here.

6.    Bushcraft tools – belt knife and folding saw:    With a good multi tool in your bits and bobs bag, cutting tools aren’t really essential kit to the average walker. However, to those who intend to go off the beaten track or have taken time to learn how natures resources can be utilised to your advantage, good cutting tools are definitely not leave at home items. After all, how the hell do you expect to whittle a wooden spoon without them? Don’t forget that if your rucksack is to be carried in a vehicle ‘just in case’ then the carrying of fixed bladed or folding lock knives needs to have a good explanation if you find yourself being stopped by the police for any reason. Use your common sense here. A machete strapped to the outside of a rucksack on the rear parcel shelf is asking for trouble.

7.    A first aid kit should always be carried but especially if using sharp cutting tools. Some of the items from larger kits (such as slings, folding splints etc) can be improvised so unless you’re intentionally heading off into the wilderness for an extended period your first aid kit need only consist of stuff that might actually be needed. My personal kit has plasters, blister plasters, steri- strips, antiseptic wipes, painkillers, zinc oxide tape, latex gloves, tweezers, sterile wound dressings, antiseptic cream, a crepe bandage and a small tin of vaseline (good for cracked lips, rubbing toes and chafing). Because I often use sharp cutting tools whilst a bit further away from medical assistance, I also carry a large military wound dressing and a small packet of haemostatic clotting agent. There's normally room for this mini kit inside my 'bits and bobs' bag.
Bottom layer:    non essential emergency gear and spare clothing:
1.    Before deciding what emergency gear to pack in the event of becoming stranded outside all night, I can thoroughly recommend attempting exactly that as part of a safe, supported and controlled experiment. I have on several occasions and the bitter experience gained means that the kit I carry now has just the right balance between real performance and small pack size. Rather than increasing my slim chances of survival by just a tiny amount, the comparatively small increase in weight and volume will ensure that I see the next morning with relative ease. A huge leap forward in survival kit technology is the emergency ‘reflexcell’ gear made by Blizzard. Blankets, bags and even jackets are all available. These are made from layers of reflective foil with compartments sandwiched between the innermost and outer layers designed to trap your warm air. I carry the Blizzard sleeping bag which comes vacuum packed to the size of a video cassette but has the warmth rating of a medium weight sleeping bag! Peace of mind if trapped outside in cold conditions overnight.
2.    Super warm top:    Again, you should be looking for maximum performance with minimum weight and bulk here. Down or high performance synthetic fill jackets fit the bill perfectly squishing down to almost nothing but keeping you extremely warm when worn. Your super warm top should be kept in it’s own waterproof brightly coloured and labelled bag so it can be easily found down there in the depths of your rucksack, only seeing the light of day in an emergency, during an extended stop or at much colder times of the day. If stuck out all night it’ll really turn the tables in your favour when worn inside a blizzard bag. Such an extreme garment should have a hood for maximum warmth and if it’s sole purpose is as a last resort layer then buy a size bigger than usual to allow for extra layers underneath.
3,4 & 5.    Lastly, right at the very bottom of your rucksack is a mysterious waterproof bag containing a full change of clothing, only to be opened in a dire emergency. A full change of clothing sounds like a bulky and heavy over indulgence for a day bag and not everyone goes to such lengths. In fact this part of my kit is only included if the weather is absolutely horrendous, if I’m heading well off the beaten track or if I’m planning on staying out for a couple of days. However, when you’re out all day at the mercy of the elements, even expensive waterproof clothing has been known to give up the ghost and let moisture in. You may even slip into a cold river and get a soaking! Despite sounding like a bulky package, a full change of clothes can be trimmed down to the bare essentials. A full set of wool thermals, spare warm socks, gloves, a balaclava, and a windproof suit made from para-silk or pertex squashes down to a surprisingly small package and will provide a warm, dry and protective layer next to the skin. With your super warm jacket on top you’ll be back in the game in no time.
For walking on steep, snow covered ground you’ll also need various specialist equipment such as crampons, an ice axe, snow shovel and avalanche probe but really, anyone needing to carry this kit should book themselves onto a winter mountaineering skills course first as the knowledge gained here WILL save your life. Check out Rob's site for just such a course. Rob’s an absolute diamond of a bloke – you’ll be in safe hands!
Hopefully the above advice will be of use to you. Enjoy the season!


Saturday 2 November 2013

Building A Long Term Shelter part 2:

The Building...

Welcome back! The story so far…
A decision to build an equipment storage shed at our woodland site in Wiltshire very quickly morphed into a quest to build a long term shelter using minimal tools (mainly what we might carry as part of our standard kit) and maximum knowledge of the building resources growing naturally in the woods. A proper hinged, plank door, a la quaint hobbit cottage became the first construction challenge but proved to be a superb exercise in what can be achieved with only natural materials and a fair slice of ‘know how’.
Shelter building, be it small survival bivouac or palatial log cabin, always requires a sound plan before the work starts and that’s exactly where we were at on a chilly, wintery morning among the bare, hazel coppice and towering, skeletal oak trees. Resisting the urge to be too ambitious by embarking on a full Celtic roundhouse or Anglo Saxon long house we settled on a small, rectangular floor plan with the doorway at one end, just big enough for one hypothetical person to live in comfortably through the winter months. This would mean allowing enough room to fit a raised bed, make a fire place and still have enough room inside to work, cook and store kit in bad weather. The roof would be a simple double pitched affair continuing around the back of the house in an arc at roughly the same pitch (around 50 degrees). The initial planning brain storm also bought to light several problems that typically reduce the effectiveness and life expectancy of survival shelters. We were determined to provide our own answers to these problems but ultimately, only time will tell if our efforts have worked.
Firstly, we wanted the house to be able to ‘breathe’. Our plan was to make a fully enclosed shelter that would be capable of keeping out the worst weather but in doing so, we were all too aware that such an enclosed design could also keep moisture in, especially as the house wouldn’t really be inhabited and therefore wouldn’t have a constant heat source chugging away. With a cold, damp atmosphere inside, our shelter structure would rot and collapse very quickly. Even with our hypothetical inhabitant keeping the home fires burning day and night creating a dry atmosphere in side, the point where the thatched roof met the ground would always be damp and if the strength and integrity of our structure depended entirely on the rafters (as many survival shelters do) then it stood to reason that it’s life span could only ever last as long as it takes a constantly sopping hazel rafter, half buried in earth and leaves to rot through. Probably not very long!
The shelter footprint - level ground with building materials on hand, no dangerous trees overhead but some natural shelter from the surrounding hazel coppice
The solution came in several parts. We would first build a strong, internal low wall of hazel rods woven around several oak posts on which many of the rafters would rest (therefore, never being in contact with the damp ground).  This woven, rectangular frame would provide a sturdy base to start building from, but it would have to be pretty solid! The secret to the wall’s strength lay in a handful of quartered ‘bone oak’ posts, split from a large log using a small axe and the maul and hazel wedges made on site. Bone oak, having gone through a chemical change as it seasons, is absolutely rock hard and virtually rot proof when compared to the other timber in our woods. These long posts would be carved to a point and hammered several feet into the earth to form the corner posts and a couple of intermediate posts to weave between. This seemed like a fantastic idea but by the end of a very long day of splitting, hammering, shouting and swearing, we wished we hadn’t thought of it. After the bone oak splitting saga we decided that any other posts needing to be sunk into the ground, should be made from readily available and easily workable hazel. The below ground parts would be charred in the fire first to help preserve them.
Splitting bony oak to make the main posts
Cutting simple joints for the wall plate

Charring the ends of any hazel posts due to be driven into the ground
An almost endless amount of flexible hazel rods were then cut and woven in and out of the upright posts to make a surprisingly strong hurdle wall starting on one side of the door frame and eventually coming all the way round to meet the opposing door post. None of these hazel rods were split, instead kept in the round for speed and ease. A strong, upright ‘king post’ held up the main, central ridge pole towards the back of the shelter wall, reinforced by two further posts sloping away and through the woven, wattle walls. At the front of our house, two strong posts formed a backwards sloping ‘A’ frame, interlocking securely around the ridge pole where they met at the top.

Weaving walls from hazel rods

The main rafters in place, bound with hazel witheys

The door frame is fitted to the structure and birch plank door is hung and swinging

A ‘wall plate’ (wooden platform on which the roof rafters sit) was fitted to the top of our woven walls by way of some simple but nifty joints to minimize any movement and wherever two timbers lay against or crossed over one another, they were lashed securely in place with hazel withies. Our rafters were selected so as to have a ‘Y’ fork that, when turned upside down could hook over the wall plate and hold the rafter in position. For added stability, every few feet a rafter extended down and into the ground (charred first of course).  Where the rafters crossed over the ridge pole at the apex, a twin band of flexible hazel rods wove in and out between them to hold them securely in position. The little woodland house was beginning to take shape!
Rafters fitted, held in place with their own natural 'birds mouth' forked ends and a twin band of hazel along the ridge

Hazel wattle continues up and over the door frame, tying everything in nice and tight

Our building plan had highlighted the need for the shelter to be kept fairly small and therefore easy to heat with a small open fire inside. Previous research had shown that similar ancient dwellings were often built without chimneys, instead allowing the central fire to form a ‘smoke ceiling’ above head height which would slowly permeate through the roof thatch. This helped preserve the roof timbers and kill off any resident bugs overhead. However, these structures were built to house an entire family and therefore, much larger with higher roofs. Our humble woodland bedsit would be more like a lung bursting smokehouse if we followed the same principle so we came up with the idea of a ‘dormer window’ style opening near the top of the roof on the opposing side to the prevailing wind. With our shelter design being so completely enclosed, this opening would also let in some light. The combined window and chimney idea became affectionately known as the ‘wimney’.

The wimney frame work woven and bound in place
Wimney opening with thatch border and roof nearly ready for thatch
Now, the super observant readers amongst you will notice a slight continuity error with the seasonal backgrounds to the following accompanying images. As with most exciting projects, life and work seemed to get in the way and it wasn’t until the summer that we were able to finish the next part of the build. The increasingly warm weather could have created a false sense of security but looking further ahead to winter we decided to address our predicted damp problem by ensuring the roof thatch stopped short of the ground leaving a gap for ventilation under the eaves. In theory, this should allow the whole building to breathe and dry out once the rain stopped. When we initially hatched our building plans we all imagined a beautifully thatched roof straight off the pages of an Asterix the Gaul cartoon however, very quickly we realised that total coverage of our roof would require an awful lot of prime quality thatching materials to achieve the quaint cottage look. Bracken is plentiful in our woods and the long stems looked like they might provide a good alternative to thatching reed but for such a shallow roof pitch we would need a thatch depth of at least a foot, possibly more. Using only bracken stems that would be a mammoth task. Laziness and guilt (where would all the ticks live if we cleared the woods completely of bracken…probably on me) kicked in and we concluded that the only realistic thatching option would be to scoop up every leaf, twig, clump of moss and slab of bark in the near vicinity and dump it on the roof.
Brash wood matrix applied ready for the thatch and giant thatch retaining sausage fixed in position

Back view of the shelter with thatch retainer shown leaving a suitable gap under the eaves

Usually, when using forest floor debris to thatch a shelter the huge volume of materials is gradually piled against the shelter from ground level upwards. In order to achieve our ventilation gap between roof and ground we would need to prevent the leaf mulch and jumbled medley of materials from just slipping right off the ends of the rafters and so the ‘giant thatch retaining sausage’ was born. A big, long bundle of twiggy brash wood, lashed to the end of each rafter about a foot up from the ground, forming a continuous buffer line running around the lowest point of the shelter roof and sweeping up and over the porch (yes, we built a porch too!). The thatching materials would sit against this buffer creating the desired depth of a foot but still leaving our all-important ventilation gap.  Where required, horizontal hazel poles lay against the rafters to provide a sound base, followed by a good layer of spiky brash wood to close up any gaps and give a good ‘sticky’ surface (excuse the pun, but it is rather good…) for the leaf mulch layer to adhere to.  

Leaf thatch being applied


Wimney opening still visible in the thick layer of thatch

Shelter roof with a good covering of leaf thatch for the summer

The giant thatch retaining sausage (GTRS for short) did a great job of keeping the first insulating layer of leaves exactly where we wanted them and before long our little hut in the woods began to blend in beautifully with it’s surroundings. Just down the track we were fortunate to have a huge swathe of tall, mature bracken. We made the most of this seasonal resource by taking just enough to give a good coverage to our roof, leaving the rest for the ticks. When harvesting bracken it’s important to cut the stems rather than pull at them. For starters, the roots aren’t usually that deep and if the plant is removed roots and all, there’ll be no bracken for the following year. Also, the stems have a sharp ridge that will give you the mother of all paper cuts as you tug them up. Instead, gather together a good bunch and using a long bladed knife, carefully slice through the stems with a sloping angle at ground level. The resulting long, pointed stems we found to be ideal for poking through the leaf mulch and the brash wood thatch layers before folding the bushier fronds over to lay against the roof. By starting at the bottom of the roof and working upwards towards the ridge, each course of fronds overlaid the previous for maximum rain shedding, with the added bonus of ‘pinning’ the mulch and brash layers together like a thatching spar.

Late summer and the bracken layer is added increasing the volume of the roof thatch

A small fire is lit inside to dry the shelter out and drive away any insects (and to get the kettle on...obviously)

I always judge the strength of a shelter by whether it’ll take the weight of a fully grown man standing on the roof. To position the top few courses of bracken thatch this is exactly what it had to support and I’m very relieved to say that despite me owning shares in both Ginster’s and Cadbury’s, the roof survived intact. As summer gave way to autumn a familiar resource became available once again. A top layer of newly fallen leaves was added to the now wilting bracken fronds giving the shelter more weather protection and also some seasonal camouflage. In preparation for winter I decided to add some ‘daub’ to the woven hazel walls, something I had seen demonstrated before in re-constructed Anglo Saxon villages. Firstly, I turned over a patch of earth outside the shelter, then added water and old bracken stems to bind the mix. One ingredient was missing but without a horse and no other method of producing dung (not one I fancied using anyway) mud and bracken would have to do. Having mixed a fair few buckets of lime mortar and plaster while renovating my old cottage, I knew consistency would be all important if the earthy sludge was to stick to the wall. Using the bushcrafters most important tool (my hands) I squelched and smoothed the daub between the hazel wattle until the whole fa├žade was covered and any gaps were filled. Despite being a pretty messy job I found this to be possibly the most gratifying part of the whole build, similar in some ways to applying and then buffing a final coat of wax polish on an item of hand built furniture. The concept of taking such a readily available resource and using it so effectively to weatherproof a shelter wall really appeals to me and I’m sure it won’t be the last time I experiment with it as a building material.
Applying a caulk of mud and bracken stems to the hazel wattle walls

Finished front wall and the shelter really begins to look like a weatherproof dwelling

Inside view, looking out. The hinging post and socket can be clearly seen as well as the benefit of having a good porch!

As mentioned earlier in the article, only time will tell whether our efforts have created a weatherproof and long lasting shelter. Throughout the build and especially now it’s finished, I’m drawn back to the woodland house whenever I pass by to see how it’s holding up. During it's first winter the house had to endure high winds and a long period of wet weather followed by heavy snow. I expected to have to carry out some hasty repairs but amazingly every part remained intact and secure. The multi layered thatch performed admirably at keeping out the heavy rain and inside was still dry and cosy. Not bad for an un-inhabited hut made of sticks!
After three winters without being lived in, just the same as pretty much any un-inhabited house it needs repairs. The central ridge bent and eventually broke under the load of thatch and snow. If the house had had permanent residents this problem would've been identified early and rectified. The mud daub cracked as it dried (which is apparently expected and perfectly normal) but weirdly I relished the opportunity to mix up another muddy concoction and get to work plastering over the cracks. Of course, the door is still going strong...
Wooden door latch in action. A buckskin loop is pulled from the inside to lift the latch clear of the retaining hook
So..what would I have done differently with hindsight? For starters I would have beefed up those supports. Although the house was only small, a damp, thatched roof plus snow weighs a hell of a lot - even more than me!  I may have looked at different roofing materials. Sheets of birch bark covered with turfs might have done the job or with the tools we had, enough time and patience we could have covered the whole thing in split, wood shingle tiles. I would have experimented with digging down a couple of feet to give more head room without such a large structure above ground. Our soil drains extremely well as we're up on a high wooded ridge on flint and chalk so with a good overhanging roof,  guttering trenches and a fire inside I don't think damp would've been an issue. With the small size of the structure we could only ever have a small fire for heating for fear of setting the roof alight. After coming up with the 'wimney' design I have since discovered that old thatched dwellings also allowed the smoke to permeate through the thatching (rather than leave a smoke hole chimney) because it created a 'damping' effect - a smoke ceiling above head height which smothered any lively sparks heading up towards the dry, wood tar covered thatch. A smoke hole actually encourages better draw and carries those cheerful bright sparks right on up to the tinder dry thatch. Possibly not the best idea after all! My next attempt might involve the building of a stone and clay fire place and chimney stack...
A home in the woods. Perhaps a glimpse into our past?

Friday 1 November 2013

Building A Long Term Shelter part 1:

...The Door

“Not a single nail or screw in it mate” boasted the bloke at the reclamation yard. I looked the heavy oak door up and down. It consisted of several large planks, clearly oak by their grain pattern, all bearing the marks of hand hewn timber. The rippled surface, probably made that way by an incredibly sharp side axe or fairly flat adze was as dark brown as very old oak should be and polished smooth by a mixture of exposure to the elements and centuries of grubby hands pushing it open and pulling it shut. Here and there, where the oak planks were deemed already too thin to remove any more shavings by the craftsman, underlying saw marks could be seen. A motor driven circular saw would have left curved, arcing marks but these were parallel and irregular. “Pit sawn” said the reclamation yard owner and then proceeded to tell me all about where the phrase ‘being the underdog’ came from (I already knew this but listened politely).  Every single plank was fixed side by side to two horizontal bracing bars top and bottom. As the owner had quite rightly pointed out, not by nails or screws but instead by drilling a hole through both components and fitting a round peg, splayed at each end with a hard wood wedge, then cut flush to tidy it up. The two horizontal bracing bars, also hand hewn were securely dovetailed, pegged and wedged into a sturdy oak post on one side which protruded above and below the door. These protrusions were rounded at the ends and also polished smooth through wear. “This is the clever part” blurted the owner, sensing a deal was on the cards, “these rounded protrusions sit inside a carved socket, top and bottom on the inside of the door frame and that’s yer hinging mechanism. Clever eh? Must’ve had to keep ‘em greased though, with a door this heavy!”

I was fascinated, the whole door consisted of wooden components, hinges, fixings, everything… made entirely using hand tools. I tried my hardest to look nonchalant about the whole thing but there was no way I was leaving without that door! After parting with a small fortune I scurried home with my new workshop door vowing that I could make back the extortionate cost by working extra hard over the next few months. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this impressive example of rural craftsmanship from a bygone era was to become the inspiration behind many of my experimental bushcraft projects for it showed exactly what can be achieved with an open mind, a modest tool kit and a working knowledge of both raw materials and the age old techniques required to do something useful with them. This self-sufficient mind set combined with a desire to push boundaries, always striving for betterment is in many ways, the perfect summing up of my own interest in bushcraft and traditional skills.


Fast forward to winter 2009 and a discussion round the campfire about the need for an equipment storage shed of some sort at our woodland teaching site. It would have to blend easily into it’s surroundings, preferably using natural materials in it’s construction. In fact, why not make it using entirely natural materials? As the discussion develops it becomes clear that we are no longer designing a storage shed but a long term shelter, more than capable of keeping out the weather all year round. A sort of scaled down early Anglo Saxon house complete with walls, thatched roof and a door – what a perfect opportunity to showcase the instructor’s shelter building talents and test out a few theory’s on the longevity of a carefully constructed long term shelter? But, staying true to our minimalist ethos we should build it using only natural materials sourced on site and the hand tools carried as part of our standard bushcraft kit. The idea quickly barged it’s way to first place on the ‘to do’ list and before long,  brimming over with motivation I found myself back in the woods on a slightly frosty spring morning ready to start work.

Anyone with any knowledge and practical experience of constructing shelters in the woods knows that building the door first is a very back to front way of going about the task in hand. Adding a door to your shelter is a great way of improving it’s efficiency, keeping heat in and foul weather out. The fire draw is improved sending the smoke straight up and out through the smoke hole while shutting out the draught reduces firewood consumption dramatically. Having the ability to construct a door will make your shelter feel like a home, but…from a survival point of view, your first priority has to be getting a roof over your head and providing immediate protection from the elements. On this occasion however, due to the experimental nature of the build and the fact that there was no-one around to tell me otherwise, I decided to invest my time in making a sturdy door that would hinge open and closed and last for a fair few years.
This was an exciting prospect! Making a hinged shelter door that echoed the craftsmanship of my beloved and ancient workshop door, completely free of any metalwork or iron fixings is an itch I’d been wanting to scratch ever since I’d clapped eyes on it at the reclamation yard years before. With only a minimalistic set of tools, this would be a real challenge. In fact, the only concession to the tools I normally carried with me in my pack for long trips (small sheath knife, folding pocket saw, small crook knife, homemade folding bucksaw and a Swedish axe) was a traditional hand operated bit brace for drilling holes. The ability to drill holes in wood launches your woodland joinery forward several centuries, enabling the construction of proper pegged mortise and tenon joints, uniformal and speedy joints for chairs, benches and stools, in fact any number of ambitious carpentry antics. My previous attempts at improvised hole drilling in wood had included burning holes either with carefully managed hot coals or by rotating a hard wooden spindle until a charred hole was formed. Clamping a triangular section of flint and even a metal drill bit in the spindle of a bow drill set had also worked well enough but all these methods were time consuming and exhausting. I concluded that if I ever embarked on an expedition where some fancy furniture for camp would be required I would quite happily pack a bit brace in my pack and suffer the 3lb weight penalty. Otherwise, I’d just lash stuff together.  So, with the addition of the bit brace well and truly justified (in my head anyway) I set to work.
A silver birch tree had recently fallen across the track resulting in a long section needing to be sawn free to re-open access to camp. The trunk was pretty thick and the wood quite straight grained by the looks of it so I decided to split it into as many planks as possible forming the bulk of the door, but first I would have to use my carried steel tools to create more task specific tools from local materials. A thick length of hazel was hastily hacked into a set of splitting wedges whilst a seasoned ash limb became my maul, one end whittled into a hand sized handle. By starting off the central split with my axe and maul then extending it along the grain with the hazel wedges, the birch cleaved in half cleanly and evenly, followed suit (amazingly) by each of those two halves splitting perfectly again with very little tapering off. Four good planks from one log, bonus!
Next I needed a hinging post which would ideally have two bracing bars sprouting out of it to fix the planks to. After the extremely jammy plank splitting episode I expected to find the perfect piece straight away but it wasn’t to be. An extended trek through the coppice eventually revealed a fallen, horizontal hazel which had a well developed sun shoot growing out of it at almost 90 degrees, giving me one integral conjoined bracing bar. The second, lower bracing bar could be dovetailed in place. The birch planks were flatted and smoothed with a few careful slicing cuts from the axe and laid side by side ready to be joined together. With the second bracing bar housed into the hinging post by way of a dovetailed half lap joint, I was ready to drill the first peg hole. Both parts of the dovetail joint were green wood and so very easy to drill. I whittled the round, tight fitting peg from seasoned ash, the theory being that as the green wood dries and shrinks around the already seasoned peg, the drilled hole will naturally distort into an oval shape, squeezing the wedged peg even tighter.
Before hammering the peg through both halves of the joint, I carved a leading edge on the face and made a saw cut in each end to accept the wedge (saw cuts were made at 90 degrees to each other to avoid the peg splitting in two). Depth of cut was important as the saw cut had to extend down into the joint to allow the wedge to splay and holdfast. The wedges needed to be even harder than the ash so, imagining my poor knife blade wincing at the thought I opted for some nearby, ultra hard ‘bone oak’ and whittled up a couple. Finally, the first peg was hammered home then fixed firmly in place with a bone oak wedge in each end. Solid as a rock! Spurred on by the success of what looked to me like an extremely neat, effective bit of back woods carpentry, lunch was hurriedly scoffed on the hoof as each plank was then fixed to the two bracing bars in exactly the same way. With every peg wedged firmly in place the door could be stood up and propped on a corner with absolutely no movement in the joints at all.
The hinging post had been left to protrude a good hands width from the top and bottom of the planks. Both protrusions (we’ll call these hinge nubbins) were then rounded off and whittled as smooth as possible to reduce friction as the door swivelled open and shut in it’s frame. I wasn’t sure how the frame would be built into the shelter at this point so I selected two sturdy, seasoned hazel logs to form the all-important top and bottom pieces (lintel and sill) which would clamp the door in place. These were left overly long to be built into the shelter framework at a later date. A bit of nifty crook knife work later and both sill and lintel had a smooth, hollow socket ready to accept the rounded protrusions on the hinging post. With frame pieces temporarily held in place clamping down over the hinge nubbins, the door creaked open and shut with a noise befitting of your average haunted mansion! Suspecting some binding in the bottom socket I hunted around in some nearby flint knapping debris and found a nice little disc which fitted the base of the socket nicely. Now, with nubbins held in corresponding sockets and the full weight of the door sitting on a smooth flinty surface, it swung back and forth beautifully.
By way of an encore and now fighting against the setting sun, I whittled like fury to knock out a pleasantly curved door handle and thumb type latch before nightfall. Using my head-torch as a makeshift stage light I proudly leaned the solid plank door against a tree to observe my work, a fitting homage to the unknown craftsman who had toiled away on my workshop door centuries before. I think he would’ve been chuffed to know that his work had inspired me several lifetimes later. Having to stop work and sleep now seemed unfair. I almost couldn’t wait to get started on the rest of the shelter so that my new door could have a purpose in life. Images of how the finished shelter might look filled my head - walls of woven hazel, strong sloping rafters stained black with wood-smoke supporting a thick thatch of leaves and bracken, room to stretch out, sleep, cook and work. A home for all weathers made from nature, using only the tools in my back pack and the knowledge in my head. The true essence of bushcraft!
The finished and hung door. Note the hinging design - protruding nubbins clamped between two carved sockets on the fixed frame. While you're looking at it check out the integral top brace, the natural sun shoot from the fallen hazel which became the hinging post. Took me ages to find that...
Tune in for part two tomorrow to see the finished shelter and a step by step account of the build.