Our three kids (8.10 and 12), Gavin and I spent a fantastically rewarding morning with Ali on a traditional green woodworking course, learning new skills and creating some unique wooden artifact.
We had planned to make a coat hanger, each member of the family turning their own individual hook. Thinking we’d conclude the morning with a beautiful, functional item as a permanent memento.
However, as our creative juices started flowing, our turned pieces took on a life of their own and we all deviated from the original plan, each refining our own special products.
We arrived at Ali’s workshop at Clifford Barton early on an autumnal Sunday morning. Views out of the workshop revealed the mist-strewn Teign Valley. A varied array of lovingly honed tools were lined up on the workbench, razor-sharp and ready for use. As were some strange wooden contraptions overhung by high branches and rope, which, it transpired, are traditional pole lathes. Alongside are a further 5 intriguing ‘saw-horses’ – essentially sit-on rapid hold/release clamps – and various other paraphernalia.
Ali talked us through selection of the tree – ash, felled on-site – and the optimal length of trunk to work with. After a quick biology lesson on how trees grow and the consequent varied properties of their cross-sectional elements, the first task was to split the wood into quartered lengths, using a splitting axe and bodger. The kids were involved from the start. Ali supervised as, to their delight, with a few delicate taps the wood started to split. The crackle of the white fibres cleaving, the waft of watermelon give
n off by fresh ash, then the perfect cleave into 2, followed swiftly to 4.
The next job was to take our quartered length and feather it using a carving axe to work it from triangular cross-section into a rough circle. I found this quite tricky, but looked across to my eight year old who seemed to have totally got the hang of it and was 100% absorbed in what she was doing. Again, safety was at the fore and Ali carefully supervised our work, as our techniques rapidly developed.
We then claimed and straddled our saw horses. Sitting astride, using your feet to deploy a treadle which clamps your piece of wood, you pull a drawknife – a razor-sharp blade held horizontally between two wooden handles – to carefully but extremely satisfyingly work the wood, shaving off any bark and smoothing the wood into an ever- more circular shape.
A break for a cup of tea and slice of cake, Ali’s enthusiasm and clear love of his craft is hugely infectious. But only a short break because the kids were desperate to start pole-lathing. This was the totally addictive part. Once you start you just want to keep going. So much for my coat rack! We ended up with a sculpture, a rounders bat, a couple of light-pulls and a rolling pin.
We’ll definitely be back for the coat rack, but the kids were so excited and into what they were doing that I didn’t have the heart to deny their creativity. I was still rough-chiseling my cylinder when the kids were perfecting theirs with the different chisel types, and burning on black decorative flourishes.
We all gave the course 10/10 and had a fantastic morning. Ali is knowledgeable, patient, encouraging and great fun. He kept the kids interested throughout our 3-hour session and we were busy all the time with Ali on hand for whenever we needed help. We would all thoroughly recommend it to anyone with a creative streak and an interest in traditional craft, wishing to learn new skills and knowledge AND go home with a unique piece of crafted handy-work.
A half day course with Ali cost £35 per adult £25 per child (min of 1 adult and 1 child). A half day private family session would be £ 120. Ali also runs 2 and 3 day chair and table making courses, sessions can be tailor made to suit.
And don’t forget if you’re staying in one of Clifford Barton’s cottages you get a 20% discount off all Ali’s courses.