Saturday, 6 June 2015

Spoon carving workshop - Part 1

When we were at the Lost Trades Fair, we signed up to do a spoon carving workshop at Rundell & Rundell.  A few weekends ago we headed back to Kyneton to learn how to carve spoons from experienced spoon carver, Pete Trott.

There are lots of ways to make spoons from green wood.  Some methods use power tools and other machinery to get the spoon to the point where it's ready to hand carve.  The method Pete taught us used 3 tools only: an axe to shape the spoon blank from a piece of wood and 2 simple Swedish hand carving knives. That was it - we're not even talking using sandpaper here.  So what do Pete's spoons look like? Well as you can see below, they are beautiful as well as functional. Unfortunately my photo doesn't do justice to showing how smooth their finish was or how lovely they felt in the hand.

Okay, the first thing we did was select a piece of blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon) for our spoon.  The wood was cut that morning. Here's what we had to select from:

As you can see, there was a long way to go to turn that lump of wood into a spoon!  

For a workbench we each had stump with a divot cut out of the centre where we could place the wood to stop it slipping while we were using the axe.

Once we'd selected a piece of wood we drew our spoon shape on it.  Looking at the grain and the shape of the wood helped determine where best to draw the spoon. The thicker end became the bowl as that enabled a deeper spoon.

After a safety demonstration it was time to start axing that wood.  I'll admit first up that I have no axe skills.  It's Mr PragSust who chops all our wood at home.  So it took me a while to get the hang of it.  Pete drew a picture showing us the chopping directions we'd need to use. 

We held end of the wood in one hand and used the axe with the other, making sure the hand holding the wood was well away from the axe.  I eventually chopped out a rough spoon shape, known as a spoon blank.

Here's a shot of the axe I used:

And here's Pete, providing instruction on the shaping of our spoons and encouraging us:

Once we had the rough blank it was time to start shaping it. The lines across the spoon indicate where a wedge was to be made using the axe.

And here's my wedge:

Now it was time to start shaping the underneath of the spoon. First was to cut away the portion underneath the tip - that's the part underneath the black line in the above photo.

Here is the work in progress. The circle was drawn on the base of the spoon to indicate the area to leave as is.  We're still using an axe for all the shaping at this point.

There was more shaping to do, as indicated by the lines drawn along the handle and the lines for cutting another wedge.

Once I'd cut away that excess wood, it would be time to start using the hand carving knives.

I didn't progress as far as I'd hoped on the day, but it was not surprising given my lack of axe handling experience.  The axe cutting has to be done in a controlled and careful manner - cut too far and you have to start again from scratch with another piece of wood.  

Pete showed us how to use the 2 Swedish hand carving knives and I had a bit of a go at carving out the bowl of my spoon before we had to pack up for the day. There were hand carving knives for sale and I bought a pair so I could finish off my spoon at home.  They are super sharp and it would be very easy to take a big slice out of a finger .... so I will be sure to be very, very careful.  Pete suggested that we use plenty of elastoplast on fingers and thumbs to protect them when we are carving. I'm think that as a precaution perhaps kevlar gloves might also be in order.

For those of us who didn't finish our spoons, Pete advised us to wrap them in gladwrap and store them in the freezer until we were ready to do some carving. Spoon carving is best done with green wood. Once Blackwood dries out it is very hard and trying to hand carve it would be a nightmare.

I'd say I have quite a few more hours to go to finish my spoon.  I'll post an update on my progress. Of course the more spoons you make the quicker you get at it. Pete, for instance, whipped up a spoon blank and had it shaped and ready to carve in next to no time.  We have a good supply of bits of wood that would be suitable for spoon carving so it's something I'd like to get better at :)

Friday, 5 June 2015

Winter evenings.....

Winter has arrived in our neck of the woods, and for me, that means it's time to dig out the needles and enjoy evenings sitting by the fire doing some knitting.

Here's what's come off the needles lately ....

You can read more about why I like knitting socks here.

Saturday, 30 May 2015

Preserving Olives in brine

This year our olive trees produced a bumper crop. After watching the olives ripen on the tree for some time and thinking "gee, I should pick those", I finally got around to picking them yesterday. After filling 2 buckets I reckoned I had enough.....

We've tried a few ways of preserving olives and this time I thought I'd just use the brine method. I followed the recipe described in the book Preserving the Italian Way by Pietro Demaio, with a few minor changes.

Pietro has some basic rules about pickling olives which I'll mention here:
- Always use fresh unbruised fruit
- Make sure your utensils are clean and are either glass, stainless steel or unchipped enamelware bowls. Copper, brass and aluminum react with the olives and spoil the flavour.
- Fill the jars so the brine is above the olives. If any of the olives are above the brine, they will turn brown, soft and taste mouldy
- Wipe the rim of the jars well to ensure a good seal.

Okay, time to get started. First up, give the olives a good wash.

Then use a sharp knife to slit each olive.  This wasn't mentioned in the recipe but from my online research (yay internet!) it enables the brining process to work much more quickly to extract the bitterness.  

I wasn't sure how much brine solution I'd need for the amount of olives I had so I packed the slitted olives into clean jars to get an idea. The olives should be tightly packed to minimise floating once the brine is added.

I ended up with quite a few jars...

For making the brine, I used the traditional method consisting of salt, water and a raw egg (still in its shell). Warming 5 litres of water in a large pot on the stove, I gently added my egg and then some salt (non-iodised), stirring gently to dissolve the salt.  To get the brine solution to the right concentration, you continue to add salt, stirring to dissolve, until the egg floats.  It's important to use a fresh egg.  This is because the older the egg, the more air is inside it and consequently the less salt is required to get it to float.

Brine at correct concentration

Once the egg is floating, remove it and bring the salty water to the boil.  Once boiled turn off the heat and let it sit for 5 mins.

Then pour the still hot brine into the jars, covering the olives and seal. I filled the brine to the very top of the jars to minimise olives floating.  I had underestimated the amount of brine I needed so had to make up another couple of litres.

The jars, once cool need to be stored in the dark so I put my jars in a cardboard box somewhere cool.

The recipe mentioned adding garlic, lemon, chilli and a fennel flower to each jar (I didn't) and stated that the olives can be eaten after 6 months. However as I slit my olives, they should be ready in less time than that.  

Other recipes I came across suggested that the jars should be agitated a few times a week. The brining time will depend on the ripeness of the olives and how salty you like them you need to taste them every few weeks to determine when they are ready.

Once the olives are ready I'll need to pour off the brine which will now be very bitter. Then they can be eaten straight away or stored. There are a few storage options to choose from - in a new brine solution, in olive oil or in vinegar.

Fingers crossed for success!

Sunday, 17 May 2015

In the garden .....

We were doing a spot of work in the garden today when a few visitors dropped in....

A large flock of little corellas descended on the trees in our street. These are just one of the parrot species that visit our yard. 

Like many native bird species, they are happy to make use of what exotic plants offer them, in this case Liquid ambar. This is the street tree species mentioned in our earlier post on very low firewood miles.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

The Lost Trades Fair

Held in Kyneton Victoria, the Lost Trades Fair promotes manual and traditional trades and crafts that are considered rare and unusual in our modern age. The shift to mass production using inexpensive fossil fuel energy and cheaper, generally less skilled labour has meant that many of these traditional skills are in danger of being lost or forgotten. The fair connects skilled craftspeople with the public, not only by providing an opportunity to purchase their beautiful wares, but also by enabling us to find out more about these trades, and in some cases even to learn them.

Attending the fair was a great opportunity to see skilled makers in action and to be able to talk with them about their craft.  Given that 15000 people attended the 2 day fair, I think it's fair to say that the trades and skills of the artisans were of great interest to the public.   Why?  I guess there are plenty of reasons. Apart from a general curiosity about these trades, perhaps it's a backlash against mass produced, cheap 'stuff' produced by people who may work long hours for the privilege of being underpaid for their efforts? (I hope so). Is it because there is something special about seeing someone craft an item of beauty and function from raw materials? Or an appreciation of the skill of the artisan and what it has taken them to reach their level of skill?  Or the fact that most of us don't actually make much with our hands anymore?  I'm sure the answer is yes to all of the above. 

First up we visited the stalls of the spoon carvers.  Mr PragSust, interested in all things wood, was keen to know what sort of wood they favoured. We were able to chat to  the carvers while watching them at work. 

We love the idea of being able to find high value uses for smallish pieces of timber so we both signed up for a spoon making course. Can't wait!  I would love to be able to make my own wooden spoons.  I reckon that having lovely, hand crafted items for everyday use adds an extra layer of pleasure to life.

The Rundell and Rundell stall was a beauty, showcasing Glen Rundell's beautiful handmade Windsor chairs, stools and Shaker boxes. The attention to detail in every item he makes is just amazing and the chairs are beyond comfortable. I've sat in one and was amazed. Glen runs classes from his workshop - you can check them out on his website.

George Smithwick's coopering stall was also a big hit. George is a 6th generation Cooper so he knows a thing or two about the craft. According to Wikipedia, coopering is the craft of making wooden, staved vessels, bound together with hoops and possessing flat ends or heads. These vessels include wine barrels, wooden buckets, butter churns and casks.  Mr PragSust had done a day-long wooden bucket making course with George and testifies to his skill and patience as a teacher. I was pretty darn impressed with his bucket - not only did it look great, it really did hold water.

The scything blokes from the Southern Scythe Squad (an entertaining and informative WWW site; sustainability needs more WWW sites that get information across without proselytising or preaching) had been hard at work demonstrating the wonder of the scythe. The grass area around their stall was almost at lawn bowls level - testament to the efficiency of their instruments, and of course their skill.  We have our own scythe but were a little hazy on how to sharpen it. Not to worry, the guys gave us a sharpening demo and we were able to buy the tools to do it at home.

There were lots and lots of other stalls - blacksmiths, handmade wooden clocks, stonemasons, cob oven makers, wooden boat and musical instrument makers, bow makers ....and the list goes on.  

Oh yeah, the food at the fair was pretty good too.

So if you have an interest in the handmade, or in useful and beautiful things in general, then the Lost Trades Fair is definitely worth a visit. I'm sure the next one in 2016 will be a ripper.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Trees rock!

If tomorrow someone said they'd invented a self-reproducing tool for atmospheric carbon sequestration, improving water catchments, oxygen production, air filtering, low-carbon building materials, stock shelter, riparian zone protection, erosion management, food, bioenergy, firewood, biodiversity, habitat, paper manufacture, salinity control and recreation they'd be the Bill Gates of the 21st century. We don't have to wait for this invention as trees already exist!

At PragSust we think trees rock. We're developing an agroforestry or farm forestry site on a small block in Sth Gippsland with trees planted for multiple outcomes including many of the above. Ten years ago there wasn't a tree on the place except for some aging, exotic, remnant shelterbelts, a few paddock acacias and a few acacias on steeper slopes where the cows hadn't grazed as intensely. The previous owners planted some trees and we're planting a load more. We're particularly interested in durable timbers, fat logs for slabs and boards, high-value fine timber, roundwood construction using coppiced trees, bee fodder and craftwood for woodturners, garden use and rustic furniture. And we want to continue grazing cattle on the block.

Families owning woods for multiple outcomes is common in some of  the Scandinavian nations, parts of the US and Canada and increasingly in the UK. And farm forestry has become very popular in New Zealand. The length of time required to grow trees to a harvestable size is considerably less in Australia than in many parts of the northern hemisphere. It's quite realistic (in higher rainfall areas) with the correct site, species, outcome and management to start seeing some returns after ten years or so. Although a 20-40 year planning window does open things up a lot.

Some local landowners are also interested in these smaller-scale applications. So we thought we'd put together an initial checklist of some points to consider as part of planning trees on land. While written mainly for landholders this can also be useful in an urban setting. We've planted trees in our garden for bees and food but we do use prunings for other purposes.

Here's the list. Let us know what you think.

i/ What are the site characteristics? Soil, rainfall and temperature across the year, aspect, prevailing winds, slopes and contours.

ii/ What are your objectives? Construction timber? High value timber? Posts? Poles? Food? Onfarm use? Selling off-farm? Firewood? Bioenergy? Wattle structures? Rustic furniture? Bee fodder? Stock shelter and shade? Erosion management? Biodiversity? Habitat?

iii/ Do you want to have a go at practices like coppicing and hedge laying?

iv/ Timeframe. How soon do you want a return? Will you leave the property - and trees - for your children?

v/ How much area do you want to use for trees? Will you plant fence to fence, scattered in a paddock or in small coupes/woodlots?

vi/ Do you want to plant exotics, natives or a mix?

vii/ Do you want a monoculture plantation - some species occur naturally in largely single species stands - or to employ analogue forestry or another mixed species approach?

viii/ Budget. Will you grow some seedlings yourself? It's cheaper to raise trees from seed but it does require time and some skills. Specialist tree nurseries are good at growing trees and will save you time and effort.

ix/ Will you prune yourself? This will involve ladder work. Watching NZ videos of people pruning 12m high is sobering. Pruning for 6m clearwood logs is a common aim.

x/ How will you exclude stock and manage opportunistic browsers such as deer, wallabies and rabbits ?

xi/ Weed and fire fuel load management plan. Once stock are excluded grass and weeds will grow. Once the canopy closes in a densely planted coupe, grass and weeds will be suppressed but that will be some time down the track and may not occur for some weeds, such as blackberries, depending on the type of planting. Blackberries are a tough, successful plant that wants to grow in woodlands and forest edges. As well as rank grass and weeds, once the trees start dropping bark, dead branches, windthrow etc this is potentially a fire risk.

xii/ Will you harvest and thin yourself? This raises issues about safety and training in felling and chainsaw use. Forestry is about the most dangerous rural activity.

xiii/ Will you want to clear-fell - again well-suited to some species natural response to events like fire and cyclone - or use a technique like continuous cover forestry?

xiv/ How much time do you want to spend on forestry per annum?

xv/ What tools will you use? What do you own, what will you buy or hire and what will you get contractors to do? This will depend on whether you want to fell, buck and limb yourself or contract a harvester, use farm equipment to move logs or contractor trucks on farm tracks/roads (which will need to be a suitable standard for trucks to use), mill onsite or at a sawmill (which will require transport to the mill) and so on. Harvest is easier for  the farmer when done by external parties but there is less return to the grower. And for some sites it is prohibitively expensive to get contractor equipment to the coupe so the only option is smaller scale harvesting

Black cockatoos tucking into pine cones in a shelterbelt.

Cows in shelter on a warm summer day. These trees are under ten years old.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

In the garden .....

A few shots of the hard workers in the garden....

bee on perennial basil

bee visiting apricot flower

Getting stuck into a sage flower

Covered in pollen