How to begin a sustainable wood supply for furniture making (Chapter 1)

A bit like a wine-lover and his cellar, I have been longing to lay down my own stock of timber; and this year I have taken my first tentative steps. At home in Scotland, we have been tidying up our forestry; thinning out a jungle of unmanaged woodlands; felling the oldest and most distorted trees to encourage natural regeneration. On the face of it, this was an ideal opportunity to build a collection of locally-sourced timber for distinctive bespoke furniture; but it proved to be far more difficult than I had anticipated. Of the sixty-or-so oak trees that were cut down, only four were straight enough for milling!

Although the oak plays a legendary part in British folklore, our traditional forests were felled centuries ago to provide timber for the English navy. As a result, the majority of our oak trees are now found either in open-space or in hedgerows, where they spread out with low branches and crooked trunks. In France, on the other hand, which produces much of the world’s supply of oak, the trees are grown in sustainable managed forests that are rotated on a 200-year cycle. 

Not only is French oak cheaper to buy, but the trees are taller and straighter, and therefore easier to machine. So that is why we found so few trees at home that were suitable for cabinet-making; but the trees that we did find were of incredible quality. All four of our trunks were covered with ‘epicormics’ and the planks were full of ‘pips’.

Because our oak trees are grown in open-space, rather than in forests, they are prone to develop numerous small side branches. It is these epicormic growths that produce the distinctive ‘cat’s paw’ or ‘pippy oak’.

Having selected the trunks for milling I contacted Pol Bergius of Black Dog Timber who runs a one-man mobile ‘woodmizer’. Luckily, Pol lives nearby and was happy to make the three-mile journey to process our planks. Now operating a one-man timber mill is far from easy: not only are the logs huge but they are very, very heavy and can only be manoeuvred with a fork-lift truck. Unfortunately, Pol managed to bog his fork-lift and had to be winched to safety before we could begin! Once we were up and running again, the first task was to select the dimensions that were best suited for cabinet-making. How thick should each plank be: 2 inches thick for a fantastic solid oak dining room table or 3/4″ inch thick for library panelling or drawer stock? With my personal requirements and Pol’s expertise we decided upon a range of sizes that optimised the configuration of each trunk. Then the hard graft began…

If you have ever manhandled 180 planks of green oak you will know what a tedious, back-breaking job it is. Every section has to be scraped clean of sawdust and lubricant, and each layer has to be carefully separated with ‘stickers’ (1 inch square wooden battens) to allow a free flow of air. But because we had nowhere on site to store the timber, the whole consignment had to be transported to another area for stacking … what a nightmare.

Constructing a wood stack is hardly rocket science, but if the timber is to be usable in the workshop it has to be laid down with great care. Each layer must be perfectly level. Because we had never done it before, we decided to obtain some expert advice in the person of Radenko Velinov. It was Radenko who prepared the massive 6 inch bearers that would support the stacks. In the end we built four stacks, each containing around 45 lengths; each layer painstakingly separated with ‘stickers’ at 18 inch spaces.

Finally, to protect the wood from the worst of the weather, we wound a coat of breathable green membrane around each stack and nailed a roof of corrugated iron on to the top … it all looked very neat and tidy.

So there they stand … a beautiful stash of Scottish ‘pippy oak’. In two years time, they should be dry enough to transport to the workshop. I cannot wait!

Next month we will be taking this subject further, delving into the practicalities, limitations and numbers, with the aim to encourage cabinet makers UK wide to start their own wood supplies to support our native woodlands and our planet.