James has been working with us since day one: he was the first maker we contacted when we were starting out and was great fun when he joined us at our New York pop-up last May. Given the history of this blossoming friendship, we decided it was high time to pay him (as well as his dog Poncho) a visit.
So, one damp Sunday last February, we hopped in the car with Domino (our dog) and made our way out to Wicklow to see James’s home - a beautiful building nestled at the edge of a large mixed woodland which James is slowly getting into order (he’s even planning to populate it with a few tree houses for visitors).
After a ramble through the woods with the dogs, we headed back to make some stool legs. Along the way we gathered hazelnuts and jumped the little stream that trickles through the most ancient part of the wood. Back at James's house we lit the stove, dropped the kettle on top, dug into a bowl of Penguins and started to talk about wood, musical instruments and the hierarchy of chairs…
When did you set up here?
I’ve been coming up here since I was born. My parents brought us up here every summer and lots of friends would come and stay. It was always chaos and endless fun. I started living here about ten... or maybe twelve years later. I came to be near the woods; somewhere nice to live.
I went to college in Wales where I did a 3D design course and a fella came in one day to do a demonstration of traditional oak framing. When I left college I went to work with him for a bit. Around that time I went to a talk about thatching, coppice working and stone masonry. It was from there that I heard about green woodworking and coppice craft.
Coppicing is when you work with small diameter timber from woodlands that are organised on a rotation. It’s about more than working the timber: it’s a forest management approach where you harvest the woods on ten to fifteen year rotations - very quick rotations.
Quick is a wonderful word to use there – ten to fifteen years would not be considered quick in any other industry.
True – and I guess I mean quick when compared with oak or other hard woods. It’s a system that allows the wood to grow super quick – almost like a bullet in comparison. So all the crafts that grew up around that management system and supply chain are called coppice crafts; say hurdle making and fence making - brooms, handles, stools. It’s very good from a sustainability point of view - you’re using the wood in the most logical way and with minimum intervention by tying production into the management of the woods.
"It’s about more than working the timber: it’s a forest management approach where you harvest the woods on ten to fifteen year rotations - very quick rotations."
So when did you start making and selling your work?
I’d been making furniture long before coppicing, this was just another way of working. I got a lathe when I was about fifteen, did some woodturning and struggled with that for years.
Is that bowl full of our Penguins yours?
It is actually! One of the first things I ever made. Just found it the other day and thought…wow – it’s great! And I love it because it’s so crap. Not really crap, but it is badly made.
Yeah, it was a tree that fell down in the garden. I didn't know anything at the time about sharpening my tools and how tricky walnut is to work but I have learnt.
A humble bowl.
You are often going on different courses or assisting others on projects.
Not so much courses, but always trying new things and always making stuff...
The techniques all build on each other: it’s like a toolbox of skills. I did tin smithing and forging and while I don't really use it, it’s good to know. You can use elements of it and understand your tools and appreciate how it was made.
Is Ireland a good place to be doing what you want to do?
People like the idea of my stuff, but few invest in it so I'm not so sure from that point of view. There was a fantastic history of coppicing here, but it’s all but died out. Ireland lost almost all its forests - it used to be about ninety percent forest cover and it went down to about one percent - mainly because it was the supplier for all of England’s timber needs. And with that loss of the woods went all that body of knowledge and history - all lost. So what I’m doing is not really known here anymore.
Nobody knows if you're doing it wrong.
It's a really active craft. I mean, a lot of crafts are very physical but here you are growing and managing all your own material. So every element of what you're doing is under your control.
Reminds me of something George Nakashima said about selecting timber: that you're not just selecting the timber, you're selecting the hillside, the weather, and the soil - everything that tree lived through. And he would want to know every detail about the life of the tree so he could get the best out of the timber and I suppose what I have here is something similar. It’s all tied in together and I’m working the woods as much as I’m working the timber it supplies me with.
And you enjoy the process?
The efficiency of converting timber by hand is a really pleasant thing – it’s such a nice way to work. But the value of that has been lost because energy is so cheap now; you can chop up a tree with a few pounds worth of petrol and it’s done - the value of doing it by hand just disappeared and it's very hard to compare. You're using much less energy by hand but how do you compare that to a mechanical process…. I guess it comes down to time, which is now valued above all else.
It's a process people really respond to when they take the time to engage with it, it's kind of innate.
The physicality of the craft and such pronounced actions - you see it happen and you can almost understand what's going on.
It’s an innate knowledge you gain through action - a kind of kinesthetic bodily knowledge. And it’s a healthy thing to do. You exercise a machine and it wears out, but if you exercise yourself you just get better.
I learnt earlier your favorite tool is a knife - or maybe your new saw sharpener, you were pretty excited about that?
[Laugh] So nerdy! I love tools and stuff, but only because they allow me do things. I’m not one of those… maybe I am… you know, some people just like getting tools.
I know, but they’re the type of people who maybe don't do that much with them and whose workshops are obsessively tidy - your workshop is definitely not obsessively tidy!
It’s not... is it?!
You make a whole variety of objects and experiments - do you have a favorite thing to make?
I quite like stools really.
Yeah! I’ve always photographed them whenever I see them - in museums, for instance. I’ve always liked them because...well…a chair is more hierarchical; it’s more of a statement, whereas a stool is far more anonymous. It’s a nicer object because there’s not so much flash about it.
"You're not just selecting the timber, you're selecting the hillside, the weather, and the soil - everything that tree lived through."
Kind of like a bench - it’s more egalitarian.
Exactly. Chairs were developed for kings and noblemen, so their history is of the individual above all others.
The word stool is also the term used to describe the base of a coppiced tree where the branches sprout out. Not sure which came first.
A good wood?
Ash is great isn’t it? It’s just lovely to work with - it splits nicely, it’s really strong.
And it grows relatively fast.
It does, and it’s actually better that it grows fast for the type of stuff I’m doing, because you want the rings to be close – that’s what gives it a nice springy-ness. But maybe I prefer a more difficult wood…
Anything you want to make that you haven’t yet made? You just made a beautiful ladder…
Another ladder. [James Laughs] A building - which would probably be harder to sell through you guys…
So you want to try a larger scale?
Yeah. I do like instruments…
Is that something you would like to make? It’s a very different kind of craft - you have to be so perfect.
No I don't want to make any! It’s kind of like the workmanship of certainty - the David Pye sort of thing. You’re trying to make a specific object in the end, whereas I prefer the more risky type of thing - where you don't really know what the final outcome will be.
Where you’re working with the nature of the material?
Yeah, you’re letting it dictate a certain amount, it’s kind of like a conversation; it guides you a bit - though that sounds pretty pretentious. Don't quote me on that, that’s kind of a wanky thing to say! I guess what I’m trying to say is that I generally try and get the materials and do something with them rather than the other way around. I don’t like having an idea and imposing it on a piece.
It’s you, the woodlands and Poncho. Would you ever like to scale up slightly, or do you enjoy it as it is?
I suppose slightly bigger would be good and it’s nice to work with other people…but I’m not looking for a factory.
Plans for the woodlands?
Well, what I have is very tiny. To do making on a commercial scale I would need a lot more woodland, but I’m more interested to get the most out of what I’ve got…and I guess I just really like messing about in the woods!
Yeah, plan or no plan, it’s still really nice just being there.