Tree to Trug Boards

My last blog delt with willow and hazel: the woods we use for the rims and handles of our products. This time lets nose around among the poplars.

Tony with chainsaw among poplus tremula growing on the local river banks.

First, a quick nose around some names. We are talking here of cottonwoods, or quaking aspens, trembling poplar, white poplar, golden aspen, popple, common aspen, on and on until we arrive thankfully at poplus tremula, and move on.

The poplar that becomes the Trug boards and Maund staves is hunted out, felled, and cut into logs by the Trug Maker himself. Then our local miller brings his portable mill onsite and expertly cuts it all to dimension. This sounds easy, but there is a list of cuts in my head that I attempt to project onto the logs so as to make best use of them. It’s all a bit scatter-brained to go into here but gratitude goes to Tim the miller, who has the patience of a saint. There is cake and coffee delivered on site to help him put up with this.

Tony tidying up after before cutting the trunk to length for the mill
Milling in progress. Milled lengths are coming off the bed of the mill straight on to the trailer. You can see the log currently being milled on the bed and the next flitch waiting on the tractor forks on the left. The slab pile is on the right of the mill and the rest of logs to be milled in the background.

 I then take the cut lengths home and fillet stack it to dry. There is a certain Zen involved in this careful stacking to let the air through and keep the structure square and stable as it grows. There is also a certain amount of backache . When dry poplar is wonderfully light but straight off the mill it is like railway irons.

Once the stacks are complete, I put old corrugated iron on top and wire the whole lot down to try and stop the timber twisting or bowing too much. Then there is a long wait while the timber seasons – about six months for poplar; much more for the likes of oak or walnut. As with drying firewood or haymaking, there is a low-level stress that goes hand in hand with the seasoning process: is it dry enough? Have I stacked it right? Is it getting enough air, or is it drying too quickly and set to crack and warp, etcetera etcetera…until the stacks are dismantled and re stacked in the ‘Timber Shed’ – a former single car garage that has the space portal qualities of Dr Who’s Tardis. Then I can breathe a little easier.

From here the lengths are cut down into trug boards or Maund staves and the steaming and bending begins. It is only at this stage that I really find out whether I chose wisely when months before I was out on the riverbank selecting my tree. Unseen twist or tension can make the finished boards difficult to impossible to bend. Luckily for any ‘reject’ wood can usually be repurposed as milking stools, Maund bases, Roger’s stools or tool trugs, so not all is lost.

The poplar I am using now came from the river bank a couple of kms from my workshop. Nearby is a stump from a tree felled years ago by Brett, who taught me trug craft. There are several tall, straight leaders growing from the stump, coppicing well, giving shade for the cattle, company for the river and perhaps trug wood in years to come. Another reason why we love what we do.

Coppicing in Winter

Winter is a busy time for trugmakers. All the wood that makes up our basket frames must be harvested and processed when the trees are dormant.

My predecessor exclusively used willow for the trug frames, which grows abundantly along our local river banks and steams and bends well. Sadly, in recent years there has been an infestation of a black aphid that, like a bigger bully cousin of the rose aphid, drinks the sap of the willow’s growing tips. So numerous and gluttonous are these pests that many established willow trees have died. The tenacity of the riverside willow is well known so it has been a real shock to watch helplessly as these trees turn black with the aphid’s excrement stains and whither from the top down.

In consequence this valuable resource has been severely depleted for us (and for beekeepers, too: the tiny clusters of flowers that appear on the willows in early spring are an important food source for hungry post winter hives). All could be doom and gloom if not for the hazel. This fantastic tree has been used for all sorts of things since early times; from sheep hurdles to charcoal production. It steams and bends wonderfully and is a real pleasure to work with the drawknife.

Of equal pleasure is the sniffing out of good hazel stands for coppicing. Generally, they are found in the back corner of some rambling orchard or garden, half forgotten. Armed with a pruning saw and a height stick I pick out a few good straight rods. A good old, previously coppiced hazel is like gold to us as it produces long, straight poles in abundance. Straight and clear are the words of the day here.

Ideally, I guess I would cut the whole hazel back to its stump, or ‘stool’ to re-encourage that vigorous growth but one must be diplomatic here as I may be depriving the land owner of a few seasons nut harvest. The generosity of these landowners cannot be understated; they all welcome me on the property all seem happy to be part of what we are doing.

Willow is still on the menu, though! By summer and autumn as I go down to the river to swim or try for a trout my eyes are always peeled for clumps of willow unaffected as yet by the aphid bug so that come leaf fall there is this weird map in my head with small X’s here and there marking trugmaker’s gold. Returning in frost and chill with my handsaw I’ll cut a few without stressing the tree too much and carry them back to the workshop, to the froe and draw knife.

We are planting our own hazel copse for future use which is exciting, but I hope I don’t miss out on returning to these places around the district to cut a few rods and catch up with the landowners, who have all become friends.