Going With the Grain

Issue 296
May/June 2016
Days of Hope

Reviews

Going With the Grain
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Hugo Davenport enjoys an account of an ash tree’s treasures. The Man Who Made Things out of Trees by Robert Penn. Penguin Random House, 2015. ISBN: 9781846148422

Ash trees have long been held to be second to oak in value in Britain, but much more versatile. Our relationship with this noble but unsung tree dates back six millennia, and it has been used to create innumerable things of use and beauty. Yet today Fraxinus excelsior is probably best known as superior firewood.

Robert Penn reminds us of its astonishingly varied uses by felling an ash from a wood near his home and then tracking down people with the craft skills to turn its wood into a beguiling range of objects. The two-year journey takes him round Britain and to Ireland, Austria and the United States.

“I wanted to make a case for the continued and better use of the ash tree as a sustainable resource,” he declares, and to show that “the pleasure we take from things made from natural materials is an extension of the pleasure we take from nature itself.”

Ash was never the stuff of sailing ships or ‘stately furniture’. Yet the list of uses past and present cited includes ladders, tent-pegs and butcher’s blocks; joists, beams and bell pulleys; tool handles of all kinds; hockey sticks, bats and tennis rackets; spears, pike-shafts and arrows.

The ash, in short, was the tree of Everyman. “You could be forgiven for thinking nature actually designed it to satisfy the diverse needs of human beings,” Penn writes. His adventure in wood covers 44 things and how they were made, along with the history, science and a dusting of legend.

Some are close to home – a writing desk, panelling, a table; chopping boards, spoons, three bowls turned from a single piece. Others range further afield, including an arrow made by one of only six men in England still able to pull a medieval longbow; a toboggan; even a bicycle.

Penn finds that some of the craftsmen belong to a world that is fading. The skill and care they put into their work is lovingly brought to life. When a Lancashire wheelwright bounces an old cartwheel on the floor, it’s an object lesson in the 5,500-year evolution of the wooden wheel as much as a description of the skills needed to create the felloes for the wheel rim.

Others are thriving. An Austrian firm in Tyrol employing eight people that makes 10,000 toboggans every year steam-bends the ash Penn brings to make the runners to fashion one for his children. Hillerich & Bradsby, in the US, has made more than 100 million baseball bats in 125 years.

Penn makes a good case for strong, straight-grained ash as a sustainable resource, and his book is suffused with its pleasures. Yet the objects fall into three kinds: traditional craft survivals, specialised applications, and luxury items that might at one time have been things in everyday use.

The detail of craft is endlessly interesting. Likewise the applied science of wood and how it acquires certain properties – strength, flexibility, workability. But it’s less easy to see a greater role for the tree in an age of mass production. So the book is, in part, an elegy.

The ash tree faces other risks to its continued use, and those come from Nature itself. Ash dieback, caused by a fungus, arrived in the UK in 2012 and by February 2015 had reached almost 1,000 sites across the country. Emerald ash borer, from the US, could do even more damage.

What is especially captivating is Penn’s close observation of the intimate relationship between the planks and rounds of his tree and the men who work it. “Woodworking is far from an exact science: when we use timber we depend on judgement and intuition as much as on engineering principles,” he notes.

That relationship is eminently practical. Penn says at the outset that he “grew up under an ash tree” and it was then “the gatekeeper to my dreams”. These men are guardians of tradition, not dreamers.

Hugo Davenport is a freelance journalist.

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