Tucked away in the heart of the Kent countryside, underwoodsman John Waller is keeping traditional woodcraft skills alive and passing them on to the next generation
Stacked outside John Waller’s workshop in a corner of a Kentish farm are tall sheaves of prime basketry coppiced willow: lithe stems in brown, russet and lime-yellow ready for the making. And once John has woven his harvest of wood into baskets or turned them into living sculptures, he can put claim to every bit of growth, hard graft and craft behind their rustic manufacture.
John, as it says on his business card, is an underwoodsman. His own phrase.
‘A forester will cut big trees, a woodsman cuts small trees known as the understorey or underwood, but because I do more than just cut trees I wanted something more vague to describe what I do,’ says John, who has been honing his crafts at the farm-based educational centre Bore Place near Sevenoaks for the past 20 years.
‘The roots of the word are traditional but it is different enough to make people ask “what is it you do then?”’ It is a good ploy and a good question. John’s working year spans ancient woodland management, coppicing (cutting back trees to their stump or ‘stool’ to promote vigorous new, multiple growth), creating rustic furniture to commission, basketry, teaching pole-lathing (an old rough hewn lathe for green-woodturning) and traditional fence hurdle-making. ‘There are lots of basket-makers and furniture-makers and plenty of wood cutters, but there aren’t many who put all that together,’ he says. ‘My best way of selling uniquely is to combine these elements.’
John has a healthy awareness of his market – ‘it is always going to be niche and for fairly wealthy people, but that enables me to make things that will last’ – balanced with a deep-seated love of wood and the rewards of skills acquired over the years and through the passing seasons.
‘I make my baskets and furniture in spring and summer; do all of my cutting in the winter and run most of my courses in the winter and spring; the green wood seasons. And tree surgery is all year round. So I am a lucky boy, really.’
John, who started out as a volunteer for a conservation project and was then offered a job at Bore Place, grew his skills in his own organic, self-determining style.
‘I learnt pole-lathing and turning from a chap here,’ he says, ‘then I worked with a basket-maker and taught myself basketry.
With the coppicing, I inherited a very small patch of willow from the previous bloke and began to appreciate what I could do with it… Prods of inspiration I call them.’ Now more than two decades on, John’s artistically unkempt and chilly workshop provides its own gentle nudges: it is his thinking, making and creating space. His first ever basket sits robustly on the cobbled-tiled floor, books about basketry and woodland management are piled on the bench, 4 slack pole-lathes sit in corners and the workshelves are hung with spokeshaves and some mighty fine axes. ‘I have sets of tools for course participants and volunteers - and my own set,’ says John. ‘You kind of struggle against being nerdy, but you know your own saw and its nuances and it’s hard to lend that to someone else.
My billhook is 20 years old; my heavy side axe is a handsome beast, and my Swedish carving axe is hand forged, with a nicely-aged handle.’ John’s own patina of experience shows through as he talks about one of his keenest interests: the ancient business of coppicing. Now enjoying the shoots of resurgence after mass-produced wood manufacture in the 50’s all but killed the practice off, it also has the benefit of creating a rich diversity of wildlife because of the staggered height of trees and shrubs. ‘In terms of common sense it is the ultimate way of harvesting wood,’ says John, who cuts his crop of hazel every five or six years, willow every year, and ash and general firewood every 20 years.
Read the rest of this feature on p.108 of the May/June 2012 issue...
By Kerry Fowler