Rush seating with Rachael South

A coop members “new craft skill” course

Text: Esther Robinson
Photos: Esther Robinson, Slow Maker, Spencer Martin

Back in the depths of lockdown, LGW member Spencer Martin floated the idea of a rush seating workshop led by one of the country’s best chair caners. Naturally, uptake was huge but the offer came with a caveat – you have to make a stool first! 

This would be the first time most of us had ever made greenwood furniture, let alone a post-and-rung stool, so it was a very good thing that we had three months between us and the course.

We based our design around that in Mike Abbot’s fantastic book “Going with the Grain”, and all got to business making all the parts needed under Spencer’s watchful eye and sage advice. 

The basic idea of this stool is that it is made entirely of greenwood – that is no glue, nails or screws – and reliant on the natural shrinkage of the wood to hold the seat rails, rungs and posts together. 

We had a glutton of wood to choose from as members had recently salvaged tonnes of freshly felled trees from our previous site at Abney Cemetery, resulting in a beautiful array of colourful stools! Some purebred furniture, some fantastic mongrels from different species including lime, ash, cherry, oak, beech and tulip. Whatever you choose, it helps to find wood that is straight and not too knotty..!

After three months (or a frantic couple of weeks for some!) of slow-making joy, LGW members descended on Hackney City Farm carrying – some via inventive entrapment techniques on bike racks and backpacks – their lovingly handcrafted stool.

Enter our tutor for the day: Rachael South, a third-generation chair caner with the craft in her blood. She was taught by her father who in turn was taught by his father, Michael South, who was a West London chair caner in the 1900s. You can read more about Rachael’s background and family history here: https://spitalfieldslife.com/2021/05/07/rachael-south-chair-caner/ 

Members arrive to find Rachael wetting bolts of scirpus lacustris schoeneplectus, or freshwater bulrush, that she harvests herself from a secret location in Somerset every summer, using traditional rush knives that look not unlike scythes. 

The rush we use has been dried and stored all year in bolts tied up with baler twine. In order for it to be twisted and manipulated, Rachael sprinkles it with water and wraps it in old bedsheets to render it supple enough to be worked. Then each piece must be wiped with a wet flannel to remove any river muck and flatten it, which happens with a satisfying crack as you break the inner structure of the rush. 

She shows us how to attach the first piece of rush, twist and wrap it round the first corner and from there we are off! It’s a deceptively simple process, repetitive yet takes skill and concentration to make a neat and even pattern. 

We learnt the ‘arrowhead’ rush pattern, as it is easy to learn. Traditional configurations tend to be fairly simple so as to be completed in good time on the street, but Rachael also designs her own impressively complicated looking patterns. Very few tools are needed – just your flannel, a spring clamp to keep the tension, a rush threading tool, a bodkin or awl and a “wooden dolly” that looks like a darning mushroom to smooth the rush once finished.

Rachael clearly enjoys her trade. She recounts tales of her grandfather travelling from Ladbroke Grove to Kensington in his suit, toolbox in hand, repairing chairs all day on the street and revels in the history. She explains the tradition throughout the day with fondness, with an enduring smile that stays put even when engrossed in her own weaving. 

The day passed in a lovely haze of making and chatting accompanied by a symphony of snap, crackle and popping, satisfied sighs and the occasional call out for help! Rachael is a fantastic tutor and was very clear in her instructions and attentive and encouraging. She claims it takes her most of a day to complete a whole chair, and of course it takes us a deceptively long time to do – only a couple of members finished their stool in the day but Rachael kindly lent us the tools and rush to be able to complete in our own time. 

As we all left the workshop, the various ways of transporting our beloved stools recommenced and we scattered ourselves across town to either sit on our finished stools, or sit on the floor admiring our work and dreaming of the day we would finish it! Safe to say, all participants have now successfully seated their stools and, I imagine, spend endless hours carving, reading, drinking and thinking on our handmade gems. I do at least!

Huge thanks to Spencer Martin for organising the workshop, and for the endless assistance on the build stage of our stools. And of course to Rachael South for imparting her knowledge and displaying her skills with immense modesty and good humour. We really learnt a huge amount and it reinstilled that awareness of how much you can achieve with just your hands and very few tools and materials. Her passion and evident joy in what she does has left a great impression on us and I’m sure we will see more furniture built at the workshop as a result. 

For more information on Rachael’s work: http://rachaelsouth.com/

Or on Instagram: @rachael_south

Greenwood stool & Rush seating steps by steps with Esther:

Text: Esther Robinson
Photos: Esther Robinson, Slow Maker, Spencer Martin

Mental Health Awareness month

Why and how spoon carving can help
to recovery from depression and anxiety

LGW coop member and tutor Samuel Alexander on why he loves spoon carving and how it helped him to recovery from depression and anxiety:

” As we approach the end of mental health awareness month, I’d like to share with you just how important green woodworking is to me and how by practicing a heritage craft I have found harmony, tranquility and grounding within a busy environment such as London. Being part of a cooperative brings me a sense of pride and community. Working with hand tools, removing shaving after shaving, reducing a piece of wood to a refined form creates a worldly sense of tactility that is completely transformative.

This video is a project that I worked on with the talented Daisy Gaston and Joyce Nicholls back in March 2019 about what craft really means to us craftspeople.

Using our energy – be it positive or negative- we can make objects that exist in a form that we ourselves have determined. We can hold these objects, see them, read their narrative of tool marks, gift them, sell them, or keep them! Ultimately they exist and bring a new sense of joy to the somewhat vicious process of working with sharp hand tools.

My craft journey started with spoon carving as a form of therapy to help see light in a deep pit of depression and anxiety, it has now lead me to become a spoon carving tutor London Green Wood, making new makers as well as making spoons myself. In our classes I and our other tutors share the calming process of making alongside, at a time where perhaps we’ve never needed to see the power of what we can do with our hands more.

I am thankful that green wood working has never been as accessible as it is today! With wonderful resources, courses and inspirational and generous makers out there, there has never been a better time to explore what you’re capable of within craft. ”

With this film project, we set out to explore the connection between mental health, craft and healing. We were honoured and lucky to meet Sam, who welcomed us into his space and kindly shared his story. We were both touched by Sam’s openness about his mental health journey. While Sam also gave us a true insight into the power of woodwork and craft, taking a moment to sit and focus to create something tangible and meaningful.

Daisy Gaston and Joyce Nicholls

Re-opening April 2021, at our new venue

We are moving to Hackney City Farm!

Due to large scale building works at Abney Park Cemetery we are moving our workshop to Hackney City Farm.

From April 2021, London Green Wood is open again to coop members, community groups and courses. LGW works exclusively outside and aims to provide a covid safe workspace for those who feel comfortable to attend.

Our monthly volunteering sessions are on hold for the time being. There will also be no public access in the near future, although we still welcome visitors by prior arrangement. If you’d like to come in and see what we do please contact us in advance.

We do not require anyone to wear masks, as we are able to maintain social distancing, but feel free to wear one if it makes you feel safer.

All those visiting the workshop are required to sign in and leave a telephone no. for contact tracing purposes (for more information on how we will use this data, see our Privacy Policy).

What we ask of you before coming to the workshop:

  • If you have symptoms of Covid-19 or have been exposed to someone who has tested postitive, stay home (how to request a test and what to do if you have symptoms).
  • If you need to use public transport to access the workshop wear a face mask, as required by government guidance.

What we ask of you at the workshop:

  • Wash your hands upon arrival. Please also wash hands before eating, as usual.
  • Please bring your own resuable cup for tea and coffee breaks.
  • Cleaning all tools after use and if passing to another person (anti viral wipes are provided). Wash hands before cleaning tools.
  • Maintain a 2m distance between yourself and others.
  • Bring your own PPE is needed (gloves for moving timber, fingerless gloves, masks and googles). Those wanting to use the linisher must bring their own PPE, this is not a excuse not to wear PPE where it is needed. This mainly applies to members rather than course participants.
  • Anyone who has used the workshop who subsequently tests positive for Covid-19 is requested to inform London Green Wood.

We will:

  • Provide an outdoor handwashing station (soap and water) within the workshop, alcohol gel and anti-viral wipes.
  • Limit the max. no. of people in the workshop, to allow for social distancing.
  • Send anyone home who becomes unwell at the workshop and advise them to follow the stay at home guidance.
  • Remind everyone using the workshop of these measures.
  • Designate a keyholder each day to take responsibility for Health and Safety, including coronavirus control measures.
  • If advised that anyone who has been at the workshop has developed Covid-19, we will contact everyone who has been at the workshop at the same time as that person and advise them of test and trace guidance.

Our risk assessments are available for other organisations and people to use and edit for non-commercial purposes only (this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License).

Tier 4 lockdown

Free wood for carving at home, every Friday

The workshop is now closed due to the Tier 4 lockdown. Courses have been rescheduled and membership has been suspended until we can open again.

We are giving away wood for carving at home at the workshop gate every Friday lunchtime throughout lockdown. This is limited to 2 pieces of wood per person. The last person please recycle the box and the sign, or chuck it over the gate for use next week.

Throughout the first and second national lockdowns we have supplied free wood for those who are carving at home, to help keep us all safe and sane. This is a completely free offering, and a small team of volunteers makes this possible every week.

Some people in our network have asked to make a donation in return for this weekly wood supply, and so we have set up this donations page, enabling those who can and would like to, to do so. We are a non-profit organisation, any donations will go towards general upkeep of the workshop.

See our tips for staying safe carving at home and further links to tools and resources.

We’d love to see what you’re doing, please share your creations with us, Instagram @londongreenwood

We are currently taking bookings for courses March-June 2021, more information, and we are available for private course bookings and outdoor kids birthday parties once we are back to Tier 3 restrictions.

Black Friday: buy nothing, make something

We are participating in Black Friday with our partners Obby.co.uk.

On Friday 28th November, Obby is funding a 30% discount on courses, including all London Green Wood courses. Please note that the usual links on our website will not give you this discount.

For Friday 28th November use the following links to book courses:

The rampant consumerism of Black Friday is at odds with the values of London Green Wood. However buying a gift of a day making together and learning new skills, is totally in keeping with our ethos. So we invite you to celebrate Buy Nothing Day (the antidote to Black Friday) by buying nothing and instead making something with your hands(or making a plan to make something with us).


Lockdown 2

Free wood for carving at home, every Friday

The workshop is now closed due to the second national lockdown. Courses have been rescheduled and membership has been suspended until we can open again.

Online courses are back: after school Whittling for Families on Thursdays, £14 per household; after work Mindful Whittling: Carve a Spatula, £14 per person; and a session for Friday evenings Spoon Carving Q&A, £5 per person.

We are giving away wood for carving at home at the workshop gate every Friday lunchtime throughout lockdown. This is limited to 3 pieces of wood per person. The last person please recycle the box and the sign, or chuck it over the gate for use next week. Throughout the first and second national lockdowns we have supplied free wood for those who are carving at home, to help keep us all safe and sane. This is a completely free offering, and a small team of volunteers makes this possible every week.

Some people in our network have asked to make a donation in return for this weekly wood supply, and so we have set up this donations page, enabling those who can and would like to, to do so. We are a non-profit organisation, any donations will go towards general upkeep of the workshop.

See our tips for staying safe carving at home and further links to tools and resources.

We’d love to see what you’re doing, please share your creations with us, Instagram @londongreenwood

We have a few courses scheduled at the workshop for the beginning of December, Make a Spatula a half day course for beginners and Spoon Carving a full day course for all abilities. After this will follow a mid winter teaching break because of the dark afternoons, courses will resume early January. We are currently taking bookings for all our courses in early 2021, more information, and we are available for private course bookings and outdoor kids birthday parties from January (both of these can be organised as Tier 2 compliant).

Covid-19 response

We can all find resilience in outdoor life

London Green Wood is a small, agile business and we work outdoors. These two factors meant that we have been able to adapt to living with this coronavirus and have no fears about the long term risk of the pandemic to our cooperative.

In mid-March, as we realised there was a looming lockdown, we cancelled all our courses with the aim of keeping the workshop open to coop members for as long as we could. A week later, lockdown was imposed on the UK and the workshop was shut, unable to open for over three months.

Once we’d finished cancelling all our courses and sessions, the first thing we did was to write some tips for carving at home. We knew there were a whole load of people taking up carving for the first time in lockdown and we wanted to help people be safe whilst using knives at home. We updated our resources page, with tool recommendations, advice on choosing wood and links to our favourite instructional videos. These were shared widely, as people across the UK took up new hobbies whilst they found themselves at home.

The second thing we did was to negotiate weekly access to the workshop for one volunteer each week. Every Monday one of the coop would saw and split up a box of wood to leave at the workshop gate for people to take home for free. The response was incredible, one week Dave arrived to a socially distanced queue of people waiting to collect spoon carving wood. Despite limiting the offering to three pieces of wood per person, a whole box of wood (sometimes two) disappeared in a couple of hours every week. We still give away bits and pieces of wood for people to carve at home, now it’s by pre-arrangement and we suggest giving a donation to the workshop in return.

After initially dismissing online courses as impossible, we came to realise it was necessary to help people keep creative and busy in lockdown, and to prepare LGW for potential future lockdowns. We created an online wand making class for families and spatula carving class for adults. We teamed up with The Woodsmith Experience to provide knives, and prepared dogwood and hazel sticks and lime spatula blanks at home. We posted wood and the customers bought their own knives. Demand was high, but the post was oh so slow. Still, with a lot of rescheduling, Jo taught basic knife skills online to about 80 people in a three month period with remarkably few injuries.

We started risk assessments for reopening the workshop as soon as lockdown restrictions started to lift. We were finally able to reopen to members only from 6th July and begin teaching in-person courses on 28th July. All our risk assessments are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License and are available for other organisations and people to use and edit for non-commercial purposes.

We are currently developing a new partnership with another local organisation, Women after Greatness (WAG), a grassroots social enterprise on a mission to empower and equip young women and girls in East London to conquer negative cycles and build great opportunities. WAG has not been able to deliver their usual programmes because of coronavirus, but the need is greater than ever. We are seeking funding for a unique woodworking project for young women to learn heritage woodwork and bushcraft skills in inner London. Through learning these skills young women will be encouraged to spend more time outdoors, and enjoy the mental health and confidence benefits that are associated with being in a natural environment. Our outdoor workshop will also provide a safe space for young women to meet and for WAG to continue their mentoring support work.

Since the lockdown, interest in our cooperative as soared. We are running more courses than ever and have noticed an increase in people wanting to join the coop and be involved with all aspects of the workshop. Despite the isolation of recent months, we all know that we are stronger together and this is a key time to cooperate.

We have always enjoyed working outdoors but now our outdoor space is more valuable than ever. The workshop provides an opportunity to help other groups and individuals to get outside and be with others in a safe social space. We would like to share our space with others and through basic woodwork and bushcraft activities, help other community groups adapt their offering to outdoor living. We are willing to joint-fundraise to do this. We believe that being outdoors, in a natural environment and working with others (physically but not socially distanced) can give us all the resilience we need to survive this crisis.

London Green Wood is open

After 3 months of coronavirus lockdown
the workshop is open for coop members

From 4th July London Green Wood is open to coop members only. LGW aims to provide a covid safe workspace for members who feel comfortable to attend. Members are under no obligation to attend the workshop and those who are not yet able to, or do not want to, have the option of suspending their membership fee until they are ready to return.

Courses are due to restart from 28th July. Our monthly volunteering sessions are on hold for the time being. There will also be no public access in the near future, although we still welcome visitors by prior arrangement. If you’d like to come in and see what we do please contact us in advance.

We do not require anyone to wear masks, as we are able to maintain social distancing, but feel free to wear one if it makes you feel safer.

All those visiting the workshop are required to sign in and leave a telephone no. for track and trace purposes (for more information on how we will use this data, see our Privacy Policy).

What we ask of you before coming to the workshop:

  • If you have symptoms of Covid-19 or have been exposed to someone who has tested postitive, stay home (how to request a test and what to do if you have symptoms).
  • If you can please travel to the workshop on foot or by bike. Car parking is available (subject to water works outside the park).
  • If you need to use public transport to access the workshop wear a face mask, as required by government guidance.

What we ask of you at the workshop:

  • Wash your hands upon arrival. Please also wash hands before eating, as usual.
  • Cleaning all tools after use and if passing to another person (anti viral wipes are provided). Wash hands before cleaning tools.
  • Maintain a 2m distance between yourself and others.
  • Bring your own PPE is needed (gloves for moving timber, fingerless gloves, masks and googles). Those wanting to use the linisher must bring their own PPE, this is not a excuse not to wear PPE where it is needed.
  • Wash your hands within the workshop before using the communal areas e.g. tea room and toilets.
  • No longer bring biscuits and snacks to share.
  • Until government track and trace system is fully operational, anyone who has used the workshop who subsequently tests positive for Covid-19 is requested to inform Jo Clarke or Dave Evers.

We will:

  • Provide an outdoor handwashing station (soap and water) within the workshop, alcohol gel and anti-viral wipes.
  • Limit the max. no. of people in the workshop, to allow for social distancing.
  • Send anyone home who becomes unwell at the workshop and advise them to follow the stay at home guidance.
  • Make signage in the workshop to remind everyone of these measures.
  • Designate a keyholder each day to take responsibility for Health and Safety, including coronavirus control measures.
  • Clean other objects and surfaces that are touched regularly on a daily basis, e.g. gate, padlocks, handwashing station.
  • If advised that anyone who has been at the workshop has developed Covid-19, we will contact everyone who has been at the workshop at the same time as that person and advise them of track and trace guidance.
  • Print these instructions and our coronavirus risk assessment so that they are available at the workshop.

Our risk assessments are available for other organisations and people to use and edit for non-commercial purposes only (this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License).

Creative Commons Licence

Free wood for distant spoon carvers

Every Monday we are leaving wood out for carving at home.

Although the workshop is now closed, we have arranged with Hackney Council that we can visit the workshop once a week to prepare a supply of wood for isolating spoon carvers. Every Monday we will leave a box of spoon sized wood for anyone who’s carving at home to take away.

Please do not contact us asking if wood is left, the workshop is closed so we are not there on other days.

Please do not stockpile wood. We will leave wood out every Monday if we are able to. Make sure there’s enough to go around.

When the box is empty can the last person to take wood please recycle the carboard box and sign, so as not to create litter in Abney Park.

We’d love to see what you’re doing, please share your creations with us, Instagram @londongreenwood

See our tips for staying safe carving at home and further links to tools and resources.

Tips for carving at home

How to stay carving and stay safe at home

Because of Covid-19 we know that lots of people are stuck indoors wanting to start working in wood. Whittling and spoon carving are an excellent therapeutic, productive, useful and creative activities and we hope it will bring all those benefits to those who take it up. However it’s even more important to stay safe when learning at home with no teacher to keep an eye on you, so we’ve written some brief tips for carving at home. Some of these things are obvious it doesn’t make them less important and frankly neither does it make you more likely to do them.

  1. Sharpen your tools before you use them.
  2. Don’t use a folding knife for whittling or woodcarving, even one with a locking mechanism is not fail safe. We recommend Morakniv 120 for adults and Morakniv Rookie or Scout 39 Safe for kids.
  3. Do not carve with gloves on, or any type of kevlar finger barrier. Instead develop safe habits that protect your hands. We think that these kinds of finger guards are dangerous because they encourage bad practice. Instead develop safe habits that protect your hands.
  4. These knives for kids have slightly smaller handles but are just as sharp. The most important safety feature of a knife for kids or young people is a blunt tip. If you have a knife that didn’t come with a blunt tip you can grind it off on a course sharpening stone, the kind that people usually have for kitchen knives. This will drastically reduce injuries, and can be done for adults knives too.
  5. Find a safe space, other people and objects needed to be a full arms length away from you. Don’t work in a space where people, especially children, will be moving about around you.
  6. Obviously whittling outdoors is always better where you can.
  7. Whittling indoors is fine. Wood shavings (unlike sawdust) are clean and easy to sweep up, even on carpet. Just don’t walk through it in your socks or it’ll follow you everywhere.
  8. Kids and young people should be supervised at all times when they’re using a knife. There’s a reason you have to be 18 to buy one. Arguably adults should be supervised at all times when using a knife.
  9. Carving together is better, get into it with your household. Then your partner, family, flatmates won’t mind about wood shavings stuck to their socks and you can keep an eye on each other (see 7.).
  10. Even one drink is too many, make a choice between booze and carving.
  11. Carving green wood is easier because it is softer. The wood will dry quicker if it’s in small logs, has been split already, in near a heat source or in the sun, or a windy spot. You can keep wood in the freezer, this form of stockpiling is a long standing habit of many spoon carvers.
  12. Whilst you are making something you can keep in wrapped up in a damp plastic bag in the fridge in between carving sessions to keep it wet. This is very successful for few days after that the wood will start to go moudly. You can still carve mouldy wood, the wood will be fine once it’s been throughly dried out. You can soak pieces of wood or unfinished projects in buckets of water to re-wet them, but especially for larger spoons, kuksas etc. anytime you soak the wood you are increasing the risk of it cracking as it dries.
  13. Stop when you are tired.

Further links to tools and resources can be found here.