Woodland Management

We find it hard to imagine how many uses wood had, before metals became cheap around the time of the Industrial Revolution. Wood was not just wood; different species had different uses, and different sizes of wood were used for different purposes. Consider a wooden cartwheel. The stock – the barrel shaped centre of the wheel - had to be elm and this is a very hard tough wood. It also has a very twisted grain, so it does not split willingly: this meant that the wheelwright could hammer the spokes into a tight fit in their holes without sundering the stock. The spokes, on the other hand, were made of oak because that is the hardwood which can split.

A firm tap on a wedge will split the oak easily along the grain. Again, the grain is important because if the spoke is sawn instead of split, then the saw cut as like as not will run across the grain and weaken it. We have to remember that most woods are only strong along the grain and have only a very small fraction of the strength across it. Lastly, we come to the wheel rim, the felloe, which was usually made of ash. Ash is a very tough wood, and singularly resistant to shock. We can imagine the battering a cartwheel took as it supported a weight of a ton or so along a rough stony country road. Finally, there was the iron tyre, a continuous band of wrought iron forge- welded at the joint. Naturally the iron resisted wear better than the ash felloes, and it was cheaper to replace a tyre than to rebuild the wheel. But it had another function. The tyre was carefully made to an overtight fit, so it could only be put on the wheel after it had been heated red hot and expanded. It was cooled in water, and as it contracted it exerted a powerful squeezing force, tending to compress the wheel.

Oak, elm and ash were the traditional English engineering hardwoods and their individual properties guided the craftsmen. Windsor chairs have elm seats because they withstand the hammering in of the pegs. The keels of the Royal Navy's sailing ships were elm too because it did not rot under water and, again, did not split when long bolts were driven into it to fix the frames and other timbers. Elm's curly grain and toughness resisted abrasion if the vessel scraped over submerged rocks. Oak was the predominant structural material because of its strength in building large frameworks, whether on land – for the roofs and ceilings of great churches and timber framed buildings – or at sea. Its splittability was a huge advantage. The ceiling beams of genuine old pubs often show that they were split and roughly shaped with an adze.

It is hard to imagine the labour that was demanded in sawing a great oak trunk longwise into planks. Stone floors were colder than wooden ones but much cheaper. Another advantage of splitting oak was that it revealed the beautiful silver grain, the medullary rays, which we find in old cupboard doors and panelling. Ash too had its special uses. It made frames for machinery and for road carriages, including early automobiles. Its shock resistance established its use in hammer and other tool handles, and in billiard cues and lances as well.

Other woods had other, specialised, uses; yew for longbows, pearwood (which has a very fine grain) for ornamental carvings, birch for besoms . . . 18th century craftsmen knew over a hundred different types of wood and their special uses.

And much of this wood was grown in spring or coppice woods, with occasional trees left to grow on and become timber. Woodlands needed tending and regular work, especially at the beginning and end of a coppice cycle. The first picture shows two men cutting poles from a previous coppicing.

Woodland Management

An area of woodland which has just been coppiced looks untidy, depressing, and neglected. But this isn't true.

Woodland Management #2

After only 2 years the stumps are sending up vigorous, and quite thick, poles.

Woodland Management #3

Credits: Map from 1637, stages of coppicing diagram: thanks to Prof. Melvyn Jones, Joan Jones and Bob Warburton, authors and illustrator of A History of Ecclesall Woods, unpublished report for Sheffield City Council, 2008. Besom Maker: supplied by Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading Besom Broom: thanks to HenandHammock.co.uk Heavy horse picture; thanks to Green Estate Ltd, and Big Lad, the horse.

Words: Linda Evans Design: Jimmy's Garden Services

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