Day 1 of crafting (13.07.15)

“And so it begins; after all the planning, the pondering, the emails, the phonecalls, the form filling…I’m confronted by a big (big!) section of alder trunk on a trailer. The bulk of it, its physical presence is oddly intimidating. I have absolutely no idea how Mark will set about turning this wooden bulk into a replica of Pallasboy and for a moment that causes a strange sense of alarm that I can’t entirely explain. The Meitheal Mara woodworkers and David, who’s delivered the timber, set to moving the two sections of log off the trailer and into the yard; I feel like a fifth wheel but attempt to make useful noises regarding the best way to move an enormous log without crushing a trailing body part. It transpires the best way is just to tip the trailer up and roll the logs out, which they do with a surprisingly subdued thunk onto the concrete, shedding big sections of bark in the process. The two sections are then maneuvered into their temporary resting place using brute strength and a clever tool that I don’t quite catch the name of. Already I find myself speculating on how similar processes must have preceded the crafting of the original vessel, with a whole range of associated questions jostling in: was the tree felled specially (as ours was)? Who felled it? The same person (people?) who was set to carry out the crafting? How far did they have to move their timber? Did someone stand around and watch like I’ve been doing? I’m idly speculating and staring at the prone timbers whilst everyone else has dispersed back to their jobs around the workshop, sawing, planing, and other woodworking business I don’t have any appreciation of …the term taskscape springs unbidden to mind. I’m excited about this now; nearly time to get the show started. Or more accurately, for Mark to get started, whilst I stand around watching and thinking…” Dr. Benjamin Gearey.

“It is eight thirty on a bright morning in Cork. And as I wait for Ben in the hotel lobby I read through the notes I’ve been making since visiting the original Pallasboy in Dublin. Trying to focus on my plan for the day it occurs to me just how apprehensive I feel about the week ahead. It has taken months of hard work from the team, and others, to get us to this point. Brian in particular has been tireless in his pursuit for the perfect Alder tree, which against the odds he managed to find. Now finally it was my turn to step up, and produce a replica vessel.

I’m snapped out of these thoughts as Ben arrives and suggests we start the day with strong coffee, and sugary pastries. Then it’s on to the Meitheal Mara boat yard to meet Seamus, the man in charge. A familiar sound of woodworking machinery reached my ears long before we round the road in front of the yard. Perched right on the edge of the river Lee, in a quiet part of Cork city centre, Meitheal Mara is a buzzing, vibrant workspace. People flow constantly in and out of the large yard gates, heading for the workshops, or upstairs to offices which oversee their various projects.

As I looked around our workplace for the next five days I noticed two large newly felled tree trunks sitting in an empty part of the yard. These were our precious Alder logs, and Seamus had very generously cleared a large space for them and for us. We had a roof to keep the rain off, and a view out on to the river. Perfect.

Time would be our taskmaster on this project and for that reason I was keen to make a start. We were spoilt with two logs to choose from. The one taken from the trees mid-section was free from knots and defects, so with its predictable grain pattern would be relatively easy to work. However it would come up smaller in width and height when compared to the original. The second log was cut close to the root end, this would make it more of a challenge to carve as the grain would battle to follow its own random path. I had seen this same wild grain pattern on the Pallasboy in Dublin, leaving me to suspect that it too came from timber taken close to the base of the tree. The trunk’s proportions were also close to the original vessels, only shy a couple of inches either way. This then had to be the timber for our project.

Sighting by eye I marked vertical centre lines on both ends of the log. I dissect this with a horizontal line roughly 75mm (3”) from the top. Measuring approximately 460mm (18”) in length this line will represent the top face of the vessel, and act as the guide line when it comes to splitting the log.

A few weeks before coming to Cork I had had an opportunity to try out our new Iron Age tools on a large lump of freshly felled Alder. It also gave me a chance to practice the technique of splitting large sections of timber using wooden wedges. After scoring a deep groove along the guide line with an axe, small hardwood wedges are driven in with a large mallet (or Maul) working from tree top to root. As the split widens, and the air is filled with the dramatic sound of cracking wood, larger wedges replace the smaller ones, until the timber yields.

With the large unwanted section of the Alder successfully riven away I used an axe and adze to create a flat surface, working to the guide lines scribed earlier. In under an hour a level face had been hewn, and the plan of the vessel laid out. For clarity I was using a fibre tipped pen to mark the timber, I would imagine the original maker would have used a stick of charcoal for this task. It just so happens that Alder is considered to be one of the best timbers for charcoal making.

When satisfied with the proportions transferred from notebook to log I reached for the adze and set to work roughing out the inside. The soft wet wood was easy to work, and with each blow the adze let fly fat white chips of Alder.

Come the end of the first day I was satisfied with the progress made. I was getting a feel for how the timber carved. Our replica tools on the other hand were proving awkward and slow compared to the matching set of contemporary ones we were using as a comparison.

Later that evening as I tried and failed to will my sore, cramped hands into dextrously operating a pair of chopsticks, I came to understand just how punishing the week ahead was going to be.”

Mark Griffiths

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