Fraxinus nostalgia

First. some blog updating – long-time readers of the blog will have noticed an increase in video-action recently. And a drop-off in the written-text-and-photos approach. Today’s post is all still-photography. I am not turning away from that format, it’s my main interest in the blog. It serves several purposes, one of which is purely selfish. It’s my journal. For the past 12 years almost.

I’m enjoying the videos (now that I don’t have to learn editing, thanks Daniel) and will continue to add them. The goal is to have both formats in regular rotation. I have nothing but time, right?

When I think of die-hard gamers who spend a lot of time blowing stuff up on computer monitors, I think of Mary May, the woodcarver. She just seems so at home with that gamer scene. (that’s a joke) – yesterday I was a guest on her livestream

Mary’s there 5 days a week at 1pm eastern time, carving away or having guests present stuff. When all of our travelling woodworking circuses got cancelled, several of us were adapting one way or another, and Mary’s response was to dive head-first into live-streaming her carving work. Watch them live, or catch them later, they’re archived on her site there.

Now onto what you came here for. Michael Burrey nabbed an ash log for me the other day. I went to his place, mask & all, and split some to bring home. These bolts are eighths of the log. They’re probably about 5-6 feet long right now.

I was planning on mostly making ladderback chair parts from them, with some basket splints and other bits. But when I got to riving it, I saw that the outermost 2″ is so slow-grown as to be hideously weak for chair stuff. Look at this section, just over 2″ – and has over 40 years of growth. (ten years between each pair of pencil marks.)

This got pounded into basket splints instead of becoming a chair post. There are chair parts in the log, the earlier portions are still nice & straight, and grew more quickly. This is a finished shaved chair post, 1 1/4″ thick (at the foot) – just about 11 1/2 rings to this piece.

My work for the past 25 years or more has mostly been making oak furniture, but way back when in my chair-making days, I spent a lot of time making ash baskets. And I still do make a few every so often. Here’s how I go about pounding the sections to make the splints I’ll use to weave the baskets.

After riving out the stock, I carefully shave it so I end up with a piece about 3/4″ – 1″ thick, maybe up to about 1 1/2″ wide, by whatever length I can get that’s dead straight & clear. In this case, about 3-4 footers (they were split for chairs initially, remember). The goal is to have the growth rings running horizontally through the width of this “billet” and shaved very carefully so the top & bottom surfaces are each a full growth ring plane.

Then I take a 3-lb. sledge hammer and pound along the top and then the bottom of the billet. Hard. I make sure the piece is well-supported on the surface of the stump. An anvil is better…but I don’t have one. Railroad track is excellent as well. Don’t have one of those either. Top & bottom, overlapping the hammer blows.

Now I hang one end beyond where the billet is supported, in this case on a reject chair post. And smack that overhanging projection. This causes the layers to delaminate.

Here’s a detail of the end grain. You can see the open pores in each growth ring. These are the “early wood” or “spring wood” growth. These get crushed under the hammer blows. What remains is the more solid part of the growth ring, the “late wood”, or “summer wood.” Ash is the only wood I have ever heard of that delaminates this way. Black ash is the traditional wood for baskets in northern North America, but white ash (which is what I am using) works too. I’m told by my friend Jarrod Dahl that black ash pounds a lot easier than white. I’ve never had the chance to work it.

Keep pounding and then repeating the overhanging smack and things keep coming apart.

Sometimes a couple layers will stick together in places. You can get in there & pull them apart, carefully.

I coil them together like this, then tie them together to store them til I need them. Later I’ll be showing how I dress the splints and weave some baskets. And I shot video of this work too, we’ll get to see that another time. (you can see a snippet of it on Instagram from today )

For now, as I pick each bolt of ash, and rive it apart, I earmark some for splints, some for chairs. I go through the whole billet, making materials for later use. Then onto the next billet, etc. Ash logs don’t last long, so I’m working to get through this one before the warm weather gets here.

11 thoughts on “Fraxinus nostalgia

  1. Good morning Peter

    Firstly, thank you for your continually fascinating e-mails, they are wonderful.

    This one has prompted a question I have meant to ask before when you mentioned the same thing – that slow-growth timber is weaker that fast growth. I always thought it was the other way round. Over here, we get lots of pine from Russia and Scandinavia because it is very slow growth and stronger, or so I have been told. Maybe this is true for softwoods but the opposite for hardwoods like the Ash you are pounding in this e-mail.

    Have you any references you can point me to for further reading please, I am intrigued?

    With kind regards

    John Moran
    Great Britain

    • John – Sorry I didn’t make that clear, it is indeed just the opposite between hardwoods and softwoods. Slow-grown pines are stronger and more dense than fast-grown pines. The first place I turn to for questions about wood is the book Understanding Wood by Bruce Hoadley. First published in the 1980s, it was updated around 2000. Taunton Press is the publisher.

  2. Thanks Peter. 3 or 4 years ago I went to Hancock Shaker community in MA. Alas, there were no woodworking demos that dad. I did go in all the buildings and spent a fair bit of time in the building where they made the baskets. I did see a hunk of log that looked beat up so they could peal off strips. Thanks for this post as I now have the context of how they did it.

  3. Hello Peter,

    Is there a limit how long you can store the splints? Do you use hot water to soften them up later when you put them to use?

    Love all the new content – you and your video editor is doing great!

    Paul Straka

    • You can store them forever pretty much. I know I’ve used some before that were years old. Warm water is more comfortable than cold, probably either one works. Glad you’re enjoying the blog, I’m having fun.

  4. To me this stuff is just fascinating and fun, I’m glad you share your knowledge and craft. Much appreciated!!
    Paul Z

  5. We cut down an ash tree when I was a teenager and I turned a carving mallet from a piece. It didn’t do very well for the reason shown in this post.

  6. How does green ash behave? Also, don’t they make baseball bats out of ash, if so, I would think that it wouldn’t be so good because of the pounding they take no? Or am I mistaken?

    • Green ash is part of the white ash group. I bet it would work. I’m told the black ash works best, I’ve only used white. Baseball bats were in fact ash for decades. They burned a label into the growth ring plane and told hitters to hold the bat with the label up – hence contact would not be on the growth ring plane. Many bats now are maple, a terrible choice.

  7. Hello Peter,
    Warmest thank you dor the basket weaving videos. I watched them all with great interest and pleasure.
    Have you heard about red ash for baskets? There are a lot that have died in my area because of the asian emerald borer. I am wondering ifthat wood is adequate for baskets. And also, since it is now dead and at least half dry, if I treat it for an hour in a vapor box, will it react as green wood?

    Michelle Piette
    Québec, Canada

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