A very crafty tree

They used to say that a good butcher could make use of every part of the pig, but the squeal, and we might say something similar about a forester and oak trees. H L Edlin (1949) described the various woodland crafts, largely dependent on human labour, as they had been for centuries, just before they were transformed (or in some cases made redundant) by the widespread adoption of power saws, harvesting machines and computer-assisted sawmills in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Wood has been used to make shelters from probably before we were human, and its use in buildings was reflected in the feudal right to ‘housebote’. Oak specifically was used as crucks to support a roofbeam, in the frames of later ‘black and white’ buildings, and as cleft oak planks (weatherboards or clapboards) to form in the walls of houses. American colonists used the same technique (and term) extensively in New England and in the seventeenth century exported oak weatherboards back to Britain. Smaller pieces of cleft oak were also used for roofing shingles, now seen most often on church spires.

Really ancient oaks survive as dug-out canoes from the Bronze Age, while oak was also critical to the ‘wooden walls’, the ships-of-the-line that helped Britain to become a world power in the 18th and early 19th century. The main shipyards tended to sited within reach of major forests (such as the New Forest, the Forest of Dean or Darnaway in north Scotland) to ease and reduce the cost of transporting the timber to the yards. The keels tended to be of elm, from which sprang the great stem and stern posts and ribs of oak. Much of the planking was also of oak.

Hewn oak posts where the bark and sapwood were simply removed to leave a roughly shaped heartwood baulk could be used for gate and straining posts. Smaller sizes were split to form the posts and rails of cleft oak fencing. The spokes of wooden wheels were also made from cleft oak. Cleaving makes it less likely that the timber will split. Also because the cells are split apart, rather than being cut across they may be less open to the entry of rainwater and fungi that lead to decay.

Thin laths of oak were woven into baskets trugs and swills of different. Even thinner slices of oak, traditionally cut along the radius of a log, were used as veneers to decorate plainer, cheaper boards. Fungi in the wood can lead to oak wood having distinctive colours which are exploited in inlay work– reddish-brown from the beef-steak fungus Fistulina hepatica, while green oak caused by the fungus Chlorosplenium aeruginsoum was widely used in Tunbridge ware. Round oak poles were used in large quantities in the mines and into the 1970s, oak that was not suitable for planking might be cut into chocks (15×15 cm blocks) and cover boards (c.60×60 cm) for packing into the walls of the tunnels. Then there are a wide variety of tools and other everyday objects that might be shaped from oak: the beams of ploughs, yokes for oxen, rungs of ladders, buckets and butter churns, cottage furniture such as tables and cupboards.

Oak was widely used for domestic firewood and in the form of charcoal for various industrial purposes. Dome-shaped stacks of wood were created, then covered by a layer of bracken or turves, over which was spread a layer of earth to seal out most of the air from the stack. The stack was lit and allowed to smoulder for 2-10 days. A watch had to be kept to ensure that fire did not break through the outer covering – if it looked like doing so more earth would be put on that spot to reseal it. After the burn was complete the stack would be opened and allowed to cool before the charcoal was sorted ready to supply a variety of industries, but principally iron and steel making, glass works, potteries and gunpowder mills. Oak charcoal from coppices was particularly associated with iron working, as for example in the Weald, the Lake District and Argyll.

Oak bark was the main source of the tannins used to treat leather until the late nineteenth century, when it was largely superseded by imported bark from tropical species and later by industrial chemicals. Nonetheless it was still being collected from coppice in Wyre Forest into the 1990s. The tannins are mainly in the inner layers of the bark, so that the peeled-off sheets of bark were rolled up or piled in stacks, outerside uppermost to prevent the tannin being washed out in the rain. In the tanneries the bark was put into water-filled pits in which cattle hides were soaked for 4-12 months. The bark harvest could be an important part of the rural economy, worth more in some circumstances than the value of the poles as charcoal.

Ink was made from oak galls mixed with iron and any leftover oak twigs, chips and sawdust could always be burnt to produce smoke that is still used in curing meat and fish.

A crafty tree indeed.

EDLIN, H. L. 1949. Woodland crafts in Britain, London, Batsford.

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