Hewnwood – Timber frame building with Alan Ritchie
Crossing the bridge over the River Wye, at Hey, the sign reads Welcome to Breconshire. A few miles further on the A470, a left turn to LLanwern and a meandering lane brings you to to Middle Drostre in the foothills of the Brecon Beacons National Park. You park in the courtyard Alan’s Barns which are his winter workshop and take a 5 minute walk along a footpath ￼to the edge of the 12 acre Hewnwood.
The scenery is breathtaking and the gate into the wood enticing one to enter. A meandering path past streams and glades leads through the wood until the sound of mallet on chisel alerts you to the presence of activity in the clearing which is the summer workshop and training school.
Alan is a bright, enthusiastic character with a great passion for his subject darting from place to place and person to person giving advice and encouragement at every opportunity. It is obvious, at first site, who is the leader here.
After an apprenticeship as a carpenter and some time in the house building industry Alan was disillusioned with second fixing, skirting boards, in tiny box rooms, packed his camper van and headed for Europe where for 3 years he wandered freely. His skills as a carpenter were in great demand from ex-pats in renovation old barns and houses which is how he acquired his deep knowledge and understanding of timber frame building.
After his return to the uk and with further training under his belt Alan has been in demand for the construction of many buildings across the country including a time spent on the Visitors Centre at Westonbirt Arboretum.
After many requests and many informal sessions it was decided to formalise the training element of his work with course run from April to November. Primarily weekend and 3 day basic courses and 5 day advanced courses in timber frame building, but also green woodwork courses are catered for.
I joined a mixed group on day 3 of a 5 day advanced course which meant that they were well advanced in the construction of a scaled down, but complete, building with hipped roof and a porch the inclusion of which making necessary the construction of valleys in the roof.
The complex geometry (see blackboard picture) of the joints was the real learning of this course as the participants had all mastered the basic techniques on a 3 day course last September. As with all courses the participants have mixed experience and expectations.
There were 2 experienced carpenters: Brian wishing to offer his clients a special service and George wanting to build eco-houses. The others were Paul a business man – self builder wanting to work on a 75foot orangery with Alan, Dave a process engineer hobbyist and Bob a retired civil engineer just enjoying making things for himself.
Alongside the serious building there was plenty of bow and arrow making going on, along with axe throwing. The activities are an integral part of the strong social life of the camp. The Hewnwood Games had been held at the weekend before my visit.
The courses cover timber selection, learning how to orientate the natural curves and twists associated with green oak followed by laying out of the structure on the ground with string pegged at critical points. (pic)
With saw horses at strategic points the timbers are laid out and the dimensions brought up from the string drawing by a process called ‘lofting’ before car￼efully marking and scribing all the individual elements and cutting out the mortice and tenon joints ready to assemble the building, pegged together with home made cleft and draw knifed oak pegs (pic). It important to appreciate that superb joinery is at the heart of this course
Due to variations in the timbers it is not possible to measure and mark accurately from a timber edge. To ensure accuracy (Alan insists on working to 1mm tolerances) datum lines are marked in ink from which all measurements are taken. The undulations of the timber also means that much patient scribing of joints is undertaken. My description of this is ‘the art of seeing beyond the physical and seeing the line’ it takes patience and care to get the joints to fit comfortably together.
Having scribed a number of joints I cut the tenons in crisp Douglas Fir which to some participants was “not a patch on the Oak”. This timber was being used for economic and ecological reasons and is often underrated. It takes only 80 years to grow a tree of sufficient stature as opposed to 300 for the oak and is therefore much cheaper. It will last for 2-3 generations as say a summer house in your garden but for the long term legacy however oak will still be preferred as a building could last 800 years and still be standing proud.
￼After chiseling out motices it was onto the more complex joints such as those for a cruck spur (pic) which is a bare faced tenon with a half lap dovetail which you can see ties the cruck to the upright adding strength and rigidity to the whole structure.
A few hours later the wall frame I was working on was erected and by the end of the Friday the Porch and Roof were completed (Alan pic) much to everyone’s delight and satisfaction.
The sense of achievement form this course must be experienced to be understood with a complete building standing proud. Course participants often work on a clients commissioned building and are invited to the topping out ceremony on location when it is completed. This makes it more than a course in fact a real building experience.
Facilities at Hewnwood are typical of a woodland workshop type environment. A sheltered working area which even torrential rain did not stop us working, a covered relaxation area (participants are warmly invited to bring with them any musical instruments, songs or stories for round the campfire in the evenings)., secluded camping spots, a compost loo and a warm camp shower make the experience of staying on site satisfactory.
￼The camp kitchen is well equipped with all meals being provided for the duration of the course. With Mary’s staggeringly abundant breakfasts, lunches, afternoon teas, evening dinners and frequent snacks, the catering cannot be faulted.
In conclusion these courses are lead by an enthusiastic and knowledgeable instructor and host, are in a wonderful location, you are well fed and watered and the learning superb.
As much as this course, is fun, it is a serious subject and does require you to practice accurate woodwork skills and develop an understanding of the geometry of roof construction – it is not for the faint hearted or for those who want a holiday and to go home with a slab and stick stool in their rucksack but rather for those with grand designs!
Despite the tranquil setting the needs of productivity sometimes invade the wood by the noise of machinery. The time constraints of the course, and the needs of professionals working to deadlines, means that the many holes and mortices need to be machine cut. This necessitates the use of a diesel generator which can be intrusive but is kept to a minimum by ganging the tasks into time windows and the turning the generator off again.
The magnificent tool shed pictured above was built by the last advanced course.
Three and five day courses in Timber framing and Green Woodworking available between April and November courses from 4 to ten people there will only be about 4 on this course ..it is an advanced timber framing course for previous students to come back and up there skills ..The courses are held on a beautiful 12 acre woodland site with private clearings, and pretty woodland streams located on the edge of the Brecon Beacons National park, All meals are provided for the duration of the course with Mary’s staggeringly abundant breakfast lunches tea and numerous snacks .. camping space for tents are also available within the wood ..there is an onsite kitchen warm shower and compost loo .. Participants are warmly invited to bring with them any musical instruments, songs or stories for round the campfire in the evenings.
This is our 2nd year at running the courses here and they seem to be popular ..It is gratifying connecting people within the woodland setting to teach them the traditional craft of timber framing . we get self-builders ;carpenters,people looking for a new vocation and hobbyists .. people seem to express themselves more freely
in the enclosed natural surroundings and the group soon get to know each other with the focus on the hands on carpentry during the day .. learning how to oriantat the natural curves and twists associated with green oak… carefully marking and scribing all the individual elements and cutting out the mortice and tenon joints ready to create a building pegged together with our home made cleft and draw knifed oak pegs … . It is inspiring to know that some of are handy work could last for eight centuries or more. Superb joinery is at the heart of this course. A formula that has proven it’s worth and resilience over time. You should be able to get directions from this link if you get stuck give us a ring …..and give us a ring when you get down to the barns the wood is a five minute walk from there!