Monday, 23 June 2014

Making a coracle

‘Happy Birthday’ and my present was a coracle making course at the Woodland Skills Centre in Bodfari, near Denbigh. Our tutor was James Mitchell and the coracle design was the Boyne, as in the Irish river. Apparently the Welsh design, with cleft ash, is a bit tricky for beginners, hence the Boyne, based on hazel rods or any old withy.

James, making things look easy
We selected our rods from several sheaves and tidied up their stems, removing knots and small branches. Next we made a cross, measuring 5 by 4 feet, and inserted ribs and runners; ribs along the sides and runners at either end. 8 rods or poles went down the length of one side and another 8 along the other side with 6 poles at each end. A bar was used to sink a hole 8 inches deep, into which each rod was secured.

Next came the weaving of pairs of twisted rods threading through the 28 rods planted into the ground and after two circuits of twisted pairs, then the seat was prepared. An adze was used to finish the surface of the seat giving a rustic look as distinct from the teeth of a chainsaw. Nicks were sawn and chopped at either end to fit the seat snugly between the middle 2 rods at either side resting on the twisted rods. Then a further 2 pairs of twisted rods secured the seat and poles into a rigid position. 
Bending those rods

Next came the tricky bit of bending the rods to meet their counterparts at the other side or end. The motion was a pull and a push with the occasional twist and bending over the knee. There were many ominous cracks and sometimes the rods would snap and need to be replaced. Sometimes they would split, which James referred to as ‘de-laminating’, with 1 or 2 years of outer growth separating from the rod. We were advised to stick to narrow rods of less than an inch thick; the thicker they were, the harder it was to bend them. Shaving some layers on the inner side of the proposed bend helped to make the bending process a bit easier.

At the start of day two we finished off the bending and trimmed the narrow ends of rods to squeeze through the weave. It looked very ungainly and impossible for the runners to neatly lash into the ribs, but they did. James demonstrated the ‘square truss’, an elaborate way of lashing a rib to a runner, and then I had another 47 to do. Getting a slip knot effect was an efficient way to leave both hands free and, with one and sometimes two feet on the runners, the runners were forced down to touch the ribs and secured with sisal, a length of about 2 metres per knot.
Upside down basket or
coracle growing out of the ground
Tying seemed to go on forever and then it was time to insert the Spanish windlass, a double thickness of sisal with a rod twisted in the middle, just to keep the tension between the sides beneath the seat.

After this we needed to lever the coracle from out of the clutches of the 28 rods sunk 8” into the sandy ground. Slowly the coracle rose out of the ground, like an awaking armadillo, and then the weave was tamped down. Unnecessary and sticky-out bits were pruned out including the bottoms of the rods. Any sharp notches or blemishes were smoothed and then the coracle was set on top of a length of canvas.

Norman sewing on the canvas
We were instructed in how to sew with an upholstery C shaped needle; the sort used by Victorian surgeons. A series of 1 foot chunks were sewn at the top, then bottom then both sides, the four corners and then we filled in all the gaps; all the while pulling the canvas tight. Then the coracle was lifted onto a table, upside down, ready for bitumen. The first coat was thinned and went on easily; I say this because I was at home enjoying a beer and some supper while James our diligent tutor was painting into the solstice dusk.

Paul applying bitumen
On the start of day 3 we turned the coracles right side up and painted the rim. Then we turned them upside down once more on top of tables and applied a thick dollop of bitumen. You think you’re doing a thorough job until you look from beneath and see all the ‘stars’ which will leak water. For this stage you needed to team up with a fellow student; the ‘star gazer’ would lie on his or her back beneath the coracle pressing a stick at any stars or constellations whilst an extra dollop was applied to block the light. The freshly painted hulls were left gleaming in the sun whilst we went into the shed to make our paddles.

A stout hazel rod with a bend was inserted into a shaving horse and with a draw knife I made a smooth and level end onto which a paddle-shaped piece of marine ply could be affixed.  A crude handle was affixed to the top end and linseed oil applied to the paddle blade. 
Coco sculling 

After lunch we headed off to a lake and James instructed us in the 3 essential skills; getting in, getting out and sculling. Sculling was nothing like those narrow rowing boats with sliding seats and a pair of oars, it was more like sticking a food mixer into the water in front of you and wiggling it around in a figure of eight. It took a while to get going but once moving, the sculling motion propelled you along quite smoothly. A single stroke with the paddle down the side had the effect of setting off a spinning wheel. 

This course was my 60th birthday present and I don’t think I will ever forget it. Thank you Sue and thank you James for your patience.


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