A New Workshop

my new studio workshop

In our first planning application somewhere around the year 2000, we applied, among other things, for a workshop. In their last, 2016, decision, the Park finally gave it to us, so now I am going for it! My own (Tony Wrench's, that is) workshop. I may be too old to turn bowls for much longer, and don't have the electricity to do it off grid, but no doubt the workshop will be a space for creativity of many kinds. It is the first private build I have undertaken since 2014, and may be the last I do, so I am trying to incorporate simple things I have learned along the way.

First, my principle still stands: SEMPER FUNQUET. May it always be funky. With this build, so far, I have measured almost nothing, and am doing almost everything by eye. One or two devices aid accuracy where it is needed, though, and I have used several ideas I have learned along the route, plus one or two new ones. Generally speaking, though, this build has some wacky shapes and angles and lacks many things being 'right' that we were all taught was essential. This is an experiment. I am daily grateful for the chance given me to be experimental. There have been many periods in my life when I have had to be orthodox and do things by the rules. Luckily I have gradually disentangled myself from stuff I don't want to do, so now have an acre of land to be myself in. (Quick plug - I have written a book of Scenes from my Life. Buy one when it comes out to put in your compost toilet. Each scene is just the right length. See the new Books page)

Second, let's make it warm. We funky low impact livers have learned a lot trying to live in West Wales through Welsh winters, which are getting wetter. The happiest have devised ways of living a bit off the ground, so that everything can be kept free from damp, and to deter exploitative visits from our rodent natives. I am also impressed by modern building codes in their quest for massively good insulation. This must, of course be tempered with an aim to build with natural materials where possible, and to build very cheaply. So I have a platform raised off the ground with a sub-floor 8 inches, 400mm, below it. The gap will be filled with untreated, unwashed (so still rich in lanolin) sheep's wool. This floor will definitely be the driest, warmest floor I have ever made. It better be. It has cost £900 or more, and I don't want to spend more than £1500 on the whole thing. Warm face, warm 'ands, warm feet; oh wouldn't it be luvverley.....

This is a brief summary of so far. It is a slow build, with the odd fast bit. Here I am at the start, in November 2017, sitting on a giant oak log that four young Bristolians cut for us by hand from the big felled oak in the woods, musing in the space that I have cleared in what was an area of blackthorn scrub. It is a bit draughty up there, but has a fine view over the valley south to Meibion Owen. I want to keep that view and gaze on it more. A big window, please.

sitting on a log contemplating the space

So, let it be cobwood round the back, where North is, and glass round a lot of the front. If I want cobwood, which involves several hundred logs about 400 mm, 16", long, I had better start taking the best logs from our firewood coppicing and cut the logs in advance. Here is Jim and his pony Billy helping us in the winter drag logs from the coppice. Note the pervading mud.

Jim and Billy help us move coppiced trunks from the wood

It rained a lot this winter, so to be able to do anything, I needed a shelter. Here is the farewell appearance of our ex-army 24 feet by 24 feet field canteen.

the winter shelter

By April I had received the locally sourced and milled larch wood, (400 x 200mm x 3m lengths), levelled the blocks with the aid of neighbour Julie, and laid out the basic foundation. All the blocks are set approx 400+ mm in the ground and are oak cut by me from the downed forest oak and dragged uphill to the site, usually by Faith, Shifties, or the Irish superhuman Pat Malone, who had big muscles, thick ropes and good ideas.

 the floor joists being set in place

I have some good help from local friends on this build. Here Adam and Julie (taking the pic - thanks, Julie) were the helpers.
I screwed the joists to the centre block with timber fix screws and Makita cordless impact driver. We now have enough solar to charge 18v batteries any day, so this has been a great way of working. I know purists like to stick everything together with wood, but this experiment allows fewer wood joints and about £150 worth of top quality hex head wood screws plus a bottle of gorilla glue. I like glueing things, so am glueing where I can here. Notice that you can just see the 1" x 1" battens nailed to the lower edge of the joists to hold plywood sub-floor.

joists shaped and screwed into oak centre block

Plywood shaped and dropped into place. I won't fill this space with wool until it is rainproof! Starting to plank the floor. This is a local green builder, Alan Isted's way of doing it, and I like the look of it. It does mean cutting each little segment and then fitting it like a giant lego, but it only needs simple hand tools and can be done on nice quiet sunny afternoons, of which we have had plenty this Spring.

marking each plank out by eye, but also using an angle gauge to hold to the space each time. No measuring. Handsaw.

Romeo Regent outdoor grape looking' good as it unfurls.

Romeo Regent

From Feb till May I had the honour of being first tutor on a Tir Coed woodland roundhouse build near Haverfordwest. Here two of the volunteers from that build are helping with this one. Two mighty and generous souls, Paul (on left) and Matt try out the larch upright and cedar crosspiece for size.

Paul and Matt

Here they are preparing the slots to take a bench or shelf in an arch.

Paul and Matt chisel out slots to take bracing bench/shelf

Here is the plan! Five braced arches, linked by a cedar crosspiece. Two enormous second-hand patio doors, picked up in two runs from a grateful owner in Pembroke Dock. I don't know how we will get these doors down the track, but usually someone at Brithdir, John, obliges with the community tractor. I only made this rough plan when I knew how big these windows were. If we get them up and running they will be a dream come true. They are massively heavy. Anyway, the plan.

The Plan, slightly to scale

It has always been a tricky operation to get the bottom of an organically shaped upright post to sit flat on the floor or a pad stone so that it is vertical. Here is a new way I have used on this build which works well. Make a simple Scriber like this, of a block of sawn wood, with a felt tip pen mounted to be steady when scribing.

Sacred Scriber

While one person (Alastair) holds the post upright, with the aid of wedges and after the team giving judgement from several angles and points of view, the other (Julie) uses the Sacred Scriber to make a line exactly parallel with the floor around the post. The post is then marked, and then cut to the line.

Alastair holds and Julie scribes

Alastair marks the number of the post, and where it stands on the floor.

Alastair marks the number of the post, and where it stands on the floor

June 5th, me, Matt,Adam, Julie, Paul. Alastair has just gone home. What a team!

the team on Wed 5th June

The next day we finished the henge and put up the reciframe. The ash rafters, cut at coppice time, were strong but bouncy, so I measured nothing, but arranged the poles at the centre by eye. It is a strange shape, but will be big enough to hold the two big coach windows I bought from Richard Sylvan in March to be the double glazed skylight.
To hold each rafter from slipping down as they went up, we used slices of tractor tyre inner tube, an idea from Rubber Band Ray in Ireland. They worked fine.

Here is a pano of the Oval on 7th June 2018.

Reciframe up

Faith in full colour:


Slabbing starts on the roof.

slabbing starts on the roof

This morning:

the oval on June 9th

UPDATE Sept30th 2020 ! There has been a long gap since the last entry, during which I forgot how to update this blog. Sorry about that. To continue with the workshop build:

The roof, walls and the floor can now be worked on simultaneously. The following photos show
Putting raw wool under the floor
The roof nearly complete
Paul and I getting the first patio window (second hand and free, but what a game getting them down our track)
The chimney fitted through the various roof layers
The new skylight - two coach windows sandwiching the hole in the pond liner, covered with a thin layer of turf then planted with sedums
wool being stuffed under floor

the centre circle skylight seen from underneath.

Work on the walls:

The first bales go in and Sonia and Angel help with the first coat of clay and sand.

I am working on the cobwood wall, with a mix of clay, sand, hemp shiv and 10%lime putty for the mortar, and pure straw in the middle as heat barrier:

The workshop was finished in 2019. In Jan 2021, after a lockdown year of very little woodturning, I gave up my old workshop in a nearby farm building and decided to try to go all solar, so by May 2021 the workshop has our old house battery of 1000 amp hours (more like amp minutes now, owing to old age), the house now having a new set of LiFePO4 batteries. I bought a new lathe from the US (made in China but unobtainable on Alibaba, unfortunately). New lathes for making plates and bowls are surprisingly hard to come by. I also needed a new 2500 watt inverter (also made in China), so now here it is, my new all-solar workstation! I have been dreaming of this for about forty years.

Inside the workshop, April 2021

the new lathe

Outside the workshop there is a small gadget from the US that boosts the output from a solar panel to exactly that required for an bike 48volt battery, ie 54.6 volts. I can charge my etrike battery without recourse to an inverter now. I just plug it into this. It is behind the solar panel

the view from the south

the view from the west

On the south side I have whimsically planted some Brandt vines with the intention of encouraging some of the to grow through holes in the front boarding and to spread along the windows on the inside. I'll let you know how that goes.

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