In the last couple of weeks since my previous post, things have once again been fairly hectic. As well as getting ready for the last big show of the season (for us anyway), I have had a multitude of bits and pieces to finish off for various people, including an assortment of Roman items for my wife and a suitably period looking potters’ wheel for her to use as a Saxon, along with a few bone tools for shaping the pots. Finally I also ended up (at very short notice) on a pole lathe course which was rather exciting.
After doing this re-enactment malarky now for over a decade, something that we have never seen is an Early Medieval potter at work in the LH village. As my wife is a qualified potter and fancied doing something a bit different to her usual crafts (basketry and textiles), we decided to build her a potters’ wheel and accoutrements.
The core design of the wheel is the same as work benches since before the Romans – a bed of a cleft half round sycamore log supported by three ash legs to make it stable even on uneven ground. After using a drawknife to flatten out some of the grain, a short length of half round was then pegged near the front of the base and a vertical hole bored down through it and into the bed. A short length of ash was used here as the spindle and then two wide boards were joined by strips of wood and the wheel cut out of this. Finally, a lathe turned hub was attached underneath the wheel and voila! A perfectly accurate interpretation of a Saxon potter’s slow wheel.
Finds of definite pottery tools (rather than decorative stamps) are sparse to non-existent from the Early Medieval, so for a basic set I simply roughly copied the modern tools that are available, with the only major change being lengthening the teeth on the comb.
Despite a shaky start, the wheel worked out quite well and she managed to turn out some rather nice pots. Due to unforeseen breakages on the way home I unfortunately don’t have pictures of what she made. However if you were at Lindisfarne and saw the pots that she had made, the reason they don’t look as wheel thrown as a modern pot is that we decided on making a slow wheel (i.e. turned by hand) rather than a fast or kick wheel (that is a later project). This means that the wheel functions more as a mobile work platform allowing you to rotate the pot without lifting it, rather than as a modern electric wheel where the spinning of the wheel at high speed allows for a different style of pot making.
Playing with pole lathes
As I mentioned above, I found out at very short notice that a previously full course I had signed up for covering the basics of pole lathe turning suddenly had an opening and that I could go. The only downside to this was that I missed the first day of the Lindisfarne show, though it did mean that I had the chance to learn a new skill and get a close look at a pole lathe and study their operation ready for constructing my own.
When I got the to the course, I found all the lathes rather closely packed under an awning. Originally the idea was to setup in the wood behind the carpark but the weather was being temperamental so we just stayed under cover in the carpark and worked there.
There were six of us on the course (including a woman who was now working as a joiner for York Minster but last year was actually apprenticed to a member of Northumbria in his “real life” job – small world).
Running the course was a very knowledgeable and affable chap called Chris Helliwell who has been in charge of similar courses for a number of years. As the group on the whole was new to pole lathe turning and relatively inexperienced regarding turning in general (I think I was the only person present who regularly used an electric lathe), the first thing that was covered was preparing the wood ready for turning. There was a lovely piece of fresh green ash (only cut about 5 days earlier) and a length of green sycamore. After cutting a piece of the correct length, Chris demonstrated splitting and shaping using an axe before popping the billet into the shave horse and finishing the shaping with a drawknife (needless to say that by this point I was thinking “I have a shave horse, I know how to do this now please let me start turning something! :D). Once the billet was ready he quickly turned out a garden dibber (about 20 mins) and informed us that this would be our first piece as it teaches the basics of using the roughing gouge, spindle gouge and skew chisel.
Finally unleashed I rapidly hacked and shaved a billet of ash to the required dimensions and dived onto a lathe! While it took me a little longer than 20 minutes, I did make a fairly respectable dibber and once it had been inspected I was then allowed to just have a go at whatever I fancied. The next piece was a simple mallet, made more because I need one rather than because it would teach any particular skill.
After the mallet was done, I decided to go a step further and try a goblet. These are a bit fiddly as the inside needs to be hollowed out once the the outside has been finished, and working into end grain on a pole lathe (even with razor sharp tools) is awkward and tiring. The end result was acceptable, though not quite as fine as I would have liked. However, we had already spent an additional 30 mins longer than we should have so I am pleased that it is actually finished, even if the walls are a little thicker than ideal.
The items I made aside, the main experience I gained was about the techniques of using a pole lathe, where the stresses lie and so on, which should enable me to build my own over the winter ready to use next year at shows. The alternative is to help our new member (a green woodworker) build his own bowl turning lathe and I build a smaller bow lathe for bone objects. Either way, at least one period lathe of some description will be built and ready for use next year!
Lindisfarne (and apprentices)
This past bank holiday weekend was also the 3 day Vikings major show at Lindisfarne and though I missed the Saturday, I was there for Sunday and Monday, thus avoiding the bad weather early on and getting two rather pleasant day.
Due to the way the tides were for getting on and off the island, I packed relatively lightly and left the shave horse, skulls and so on at home, bringing only a box of tools, bucket of materials and a selection of already made items. I didn’t even have a proper table, only a board raised up on a few pegs.
However this is didn’t stop the public (and other Vikings) being enthralled by the variety of artefacts I had on display, and for those two days the little area around where myself and the apprentices (more on that soon) was usually packed with interested people. As usual everyone was surprised at the range of items made from bone and that it wasn’t just for “poor people and peasants” (that assumption always irks me, but that is the plot for another post). Unfortunately I don’t have any photos of the setup or the show in general – I really must start getting some of the group that don’t dress up to take some specific photos for me.
Regarding apprentices; recently a member of the RPG group I used to run came back from university and he and his fiancée decided that they wanted to join the Vikings and have some fun. As his background is bones, he wants to follow me down the route of the boneworker and so has pretty much much apprenticed himself to me. Generally this means that he comes and uses my shed to make needles and knife handles and other fairly basic stuff. Over the weekend though it also meant that after watching me a few times, he could trot out the usual chatter about the display and leave me free to go and have a look around. As if one was not enough though, a woman from another group was also very interested in bone working and wanted to have a go. After a bit of guidance and explanation she was good to go and so I ended up with a pair of apprentices for two days; one demonstrating and the other talking to the crowd allowing me to come and go as I please without leaving an empty display in the village. I could get used to this easy life! 😀 My usual apprentice has also decided to start a blog about his hobby; Becoming Viking.
As for the rest of the show, it was a lot of fun and unlike last year I managed to scrape by without a single serious injury or arrow to the face. There was a lot of additional acting going on regarding the Lindisarne Gospels and their theft and the various viking raids on Monkwearmouth, Jarrow and Lindisfarne and as always the whole cast had more ham than a butchers shop (or Twilight movie) and the crowd thought it was hilarious, especially when the vikings were suddenly “attacked by local wildlife” and someone jumped on them dressed in a furry wolf costume!
Overall an excellent show (as Lindisfarne usually is), the weather was good as was the company and looking forward to next years outing there.