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  • Roger Waterhouse

The Mystery of Yew


I don't know what it is about yew, but it exercises a fascination over people who are not workers in wood, but who love the wood, or the tree, or all the associations historical and spiritual that it has.

And then of course there is the English longbow.

There is an excellent book by Fred Hageneder called 'Yew - a History', full of information, and beautifully illustrated, which explores every aspect of the tree you can think of. But it still doesn't explain to me this widespread and visceral fascination.

A few weeks ago I was contacted by a lady who wanted to know if I could turn a special piece of yew. She and her husband lived in a house up against an old yew tree. A couple of years ago they had to have the tree pruned because it was too close to the house, but they had kept some pieces of branch from this very special tree. Her husband was now approaching a special birthday and she would love to surprise him with a present of a bowl, or other object ,made from their special tree.

I asked her about the wood, and it really did not seem promising. There were two pieces, both small. One a section of branch, and the other pretty nondescript but with chainsaw marks in the bark.

We discussed what could be done with them - not a lot - and eventually she decided to let her husband into the secret so he could have an input into what I might do.

They arrived, and it helped that they were lovely people, but the pieces of wood were unprepossessing to say the least. We discussed the possibilities and agreed that one piece should be made into a bowl, and the other into a vase shape. I actually relished the challenge - not least because of the emotional significance of these prunings.

I started with the bowl. There were deep cracks in the wood, as well as the chainsaw cuts. But it turned up nicely.

I started, very carefully, on the inside.

Going in through the irregular and very broken bark required patience, but it worked without any disaster.

You have to look hard to see where the sawcuts were. I obviously had to stabilise the fragile edge, but I was pleased with the result.

So now came the challenge of the branch. Unlike the bowl which I knew had a branch growing out of it and would have a twisted grain, this looked a straight and boring piece of wood.

I started spindle turning it.

There were threatening spilts throughout the length, but surprisingly, some interesting discolourations began to appear.

I flared the top, and opened up the inside by boring.

I tapered the inside because of the cracks, and only took the hollowing to half way down the stem to retain enough weight in the base to make it stable.

I was particularly pleased by the way in which the flare worked at the top.

So the pair turned out all right.

Which goes to show that yew is a beautiful wood, and full of surprises! Happily, the clients were well pleased also.

But it leaves me pondering both the beauty and the appeal of yew.


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