• 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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Frequently Asked Questions


Where do you source your wood?


People often ask me where I source my wood. My answer is, from a tree. And I'm not just being silly. 

If I want to turn  bowl of a size appropriate for salads, or for fruit, I can't just go down to the local woodyard and buy the right chunk. Most woodyards sell timber for construction, or cabinet making. It is planked, and the maximum thickness you are likely to find is 100mm. That is a shallow bowl at best.

Then there is the type of wood. Twenty years ago, or even ten, a local woodyard would probably have some locally source fruitwood in a corner, or a stack of local oak, or chestnut. Not any more. They will have some oak, but it will be kiln dried and likely French, or American. 

So you need to go to a specialist dealer. In every region there are those who will source you ash, or lime, or maple, or exotics. But again these are usuallly planked for purposes of seasoning, and again are meant for cabinet work or the like. And often they are imported. 

Nationally, there are a few dealers who specialise in selling wood for turning - usually bowl blanks, or square sections for reduction to cylinders. The wood is usually sold 'semi-seasoned' which usually means kiln dried but not guaranteed not to split. 

In the meantime, your neighbour is having a yew cut down to make way for their kitchen extension, or an apple tree because it's ceased to fruit well, or an oak, because it's shading the garden.

That's where to source your wood, and where I source mine. And providing you return to them a bowl, made from the wood of their tree, they are often happy to let you have the rest for little or nothing.



How do you choose the wood?


Well, it all depends what you want to do with it. If you want to make a perfect bowl, then you choose a piece of trunk which is straight grained, no branches or shoots, and no faults. You rough turn it green, let it dry out, put it back in the lathe, and finish turn it to the perfect object, 

That's not what I do. I choose a piece which is going to have an interesting figure. The crutch , where the branches split, will have two diverging sets of growth rings and probably some flaring, where the wood has been stressed. Or there is a place where a branch has been cut or broken off. The wound has healed, but the figuring will be there in the grain, and probably some natural staining. Or the wound hasn't healed, and a fungus has invaded, making spalted patterns.

But then you have to choose the cut. 

Many people assume that because the trunk of the tree is round, and the bowl is round, that the bowl is made from a horizontal slice of the tree. You can make bowls this way and you can easily recognise them by the concentric rings they have, just like the tree. But they are weak, particularly if they have any size. That's because as wood dries, it splits. and it splits down the grain, not across it. So to  make a robust bowl, you take a section of the tree, halve it vertically, turn your halved section over to the horizontal plane, and draw your bowl circle from above. In other words, when you cut the bowl, you are cutting it into the cross grain.

And if you have chosen a piece of the tree with an interesting figure, this is what will come out as you cut into the cross grain. It's a process of exploration, and never totally predictable.

And no rule says that you always have to cut on the vertical or the horizontal. You can cut on the diagonal. and what does that do to the patterns in the grain?




How long do you leave the wood to season?


As soon as the living tree is felled the wood starts drying out. But mostly it dries out up and down the grain, not across it. Most of the living cells in a tree run up and down the trunk or a branch. When a tree is cut horizontally, most of the cells in the trunk are severed and bleed. Meanwhile, the bark is waterproof, and doesn't lose moisture.

The sapwood, at the exterior of the tree, has much more moisture than the heartwood at the middle, so it shrinks more. Look at any wood pile of firewood, and you will see this radial shrinkage where the cracks radiate from the centre, getting wider towards the edge.

If you cut a bowl from a newly felled tree ('green wood') it will dry differentially according to the moisture content of the different parts. So if half the bowl was heartwood and half sapwood one side will shrink more than the other.

If the bowl is turned cross grain  in half the trunk, the shrinkage is predictable. The shrinkage across the grain will always be more than the shrinkage along the grain. so viewed from the top, it will become oval. But viewed from the side it will be boat shaped because the lateral shrinkage has pulled the sides down. 

So to answer the question - it all depends! A small bowl, thin turned , of say pearwood might have dried out completely in three weeks without splitting. A piece from the same tree, turned large and thicker, could well take 3 months or more, and even then be at risk of splittting. Left in the trunk, without rough turning or planking, could be three or more years drying out, and would almost certainly split in the process, though different species vary greatly.



How long does it take you to make a bowl?


As long as a piece of string, is the only sensible answer.

It obviously depends on the size of the bowl, the type of wood, whether it is green or seasoned, straight grained or twisted, etc etc. 

But the actual shaping - the fun part- can sometimes be quite quick in relation to the total process.

Think about it. You need to cut down a tree, and cut out a section of it with a chain saw. You need a flat surface on which to inscibe the circle which is the rough outline of your bowl. You then cut a parallel flat surface on a bandsaw for the base of the bowl. Back to the bandsaw and cut the circle as best you can depending upon the thickness of the wood and the breadth of the blade. 

Now to the lathe, and you need to secure the wood in the headstock, probably by screwing through a faceplate and mounting the plate in the lathe. For a large bowl you may well need help in lifting the woodstock whilst you fasten the plate. 

You rough turn the outside. For a small bowl it might take 20 minutes. For a large one it might take 2 hours. Then you have to reverse the stock to turn the inside. so you have to hold the base in some way. Centring this is crucial. If the turning centre for the inside is different  from that of the outside the bowl wall will be thick in one part and thin in another.

Then you turn the inside, which is the trickiest part since twice on any revolution you are turning against the grain and in a bowl of any depth you will not be able to see what you are doing. But you carry on, stopping frequently to judge the thickness of the bowl wall, until you are satisfied with the inner profile, as well as the outer. Anywhichway, it takes longer than the outside did.

Then you take it out of the lathe, rough finished, and set it aside to dry out. 

After a few weeks, or months, when it is dry you put it back in the lathe to finish it, first by cutting, then by sanding. Depending upon the finish you want this could take little time, it could take lots. If the bowl has warped quite a way out of true (the most interesting ones) you will have to hand sand the irregularities. You may even want to do some carving at this stage to accentuate the structural irregularity.

Then you need to consider whether to give a matt or polished finish, whether to apply oil, or wax,or some other finishing product to give the correct sheen, as well as surface durability. And how many applications, and what depth of colour.

Apart from all that, it's quick and simple, unless you hit snags in the wood. Which you usually do.

String is more straighforward.

And none of the above takes account of workshop and tool maintenance. Which takes time, and costs.



Do you have a favourite wood?


The short answer is , No.

There are woods I like to work with. Certainly ones I prefer. And others I wouldn't seek out. 

I guess that over the years I have worked with most English hardwoods and know their characteristics. In fact I can recognise quite a few just by their smell!

But for me part of the joy of turning is discovering the particularity of an interesting piece of wood. Some turners visualise the ideal bowl they want to create and search for the perfect piece of wood to realise that vision. I am the opposite. I start with a lump of wood which looks interesting, and I open it up. I don't know, until I start working it, even what the shape is going to be. I follow the wood. It is a process of discovery, every time. 

So it is with different woods. Recently someone gave me a piece of turkey oak. It is not native to the UK but to southern Europe (though this piece was Staffordshire grown), and I had never turned it before. It had a distinct contrast between the heart wood and sapwood, so it intrigued me to turn one bowl heart-centred and one sapwood-centred. And since they were turned green, I'm still watching how differently they behave as they dry out.

But to go back to the drift of the question, I love turning yew, I love the colour, the dramatic contrast between the orange heartwood and the white sapwood, the way in which it mellows with age, the natural oiliness which makes cutting it a pleasure, the convolutions of the bark, the intricacies of new buds in the grain. But no way would I want to work it all the time. And as with many woods the colour  varies greatly from tree to tree.

I would want to contrast it with the open, coarser grain of ash, with its olive discolourations. Or with the smoothness of sycamore with some spalting, or the drama of spalted beech. I never thought I would take to an open grained poplar until I revelled in its lightness. And that's before we get on to the fruitwoods.

One of the most enjoyable pieces I turned in recent years was old hawthorn, which was heavily spalted, and if anybody offers me holly I'll be round like a flash. Now damson - you can really get some colouring in that. Apple I always enjoy, and it varies so much. But I now draw the line at araucaria (monkey puzzle to you). Ask me why when you see me...

But my most recent discovery was what Jacky calls the understated elegance of maple. The field maple we had cut down last autumn has produced some stunning, albeit small, bowls. Admittedly I choose the patterning carefully, cutting through crutches to get knots and stress wood, but green turned it has behaved very well ,with few cracks and only modest deformation. But finished, the result is pure satin, both to look at and to touch.  I now have my eye on another tree...