• Roger Waterhouse

Hurdles, Horses and Workouts

In the days when I had an office job I couldn't wait to get into my workshop when I could find the time. In those days I thought of it as relaxation, but I now realise it's what kept me fit.

Working wood is hard physical work, particularly if your preference is to start by felling tree. And turning , say, a thirty inch diameter forty-foot high hardwood into something you can use involves major effort, even when it's lying prone on the ground. (Clearing up the mess is another matter).

This truth was brought home to me today when I was sitting astride my horse.

Let me explain.

Jacky my wife is not only a keen and experienced gardener, she is also a qualified one. Gardening is the secondary main art she practices nowadays (The first is cooking). In the garden she paints with plants - not just flowers, but leaves, textures, shapes. And she has an artist's eye for the daily changing canvas.

The shapes involve structures, some manufactured. Some we have commissioned (thank you Dave Turner). Some Jacky builds - out of hazel and willow. And some she asks me to make - particularly hurdles.

I make them from green wood, in the spring when the sap is rising, so this is the hurdle season. They are mostly low, used for dividing beds or proping up plants.

Yesterday I identified a chestnut sapling, three inch diameter at base and about 18 foot high, which would provide all the wood I needed for a small hurdle. I took it down, cut off the lowest three feet, and cleaved the resulting pole into two halves.

Cleaving is not as straight forward as it sounds. You need a froe which is short pole with a thin blade about 10 inches long which sticks out at right angles. You tap the blade into the sawn off end of the pole you want to cleave, and as it splits you work it down the length to give you two matching halves. It isn't a chopping action, it's a splitting by levering the froe handle from side to side. The difficult thing is keeping it running down the middle, and not running off to the side.

The two cleaved halves gave me the matching side posts I needed for the hurdle.

This morning I cut the rest of the chestnut trunk into three equal pieces which would form the bars of the hurdle.

Then I need to shape all five members, which I did on my shaving horse. Here it is.

(Actually the piece of wood being shaved in this picture is the top bar of the gate I wrote about yesterday)

The way it works is this. You sit at the right hand end - the saddle. The vertical frame pivots about its mid point. When you push with your feet on the bottom bar, the top bar traps your work piece as in a vice. Underneath the workpiece is a hinged slab and you narrow the jaws of the vice by jamming a wedge nearer or further down the wedge. To quick release, all you do is take your feet off the bottom bar.

For the cutting you need a draw knife, which is a blade with two handles. As the name implies, you cut by pulling it towards you. You control the depth of cut by the angle at which you hold the knife. In the picture you can see the knife top side of the vertical frame. You can't see me holding the knife because I was taking the picture.

It was when I was sitting on the horse shaping - I think it was the fourth - piece that it struck me how I had been keeping fit all these years. I was two hours into a work out on a device equivalent to a rowing machine. And given that I could still do on the eve of my eightieth birthday, and haven't yet contracted coronavirus, it seemed a cause for celebration - or at least gratitude.

And what of my hurdle?

Well, I shaped the members - here is the half-way stage, with the froe on the left hand side.

I drilled holes for the mortices.

I've made rectangular mortices in the past, but they take a lot more time for no real benefit.

I put the cross bars in the lathe and turned round tenons at both ends.

I then assemble the whole thing.


Actually it's not simple.

The precision bit of the whole process is the mortice and tenons. Given that you are working without any trued up surfaces or straight lines, getting six joints tight fitting and precisely aligned is a challenge.

There are books on the subject which tell you to use a dowel cutter for the round tenons. This is an ancient tool which enabled you to make round poles by hand. But you need to be a skilled operator. And in making joints like these the really difficult thing is to keep the dowel cut in the same plane at both ends and on all three bars. If you have a lathe, keeping them true is easy.

Jacky doesn't want a perfectly constructed, perfectly regular hurdle to decorate her garden. And the natural twist of the wood will ensure that she doesn't get it.

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