Reflecting on a project for the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew

Every so often we receive a request that not only pushes the limits of what we can do, but gets my brain buzzing with energy and ideas.

When a very special tree had to be taken down at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in 2014, we were approached by Tony Kirkham, Head of the Arboretum, to design and make a special seat in time for 2018, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of the World War I . Many of the Kew garden staff lost their lives in ‘the Great War’, and as a gesture of remembrance, Kew grew two oak trees from acorns recovered from the battlefield of Verdun in France. On 23rd October 2013, one of these trees was was severely damaged by St Jude’s storm, just six years shy of its one hundredth birthday, and Kew decided to use this oak in a way to commemorate those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.

Whenever we’re faced with a request such as this which carries this additional layer of significance, we want the outcome to go above everyone’s expectations.

What I didn’t expect at the time of my first meeting with Tony at Kew, early in 2014, was that I was about to embark on a journey touching some of my long standing passions of forestry, wood heritage, as well as design.

I don’t wish to spoil any of the surprises that Kew will announce in December, so this entry is to give you a glimpse into the process we undertake at Gaze Burvill when dealing with treasured clients.

Assessing the tree and understanding the best way to cut a trunk into boards in order to get the most stable, warp-resistant, strong wood is specialised work, so in April 2015, we took our Verdun oak to Heldon Sawmill, accompanied by Geoff Tyler of Tyler Hardwoods, and his experienced team for the job of ‘milling’ the tree.

Adding to the challenge, we decided to quarter-saw the boards, a more complex, time-consuming cutting process. This is a highly skilled cutting technique which, as well as  revealing unique and beautiful medullar rays in the wood grain, also produces the strongest and most stable cut from the oak - the fillet steak of the tree, so to speak.

Watching a tree trunk going through the sawmill is one of several knuckle-biting stages in the transformation of trunk to usable wood board. It is all the more exciting when the oak is to be quarter sawn.

Trees do hold secrets, however, and there were six potentially lethal ones hiding in our Verdun tree trunk - six nails, probably used decades ago to pin a poster to the trunk, and over time, enveloped into the growing tree, eventually becoming completely hidden from sight.

Secrets will out, as we all know, and this one came out with a very big bang indeed, which called a sudden halt to the sawing process, in the very last cutting section.

We had successfully produced 18 strong, clean boards from the trunk for our 2018 memorial seat, but were left with the last portion in a state too dangerous to saw into.

This orphan piece, a sculptural wedge shape, had its own beauty about it - with dark streaking marks from the metal nails visible, like a dark wound, and rather haunting.

It felt right to celebrate the 'injured' board just as much as those who survived their sawmill ordeal intact - returning heroes all…

And so, the Verdun Bench is born - a raw, evocative seat, which shows its scars proudly,

There will be an unveiling ceremony to take place on December 20th, 2016 at Kew, marking the centenary of the end of the Battle of Verdun.

I’m filled with pride and delighted to say the finishing touches are being put onto a completely unique object which allows visitors to Kew gardens a place to rest and reflect, surrounded by the world’s best collection of plants and fungi upon which all our lives depend.

A Celebration of Oak:  Part 1

A Celebration of Oak: Part 1

For my first blog where better to start than with the ‘common Oak’, Quercus robur and Quercus petraea, also known as ‘English Oak’ or ‘European Oak’ which we use to make our furniture.  

In future blogs I will keep coming back to this theme, sharing my thoughts and also a wider knowledge not only about the fantastic properties of this wonderful material but also the magnificent trees from which this wood comes, where they are grown and how they are looked after..  So if this is your interest (rather than design and furniture which are other passions of mine) just scan my blogs for ‘A Celebration of Oak’.. for others in the series.

What is it about an oak tree that makes it so important, that touches the ‘heart of an Englishmen’ and has made it a national icon?..  Is it it’s strength, it’s durability, it’s rugged beauty and age (oak trees can live to be over 1,000 years) or is it because they are common, oak is our most prevalent forested hardwood (over 20% of all broadleaved woods in Great Britain are oak*), and such a great resource and provider (oak forests are among the most biologically diverse habitats in our countryside and historically when felled every bit of the tree had a use from it’s bark to it’s prized timber more on that in future blogs).  I like to think that it is a combination of all of these and much more, however I find myself applying words to Oak that are not normally associated with a wood or tree.. I believe a significant reason for its iconic status is that as well as all of the above,  it’s Honest and Authentic.  

Oak is revered not only throughout our island nation but right across Europe.  In France where most of the Oak (Chêne) we use comes from, it makes up over a quarter of the nation’s woodlands or in other words oak forests cover an area almost twice the size of all the woods in Great Britain**.  In all probability ‘they have more oak trees than we have trees’, nobody has counted them so this is a guess, and they manage them extremely well, often following rules laid by Napoleon.  We also source some of our oak from certified forests in Germany where once again Oak (Eiche) is seen as an iconic national tree and one that touches different people in its own unique way.

To finish on a subject about which I am passionate about, like these trees, the French have a lovely expression, often ascribed to oak, ‘C’est Noble’ (pronounced ‘Nerbbla’)...It’s noble and for me that sums it up!  

Next Time:  Did you know that oak when grown fast is heavier and stronger than when it is grown slowly?  I will explain why… Watch this space.

* Source: National Inventory of Woodland and Trees - FC 2003

** Source: L’ONF ‘Bilan Patrimonial 2011 des forêts domaniales