04. Heavy duty sawing

A large tree on site has to be felled, so I grab the opportunity to make the most of the timber.

A simple ecological principle that applies as well to building as it does to everyday life is to source locally. Unfortunately it’s not easy to follow in our topsy-turvy world where it’s cheaper to source almost everything – food, clothes, building materials – from the other side of the world than from our own back yard.

This idea was important to the architects of the Arts and Crafts movement whose interest in vernacular buildings and traditional methods of construction inevitably turned their gaze towards the local materials that had shaped these methods. Like many eco-builders today, they wanted both to challenge the values of mass house-building and to reclaim the quality and character of site-sensitive construction.

Although I’m keen to follow this principle too for both ecological and aesthetic reasons it’s a bit difficult to realise in the middle of south London where I cannot nip down to the local wood, quarry or kiln. Nonetheless I have a large pile of thick logs from a diseased and subsequently felled sycamore that grew at the front of the site plus a single three metre long log pruned from a mulberry tree on my allotment. So I can make a symbolic gesture towards the principle of local sourcing, even if most of my materials will come from a little further afield.

Sycamore and mulberry are both attractive hardwoods. The latter is very rare so I am hoping to use it as a veneer for a prominent wall. The sycamore is destined to become bookshelves in our double-height library. But that’s all a long way off. First the wood has to be cut and dried, so it’s time to load it all into the back of a van and drive it to a wood yard located just off the A13 near the entrance to the Blackwall Tunnel.

This unlikely super-urban location has its own magic. There are sprawling scrapyards, mountains of crushed cars, a dilapidated van where an English flag flies and hot dogs are sold, and, scattered along the edges of the road, huge trunks and sections of giant trees, waiting to be further dismembered.

I meet Danny, the woodsman who runs Citywood Services, who promptly gets into his Landrover and asks me to follow him deeper into the urban forest, like Hansel following the Sandman. We eventually emerge at an old, deserted dry dock filled with rubbish. Here, as storm clouds build above us, the great toothed beast that we had been hunting appears in the gloom: a giant milling machine that can turn logs into one inch planks.

We load the logs one-by-one onto the machine and Danny runs them through with the enormous sliding, circulating saw. The planks soon start piling up, the sycamore revealing the dark blooms of the fungal infection that killed it. The patterns are striking, reminding me of highly-prized Dutch tulips, their petals shot through with the dazzling work of a hidden fungus.
We finished the job just as the rain begins to fall and I followed Danny out of the forest and back onto the broad concrete highways of London Docklands. I waved good-bye and was soon back in the deep south where I unloaded our planks and stacked them carefully in our narrow but well-ventilated garage. It will be at least a year before they will be ready to use – one year of drying for every inch thickness, plus a bit, is the rule of thumb – so for now all I can do is admire the patterns, dream up schemes for how best to use them and breathe in the thick, musty smell of drying timber.


  1. J and I bought a turned bowl made of spalted sycamore from the Kilmory Workshop on Arran. I was quite surprised to learn that the attractive swirling black lines in the grain were caused by a fungus. The same one as the old tree was colonised by?

  2. Excellent use of materials sir! I had a plan to do the same thing to the pear and cherry trees in my front garden but my wife seems to think they are better use alive than murdered and turned into something useful, like bedside table.