When Jules Ain’t Around

It seems cruel now that I come to write it down. I mean, I rely on Jules most of the time; I have done for a long time; and I know that I can take him for granted. We all do. I guess when he’s around he’s pretty welcome, and he sure knows how to get stuff done. I just worry sometimes that we … well, that we don’t really enjoy his company as much as we used to.

I suppose what made me start to wonder was when I realized that, sometimes, when you reckon that he’ll turn up as normal – and, you know, hang around, like he does – but then, he’s nowhere to be seen… well, it’s kind of fun. That’s a pretty bad thing to say about a real stand-up sorta guy, especially someone who basically never lets you down. I feel bad saying it; but it’s not just me! When he just doesn’t show up, people seem sort of excited. It’s not that he’s a downer or anything, I guess it’s just the novelty of, I dunno, having to do without his company, I reckon. People behave differently! And then he’s suddenly just there again, and everybody pretty much just goes back to the way they were before.

I’m not saying that I don’t want to be able to just call him up when I want. Just that sometimes, I think we could do with some more time apart. Damn, that sounds awful, doesn’t it? What a bad friend that makes me seem – it almost sounds like an abusive relationship! But it isn’t like that, I promise! It’s only that he seems to be always around, it can be hard to get some space, some quiet – you know?

And besides, I worry about him – what he’s up, sometimes; maybe I don’t really want to know….








(A test piece for ‘My Friend Jules’, part of Stories of Change)


A while ago I was kindly given some planks from a Cedar of Lebanon tree in Kent. This very old tree had come down many years ago in a storm, and had been milled and the seasoned planks had been gathering dust. They were thick enough and long enough for canoe paddles, so I decided to go ahead and give it a go. The grain was fairly straight down the plank, but there were a fair number of knots, so avoiding them in crucial places wasn’t easy. It is best to position them out of the shaft and away from the edges of the blade – those in the centre of the blade can be filled and just add figure.

It is also a good idea to use the straightest grain in the shaft – avoid, if it is possible, grain lines that run out of the side of the shaft – especially at the throat, where the shaft meets the blade.

The greatest unknown was the wood. Although you might know of cedar as a very good – and popular – wood for canoe paddles, this is almost always Western red cedar (thuja plicata), which is not a true cedar, unlike Cedar of Lebanon (cedrus libani). I could find nothing online about using cedrus libani for canoe paddles.

This is the plank laid out with a paper pattern of an ottertail design. The design is pinned to the plank, and moved around to find the best spot.SAMSUNG


The shape I cut out with a jig saw – my one concession to power tools.SAMSUNG


Use a plane and draw knife (or surform) to get down to your precise outline shape, and ensure that your edges are dead square to the faces of the paddle. Then it is important to give yourself very accurate centre lines on both faces of the paddle, and running around the edge. Then you can begin to mark lines to create an edge profile. I think I initially marked 1/2″ at the edge of the blade, which I would then thin down along the length of the blade to a tip of 1/4″; intially I planned an oval shaft one inch across and and inch and 1/8 deep, but it became rounded out as I worked.SAMSUNG

This is a jig I rigged with a square level and some tape and a pencil to run a centre line, and then offsets from that centre. It did the job, just about. Wing dividers would be better.


Once you have your offsets from the centre, you can bring in angled lines to form the profile. Another, simpler way to do this, is to make the width at the throat (where shaft meets blade) and then at the tip, and draw straight lines between.SAMSUNG

Once you have these lines, you can carefully saw stop-cuts down to close to these lines, and then using a very sharp axe or chisel, chip out these sections. It is best to do all this while leaving the edges completely square if you can.



This will shape the profile from shaft to tip of your blade, then you need to shape from the spine of the blade out to the edges, making the edges thin enough that they’ll slice the water, but not so thin they’ll chip easily.

The shaft should be shaped by knocking the corners off from square to octagon, then knocking those corners off, to try and keep the reference points of the corners. Then you can task a rasp to the remaining corners.Leave plenty of wood at the throat, where the most stress goes through the paddle. Once it is nearly oval it can be ‘shoe-shined’ with coarse sandpaper to finish the shape. The shape of the grip is entirely up to you.SAMSUNG

Unfortunately, I then forgot to take more photos, until this one of a paddle nearly finished shaping. This still needs some weight taking off the wings of the blade, but gives an idea of the shape.

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Once you have got the shape sand up through the different grits of sandpaper. This is the really fun part as everything smooths out and the wood starts to really show up. It is worth going for a very smooth finish, especially if you are oiling the paddle. After your last sand, damp the wood to bring up the grain, then sand again.

Finishes are argued about by paddle-makers, it seems! But for my tuppence worth, unless you’re using a wood with good natural water resistance (elm, Western red cedar, black walnut), I would varnish the blade with several coats of good spar varnish, since it will be in the water the most. But for comfort, I prefer oiled wood from the throat up, since it is much nicer to grip, even when wet. So boiled linseed oil, or similar is what I advise. I used some masking tape to get a clear straight line between varnish and oiled shaft.

When you oil the shaft, drive the oil in to the wood by heating with a hairdryer. You can also use very fine (400 grit) sandpaper to create a fine sawdust-oil slurry that will also penetrate the pores, in the same you do with water stones when sharpening knives. Wait for it to dry, and repeat. The result is a completely smooth waterproof shaft, without the slight tacky feel in the hand of varnish.






Here is the paddle drying from a coat of varnish, suspended by the grip. The figure in wood is really brought out by the finish.



And here is a photo of the finished paddle (paddles aren’t easy to photograph!). finished-paddle



Here is an incomplete, but hopefully useful, photo walkthrough of a simple round basket.

Creating the slath with 8 sticks. In the close up you can see the first thin ends inserted to start pairing around the slath.

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This is after a few rounds of pairing. You can certainly get a tighter base than this!

Then building up the base with a plain weave – an extra spoke has been added in the south-west corner of the picture to make an odd number (17) of spokes so that the plain weave works. This was, I think, my first basket, so there are some glaring mistakes in this base! 2015-01-18-19-33-16

New stakes are added alongside each spoke, and the spokes cut off flush with the base; the basket can then be staked up. A rim is creating by taking each stake to the left, beneath the next two adjacent stakes before bending up. Coming to the last two stakes, they will need to be taken to the left, and threaded through the rim as if they were going under the next two – the first two stakes you bent up. Once this rim has been made, a three-rod wale is woven, which keeps the stakes in place.

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We can now start to build up the sides using French randing. Placing a the end of a weaver behind an upright stake; take the weaver over the next stake to the left, behind the next one, and then our again. Working to the right, add weavers all the way around the basket (the last two will need to be added underneath the first weavers laid in). Then, starting with any weaver, a basic weave can be started: taking any weaver, weave it in and out once, then take the next to the right and work around the basket. When you return to the beginning, weave the lower of the pairs of weavers that are sitting together first, and you will be back to your starting point.    2015-02-03-12-04-02

Once the sides are high enough, use three thick rods to weave a three-rod wale to lock down the basket sides.

Then you can weave a rim. Make sure the upright stakes are still wet enough to bend down or they will crack at this point. A simple rim pattern is to bend each stake down to the right, behind two stakes, in front of the third, behind the fourth, then out to the front. Continue around to the right, weaving the last stakes in the same pattern through the rim.

Here is a completed basket, with a rod from a lime sucker inserted to make a hooped handle.


The rod is bent over and inserted down into the weave – sharpen the end before doing this.


Then the handle can be wound with willow, normally working with two sets, one wound from each side. These three ohotos show the first set of 5 willow rods being wound around, and then under the rim; the tips are then bent up. 2015-02-07-17-03-41 2015-02-07-17-03-49 2015-02-07-17-08-18

The second set are wound starting from the opposite side to the first set. The tips are then tied up against the handle using a thin weaver inserted first down into the basket weave.


Tadpole spoon

My favourite recent spoon, a small round bowled spoon in cherry. The shape wasn’t planned until I split the small piece (only just large enough for this spoon) and saw the slight wave in the grain towards one end. The handle follows and slightly exaggerates the curve. I still have the other half, so it may be possible to make a matching, or mirrored, pair. cherry-tadpole-spoon


I’ve been carving some more spoons recently, mostly from some small pieces of wild cherry too small to do anything with but burn, given to me by a farmer.

This first picture shows the blank after roughing out with the axe and knife. 2016-02-25-18-47-22




Then shaping the profile and the bowl with sloyd knife and a shallow spoon knife.





This finished cherry spoon is not the same one (which I don’t have a photo of), but is similar in style (and from the same log, I think).


Copying spoons

It’s useful practice to try and copy other spoons directly.

This first one is copied from a Norwegian sugar spoon, probably in birch. My roughed out blank, also birch, is at the back.

birch sugar spoons


And this is the final version.

hook handle sugar spoon

Then I tried to copy a coffee scoop given to me as a present. I’ve slightly lengthened the handle (easier to dip into coffee pots and packets), and the profile curve isn’t quite as steep. I don’t know what the wood of the original is; mine is in sweet chestnut, from a pruning from my communal garden. It still needs finishing and oiling, but I like the radial pattern of the grain in the fish tail of the handle, combined with the hour glass in the bowl.

coffee scoops

Energy Generation


One of our team, Benita, in our photobooth

I’ve been leading on one strand of the Stories of Change project under the title – finally settled upon – of Energy Generation.

The idea behind this work was to gather interviews with experts in the energy sector, but to avoid traditional academic interviews. Instead, we teamed up with the a team of young people who are part of the GLA’s Peer Outreach Team. They are the Mayor of London’s young advisors. From the outset we employed them as researchers, and constructed the project in collaboration with them.

group photo

We organised some training days in Milton Keynes to help them develop some skills in interviewing, and build up their knowledge of the current issues around energy.


We introduced them to audio and video recording, got them doing mock interviews, and then sent them off around the OU campus to collect vox pops with people about energy.


Over the course of two days we built up a list of questions that reflected their own observations, concerns and interests. The aim was always that the final interviews would capture their voices; that the questions they asked would be their own. (We imposed only one question, which we have used across the project: “Are you an optimist of a pessimist when it comes to the future of energy?”).

We worked with Tim Mitchell, a photographer who is working across the Stories of Change project, to help the young researchers add a visual identity to the project by photographing the interviewees. Although Tim has been using a photobooth elsewhere in the project, we started with a blank slate, and the team had new ideas about how it should look and work. That it closely resembles the previous booths is coincidental!TMitchell_150623_1744

We then lined up a group of experts in energy issues from across the policy, media, academic, advocacy and business communities. Each interviewee was given the prompt “What question will future generations ask us about how energy was in 2015?” and then photographed in the booth with their question written on a cloud above their head.

Two members of the team then interviewed the participant for approximately half an hour (some much longer!).

Finally, we recorded a video soundbite to camera.




Bradon Smith is a Research Associate at The Open University and the University of Bath, with interests in the representation of climate change in contemporary literature. His doctoral research looked at contemporary popular science writing and representations of science in contemporary British fiction and drama. From 2007-2010 he co-convened the Cultures of Climate Change research group at CRASSH, University of Cambridge. Since then, he has held positions at the Open University, the University of Edinburgh and as an AHRC Knowledge Placement Fellow at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). He is currently working on the AHRC funded Stories of Change project, a part of the across-council Connected Communities theme.