In early November I had the good fortune to head down to the neck of Cape Cod to take a weekend class in ash basketmaking with Peter Follansbee, a woodworker best known for his 17th century American woodcarving. I had the opportunity a few years ago to take a weekend carving class with Follansbee at Lie-Nielsen in Maine and so was prepared for his teaching style: informal, humorous, slightly curmudgeonly, sincere and encouraging without any trace of saccharine. A genuinely nice and interesting person to be around. He was exposed to basketmaking early in his career and has continued to practice the craft, although this was his first time teaching it formally. His blog is great, with lots of excellent instruction and images and is one of few that I check daily.
Saturday morning started cold, which was OK since we quickly got down to the difficult work of procuring ash splints from ash logs. Because ash is a ring-porous hardwood each annual ring is composed of both spongy early-year fibers and dense late-year fibers. This difference in density can be exploited by beating the log, or a smaller riven billet, with a heavy hammer, crushing the early-wood and allowing the dense late-wood to be peeled apart, year by year.
Splints fresh from the log then need to be refined. If thick enough, each annual ring splint can be scored and peeled into two halves, each with a beautiful, satiny, finished surface on the peeled face. Thinner splints can be refined by using a sharp knife as a scraper, drawing the splint past the blade while pressing firmly down onto one’s well-protected thigh.
Finished splints can then be coiled and allowed to dry, with an indefinite shelf life. Prior to working, splints must be thoroughly soaked and rehydrated.
Towards the end of the first day of class we began the process of weaving our first basket, one with a square or rectangular bottom and a top that would be either round, or the same as the base.
Wider, thicker uprights are interwoven working from the center out and leaving a not-quite-splint-width space between successive splints. An odd number of uprights allows for the weavers to spiral up the height of the basket. In order to achieve an odd number either one upright is slit along its length, or, as we learned, the first thin weaver can be left long as it is started, becoming an extra upright.
Getting the weavers started, and getting the uprights to “turn the corner” from flat to evenly-spaced vertical was frustrating. Once the vertical walls were established the weaving became more intuitive, relaxed, and enjoyable. I got to exactly that point about an hour after class had finished for the day, feeling accomplished but also zoned out from the physical work and the focused concentration required in learning a new skill.
The second day of class was much more of the same. Folks got directly down to work, either weaving baskets or creating more raw materials. Peter gave demonstrations on methods for finishing with either a riven solid wood rim or thick splints, and concluded with instruction on laying out and beginning a round-bottomed basket.
Being Sunday in New England, someone mentioned looking forward to watching a recording of the Patriots game, played at home, just up the highway from where class was held. Local knowledge of gameday traffic led to the suggestion that, were we traveling north, it might be best to beat the post-game rush. Having a five-plus hour drive in front of me, and zero desire to be encumbered by bumper-to-bumper traffic, I decided to forego the final hour and a half of scheduled class time and bug out directly. I lost out on having a critical eye look over an early round-bottom attempt, but was pleased to get some miles in before dark.
Prolonged warm weather so late into fall and winter has allowed me to stay busy at the homestead, and as a result, I’ve yet to finish my basket. Good luck and a little heavy lifting provided me with a lovely section of fresh white ash log; some of my late season work therefore involved getting out a great batch of nice long splint material to work with next summer. I also got a modest start on a round-bottomed basket; I feel like I understand the concepts well enough to finish, or start another.
I can’t speak highly enough about the relatively young arts organization that sponsored this class, and many more, in a wide variety of traditional crafts — PlymouthCRAFT. Please take a look at their website. The principals of the organization are all formerly involved with Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum of the earliest European-American settlement. To a person, they were kind, helpful, excited, and motivated. Great food, excellent location, creative energy, the entire package was outstanding. PlymouthCRAFT is undertaking an ambitious woodworking symposium in the spring of 2016, Greenwood Fest, bringing many of the finest contemporary specialists in green woodworking from around the world for a long weekend of instruction and camaraderie. An event not to be missed, and I’ll be there for sure.