Rob Penn is an avid cyclist. He’s gone on bike excursions in over fifty countries on five continents, most of the time passing miles and miles of forest and trees. It was during these treks, and his boyhood living in the countryside, that birthed his fascination with timber.
Robert Penn cut down one simple ash tree to see how many things could be made from it. After all, ash is the tree we have made the greatest and most varied use of over the course of human history. Journeying from Wales across Europe and Ireland to the USA, Robert finds that the ancient skills and knowledge of the properties of ash, developed over millennia making wheels and arrows, furniture and baseball bats, are far from dead.
In his new book, The Man Who Made Things Out Of Trees, Penn chronicles how the urge to understand and appreciate trees still runs through us all like grain through wood. The Man Who Made Things Out Of Trees is the story of one man, one tree, and unlimited possibilities.
Penn visits the shops of modern-day woodworkers―whose expertise has been handed down through generations―and finds that ancient woodworking techniques are far from dead.
Robert Penn spoke to me about his love of lumber and his new book.
What was the attraction to wood? Did your love of the woods and wilderness start at an early age?
I grew up in the countryside, surrounded by woods. More specifically, I grew up under an ash tree: it stood at the corner of my childhood garden, over the gate that leads to the fields where my brother and I played. Somehow that tree remained with me. It acted like a lodestar that brought me back to live with my family in a place similar to that which I knew as a child, a landscape heavily accented with trees and woods.
There are so many products and uses for wood, how were you able to get down to what was included in the book?
I was interested in having my ash tree converted into artifacts and wares that helped tell the story of man’s relationship with this remarkable, utilitarian, selfless tree. In the end, I got 44 different uses and several hundred artifacts out of the one tree. I had axe handles, bowls, a baseball bat and a toboggan made. Some of the other items – a writer’s desk and kitchen worktops – were simply things I needed at home. Ash is so versatile.
Is there a particular type of wood that’s your favorite? A particular product you covered that you liked the most?
I like the pale white ash timber with clean, straight grain: this wood goes to the heart of man’s ancient relationship with ash. Neolithic carpenters in Europe preferentially used straight-grained ash for tool handles four thousand years ago. Of course, they didn’t understand the mechanical properties of ash back then; they merely observed that it broke less than other tree species.
Which wood item in your life are you most fond of?
I love my writer’s desk, not least because I sat down and wrote my book at it.
If someone said “just tell me one part of your book to read”, which would you pick?
Probably the postscript, though it doesn’t sell the book. The brief postscript is about the threats that currently face ash in Europe and the USA: in Europe, a disease called ‘ash dieback’ is wiping out ash populations; in the USA, the emerald ash borer is destroying tens of millions of trees. We desperately need to value our trees again. I fear the planet is going to look very different in the future if we don’t.
I once knew a woman whose father made almost every piece of furniture in their house. As a man who’s not quite that handy, it was rather intimidating. What advice would you give to men who want to get into this type of craft but are hesitant?
Just start. The value of making things out of wood goes way beyond the value or finesse of the finished product itself. And the more you go at it, the better you will get.
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