When I flew from East Africa to Portugal in late March my intention was to stay in Portugal for most of that time. Really, truly, it was! I keep saying I’m moving to Portugal and I keep popping up in various other spots around the globe. I promise I’m moving there but I seem to keep getting distracted.
My plan in 2018 was to travel around Portugal, check out certain areas that might be nice to live in, do some work exchanges, meet some people, and learn some new skills. One of the main skills I want to learn more about is timber framing using round wood (recently felled trees, basically) and, during my rather brief research I came to the conclusion that most of the people doing this sort of building seem to be in the UK.
One of the reasons for this might be a guy called Ben Law who runs a 1-year woodsman apprenticeship and has worked on various natural builds including that of his own home which was featured on Grand Designs. Dylan from Artizans of Wood participated in the apprenticeship and Adrian Leaman, who runs a similar building company called Wholewoods, helped Ben with his house. I took a short round wood timber framing course with Dylan at the start of my time in the UK at the end of May and wanted to round out my trip with Adrian’s two-week build camp to get some practise with my new chisel-y skills.
The Wholewoods build camps seem to be a fairly regular thing, at least over the past couple of years. The idea is to use volunteer power to construct a building for community organisations that might not be able to afford it otherwise. They get an affordable building (usually a round house but they’ve also built a bridge), Wholewoods gets to work on interesting and worthy projects, and the volunteers get to learn new skills, practice old ones, and have a nice experience working as part of a team. Win, win, win!
This is the type of thing that I love so I was excited to find it and I planned my UK trip with this in mind. The build camps are either located on the site where the building will be put up or at the Wholewoods workshop. There are around 12 people on each one and volunteers are meant to bring their own camping gear (though I hired stuff from them) and food for breakfast and lunch each day. I contributed somewhere around £90 for two weeks of delicious vegan dinners plus tea, coffee, and biscuits were also provided. It was a pretty sweet setup out in The Cotswolds which is a beautiful part of England. I learned a lot, met some nice people, and overall it was an excellent way to spend two weeks.
New Things I Did
- I helped level off and lay a foundation for a roundhouse – twice! Foundations… yay! I’ve seen this done a few times, but I’ve always been mystified by the process. We used a pole with measurements on it and a water level which is a great, low-tech solution. Finding the location for the pads for the foundation was done by triangulation using a tape measure and a stick cut to the correct length. Again, another super low-tech solution but it got the job done. They weren’t sexy and it was a frustrating experience, but after going through the process twice, I feel confident about doing it again. And again and again.
- I helped assemble not one, but two roundhouses. The first was an experimental build to check on the lateral strength of the building to see if the design can cope without wind braces. The second was a chunkier roundhouse with wind braces and a ring beam set on top of the posts. Seeing the two different styles was quite interesting for a building nerd like me. I saw some of the potential issues that can arise, enjoyed working as a team to get the job done, and ended the process with lots of ideas.
- I got to use a hand auger! It’s essentially a giant drill and it’s such a satisfying tool to use. I was amazed at how easy it was to drill a hole straight through two giant logs. This is another one of those small experiences that has left me feeling a bit more empowered… it’s awesome to know that this key job of drilling peg holes can be done by hand with the right tool and a bit of patience.
- Carving spoons seems to be what all the cool kids are doing these days. Well, at least the cool kids on this build camp. Several people had a set of spoon carving tools (a hatchet, knife, and rounded knife thing) and they were all very open to sharing their tools and knowledge. By the end of the build camp I think most of us had finished a spoon thanks to their patient guidance. It’s a very relaxing and satisfying process and I was happy to be able to have a crack at it.
- Roundhouses are the perfect shape and design to have a reciprocal roof on top. I’ve seen a few already installed and they’re quite amazing. It makes one wonder what kind of voodoo they do. The reality is that it’s a super simple concept and we all experimented with assembling one with posts on the ground. It was nice to get a chance to do this to visualise how they go together. It takes away a bit of the magic, but they’re still pretty magical so that’s ok.
Things I Want to Copy
- I think the ‘build camp’ idea itself is an amazing one. Adrian and his partner Cath have set up a very cool experience with interesting people, amazing food, and a great space for learning. I don’t plan on having a volunteer program whenever I get up and running (because managing something like that is a whole other monster), but I love the idea of short stints where a small group of people can come together to work on something specific that could use many hands. I really love sharing knowledge and if I can learn a thing or two myself, I’d love to set things up to have a week or two a few times a year to host helpers. It’s a great way to teach whatever I’ve picked up along the way, learn from each other, and learn together while working on a project that’s too large for just one person.
- I need to bug Cath for some of her recipes. She was cooking all vegan and it was all amazing. There was a coleslaw type dish that was like crack. I also learned that adding toasted seeds and nuts into a dish can kick it up a whole bunch of notches. I’m a meat-eater but I didn’t miss it at all and I’d be happy to exist on vegetarian food with the occasional meaty morsel thrown in a couple times a week.
- The kitchen is equipped with a wooden box stuffed with hay with space for a large pot. The lid of the roof is also insulated with hay and the idea is that you bring whatever you’re cooking up to a boil on your gas burner and then whack it into the box, shut the lid, visit it eight hours later and – voila! Cooked! It’s an easy way to save on cooking gas and time spent watching pots. It’s mainly useful for cooking things like beans, chickpeas, lentils, and anything you want to slow cook.
- The Wholewoods build yard had a pretty basic kitchen but it was more than adequate for the 15 or so of us there. One reason was their water boiling system where potable water from the borehole was hosed into a large metal container (a re-purposed beer keg, I think) that was insulated on the sides. The fire below it heated the water and people were able to scoop it out with a clean pot so that hot water was always available in large quantities shortly after starting the fire. Hot tea on demand!
- Adrian from Wholewoods seems to be a master of experimentation and I feel like his process of trying new things has led to a lot of innovation. He had a few clever jigs rigged up on site to help with cutting angles and simplifying work so groups of inexperienced people can join in and learn on the job. If I find myself needing to do similar tasks, I’ll see if I can build something like his jigs, but the main takeaway is knowing that I don’t have to try to do everything with off-the-shelf tools. I can try to think of ideas to make repetitive tasks or jobs requiring precision more easy and accurate.
- The compost toilet here is about as simple a system as there can be. The toilet itself is in a building that’s raised up a bit and underneath lurks a standard wheelie bin. For those not familiar with the UK, that’s just a plastic garbage bin with wheels on the bottom. When that fills up, it’s wheeled out, and then off it goes to fester and turn into compost-y goodness for a year or two while the next one fills up. A bin with wheels that can be easily sealed takes away a lot of the potential horrors of changing out buckets and emptying poo into other containers. Nobody likes poo emptying.
- Adrian has been doing this sort of work for years and has a wealth of knowledge so it was nice to be able to pick his brain. Plus the other people on the camp were talented and knowledgeable on a variety of topics and I felt like there was an opportunity to learn something new during every conversation. Whether it be how to use a foot-pumped lathe to turn a wooden bowl, learning about Hempcrete, having rock climbing explained in detail, discovering the world of cooperative working and living, or asking about vegan cooking. There were opportunities to learn every day and that’s pretty awesome.
- I really liked the chance to carve a spoon. I’m not sure it’s something I’m eager to do again anytime soon, but I loved the process of learning something new while being taught by people who really love it. Having a bit of one-on-one instruction from those who enjoy a process, whatever it may be, is always inspiring.
- The food was amazing and well worth the £90 – that’s the best bargain I’ve had in a long time! Everything was lovingly prepared by Cath and she fed us well. Dinner time was a treat every single night and I’ll especially miss her curries, brownies, and delicious salads.
- I loved that most of our tasks were done by hand. There was a bit of chainsawing and drilling by Adrian, but for the most part we did everything using hand tools and it was great to get a chance to use a variety of hand tools for different tasks. It’s always good to get some practice in and it’s even better to know that if you have time and the willpower, a lot can be done without power tools.
- I have friends in Stroud, a small city nearby, and I was able to pop out for the weekend to see them. It’s a cool little alternative city with a great sense of community and it was nice to explore a bit. The National Open Garden Scheme was on in a nearby town where people open up their back yards to their impressive gardens. I didn’t know I liked flowers until I saw some of the amazing gardens! We had tea and scones… it was probably the most English thing I’ve ever done.
- For me, the group dynamic was strange in some way I still can’t put my finger on. Every single person on the build was nice, we had a lot of shared interests, there were no difficult personalities or macho men, and most people were exceptionally funny. There were a lot of laughs… but something about it didn’t really fit for me. I got along really well with everyone individually, but I was more reserved than I’d usually be when we were in a group. It was a chance to be a quieter member of a group and to observe rather than being in the thick of it all which was interesting, but I never really felt like I settled in or was truly being myself which isn’t a nice feeling. I have no idea what it was and I’m sure it’s more to do with me than anyone else, but I didn’t really love the group vibe for reasons unknown.
- As always, I hate tents and I hate being cold. It warmed up in the second week but the first week was chilly and the sleeping situation was a fairly thin mat on the ground of my tent which made it hard to fall asleep. On the upside, I hired a super sweet pointy canvas tent from them and being able to stand up in it made the horror of camping almost bearable. I think I just need to admit that I have a strong dislike of camping.
- I think my elbow might be angry with me. It turns out that repeatedly whacking a mallet onto a chisel can be hard on the ol’ elbow so I’ll need to be aware of that and listen to what my limbs are trying to tell me and take it easy or switch tasks if I start to get too achy.
- There was a decent amount of talk about previous build camps and about how this one was different. We were often working on individual tasks rather than as an entire team and this build camp was more about experimentation rather than about completing a project with a deadline. It was a super chilled experience with a lot of people filling down-time with spoon carving. I adapted to the flow of things, but I think I prefer a full day of work with a lot of teamwork, figuring out problems as they arise, and learning by doing. I’m more of a ‘work hard, play hard’ type and this experience (at least in the first week) was a ‘work a bit, go to bed early’ sort of thing. The upside was being able to ask a lot of questions of Adrian and other more experienced builders in a laid back environment where they actually had time to help. This is a huge upside and I adapted to the slower pace but it’s my preference to have a bit more of a team-oriented, time-pressured situation.
Some of the other people on this build camp were talking about how it was different and maybe not as good in certain ways as previous ones. While I think going into a new experience with expectations and comparing things can be a bit of a dangerous thing to do, I can’t help comparing this Wholewoods experience with my time at Mount of Oaks. The main difference was how welcome and liked I felt at Mount of Oaks and how… I don’t know… weird I felt at Wholewoods. It’s a tricky thing when you don’t feel comfortable enough to be yourself and can’t put your finger on why that is. If nothing else it was an opportunity to reflect and observe. It seemed like everyone else was having a grand ol’ time so I’m sure it was me.
All up, I think Wholewoods is doing amazing things and I was happy to be involved in some small way. I love that Adrian chooses to do builds for organisations that don’t have a huge budget. He makes it work for them using creative methods and it was wonderful to be a part of the framing stage of two buildings going off to worthy causes.
Though the social side of things was a challenge for me, I don’t think I’ve ever learned so much in such a short period of time. If you have any interest at all in round wood timber framing, you should absolutely try to get on one of these build camps!