The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees

by Robert Penn


A soothing, somewhat rambling read that floats in the aether between something like travel writing and meditations on woodworking. Broadly inoffensive stylistically, and contains a number of tidbits of trivia about wood, woodworking and other related subjects. Reflections on the honest pleasures of craftsmanship make it all pretty easy to digest.

The title is misleading -- Penn does not personally make most (if any?) of the items produced from his (singular) tree. This of course makes sense, as many of the artefacts he desires are specialised items, fashioned by expert craftsmen who in most cases have spent most of their lives honing their skills. An amateur would have no hope of replicating that sort of work. However, the overall narrative of the book is somewhat disappointing due to the combination of this and the fact that this is not quite the romantic mission it first appears. When you read that Penn has his own small wood, the expectation is that he is going to describe how he makes (or gets others to make) useful items from its products. Instead, Penn describes specifically searching the country for an 'ideal' ash tree, surveying woods and coppices until he finds one that meets his industrial criteria, and then felling it, sawing it, and canvassing a number of craftsmen around the world to get them to make curious items from his lumber. In many cases, his wood is still no good -- the industry prefers fast-grown ash to his hundred-plus-year-old slow-grown timber -- so these chapters describe craftsmen working with their preferred material (the descriptions of this still worth reading) and sending Penn away with a curio.

So, Penn is less of a romantic figure turning his wood to good use, and more of a miniscule lumber merchant operating at (we can presume) considerable loss to turn an idealised tree into several artefacts, many of which he would seem to have no use for other than as chapters of this book.

The book is also something of a meditation on the value of ash. As Penn describes it, ash is a workmanlike, industrial wood. It grows fast, burns well, and is easy to work. It has been used for tool handles and similar daily-use purposes for thousands of years, acting a sort of background material. Penn several times devolves into listing various historic uses of ash to pad chapters. As the book concludes, Penn describes the current plight of ash -- beset by fungal disease and boring insects, the tree is in decline. This is certainly sad, though the course of corrective action is not at all clear, leaving the conclusion the aspect of a gloomy shrug.

It's overall a fine enough book. Penn complements historical accounts and romanticism with a few detailed descriptions of woodworking and even modern materials science investigations of wood. It's never too heavy to get through, yet trickles enough new information that each chapter is worth reading. Whets the appetite for carpentry, whittling, or even just walking in the woods.