Bog standard wood – Our speciality!
I’m currently working on a rather old piece of wood. When I say rather old, I actually mean more than two and a half times older than Christianity. Positively pre-historic in fact. The wood in question is a 6-foot long plank of bog oak, 7 inches wide and an inch and a half thick. It has a gnarled crumbly edge of bark and in its raw state could understandably be confused with a bit of old floorboard that has been charred in a bonfire.
But the moment you plane off its dried, coarse and crusty surface, the stunningly beautiful heart wood is revealed – rich tarry brown-black, the colour of bitter chocolate. The texture gives its identity away as oak – open grained and figured with the distinctive yet faint silvery ghost flecks of the medullary rays.
You may have heard of Pete Bog or The Tollund Man, the ancient mummified man dug out of a Danish peat bog back in the 50s, whose head and body were spectacularly well-preserved. Pete was actually in fabulously good shape given that he was 2,000 years old.
Well bog oak follows the same principles. My particular piece of wood is a plank cut from a series of huge oak trees that were discovered and dug up from ancient marshland inland from the part of the east coast of England known as The Wash. Carbon dating puts it at 5,300 years old.
Just as in the case of the relatively youthful Pete Bog, the natural acid in the waterlogged peat and the lack of oxygen below the surface had amazing anti-aging properties on the wood, preventing its decay and preserving it for millennia. Throughout this period, the tannins present in the oak reacted with the soluble iron in the water staining the wood a dark brown to black colour.
In this part of the UK known as The Fens, which is slightly below sea-level, the land was dense with forests of giant oaks. Around 5,000BC, the water levels gradually began to rise and the trees started to perish standing. When dead, they crashed into the silt that was building up on the forest floor where they remained submerged for thousands of years before their eventual discovery in recent times during the cultivation of the land.
While the forces at play with this natural phenomenon are quite extraordinary, the really tricky part begins with the excavation of these huge hulks of sub-fossilised oak – one tree in fact was recently dug up in The Fens that was a spectacular 44ft long, but may have even been four times taller than that at the time that it fell. Apart from having to contend with the sheer volume and weight of the trunk, the incredible fragility of the wood is also a major issue as it can degrade at a frightening rate when exposed to the natural elements. The timber is at fibre saturation point and has to be quarter-sawn into planks and then dried in a giant specialist kiln for as long as seven months to allow for a slow and consistent rate of moisture loss. Incredibly, during this process, the oak shrinks by more than half its size, losing over three gallons of water per cubic foot. If this process is not carried out with painstaking care, the planks bend, crack and split and become unusable.
My bit, relatively speaking, is the easy bit – designing for, preparing, and working on the seasoned wood – though the sense of responsibility is huge! Working on a natural material that is rare and precious, ancient and beautiful is scary and grounding but most of all inspirational. Clearly, bog oak is exceptional for Tree Couture in that it is not a sustainable wood – it’s in finite supply and cannot be recreated – yet the fact that Tree Couture furniture is made exclusively from solid hardwoods, designed and handcrafted to last, we are happy in the knowledge that this ancient and beautiful wood will live on in our work for centuries to come. There are no other woods of ethical provenance that share the rich dark colour of bog oak, and certainly none that matches it in terms of its incredible historical resonance.
For the time being I’m using it very sparingly, for accents and contrasts in furniture such as in the dovetail mitre ‘keys’ as shown on the corners of the walnut valet box below, and for beading and inlays, but as we have just found a potential source of larger bog oak planks, I’m playing with the idea of making something quite substantial from it – maybe a time-piece of great proportions – a vast, beautiful pre-historic wall-clock. How about that for some serious time travel …
For more information on a fabulous bog oak project in the UK, please see The Fenland Black Oak Project at www.thefenlandblackoakproject.org.uk
The Tollund Man: www.tollundman.dk
Excavation of Bog Oak: www.thefenlandblackoakproject.org.uk