Tuesday, July 26, 2016


Those of you who didn't just meet me yesterday know I took one look at the gorgeous cover of Robert Penn's The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees and went all Muppet arms, threw a huge clot, picked my aged bones up off the floor and put on my wily hat in an attempt to get a copy to feature on the blog. If this site has two themes they are violence and woodworking (I do try to keep the two separate). Look at this beautiful thing. I don't know how anyone could resist the outside, but what about the content? Fear not and read on.

The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees is something of a love story written about the ash tree. Which, as you will learn in this ode to the ash, is a pretty amazing tree. As Penn notes, "I can't remember as a child ever making the connection between the tree and many of the things I loved." How many of us do as children? Or perhaps even as adults? It's never too late to learn and appreciate, and Penn's delightful prose and engaging writing style provide the perfect tools for learning. It's all about picking the right tool for the job. Penn's got 'em.

The almost exhaustive use of ash wood throughout history is mind-boggling. Penn's adult love of the versatile ash led him to undertake a search for the perfect tree to fell and have made into as many different items as possible. Nothing other than using every last part of that tree would do it justice. I admit I was at first a bit dismayed to discover Penn was not going to be making things from the tree himself. But once I read on, my grin grew wider and wider and didn't stop until my face hurt and I hit the last page and cried for more.

Penn does not do the selecting alone. He does not fell the tree alone. He does not do the milling or shaping or lathing. What he does do, as it turns out, is even more fabulous. Penn takes his ash to some of the finest woodworkers in the UK and beyond, and at each stop he delves into the lore of the craftsman he's visiting. Each is as fascinating as the last - a tool handle manufacturer, a wheelwright, a bowl turner, and a medieval bow and arrow maker to name a few. Penn also ventures to Austria for a first class toboggan (taking his ash with him to be steamed, bent and jointed into a sled) and to the infamous Louisville Slugger plant in the United States.

Penn is wonderfully adept at taking the reader with him. I could smell the shops, picture the craftsmen and their tools, and nearly feel the grain as they worked. Wood nerds, tool geeks and history buffs, this book is your nirvana.

Just a few of the fascinating tidbits I learned:

  • Some historians believe tree ownership issues were as instrumental in bringing about the American Revolution as those relating to tea taxation
  • Steam-bending of wood dates back to at least 2000 B.C.
  • Achilles's spear was made of ash
  • An arrow's feathers need to be from the same wing for it to fly true
  • A bow from the Middle Ages could be drawn by only a handful of people today. Middle Age folks were studly, able to hold what amounts to a weight of 90-160 pounds out on the end of a straight arm
  • No other tree species is more commonly used or referenced in geographical locations (take that, oak and elm)
  • The Morgan Motor Company still uses ash in the manufacture of its boutique sports cars

I could go on ad nauseam (some may argue I already have), but I loved this book so much I want to sing its praises from the highest branch of the nearest ash tree. I swear I have a book dart on just about every other page of this gem. While reading, I felt as if I was sitting around a campfire listening to a wise elder share the mythology of the world through wood and craftsmen. To top it off, Penn has a great sense of humor (as does his wife; see favorite passage below) and the soul of a poet and I swear he would also make great crime writer:

Someone had described hurling to me as a cross between hockey and homicide: I thought it was more like ballet on crack cocaine.

There were a dozen ash trees together, like a family, near a brook. The bark on all of them had fissured. They were mainly straight. One had the faint, graceful, feminine sweep so distinctive of ash, like a slim-hipped femme fatale in a floor-length cocktail dress.

Ash wood is pinkish white and disturbingly like human skin when freshly sawn.
Perhaps Penn's next work will be a bit of crime fiction featuring some of the forty-four different types of items/uses Penn found for his ash tree. Not a cell of Penn's ash went to waste, nor does he waste any words. Despite the technical or scientific nature of some of the information being shared, I was never anywhere close to bored or disinterested. This one is going to be high on my "Best of" charts for this year, no doubt. And my next project? It's going to be made from ash.

STREET SENSE: If you're not convinced by now, there's not much I can say here to persuade you. What's not to like about trees, wood, craftsmanship, history, great stories and humor?

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  A few, because the rules are mine and while not as much fun to break, I've gotta stay in shape:

The more I understood about the process, the less Phill spoke. The afternoon passed in a gentle sea of timeless, elemental sounds: the rhythmical rasp of the hand planer as the wood yielded to Phill's wishes; the ringing crack of the mallet; the scrape of Phill's pencil on wood; the plunk of ash touching oak; the caw of the spokeshave on the felloes; and the hiss of sandpaper turning dry ash to dust.

Each swing of the axe is like turning the page of a book; it opens a new part of the tree, and elicits a little bit more information about the tree's life: V-shaped and ellipsoid figures, curly grain, ray flecks, dimples, tight knots, loose knots, bark pockets and staining from diverse fungi might all show for the first time when a log is split open.

And the last because it made me laugh out loud and fall completely in love with this book on page 13. This from Penn's wife upon learning about his plan to find a tree and use 100% of it:

She looked unimpressed. Her eyebrows arched. "Do you know a wheelwright?" she asked. "Do you know a toboggan-maker or even a bowl-turner? Do they still exist? This is the beginning of the twenty-first century, not the middle of the fifteenth. And don't you need to know a great deal about timber? I can see a large pile of very expensive firewood at the end of this venture. Perhaps there'll be enough wood left over to make the coffin you're going to bury yourself in." I decided not to mention the idea again. Nor did I say she had hit on the one thing I would not be making from my ash: elm was traditionally used for coffins.


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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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