We didn't want to just show you a photo and say 'we've restored this bench, isn't it nice' - we wanted to give you the whole story, and show the blood, sweat and tears that went into the project. Nigel Davis, a long standing volunteer, has written a brilliant piece about the work that went into it (bear in mind, he loves us really!)

The story behind the bench

By Nigel Davis

Last year the Forest carried out a review of all of the fixed assets in its various woodlands and whilst some of the fixtures were declared beyond economical repair, it was decided that a carved bench, residing at Shocott Spring near Cotton End village should be recovered and brought back to the Forest Centre for restoration. The bench had been gifted to the charity from the village and comprised several large oak panels, some nearly 2 metres in height x 1 metre wide x 125mm thick – you can imagine the weight!
During volunteer tasks at Shocott Spring you couldn’t really miss seeing the bench, each vertical panel beautifully carved both sides with woodland scenes. Someone had put their heart & soul into the work, that much was obvious. That said, it was desperately in need of renovation, the Oak panels had become very dry & grey over the years, as they do, the grain had opened up and the weathering agents had done their worst.

A few months ago, reporting to the barn at the Forest Centre for the usual Thursday volunteering session, I was surprised to see the bench, all dismantled spread out for all to see. New Ranger, Jane was hovering around, as she does and she seized the moment before my brain was in gear ‘We wondered if you’d like to have a go at restoring it”. Without thinking I said “OK”, whilst the voice of reason was screaming ‘big mistake - what have you agreed to!’.

First question, I’m not a carver or restorer, so what precisely were the expectations. An in-depth look revealed a big chunk of a seat section to be replaced due to rot, the fixing pegs were mostly rotten & other panels looked full of cracks & fissures, so, not a five minute job – more like weeks. Quick meeting with Ranger Steve, (my mentor) and Jane, gave me the answer “It’s been neglected, it’s such a great piece of work and we want the village to see we’re looking after it, so just do what you can.”

Second thing – I reckoned the job needed about 10 gallons (old money) of Linseed Oil, so I asked the powers that be to order the same. Folly, as it turned out, such materials are only ordered in small amounts and I got a gallon for starters – this went nowhere!
Thirdly, where could I do the work? There is bags of space in the Barn Workshop but much of the bench space is required for other jobs and machinery, areas that are jealously guarded by my volunteer colleagues for other jobs. This was an ongoing problem as once the novelty of seeing the bench wore off they wanted to know when I was going to get it done to free up the space (they actually used other words but I’m being kind here). My answer to this was usually unprintable.

I initially stacked the panels up in a couple of areas & left them until I needed to pull them off to work on them. This sounds easy but we are talking about very heavy Oak panels that often required two people to move them, although I soon discovered that I could ‘walk’ them place to place and then get someone to give me a lift onto the bench top.

Bench in the workshop
I started off, initially brushing out the worst areas to get rid of accumulated debris & rotten wood & using fine chisels to remove the same from deep carved incisions. Bear in mind this wasn’t just one panel, it was several very large panels, the verticals carved both sides, so initially it seemed I was getting nowhere fast.

The next stage was the application of an initial coat of Linseed Oil to a panel which I did by brush. It looked good, the oil soaking in & reflecting light from it’s surface, making the wood look rejuvenated. You take a break, go for the vital cup of tea with the other inmates, come back and your oil has soaked in so that the surface looks dull and uninspiring again as if you never touched it. There were to be so many of these occasions. Steve ordered more oil, I used it up, him saying “Are you drinking it mate!”
My colleagues are also asking ‘how much oil are you putting on that bench’ as if it cost the national debt. To which my reply, ‘as much as it blooming takes!’ I eventually made up a secret recipe (handed down to me by my ancestors) to thin down the initial coats of oil to which I added some of my own wood spirit stain, dark oak and/or walnut. This initial dressing seemed to form a good base & depth giving the surfaces some of their life & colour back and I was more optimistic about the finished job. I wanted to get to the point where the pieces would have that oiled look and each one was virtually saturated, having absorbed all that it could. Critically, I noticed that the grain was starting to close up thus reducing the worst of the cracks – this was a good sign.

During the work I was keeping the panels almost anywhere I could find a spare space, even on top of the firewood storage crates. But, due to ‘pressure’ from my cell mates who reckoned they needed the bench space for other jobs due to Christmas projects I was forced to move some panels outside. In fairness, I knew that the re-assembled seat would be spending it’s life outdoors, so I couldn’t afford to be too protective, but I was nonetheless.

After many Thursdays of doing nothing else but oiling, I felt that the panels were in the best condition I could get them & the job needed to be completed. The next job was to repair the rotten seat panel having first made a template of sorts for the new piece. This was quite a tricky procedure as the piece formed a tennon type joint into one of the main sides, the dimensions & cutting to size were critical to ensure a tight fit. Steve produced a suitable piece of oak for the repair and with assistance from various quarters we cut out the rotten part and formed the new piece to fit. Sounds easy but in fact it was probably the most difficult part of the whole job as the piece was thicker than the depth of any of the electric hand saws and too big to fit on the bench equipment. In addition the front edge was curved & rounded and this profile had to be replicated in the new section.

After a bit of head scratching & splinters it was done via a combination of various methods mostly involving a hard slog of manual saw cutting, a hand plane and a spokeshave, nice old fashioned tools – does wonders for the vascular! Fixing of the new piece to the old was completed with nice long coach screws and external adhesive. It was stained to match as far as possible and we were finally done. I also cut a few new pegs for fixing all the components together.

After this, my work was over bar a dry run to see if it all slotted together. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, I couldn’t be there to witness the exercise so it was great news to hear that it all went well and the bench was re-installed on site. As soon as the lockdown is over my wife and I will visit Shocott Spring to see how it looks. Maybe, just maybe I shall take a gallon of Linseed Oil and a brush to give it that extra finishing coat, just for good measure.