Book Review: The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees

It is rare to find a book dedicated to one type of tree: the ash, but Robert Penn has done the tree justice in his book The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees (Particular Books, 2015). Ash is not that well known in the realms of wood, often overlooked by the likes of oak. In North America it is completely overshadowed by the ubiquitous maple.


Penn explores the use of ash by felling a 90ft high, 130 year old ash and seeing what could be produced from its lumber. The book chronicles his journey within Britain and overseas to find craftsmen who work with ash. Over the course of a year he describes how a number of objects are made and the artisans who make them. Early in the book Penn says that a “zero-waste policy” would steer the project, “to exalt the worth of a single tree”. Did he achieve this? I think so. At the and of the year his tree has yielded 45 different objects are made from a writer’s desk to panelling and kitchen worktops, chopping boards, bowls, spatulas, arrow shafts, tent pegs, a paddle, the list goes on.

The book is extremely well written, with chapters dedicated to a number of objects. The book is a mixture of insight into the working of  artisans such as Robin Wood (Britain’s best known wood turner), and historical discussion. For example, one learns that for 1000 years from AD 500, every person drank and ate every day from a wooden vessel turned on a lathe – the wooden bowl was one of their few possessions – and from 1100-1400 these were made predominantly of ash. There is a chapter about one of Ireland’s native games, hurling, and another that explores the difference between baseball bats made out of ash and maple.  If you are considering taking up woodworking, this book also provides a good insight into the physical characteristics of both trees in general, and ash in particular. Not every item made uses wood from Penn’s tree, sometimes because the tree is not young enough, which is deviates from the adage of “old growth is best for everything”. Sometimes, because threats facing the ash, like the Ash Borer, which often prohibits  transport of wood.

It is heartwarming to read a book dedicated to one type of tree, and the hope is that it will engender a more enlightened view of trees in general. The only thing missing is a few more illustrations. There are a some, but it would have been nice to have a 2-page sketch of all the things crafted out of the tree (maybe on the back of the cover, or a poster?).

Robert Penn, The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees, Particular Books, 2015 (ISBN: 978-1846148422)


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