A book that’s not about wood surfboards

Book Review: The man who made things out of trees by Robert Penn

The first thing to say about “The man who made things out of trees” is that it is not a book about making wooden surfboards, or surfing. It does not mention the art of riding waves once in its 180 pages. There are no surfing characters, no stories of swells chased, or memorable waves ridden.

So this is not a book about surfing, and yet any surfer interested in the process of craft will find it fascinating. Specifically, if wooden surfboards are your thing, as they are mine, the book’s focus on the appreciation of wood, and its qualities as a natural material, will speak loud as a breaking wave.

The idea is simple: to tell the story of the ash tree and its role in human civilisation through a single tree. Robert Penn, the author, who has previously won some fame for the bestseller It’s all about the bike, begins his journey by going on a search for the perfect ash tree.

This is not as simple as you might think: it must be the right age, it must have grown in a particular way so that the timber it supplies is fit for purpose, and the felling of it must be environmentally sustainable.

When found, it is felled and the different parts of it are sent off around the world – the world in this case being the United Kingdom (mainly), Europe and North America, the main natural habitat areas of the ash tree. The wood makes it into an eclectic array of items; some of these include a wooden wheel (as you might imagine, there aren’t many people that make wooden wheels), handcrafted arrows and hurling sticks used in the ancient Gaelic Irish game.

What all of the people who make these items have in common, apart from the wood, is an appreciation of wood and evidence of craftsmanship, “that basic and enduring impulse to do a job well, for its own sake”, as Penn describes it.

Each item has its own history and its characters behind them, which provides a fascinating insight both into the history of the items made, but also the reflections of those who make them. Ironically, although the craftspeople are shaping what they make from the rough timber, it is also the timber that in many ways shapes them – their outlook on life, the lessons they have learnt from what they do, and their connection, through wood, to the natural world.

One of the interesting themes is the return to wood from synthetic materials because of the aesthetics of wood, but also because in many cases it is a superior material, or retains qualities that can’t be replicated through the use of synthetic materials. Baseball bats, for example, at the highest level of the sport, are still made from ash.

The appreciation of wood grows from the pages. “Through odour, colour, resonance and warmth we develop a sentimental attachment to artefacts made of wood that often reaches beyond their practical use,” Penn writes, going on later to say that: “For some, touching wood engenders feelings of safety; for others it is a reminder of the proximity of nature; for yet others, it is about connecting to the past. Perhaps, for all of us, it is some kind of biological response.”

All in all, 44 items are made from the wood, which together “spoke of the long and creative relationship between humankind and ash, an accord of intense intimacy recurring from one civilisation to another over millennia”.

Penn crafts a good story from his single tree, and he writes well, making it an easy read. It’s informative and full of knowledge about wood and the process of craft. Perhaps I enjoyed it so much because there were many echoes with making wooden surfboards. I could hear these in the book’s stories that all appreciate wood as a natural phenomenon and material, and also in the lessons that making items from wood has taught the various craftspeople in the book. The value of craft and working with our hands as an antidote and therapy to modern living where we are divorced from nature and creative processes is something I have often seen in running wooden surfboard workshops, and it is a point that resonates in this book, too.

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