The latest key stage event and visual spectacle of the Diamond Jubilee Fenland Black Oak Project took place today at the Building Crafts College (BCC) in Stratford, East London.
The project team and students of the BCC have completed the construction of a 15 metre long bespoke purpose-built drying facility. With six months anticipated drying time, the kiln is capable of preserving the 10 unprecedented 13.4 metre/44 ft long 5000 year old planks of Fenland Black Oak, which were sawmilled immediately after the ancient trunk was excavated in the Norfolk fens in September.
Once full kiln dried, the fine woodworking students of the BCC will help create a unique masterpiece 44ft long table which will be given to the nation to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and form part of our national heritage.
Project director and Fenland Black Oak specialist Hamish Low, said,
“These enormous and very precious planks will need to be arranged carefully and precisely in the kiln where they will remain for six months until fully dry, and therefore stabilised and preserved.”
The kiln, funded by Coillte Panel Products, has been designed by Mr Low specifically to dry these ancient planks.
“The kiln is a massively long and complicated, and whilst the specification from the smaller units we work with every day, like everything else in this project, the sheer scale has brought its own challenges,” he said.
Made of a sandwich of SmartPly OSB 3 boards packed with insulation, the internal environment of the sealed vapour unit will be humid and hostile. Over the next six months the kilning will be very closely monitored. It is delicate and precarious process which draws on every one of Hamish’s 20 years of expertise working with Fenland Black Oak. It is usual at the end of the drying process to have removed from the timber a staggering 3.2 gallons of water per cubic foot – over 50% of the tree’s original volume – and for each plank to reduce its width and thickness by one third. The challenge of drying Fenland Black Oak is to extract these huge amounts of water and incur such a degree of shrinkage whilst maintaining a flat straight and split free board; a challenge made more difficult by the unique length of these special boards.
The loading of the kiln was carried out by the students of the fine woodwork department on Friday 26th October at the Building Crafts College under the direction of Hamish Low and the project’s Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust (QEST) apprentice, Steve Cook. On completion of the drying process the kiln structure will be dismantled and all materials reused by the college.
The nation’s rarest and most important native hardwood
On Fenland Black Oaks, Mr Low said, “Not all excavated bog oaks can be preserved in the form of planks intact. Most are just left on the side of the fields or by the side of footpaths for people to admire their unique beauty. Unfortunately, they are very fragile when exposed to the elements and so don’t last long. Fenland Black Oaks are our nation’s rarest and most important native hardwood, but what is so particularly rare and unique about this particular tree is that there were no pockets of rot or evidence of any insect infestation or fungal disease at all.
“To find one this large and in such a good state of preservation makes it very precious. Due to the fact that what we had was realistically only a small part of a much larger tree, we have concluded that when it fell it would have smashed and crushed everything in its path and therefore been covered over by the marshy silt of what was once the forest floor. So its gigantic size is most likely the reason it was so well preserved.”
More support is needed to complete the project. Follow the project on Twitter @FenlandBlackOak and visit this site regularly to watch the progress and find out how you can help.