Around 2012 I was building some cabinets into a sitting room off my clients’ kitchen when Paul, a member of the general contractor’s crew, struck up a conversation. “I just saw this amazing video about bog oak,” he said. “There’s this guy in England digging up 4,000-year-old trees and using them for furniture. I bet you know him.”
Know him? I had never even heard of bog oak and certainly had no idea who Paul might be talking about. That night I Googled “bog oak and furniture UK.” Up popped a link to an article by Derek Jones published in Furniture & Cabinetmaking magazine, on the website of Adamson & Low.
It was one of those small-world moments in which time and space collapse. Here I was, working in rural Indiana, suddenly transported back more than 30 years to the woodworking shop at the Isle of Ely College in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, where Hamish Low was a fellow student in a City & Guilds furniture making course. It was no surprise that Hamish had distinguished himself in the field – he’d been the most impressive student in our cohort. The culture of that classroom was brutal, with intense competition and merciless teasing; I used to swear that someday people would brag about their “low quality” furniture. I knew he’d gone on to train at West Dean, then worked for the Edward Barnsley Workshop. But beyond that, his adult life was a mystery to me. So I was interested to read that he had partnered with Nicola Adamson to build a business and a family, and was involved in pioneering work.
Nicola Adamson and Hamish Low met in 1989 when she was a student in the two-year residential program at the John Makepeace School of Craftsmanship in Wood at Parnham House. Hamish was employed in Makepeace’s workshops as one of the craftsmen who turned the renowned designer’s drawings into three-dimensional furniture.
Makepeace wasn’t keen on having students mix with his cabinetmakers – students who were being trained in business and design might try to make off with an experienced cabinetmaker, robbing Makepeace of an invaluable member of his workforce. “Every student wanted a cabinetmaker to make their designs,” says Hamish, adding, “I was just head-hunted [by Nicola] for my cabinetmaking skills. Plus, Nicola had a whole load of machinery, so that was obviously part of her dowry! So it was basically a marriage of convenience.” Same old humor, even after three decades.
“I had started setting up a workshop in Kent,” Nicola adds. She planned to use the shop herself following her time at Parnham. For a couple of years, while she and Hamish had a long-distance relationship, she rented bench space to another student, until the couple started working together in 1992. “Business and I are just hopeless,” Hamish says. “Nicola has always run the business. Nicola is also more of a designer, so I was really shackled to the bench.” Another bit of hyperbole. They worked together until the birth of their first child, Hazel, in 1996.
Nicola has always lived in Kent, southeast of London. Her father was a motor engineer. Her mother was a housewife who also worked from home making lampshades and curtains commercially. In other words, “both [parents were] quite practical.” She went to the local comprehensive school, then to art college for two years before leaving for Parnham.
Initially, their work came by word of mouth. They did whatever clients wanted – furniture, as well as a few kitchens. One kitchen stands out – the cabinets were in burr oak, and the job was for an oast house. Oast houses are a traditional Kentish architectural form, built to dry hops for brewing beer. In recent decades, they’ve become popular for conversion to residential use. Circular in form, their roofs rise to a point, so anything built-in must be custom-designed. After Hamish and Nicola did that kitchen, the oast house clients called them back for a new commission each year. Gradually those clients’ friends began to hire them, as well. When clients had children, they wanted beds and desks “and stuff to go on uneven floors of Kentish barn houses,” Nicola adds. So while their clients were few in number, they had multiple commissions from each one.
“You only need one customer, one client, and if you’re successful they recommend you,” says Hamish. “It just seemed to snowball. We’ve always had a year’s work booked up ahead of us. When you work to commission, everything is always a compromise because [the clients are] paying the bill. You can’t really progress from that unless you make what you want and exhibit it. But it’s in your clients’ interest [for you to move on to your own work]. People are speculating on you more. You try to break into the art market.”
Early on, kitchens paid for everything. “It was a lot of work for two people,” Nicola says. “We designed it, made it, installed it, did all the plumbing and electrical; it was all-consuming.”
“People would spend a fortune on their kitchens,” notes Hamish, “and yet something that would become a family heirloom and become collectible, they didn’t seem to value it in the same way.”
Although the income from kitchens was good, they switched to freestanding furniture when their children were young – their son, Archie, was born in 2001. “The last [kitchen] we did, Archie was born in the middle of Hamish installing it,” says Nicola. Both children were born at home. “I had to call the client to say ‘I think Hamish ought to come home.’”
“It was just easier,” Hamish says, prompting Nicola to add, “I could just get down from the drawing board!”
Since the beginning of their partnership, they’ve focused on using native hardwoods that would otherwise be wasted. Some of the timber came from their clients’ own trees. “We were quite unusual in that we would do everything, from tree to chair,” Hamish says. The client would be engaged in the entire process. “That was quite interesting to them; a lot of it is very old, established country tradition, and yet a lot of it was sophisticated technology.”
For example, he explains, air drying of oak has been done the same way for centuries. “It’s a very direct process.” But the “technology” would come from the new mills, such as Wood-Mizers. “We would use technology alongside established traditional approaches to drying timber. You start with a huge, sopping-wet liability and you turn it into a plank of wood. Everything we make starts with a plank of wood. It becomes the most usable, fantastic thing. And there’s a lot of technology involved in drying it in the kiln. The client was involved in all of that.”
So much of the beauty of wood can depend on how you cut the tree, he points out. “Amazing grain and visual impact can be created from pretty shit trees. If you’re a little bit savvy and a little bit arty about how you apply yourself to using very defective trees, you can produce some very beautiful things.”
This appreciation for the design potential of timber considered low grade or defective is what led Nicola and Hamish to their work with bog oak.
Hamish grew up near Cambridge and attended the Isle of Ely College in Wisbech, a town built on the banks of the River Nene. Wisbech and its environs lie close to sea level in a marshy region known as the fens. At the end of the last Ice Age, some 10,000 years ago, the area was densely forested with gigantic oaks, yews and pines. As the Earth warmed, sea levels rose and the area between England’s south and eastern borders was cut off from the European mainland by what we now call the English Channel. In low-lying areas of the east coast, such as the fens, the forests were flooded. Trees fell into the silt, where the absence of oxygen led to their preservation.
In the 1600s, wealthy landowners hired Dutch engineers to drain the fens and build dams in hopes of increasing their agricultural acreage. Newly exposed to oxygen, the peat began to oxidize, shrink and slowly blow away. Drainage work began anew in the late 18th and early 19th centuries; the entire region is crisscrossed by drainage ditches today.
Hamish had known about bog oak for years, because he often visited an uncle who lived in Wisbech to go fishing in the fens. He’d see bog oaks just lying in the fields. Farmers hit the logs with expensive modern farming machinery, which causes damage, so they typically want to get rid of them. His friend Frank, whose father was the vicar in the nearby village of Methwold, was into photography and had shown him photos of bog oaks coming out of the fields. “They were very arty photographs,” Hamish remembers. He asked what happened to the trees. “They’re going on the fire,” Frank told him. Hamish decided he’d be interested in trying to process them. As he soon learned, “That is notoriously difficult.”
“Other, very famous makers were using [bog oak], he says – Makepeace, Alan Peters, Wendell Castle. But no one knew how to dry it, so they were using it as details and accents, such as inlays or handles.” He was convinced there must be some way to process the wood for structural use in furniture. “It’s such amazing material. We’re doing it with all the other native hardwoods,” he remembers thinking. “This is the mother of waste! It’s the holy grail of trying to use material that would otherwise be wasted. They burn it, for God’s sake!”
Air-drying is too aggressive, he learned. Bog oaks must be dried under the most carefully controlled conditions. While most woodworkers kiln-dry for speed, Hamish dries bog oak in a kiln because it’s a far more precise way to manage the process. “You can take a thimble of water over a year, or ten gallons in a day.” His kilns never go above 35° Celsius (95° F). It’s a technique in which he has invested 30 years of trial and error – “mostly error!” he adds.
“It’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen,” he continues, describing the kind of scene where bog oaks tend to appear. “The soil is jet black. Flat. You turn up and there’s the most enormous lump of black mud sitting there and you think ‘Where the hell does this come from?’ He has watched bog oaks get unearthed with huge machinery; a machine operator puts the bucket into the ground, “and you can see the peat moving 20 meters away. It’s an extraordinary sight. They are so straight – such perfect specimen oak trees.”
“You’ve found it,” he continues. “Then you have to decide whether it’s worth investing in. You can dry bog oak and it can be soft and full of splits; or it can be super dense, as dense as ebony – 1,166 kilos per cubic meter.” (That’s roughly 72 pounds per cubic foot.) “And it’s figured, so it’s like a figured ebony if it’s quartersawn. It has a particularly fat medullary vessel.”
“A log can be rubbish or black gold. You have to identify whether it’s any good. They all look the same and weigh the same.” So, how do you tell? “You get a very sharp hand axe and chip away at it. If it’s any good, you’ll meet resistance; it will sound like it’s going to be good. It vibrates.” It’s a subtle way of knowing material, he explains. “What you don’t want: It’s soft and mushy and you can keep going; it doesn’t reverberate. You can feel it and hear it.”
You have to test the whole length of the log, because there are pretty much always pockets of rot. The really big logs were typically immersed unevenly in the peat, with parts exposed to the elements and subject to insect attack, splitting and fungal disease. Color is another good indicator, once you cut into the log, as is how far below sea level the log has been buried. Hamish looks for logs from 3′-4′ below sea level as a guide.
Generally speaking, he cuts logs with a chainsaw, in the field, into 12′ lengths; anything over 6′ is usable. He looks for those that look like a half moon, a segment of an orange – no heart, no pith, and so, no heart shake. Nicola explains: “The logs are often dug up half-moon-shaped, as one half has already rotted away.” They mill them to produce quartersawn planks for optimal figure and stability.
At times he has brought trees back in the round, planked them and put them in the kiln. Even boards close to each other in the log can vary dramatically – one will have splits all over; the next won’t, even though both have been processed in exactly the same way. This variation in quality is often due to part of the tree having been exposed to the elements, which causes it to split along its medullary vessels. To illustrate this, Hamish once put a tree back together after it was dried. While the “top” half of the log was all split, the bottom was perfect, because the bottom half had originally fallen into the silt. The part that had been exposed to oxygen “split like mad” before falling into the silt, whereupon the splits filled up to absolute fiber saturation, only to split again when dried.
In 2012, Hamish and his colleagues found the best bog oak they had ever encountered. The log was perfectly preserved, with not so much as a single pocket of rot or insect fly hole. And it was massive, at 43′. “You couldn’t even tell which end was which; it was so parallel,” he recalls. “It was only part of a much, much bigger tree.”
“I don’t think we should cut this,” Hamish decided on the spot. “We should keep it full-length.” He and his crew returned home empty-handed. The whole way back, Bob, a friend, neighbor and experienced woodworker who often travels with Hamish to the fens when collecting trunks, was saying, “You’re bloody mad. How are you going to lift it and dry it?” Hamish simply replied: “Imagine jet-black planks that are 13.2 meters long.” They subsequently named it the Jubilee Oak.
Nicola recounts how they put together the people and resources required to turn this prized find into a piece of furniture – a table – worthy of its history and rareness. “After finding the Jubilee oak, Hamish contacted The Worshipful Company of Carpenters and subsequently The Building Crafts College (The Worshipful Company of Carpenters run this college) to help further this endeavor. Steve Cook and Mauro Dell’Orco were both students there at the time and have now become part of the long-term project. Steve became artist-in-residence at The Building Crafts College for a year after he completed his course and was also funded for a year by the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust to assist Hamish in the drying of the boards. Mauro, who previously had a career in architecture, has become the lead designer for The Fenland Black Oak Project.
They milled the tree in 2012 and dried it in a purpose-built kiln at The Building Crafts College. The drying took nine months. In 2019, with help from more than 20 students who gave up part of their summer holidays for the privilege of contributing to the project, Hamish painstakingly constructed the table’s top from four of the boards in the spacious and well-equipped workshop at the Building Crafts College.
In the intervening years, they had set up a charitable trust to manage and protect the boards. The trustees come from varying backgrounds – farming, accounting, film making, legal work and administration. Hamish was appointed chairman in 2020, after the previous chair stood down.
The tabletop is currently in a climate-controlled kiln while the group raises funds to complete the base, which will be fabricated in bronze, in recognition of the era during which the trees were standing. “There’s a whole team of people who have worked on the design,” Hamish says. “It’s the most important thing I’ve ever done, and the most amazing.” When I ask, in view of how integral Nicola is to their business, whether Hamish really means to use the first-person singular in that quote – “It’s the most important thing I’ve ever done” – Nicola replies: “I in theory am not involved in The Fenland Black Oak Project. It is very much Hamish’s other woman! That said, there does seem to be quite a big workload that comes my way!”
For the first 18 months after its completion, the Jubilee Oak table will be on display at Ely Cathedral, a spectacular Gothic structure on high ground overlooking the fields where the ancient oaks were buried. “By displaying this table at Ely Cathedral we are hoping to raise awareness amongst local land owners of the urgent need to preserve as much black oak as we can,” says Hamish. “It’s going to run out. We just want to save this best-ever example so people can see it when it’s all gone.”
Nicola and Hamish are no longer working to commission. After 30 years of that, they’re ready to switch to spec work and are currently developing some innovative construction techniques. “In order to make something amazing, you’ve got to go back to the basics,” Hamish says. His motivation: “Let’s develop some construction techniques that will allow us to do something visually amazing! You can’t just decorate something in a different way. Who cares? You need to start again.” For now, this is all I can reveal, as they’re keeping the particulars of these techniques under wraps.
They make their home on a smallholding in Kent, where they live with cats, chickens and Paisley, their dog, and finished building their own workshop in 2020.
At this point we return to Hamish’s youth. His father worked as an underwriter for Lloyds of London. His mother was a school teacher who eventually became a headmistress. Hamish went to a Quaker school, Sibford Ferris, that had a good woodworking department.
“I was severely dyslexic,” he says. “Still am. Basically I was hopeless at school until we were allowed in the woodwork shop. The woodwork teacher said, ‘You’re good at this!’ This useless pupil was good at something.”
“Don’t ever underestimate a craftsman,” he emphasizes, “because they’re highly disciplined, highly trained, very determined individuals. I’m a real advocate of traditional apprenticeships. I don’t think you could be good at this job other than by doing it as an apprenticeship. Doing it as an apprenticeship teaches you humility. One of the people I worked with said, ‘Somebody who never made a mistake never made anything.’ Processing bog oak went so wrong, so often; you could take the view that it’s a waste of time. Or you can say, ‘I’ve applied myself to this in the wrong way, so what can I do to do it right?’ A craftsman accepts that they’ve made a mistake. Then, rather than saying, ‘That’s a stupid idea,’ or ‘This is impossible,’ they say ‘What did I do wrong and what have I got to do to make it work?’”
With bog oak, Hamish applied himself to this question for 30 years and now says, “You only have to get it right a couple of times for it to show you that this is worth it.”
If you’d like to contribute to The Fenland Black Oak project, you can do so here. All contributors donating £1,000 or more will have their names carved into the underside of The Jubilee Oak top as a reminder to future generations of this shared vision.
You can read more of Nancy Hiller’s profiles, which we call “Little Acorns,” via this link.