THE ELDER TREE
I hold it needless to write any description of this, since every boy that plays with a pop-gun will not mistake another tree instead of elder:
Culpepers Complete Herbal 1652
When I’m assessing a woodland for long term educational use, my heart always lifts when there is a profusion of Elder (Sambucus Nigra) growing there. Along with Hazel and Ash, it is one of the trees I most commonly look to for wood for simple crafts. Apart from the heady scent of its blossom in early summer, the most wonderful thing about Elder is the spongy pith in the middle of all it’s branches. This can be easily pushed out and instead of a lump of wood, we have a hollow tube with the potential to make lots of different things.
Elder is a common, woodland and hedgerow tree which can apparently grow to 15 meters but I don’t often come across specimens taller than 3 meters in Devon. There is lots of good botanical, folklore and medicinal information out there on the web but I just want to focus here on a few things that can be made from the branches of the Elder tree. From the humble bead to the mighty spud gun, these are all tried and tested by me. Some are really easy and require only a few simple tools, others are more fiddly and require some patience, skill with a knife and in one case a rather hard to source gimlet. Some are definitely suitable for children and young people at Forest School, some may be just to extend your own skills and be that one step ahead of the people you are working with.
1 The Humble Bead
You probably won’t have been involved with Forest School for too long before you end up making some of these. There is something immensely satisfying about taking a hacksaw to a clean, finger thick stick and sawing off a pocketful of beads, then popping out the pith of each with a tent peg or ‘pokey stick’. You can peel them with a thumbnail in spring when the sap is rising and the bark just falls off, or carve patterns in the bark with a knife. They can be threaded on necklaces or bracelets, made into little animals and have even been currency in a year one mud pie shop. Hooray for the humble bead.
2 Twig Pencils
You have made a batch of charcoal and gone off mark making on the trunks of every beech tree in sight but someone wants to make a ‘real pencil’ so off we go to look for a suitable bit of Elder. There isn’t really a lot of point in making these for actual drawing as charcoal doesn’t stand up to much sharpening once the protruding length has worn down. They do make nice gifts and when children want to take something home from a session, it stops the charcoal turning into a pile of dust in a pocket! An example of product over process perhaps but easy to make and good to give away.
3 Artists Mannequin
Credit… to my colleague at the Wembworthy Centre; Penny Evans for this one. Lots of people will no doubt have invented this independently but it was Penny that came up with it and showed me some years ago. Just cut some beads and link with wire or pipe cleaners. They can be tricky to make stand up, though thanks to Giphy this one can dance!
This is a well known, even classic, Elder craft item which is super simple but takes some practice to be able to make reliably. I imagine that once upon a time, in a romantic golden age, when every child roamed the woods and meadows with their penknives, the air was filled with the shrill, piercing sounds of Elder whistles! All you need is a tent peg and a sharp knife, though a hacksaw can be helpful to make the vertical stop cut for children. It is really important that you spend a long time pushing the pith about 10cm into the stick but not all the way through. The bore of the tube must be burnished smooth and be completely free of bits of pith i.e ‘as clean as a whistle’. Every face and edge should be free from wood fluff, pith and other ‘hairy bits’ so that there is no impediment to the flow of air which would otherwise make a breathy whistle or no noise at all. In my experience, a stick with a bigger bore is easier to make work and also makes a deeper noise. You may have to fiddle with your fipple for some time but eventually you WILL get it to make a noise. Patience and persistence are key!
5 Gimlet or Auger Sheath
Protect yourself and your sharp, pointy, hole drilling devices with a made to measure holder! This is just a bit of Elder bored to the same diameter as the drill bit it needs to protect. Bung the other end with a wooden plug and you will help prolong the life of some expensive and very useful tools. TIP: make sure the wood is well seasoned first otherwise it will shrink as it dries and clamp onto the tool which will by this point will be a rusty, horrible mess.
6 Duck Call
Otherwise known as a quacker. This is super easy in principle and a bit fiddly to get right. You need a 10 cm long elder tube with one end cut at a 45 degree angle. The bore diameter does not seem to be too important but I have only made about 10 of these so far so am still experimenting. The noise is made by a bit of card which is hinged over the 45 degree end and taped tightly to the tube as you can see in the photo. You can blow on the angled end or suck on the other end to make the same noise. Experiment with cupped hands over the ‘instrument’ to make it even more duck like. My friend Marion in Germany was working with a musician on one of her outdoor learning programs last year and gave me the original quacker as a present. Unfortunately someone walked off with it during an event but that meant I had to start from scratch and figure out what to tweak to make my own versions work. It is hard to describe in text so you will probably have to do the same!
This is a contender (along side the spring and spud guns) for my favourite, crafted, Elder thing. In 2014, I was working in Serbia with Helena Kosková an inspirational trainer from the Czech Republic. Helena had a musical stick which traveled everywhere with her in a cloth bag and was played without announcement whenever she needed the group to come together, focus for a moment or move along a trail. It was a Koncovka , a Slovak overtone flute, traditionally made and played by Slovak shepherds in the the mountains. You can hear playing it properly here.
My first effort is pictured above and my third can be heard below. It is my come back noise for Forest School sessions and training courses. I spent quite a while finding the right tool, a flute makers gimlet, to bore a smooth, even diameter hole down the length of the stick. There is a bit of physics involved and the ratio between bore length and diameter is important to get the full 2 octaves possible. There are videos online of people using standard, long auger bits and power drills but they look a bit scary. Alternatively you can make one with pvc overflow pipe and dowel rod in about 10 minutes!
8 Fire Pipe
This was inspired by @WoodlandDave on Twitter. It is a long hollowed bit of Elder and stops you losing eyebrows when your fire needs a little oxygen boost. It is about 60 cm long. I pushed the pith out with the heaviest gauge fencing wire I had in the shed and it required a fair bit of force. You may need to refresh the wire several times, as it loses rigidity when it bends under pressure. I enlarged the hole at the mouth end with a gimlet to allow more air in. This bit of wood had been dead on the tree for a while and has some delicate spalted patterns on the surface caused by fungi. Decorate the outside with a bit of chip carving and you have a very tactile and useful tool for your woodland camp or living room woodburner.
Re-purpose the fire pipe by putting a projectile, more or less the diameter of the pipe, in the end and shooting it with a sharp blow of air from the mouth end. For a flashback to a boring 1980s school science lesson, use a chewed up wad of paper.
10 Needle pots
Credit for this idea goes to Alan Bruford and the very creative education team at Wildwood Escot. First poke out the pith (this should be pretty familiar by now), then plug one end. I tend to use off-cuts of basketry willow for this as it is easy to find exactly the right size without having to whittle anything too fiddly. Saw a bit off the top and push in a longer peg which will fit into the pot and make a tight lid held by friction. Alternatively you can carve a plug from another type of wood as you can see on the right hand pot in image above. Perfect for storing your bone needles, magic dust, tiny messages or wishes. If you want to get fancy you can carve the outside too. I like doodling spirals like this one……
10 Spring Loaded Dart Gun
This one came from a very obscure Breton Language DVD lent to me by a Breton friend who had visited an old schoolhouse folk museum in Brittany which had a large collection of traditional toys. I didn’t understand a word of it but the images and demonstration by the old guy in the video was enough to work out how to make one. You need to do some pith poking and cut a long slot through the tube to allow the green hazel whip spring to pass through and hit back of the dart. Cutting this will involve some tricky knife work and you will need to feel confident in safely carving towards your body. Drill a hole in line with the slot for the whip / spring to fit into and find a dart to fit the hole. There is lots of fun to be had in tweaking this to increase the range by lengthening the slot and using different materials for the spring. I looked this up to find other versions and the only reference I could find was from the American Boys Handy Book by Daniel Carter Beard published in 1882, where whale bone is suggested as a spring!
Here is Stan test firing one at me (not recommended 😉 ).
11 The Elder Wand
…only a highly unusual person will find their perfect match in elder, and on the rare occasion when such a pairing occurs, I take it as certain that the witch or wizard in question is marked out for a special destiny.
This is for all the Harry Potter fans or anyone who knows one. Make your own version of ‘The Elder Wand’ but be careful it doesn’t backfire. Poke down the pith in both ends of the wand and plug one end with a decent length of hardwood so that you can whittle it to more of a point. Find a bit of Thestral Tail hair (I couldn’t lay my hands on any so used squirrel tail hair instead) and pop it in the hole at the other end, then plug with another bit of hardwood. Whittle a pattern or shape of your choice. You can make up your own spell or use one of this the wands’ own built in spells; “Sambucus Nigra” or “Sciurus carolinensis”. Wand making is a good way of teaching scientific names of trees as many of them sound pretty spell like. For the ultimate in Harry Potter wand geekery have a look here and figure out if you are special enough to handle an Elder wand.
12 Gypsy Flowers
Elder is not my first choice of wood for making gypsy flowers as it can get quite brittle and harder to work with when it has dried out a bit. I have included it here, as traditionally it was the species used by Romany Gypsies for the coloured flowers sold door to door. The key advantage of Elder is that you don’t need to own a drill, as the pith is soft enough to poke stems into. When I have been demonstrating this craft as shows, I have met many older people who remember their parents buying coloured elder flowers from Gypsies in the past.
13 Christmas Tree Decorations
This was a doodle done in December 2016 whilst course participants were all happily engaged on their own tasks. It hung on our christmas tree and is now with all the other decorations in the attic until next year. It is a carved double spiral like the one in the needle pot picture, except that I whittled right through to the pith which was then cleaned out as the gaps between the 2 spirals were increased. The tip was plugged before opening the gaps and enough wood left intact at either end to prevent the whole thing falling apart. Very fiddly but very satisfying and really effective as a decoration.
14 Tawny Owl Hoot
This is a fancier and longer lasting version of the green wood Elder whistle. They are made from seasoned wood and drilled out by hand with a 12mm gimlet. I drill all the way through so that I can sandpaper the inside of the tube to make it as smooth and clean as possible. I then plug one end with a tight fitting piece of hardwood – I will admit to having bought 12mm dowel for this on one occasion. The fipple is carved with a sharp chisel in the same shape as in a recorder or the Koncovka. The air inlet plug is cut to a D section and the gap gradually increased until you have the right sound. The length of the chamber has an influence on the note produced so you need to experiement to get the sound you want. I painted the ones in the picture with milk paint coloured with ground red ochre then oiled them and carved the patterns. They last for years and sound like this…..
15 The Mighty Spud Gun
In 1652 Culpeper reckoned that every boy knew how to identify the Elder tree because they all made pop guns from them. How many adults, never mind children even know what a pop gun is now, never mind how to make one from Elder? Well it isn’t that difficult and believe it or not, it starts with poking or drilling out the pith. There are 2 parts to the device; a tube and a plunger as you can see in the picture. Apparently you can use paper wads, berries and apple flesh as ammunition but I get great results with bits of potato, hence the name. You need to push one potato piece towards the back of the tube and then position another just at the mouth. As you slam the plunger forward, air pressure builds between the 2 bits of spud and the front one goes flying out with a loud pop.
I never tire of this.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.