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maandag 13 juni 2016

The man behind the Treehouse staircase

The man

Meet Stuart Mortimer, 73-year old retired police Inspector-turned professional wood turner, Guinness World Record-holder and whittler to Her Majesty the Queen.

In 2011, Stuart worked on the staircases for the three Longleat Forest Treehouses. His work was so remarkable that we just had to ask him to make another four hand-carved, solid wood trunks for Elveden Forest.

The wood

It’s a process that, unsurprisingly, starts with trees. At Longleat Forest, we were able to source the wood from the Village itself. But winter wather at Elveden Forest at the start of the year made that impossible – so Stuart sourced the wood himself.

“I chose Douglas fir,” he says. “It’s a beautiful and hardy wood. It’s the same wood that’s used traditionally to make log cabins around the world. It’s strong, straight and lasts forever.”

But practicalities aren’t the only reasons: “It’s also beautiful. When you first take the bark off, it’s white. But as you work it and get closer to the heart, it’s a pink salmon colour. When that pops through in the finished piece, it’s really lovely.”

Six facts about Stuart

  1. He made the biggest ever bowl carved from a single piece of wood – it was 8’6” across and held a Guinness World Record.
  2. He has hand-carved thrones for Her Majesty the Queen.
  3. He spent 27 years in the police force at Heathrow, retiring as an Inspector.
  4. Some of Stuart’s work is on display in museums.
  5. His first experience with woodworking was when he carved an aeroplane at the age of nine.
  6. He still has that wooden aeroplane.

The process

Once the tree trunks are delivered to the joinery site, Stuart sets them up on pallets and begins slicing off the bark. Because of the scale of the job, he sourced a brand new piece of equipment, the likes of which he’d never seen before, from Russia.

“I need to get it to a consistent thickness of 300mm diameter all the way down,” explains Stuart. “I don’t like millimetres though,” he adds, “I prefer inches.”

The trees arrived around 600mm at the top and as wide as 700mm at the bottom. “It was a big tree!”

Next, Stuart works on the flutes. These grooves down the length of the wood create a natural, organic look that mimics real life.

“If they could pull up a tree, roots and all,” says Stuart, “and install it in the Treehouse, this is more or less what it would look like. The only difference is this a bit more stylised.”

The flutes are started with a chainsaw, neatened with a plane and finished with sanding. While looking natural, the flutes have to go in specific places so as not to interfere with the treads (or stairs) when the final staircase is created. This is the point where Stuart blends his art and science.

The finish

The whole process takes around a month of hard work.

Once Stuart finished, the huge trunks were fitted with treads and fixtures by Input Joinery, before being shipped to Elveden Forest and assembled inside the Treehouse.

“I’ve loved working on this,” says Stuart. “It is hard, mind, and I found it even harder than last time around. It took me a few days to recover. I can only work that intensely for, say, three hours in the morning and two in the afternoon. It’s very physical.”

Would he do it again when we build our next Treehouses? “Oh yes,” says Stuart, straight away. “But perhaps I’d get someone younger in to do it and I could supervise.”

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