14th July 2021 | Words by Matt Jones @ WildBounds HQ
These days, there is a plethora of information out there for aspiring bushcrafters and woodsy folk. Whether you want to sharpen your shelter-building skills, learn to live off the land or whittle objects from wood, there are countless websites, podcasts and YouTube videos that can help. But despite this veritable mine of online information, there’s still a lot to be gleaned from the printed word – not least because if you’re heading off-grid into the woods, you’re unlikely to have access to the internet.
Beyond that practical consideration however, the tactile experience of leafing through a beautifully illustrated and wonderfully written book is something to cherish. It’s a slower and more deliberate way to absorb knowledge, an experience that can be savoured whether you’re perched on a tree stump in the middle of a forest or relaxing on your back porch with a steaming mug of coffee. We’ll always have time for real books. Which is precisely why we’ve picked out our top six reads for aspiring woodsmen or women, on topics ranging from whittling to woodland craft.
1. Woodland Craft by Ben Law
Ben Law is the consummate woodsman. He practices what he preaches, having spent 20 years living and working in Prickly Nut Wood in West Sussex. This coppiced woodland covers a total area of nearly 100 acres, and Woodland Craft is a paean to the vast and diverse range of natural goods that it has produced. Ben explains how to craft brooms, rakes, pegs, spoons, chairs, baskets, fencing, yurts and even a caravan from tree species such as sweet chestnut, hazel, ash, field maple and oak. Every wooden object possesses a simple, rustic beauty, and the photographs alone make this a wonderful book to pore over. But it’s a practical tome too, containing detailed instructions and advice on a range of different crafts, as well as their long history and fascinating traditions. If you aspire to lead a low-impact, woodland way of life, it’s an utterly absorbing reference that will take up permanent residence on your coffee table.
Published by the Guild of Master Craftsmen, £25, ISBN 9781861089366
Subtitled ‘The guide to chopping, stacking and drying wood the Scandinavian way’, this is ostensibly a how-to book on sorting out your woodpile. But of course, it’s far more than that, since – as the author himself points out – in learning about wood, we can learn about life. So, although the book is immensely practical, full of tips and tricks on processing firewood, it’s also a reflective meditation on many things: the human instinct for warmth and food, the romance of the great outdoors, the nobility of axecraft, and the intimacy of our relationship with trees. Something of a surprise bestseller when it was published in 2015, the book somehow tapped into a unique collective fascination with wood; that most wonderful (and renewable) of materials. It really is a must-read, for there is plenty of wisdom to be gleaned from its pages – not least this little gem: “The man who chops his own wood warms himself twice”.
Published by MacLehose Press, £20, ISBN 9780857052551
3. Bushcraft Illustrated by Dave Canterbury
There are any number of excellent bushcraft books out there, including bona fide classics from authors like Mors Kochanski, Lofty Wiseman and of course the venerable Ray Mears. But for all their useful content, few are as beautiful or as digestible as Dave Canterbury’s Bushcraft Illustrated. Co-owner and supervising instructor of the renowned Pathfinder School in the USA, Canterbury’s credentials as a wilderness expert are impressive. But he’s also a great teacher, as his previous bestselling books and huge YouTube following prove. Essentially a compendium of bushcraft and wilderness survival skills, some methods will be familiar to bushcraft enthusiasts – but equally, there will be plenty that will be both new and inordinately useful. From different types of shelter to useful everyday carry tools and edible plants, the book covers a wide range of outdoor topics, alongside a series of wonderfully retro Boy’s Own-style illustrations.
Published by Adams Media, £18.99, ISBN 9781507209028
4. The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees by Robert Penn
Uniquely among the books featured here, this book is not a how-to guide but a narrative. It is a beautifully written account of a journey-of-sorts that mixes research, reportage and personal reflection, all inspired by a single ash tree. One frigid winter morning, journalist and presenter Robert Penn lovingly selected a mature ash from his own land and cut it down. He wanted to see how many beautiful, handmade objects could be made from it. Thus begins a remarkable voyage of discovery in which the author visits craftspeople across Britain and beyond, learning about traditional skills and makers. All work with wood, but what they produce is infinitely varied – encompassing everything from axe handles and canoe paddles to cartwheels, not to mention bowls, spoons, arrows, bats and even hurling sticks. A love letter to the noble ash and the many fine qualities of its wood, Penn’s book eloquently argues that, after the mighty oak, this tree was more important than any other single species in terms of human progress.
Published by Penguin, £9.99, ISBN 9780141977515
5. The Swiss Army Knife Book by Felix Immler
Published in collaboration with renowned knifemakers Victorinox, this immensely practical book by Swiss outdoor instructor Felix Immler shows the wealth of different woodland craft projects that can be made with nothing more than the humble Swiss Army Knife. There are no less than 63 different ideas in the book, each illustrated with wholesome photographs of Felix and friends at home in their forest camp. It all looks like tremendous fun, and this is both an inspiring and accessible book for families who aspire to get the kids outside more often. In fact, it would make a brilliant gift for an adventurous ten-year-old, particularly if accompanied by their first pocket-knife. But woodcraft enthusiasts of all ages will relish the sheer number of easy projects contained here, any of which will help to occupy your next weekend in the woods.
Published by Frances Lincoln, £14.99, ISBN 9780711238893
6. The Art of Fire by Daniel Hume
A qualified instructor at Ray Mears’ Woodlore School of Wilderness Bushcraft, Dan Hume knows his stuff when it comes to making and using fire; that most elemental and ancient of outdoor skills. His book is a very readable account of how to create fire in myriad ways, in which he tours the globe to learn native fire-starting techniques from a wide range of different cultures. At once practical and reflective, it’s an eloquent work that conveys the innate joy of tinder, spark and ember, as well as what those things mean to people who still directly interact with fire in the traditional sense: bringing vital warmth, safety and the promise of food in the toughest environments. But aside from what it teaches, the book is a pleasure to leaf through thanks to the wealth of beautifully shot photographs and characterful illustrations. If you appreciate that starting a fire is about patience, craft and guile – as opposed to just striking a match – this is the book for you.