Dartmoor artist showcases his beautiful wood work designs

PUBLISHED: 13:52 12 September 2016 | UPDATED: 16:54 12 September 2016

Fan birds carved by Sean Hellman

Fan birds carved by Sean Hellman


Self-taught wood worker Sean Hellman is making unique works of art on the edge of Dartmoor, as Ian Parsons discovers

Tucked away behind Buckfastleigh’s Fore Street is an artisan’s workshop in which Sean Hellman can be found creating wonders in wood. Handmade, using traditional green wood working techniques, Sean’s work has been exhibited across the country, but it is in the small town of Buckfastleigh that Sean not only makes his works of art, but also teaches others his skills. Growing up in Mid Wales, Sean had his first taste of working with wood when, at the age of 15, he carved a wooden spoon from a log. But it was when he was at college studying photography that he realised that working with wood was what he wanted to do.

Sean recalls: “I discovered wood culture; the way of life and the traditional skills of working with the wood harvested from the trees around you. It quickly became my passion.”

Completely self taught, Sean describes himself as a green wood worker, meaning that he works with freshly felled, unseasoned ‘green’ timber. But a look around his workshop will quickly convince you that he is being very modest in his description. What Sean makes in Buckfastleigh is more than just wood work, it is wood art. Sean creates lots of amazing products, but one of his most popular is the Fan Bird. These beautiful creations really show his artistry.

Green woodworker Sean HellmanGreen woodworker Sean Hellman

Made from just a single piece of wood, the ‘feathers’ of the bird are split out individually using a special knife. These ‘feathers’ are just 0.6 of a millimetre in thickness, yet every one remains part of the original single piece of wood – there is no glue involved! Once split they are carefully twisted into place creating the fan like shape and the remaining part of the wood is then carved into the shape of a bird. The fanned out wings are perfectly balanced with the body and head of the bird so that they can be hung from the ceiling, staying perfectly level as they move on the air currents of the room. To see a finished one turning in the air is to marvel at the skill involved in making this by hand out of just a single piece of wood. Not only that, but Sean even makes the tools he uses to create them!

Sean can be found at many wood and craft fairs, including the Exeter Craft Festival held in July in the beautiful setting of Exeter’s Cathedral Green. His products always prove popular and it is easy to see why. As Sean says “The charm of hand-made products is that they are unique, no two pieces are ever exactly the same. More and more people are realising that traditional crafts are something that we should all enjoy.”

When not creating wooden wonders, Sean is busy passing on his knowledge and skills to others. He has just finished his book Shaving Horses, Lap Shaves and other Woodland Vices, which sets out step by step guidelines for anyone wanting to build their own woodworking equipment. He is passionate that the traditional woodland skills that form such a part of our heritage aren’t lost forever. “I learnt from scratch,” says Sean, “and I want to help others who want to try their hand at green wood working, hopefully the book will do that.”

Blackbird by green woodworker Sean HellmanBlackbird by green woodworker Sean Hellman

Sean’s workshop in Buckfastleigh also doubles up as a classroom where he offers hands on evening classes in a wide variety of green woodworking techniques. This October he will be teaching participants how to make Fan Birds as well as running another course on tool making, in which participants will learn how to create their very own cutting tools, crafting them from steel and wood.

Buckfastleigh is often called the gateway to Dartmoor, it could also be the gateway to you learning a new skill!

For details on the courses or on the items that Sean makes please contact Sean via his website: seanhellman.com

Fan birds carved by Sean HellmanFan birds carved by Sean Hellman

Fan Birds

The tradition of Fan Bird carving is thought to have originated in Russia and they were once common along the Baltic coast running from Denmark along to Russia and on into Finland. There are many customs associated with them, but the general theme is that they bring protection, health and happiness for the family. In Finland, they were called ‘soul birds’, bringing the soul to a new born child and helping to protect it. The bird would be hung in the sleeping quarters and was believed to prevent the soul from getting lost in the path of dreams as the person beneath slept.

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