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Sharing a skilled future

This week sees the start of something new: all of us social reporters will be taking turns at editing the blog.

old bootsIt's not that we are in any way dissatisfied with the work of our chief editor, Charlotte Du Cann, not at all! It is because with the patience of a saint and endless TLC she has guided us to exactly this moment, where we feel confident and eager to have a go at this editing lark. So with a cocky strut and swagger I take my first steps upon the editorial path, hoping that halfway down the road I won't find myself in boots several sizes too big.

group of girls knittingHow appropriate then that we kick off this new way of working by taking a closer look at the concept of skillshare. It is the idea that you can learn anything from anybody, anywhere. No need for teachers or schools, just the willingness to share what you know and can do, with others, who will likewise share their skills with you. The most useful things I know were learned this way; my mum showed me how to cook, a friend explained the correct way to use a hammer and saw, another showed me how to split firewood using minimum effort. It's how I learned to fish, grow vegetables, knit a jumper, ride a horse, bake bread, sharpen a knife, fly a kite and wash with a single cup of water. I remember many of my “teachers”, their patience and enjoyment at passing on their particular skill, just as I can still recall a lot of the times when I showed somebody how to do something they couldn't do before. It is so rewarding that it got me totally hooked on teaching.  

If money is your hope for independence you will never have it. The only real security that a man will have in this world is a reserve of knowledge, experience, and ability.
Henry Ford

 I think that one of the most useful responses to the current situation of deepening economic gloom is the learning of new skills. Each craft you master can save or make you money in the future. Rob Hopkins pointed out that in every community there are a lot more skills than we imagine. Do you know how many skills you have? Try and make a list, don't hold back, what you imagine to be something everybody knows will be a complete mystery to others! And then there are those things you don't know you can do until the moment arises where you need to do them. I never knew that I could skin, gut and quarter an animal until I picked up the huge hare the car in front had run over and took it home. It was a magnificent male, in the prime of his life, but dead as can be. The whole thing was an intense experience; gratitude at receiving such a gift of guilt free meat mingled with deep sadness at the passing of this magical animal and the surprise that somehow I knew how to turn his body into food.

bender, wagon and truck, encampment with John's kidsAs for sharing skills in the virtual world, you can't get much better than Youtube; Bender, wagon and truckfrom fruit tree pruning to re-skinning your djembe drum, creating the perfect spinach souffle, changing your car's head gasket or building a compost loo, it's all there. Then there's eHow and How to do and lots and lots of forums on a bewildering amount of subjects, so it took a bit of thinking as to what I could offer in the way of a skill that wasn't online already. In the end, I settled on bender building, as I couldn't find a good enough guide to do so, although Devon County Council has a fair bash at it, information which some of us might think a bit ominous to find on a council website, in the light of the cap on benefits move. (So that's what they've got in mind for the "undeserving" London poor...)

Myself,Ketty and Jackie in my bender at Glastonbury Festival 1994A bender is the traditional ethnic traveller dwelling of the British Isles. They are easy to put up and will keep you warm and dry even in the foulest weather. A bender is seldom pretty, being basically an upside down basket with a tarpaulin over it, but it has a no nonsense ruggedness about it that makes it far more fitting for this climate than the more elegant tipi or even the fashionable yurt. Once you've lived in a bender, you know how comfortable it can be. Horsedrawn travellers of yore wouldn't have used them otherwise. At festivals, a bender has the added advantage of having a "don't mess with me" image and thieves will give it a wide berth, as well as being a lot more fireproof and therefore safer than nylon nightmares.

So why did I choose bender building? Well, unless you own your home outright, homelessness can be just an economic downturn away and I feel a lot safer knowing that at the end of the day, I can provide a warm, dry home for my family, come what may.

So here goes: How to build a bender

hazel sticks

 You start by collecting about 10 sturdy hazel sticks (about 3 to 4 cm diameter at the thick end) and 6 thinner ones. Hazel is used because is has the perfect balance between strength and pliability. The kind of cover I am going to use is made of canvas and is quite heavy, so it needs a strong framework. You could use willow, but you'd either have to find very thick willow sticks or use a very light cover. 

When you cut the sticks, they will have a lot of twigs on them (left pile in the picture) and you will have to trim these off, so they look like the sticks in the right hand pile. For this you can use a billhook, but I prefer a kukri or Gurkha knife, as it is lighter. You could also use a pair of secateurs, but this will take a lot longer.


 sharpened hazel sticksNext you need to sharpen the thick ends of your sturdier sticks, a billhook or a small handaxe are the best tools for this. The smaller sticks you can leave as they are.

You now need to push the bigger sticks into the ground sharp end first, at an angle of 45° leaning outwards. Putting the sticks in at this angle will give your structure straighter sides and greater strength. If the ground is hard or stony, you might need to make holes first with a pointed iron bar and a lump hammer. The shape and size of your framework will be mostly determined by the shape and size of your cover and as most tarpaulins are rectangular, a tunnel or ovoid frame will make the best use of your cover. Make sure to leave one of the short sides open to use as an entrance. If your site is windy, have a look at the shape of trees and bushes that grow there. If they are all "bending" to one side, make sure that the back of your bender is positioned to the direction the trees are bending away from, and then the opening will be facing away from the prevailing wind.

basic bender frameNext, you have to bend the opposite sticks over and towards each other. At this point, you can manipulate the hazel quite a bit to get the shape you want, when you're happy with the height and shape, wrap the sticks around each other and tie them. Most types of string will do, but bailing twine is a favourite. The sticks at the back are bend towards the front and form part of the roof.



basic bender frame with weaversYou've now used all your big sticks (uprights), next you need to tie the smaller ones (weavers) horizontally to the top and sides of your stucture as in the picture, weaving them in and out as you go. The framework that I've made is very basic, you can of course use many more sticks, both uprights and weavers, but this will take a lot longer and use more materials. Unless you're going to spend more than a few weeks in your bender, you don't need to go overboard on this.

Now is a good time to check your frame over for any sharp bits sticking up or sticking down. You need to remove these with a pair of secateurs, as they will eventually poke holes in your tarpaulin or your head, both preferably avoided.

bender with cover on and stove pipe sticking outYour framework is now ready to receive the tarpaulin. Slide it over gently working each side in turn. An extra pair of hands at this stage is really helpful, as one of you can be easing the cover over from inside the bender.

Once the cover is in place, weigh down the edges with logs or stones.

If your tarp is long enough, you can cover your entire frame with it, folding the end that covers the entrance back over the top during the day and let it down to "close up" at night or when you're out. If not, you'll need an extra piece of canvas or a blanket to use as a door.



The best place to put your stove is in the front half of your bender, towards the door, taking care to keep it at least 40cms away from the canvas. You might want to add a few extra weavers to the frame behind your stove to keep the cover well clear of the heat.

All you need to do now is put a waterproof groundsheet down, add carpets and bedding and you have got a warm, dry, comfortable space. Most bender dwellers will make their homes cosy by tucking colourful scarves or sheets behind the frame. If you intend to spend the winter in a bender, you'll need to put a lot of blankets or carpet underlay on the frame before putting the cover on, to act as insulation.

close up of flue pipe hole in canvasLast, a quick word on how to pass a flue pipe through a piece of canvas: there is only one way to do this safely and that is by cutting two rings out of a sheet of aluminium and attaching these on either side of the canvas with rivets or nuts and bolts, making sure that the hole in the canvas is larger than the hole in the aluminium, so that it sits half way between the edges of the aluminium "doughnut".

You can now light the stove and put the kettle on!

Hopefully this short tutorial has gone somewhere towards making you look favourably upon the humble bender. You don't, of course, always need a canvas cover and a stove. For a couple of days' camping, even a sheet of plastic will do. 

If you enjoy learning new skills, from the really useful to the downright weird and wonderful, consider putting on a skillshare workshop in your community; it's a really easy, cheap event to organise and you never know what gems of knowledge you might be able to gather!


Mark Watson's picture

this is great

Hey Ann, I was totally fascinated by this piece. You make it sound really exciting and do-able to fashion a bender out of those hazel sticks. So it's on my list as a new (and very useful) thing to have a go at...

Mike Grenville's picture

me too!

 I want to build one too - thanks for the inspiration

Charlotte Du Cann's picture

those boots fit perfectly!

Dear Ann,

What a great intro to our new look blog! Like you I've learned most of the useful things in life directly from people, especially the skills of cooking and keeping your spirits up. It's just amazing too how those hands-on tasks. like skinning a hare, you instintively know in your ancestral bones. Transition really can open a door to that knowledge.

Very happy to be an ex-saint! (though I don't think saints do swearing and gnashing and threatening to throw expensive bits of technology out of the window). Thanks for being the pioneer ed this week.

BTW If you don't have metal cutting tools for those discs for the stove, do you have any advice how us novice bender makers can go about securing them?

All the best,


Ann Owen's picture

Who's in your community?

 Hi Charlotte,

Aluminium is really soft and you can draw the circles on with a soft pencil, cut them with tinsnips, which are just like a pair of scissors, but for metal. The holes you drill with a hand drill and if you haven't got poprivets and riveter tool, you can use small nuts and bolts and finish off with a blob of silicone sealant. 

I wouldn't ever want to be without a hand drill or a set of tinsnips, they are really useful tools, but if you haven't got them then somebody in your neighbourhood most likely has. What a great excuse to organise a community shared (virtual) tool shed or tool library event!

Good luck!



Charlotte Du Cann's picture

on tinsnips

Many thanks, Ann. That's really useful advice. As you might have guessed ours is not a handy tool household (and I am possibly the world's worst craftsperson), but we are getting pretty good at borrowing ladders, chainsaws, lawnmowers etc. from neighbours and fellow Transitioners. Rose from Sustainable Bungay is organising a tool share as part of our Transition directory, as Mark mentioned in his post on Friday.

I learned to use tinsnips whilst making a rocket stove out of tins at this year's Transition Camp, so I think I might be able to move on and explore the Drill next. Heady days for us Transitioners!



Graeme's picture

skill sharing

Excellent stuff.

We've been running skill-share events here at the Stonage Lane Lifeboat (a half acre in South Somerset) for a couple of years.

We host five events over the summer months, starting on friday afternoon and ending on sunday evening, so people can drop in for a few hours or stay for the duration to finish a project.

The events are free of charge and run by a handful of local volunteers. We started off with a few "staples" for the skill sharing to develop around, luckily we had a basket maker, and pole-lather amongst our number. Our "staples" for this years events will be basket making, pole-lathing, peg-looming and general green woodworking.

Skills others brought and shared in 2010 and 2011 included, wood and stone carving, bedouin tent erection, tool-handle making, wood cleaving, wild mushroom foraging, jam making, DIY rocket stove and archery to name but a few.

We advertise largely through word of mouth and two thirds of our skill-sharers come from within a 15 mile radius, with a number of regulars and a steady influx of new faces. 

The events have remained of a DIY nature, with a hands-off, informal, no obligation aproach. People bring skills, knowledge, food, enthusiasm and entertainment to share, and evenings are spent round the fire or in the communal bender, with feasting and merriment, fire-swinging and music, conversation and debate.

The events also cost very little to host, most of the tools and equipment we have amassed are recycled or donated  by supporters, and our own skill-base at the Lifeboat has also grown with all new skills people have brought and shared with us.

All you need is a venue, a few skills to share, a bit of networking, and the enthusiasm to get it together. 

Happy skill-sharing, Graeme.  

Graeme's picture


On the bender front. Have you seen "Bender Heaven" published by Wooden Books of Glastonbury, lots of useul bender info.  

Ann Owen's picture

Bender Heaven

 Thanks for the tip Graeme, looks like a lovely little book!