I’ve carved several of these horse-head ale bowls now, and each one seems to end up with it’s own personality.  Much of that, thankfully, happens in spite of me.  Each log is different, imparting it’s character on the finished piece.  And much of the final design is a result of spontaneous decisions made with the knife, rather than with a pencil long before.

img_0496This one in cherry brings to my mind a team of workhorses, a lovely thought.  I live in an area where one can still see Amish farmers working with teams of horses, but I’ve not had the opportunity to spend much time on a farm, and, admittedly,  my knowledge of horses is so limited that I may have a difficult time distinguishing a mare from a stallion.  Still, whenever I am around one (like Sue, the beautiful haflinger at the home of my brother-in-law and sister-in-law), there is no denying the magnificence and magnetism of a horse, and it is easy to understand why they have a special place in the hearts of so many.

In the horse barn at a local fair, the workhorses strike me with awe and feelings of nostalgia.  To think of the work that was done with such muscle power before the advent of the internal combustion engine….

James Herriot wrote of this transition in his story “A Change of Horse Power for Cliff” which begins:

Probably the most dramatic occurrence in the history of veterinary practice was the disappearance of the draught horse.  It is an almost incredible fact that this glory and mainstay of the profession just melted quietly away within a few years.  And I was one of those who was there to see it happen.

The story goes on to describe the personal attachment, even love, that practical men such as Cliff had for their horses.  It reminds me of Gary Paulsen’s depiction of Bill and Bob, a team of workhorses in his book Harris and Me.  When my son was younger, we enjoyed reading many of Paulsen’s books together, including the well-known Hatchet.  But none was more touching, or made us laugh more, than Harris and Me.

The book tells of a childhood summer spent on a Midwestern farm in the late ’40s and the adventures of two cousins that become close friends.  Bill and Bob are a constant presence:

Then, from a stand of poplars close to the river, two huge grey horses walked out into the open… They weren’t just big, they were almost prehistoric — like two hair-covered dinosaurs walking slowly up from the river — and when they moved closer I could see that very little of their bulk was fat.  Bunched beneath the skin on their rear ends and in their shoulders were great bulges of muscles.

Everything about them was massive.  Huge heads that lowered to nuzzle Knute’s hand while he stood in the back of the barn, enormous round feet that sunk forever into the mud in back of the barn, great, soulful brown eyes that somehow made me want to hug the giants.

There’s a scene later in the book of a plan involving Bill that the boys cook up after watching too many Gene Autry movies that may make you pee your pants, especially if you’re old enough to remember Gene Autry.


It’s not a complete accident that this bowl made me think of work horses.  I decided to make the neck a little thicker and the face a little nobler.  I thought the bold tool marks along the back of the neck added a feeling a strength as well.  And it holds a bold draft of ale, topping out at about 24 ounces.

One final workhorse reference is this episode of the BBC’s Edwardian Farm series, the beginning of which discusses the transition from horses to tractors.  Set just before World War I, this episode also includes a portable sawmill, a blacksmith, and hedgerow laying.  This series is just one of many of the brilliant BBC productions in the same family.



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13 Responses to Workhorses

  1. From The Horse Whisperer by Andrew Forster

    Still I miss them. Shire, Clydesdale, Suffolk
    The searing breath, glistening veins,
    steady tread and the pride,
    most of all the pride.

    I taught this poem for several years. Sadly it’s no longer on the curriculum.
    Powerful, in many ways.

    Lovely post. Thanks.


  2. cskoonz says:

    Puts me to mind of Jethro Tull’s Heavy Horses.


  3. Scott Kinsey says:

    Not certain I ever told you of my wife, Laura’s, work as a provider of equine-assisted therapy for folks dealing with all sorts of issues, physical and otherwise. She is the Equestrian Director of Heroes On Horseback in Bluffton, SC. I can’t wait to share your post with her.


  4. Nathan Simon says:

    Harris and Me is a childhood book I had forgotten about, and nearly felling out of my chair chuckling when I remembered the “scene” you are referencing. It is a book I will have to dig for when I am at my parent’s to pass to my kids.


  5. hafnego says:

    This post was wonderful. I read lots of James Herriot as a boy, but I don’t remember Harris and me, or the story about Cliff. I’ll have to track them down. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the “Salt” books; they are collections of interviews with folks from Maine about disappearing cultural features of Maine life. Everything from making cider to boatbuilding to driving log runs on the rivers. By coincidence , I was reading an article on getting the large timbers used in the boatbuilding trade and there was a great picture of a huge horse dragging a cut down tree out of woods to be transported to the saw mill. On the subject of ale bowls, I’ve attached a picture of my first effort. It was great fun, and I learned a lot. Maple is tough stuff! I used a small gouge for the fluting; I think next time I’ll broaden it to flow more smoothly into the head as you have in your picture. You can’t see it in my picture, but the inside of the bowl had odd, almost grayish patches. Don’t know if that was from sap drying or what. Didn’t necessarily come off when worked it with my hook knife. My other question is: how do you get your insides so obscenely smooth?! When I use a curved blade (hook knife, twca cam) to smooth the ridges from a prior pass, I tend to get…more ridges (though a little smaller). Any hints?

    Thanks so much. I finished a “roof top” bowl with my first effort at fluting the entire exterior. I like it, but again, challenging to keep the fluting smooth.

    All the best, Gord


    • Dave Fisher says:

      I had not heard of the “salt” books, Gordon. Thanks. I’ll check them out. The Cliff story is in this book
      Harris and me is by Gary Paulsen. Send me an email with the photos.

      The inside of my ale bowls are a series of tool marks, but I do spend a lot of time on the final cuts to avoid nicks and stops that would make cleaning difficult. It does take a lot of (wonderful) time and many light, controlled cuts. Much of the texture is also determined by the curvature of your hook. If you have one that is a little flatter at the end of the curve, that helps. I usually finish with an “e-bend” knife from Kestrel Tool.”

      Congrats on the first attempt at fluting. It is indeed a challenge. As you know, easy is overrated.


  6. jean-marie bordet says:

    bonjour les bowls en noyer vous les sculptée dans du bois verT ou sec ?
    merci .jmb


  7. Dave Fisher says:

    I start with green wood, then do the final cuts after the piece has dried.


  8. graemeu says:

    Very nice the way the sap/heart boundary cuts through the temple right where they like a gentle rub.


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