We just had our first full week of summer-like weather, and it had me outside working and preparing some material for some of the projects I’m looking forward to. Some of them are in that willow basket waiting for the next carving stages: shrink pots, spoons, bird bowls….and plenty of other projects that won’t fit in the basket.
I’ve also been itching to make a couple more hen bowls, especially after receiving this wonderful watercolor painting from Peter Galbert of a bowl I made for him several years ago. Getting this treasure into a proper frame is another project I’m anticipating. Until then, I love to look at Pete’s artistry up close. It allows me to look through his eyes and reminds me to pay attention to the subtle colors all around us that require more than a glance to appreciate.
I’ve had some butternut logs laying around for longer than I had planned. With a hen bowl or two in mind, I took advantage of the weather and dug into one. I painted the ends, but could have done another coat. The deepest check just to the left of the yardstick dictated the initial splitting of the log. The smaller radial checks don’t run as deep, and I got past them by cutting three inches or so off the end of the log. That check up by the 17 inch mark that runs parallel to the growth rings probably indicates some ring shake that could be present all along the length of the log in that area.
After cutting the ends off, I split the log generally along that major check. For those interested in more of the splitting process, this post link goes into much more depth. There was a branch of this tree that snapped off early in its life. The tree grew over it, leaving no signs on the outer surface decades later. I’ll still be able to get something out of it, but I turned my attention first to the other half.
There wasn’t enough sound wood for a full half-log, but that’s no issue at all. A blank like this can still be used either bark up (just hew a flat area along the peak for the foot of the bowl) or pith up. I’ll probably go with the latter and have the hen’s wings spread out along the radially-split upper surfaces there. Too early to tell. For now, I just wanted to get this chunk into a garbage bag to keep it from drying while I take care of some other things.
Before that, I wanted to hew away the narrow ring of sapwood. The bark had fallen away.
Close enough. Lots of exciting projects coming up, including revisiting this piece. Maybe on a hot day in June, when this relatively soft butternut won’t make me sweat too much.
Geese still hold plenty of mystery for me. In this part of the world, they are Canada geese. Their abundance makes them easy to take for granted, but they’re fascinating. I’ve glided in a canoe unaware of how close I was to a nesting goose, her body absolutely still and head low in an attempt to remain unseen. Many times, walking along the riverbank, I’ve been loudly scolded for my intrusion. Often, I’m able to just watch as the geese, unperturbed, glide along the water’s surface. They seem to speak of contentment with muted honks.
Geese swim not far from where this crooked limb of sugar maple grew. It was cut off by the railroad company and left to the side of the tracks that run along the river. After splitting it along the pith and looking at what I had to work with, I began to see a “goose-inspired” form in there.
Above is what it looked like after the green carving stage, when I left it to dry. Not much extra material left, but still most of the work remains to be done.
Taking into consideration the figure in this piece of hard maple, I took everything down to a smooth surface. It made the most sense to me for this piece in terms of workability and aesthetics.
This angle shows the curl that was especially present through the tightest part of the crook.
The scrapers I had on hand weren’t able to reach into the area behind the breast very well, so I rooted through my scrap box of odd metal bits and came out with an old folding saw blade that I had broken in use. A strip of tape worked fine for some quick protection from the teeth.
I ground the broken end down to a curve then briefly and simply ran that edge square along a fine diamond stone. I did the same for the back of the blade while I was at it, then got back to work. Shavings!
The blade was able to reach in and then sweep back along the hollow.
The back of the blade was able to take heavy cuts in this crisp maple, serving as a shaping tool as much as a finishing tool. After the edge tools, I was able to go right to some very fine sandpaper to smooth the final surface.
The final dimensions came out to about 16 inches long, 4 1/2 inches wide, and 8 inches high. This one is flying west.
Peter Galbert, clearly, did not make this stool. Peter’s stool designs are graceful and thoughtfully considered. Someday, I’d love to make one. Regardless, this old perch will always have a place in the shop.
I normally don’t give my stool a second thought. Then, a few days ago, deep into an old-home maintenance project, I stumbled upon this old spade bit in a block of rarely used drill bits. If memory serves, that’s the bit I ground at an angle and used to make the tenons in the seat. (FYI: a tapered reamer works better.)
Flipping the seat over revealed that it had been 25 years, right to the month. That was so long ago, that there were no smart phones, no YouTube videos, and you could make a sandwich while you waited for the internet to, noisily, connect — if you had a connection. I had few tools, little understanding or money, but plenty of enthusiasm.
I went out to the neighbor’s firewood pile and rooted around. Nothing wide enough for a full seat, but a couple chunks that would work. Years later, I realized the wood was mulberry, likely from the neighbors’ tree. I edge glued the two pieces together. Not pretty on the underside.
The top side looks all fancy with the walnut inlays and initials. The only reason the inlays are there is to cover a mistake.
I saddled the seat, poorly, with a gouge followed by sandpaper. Oh the horror when my excavation exposed the dowel joints I had used for the glue-up. The D covered up one of them, but the F didn’t quite reach the other.
I’ve knocked the stool over about a thousand times and there are plenty of dents, dings, and concrete imprints to prove it.
I used 1 1/4″ hardware store dowels for the legs. I have no idea what the wood is. The rungs are pieces sawn from a 3/4″ walnut board with 1/2″ tenons abruptly whittled down at the ends. Somehow, not a single joint has even wiggled over the years. As my dad is fond of saying, “even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while.”
With all the talk of 10,000 hours, necessary tools, and conflicting information, a beginner in any craft can become daunted and discouraged. The important thing is to take action and begin the journey. Along the way, better tools and more complete understanding will come along. More importantly, you’ll make mistakes that will build judgement and lead to creative solutions. And some of those early projects might serve well and make you smile when you reflect on the beginning of your journey.
In an episode of the Cut the Craft podcast, Curtis Buchanan tells the story of Tim Manney succinctly expressing this idea. As with anything, it’s better to hear Curtis tell it, but the gist is that, as he is bidding goodbye to Curtis’ at the end of his apprenticeship, Tim says with a smile, “Curtis, what I’ve learned from you is ‘Don’t let anything get in the way of making a chair.'” Of course, the same lesson holds true for a bowl, a spoon, a song, or a loaf of bread.
I was finishing up a small walnut bowl and decided to define the narrow side-panel with a graduated row of chip cuts. I have a slide show and description of the cutting of these on a similar bowl in this post. Unlike triangular chips with the deepest point in the center, these have the deepest point at the apex, with two vertical walls with and a shallow ground cut. This makes for distinct shadows.
I’ve used these in a variety of ways and combinations on many pieces that are in blog posts and the gallery photos, but I want to share a simple layout idea in this post.
In some situations it may make sense to just go at it with your knife without any layout. This can give a liveliness and energy that works well on many pieces. In other circumstances you may want a little more regularity, like I did on this walnut bowl. I typically draw lines representing the upper and lower edges of the line of chips. When these lines taper toward one another, rather than remaining parallel, the chips get gradually smaller.
In this case, the junction between the side panel and the bowl surface below served as the baseline. I typically just draw these chips in by hand and eye, moving along the line. The pencil lines allow me to make all of the vertical cuts in the same direction at once with confidence.
If you find the hand drawing troublesome, here’s a simple idea that may help with your layout. Cut a little triangle out like this. You could just use an index card or business card, but this might also be a good excuse to cut up a credit card, and it will hold its shape well. A 90 degree (or so) angle works well, but you can create different effects with angles more acute or obtuse.
Drawing a vertical line from the apex bisecting the triangle helps to orient the card, especially when working on a curved layout. Just eyeball that line so that it is perpendicular to the baseline at that point. Make a couple quick pencil lines on either side, then slide the card over to where that chip meets the baseline and keep rolling.
As the band tapers, the chips automatically get narrower and shorter.
I made the vertical cuts with a knife, deepest at the apex and just kissing the baseline. I normally make the ground cut with the same knife, but if you or the situation calls for a chisel, that can work well, too. Here’s another old post featuring the chisel in use for these chips. Happy carving!
I don’t know what’s going to happen to me. How could I know? I could die right now, or maybe I’ll die tomorrow. When will it be? In the meantime, I’ll keep making bowls for as long as I can. And the day I can’t — well, I’ll bear my lot.
Not long ago, a friend lent me his DVD of a film called Perico the Bowlmaker. Filmed in 1970 (and published in 1987) by Jerome Mintz, it provides a fascinating window into the life of an Andalusian craftsman living and working in the city of Casas Viejas in Franco’s Spain. Throughout the film, Perico reflects on his life, his family, tradition, and the bowls that are a constant for him amid many changes.
As seen in the preview above, the camera captured many of Perico’s techniques, taught to him by his father. He says his sons had no interest in learning the craft and he won’t teach outside the family because the students would then compete with him for business. And yet he doesn’t hold back in demonstrating his skill for the camera. He may not be intending to teach, and this is not meant to be an instructional video, but there is much to learn.
For example, the technique seen in the preview for hollowing the bowl employs a thin-bitted axe with a deep curve to the edge. This curvature allows Perico to come remarkably close to the final form of his round bowls as he works across the grain. He demonstrates incredible control of the depth of cut and precisely placed swings. The same axe is used for hewing the outer form.
He uses a couple different adzes. One can be seen in the preview clip. It has a flat, or very slightly curved, blade that is held to the handle with an iron strap something along the lines of this one:
Elsewhere in the film, we see Perico using an adze with a deeply curved head to patiently refine the inner surface of the bowl. And he gets down and dirty, literally using soil for storage of bowl blanks and for darkening the split surface before striking the circles with dividers.
The story of anarchy that brought Professor Jerome Mintz to Andalusia, the rediscovery of his prolific work, and the enduring impact his efforts have made in Casas Viejas is a remarkable tale in itself. Mintz ended up making six films, including the 45 minute gem that is Perico the Bowlmaker. The DVD is $45 (Change the license option to “home use” to see that price.) Or maybe your library has a copy. I ended up buying one myself, so if you’re ever in the neighborhood…
I’ve written a lot of posts that at least touch on lettering over the years, 53 according to the category menu on the right side of my blog page. Here’s the list. Of course, I’ve continued to learn with each project and situation, and I’ve discussed several different methods I’ve used. One way or another, this incised lettering comes down to simply cutting a v-section into the wood. I want to share a few more thoughts and re-emphasize some old ones, using a few recent projects to fuel my comments.
For small scale lettering on spoons, my pen knife blade does the trick. Although, even at that scale, if the wood is hard enough, like with the sugar maple (Acer saccharum) in the photo above, I’ll need to make a couple passes. I’m already doing that second pass on the central portion there, and the “2021” is waiting for expansion. Having a couple small gouges handy can help on the tighter curves.
In this butternut, which is much softer than maple, I was able to use the knife to cut the letters that are around 1 1/2 or 2 inches high.
Strop up before tackling the end grain.
I like to use the pen blade of my pocket knife. I know very little of metallurgy, but my experience tells me that the high carbon steel blade takes a fine edge that isn’t brittle. It sharpens easily, and I make the angle of the edge much more acute than the factory grind. The forward portion has an edge angle of maybe 12, no more than 15, degrees. It’s hard to measure and I just go by feel on a very fine sharpening stone, barely raising the back side of the blade off the stone. I make fast little circles while manipulating the blade to catch the whole edge. I finish by stropping, and then strop again from time to time to maintain the edge.
Also on the sharpening stone, I round the back corners of the blade, especially toward the front. This makes it easy on my finger and allows the blade to glide around curves more easily. I also ease the transition from the bevel to the side of the blade.
Here’s one final angle showing the opposite side of the blade. I sharpen it, symmetrically — or that’s the intent anyway.
I started using this blade because I was already carrying it in my pocket; it was handy. Now it is what I’ve gotten used to, so it works for me. Other knives with various blade styles may work just as well for other folks. It certainly doesn’t have to be a pocket knife. You can easily reshape a small blade on an existing fixed-blade carving knife. It’s only the front 1/2″ or so that’s vital. This post shows some photos of a blade I reshaped. It’s important to have a tool that will do the job well, but it is far more important to spend the time working with it to develop skill and a relationship with the tool. And you can cut letters with things other than knives.
For example, I was asked by a friend to carve the Chinese character “pu” often translated as “uncarved block” or “unworked wood,” a concept central to Daoist philosophy. I’m certainly not one to explain it, but if you’re interested, Alan Watts discusses it here.
When it came to carving the character I quickly got out a couple carving chisels. I didn’t take photos, but with a straight chisel I cut down from opposite sides to form the valley. This is at the core of the method Chris Pye explains in his excellent book Lettercarving in Wood: A Practical Course. In recent years, it had only been available used, but as you’ll see at the link, it is now back in print. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
The chisels were suitable to carve into the dry hard cherry wood, and I still used the knife to clean up junctions and other areas, in combination with a skew chisel.
Still, a knife may have the advantage in many situations. Chisels should be held with two hands, leaving none to hold curvy sculptural pieces like spoons. And the hand with the knife and the hand with the spoon ideally act in concert with one another, moving simultaneously.
Lettering offers endless creative possibilities, and the message can be anything from a sublime line of classic poetry to a simple word or phrase. Whatever the case, it can mean something to someone. Above is a photo of the spoon I was working on in the first photo of the post.
The exact phrase was a specific request. Emily Dickinson it is not, but a friend’s direct and playful reflection, and fun for me.
If you want to carve letters, the important thing is to begin and keep going. You will learn subtle things with every project and your cuts will improve. Meanwhile, the early projects are no less meaningful. I know people get intimidated by the design of letters as well, and I hope to share some more thoughts on that subject too, but just try to have some fun with it. We’ve been making letters since we were little kids.
Today, I took the above photo of the handle of a cooking spoon we’ve been using in our kitchen daily since I carved it a dozen years ago. Kristin loves it.
PS: If you want a deeper dive, I’d also recommend the book Lettercarving in Stone by Tom Perkins, even if you don’t want to carve in stone. And, if you can resist being overwhelmed, two websites that have abundant lettering resources and inspiration are those of The Lettering Arts Trust and John Neal Books.
In case you haven’t heard, you may want to head to Pittsboro, North Carolina next month for the inaugural GreenWood Wrights’Fest. I can’t make it, but it looks like a good time awaits and there are a slew of great instructors in the lineup, including Mike Cundall who will be teaching a bowl carving class. Mike has carved with me on more than one occasion. He’s a wonderful guy and an accomplished carver. You’re sure to have a great time with him and learn a lot. All of the details are at the GreenWood Wrights’Fest website. Oh, and this will be a golden opportunity to be thrilled by, and learn from, the one and only St. Roy:
Wood is much easier to carve when it’s green, and you can get right to work with a large blank of fresh uncracked wood straight from the tree. Then you can let the bowl dry, stress and crack free, before making the final cuts. But if you lack green wood, or you just have a nice piece of dry wood that you want to carve, go for it. For example, the shape of bowls that Elia and I made from green wood in our video lessons, could also be made from, say, a 4″ x 8″ x 16″ block of dried basswood.
In this case, I had a deadline approaching for a small bowl, so I decided to work with a block of black walnut that I had set aside to dry in 2013. I had made some bowls from this tree back then, but I also squared up some pieces maybe 6″ x 8″ x 12″ and painted the ends, then stuck them up on a shelf in our shed. Nine years later, I pulled a chunk down and cut it in half lengthwise. Pretty short, but long enough, since the exhibition specifies that the piece has to fit within a theoretical 6″ x 6″ x 6″ cube. (I cut it close — the finished piece is 5 15/16″ long.)
I had been drawing some full-size ideas in my sketchbook, from various perspectives. Based on that, I took a white pencil and sketched a rough plan on the end grain of the block. Notice that my vertical center line is oriented in respect to the pattern of the growth rings rather than the flat surfaces of the timber. This sketch allowed me to make sure the piece would fit within the timber and gave me a basic idea of what wood could be split away.
I took a bunch of photos of the rest of the process on this bowl, so I organized it into three slideshows covering hollowing, exterior carving, and side panel carving, respectively. I don’t think these slideshows and captions will be visible in your email browser, so you’ll have to view them at my site. In several of the shots, you’ll see a vise that I discussed in a previous post. Here’s the first slideshow:
This mallet work draws a crowd. We picked up Meeko the cat at our local shelter a few months ago, and he and Chip have become good buddies and playmates. They both enjoy the grooming of Chip’s face and spending time in the shop.
And all three of us are fans of Nancy Hiller’s book “Shop Tails”. Meeko will have to read later; time to carve the outside:
Exterior Carving Slideshow:
Side Panel Carving Slideshow:
By the way: this bowl will be at the AAW Gallery of Wood Art in Saint Paul from March 27 to May 29. Then it, along with a bunch of other pieces from other folks, will be available through an auction at the AAW Symposium in Chattanooga, Tennessee on June 25. I have very little experience with this sort of thing, but they tell me there will be a preview for some days before the auction and the auction itself will be a hybrid live online/in-person event. I’ll make sure to post an update through the blog once more details are available.
People, especially turners, are often surprised to hear that a bowl can be dry and ready for finish carving in as little as a couple weeks after carving it from green wood. I don’t know much about turning, but from what I read and hear, those turners that begin with green wood on an electric lathe typically take the bowl down to about 75%, leaving a significant amount of extra wood, then dry it very slowly in chips or whatever for several months or even over a year before returning it (a particularly appropriate term in this case) to/on the lathe for the final stage. Of course, some turners will turn green wood with no intention or possibility of putting it back on the lathe after drying. In such cases, the piece is taken right down to final size while green. But that’s another story.
For two-stage carving and turning, the difference in the amount of wood removed and drying time comes down to the fact that a (standard) lathe makes things round. The bowl, carved or turned, will move and change shape as it dries. Round bowls will dry to an oval (unless you carved it oval to begin with). In the case of turning, the concentric nature of the lathe means that it will not recognize and go along with the movement that has occurred during drying, therefore, more material needs to be left at the green stage so that, as the bowl is returned to truly-round on the lathe, there is enough extra material where needed.
Meanwhile, I typically remove just about all of the wood during the green carving stage, call it 95%. Like the bowls in the photo above, the final form is clearly established. The bowl will move and distort pretty predictably as it dries, and carving allows the freedom to go along with those changes. Additionally, the fact that most of the designs I carve are not round, but oblong, means the movement usually occurs symmetrically on either side of the longitudinal axis, so there are few aesthetic issues with the movement.
Removing so much green wood allows moisture to escape more easily and evenly during the drying process, making faster crack-free drying more possible than if only 75% of the wood had been removed. Of course, there are factors applying to individual situations with various pieces of wood and designs. I’ve got a general post about drying here.
There is still plenty, usually most, of the work to be done after drying, which is one of the reasons many carvers have lots of unfinished bowls lying around their shops. I’m going to be working my way through this stash. Meanwhile, I just finished a bowl by starting with a dry (9 years dry) block of walnut; that story coming up soon in my next post.
A lot of snow has fallen around here over the past couple weeks, and, after doing the necessary digging out, we’ve been enjoying it. Noah and Chip made a dog igloo in the back yard.
Chip loves the snow, but when it gets this deep, it’s a pretty tough slog for him.
So I ventured out on my own a few times, relishing the opportunity to put the snowshoes to good use for the first time in maybe three years.
As I walked by this area, a hawk screeched her disgust as she leapt from her watch in the tree and flew over my head to a different hunting spot. I suppose the chipmunk that left these tracks, no snowshoes required for him, would have been easy pickings against the white background.
The evidence in the snow revealed one technique the chipmunks use to evade the hawks, tunneling like moles just under the surface of the snow, only to pop back to the surface for a few leaps before diving under again.
What I assume were field mice tracks were everywhere through the scrubby fields, concentrated around the tufts of tall grass that remained above the surface of the deep snow.
Tiny holes often remained beside grass stalks, surrounded by the remnants of the seedy supper.
Deer ran far ahead of me, their long thin legs sinking deep into the snow between bounds. Much more graceful than me, especially when I had to right the ship after keeling over, without a walking stick. Nobody saw me though — I looked.
I was delighted to find an organic little cabin in the woods, likely made by some inspired teenagers in the summer.
And I was impressed with their woven construction technique.
I’ll end with an entry from Thoreau’s journal that came to my mind after seeing the scraggly little oaks like this one at the edge of the field, whether or not they are of the same particular species to which he refers:
The dear wholesome color of shrub oak leaves, so clean and firm, not decaying, but which have put on a kind of immortality, not wrinkled and thin like the white oak leaves, but full-veined and plump, as nearer earth. Well-tanned leather on the one side, sun-tanned, color of colors, color of the cow and the deer, silver-downy beneath, turned toward the late bleached and russet fields. What are acanthus leaves and the rest to this? Emblem of my winter condition. I love and could embrace the shrub oak with its scanty garment of leaves rising above the snow. . . . In proportion as I know and love it, I am natural and sound as a partridge. I felt a positive yearning toward one bush this afternoon. There was a match found for me at last. I fell in love with a shrub oak.