Why does this never get old? As I was roughing out this big cherry bowl, I thought about how I’ve gone through this process so many times over the years, and yet it remains completely engaging, even thrilling. I suppose there are many factors that contribute to this: the multi-sensory stimulation, the physicality and movement, the constant challenges to one’s skill, the focused attention, the joy of using these tools, and much more.
I took some shots during the early stages with this one to share the experience all over again.
I think much of the fascination lies in beginning with such raw, elemental material and responding to what it offers. This cherry log had natural splits already forming an x pattern centered on the pith, so I had to follow the log’s lead. One of the resulting billets is above. Wanting to work with an arched top, but with the pith side up on this one, I sketched a rough idea of the end-on proportions of the bowl within the heartwood. This would yield a bowl about 13 inches wide. Then I started riving away what excess I could.
There goes the chunk from the bottom side. I had already split off the sapwood on the sides.
After marking, hewing, and hand planing, the bottom is flat, the prime reference surface.
Such a pleasure hewing with a sharp axe, in this case to remove excess from the top.
This cherry has some curly, unruly grain, so after the axe and drawknife work, I went over the arch across the grain with a handplane to finish before layout.
Here’s a shot of some of the final light cuts with the adze. A blank like this is still heavy enough at this point that it stays pretty steady for the adze work.
The hollow after the adze has had its fun.
Then it’s on to the exterior. The curves are in there somewhere. Almost finished!
This year, the arrival of spring weather seems perfectly synchronized with the calendar. I’ve got lots of projects to do, but with the sun is shining and that mourning dove calling to its mate from the maple tree, I get birds on the brain. One nice thing about these small bird bowls is that most of the work can be done outside with a couple knives, like spoon carving. You could even think of these as spoons with beaks.
Starting with a crook gives a natural lift to the head and tail. This piece was a little different sort of crook. This young birch curved up from the ground before straightening out and had some interesting burl figure at the base. I split it in half, then cleaned up the bark side.
After sketching some lines on the upper side, I roughly hewed away the majority of the excess from the exterior. After removing some bulk from the hollow with a gouge and mallet, I went outside with the birds for the knife work. I put some shots together in a slideshow below (the slideshow probably won’t show up in your email browser).
As you can see from the photos, I use the same knife grasps that I use for spoon carving. If you’ve already got the tools for spoon carving, little bird bowls like this can be fun to explore.
I’ve set this one aside to dry. I’ll return to it another day to see what I have to work with for round two.
Last Saturday, Elia Bizzarri and I finished up our live online bowl carving class with the third session, resulting in over 9 hours of bowl carving instruction.
The sessions follow the process, step-by-step from a half log. My resulting sample bowl (seen above and below) began with a cherry log about 8 inches in diameter and 15 1/2″ long. If you lack greenwood, you could follow along and do just fine with a dry length of 4×6 timber, say 14-16 inches long — ideally something like basswood or poplar if you’re working dry wood. While this bowl design is accessible for beginners, the class isn’t just about making a particular bowl. It focuses on the concepts and skills that can be used and adapted for a variety of styles and designs.
Although I did plenty of fumbling around, especially with my web cam, and the whole thing is obviously unscripted, there are some interesting advantages to this format. For one, folks were able to join in from far away. Also, the participants could interject with impromptu questions mid-process, meant that clarifications could be made for the benefit of all. And there were tons of excellent questions! After I demonstrated each step, Elia — accompanied by his high-quality cameras and camerapersons — carried out that step on his bowl while adapting to the equipment and tools available in his shop.
Although the classes have ended, every minute was recorded. If you’d like to access an episode or all three, they are available through Elia’s website, where you’ll find more information including a description of each episode.
Thanks to all of you who participated, and to Elia and his team!
Early one April morning when we were twelve, my buddy, Scott, and I met on the bank of the Little Shenango River, excited to use our shiny new spinners on the first day of trout season. Our reels were full of fresh line, and we did our best to extend every foot of it with each unrewarded cast. Soon, an old-timer, equipped with the generally the same tools as us, waded to a spot just downstream. He gave us a smile, a kindly nod, and a lesson in versatility. With maybe a dozen pinpoint casts to a spot not ten feet away he plucked three trout out of the stream.
The moral, obviously, is that there is more than one way to use a gouge.
Since last Saturday’s second session of the online bowl carving class that Elia Bizzarri and I have embarked upon, I’ve been working on some stages of my now-dry sample bowls in preparation for next Saturday’s finale. Thanks to so many good questions from participants, I think we’re all learning a lot, and it has been great fun.
I used the #8 30mm bent gouge to cut the final surface of the hollow of the cherry bowl in the lead photo. By using the full capacity of this wide and deep gouge, one can hog away lots of wood quickly to form the hollow itself. But it can also be used differently, more delicately, to leave a subtly textured surface.
We tend to think of a steep sweep like a #8 as leaving a pronounced texture, which makes sense if the entire edge is used in the cut. Above on the left is the edge of a #8 30mm wide, and on the right is a #5 16mm wide. The gouge on the right is the natural choice to leave a more subtly textured surface.
But, because the sweep is, in the standard system of gouge numbering, relative to the width of the tool, the actual curvature of the #8 30mm and the #5 16mm are pretty close in comparison.
By using a little restraint like I witnessed streamside, we can get a #5 performance from a #8 when the situation is right.
In the current issue of Fine Woodworking Magazine, #288 Mar/Apr 2021, is an article in which I suggest seven or eight gouges that form a solid kit for greenwood carving. One of them is a #8 10mm gouge that can be used to add a variety of patterns to your bowls, spoons, shrink pots, boxes, or anything else.
Given the limited space in the magazine, they weren’t able to include this sample board I put together of just some of the patterns that can be created using just one #8 gouge, although a couple of the patterns include some cuts from a narrower gouge, or some nail taps. So I’m sharing it here. The vertical plunge cut is followed by an angled back cut that meets it and removes a chip. Varying the distance between those two cuts and the arrangement of the chips provides for all sorts of possibilities.
Of course, various widths of gouges can create chips from tiny to large, but, regardless of width, I find that a #8 or #9 sweep works best for most patterns. Simple, fun technique, and if executed crisply, really catches light and shadow to great effect. You might easily get carried away and be running around with your gouge like Charlie Chaplin with his wrenches.
Now I’m off for some final preparations for today’s online bowl carving class. Elia and I are excited to get started. Looking forward to seeing some of you there.
You know how when you carve a big deep cherry bowl then set it aside to dry after the green carving stage, and you’re really happy with it, and the next day there’s a crack? Yeah, I hate when that happens.
I should have known better. I could see the check in the end grain of the log extending from the pith, but I thought the blank would be beyond its reach. Wrong. No method of slow drying would have prevented it. The point of weakness was already there. The most important procedure to avoid cracks is not during the drying stage, it’s long before that when getting the blank from the log. In my experience just about every crack results from a fine check opening up. Respect the checks.
Angry and disappointed, my initial reaction was to burn it, but I really was pleased with how this bowl was shaping up and thought it still had a lot of potential. So rather than giving up on it, here’s what I tried. I let some superglue (CA glue) wick deeply into the hairline crack, then clamped across the bowl at the handle to make sure it stayed tight while the glue cured. The glued crack can be seen in the photo above, running from the handle down and to the left. It can’t be felt.
The crack stayed tight as the bowl continued to dry. After the bowl was dry, for added assurance, I cut a dovetail key from walnut and fit it into the underside of the handle across the crack. I shaped the bottom of the key a bit to get a clear tracing of the edges onto the bowl, then carved the recess and glued it in place. Then I carved the surface to match the contour of the handle before carving the lettering. It can be seen in the broader context of the whole bowl in the photo below.
This bowl was designed as a salad bowl, so I created just a slight arch across the top of the blank. The high sides keep the garbanzo beans in the bowl during the tossing.
I’m glad this bowl will be serving salad instead of fueling my fireplace. I don’t know much about it, but I suppose there may be a connection here to a practice/philosophy called kintsugi, usually applied to pottery. I’m not going to go cracking bowls on purpose, but I don’t think I’d change this one now even if I could.
The first time I saw Elia Bizzarri was on an episode of Roy Underhill’s The Woodwright’s Shop. Elia learned chairmaking from some of the finest craftsmen out there, including Dave Sawyer and Curtis Buchanan, and he makes beautiful, enduring chairs.
When the pandemic hit, Elia invested in high tech cameras, helpers, and a plan to offer quality online instruction. Folks can enroll in a class and join in the live session to ask questions and share some laughs with Elia and his guest instructors. And the students have a recording of the class available to them in the future as well. In fact, Elia will make the recording available to those who weren’t able to attend the live sessions. He has a good deal invested, and there is a cost, but I like Elia’s pay-what-you-can philosophy with these classes (a la Curtis Buchanan). If you want to learn bowl carving, but the fee is a hindrance for you, just pay what you can and join in.
In our class, we’ll be making bowls in the general design you see in the photo above. This style is accessible for beginners, but provides an ongoing challenge with each new piece as skills improve. In fact, many of the bowls I make are designed around this same formula with varying proportions, dimensions, and design details. We’re not learning how to make a bowl, we’re learning the techniques, skills, and concepts to make bowls.
I will be here in my workshop with an iPad directing the process and demonstrating, then with each step, I’ll provide some guidance for Elia as he performs that operation in his workshop. That will allow multiple camera views in his setting. I think this format will be helpful as the students can put themselves in Elia’s shoes as I explain the process and coach him as needed. We will also have to adapt to the tools and equipment that Elia has in his workshop, which provides a realistic scenario of adjusting to individual situations. Who knows what will come up. Whatever the case, we’ll figure it out and have some fun.
We’re breaking it down into three sessions, with a week, then two, in between to allow the students to work at their own pace before we move on to the next session:
Saturday, Feb 27th, Blank preparation, layout, and hollowing: In this first session, we’ll begin with the orientation of the future bowl in the log. We’ll go on to prepare the blank and use a compass in various ways to establish reference points for a symmetrical layout. We’ll learn adze and gouge technique for creating the hollow. We’ll leave time for questions and discuss managing green wood before and during the carving stages.
Saturday, March 6th, Shaping the exterior: In the second session, we’ll layout the foot on our still-green blank and learn a systematic approach to sculpting the complex exterior surfaces with an axe, a drawknife, and a gouge. Alternative tools and methods will also be discussed. We will take time to discuss drying procedures and other considerations to avoid cracking. Again, we’ll leave time for discussing questions thoroughly.
Saturday, March 20th, Refining and carving the final surfaces: After two weeks of drying, the green-carved bowls will be ready for the final transformation. We’ll learn various holding strategies as we refine the hollow and flatten the bottom. We’ll also explore various texturing options and fluting as we finish the side and end surfaces. We’ll refine the upper rim and cut the important final chamfers. We’ll also briefly explore various decorative options. Oil finishing will be discussed and there will be time for questions.
Elia has all of the details and sign-up information posted on his site now. Hope you can join us.
And don’t let let lack of ideal tools or wood stop you. You can do it without an adze, no problem. Elia is making green wood blanks available for those lacking access, but you could even start with dry wood and follow the procedure essentially the same way — something like a 4″ x 8″ dry basswood timber, say, 15 or 16 inches long, for example. There’s always a way.
When a bowl is almost finished, with over 99% of the wood to be removed already on the shop floor, I’m always amazed at what a difference those final few cuts can make. Most of those final cuts could be called chamfers. Not only do they relieve sharp edges, their benefits go beyond the tactile.
They catch light and shadow to help define the form. Especially if they feature some dynamic variation in width and depth, tapering from thick to thin, they can serve to draw the eye along the lines of a piece.
On a piece of furniture with straight lines, chamfers can be cut effectively with a plane. On bowls and pieces with lots of curves, some other tools are more effective. Depending upon the situation and what you feel most comfortable with, chisels, drawknives, and spokeshaves are all good choices. On this bowl, I cut all of the chamfers with a sloyd knife.
The wide, flat bevels of the knife not only make sharpening easy, they also serve to register the edge as it proceeds through the cut. In the photo above, the knife has just cut from the corner of the tail to the top of the arch. The bevel registers against the surface it has just cut, providing control moving forward. To a certain extent, the bevel acts like the sole of a plane, a bullnose plane with the edge out in front — and with a very short sole allowing for a concave curve to be negotiated.
All of the cutting is done and this bird is ready and available for purchase. The overall dimensions are 18 inches long, 9 1/2 inches wide, and 6 1/2″ high. Black walnut. $975 includes insured shipping in the continental US. Email me if you are interested. SOLD
Here are a couple more photos:
I roughed this bowl out several months ago. So long ago, you may have forgotten about this post showing the earlier stages.
And for more on using a sloyd knife, read Wille Sundqvist’s book Swedish Carving Techniques. And Jögge Sundqvist did a series of knife technique videos for Morakniv a couple years ago. Here’s a link to the first one. The rest are also on YouTube. After watching Jögge, you’ll want to make everything with a sloyd knife, and you’ll want his book, and a custom-made reindeer hide apron.
Challenged with carving one of the coolest nicknames ever onto a spoon handle, I tried something new to sketch ideas before carving.
Normally, I work out some ideas in my sketchbook after tracing the shape of the spoon handle a few times on a page. Then I redraw directly onto the spoon handle once the spacing and idea has been worked out. On the one above, I carved the letters through the painted surface.
This time, I put a piece of masking tape onto the handle, pressing it firmly against the edges to reveal the form of the handle clearly. I sketched an idea onto the tape, learned some things, pulled the tape off and stuck another piece on. I think I ended up with seven tape sketches before arriving at the final design. The handle surface beneath the tape was still clean with no smeared pencil marks from the many design attempts.
You might be able to just leave the tape in place and carve through it, but at this scale it may have been a bit cumbersome. I tried just rubbing the back of the tape with pencil to transfer, but the stickiness of the tape held on to the graphite too tightly. Instead, I stuck a piece of graphite transfer paper to the back, then returned the tape to the handle.
I traced the letters on the tape with a pencil again to make the transfer onto the wood. The transfer is a little sketchy, but it’s more than enough to direct the carving.
Then I carved them.
The spoon/scoop, scoopy spoon, is now in the hands of a skilled craftsperson and wonderful guy called “Mr The Creature,” although his parents named him Martin Hazell.
And while I’m on the subject of talented people with great nicknames, congratulations is in order:
It was recently announced that Barn the Spoon is the 2020 Wille Sundqvist and Bill Coperthwate Slöjd Fellowship recipient. I’ve been fortunate to spend some time with Barn and he is one of those people you can never get enough of. Barn continues to inspire many would-be carvers and is an expert and devoted teacher. He has carved thousands of spoons and his skill is mesmerizing. You can read more about the Slöjd Fellowship and Barn’s unique story in the announcement below: