Otis Tomas and The Fiddletree

Maybe art is not a quest to conquer the secrets of perfection, but rather it is the revelation of that which is personal and unique, and which defies the very concept of perfection. This old tree has its own story to tell — of it’s singular and incomparable life on the hillside above my house. So I am listening for a voice that will sing of this here and now, of my own life and of this land and forest that I have come to know so well.

Otis Tomas, The Fiddletree

When I wrote about a carved spoon a couple weeks ago, my friend Scott reminded me of Otis Tomas‘ book The Fiddletree. In it, Tomas tells of his harvesting of a venerable old sugar maple near his home on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, and recounts, in thoughtful detail, the making of a violin from its wood.

The description of the process is full of practical woodworking advice, along with Tomas’ insights and experienced reflections. It’s a combination of woodworking, design, music theory, history, and philosophy — beautifully written.

Then it gets even more special. The second part of the book features a collection of tunes composed by Tomas, wonderfully annotated. I can’t make much of the musical notation, but many people will.

Then the icing on the cake: Tomas includes a CD, in a neat envelope inside the back cover, recordings of an ensemble of Tomas and his friends playing the songs. There are some samples here. And their instruments — violins, viola, cello, mandolin, guitar, and a harp — were all made by Tomas from the Fiddletree.

I’ll end this one with a quote from Tomas that accompanies his song Handle with Care:

What more advice need be given? In this rough and tumble world, care and compassion in all things. It’s that simple.

Otis Tomas
Posted in books, finding wood, publications, quotes and excerpts, trees, Uncategorized | 15 Comments

When Life Hands You Hickory

Along with some walnut logs I was collecting a couple weeks ago, there was a bonus hickory log. When I split it, it was clear and straight. The new edition of Make a Chair From a Tree by Jennie Alexander has had me itching to shave some posts and rungs, and this log provided the perfect opportunity. At around 28″, not long enough for the back posts of a full chair, but I thought of the one-slat truncated version that I saw in some photos in the book. I had to get to it; hickory isn’t decay resistant, so it wouldn’t be good to keep it green for long. So the idea was to get the parts shaved down so they could start to dry.

It was nice to be back at the shaving horse I built way-back-when based on JA’s instructions. Another piece of equipment that comes in handy is the folding sawbuck. The upper arms don’t need to be that long, but I just haven’t cut them off for some reason. I had found the plans online and made mine from former playhouse pieces.

I usually use the sawbuck for crosscutting logs, then fold it back up. I rarely rive any pieces long enough to require a riving break, but this folding sawbuck actually does the trick decently.

The stock can be placed in the gap at the top and pressure applied downward to flex the stock while levering the split open with the froe. This hickory didn’t require much finessing anyway.

Three posts ready for shaving.

With some of the odd leftover bits of the hickory log, I roughed out a few gluts to help split that walnut.

The chair posts and rungs are shaved and are airing out a bit until I get back to them sometime. No rush now. I think I’ll have enough parts for two chairs.

Some of the green shaved hickory rungs on the left with some split-out pieces to the right. I use the straight 3/4″ piece laying on top to help check the rungs for straightness and thickness as I shave. I can strike pencil lines from it onto the rung blank as well.
Posted in chairs, green woodworking, holding, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 5 Comments

Into the Woods Exhibition

The lag since my last post along with the reports of Ida rains drenching Pennsylvania led some folks to kindly email me to see if all was well. The upper edge of Ida’s swath fell short of us here in northwestern PA, by maybe 30 miles. Not a drop. And the pause in posts was not due to water, but rather a concentrated flood of other stuff, mainly the first couple busy weeks of the school year.

I did manage to finish up the three pieces in the photo above and they’re now in a box on the way to New Hampshire for the Into the Woods exhibition hosted by Two Villages Art Society.

Here are a few more photos of the three pieces I’m sending up:

This medium-sized (13 1/2″ x 8 1/4″ x 4 1/2″) cherry bowl has lots of character streaks, so I didn’t interfere with any decorative carving, just the texture from the tools and the raised line running between the lower corners of the handles.

This little bird bowl came from a maple branch with a tight bend. The tail rises up with the flow of the fibers to about 5″ high.

The third piece, a long ladle, came from the piece in the photo above, split from a maple branch crook. I knew the bowl would be down in the tight bend area in the middle, but I had to think a lot about which end would become the handle and which end would be lopped off. I went with the lower end, deciding to run with the slow waves in the fibers there. After some more careful splitting and, of course, carving, the flow was still there in the ladle:

It’s actually very comfortable to use — for right-handers. Light but strong. 13″ x 2 3/4″.

While I did my best to make this bit of tree useful and beautiful in its “second life”, I got to thinking about how it pales in comparison to the living tree. And I started imagining the memories that this piece might have from its years high in the treetop. Then I grabbed my penknife — and my “cheater” glasses, the smaller letters being maybe 3/8″ high — and carved the lettering into the handle.

So, if you’re in the neighborhood of Hopkinton, NH, stop in and check out the show. I don’t know what the rules will be there, but I hope you can touch and hold the pieces. Truly, that is much of experiencing any work like this. Maybe they’ll have a big sign up that reads, “Please Touch.”

Posted in bird bowls, bowls, events, finding wood, Lettering, nature, trees, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 8 Comments

Since You Gotta Brush Your Teeth Anyway

All of the used toothbrushes in the house make their way to the workshop where I use them for all sorts of odd jobs from cleaning, to gluing, to finishing. The one above, made by Mable, was handed down to me from my environmentally conscious daughter, Emma, last week. Solid bamboo with a slim tapered cone for a handle and a painted end for identification. Now this is a workshop toothbrush.

Of course, it can be used for all sorts of brushing tasks in the shop, like any toothbrush, but that bamboo handle can have all sorts of additional uses. It tapers from just over 3/4″ (19mm) at the base to just under 1/4″ (5.5mm) below the handle. The handle portion, excluding the head, is 6 5/16″ (16cm) long. In the photo above, I’ve wrapped some fine sandpaper around it to sharpen the inner curve of a hook knife. Honing compound can also be rubbed onto the handle.

Above, I’m polishing the inner curve of a small gouge, but this is all just scratching the surface. The bamboo is incredibly strong. With some divergent thinking, you may have a set of legs for a quirky box or a handle for a small carving tool. At the very least, you’ll have a toothbrush that won’t still exist in a landfill or in the ocean a few centuries from now.

You may have noticed on the Mable site, they have a natural bamboo travel case for your toothbrush, but instead you could make one of these skinny shrink tubes. I wrote a post about making these a while ago, including a special groove cutter made from a chunk of broomstick and a couple screws. I received an email over the weekend asking for clarification about the shape of the cutters, so I made the little sketch below and added it to the original post.

And just to be clear, I have no economic connection to Mable or broomsticks.

Posted in sharpening, sketch, tools, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Ten Spoons

In between other projects, I’ve been able to squeeze in some spoons. I have these ten finished and available. I’ll provide another shot of each one below. If you’re interested, send me an email at dandkfish@gmail.com. I’ll update the status of each spoon below as they sell. Update: All of the spoons in this batch have sold now, thank you. Updates won’t show up in your email browser. If you would like to pay by sending a check, please let me know your shipping address. Otherwise, I’ll assume you’d prefer to receive a Paypal invoice. Shipping is included in the price listed for each spoon. All of these spoons are straight from the knife, finished with pure food-safe linseed oil, cured in my lightbulb kiln.

It’s worth noting that I don’t think these spoons would be here without the influence of Wille and Jögge Sundqvist. Check out Peter Follansbee’s post from earlier today to see why I’m mentioning that again.

#1: Maple, 8 3/4″ x 2 3/8″. Ladle/serving spoon. The form of this spoon practically jumped out at me when I saw the crook laying on the ground. The flow of the curve seemed like an ideal setting for a school of fish, along with a chaser on the finial. The crook bent on two planes as you can see from the second photo below. SOLD

#2: Lefty cherry eating spoon, 7 1/2″. This one is definitely for a lefty. The bowl is sort of coming toward you in this shot, so it is foreshortened. Another view is in the overall shot at the top. SOLD

#3: Maple serving spoon, 9 x 2 5/8″. This maple crook had a lot of figure, making it tough to split out, but a nice spoon. SOLD

#4: Righty maple eating spoon, 7 1/2″. That dark little pin knot on the handle led me to a fun detour with the chip carving as you can see in the detail photo below. SOLD

#5: Maple serving spoon, 7 3/4″ x 2 1/4″. Short crook that made for a nice server. SOLD

#6: Cherry serving/cooking spoon, 9 5/8″ x 2 1/4″. There are magical times in the fall, walking in the woods on breezy days, when leaves are tumbling and floating down all around you. Those times led to this pattern. SOLD

#7: Cherry serving spoon, 9 1/8″ x 2″. SOLD

#8: Rhododendron little server, 6 5/8″ x 2 1/8″. This is a shallow server with just a little bend. I had some fun with sort of an hourglass idea on the handle. SOLD

#9: Cherry stirring/cooking spoon, 14″ x 2 5/8″. Unusual for me, this spoon is made from a straight piece of wood, rather than a crook. With just a little bit of crank and a long beefy handle, it can handle stirring the stiffest of batters. SOLD

#10: Rhododendron serving spoon, 7 1/4″ x 2 1/8″. From a nice little rhododendron crook, this one could also serve as an eating spoon if you have a really wide mouth and are focused on efficiency. Otherwise, it would be most ideal as a server. SOLD

Posted in patterns, spoons, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 12 Comments

Make a Chair from a Tree: Third Edition

This chair not only serves to hold my can comfortably eighteen inches above the ground, it is a constant reminder of an exciting journey with wood. When I made the chair, nearly twenty years ago, I couldn’t seem to get my hands on a copy of Make a Chair from a Tree. But Jennie Alexander had just produced a video (available for streaming here) that covered the entire process. I bought the VHS tape from Drew and Louise Langsner at Country Workshops. I don’t know what I would have done without the resources and tools available through Drew and Louise.

Anyway, I watched that video over and over, compiling pages of notes and sketches. The whole process seemed magical, and Jennie was extremely encouraging. I could, indeed, build a chair from a tree. I made a shaving horse, simple kiln, and a slew of other things in preparation, all according to Jennie’s guidance. All of those things continue to serve me well in the shop. As I began to rive the white ash log into chair parts, the wonder of wood was reinforced in me and I was equipped with a whole new set of skills and understanding — and a chair!

I could go on and on about my gratitude for Jennie’s contributions, and I’ve written a bit about that here and here. This is just to say that Make a Chair from a Tree: Third Edition is available. It happened due to the efforts of Jennie herself, before her death in 2018, and the dedication of Chris Schwarz, Megan Fitzpatrick, Larry Barrett, Peter Follansbee, Drew Langsner, Brendan Gaffney, and many others who contributed to bringing it to fruition. They did a superb job. All the methods are clearly explained and photographed. The team effort is a tribute to Jennie’s influence and relationships.

It’s all in that beautifully designed package with the cloth cover in the photo above. A ticket to a new understanding of wood and your ability to make a strong, comfortable chair with simple tools. You’ll feel the truth in Jennie’s words, words that Peter Follansbee, having heard them often, reminds us of in the book: “Wood is Wonderful.”

Posted in books, chairs, green woodworking, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Odd Birds (and Other Winged Things)

At first glance, this rhododendron bird bowl seems typical of other bird bowls I’ve carved, but this one was an experiment in working with crotch wood. As usual, I learned from it.

There’s the huge rhododendron Y above. The area in the center of the Y has a very different grain situation from a crook. At the confluence of grain between the two branches, there is all sorts of crazy tensions and toughness,. Still, seeing that nice curve, I had to try it.

I split the crooks off of the outside. Some spoons from those will be appearing soon. Then I cut the central “stem” off beneath the crotch.

After planing the bottom flat, I was ready to find the bird in there.

There’s the finished little bird, and my hand for scale, oriented to match the blank in the previous photo.

So, while it worked out in the end, it was tough going! Even green, that crotch grain area was hard as nails. And as the piece dried it moved and twisted all over the place. A narrow crack opened up along one side. It didn’t extend to the inside and I Iet some CA glue wick into it. After drying, I went back and carved the whole thing back into shape. You can see the remnant of the crack running from foot to wing, right along the center of the crotch. All of the movement took place during the drying process. It’s solid and stable now.

Another finished experiment is the bird above. An exploration in working white pine. I showed some progress shots in this post. As expected, the biggest challenge was getting clean polished cuts in this soft wood that just crushes if the tool is not ultra sharp. It worked out, but I don’t plan on making a habit of it. It was better, I think, to carve it green when the cells were more supported by water. Maybe.

I painted the inside with thinned artist oil paint.

A shot from above.

Not a bird, but almost as big. Chip and I came outside one morning last week and found the largest moth I (we) had ever seen on the door frame. Five inch wing span. As I learned, it’s an Imperial Moth. Chip was curious but cautious. No harm came to the moth.

One last flyer, a bumblebee reveling in Rose of Sharon pollen in the side yard last week. There’s always more to learn and notice.

Posted in bird bowls, finding wood, nature, trees, Uncategorized | 13 Comments

Carving American Chestnut 4: Two Finished Bowls

Here are the two bowls I made from the American Chestnut I started with in a post in June. The one on the left is the one I highlighted through the series of posts, so I’ll start with a few shots of that one.

The pith-down orientation results in a growth ring pattern roughly parallel to the arch of the handles and in harmony with the upswept rim of the bowl. The effect is pretty pronounced given the color variations in this piece of chestnut.

Same with the concentric oval pattern in the hollow.

Here’s an overhead shot of that. Those color variations were relatively subtle until the oil hit the wood, then the chestnut really started to speak up.

The shot above shows the various facets of the exterior surface before oiling.

Once the oil hit, I decided to leave the character of the wood speak for itself rather than do any additional decorative carving on that upper side panel. Might have been a bit like writing a letter onto a sheet of the morning newspaper.

The design for the second chestnut bowl is mainly a result of trying to make the most of the given blank. The log had some defects that led me to this broad, relatively shallow, more-rectangular bowl. The widely spaced growth rings and the pith-up orientation created a sort of mottled pattern in the hollow. I ran the gouge cuts with the grain from handle to handle.

On the exterior, the large foot is a reflection of the broad shallowly-sloped bowl hollow.

I had some fun with bold crisp paring cuts with a 8 gouge.

This stand of majestic American chestnut trees escaped the blight for well over a century, but it found them eventually. The bowls are now out of my hands and will soon be with some folks who were part of the team that assured these trees will have a second life.

Posted in bowls, patterns, trees, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 12 Comments

Make a Book Box

A few years ago, I made a shrink pot for my daughter in the the form of a book (photo below). I think I had first seen an example made by Jögge Sundqvist. It is simply a shrink pot with a rectangular bottom and a sliding dovetailed lid. Wonderful fun.

Wanting to make one for my son, I experimented with a different construction technique using dry wood and multiple pieces.

Emma’s shrink book made from three pieces.

Here are the six pieces for Noah’s book. The wood is butternut. The joinery is a simply a combination of dadoes and rabbets cut with a knife, chisel, and rabbet plane. I made sure all was square and such by following the sawing with some work with a sharp plane and a shooting board. The overall finished box dimensions are 9 3/4″ x 7 1/2″ x 2 3/8″, but anything is possible. The dadoes are 3/16″ wide and the bottom panel is trapped in them. I made the front and back covers 7/16″ thick to allow for the depth of carving. The spine is 3/4″ thick and the opposite side is 3/8″.

I made tapered square pegs to secure the glued rabbet joints, first splitting square pieces from dry walnut stock, then shaving them down with a chisel against a stop. Something like 3/16 square at the fat end.

I drilled holes — maybe 5/32″ diameter — through the rabbet joint and hammered in the pins along with some glue. The corners of the pegs had no problem cutting into the softer butternut wood.

Of course, the sky’s the limit as for decoration. I was inspired by a photograph of Noah from a hike we had taken. After outlining the foreground silhouette in black India ink with a brush, I cut grooves around the border with a V-tool.

I also did some carved texturing of the background and sky. In the photo above, I had begun to add some color to the background fields with thinned artist oil paint.

Then I went nuts. Color is daunting for me, but why not give it a shot? Play around. Experiment. Make mistakes and learn. There are advantages to being a woodworker rather than a heart surgeon.

One of Noah’s favorite authors is Hermann Hesse. Hesse’s book Wandering: Notes and Sketches is a commentary on the author’s re-exploration of a land from his youth. Considering Noah’s love for the book, I carved a quote emphasized in Wandering into the back cover.

Here’s a shot of the spine.

I used a toothing plane iron like a scraper to make grooves in this surface to suggest pages.

The rabbeted lid slides in grooves made up of dadoes cut into the covers and spine. After all of the carving was finished, I put a coat of linseed oil over the book box, paint and all.

Whether made like a shrink pot or through joinery, these book boxes are a lot of fun to make and provide a special place to stash special stuff.

Trees have long thoughts, long—breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is.

Hermann Hesse, Wandering: Notes and Sketches (1920), [translation by James Wright, 1972]

Posted in books, Lettering, quotes and excerpts, shrink box, trees, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 26 Comments

Carving Book for Kids of All Ages

There’s a great kid in my neighborhood, Conner, who pops over to play with Chip, help stack wood, or look for fishing worms under logs. He’s also taken an interest in carving and was excited when I showed him Frank Egholm’s book Easy Wood Carving for Children: Fun Whittling Projects for Adventurous Kids.

I met Frank at Täljfest in 2019, and he gave me a gift of his wonderful book. Conner now has his own copy and he stopped over a couple days ago asking about a paper towel holder he saw in the book. He liked it and thought it would make a good holder for his spools of fishing line. We hunted around the woodpile and went into the shop.

It was a fun little project that introduced Conner to sawing and drilling a hole with a brace and auger bit in addition to knifework. He’s still thinking about carving a little face on the top, and that little twig might be good for hanging a favorite fishing lure. He even made a second one for his mom — for paper towels.

Conner shaped the tenon to size with the knife. Frank has some great suggestions in the book for making the knife a little more safe, such as grinding back the sharp tip. We’ll do that on another knife sometime.

Many of the projects in the book take little time. Frank does a great job of considering the perspective of a child, and the book is written in a welcoming and fun tone that provides lots of encouragement.

As skills expand, there are more challenging projects that will engage and satisfy minds and hands.

You probably know some creative and crafty kids….

Posted in books, carving, nature, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 7 Comments