My New Old Arkansas Stone

A whetstone is no carving instrument,
And yet it maketh sharp the carving tool;
And if you see my efforts wrongly spent,
Eschew that course and learn out of my school;
For thus the wise may profit by the fool,
And edge his wit, and grow more keen and wary,
For wisdom shines opposed to its contrary.

Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Cressida

When my buddy brought me a small bag of tools gleaned from an old garage, my attention was first drawn to the chisels. There were a couple old Buck Brothers worn down to nibs and an interesting bent gouge. Someday I’ll give them some attention, but I’ve been diverted by what I had first overlooked.

At the bottom of the bag was what looked like a dirty old fruitcake, but not as heavy. I quickly realized it was a sharpening stone. It was covered with a thick coating of grime, and I expected it to be an old common carborundum stone. But it felt particularly dense. Not to make the story unnecessarily long, I cleaned it up and it turned out to be a nice old hard Arkansas stone.

since most of the tools I sharpen are curved, I like to use stones that don’t dish easily. I mainly use diamond plates, but there are lots of methods that work well. I also use Arkansas stones, and I have a small assortment of Arkansas bench stones and slips. I like them. I like the way they look, feel, and cut. I like their longevity, capable of being passed down through generations. I like the feel of the oil and the way the stone nestles into its wood box. And I like the keenness they bring to the edge of my carving tools.

The upfront cost for new ones isn’t cheap, but old lonely stones reside in rusty tool boxes and garage corners all over. A visit to some yard sales could yield a special sharpening kit for very little cash. Or maybe a friend will bring you a stone in a bag!

Arkansas stone coarseness varies, but it’s not so much a matter of “grit.” This is explained more completely here and here, along with a lot of interesting information about the broader category of “novaculite” stones. Basically, the more dense the particular stone is, the finer it cuts. The less dense it is, the faster it cuts, while leaving a relatively coarser finish.

In the case of this old Arkansas stone that came to me, it was pretty easy to measure its density, since it was rectangular and regular. It measured 154mm x 47mm x 26mm, so 188,188 cubic mm3. Its weight on a postal scale was 455 g. That makes a density of .00242 g/mm3, or a specific gravity of 2.42. According to this information and/or this, that puts it within the range of a “hard Arkansas stone.” That process can at least give you a basic idea of what you’re working with.

Of course, what really matters is how it cuts the steel of your tool, so you could skip the numbers and just see how it performs. If it’s old and grimy like mine, you’ll want to freshen, and probably flatten, the top. I started with some 120 grit sandpaper on a flat surface, rubbing the stone on it, face down. The high areas will wear down first. Arkansas stones are hard, but keep at it. Whistling helps. Once you’re flat, work down through some finer grits, spending a minute or two on each one. I stopped at 600 grit paper. The good news is that an Arkansas stone is hard enough that there will be no need to reflatten for years.

A wood box is ideal for an Arkansas stone. It absorbs any excess oil and protects the stone. I made this one from a thick chunk of dry cherry. After planing the opposite faces true and parallel and squaring up the block, I struck two lines with the marking guage, wide enough apart for the saw kerf and a little extra.

I sawed between the lines, then planed both sawn surfaces flat to the lines.

After marking for the dimensions of the stone, I used a Forstner bit to excavate the majority of the wood down to depth, then squared up the sides with chisels and cleaned up the underside of the lid with a bent gouge.

I put rubber bumpers under the corners of the box. Ready for action.

The stone worked great for its first task of sharpening a gouge. I move the gouge along the length of the stone, rotating the gouge along it’s bevel as the gouge moves sideways. My left hand pushes right and rotates the gouge counter-clock wise, My right hand moves the gouge to the left while rotating it clockwise. Back and forth in a steady rhythm.

The shot above is mid-stroke. That’s a hard Arkansas slipstone to the right for handling the inner curve of the gouge.

The stroke to the left just about finished. I want to stop right at the corner of the gouge without over rotating. The abraded steel particles become suspended in the oil, keeping the pores of the stone open.

In the shot above, I’m sharpening a recently acquired knife after our cat knocked it off the bench onto the concrete floor. Because he’s a cat.

I bought this knife from Paul Jones at Deepwoods Ventures. I asked him to make me a knife with the same form and size as the pen blade extended in my pocket knife that I use for a lot of the lettering I do. This little guy works great. Some folks are interested in trying my somewhat odd technique, but have trouble finding or buying the pocket knife. This is cheaper and a little safer I suppose. There’s nothing in it for me. It’s all between you and Paul. But if you’re interested, Paul would be happy to make one for you. You can contact him here.

Posted in Lettering, quotes and excerpts, sharpening, tools, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments

Thanksgiving Time

From a country road near Fredonia, Pennsylvania. November 20, 2022

One thing about late Autumn, it displays the stubborn simplicities of the earth. Man may contrive himself into all kinds of human complications, but this earth which bore him and will be his home until the end of his days seems to settle back periodically into quiet contemplation. There stand the hills, rugged as time, and there lie the valleys at rest. The sun cuts its small arc in the southern sky and the long night is the counterpart of June’s long day. The tree stands stark, life at rest in the root, and the meadow is sere with frost. The goldenrod is a dead stem and a waiting seed, restless in the wind.

Hal Borland, The New York Times, November 27, 1960
Goldenrod in late November, Greenville, Pennsylvania

Happy Thanksgiving!

Posted in nature, quotes and excerpts, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 10 Comments

Catching Up

The first stack of firewood out back.

It has been a busy fall filled with too many things to mention. One thing that has been keeping me occupied is preparation for a home transition. Since making the decision this past summer, we’ve cleared oodles of multi-flora rose along with a couple windfallen trees at the back of the new lot.

Building of our simple house is underway, and the whole process seems surreal at times. Kristin and I have lived in our present home for 27 years, ever since we were married. As the third owners of this 120-year-old house, we’ve cared for it and raised our family in it. This house has been good to us with lots of memories, but circumstances have changed. Our new adventure won’t be too far away. Our current house is about 200 yards from where I was born. The new place will be a whole mile and a half up the road!

I suspect I’ll have some posts to share next year related to settling in to a new workshop. That, too, will be bittersweet. I wrote an article for Fine Woodworking Magazine a few years ago about the development of my workshop. I’ve loved it and have spent many happy hours there, but I like to think of someone else doing the same, and I’m excited to set up fresh with new possibilities.

I’ve still been working on several projects. I recently finished a maple crook bird bowl. 10 1/4″ long. She’s already in her new home. The slideshow below has some progress shots and a few more of the finished bird.

I’ll share some other things I’ve been doing in some more posts coming right up.

Posted in bird bowls, Uncategorized | 17 Comments

Asymmetrical Cherry Crook Bowl

The treetops had been on the ground since the logging crew left the woodlot over a year ago. I climbed over brush and through the jaggerbushes that had sprung to life in the new abundance of sunlight. It was slim pickings, but I had to put something in my backpack to make the search worth the blood. There was a bend in a lichen-encrusted cherry tree branch with some potential. Out of the pack came the pocket saw, in went a chunk of cherry tree.

At home, I split off the lower half of the crook, the part with another branch offshoot, and got to thinking. I started to shave off the bark (what a shame to remove those beautiful lichens) and decided to use the flow of the grain in this crook to make an asymmetrical bowl with lifted handles. No straightedge or square for this one; I just sketched freehand with a pencil on the cleanly shaved surface.

I took some photos along the way. I’ll let them speak for themselves in the slideshow below, but I’m happy to elaborate if you have any questions.

As you can see in the slideshow, I finished shaping the hollow by working across the grain with hook knives. That helped to deal with the subtle grain changes in the crook and to achieve the fullness of the hollow below the rim. In the high-angle shot above, you can see the resulting texture in the hollow. You may also be able to notice that I went with the gentle lateral curve that flowed through the crook.

There’s a photo of the bowl to celebrate apple season. The bowl ended up at about 16″ long, 4.5″ wide, and 5″ high. It has a home, but I’ll be on the lookout for other suitable pieces ready for some freestyling. It’s worth a few jaggers.

Posted in bowls, cherry, finding wood, layout, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Q-R-S-Tree-U-V

Tree-U-V Alphabet Board #1, Basswood and oil paint, 13 1/4″ x 6″ x 3/8″

I had wanted to carve an alphabet board for a long time, and I finally got around to it. The process began long before I took a knife to the basswood board above.

I first put my thoughts onto paper with this page in my notebook back in June. Just a few thumbnail sketches.

Eventually, I focused those ideas into a larger sketch, still pretty loose, but it also allowed me to envision some possibilities with some quick colored pencil work.

With thoughts of making several examples using this same design, I developed the design further by drawing it full size on tracing paper.  By laying a sheet on top of earlier drafts, I was able to adjust the spacing and redo certain things as the design developed.  This space-saving drawing board has served me well for a few years now.  I have plans for it in this post.  An angled drawing surface is a lot easier on your neck.

After hand planing the basswood board, I brushed on blue artist oil paint, then wiped most of it off of the surface, allowing the grain of the wood to peak through a bit.  That took a few days to dry completely.  I transferred the pattern with graphite paper, carved with a knife, then painted the leaves and border carefully.

I decided to keep this first example and make a second, in butternut, to offer for sale.

For the darker butternut, I decided to do a wash of titanium white over the surface.  The contrast between the paint and the wood is a little more subtle than it appears in the photograph above.  

Care must be taken, when placing and carving the leaves, to avoid short grain situations between leaves that will split away under the pressure of the knife.

The border was created by planing a wide bevel after the carving was done.  For the butternut version, I used a thicker board that allowed for a more substantial border.  The overall dimensions are 14 1/4″ x 6 3/4″ x 13/16″.  I inset a keyhole hanger into the back.  If you’d like to hang it in your home, please send me an email at dandkfish@gmail.com or leave a comment below. $500 includes shipping. Thank You. Update: SOLD

Posted in Lettering, sketch, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 17 Comments

Duckling Revisited

The ducklings liked the new island so much that they decided to live there. All day long they follow the swan boats and eat peanuts.

Robert McCloskey, Make Way for Ducklings (1941)

As I finished this latest little duck bowl, I found myself thinking of Robert McCloskey‘s Make Way for Ducklings. I pulled the book off the shelf and enjoyed a read. I must have read it a couple hundred times when my kids were little, but it had been a while. I still love the story and, especially, McCloskey’s illustrations. Many of his preparatory sketches can be viewed here.

It had been a couple years since I had made one of these duck bowls, and I was reminded of the challenge.  I roughed this piece out of a green cherry log maybe four years ago, but had never got around to completing it.  The wood was thoroughly dry as I began carving it to its final shape.  The lighter color of the head is the sapwood of the tree, merging at the neck into the dark heartwood.  

I’ve carved these with two heads as well.  The general idea was inspired by Scandinavian ale bowls.  I’ve written several posts about these which include various designs and the general procedure I use to carve them.  I have an “ale bowl” category on the right that will bring up related posts.  For ducks specifically, type “duck” into the search box.

This little duckling is 7 1/4″ long,  5 1/4″ wide, and 4 1/2″ tall.  This one is for sale.  If you’re interested, please email me at dandkfish@gmail.com.  Thank you.  You can think of Robert McCloskey while eating your yogurt, or peanuts, from it. Update: SOLD

Posted in ale bowls, bird bowls, cherry, quotes and excerpts, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

Nine, Ten, A …

I’ve made a number of these hen bowls now since the first one six years ago. Different wood species, some painted, some natural. It’s been interesting to take the same design concept and push, pull, and stretch it in different ways, depending on what the log brings to the party. Some with long tails, some stubby. Some tall, some low. I think they all can work well. A search under “hen” or “rooster” to the right will bring up many of these if you’re interested.

I showed the preparation of the butternut log section into a wide “rooftop” blank in this recent post. This is easily the widest hen I’ve made. The overall dimensions are 18 1/2″ long, 12 1/4″ wide, and (just a bit under) 6″ high.

Hen keeled over.

I liked the combination of the flutes with the grain of the butternut, so I decided not to do a white wash on this one.

More of a profile view here.

There’s one last shot, more of a profile view showing the tail feathers. Carving that tail is a good exercise in green direction! This hen is headed to a new roost, but I’ve got another (smaller) bird almost finished. Maybe I’ll be able to introduce it with another nursery rhyme.

Posted in ale bowls, bird bowls, proportions, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 17 Comments

The Beginnings of a Rooftop Hen

There’s a hen bowl in that big chunk of butternut. I’ve made some of these bowls (call them hens, roosters, fowl…) using various log orientations, but the most common have been what I call rooftop bowls. The drawing below accompanied an old post in which I wrote about the general idea.

A hen bowl is just a variation on the rooftop bowl represented in the drawing above and shown in the photo below. Just shape one end into a head and the other into a tail.

The process always begins with flattening the bottom. With that plane resting on the bench, the vertical centerline can be established on each end (see the photo with the square at the top of the post). The angle sometimes depends most on what the blank provides. You may have to split a little more away to get rid of a major knot, for example. I’ve made rooftop bowls with angles as acute as 45 degrees, like the one in this post.

To mark the final angle to which I want to shave the blank, I use a large wooden compass I threw together several years ago with some scrap wood and a bolt, washers, and a wing nut at the joint. You can make one in no time. Ideally the wood at the upper ends of the arms will be shaped to a semicircle so that corners won’t lift the arm off the bench.

It’s a rare log that has no twist. This one had a fair amount. Ignore it and decide on an angle that looks to work well for this log (do a rough check on both ends). After marking to one side of center, flip the bevel around and mark the other, making sure that the angles meet at the vertical center line. Mark the same height at the center line on the other end and mark the angles on it the same way. On this one, I rounded off the top of the peak. Hew and shave to the lines, and draw the guidelines onto the upper surface.

The specific layout is unique to the size and situation with each blank. I start hollowing with an adze, then move on to bent gouges and spoon bent gouges.

In the case of this bowl, I moved on to hook tools and a scorp that worked really well for this (by Lee Stoffer) to achieve the undercut. I have a whole slideshow with many photos of the steps of carving a different hen bowl in this post.

It’s getting there. The bowl had dried and I made a little more progress over the weekend with a light rain falling outside the shop.

Posted in bird bowls, layout, patterns, proportions, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Drew Langsner’s Latest Adventure

Circus by Drew Langsner

Drew Langsner is an adventurer. A few years after earning his M.A. in painting and sculpture, he and his wife, Louise, embarked on an exploration of Asia Minor, the Balkans, and much of central and northern Europe. Don’t picture them eating at sidewalk cafes and lounging at posh hotels. Much of their 1971-1972 journey was by motorcycle through remote areas as they set out to discover, first-hand, alternative modes of living. Drew and Louise compiled their experiences in a book titled Handmade (Harmony Books, 1974), which includes everything from roofing to recipes. Here is an excerpt describing one of the places they stayed along the way, near the Aegean Sea:

We lived up a crumbling stone staircase in a single room, formerly a kitchen, some 8 by 10 feet in dimension. On the ground floor were four rooms used for storage and animal shelters. We had one window, without glass, but fitted with board shutters. The fireplace was such that it would not heat even our small room. (This was the coldest winter in more than 30 years.) Our bed was straw. The roofing was tile, mortared over bamboo-lathing strips — aesthetic, and leaky. An early task was repairing the many drafts. There was no privy.

How’s that for an adventure?! Drew and Louise returned to the United States to begin a homestead in the mountains of North Carolina and started the incredibly influential handcraft school known as Country Workshops, welcoming folks from all over to their homestead for over 40 years. All along the way, Drew continued to travel, write, carve, hew, sail, farm, teach, build, parent, and much more.

Drew’s mind is always open to discovery. His latest adventure involves chairs, but from an entirely new perspective. Drew tells the story of how he began making these sculptures from chair parts here. At the end of this month, there will be a pop-up exhibition of Drew’s sculptures, entitled This is Not a Chair. It will be at the studio of Drew’s friend Jim Dillon at 2895 Washington St., Avondale Estates, Georgia (just east of Atlanta). The days and hours are:

Friday, Sep 30. 5 – 8 PM

Saturday, Oct 1. 10 AM – 6 PM

Sunday, Oct 2. 11 AM – 5 PM

If you can’t make it to Georgia, a Zoom or other video view of the exhibition may be available later. For more information, you can email Drew at drewandlouiselangsner@gmail.com. You can also explore more of his art adventures at his website.

When I look at this one, I think of jazz music.
Posted in events, Persons, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Merging Cuts in the Hollow

Earlier this month, I wrote a post about two walnut bowls, and there was a question in the comments about dealing with the tricky area where the grain direction merges across the middle of the hollow. I wanted to expand upon my answer with some more thoughts in this post.

I often direct all of my cuts generally toward the center of the hollow, which means cutting across, or obliquely to, the grain along the sidewalls. Another option, which I used on one of those walnut bowls, is to work directly with the grain from one end to the other. The tricky bit in that case is merging the cuts running head on into each other without going too far and lifting the grain on the other side of the divide.

The growth ring pattern can be read to reveal the location of the dividing line. I’ve highlighted them (in part) in blue in the top photo. The center of those O’s and U’s indicates approximately where the dividing line (in red) will be. Shifting a light while you’re working will reveal areas where you’ve gone beyond it; the gold arrows point to a couple more obvious spots where I have gone a little too far after making a series of light paring cuts from the left.  The light is being caught by the torn grain at the end of the cuts.

Now I can work my way down making successive wispy cuts from the right, allowing the edge to merge out of the cut before lifting fibers on the opposite side. Here I’m working with a very shallow sweep gouge for the subtle texture I wanted in this bowl. It may require a little back and forth, but you’ve also got to know when to leave well enough alone!

One thing’s for sure: this paring business goes a lot more smoothly if your gouge is sharp. I’ve got several posts about sharpening and there are many good ways to get sharp. I typically go from diamond stones, to a very fine ceramic, to a strop. A few months ago, I remembered I had some 3M sharpening film in a drawer. It’s another good alternative for refining the scratch pattern and polishing the edge. Essentially, it’s super fine sandpaper on a very thin strong plastic film. Looks like you can buy it lots of places, but I got mine from Lee Valley.

I have the 5 micron and the .5 micron. I just hold the edge of the sheet against some tablet cardboard with my left thumb, put the bevel flat on the film, then draw the gouge backward, while slowly rotating the edge. 

The stroke finishes something like that. The stiff cardboard provides just a little bit of give to assure that the bevel is being polished to the edge without significant dubbing.

I hold the film around a dowel and rotating the edge back and across it for the inner bevel. Just a couple swipes.

And I do need an inner bevel to keep the edge strong enough while allowing for a shallow outer bevel, which provides a lower (better in this case) angle of approach.

Posted in bowls, carving, sharpening, tools, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 10 Comments