Gouge Article and Thumbnail Cuts

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.

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Check for Checks

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.

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Online Bowl Class with Elia Bizzarri and Me

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.

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Winter Branches

On overcast winter days, I appreciate the quiet simplicity of the landscape. Soon enough, vibrant color will return and leaves will burst forth from every twig.

For now, the underlying structure is revealed, with a beauty of its own.

When I slow down enough, the flow of a single branch is wonderful.

It’s hard to believe how many nests were hidden in summer.

And it’s too cold for the mosquitoes and ticks. Plenty to appreciate.

Posted in nature, sketch, Uncategorized | Tagged | 12 Comments

Curves and Chamfers

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.

Posted in bird bowls, bowls, tools, Uncategorized, walnut | Tagged , , , | 11 Comments

Mr The Creature, Barn, and Letters

Strange title, but bear with me.

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:

Barn and his team are the creators of an invaluable online resource, Spoonclub, for anyone interested in spoon carving.

I’ll wrap this up with a video from 2019 in which Barn and I talk about lettering with the knife:

Posted in Lettering, Persons, spoons, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 6 Comments


Last weekend, I was hollowing a big deep bowl from a cherry log. After the adze work, I reached for a tool I use from time to time to fine tune the form of a large hollow. I’ve seen tools like this called inshaves or scorps, so take your pick. I’ll call it an inshave here.

You can find dozens of different inshaves available with a quick search. Chairmakers would know more about them than me. I’m only familiar with this one, which I like for bowls because it comes back together more at the top than most, which keeps the hands in tight which is more important in a deep bowl than with a chair seat.

The handles also sweep back enough to stay clear of the bowl. There are scorps with a single handle, but I think the double provides more control.

I purchased this one nearly 20 years ago from Massachusetts blacksmith Ray Larsen who had a business called Genuine Forgery. He wrote at least one article in Fine Woodworking magazine back in 1977, and he also wrote the book Tool Making for Woodworkers. It’s a very practical book for anyone who wants to make or adjust some of their own tools. I’ve referred to it many times over the years. I found an interesting article about Ray and some of his later artistic toolmaking explorations.

Of course, like all of these edge tools, it doesn’t work well if I don’t keep it really sharp. Even after all these years, I’m still amazed at how the performance of a tool is transformed after even a touch-up. I’m getting better at reminding myself of that more often.

Another way to fair the interior is with a modified travisher. I wrote a post about this one a couple years ago.

Neither of these tools is a necessity for carving bowls, but they’re nice options for certain circumstances.

I’ve hewn the outside of the bowl now, and, after it dries, I’ll put the final surface on the hollow by paring with a sharp gouge.

Posted in books, bowls, cherry, tools, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

Follow the Bent

I was not anchored to a house or farm, but could follow the bent of my genius, which is a very crooked one, every moment.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

I can’t seem to locate my genius, but I have been finding some nice bent branches lately. I love roaming along the river and through pockets of woods this time of year. The deer ticks are frozen and the leafless branches have revealed their forms.

Between some heavy snow load in early winter and a trimming operation along the railroad tracks, there have been treasures to find. I carry a little folding saw in my backpack in the chance that I may find one or two to bring home for spoons or a bird bowl. The one pictured above is hawthorn.

I prefer to split crooks with my froe. Once the froe is driven into the end of the branch, the leverage provides a huge advantage to pop it open.

The two in the photo above (with a post-walk Chip napping in the background) are border privet. It is very fine grained and makes nice spoons. An invasive species here, it grows tangled and thick in areas beside the river. Crawling along deer trails is sometimes the only way through it.

Above, the blank has been split out and cleaned up with axe and adze, ready for more axe work.

I always split along the pith. The “bottom” half is normally unusable, containing the remainder of the broken branch that led to the crookedness to begin with, but I can sometimes split the upper half again to get two blanks, or more on a rare occasion. Sometimes I get really lucky as with the maple branch above from a couple weeks ago. The piece in the back was just under the piece in the foreground.

Here’s the split surface still untouched along the back side. We’ll see this again when it’s finished.

Keep your eyes open. Some of those spoon shapes don’t stick around long.

Posted in finding wood, green woodworking, quotes and excerpts, spoons, trees, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Library Bench

Sometime around 1980 I borrowed a Charlie Brown book from the Greenville Public Library. Then I lost it, then found it three years later. I don’t remember if any late fees were ever paid. What a scoundrel.

This fall, I seized an opportunity for redemption as the Library sought a bench in honor of a longtime dedicated volunteer. The bench would also serve the practical purpose of offering a place for patrons to rest in the foyer.

I drew up a design and then went to my local sawyer, Lou, who came through once again. Lou Loreno and his son, John, are the kind of guys that can do anything, from restoring giant old machinery to rebuilding the foundation of a three-story barn. They also understand trees and how to transform them into sound beautiful lumber on their band mill.

Lou and John had rescued some big cherry trees that had been taken down at a construction site. They had the perfect 8/4 plank for me, 10 feet long and 18″ of clear heartwood across. The bench is 5 feet long, 18″ wide, and 18″ high. Below is a slideshow with a few photos of the bench (when it was still at our house), along with some shots I snapped during construction.

A quote from Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was selected for me to carve on the front edge of the bench. The bench top ended up at 1 3/4″ thick, so the letters are about 1 1/4″ high. In hard kiln-dried cherry, this requires more than a penknife. After drawing the letters with a pencil, I removed much of the material with a v-tool and mallet. The photo below shows the inscription after just the work with the v-tool, which goes relatively quickly. Certainly legible already, but with much attention still needed.

In the shot below the word “The” has been finished with knife and gouge, which shows the difference next to the letters still to go.

With the bench on its side and a board spanning the legs, I had a convenient rest for my tools as I carved.

It’s an honor to have been able to do the bench. I like libraries, and I’ve got lots of memories in this one, from working on (pre-internet) term papers to taking my own children there to pick out books, usually back on time.

Posted in carving, cherry, Lettering, quotes and excerpts, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 37 Comments


10-month-old Chip playing on a walk in the woods recently.

When I was a kid, the day after Christmas would find me on the floor before a pile of Legos, a Lite Brite, or maybe a brand new box of crayons. Not a care in the world, playing. Trying out new ideas, stretching my mind, learning. Of course, I had no such goals — I was simply at play, delighting in possibilities.

Now I’m not a kid, and the cares of the world swarm around me. Yet greenwood carving provides me with all sorts of opportunities to play, and I find myself refreshed with a childlike exuberance that quiets the buzzing.

Fitting play into our lives is important for many reasons and there is all sorts of research on the idea. If you approach at least some of your time in the workshop with a sense of play, you’ll reap benefits in terms of what you produce and in terms of satisfaction. You don’t really even have to try. It comes naturally as it does for a child.

For me, the fun and exploration begins with finding material. Walking through little pockets of woodlands with the excuse of looking for fallen trees and branches is an adventure. Finding something is a bonus. If you have a fun-loving dog or child to take along, you’ll find even more inspiration.

Play in a sketchbook. Let your mind go free with (sometimes) absurd ideas that may lead to something wonderful, or may not. The paper and pencil act like an extension of your brain, leading to all sorts of fun connections. It’s about drawing, not the drawing.

Try some of these ideas in the workshop. Explore them with a sense of excitement, fully aware that they may not work out as expected. Some of the possibilities might be whimsical. I wrote a post a few years ago with some toy ideas.

And, of course, playmates are nice. Friends, axes, knives, wood chips. Wishing you all a happy 2021 with more playdate opportunities!

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