Exterior Sign in White Oak Underway

I’ve been designing and carving an exterior sign for a cottage called “Minglewood.” Above is the sign with the carving portion complete, and below is my early small sketch of the design. The cap boards, which were inspired by the roofline of the cottage, will be attached to the top of the sign board itself. They’ll slope toward the back of the sign to shed water behind. The sign (30″ long) will be attached to two vertical posts anchored in the ground.

Compared to the thumbnail sketch above, the final design was streamlined, especially the branches and leaves. Designing took more time than the carving. I don’t know how much time for either, but I know it was more for the first.

I chose white oak mainly for its durability outdoors that I’ve experienced first-hand. I made our patio furniture over 20 years ago from white oak, a table and chairs. They’ve sat out in the rain and the sun and they’re still solid. The piece I’m using here is quarter sawn, so it won’t move much and will be unlikely to warp. Also, the ray fleck is a nice touch.

There’s the first cut up there on the M, a stop cut of sorts. For these big letters (the M is about 6″ high) I used a big V-tool to remove much of the wood before refining the walls with chisels and gouges. Much more effective than a knife in this very hard wood.

Here I’m roughing the upright of the L, which is also the trunk of the tree. The V-tool work on other letters can be seen as well. The remaining wood will be removed with the chisels and gouges.

For these flaring (waisted) elements, I use a combination of the three tools above, all flat carving chisels, but sharpened differently. I work them from the upper edge to the bottom of the V. The one on the left is ground straight across and is best for straight or slightly convex (when viewed from the outside of the trench) walls. the middle one has a slight camber and can negotiate slightly concave areas without the corners digging in. The third is ground to a skew to get into tight spots usually at the terminals and junctions.

Here’s the cambered chisel working the concave wall right up to the corner.

There’s the skew slicing right down into the junction of the end wall and side wall.

The curves are cleaned up with gouges. Here I’m removing some chips with some mallet blows. I’ll follow by rocking and slicing with a gouge to create the final surface.

I’ve shown this arrangement before, but I use this sort of I-beam bench extension held in my vise to hold the workpiece out on a narrow peninsula so that I can access it from both sides easily. Just a couple 2x4s capped by a 1×6, all held in the vise at one end.

The plan is to paint the letters, branches, and leaves before treating the whole thing with oil that can be easily maintained from year to year. The shot above is taken in the shop with light coming across the sign from the left. The shadows allow the sign to be read clearly. Below, I’ve simply rotated the sign into the direction of the light, and the difference is clear. The paint will assure a contrast no matter what that sun is up to throughout the day or if car lights are approaching the sign head-on.

I don’t think I’ve painted an exterior sign before, but Martin Wenham’s book has a whole section on painting-in letters and selecting materials.

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Marvels in the Mud

Other than a few days of really cold temperatures, things have been mild around here this winter, with more rain than snow. You’d better have your galoshes on for a tromp across open ground. Saturday, temperatures dropped down to about 20 degrees Fahrenheit and crisped things right up for a while. Perfect for a nice walk.

As I crunched across fields and through woods, I stumbled upon a large area of fantastic ice crystals on a patch of ground recently turned over by earth moving equipment. Knowing they wouldn’t be there long, I snapped a few photos with my phone.

It reminded me of an underwater scene with the 3″ strands of ice seeming to rise out of the depths and flow in gentle currents.

It’s gone now, and I have no idea if it was hoarfrost or some other phenomenon, but it stopped me in my tracks.

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Bowl from a Plank: Part 2

Back to the “bowl from a plank” that I started in this post a couple weeks ago. After preparing the blank and laying out the hollow and rim, I began to hollow the bowl. Remember, this plank was completely dry. In fact, I think it had been kiln dried a few years ago. I can tell you, the adze doesn’t sink in nearly as deeply as it does into green walnut! After getting most of the bulk out, I switched to a gouge and mallet. Not only because of its effectiveness in this dry wood, but because of the shape of the hollow which descends steeply from the rim.

That’s my #8 30mm bent gouge in the photo above. I’ve recommended it as a first-gouge for anyone getting started in bowl carving. You can remove a lot of wood fast. A heavy mallet absorbs the shock of the blow and drives the gouge forward. I set aside one of my usual carver’s mallets and grabbed the much heavier mallet I made twenty years ago with an apple wood head and a sugar maple handle. It’s sweet.

Even on a narrow bowl like this, the cross-grain trench provides a stop cut of sorts. You can see how a heavy chip like the one being taken above will run out at the trench rather than run through to the opposite side.

I moved to a gouge with a slower (flatter) sweep to do the final paring of the interior, then moved to the outside. I went straight to the drawknife for defining the rim and shaping the outer side walls. I’ve been using my Bowl Horse 2.0 now for a few months and I’m very happy with it. I made several adjustments in terms of construction, dimensions, and details that have all proven to be changes for the better. I’ll be sharing more about this and I’ll be making very clear plans and a full building tutorial available.

After shaping the sides, roughed out the compound curve under the deep handles with an axe. Then refined them further with drawknife, adze, and gouge.

For the final shaping and surfacing of the sides, I worked in rows by eye with the drawknife, one row at a time from rim to foot.

On the end panels, I worked across the grain with a #3 gouge by eye, curving the rows slightly. Since the end wall bulges out at the center, I stop about halfway across to work with the grain as much as possible, then flip the bowl around and work toward the middle from the other side. The flutes merge in the middle.

After doing both ends of the bowl, I touch up here and there, shifting the lines one way or the other slightly by shaving a little heavier to one side of the flute.

I’m still not completely settled on what I’m lettering on these handles. To experiment with different ideas without writing any more on the wood itself, I placed a sheet of paper over the bowl and ran my fingers over the edges, leaving an impression of the bowl’s outline on the paper. I can now take this away from the bowl itself, darken the outline with a pencil, lay tracing paper over it, and play around with design after design. The paper can’t always conform to the complex curves of the surface, but close enough for the purpose.

Posted in bowls, finding wood, Lettering, Uncategorized, walnut | Tagged , , , , | 16 Comments

For a Christmas Workbench

I couldn’t help it. As a kid, when I was handed a Christmas package that seemed likely to contain clothing or some other uninteresting stuff, I couldn’t hide my disappointment. Packs of tube socks and underwear were politely acknowledged, then unceremoniously set to the side. What an ungrateful little snot.

The gifts that really got me excited were the ones that held the promise of creative possibilities. Crayons, Lite Brite, Legos, modeling clay… When it comes to woodworking, I remember a wood burning (pyrography) tool and a Handy Andy tool kit — with wood-handled tools painted with light blue accents.

These memories came to mind as I worked on the little sign in the photo above. A friend had explained to me that his young grandson, Christopher, has a budding passion for woodworking. He wanted a plaque to personalize the workbench he and his wife are giving Christopher for Christmas. A workbench?! Tube socks don’t stand a chance.

This little (13″ x 2 3/8″) cherry sign will be mounted to the bench. The letters in that bottom line are only about 1/2″ high, so I had to put the “cheater” glasses on for that. I hope the sign gets dinged up over the years as Christopher works away.

Wishing you all happy holidays and a creative 2023. And, for the record, I’ve come to appreciate socks, underwear, and just about everything else.

Posted in Lettering, Uncategorized | 16 Comments

Bowl from a Plank

Sourcing, storing, and/or processing green logs can be a challenge for some people based on location and other circumstances. There are ways around it. I’ve written a few posts that feature bowls carved from dry wood, or other creatively-sourced blanks.

Among the several projects on my list is a smaller version of a bowl that I made in 2015. That’s a photo (from my post about it) of the original 2015 bowl below. That bowl was 26 1/2″ long, 7 3/8″ wide, and 3″ high. My current iteration will be about 20% smaller, while retaining the same general proportions. So it will be less than 2 1/2″ high. I’ve had a walnut plank hanging around my shed that is 2 3/4″ thick. The more I looked at it, I realized that it might do the trick. The plank is in the top photo, along with my initial chalk scribbling.

“A Little Bread” Walnut Bowl 2015

I traded the chalk for a pencil and got more precise about orienting the bowl in the plank.

I struck my longitudinal centerline parallel to the grain pattern, without regard to the edges of the plank. This initial layout changed a bit later, but it gave me enough to go by to cut the excess length from the plank. There are some major bark inclusions and splits just below the bowl edge, right above the vise jaw.

The 2015 bowl had an arched top that corresponded to the natural curve of the outside of the tree. In this case, I created a curve with a plane after striking the shallow arc on both ends of the blank.

The dark marks are from mutton tallow that I rubbed on the handsaw during the crosscuting.

I bought it from Lee Valley years ago, stuck it on a shelf and forgot about it — until Meeko the cat knocked it down a few days ago and stared at me with a sheepish grin. Still works.

I realized that my 18″ steel ruler wasn’t long enough to be a drawing bow for the sides of this bowl. Then I spied my tallow-covered handsaw lying there. I flexed it with a length of masking tape and laid out the side arcs with the back.

Now it’s ready for hollowing, which means I’ll be wishing it were green wood. I’ll snap some more photos along the way.

Posted in bowls, finding wood, layout, patterns, Uncategorized, walnut | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

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


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