Carving Catalpa

When a friend of mine sent me this big chunk of fresh catalpa wood, some memories came to mind. When I was a kid we had a big catalpa tree in the yard and I had fun playing with the long beans, or cigars as we often called them. Another memorable catalpa tree was a huge specimen that lived in the front yard of my in-laws house. That was the one that ate my sandwich.

Kristin and I, newly dating, pulled into her parent’s house with sandwiches from Subway. For some reason, on my way up the front walk, I started swinging my subway bag in big vertical circles. Before my brain registered my stupidity, the bottom seam of the plastic bag gave way on the upward arc of the swing, slinging my sub high into the gnarly limbs of the catalpa. The paper wrapper burst open and bits of sandwich sifted down through the branches as Kristin’s father watched through the front picture window.

About sixteen years ago, my in-laws had to have that tree taken down and I carved a few things from it, including the bowl above for them. I borrowed it to take the photo. It’s a big bowl, but surprisingly light. Catalpa is ring porous and relatively soft, works well for dry foods and such, but not ideal for salads.

As you can see from the fresh piece, Catalpa has a greyish/greenish tint, but over time it ages to a pleasant shade of brown.

I decided to do a bird/hen bowl sort of like this one but with a longer tail. The hollow is steep and deep. You can see an apple peeking out from the roughed hollow. After the adze and bent gouge, I worked with a swan-kneck gouge (like a spoon bent gouge) and a twca cam to really get down in there.

Now it’s on to the exterior hewing and shaping. I should have that roughed out this weekend. If all goes well, we’ll see this piece of catalpa again looking more like a bowl.

Posted in bird bowls, finding wood, layout, tools, trees, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Shop Tip with Chip


I am savoring some restorative carving time this weekend, but just wanted to take a moment to share this stumbled-upon shop tip.

I’ve been using this simple elm bench for various things for years.  I had never permanently affixed the legs until recently when I drove them back into the tapered mortises along with some liquid hide glue.  As I put away the glue, I heard a licking sound and turned to see Chip lapping up the bit of glue squeeze out around the legs.  Apparently, the smell of that animal protein was irresistible.  I couldn’t have done a better job myself.  So put away your rags and sponges and find a dog (if you’re using natural hide glue).

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Dealing with Interlocked Grain


Trees do funny things.  This cherry was taken down a few months ago in a friend’s yard.  This section has a 4 1/2″ radius and 55 growth rings.  We tend to think of the fibers going straight up the trunk as the tree grows, but sometimes they grow in a spiral.  And sometimes the tree changes its mind and reverses the spiral for a few years, creating interlocked grain.   Some species, such as elm, normally reverse the spiral regularly throughout the tree’s life, making the wood more resistant to splitting.

You can see evidence of the interlocked grain in the above photo of the split log.  The deep furrows at upper right and lower left are areas where the fibers spiral contrary to the direction of the fibers in the rest of the log.  For some reason, from about 1977-1989, this cherry tree flipped out a bit.  Makes sense I guess; I remember my dad even had a “perm” for a while then, and I wore parachute pants.

Interlocked grain creates challenges for working the wood, especially when planing or cutting on the quartered face, or ray plane, of a piece with interlocked grain.  Grain direction in a bowl is usually pretty straightforward, but areas of this piece were a little tricky.

So how to deal with it?  I used a chunk of this same tree in my livestream demo I did on Mary May’s Twitch channel a couple weeks ago.  Afterward, I decided to finish carving the piece.  The challenges with the interlocked grain showed up mainly after drying when I was trying to cut a nice final surface.


The grain was no problem for the fluted ends, especially since that doesn’t involve cutting on the quartered face.  The photo above shows how I set up for that procedure.  The combination of the arrangement of the holdfasts and the V-notched board worked well and didn’t risk any damage to the gouge at the end of the cuts.


The two outer points of contact provide stability across the arched end and the pine allows the gouge to exit harm free.


The interlocked grain did present a challenge on the exterior and interior sidewalls.  Here on the exterior, I pared the entire sidewall surface with a wide straight carving chisel across the grain (at a slight angle) from foot to rim.  Light cuts.

Another possibility is to use a finely set block plane or spokeshave.  Pete Galbert presented a brilliant webinar on spokeshaves last week through Fine Woodworking.  You can still watch it here.


Same idea on the inside, working from rim to center with a freshly and finely sharpened gouge.  Very light cuts are key in this situation.  The underlying fibers release a wispy shaving cleanly from their hold more easily than they do a thick one.  The same idea goes for when you’re cleaning up the area in the center of any bowl since the grain direction transitions there.


So here is the finished bowl.  This design is based on a classic trough style, but the arched top adds some additional dimension.   It serves well, and particular aspects of the design make it quite accessible even for beginners.  These include the relatively shallow and open hollow, the fact that the handles aren’t deeply undercut, and the outer edge doesn’t flare back out at the handles.


One decorative touch I added to this one is the narrow band of gouge chip cuts just under the edge of the rim.  To make a canvas for them, I just carved a small flat from the corner of the rim and sidewall after all else was done.


I’ve already got a few sample bowls in this general style for me, so if you’re interested in this one, I’ll ship it to you.  It’s 14 1/4″ long, 6 1/8″ wide, and 3 1/8″ high.  $325 includes shipping.   Update: SOLD

Posted in bowls, cherry, figure, finding wood, green woodworking, holding, trees, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 11 Comments

Love and Coffee


I’ve missed out on a love affair with coffee.  Seems like just about everyone else has had one and most of them last a lifetime.  Long before iced-coffees became chic, my grandfather loved cold black coffee.  He kept it in the fridge and took it along with him deep down into the bituminous coal mines of western Pennsylvania.  His love for the dark brew was topped by my father.  At any given point in the day, my dad’s blood composition is 70% coffee.  People have deep relationships with coffee.

That fact was reinforced recently when I was asked to carve an inscription for a wedding anniversary gift.  It’s always a challenge to express the intensity of one’s love.  Folks have tried everything from holding their arms wide open to writing sensitive sonnets.  In this case, she wanted to sum up her affection with one breathtaking statement: “I love you more than coffee.”


As the angle of light and perspective changes, so does the perception of the carving.

But to add a touch of mystery, she wanted it in Latin which is (as far as I know!): “Amo te magis quam capulus.”


She left it open to me to determine the design, just that it shouldn’t be too large.  I won’t bore you with the many other possibilities that ran through my head, but in the end I decided to carve a representation of a coffee cup from a thick butternut board.  I had split up a butternut log years ago and saved several billets.  A little bit of planing, and I had a canvas for the lettering.    Then it was on to drawing letters on paper.  Lots of playing and erasing.


Before cutting the letters, I got all of the shaping done on the cup itself to avoid clamping and cutting after the letters were finished.  The dimensions are 10 1/2″ x 5″ x 1 1/2″.  Here’s the handle end and backside:


Then it was on to cutting the letters themselves.


The pencil lines are there as a guide, but it’s the knife that makes the final decisions.  There’s a balance.  If you are hyper focused on cutting exactly on the line, you may lose flow and a sense of liveliness.  Stray too far and your composition will fall apart.  It’s something like the painted lines on the road.  You don’t try to slavishly stay precisely centered in your lane as you go, yet it would be hazardous to treat the lines as mere suggestions.


Regardless of what you do about the lines, the carving is a joy; maybe even more than coffee.

Posted in carving, finding wood, layout, Lettering, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 21 Comments

Cleave the Wood


When a friend asked me to carve this short line from Saying 77 of the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, I spent a lot of time thinking.  There were a lot of decisions to make, from choosing among various translations to the setting for the inscription.  In the end, I used this cleft chunk of walnut and carved the letters into the bookmatched faces.  For a sense of scale, the uprights are about ten inches high.



It was a bit of challenge carving into the undulating riven surface, but it worked out.  The backsides are split surfaces as well, so with nothing flat it was good to hold the piece in one hand and cut with the knife in the other.  A gouge also came in handy here and there.


To get the pieces to sit perfectly flat was a matter of hand sawing, then planing the end grain with a finely set block plane.  This was done while the pieces were sandwiched together.  My friend wanted them to be able to go back together on occasion, rather than be permanently fixed to the base.  Although the pieces would stand up on their own, I made things more secure with a series of rare earth (neodymium) magnets inset into the bottom of the uprights and matched their locations with magnets fit into the base from beneath, leaving an 1/8″ or so of wood above them.  Once close, the uprights are pulled into their proper positions.  They remain steady, but can still easily be removed from the base.


Posted in Lettering, quotes and excerpts, tools, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 14 Comments

Catching up with the Bowl Horse


There are many ways to get to a bowl horse.  If you’re still thinking about adding one to your shop, I’ll recap some of the options, including some new possibilities.

My first bowl horse concept, seen in the photo above, was a simple adaptation of my Jennie Alexander English style shaving horse.  It achieved the key principal I had in mind — holding end to end.  I detailed that story in a post a few years ago.  With a little ingenuity, many standard shaving horses can be adapted to function as bowl horses.  Here’s another example:

Horse Adaptation_NEW

For Plymouth CRAFT classes we adapted Pret Woodburn’s shave horses by adding a sled of sorts (blue) above the folded flat work surface.  Only requires one screw to attach that also achieves the length adjustment.  In the end we constructed the body of the sled a bit differently due to the materials on hand, but it doesn’t really matter.  The only other thing required was to screw a board between the two swing arms.


But let’s back up a bit before the Plymouth adaptations.  In 2004 I designed and made the log-on-legs bowl horse that still serves in my workshop today.  Last year, I wrote a post about how I made it.

Shortly after making the log horse, I designed this more portable bowl horse and made it from dimensional lumber.  I wrote an article about it that was published in 2008.  The article and plans are still available on my website here.

What has been so wonderful since then is to see how other carvers have adapted the concept to the materials they have on hand and/or to their unique situations.  Many of these creative solutions can be seen at the “Other’s Horses” page of my website.  A recent example is a horse made by Dwight Beebe, who was in my bowl class in Plymouth last June.

Dwight Beebe Bowl Horse

Dwight Beebe’s bowl horse, adapted to a Tim Manney style base.

Dwight’s base is inspired by Tim Manney‘s design and can host a regular shave horse, or Dwight can pop that off and put on the bowl horse attachment as in the photo above.

Dwight Beebe Bowl Horse with Spoon Mule

Dwight can also attach a spoon mule based on plans by Dawson Moore.

Of course, a lot of folks are short on space and Mike Loeffler has been keeping me posted on a handy folding bowl horse design he’s been developing.  The whole thing hangs on the wall until you need it:

Mike L horse on wall

Mike L horse

Then it comes off the wall and you’ve got a bowl horse.  Mike said it will hold up to a 18″ long bowl, but the plans can easily be modified to stretch the horse if you want more range.

Mike L horse plans

Mike has worked hard to make high quality clear plans for his horse and has them available now on his website.

And if you’d rather have a bowl horse built for you, Mark Hicks of Plate 11 Bench Co.  has added that to his services offered.

Just to be clear, I have no deals or partnerships at all with either Mike or Mark, and I have not used their plans or horses.  I’m just trying to inform folks of some possibilities.  So if you have any questions about their services or products, contact them.  I’m sure they’ll be happy to talk with you, they’re really nice guys.

You can carve bowls without a bowl horse, but if you want one, there are plenty of options.

Posted in carving, holding, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

Roy and Russ

I am one among many who have fond memories of watching Roy Underhill on his long-running PBS series “The Woodwright’s Shop.”  Nothing beats Roy in the flesh, but you can at least join him live online this evening.  The Center for Art in Wood is hosting a talk with Roy live on ZOOM at 6:30 pm EDT today, July 28.  So many people, including myself, have been influenced and inspired by Roy, and he’s not slowing down.

And speaking of inspiration, Fine Woodworking’s Ben Strano just posted a wonderful interview he conducted with an amazing craftsman and person, Russ Filbeck.  I found Russ’ story fascinating and his attitude uplifting.  I think you’ll enjoy it:


Posted in teaching, Uncategorized, video | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Breakfast for Five


About two years ago, I wrote a post about busting up a big cherry log into various bowl blanks.  This experimental piece came from either the billet labeled A or B, so it has vertical grain (had I sawn it instead of splitting it, it could be called quarter sawn).  I had the general idea for this bowl back then and roughed it out.  Finally got around to the rest of the carving recently.


The first step in making it is to hew and plane the upper and lower surfaces into a plank with no twist.   In fact, you could make one from a 2 x 6 — sort of.  The final dimensions of this piece are 26″ long, 4 3/4″ wide, and 1 3/8″ high.  The hollows are 4 1/4″ in diameter.


The exterior surfaces are flat except for the sculpted handles.


I used a small gouge to detail the edges of the hollows.  Depending on the light and perspective it can create the effect of a rope twist.


I just put the apples in there for a sense of scale.  I imagine the piece being used to serve things at supper or a dinner party.  Maybe ice cream toppings, or salad accoutrements, or taco toppers.  And if you have five kids, they could eat their cereal side by side each morning!  I’m sure you’ll have more ideas.

This one is for sale.  If you’d like it, send me an email at  $400 includes shipping to you.  Update: SOLD

Posted in bowls, cherry, layout, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Live with Mary this Thursday

Panel Content

I’ve had the good fortune of hanging out with Mary May at a couple Fine Woodworking events.  Not only is she an incredibly talented and accomplished carver, she’s a wonderful person too.  This Thursday, July 23rd, at 1:00 pm (Eastern Daylight Time), I’m going to get the chance to spend some time with Mary online, as she has kindly asked me to be a guest on her Twitch live stream broadcast.

Mary started the live stream back in the spring with the beginning of the quarantine restrictions and has also had special guests on, including Peter Follansbee and Roy Underhill, who was last week’s guest.  That’s right, I’m following Roy Underhill.  And as if that weren’t hopeless enough, I have to manage an ipad.  This should be good.

Basically, the idea is that anyone can go the website and watch live as I talk and demonstrate for an hour or an hour and a half or so.  You can type in questions and comments, and Mary will supervise the screens and relay the questions and such to me.  You can get the idea by watching Peter’s appearance (< that’s a link) which I think mine will resemble, but for the beard.

Many of Mary’s regular viewers may be unfamiliar with the idea of greenwood carving, so the plan is for me to introduce the idea of carving a bowl from green wood — a log.  Obviously, given the time limit, I’ll work small and/or jump around to some pieces at various stages, demonstrating some tools and techniques.  I’ll sort it out over the next few days and fit in what I can.  It’s free, so you’ll get your money’s worth.

If you can’t make it Thursday afternoon, the whole thing will be available on Mary’s Twitch channel for viewing later.  Whether you’re joining in live or you want to check out old broadcasts of Mary and/or her guests, here is the link to use.

Mary was way ahead of the curve with online carving instruction.  For years, she has had an online carving school called Mary May’s School of Traditional Woodcarving.  There’s access to tons of instructional videos, a store for carving materials, and lots more.  Oh, and she also wrote a great book called Carving the Acanthus Leaf!

See you Thursday.

Posted in events, teaching, Uncategorized, video | Tagged , , | 18 Comments

Take a Whiff


Yesterday, I was carving the flutes in a walnut bowl and I started thinking about what a big role smell plays among the pleasures of working with wood.  As I savored the rich aroma of the walnut, I thought of a photo I stumbled upon a few months ago while leafing through an old Time-Life book.  The photo was of a man taking simple delight in the odor of a truffle.  It struck me enough that I made a little sketch of it then.

I don’t know about truffles, but I can identify with that guy when I’m carving.   Most species have a distinct odor, and woodworkers come to recognize them and, often, associate them with memories.  Whether it’s the sweet almond extract scent of fresh cherry, the tangy vanilla of white oak, the spiciness of sassafras, or some other wonder, I hope you get to take a whiff this weekend.


Posted in green woodworking, sketch, Uncategorized, walnut | Tagged , , , | 22 Comments