Over the years, I used CAT to instruct many in letter carving. By the time they master CAT, the student is ready to move along to carving a quarter board.
So, the CAT carving was supposed to be a practice piece. But I noticed more than one student carefully finishing off the CAT practice piece as a finished piece of work. At last, confirmation came in the mail of what I had suspected. There, in all its glory, was the photo of a cat happily eating dinner in front of it’s very nicely varnished and gold-leafed CAT carving.
One man’s practice piece is another’s kitty gift,
We so often admire the complex and then seek out and appreciate the simple. The examples I have chosen to show are small carvings from post-war occupied Japan. Both feature a popular theme in Japanese art; Mount Fuji.
The simplicity of the creative technique is central here. The entire subject gets rendered with no more than the bare required cuts, and for that matter, the bare number of tools. Although the artist makes multiple cuts, the amount is minimal. We can also see this at work in brush calligraphy techniques where the subject is composed and executed in one continuous stroke.
To be effective in this requires two things: a thorough knowledge of the capabilities of your tools; and mastery of your tools. As one of my senseis says, “and that’s all there is to it.”
One mentor of mine once knocked out about a foot and a half of fancy molding out of what was scrap wood. He cut all the cuts needed from one tool, moved on to the next, and so on in succession—the complexity of the finished piece derived from the repetitive simple cuts he made in the correct sequence.
Well, I don’t know about you, but I can tell you that I am still working on this, and probably will be until it’s time to put away my tools. Like so many creative endeavors mastering the complex depends on learning the very basic.
Both would be great projects for a budding carver who owns a boat and wants a bit of eye candy to make it genuinely notable.
The star is an easy do. Navigate to my post on carving a star for much of the information you’d need to carve this piece.
I looked at the panel in front of me and lusted quietly after the skill that had created it. Have you ever wanted something so badly that it becomes a physical phenomenon? There had been an opportunity years ago to stay with my mentor and become an apprentice. Warburton had offered, I had declined. I wanted to go back on the road and bum my way to the west coast.
I might even be able to duplicate the panel now- given five years to do it in. My work turned in other directions, and the classical, neoclassical, and renaissance tropes I found engaging, but not enough to dedicate myself to learn.
When I did the Maine Boatbuilders show every spring, an older retiree would show up like clockwork at my booth. He had trained in a trade carver’s shop in France before World War II. Sometimes he’d take the opportunity to take over my bench. Once, he took a length of scrap, and using a small assortment of the tools I had there showed me how fast he could turn out two feet of fancy carved molding. Minutes. ” Once you learn, you’ll never really forget.” He smiled and left me hoping that he’d return the next day. Part of the difference between being self-taught and having worked in a craft/trade environment are all the methods you learn that make basic tasks easier, and basic tasks are the building blocks to the Secrets of the Masters.
It’s like going from the darkness of the North Atlantic into the light.
Adventures In Coastal Iiving :The Cora F Cressy
The pictures are not the best, but please forgive me, it’s a challenge to photograph something that tall. It’s the trailboards ( really the stem boards), and billet head of the five-masted schooner the Cora F. Cressy. The Cressy was a large collier schooner. A collier schooner was one that carried coal to New England from ports to the south in New Jersey, Philadelphia, and the Tidewater ports of Virginia.
Very little other than a pile of rotting timber remains of her, but if you go to the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, you’ll see these impressive stem boards and way, way, way, up high the billet head. The Cressy was not to a small ship ( 273 feet ). The large schooners like the Cressy had impressive shear lines with their bows and sterns gracefully reaching above the water. A sailor will always admire a sweet shear. These sweeping lines served a practical purpose. The Cressy, and others like her, were designed and built to be carriers of massive amounts of coal. In the case of the Cressy, it’s estimated that she could load 4,000 tons. The sweeping sheer at bow and stern insured that when fully laden, the ship possessed enough freeboard that she rode safely above the surface of the sea. As a result, the bow embellishment on the Cressy is an elaborate scroll that swept up the long stem. Notice that the stem boards were lofted from multiple pieces just as other structural parts, except with the consideration that the carver would be interested in how grain orientation ran for carving.
I came away from the visit impressed with the Cressy. But also a bit mystified. Between 1971 and the end of ’73, I had a live-in carving studio in a little building that had once been an office for a lumberyard on Sherman St. in the Charlestown area of Boston. Adjacent to me at 10 Sherman St. was a towing company called Cressy Transportation. Cressy Transportation was in the business of towing really large broken-down tractors and trailers – not your average AAA tow. I grew friendly with some of the drivers. One day while visiting the office for coffee, I noticed large framed photos of four and five-masted schooners on the wall. Asking about them, they informed me that back when the company had owned a fleet of sailing vessels. The drivers and the clerk had no further information, and eventually, I forgot to follow up on the story behind the photos. Until one day, I wandered into the Maine Maritime Museum and saw the Cora F Cressy materials on exhibit.
I confirmed that my recollection that it had been a company named Cressy by hunting through old Boston city directories. In 1969 there they were at 10 Sherman St. I also found the Cressy’s had owned a small fleet of schooners around 1915, but the war years had not been kind to their interests; one as torpedoed in 1917, and another was burned off the coast of France soon after. Fire was a continual hazard for coal schooners due to the flammable nature of the cargo.
The Cora F Cressy, did not have a very long career as a collier. She ultimately wound up as a breakwater, but before that, she found use as a floating night club. A bit of trivia that seems to connect the Cressy Family to the Cora F. Cressy is that when she became a floating night club, Carl Cressy was given a luxury accommodation on her since the vessel was named for his mother.
I have not been able to connect the dots concerning the Cora F Cressy, the Cressy fleet of colliers, or Cressy Transportation. I may never find a link, but I’ll continue to look, and will update this post if I find more data. It’s part of what makes the interest in maritime history interesting.
Is there a potential ship’s portrait in the offing? I don’t know. Being that they consume a good bit of time, it’d be a year before my current workload clears up. We’ll see.
Recharging: a reading list for a snowy winter
December and January. Cold, dark, and not too pleasant to be working in the shop when it’s in the teens outside. The little heater is designed to keep the greenhouse above 32 Fahrenheit. On sunnier days, it gets to the balmy ’60s in there, and I can carve freely. But, today, there is one of New England’s infamous ice storms blowing outdoors; the day will never lighten up, nor will it warm up.
I am settling in by the woodstove. The cat and dog are joining me for an afternoon of study. If you’ve read my advice to beginners, you’ll note that literacy in the craft is very high in my esteem for those beginning. Even more so then for those of us who have spent time maturing in the craft. This post will be about what’s on my reading table right now ( well aside from the Sci-Fi that I read for fun).
1.) Woodworking Wisdom & Know-How, The Editors of Fine Woodworking. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers- 2018
This book is available as a very thick paperback or as an e-book. Neither of these formats will break the budget, and it belongs on many a woodworker’s shop bookshelf – that assortment of books with practical information that you may need on demand. It proclaims itself to be “One Complete Practical Volume!” Well, I don’t know about that, but there is enough to keep you dipping in for knowledge on areas in which you have voids. The paperback was $21.99 (US). The printing is handicapped by the inferior paper quality and a faded look to the photos. The digital form might be preferable if you are comfortable using a tablet. Too bad such a useful book is shackled by poor production.
Being that we can’t know everything relating to woodwork, but might need a comprehensive reference, I advise this as a should buy. The first essay in the book is about cherry ( my favorite wood); OK, I am prejudiced.
2.) Woodcraft- Master The Art of Green Woodworking with Key Techniques And Inspiring Projects. Barn The Spoon ( author).DK Penguin Random House, 2019
I craft many of my treen ( spoons, spatulas, bowls, and such) from green cherry. Otherwise, I do little in greenwood. I picked this book up to expand my knowledge base. It’s comprehensive and offers a staged introduction to tools, techniques and projects. Unlike the Woodworking Know-How book this one is a pleasure to pick up and read. The publisher did a fantastic job on page design and layout. Everything is well photographed or illustrated, and printed on good quality paper. At $30.00 (US) I considered it to be a good shop shelf addition. It is also available in a digital edition.
Both of the above books are hefty and could double as weights in a pinch around the shop.
3.) Samuel McIntire * Carving an American Style, Dean T. Lahifainen. Peabody Essex Museum- 2007
Not a casual read. I have been dipping into it on and off for a year. McIntire was a polymath who worked as a decorative carver of furniture, ships carver, architect, house builder, and even a musician. McIntire was an influential stylist, and his work continues to inspire and influence design down to this day.
I’d recommend this book to you as the best researched and comprehensive examination of McIntire’s work and life to date. The many illustrations and top quality photos are, for a carver, worthwhile even if you don’t read the carefully researched text. This book would not be a casual purchase; look for it through Interlibrary Loan unless you are willing to part with $80 – $200.
That’s what I am exploring. If you have favorites send me a message and let me know – Lou
Bits & Pieces, or E Pluribus Unum
I remember being dismayed when Warburton, my mentor in Baltimore informed me that the elaborate carvings of Grinling Gibbons were composed in pieces and then joined together. I believe that I spotted a gleam of pleasure in his eye at my discomfiture. From my limited understanding of carving in those days, it seemed that anything carved from a whole piece was best. Later that day, I assisted him in selecting stock to glue up for a large carving. , I learned that frequently it was neither possible nor preferable to make something in one piece.
The nineteenth-century carvers of show figures and figureheads knew this. Whole logs seem to be a great place to start when working on a large piece. But, the radial splitting of the wood as it moves can begin the process of destroying the figure in the harsh marine environment. Then too, extended arms or legs posed problems. With the single large block, you become constrained to what you can include in that volume. My first eagle proved the point to me. I had a rectangular piece of Cuban mahogany; Now I might recut the block, and reassembled the pieces to get a more fluid design. But, I was at the very start of things and designed the bird within the block. As a result, the carving appeared to be in a straitjacket. Eventually, you either learn these lessons through mistakes or by observing your masters work. I always was a kind of bull-headed sort.
This doesn’t mean that joining pieces together is easy. Old figureheads were held together with “drifts” of iron, bolts, pegs, glue, and careful joinery. I believe that the Penobscot Bay Maritime museum has some x-rays on display that show the impressive ironwork hidden inside some of their figureheads. I’ve used wooden pegs, glue and the odd lag bolt to secure heads and wings on some of my work. I liked the way John Haly Bellamy used to build the “top shelf” on the wings of his eagles. I emulate that not by starting with a thicker plank but by gluing up that section of the blank in several layers. I like the look of drama and movement it gives the birdie. Like Bellamy and Samuel McIntire, I’ve been known to exaggerate the eagle’s neck. This approach makes the head look serpentine. The head needs to be carved apart from the body and added as the carving progresses. On larger eagles, I’ve drilled and countersunk a spot for a screw or peg and then glued and clamped the head in place.
I word about style here. I don’t carve naturalistic wildlife. I carve stylized eagles that reflect the design preference of the 18th and 19th-century masters I admire. Much of my technique won’t serve a carver doing more naturally styled birds.
But, back to bits and pieces. The massive eagle on the wall of the Whaling Museum in New Bedford was assembled from many parts. It was the only practical way to create it. Part of the reason that you can make out the individual parts is that, as you probably already know, wood continues to expand and contract. Being that this eagle has taken lots of weathering those seams started to show.
Searching the Internet, I am sure you’ll find lots of advice on how to and not to assemble blanks for larger carving. I like to use wood of the same species, air-dried if possible, and matched closely for moisture levels. When I first began doing this, I used epoxy, but stopped when I realized that I was getting excessive squeeze out on the glue lines, and as a result, winding up with starved joins ( joins between pieces that lacked enough glue to get excellent adhesion). Starved joins will lead to failures in the blank sooner or later, and the general rule is that they’ll tend to be where you can’t fix them. Remember: a good glue joint is stronger than the surrounding wood.
Depending upon how wet the piece might get in regular use you have a variety of glue choices from resorcinol glues to polyvinyl acetate glues like Titebond II. A certain amount of squeeze out is both expected and wanted. Don’t be excessive in your glue application, but do apply glue evenly, so you avoid starving the join.
If you have spent any time within a boat shop, you may have noticed the large racks of clamps. That’s due to that general law of boatbuilding that you always need one more clamp than you have. Carvers have the same issue when gluing up large or irregular blocks. Be prepared to have a few more bar clamps, C-clamps and such more than you think you might need. Remember to use backing shims between your clamp and the blank to avoid damage to the surface of the blank.
Here is a nasty little dirty secret: I have been known to draw pieces together temporarily during glue-up by using screws to pull pieces together or to hold something in place until it’s dry and cured. You can’t use this where the defect you create will be visible on a carving finished bright with varnish. But, it works great when the visible defect will be carved away or when the piece will be painted.
Always leave a glued up project in a dry, warm area. Always leave everything clamped together a minimum of twenty-four hours. After taking your clamps off, leave the assembled blank to “cure” for a couple of days before carving.
Have fun getting beyond the basic block piece by piece.
I picked up this letter opener in the ’90s probably at the big antique center in Newburyport, MA. I doubt that I paid more than two dollars for it, and felt that I had procured a lovely little piece very cheaply. I was attracted to it for a variety of reasons. The professionally trained carver had selected European walnut for the article; I’ve always favored European over American walnut for delicate pieces because of its color and tight grain. The word SOUVENIR had not been carved with a V tool or knife but was carefully incised by using individual gouge sweeps- a mark of a trade carver with a relatively complete range of curves and sizes in a set ( only trade carvers usually have that extensive a set.)
While this was no masterwork the acanthus leaf designs are beautiful, and accurately laid out and carved, and yes there is a right way and lots of wrong ways to do that. A reasonable conclusion from all the above was that the carver had been a European trained furniture carver.
There is age wear on the letter opener, but very little damage. It is a flat relatively thin piece that the craft person probably carved while glued to thick paper or some similar surface for carving. After completing the letter opener, a spatula would be slid under the edge to detach it. The glue used would have been a water-soluble one like hide glue, Applied hot it has excellent adhesive qualities but will release when wet. This method was and remains a good way of carving thin pieces like carved applique.
Keep your eyes open for pieces like this. They are not only lovely examples of the craft, but they offer visual lessons in how things get done. Watching a video, or reading books are fine, but handling a piece and looking at it close up is a great way to holistically understand the needed skills, tools and approach to handling complex carving. In lieu of this, I can’t emphasize the importance of museum visits enough.
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