All That’s New

Craftspeople and artists repurpose industrial tools and materials for art and craft all the time. Some people hate it and protest that it’s neither art nor craft. I’d point out that modern artist paints owe more than a bit of thanks to industrial chemistry. Not too many woodshops lack a table saw, bandsaw or jointers. Most of us started out lacking these tools and know-how to prepare wood without them, but we don’t. Instead, we use our industrial technology to create wonderfully crafted boats and cabinets.
It’s a sort of egregious snobbery to look at a tool and say: it has no place in fine art or craft. The problem is that technology keeps on boisterously producing new widgets that push our borders far and wide. The challenge is fitting the latest and old into a common framework allowing both to work together.
Hot lead typography has been replaced by computerized fonts, kerning, and leading. Notice that the old terminology just moved over into the new technology. Thus, although typography is still with us, the technology of producing it has changed. The creation of new approaches to typography gave us Desktop publishing and computer-aided sign design. It was now possible to combine Gothic, Lucida, Palatino, and Goudy Old Style in one document; ouch! Knowing what worked well, design sense, and skill was important in distinguishing between the good, the bad, and the ugly. Just because you could do something might not be a sufficient reason for doing it. Most of us who adopted the new technology found that an overview of the history and aesthetics of design helped us avoid the excesses of doing something just because we could.
I’ll be accepting delivery of an industrial laser engraver and cutter soon. I first played around with a hobbyist grade tool to see what was possible in deciding to do this. I’ve also followed several crafting and art sites to see how others are faring in the new world created by technology. Like Desktop publishing, there is an enormous amount of doing it just because It can be done.
While creating an overview of what works and what doesn’t, some will become part of our craft and art toolsets, and some will fall off the map as useless.

Pro Bono

Pro Bono work, work you do for free or at a significantly reduced fee, can be rewarding; or not. It can depend on how entitled or grateful the recipient is. I once did a set of quarter boards for a venerable museum ship. The cost was sixty dollars for the mahogany and a ride. I never got the sixty and never got the ride.
On the other hand, I knew a woman who had a lovely relief carved mermaid. She wanted a sign but lacked funds. It was relatively short work to carve some three-inch letters and attach the mermaid to the backing. The lovely thank you note and the small gift were sufficient thanks.

It’s hard to tell in advance how appreciated your application of skill will be. Sometimes a job calls to you because it would be interesting to do. Take plenty of notes and photos, and make sure to sign the work prominently. If you don’t receive your fee or get ghosted, write a letter to the organization’s Board pointing out how much they did not pay for a professional job. And, then ask, where is your paltry Pro Bono?
In case of genuine hardship, smile, consider the good you’ve just done, and move on.
Being a carver is more than just removing wood till you have an eagle.

The Killer Product

Customers; are an immutable part of doing a boat show as a vendor. They are your livelihood, your joy, and your bane. They include:

  1.  The customer who comes by year after year but never buys;
  2.  Those who continually delve for more answers and force you to become more knowledgable;
  3. The customers who challenge your knowledge and then stay to teach you something new and exciting- awakening you to new opportunity;
  4. And the ones who are looking for precisely what you have, pay cash and bring their friends back to see your booth.

Those last ones make your day, but not necessarily the show or your career. You need to pay attention to what the other customers say, or you’ll never learn what your booth is missing. Comments from customers that start with: “what I’d really like-” are your cue to listen and take notes.

Some vendors seem to have killer products and happily sell them year after year. Others are on a quest for product development, and our customers offer free product development information. Being a nautical woodcarver is a very niche trade, and I don’t think there is a typical customer.

I’ve had to juggle all the time for cash flow and profits. But It has kept my mind flexible and taught me to keep an eye out for the new and exciting – the hunt for a killer product.

Reads for a Winter’s Evening

It’s still February as I write this, and that means that even if the greenhouse/workshop is warm enough to work in during the day, what about the evening? Every winter, I look for entertaining and educational reads to fill the evening; I lost the TV habit many years ago. 

Among this winter’s reads have been an older book by Betty Padden (Fox Chapel Publishing, 2011)- Lettering & Sign Carving Workbook. It’s a beautiful foundational text for anyone interested in learning the ins and outs of sign carving. It’s exceptionally well illustrated and has a variety of projects from very basic to highly advanced. So much sign work gets robotically routed these days, but there is still room for the unique appeal of a hand-carved sign. If that would interest you, I’d recommend this book.

My next book came out in 2020. It’s A Norwegian Woodcarving Textbook, by Odd Fauske; edited and translated to English by Iain & Evaline Whittington ( published by Whittington, Fursden, 2020). The book was translated from Odd Fauske’s Norwegian original. Text is in English on one side and in the original Norwegian on the other. Fauske prepared the textbook for the Norwegian adult education classes he taught. The book is a valuable compendium of traditional and classic Norwegian wood carving designs, and it is stuffed full of patterns and notes on carving. If you are interested in these carving styles, this book would be a practical reference for your library.

What else have I read; some Roman history and a lot of classic Science Fiction. Everybody needs some escape reading when it’s so snowy that you can’t get the shop door open!

Work Smart

If you buy too many woodworking magazines, you may develop shop and tool envy. Acting on this envy is a danger to people with “disposable income.” Professionals accrete tools over the years. The fiscal realities of running a business constrain them. Hobbyists with cash are under few restraints unless a partner points out the household does indeed have a budget. 

If this sounds harsh, I can illustrate my point with the example of one hobby carver who owned every single Pfeil ( Swiss Made) tool the company manufactured. At that time in my professional practice, I had maybe twenty of their very excellent tools. Each gouge, chisel, veiner, and v- tool, in mint condition, was racked under workbenches costing thousands of dollars. He asked me to show him the most useful tools for the work he was doing. I pulled out a dozen that would fit ninety-five percent of his needs.

Friends, I am no stranger to tool lust and tool porn. But limits are needed.

So what do you need to start? I advise you to take a look at the material I’ve provided for beginners. It has information on tools and good books to get you started. Here are some things to think about:

1.) Spend time planning your lighting. Lots of attention gets paid to bench construction and purchasing tools. But lighting is a need that gets ignored much of the time. I prefer daylight LED lighting bulbs and bars; they are inexpensive to buy and run.

2.) Don’t buy more workbench than you need. Benches can cost thousands of dollars. In my opinion, most of the commercially available workbenches were designed for cabinet and furniture makers, not woodcarvers. One of my early mentors in Baltimore was a sculptor who did all his work from a simple carving stand in his kitchen’s corner. Also, if you are doing small carvings, a large bench may be overkill for you. My current workbench is from Harbor Freight. I bought it for $125.00 and modified it to fit my needs.

3.)Cloth tool rolls are cheap, they’ll protect your tools between uses. Very little is worse than finding an assortment of valuable tools ruined because they were jumbled together in a box. Most of my tools are in racks, but if you only have a simple tool kit, the cloth roll works best.

4.) Be wary of specialty tools. They have exotic names like back bent, Macaroni, scorp, or hook knife. Until you need them, and that may never happen, keep it simple.

5.) The internet is now full of beautiful appearing tools from “artisan” tool makers. Not all that shines, and is artisanal is a good tool. In the beginning, buy from established sellers and manufacturers.

Most of my woodcarving gets done in an eight-by-ten greenhouse/workshop that I share with our overwintering figs, rosemary plants, and a shop supervising cat. What you’re making might be the best guide to what you need. I don’t require too much space on the bench, but I do need lots of light. The greenhouse is the best environment for me. If you are making and carving large chests, what’s ideal for me won’t work for you. I also have lots of tools ( including the aforementioned special tools). Like most professionals, I bought them over a long period, 1969 to now. The one with the most tools does not win anything except a large debt.

Working smart is one of the “secrets of the masters.”

Eagle Eyes

While teaching, I always like to decorate the workshop with carving examples for students to use as a reference. Week-long excursions to teach away from home mean emptying the house of many of my carvings. But samples in three dimensions often are better than pictures or demonstration, and the extra work was worth it.
During one summer course, A student was working on an eagle and suddenly stopped, got up, and went over to an eagle billet head. He picked it up and turned the head away from him. Noticing me watching, he shrugged his shoulders and said: “it was watching me.”
Smiling, I pointed out that he was perfecting the eagle’s body plan and feathers without working on the head, most notably the eye. He asked me why it mattered, and I told him that it was essential to fair the contours of the head and neck into the body, so the eagle looked all of one piece when finished. The head is temporarily attached to the body with a screw while you carve the neck fair to the body.
” But why was it watching me?”
Well, I explained, years ago, while I was first carving eagles, a talented carver from Boothbay Harbor advised me to always start the head before detailing and finish the eye first. There was a practical reason for this. The eye was a delicate piece of work, and if not done right could ruin the whole birdie. He then added that he had been taught to do the eye first so the eagle could oversee the carving’s remainder. ” As I was taught, so am I teaching you.” I then turned the eagle about so it’s beady eyes were on the student. ” Being that you haven’t done the eye first, this birdie’s cousin in watching you.” I can be a first-class pain sometimes.

I carved the eyes on that particular eagle with a “tunnel” eye effect. With that manner of carving, you could get the impression that the eye watches you and moves with you. To someone easily spooked, like my student, it could be an unpleasant sensation.
There are several ways to carve eagle eyes for traditional marine eagles. Please note that if you carve more realistic styles, these will not appeal to you. I’m a nineteenth-century carver stuck in the twenty-first century. Be all modern if you like. Another ships carver reminded me that most people do not get close eough to smell the eagle; all these things in full size are meant to be viewed from a distance. Here are some examples of eyes:

Just Right

I had great difficulty learning to carve incised letters. It had nothing to do with the technique and everything to do with my perception of depth. My mentor, Warburton, overcame this by teaching me a popular method with German carvers. Using the profiles of the curved and straight tools, you make a series of stabbing cuts. By using different tools, you create individual letters, then words. The system works fine for small inscriptions. You need a comprehensive set of tools with all the curves and such to make it work well. Once I was away from Warburton’s shop and hundreds of tools, that system fell apart.
If your toolset consisted of about seven tools, as mine did, that system is impractical. It can take years for a carver to acquire a comprehensive set of tools. Proper tools are not cheap, and I wasn’t flush with funds. I had to develop an alternative that was economical in terms of tools needed, but that also looked good.
An advantage to a limited toolset is that you become adaptable, and learn how to extend your tools through technique rather than searching the tool rack for just the right tool. That method was what helped me stumble upon what I called the bolster method. After the sign was designed and the typography was drawn ( that’s how long ago this was – no computers for typography), you took either a carver’s firmer ( a chisel sharpened on both faces) or a knife and outlined the letter with vertical cuts. On curves, you used curved gouges or a knife. Using cuts of about forty-five degrees, you then cut around the letter. The key to making this look good was your cuts’ accuracy and how you finished the sign after the cuts were made. I’d varnish the sign. And then paint the sloping cuts one color and the body of the letter in some complementary color.
I abandoned this method once my depth perception for letters snapped in one day, and left me wondering where it had been hiding.

I forgot all about the method for years. One summer, I was teaching a course in carving in a town near where I live. One of the students was a gentleman who seemed to have an inability to grasp letter carving. Your cuts need to be at a consistent angle. His were never the same angle twice, and as a result, his lettering was beyond redemption. None of the practice exercises helped. At last, I demonstrated both the method Warburton had shown me and the bolster method.
I had ten students in the class, and they were all eager to move onto carving an eagle. I assumed he’d experiment after class.

About a year later, I received a call from my former student, asking me to visit and see his “carving studio.” Curious, I agreed. He had put up a beautiful shed that he had lavishly customized into a carving studio in his back yard. Inside was a workbench that I recognized from a top tool seller’s catalog. It retailed for about a thousand dollars. The racks below the bench held every single tool manufactured by the Pfeil company, an expensive Swiss tool company. Where I have perhaps forty of their gouges, he had bought out their entire collection. I asked him to show me some of his work. He pulled out a beautiful piece of Honduras mahogany marked up with attempts to letter in the bolster method. No two cuts were consistent. He then showed me another board lettered in the German method Warburton had shown me. It was passable, but barely. “Well, Charlie, what else have you been doing?” His reply: “I had to get the shop set up first, then the bench needed assembly, and It took a long time to order and rack all the tools. So I’ve just started. I was thinking of taking an advanced course with you.”
We sat down in the shop to kill for and had some cold drinks. Last year he had sold the software venture he was part owner in and now had time and money to pursue his passion, carving. Trying hard not to hurt his feelings I attempted to explain that he was not ready for an advanced course. I went over to his tools and gathered seven tools. ” A Scottish carver named Sayres wrote a great book on carving that only uses these seven tools. You can attain incredible mastery by working with his methods until you master them. Then you’ll be ready to use the other tools you own.”
It didn’t go down well, and I got up to leave. On my way out, he yelled at me: ” I’ll do fine on my own! I don’t need to work with turkeys like you!”
I replied: “There is an old saying – ” sometimes you have to fly with the turkeys, before you can soar with the eagles.” – so goodbye.”

I was glad that I had had to work long and hard with my few tools. Most carvers, I know, have lots of tools. They collect around you over the years like metal shavings around a magnet. But walk into a busy carver’s shop and look at the bench. She or he has about a dozen that are used all the time. Rather than searching for just the right sweep of gouge, you make do with your favorite.

A shop with all the tools neatly racked, and no chips are like a clean desk—a sign of a sick mind.

Love and Hate

Warburton knew I would never be a great designer. So he tried fundamental things with me—white space to balance designs and rule of thirds. Being he was an ecclesiastical carver, he was very concerned that I understand the traps you fall into when your block limits you to a constrained and stiff composition. There is no rule that he taught me that I have not broken on my own until I, finally, said, “that’s what he meant.” Well, at least I learned the lesson. It is the curse of the self-taught that our learning process is irregular. Good designers know when and how to bend and break the rules. I think that’s one of the things that makes great art and craft. The rest of us stumble until we get it right.

Kingfisher II

The photo I am showing here is one of my favorites, despite its apparent flaws. It was a practice piece that I liked. After it kicked around the shop for a couple of years, I decided to frame it. Being that it was an odd size, I made the frame from scrap around the shop.
The frame overwhelms the carving in color and size; and the piece ( being meant for practice) never was designed to have a proper border around it. Every time I look at the carving, I get reminded of how pleased I was with the effects of carving in cherry, and how much I liked the steam fishing vessel it represents. I also get irritated by the lack of compositional balance caused by the lack of space around the ship.
Because of the good and bad of the design, it’s a piece I love and hate.

Seeing Is Believing

I made some very sweet eagle-headed canes in the nineties. At one show, I sold the very best one to someone who was sightless. The details that people without visual impairment take for granted this young woman was able to take in by using her hands. I was immensely pleased, not at the sale, but to have my work so appreciated. The only other people who felt my work were children. I was continually telling parents that it was OK for kids to handle the carving. That is one of the beautiful things about carving wood- its tactile nature. I find myself hoping that people don’t just stop when they see my carving, but also touch it.
There are some things that people do automatically start stroking: spoons. I work very hard to avoid making an exact repeat. There are some lovely spoons out there that look handmade but are not. Take a look at the “family resemblance.” All the spoons and spatulas look graceful, smooth, and well designed, but there is very little individuality. Of course, I am not in the spoon business. I don’t have to turn out thousands a year to keep my enterprise solvent. I may make a few hundred if I’m doing shows. That quantity allows me to play around. I am looking for designs with excellent utility, well balanced, looks attractive, and feels nice.

To see and to feel are complementary senses. As a society, we tend to emphasize the visual at the cost of feel. That can be a mistake.
Boatbuilder Ralph Johnson drove this home to me years ago. We were planking a small boat. He asked me if the plank I had just finished shaping was fair. Based on my vision, I replied that it was. He just smiled and asked me to close my eyes and walk down the plank while I ran my thumb against the edge. As I progressed, I felt every rough bump, dip, and ding. In boatbuilders’ jargon, it was not genuinely fair.

Seeing may be believing, but feel will give you a less biased second opinion.


My mentors were just that, mentors. Several couldn’t afford the expense that having an actual apprentice would cost; others were not interested. But then by the 1960s, the old apprenticeship programs in crafts like carving were gone.
Then there was that little problem of my lack of maturity. When the opportunity to work with them presented itself, I was interested but not prepared. I think that was why several of them guided me in the direction of good authors and their books. Literacy and short-term courses at centers for specialized learning ( like WoodenBoat School) would replace the old system of craft shops and apprenticeships.
Even today, with the internet, there is no replacement for the book. I am working on a portrait of an early 20th-century Steam Yacht. The available information on the internet was useful, but I hardly all I needed to complete my research. Steam Yachts were a type of vessel that I had barely known existed. Using book dealers, I was able to find some titles that filled in the holes in my library. I am reasonably confident that this sort of need is true for boatbuilders, printmakers, musicians, and other professionals as well.
A funny thing happens as you develop a collection of books on your interests: your browsing habits change, and you begin looking to fill holes in your collection. Some of the side effects are less than pleasing. Bookshelves seem to appear randomly around the house; your selection must be housed. Friends with similar interests ask to borrow titles, and you clutch books to your chest, muttering about “…my precious…”
But the worst is the competition of your beloved spouse. My wife has a cookbook collection that seeks to rival my collection of maritime and woodworking titles. Sometimes she doesn’t see the natural superiority of the nautical. I stake out my claims very carefully. Eventually, someone will have to go.

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