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.

Rules Of Thirds

The third-floor apartment on Park Avenue had its amenities, including a view of the Kuomintang sign down the street. I had shown up in Baltimore a few weeks earlier after discharge from the Navy and had been invited to share quarters with my friend Bill.

 Bill and I had a sometimes business carving “genuine” Tiki gods, and other countercultural junk. This we accomplished mostly with a Dremel tool and routers. One of us had to find cheap wood for these projects, and scrounging was my specialty.

Sometime that summer, I wandered into Warburton’s looking for free scrap. I walked into his studio just in time to be recruited. Three balks of wood were being prepared to become a Saint Joseph for a private chapel. I found myself helping move the materials into the shop. Warburton’s shop had extraordinary high ceilings. On one side was a balcony with a smaller workshop poised above the main work floor. The main work floor contained everything from large bandsaws to a 19th-century jointer that was ready to remove your hand in a second of inattention. Against one wall was the main work area for carving. There stood rack upon rack of carving tools. In a smaller corner was a bench upon which Warburton’s current engraving project sat with the burins and gravers of that trade neatly racked.

I asked Warburton why he used those old fashioned tools rather than use power tools. He looked at me for a while before replying than said, “You can find out yourself. I need an assistant, and if you can do the work, I’ll teach why I use those tools.” Real work on a steady basis was not what I really wanted, so I thanked him and said I’d be back to see what he was doing. 

I wound up, checking back almost every day. Warburton tolerated no lazing about, even by unpaid louts like me. He assigned me all the cleaning tasks he despised and was an apprentices lot since the Middle Ages. There was a logic to it. Being asked to sort walnut plank stock, I had to learn to gauge the quality of the planks, and how to properly sticker and stack the boards, so the was air circulation between the levels. Failure to do this could result in warped, twisted, and cupped stock that was worthless to the shop.

Warburton also had a box of old dusty wax fruit, cones, balls, and broken plaster castings that he periodically asked me to set up and draw. I would have gladly sorted several thousand board feet of lumber instead of doing still lives. It was my goal when asked to do this, to set up the items in absurd, obscene, or Daliesque tableau that I hoped would provoke him. He ignored this. Instead, he commented on the balance, composition, rhythm, and pattern formed by the objects. 

His most important lesson was about the rule of thirds. To this day, I am a terrible draftsman, but that summer, I did learn to do perspective drawings of Baltimore street scenes as I grew sick of wax fruit. I was always using the rule of thirds and looking at the balance and rhythm in the composition.

I did lots of scut work. I flattened water stones that had been used so often that they had hollowed surfaces, learned the basics of sharpening, and learned to actually use the knife. The maestro maintained that it was the foundational tool and that without being able to sharpen and control it, I’d never be a carver. 

Eventually, I was given a small block of walnut, a scrap really, and told to create an abstract shape. Emphasis had to be on the grace of curves, smoothness of transitions, and the quality of the tool work. I was warned that all the compositional elements I had worked on would also be involved. Was it to look like anything specifically? No. But he did pull out several books on the work of Jean Arp and Barbara Hepworth.

I began to be a snob when called upon to use a Dremel. My routing of Tiki’s became infiltrated with contamination from Hepworth and Arp. Bill accused me of ruining the business. In opposition to this, I began to critique his compositions, pointing out that they lacked balance or rhythm. I was eventually asked to leave the apartment. 

Down the street from our apartment was Oscar’s flower shop. Oscar’s was different. There wasn’t a real flower, stem, or leaf in the shop. Plastic floral material was just coming onto the market, and Oscar occupied his retirement, making incredible and fanciful arrangements. Oscar was impressed with my new found approach to carving. He began to offer me offcuts of cherry and walnut from his farm outside the city. These he posed with his floral creations. Our deal was a 40/60 percentage cut. This probably would not have been an issue with Bill except that Oscar decided that Tiki’s were…so yesterday. He chose to accept no more of Bill’s Tiki production and asked him to remove the unsold inventory from the shop. Riding the wave of artistic popularity, I decided to ask for a 60/40 percentage cut. I was an established “artiste.” Oscar smiled and said that we could revisit the deal when the current inventory sold. I agreed.

About that time, the desire to head up to Boston for a week or two came on me. I went on a frolicking detour, and my friend Bill sulked.

About three weeks later, I returned from Boston to find all my carvings on the back loading dock and some new carvings of Bill’s installed in Osar’s floral emporium. Asking what happened, I was informed that Bill had started routing and power sanding pieces similar to what I had hand-carved, but they cost Oscar about fifty percent less. Too Bill with his big red beard ripped and stained jeans looked much more like a real artist than I did with short hair and pressed khaki’s. 

This did put a strain on the friendship for a while. But Bill’s sense of art was not held by wood. His actual devotion lay in painting, and to that, he soon returned. Oscar also moved on. In a few weeks, he called Bill to come to get his stuff, which was left on the loading dock. Oscar had found a source for driftwood on the Delmarva that he maintained looked much better than anything Bill or I had done, and they were much cheaper. This was a different sort of rule of thirds for art: you innovate and sell. Somone copies and sells for substantially less. Lastly, the demand for the product declines.

Later that week, Bill and I stopped at Warburton’s to look at the progress on Saint Joseph. I mentioned to Warburton how we both lost a source of income from the sculptings. Warburton simply said: ” it’s hard to improve on nature.” To which Bill replied: “Yeah. Or to depend on the taste of a guy who sells plastic flowers.”


I am reposting this as part of Fandango’s Flashback Friday – April 16th.

<p class="has-drop-cap" value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">My long-suffering guitar teacher Sid Glick: "Get that tempo down! You always want to rush!" Of course, he was correct. I was poorly self-taught, and he was trying to correct the errors of that self-tuition. Slow…down. "You can't gain mastery unless you can do slowly what you now do at full speed." My long-suffering guitar teacher Sid Glick: “Get that tempo down! You always want to rush!” Of course, he was correct. I was poorly self-taught, and he was trying to correct the errors of that self-tuition. Slow…down. “You can’t gain mastery unless you can do slowly what you now do at full speed.”

Fast forward forty years, and I found myself giving the same advice to woodcarving students. In some cases, I’m trying as Sid did to hide the frustration in my voice.
Once I started teaching carving, I had to master the art of slow. You can’t explain what you don’t understand, and every day, most of us do complex tasks at full speed. Such full speed that we don’t know what we are doing, and when called upon to show others we fumble.
If you teach manual skills, you know what I mean. The teacher has to be a master of slow to show the way to the student. The student, of course, is frustrated by slow and wants to go fast.
I thought I understood this. Then at age sixty, I returned to martial arts. I practice a Japanese sword art called Iaido. Iaido is the art of drawing the sword. There was the usual master to student instruction to “slow down.” which I found amusing and frustrating; because I thought I understood that part. I gradually started mastering the basics. Then both my senseis threw in a curve. My draw and cuts need Jo-Ha-Kyu. Jo-Ha-Kyu implies a sort of acceleration in the process of drawing and cutting. Like many concepts, there is more to the telling, but a simple English explanation is slow at the beginning, faster in the middle, and fast like an express train at the end. For something so deadly, it’s quite beautiful to watch when done correctly ( not by me). Let me add that, like many simple things, this is not easy to master.
I didn’t think there was anything comparable in carving. Then one day, I was smoothing the background of boat portrait, working hard to flatten the background with a large flat fishtail gouge. I woke up to the slow initial set of the tool. Then the gradual acceleration into the cut. And, the ending sweep as I added a bit of fast rotation to the gouge at the end; Huh. Jo-Ha-kyu.
I am very much in the early days as far as Iaido is concerned so, I won’t comment further on the functions it has in sword work. In carving, however, there is a feedback mechanism involved in the technique I described. To fast and too hard at the start, and I can dig my tool into the wood resulting in a wedge that can split and raise a shaving. After the initial set, I sense the progress of the gouge and the way the wood responds. I can detect if it drags, pulls to one side, or starts descending. If I react early enough, I can correct it. In the end, I control the rotation I use to finish the cut. As one sensei like to say, “and that’s all there is to it.”

Slow is essential, but the next level is knowing control and acceleration. But, to see that you have start slow.

Hancing Pieces

I think it was 2001 that I came across these small carvings on a boat in Newport, RI. I took the photos because I hadn’t seen many examples of small “hancing” pieces on modern watercraft. In traditional ship carving, a hancing piece was a carving applied to the break between decks. Or, placed at the end of a beam. In general, you might have a hancing piece in any place that needed a graceful transition. In this case, they have the semi-practical purpose of reinforcing a stanchion base.
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.

The little eagle head is a gem, and more of a challenge to get the look right. Look for a pattern you can modify, and do a practice run; eyes and feathers can be painful to get right without practice. I have a tradition that I picked up from other eagle carvers. After roughing in the body plan, I work on the head of the eagle first. The nearly completed eyes and beak can watch me carve the rest. In this case, it would only be the head. So be kind to the birdie.


Salvaged from the Titanic, this carved panel still looks like the woodcarver finished yesterday despite having spent most of a century in the darkness of the North Atlantic.
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.


“Now let the tool do the work. The edge is sharp. All you have to do is guide it.” That was me to a student at the WoodenBoat School years ago. More recently, sensei said to me, “Lou, the sword is sharp, let it do the cutting. All you have to do is guide it.” In the first case, I was an instructor in maritime carving, and in the second, a student in Iaido – a Japanese sword art.
After years of working as a carver, my hands knew how to finesse a cut. To apply just enough strength to shave off what I wanted, and no more. As a neophyte student of Iaido, I was fighting the impulse to put too much power into a cut, and not trust the sword to do the work.
The solution is, as it always seems to be, lots of practice. With a gouge as with a sword, the control you need can’t be just a matter of mind over a tool. Something called muscle memory needs to develop. Muscle memory allows you to do the right thing as required without thinking now I’ll apply just this much pressure, rotate the tool five degrees, swivel two and finish.

When you begin carving, you can’t imagine how the carver almost idly manipulates the tool to remove precise shavings with the gouge. The secret is in part in the hands, but the entire body can be involved. Watch a carver or the swordsman cutting. The body shifts, the hips move, the shoulders flex. The hands are the recipient of all the focused energy and direction. Ask to be shown in slow motion how to do it, and most people won’t be able to explain it. It slips from the mind. One day you’ll be carving and wake up from musing on car repair or cooking dinner. You’ll realize that the past fifteen minutes, your carving has been on a sort of autopilot with your hands, body, and some deep part of your mind operating without you.

Adventures In Coastal Living – Free Trade and…

You probably have a friend who, if you met them today, you’d never befriend. They’re lousy drunks, never help out, or have egos beyond description. Your friendship has that exclamation or wonderment factor: “why is this person, my friend?” On examination, you might understand that what irritates you most about them are the character flaws you have in common.

We met after grad school and bonded over beer and conversation at Dunster’s Pub in Harvard Square. Charlie’s family was well enough off that they paid for his grad school experience, his apartment, and upkeep. None of that compared to the sartorial standards I had experienced in Philly. There I regularly dinned on beurre de cacahuète et gelée and haricots et franks (*), while living in less than rarified digs in West Philadelphia.
Charlie loved and coveted all things maritime, as did I. That mutual interest was probably the firm foundation of our friendship. There was a particularly interesting antique store on Charles Street that we would jointly haunt. The proprietor would have gladly asked me to leave, I never bought. But, Charlie would occasionally purchase for his “collection.”

I did have several things that Charlie envied: actual bluewater sailing experience, a family background that was really “wet” from Mercent and Naval service, and, most importantly, a collection of maritime carving. Charlie purchased his collection. If I wanted something, I had to get out the tools and carve it.
In particular, I owned one eagle that Charles lusted over. It was a small one similar to those carved by Bellamy with a banner reading, “Don’t Give Up The Ship.” After one too many beers at Dunster’s, he would frequently suggest that a true friend would gift him this fantastic prize. After all, I could easily carve another.

I eventually decided to give him a duplicate of the eagle for his birthday and asked him to write out exactly what should be on the banner.
On the evening of the birthday party, Charlie eagerly grabbed the eagle from the pile of presents. Ripping off the wrapping, he held the eagle up for all to see. The murmur of appreciation subsided and turned to giggles and laughter. Turning the eagle over, he read the banner: ” Free Trade & Semen’s Rights.” Those of us who had spell checked his articles ( in the days before spelling checkers) knew this about him – he was a notoriously bad speller, and he never caught his errors. I promptly handed him a second banner that read “Free Trade and Seaman’s Rights.”
I don’t think he ever undid the two little screws that held the banner in place and allowed replacement with the non-joke banner. He took a bit of perverse pride in Semen’s Rights.

*peanut butter and jelly, beans and franks


Have little space, no time, and just a few tools? Try miniature work.
When I started woodcarving, I had just a few tools and almost no wood. I carved the little box from scraps of cherry and walnut. The tool kit for making the small sloop was minimum: a few small gouges, V-tool, and a riffler file. For work in this dimension, my bench was a handicap; I did most of it on a carver’s hook with some anti-slip fabric to hold the piece in place ( you can use woven shelf liner material or carpet underlayment). I did finish the piece in varnish, but you could do as many European carvers have done for centuries and rub the carving down with a bit of beeswax candle. The beeswax gives a beautifully mellow, soft look to the carving.

Small boat box

Access to a bandsaw made it possible for me to create a small box with the boat carving as a lid. But, I created similar pieces for small glued up business card holders and refrigerator magnets. This little boat has an LOA of less than an inch and a half.
Work in small dimensions doesn’t seem to be as impressive as more substantial work, but it requires thoughtful attention to detail and forces us to focus our skills. Doing small versions also can be a way of working out design elements for later work when you scale up your design.

A Halibut Schooner

I’ve had my prejudices when it comes to selecting east coast ships and boats to carve. Perhaps it’s that I’ve lived on the east coast, and sailed on the east coast. Recently a favorite Facebook group ( ships and shipyards before 1945) posted a photo and builders article of the west coast halibut schooner Republic. I was hooked and wanted to create a halibut schooner portrait.

There is no definitive book on halibut schooners. It’s hard to define a “type” there is so much variation. Some are transom sterned, but others like the one I’ve carved are canoe sterned. All had moderate deadrise ( not flat bottomed), and tended to be plumb stemmed, but not always. See the problem?
Common features included a midships fish hold, pilothouse aft of the mainmast, raised foredeck, and a “sorta schooner rig.” Described as auxiliary schooners, they depended on gas engines for propulsion. The sails were primarily for emergencies, or perhaps for use as steadying sails for stability. Old photos of halibut schooners frequently show them with a foresail and jib.

The main boom seemed to have served as a lift for dories when involved in the dory longline fishery; or as a cargo boom. I’ve no documentation of sails on the main. And, that’s why I’ve described it as a “sorta schooner rig.” The Republic was built in 1915 at the John Strand Yard in the Ballard area of Seattle. Extensively remodeled Republic is still afloat.

A hand-carved sailor’s model of the halibut schooner Republic

About the carving:
I’ve carved the hull bold in relief on eastern white pine. I like to place the boat on grain that suggests water and sky.
I applied the deckhouse and other details. After carving and gluing the added parts down with Titebond and cyanoacrylate, I sealed the carving and rubbed on a light coat of varnish.
I learned some new techniques and used some new materials in making this “sailor’s model.” That, in part, was the objective of doing this wintertime project. There is still a bit of finish work to do, and I am not completely satisfied with the railing.

Thoughts On Carving – Designs within designs

Those of you familiar with the U.S.S Constitution may recognize the featured photo as one of the boarding planks on the Constitution.
It’s been a frequently carved design for me since I first saw it, and I’ve used it to grace chest and box tops over the years. Despite being an intricate design, it is not a hard carving project.
If you’ve read some of my other posts, you know that I plunder designs. I love to alter things, pull elements out of context, and place them in new settings. It’s a common technique for artisans and artists. The boarding plank design’s most salient feature, for me, was the head.

Boarding plank carving on the USS Constitution.

At some time in the ’90s, a client wanted something carved on the end of a tiller; the usual Turk’s Head knot was not what he wanted. I plundered the boarding plank for the design, and the client sailed away very pleased. Here is the prototype for the tiller head:

Later, I again used the head for some quickly carved walking stick heads. Never meant to be fully featured carvings the stick heads were “sketches” that I could carve and sell as I worked. They sold well at boat shows.

Usable design elements are in plain sight within other designs. Plunder away!

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