Unless you have strict deadlines hanging over you project completion becomes a flexible goal. The little eagle in the picture was started at the end of June as a demonstration of carving in very sub-optimal wood. It should have been completed weeks ago, but work on gilding was held up while I waited for a period when I could gild without large amounts of dust ruining the gold leaf. On the other hand, the little Town Class sloop is handily racing towards early completion. It’s destined to be a Christmas present and will be done as soon as I sand and varnish the mast hoop that it is going to be mounted in.
In the machine shop, there is a large bucket of spoon and spatula blanks that have been roughly carved, and are now waiting for finishing. I finished the blanks in August. They are what made the carving shop unsuitable for gilding. The bench in the machine shop is covered with cherry planks destined for a large ship portrait (an 1880’s era composite steam/ sail vessel). I have to finish jointing the boards and make final decisions on the arrangements of the planks before gluing up the blank. To ensure that blanks are stable and won’t split open after carving they have to cure for a few weeks before I start carving. So while I am very excited about the project I know that I won’t start it till January. More likely to see early completion are a few blanks destined for portraits of small catboats that I hope to take to a winter show.
So completion gets to be an elastic phenomenon. Clients complicate this elasticity; they want their portrait in time for an anniversary, birthday or before launching so the new quarter boards, billet head or transom eagle can be installed. The carver, boatbuilder or other craftsperson learn to plan. Eisenhower said that: “in preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Although he never worked in a boatyard or carvers shop he had it right. You spend time planning, but admit that strict plans don’t always work well in small craft shops. That’s why there is that large rick of planks in the rafters – just in case. That’s why you have models, templates and notes on practice pieces for all your projects – in case you have to do it again.
Plans are certain to go awry: the wood needed is hard to find in local yards, the gilding has to wait, the paint or varnish is dry, but not cured, so, we have to wait. Most importantly to the company’s cash flow – The deposit has not been paid so now everything has to wait.
Much of my business in the past 27 years or so has been portraits of ships and boats. It all began at a crafts show at New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee. I had been making trays out of mast hoops for some time. I carved a variety of themes including an elegant Compass Rose design I had created. Towards the end of the day, a woman stopped by and asked if I could carve her husband’s Eltro 19″ powerboat onto a tray. That was the tray that started a line of products that have proven to be a gratifying part of my business. I’ve even made some money on it.
I have carved portraits in hoops from eight inches ( internal radius) up to about twenty-seven inches. Not all designs look great when overly compressed, and you have to be honest with potential commissioners about what is realistic in a standard size hoop. A carving of the Titanic won’t work in an eight-inch circle! Most people want something modest in a twelve-inch hoop. I try to avoid anything smaller than a ten for a portrait.
I prefer to carve my portraits in cherry. Carving in cherry is not for the faint of heart who do their carving in basswood. Cherry is hard, durable, and it is tight grained. Cherry takes and holds fine detail, an important consideration when carving a hull which might measure out to be six inches in length. The cherry grain pattern behind the boat gives the appearance of water, waves, sky and horizon lines; saving you from having to carve in those features. Nature’s provision looks more natural than what you can carve with a tool.
I’ve selected a series of pictures from completed portraits to illustrate boat portraiture in wood. No robot carving.
A clipper in a 27 inch hoop
a Boston Pilot schooner on a sea chest
a cat boat on a small chest
The Belganland on a large mahogany chest
by Lou Carreras
The eagle presented here was a commission. It’s an all-time favorite design that I first carved in the 1970’s when I saw Jay Hanna’s take on this classic 19th-century carving trope.
After carving four or five variations on Hanna’s redesign of the classic, I moved on to other designs. About twenty years ago a client saw a photo of my first effort at Hanna’s eagle in my scrapbook. He decided that it would be the perfect launching gift for a boat his friends were building. After settling on a price, deposit and timeline I went hunting for the wood. Although I love to carve in New England white pine, I opted to do this eagle in Western sugar pine. It is not too easy these days to get good quality sugar pine, but I was fortunate in finding a short piece locally that was just what I needed. Western sugar pine has an enticing odor when carved, but mostly I love it for its straight grain and ability to take and hold fine detail. The photos show the progression of the project from pattern through gilding. Although this is a small eagle, meant for a cabin interior, the underlying essentials are the same for most relief eagles in which the head and banner are not separately added pieces. And…yes it is true; on eagles like this, I do carve the head first so the eagle can watch what I do. So far I haven’t been bitten.
Medora turned out to be a game changer for me. Okay, this is where it gets weird. One night after finishing the carving I dreamt that I was in my favorite coffee house in New York City ( Cafe Rienzi). Seated with me was the famous carver John Haley Bellamy and my favorite painter Salvador Dali. Dali and Bellamy were pointing out that many things took on compelling interest when pulled out of proportion. Bellamy looked at me and pointed out that the wings on his eagles were exaggerated for precisely this reason. Dali smiled and agreed.
After waking up, I thought lots about that dream. Since then I’ve always added a bit more length to my eagle wings.
I heartily recommend to you Jay Hanna’s book on marine woodcarving: The Ship Carver’s Handbook, as well as anything you can find on John Haley Bellamy and Salvador Dali! Carving the eagle head first, and ghostly conversations with dead artists remain strictly optional.