Perfection, not in a day

January is my month to discover and prototype new things. The shop and the rest of life are slow, so taking advantage of this to do something that you may be too busy for otherwise is a good use of the time. But the creation process does not happen in a blinding flash of light with celestial trumpets blaring. Instead, things gradually fall into place, sometimes with a bit of annoyance and pain. 

It helps to have a process. Some of the methods and strategies I use came out of a background in Japanese Martial Arts. As a teenage Judo student, I was taught to examine my technique and progress and strive towards gradual improvements. Unlike cinematic martial arts, students often don’t have spontaneous inspirations or become black belts in a thirty-second montage. Instead, progress is made through good practice and incremental conscious work. Many businesses have heard of this as Kaizen, which has been at the root of many quality improvement techniques.

As I mentioned, I use January and February to investigate and create things I haven’t mastered or want to make. Right out front, I’ll tell you that carvers don’t bury the things that don’t work out. We either keep them around to learn from or use them to heat the house.

The real glaring failures feed the woodstove. Those with “promise” decorate the house. They are imperfect prototypes of things that I later mastered. Some examples are the curves on the little dolphin that are just a bit too chunky or the lovely portrait of the 1900-era trawler not designed with enough negative space for framing.

The prototype combs below are good examples. I set out to make some wooden combs only to discover that lots of the information available were “nuanced.” Some information was not given, some didn’t work for what I wanted, and some were bad when I tried to use it. So after research, I had to take the good information and my insights together and create some prototypes.

Prototypes are not finished products. They are functional but imperfect. Lots still need to be worked out. They say, “OK, it can be done.” Then the tough work of making it pretty and functional starts.

With regard to the combs, some things that needed working out were the wood species, grain orientation, the thickness of the comb along the spine, and the thickness of the teeth. Combs are available in various exotic kinds of wood, and some I have on stock from when I carved quarter boards and transoms for boats in teak and mahogany. But sustainability and material costs are significant issues for me. And I frequently need to apprise customers about how sustainable the products are. Luckily the species I use are both local and sustainable in New England. So my initial choices are cherry and maple. They have the strength and beauty needed.

OK, I have the basics worked out. Now, work on making it pleasing to look at and use. Perfection does not come in a day. We work at it bit by bit.


I’ve had a thing with boxes. So when I restarted the woodcarving business, boxes with a nautical theme were among the first product lines I developed. I made boxes with sailboats carved on them, compass roses, small chests with carved boats on the lid, dolphins, and so on. I had an entire line of them at boat shows.

But they sold inconsistently. They did sell, but sometimes they’d stay in stock longer than I’d like and travel from show to show without selling. Not an ideal circumstance since my business plan has always been a small inventory and custom work. So eventually, I was forced to think outside the box and stop making them.

Only one problem. I still really like boxes, and despite my internal objections, I have purchased several jigs and appliances for less labor and time. After all, the carving is my interest, not the joinery.

Several designs, box blanks, and templates sit in the shop, waiting for the mood to move me to make some more. And I fear that I am fated to never really get out of the box.

Creativity is where you find it

How are you creative?

My life as a creator gets split between woodcarving and writing, and the creative process is very different for each.
I – Writing
The old saw about writing about what you know works for me. I mine my background as a 1960’s folkie, anthropologist, sailor, and general screw-up all the time. I try hard to start with something that happened and then take off. Most of the friends I write about are now dead -the sixties, especially – were hard on the life spans of non-conventional types. Yet, I somehow managed to survive. I am astounded sometimes that I have survived this long.

II – carving
I spent most of my career as a carver immersed in 19th-century carving, predominantly maritime carvers. But while that is the “tradition” that my carving sprang from, it’s not who I am as a carver. At some point in the evolution of my carving, I decided that I was in love with the sort of diorama ship portraits done by sailors. And that’s where most of my creative energies are spent. I’m still experimenting, evolving, and finding techniques that work.
Where do I find inspiration? Well, I am an avid reader of the Maine Antiques Digest. I don’t buy antiques. But, I read the Digest because, on almost every page, I find examples of outstanding artistic creativity and inspiration.

Beating to Quarters

What skills or lessons have you learned recently?

Crafters and artists are constantly in motion learning new skills, altering perspectives, and looking for the next project that excites them. Tradition is fine, and working in a tradition laden with favored designs and techniques is also great. But boredom can set in and, with it, a creative staleness from doing the same old thing time and time again.

For several years I’ve been working on developing my skills in boat and ship portraiture. Although I’ve been doing the basics for years – your standard catboat, sloop, or little one-design sailboat- I’ve been tackling larger and more ambitious sailing vessels. The fundamental challenge is to carve a convincing portrait in about an eighth of an inch of relief carving.

This is easier when the wind is coming over the stern or aft quarter of the vessel but toward the viewer. Being a bit “chicken,” I avoided portraying ships as they might be viewed from aft, sailing away from the viewer. This year I created a design and tackled the approach.

The portrait was called Sloop of War and portrayed a small vessel of the Napoleonic Wars era that I imagine as Beating To Quarters to engage the enemy.
I have not solved all the technical problems with this approach, but that’s the beauty of new things. There is always more to learn and master.


The rush to produce in the shop has ended as Christmas is almost here, and New Year is when I usually work on designs and new projects. So this is the natural time that I turn my mind loose thinking about projects I might attempt. Looking at my calendar book this morning, I saw that the first evening of Channukah is tomorrow at sundown, and I was reminded of a winter long ago.

The very end of the seventies was a rough time for me. I had left grad school and was back to work in the operating room. As winter set in, my soul felt like it was about to break. My cat and I were living in an apartment that was a converted porch with an attached bathroom and tiny kitchen. We could hear the wind whistling beneath the porch floorboards, and staying warm was a question of many layers. My upstairs neighbor was a young woman named Ellen, and we frequently pooled resources to create better meals and maybe just a festive moment. My cat, Clancy, was friendly with her black cat Samantha and watching them play together was an entertainment we could afford. Unfortunately, this was the most extravagant we could get on minimal resources.

One night we wound up discussing holiday traditions. I talked about how my family decorated the Christmas tree with tinsel and colorful ornaments. And Ellen told me about the old Menorah her family lit at Channukah. I had a Charlie Brown Christmas Tree in my place that a friend had given to me, and her Menorah would be some votive candles in a row.

One Saturday, I was shopping in Boston’s North End and found some small metal cups that I realized could work as candle holders. In the garage behind our apartments was an assorted pile of wood that I figured I could scrounge through for something that could work as the menorah base.
I was fortunate to find two pieces of walnut that had once been part of a cabinet. Gluing these together, I had a piece that could be drilled for the candle holders. This was the most challenging part because all I had was an old-fashioned egg-beater drill and a few very tired bits. Once the holes were drilled, I fitted the cups and began working with my gouges to shape the wood into a sculptural form. I had no way of smoothing the piece beside a pattern of fine and small gouge cuts. The old walnut had a dense grain, and the patterning looked perfect. A rubdown with some wax finished the Menorah.

Ellen had made me about a dozen tiny folded paper ornaments for my tree, which the cats promptly began to play with, and I gave her the walnut menorah.
Not too many months later, the landlord renovated the entire building, and we all moved away with no regrets. I never saw Ellen again.

But I’ve thought about that Menorah. Sometimes the simplest things are not only the most sophisticated but are the most elegant. As I move into a January full of design notes and sample pieces, I might draw up a Menorah design as a carving project in cherry. The Shamash, or servant candle in the middle, and the others ranged to either side around it. Brass candle cups sunk into a blackened, charred wood for contrast. And the form of the Menorah itself looks like a range of gently folded hills surmounting the rubbed varnish of the natural cherry wood.

Blackened Bowl Cherry Spoons

Reinvention in craft is one way to keep old things new. Sometimes the new something does not require racking your brain for the technique or approach. Instead, it’s something old that you redefine.

Last year I experimented with charring the interior of a cherry bowl with a carefully applied propane torch. I liked the contrast between the cherry and the black charring enough that I decided to “cogitate on my veritabilities” ( in the words of my best friend while I was on the road). Having initiated the process, it promptly went nowhere until I started my annual fall spoon-carving frenzy.

Sometime in the fall, I’ll go into a craze and whack out forty or fifty spoons, spatulas, wooden forks, and a few cherry bowls. First, I do rough shapes, bowls, and final shaping and finishing. At any point, you might see buckets of treen ( an old word for wooden kitchenware) waiting for the next process. While finishing, I decided to scorch some spoon bowls and see how the finish would look.

Well, I spoiled the first three right away. Too much scorching and char and too much heat on the wood resulted in split spoon bowls. After that, I did the scorching in small increments to avoid over-burning or heating the wood. Afterward, the ash and profound char must be removed. Since the bowl was shaped and sanded beforehand, you do this by lightly sanding and buffing the bowl. You are left with a blackened bowl that stands out against the bright color of the cherry. You can now finish the bowl with mineral oil and beeswax.

I can assure you that I did not come up with this idea. I just decided to refine the technique for some of my treen. So, I’ve gifted some of these spoons to friends this fall, and the “Carreras Test Kitchen” will try out the new “old” product.

I am rather pleased with the look. Also, the process of charring, sanding and buffing leaves a super smooth bowl interior that feels pleasant to the touch. Not all the bowls wind up uniformly blackened. Variations depend on the char’s depth and the wood’s nature.
I’m not through with this technique, and I’ll continue playing with it.

Winter’s Slow Progress

Sometime around the middle of December, the activity in the shop will drop off. In contrast to just a few weeks earlier when the shop teemed with work, it now has a sort of calm peace about it.
I’ll go through and do a thorough cleanout to get rid of all the dust, chips, and shavings, but the scent of varnish, tung oil, and wood will remain.

I am too busy until about the sixth of January to think about this lull. But after that, as the winter sinks in and wears on, I crave the relief the shop routine brings. Just to be clear, January and most of February wear on me. I can think of not a single particle of value in those months that comes without hard toil -hard toil with a snow shovel and snow blower at that.

Why mention this now while I am busy? Because if there is to be a single sterling moment during that time, it comes from thinking now of projects that need development during that lull. Now I’m looking at things I see that I’ve never done but would like to try. I now think of portraits I’d love to be challenged by. And now, I am thinking of trying new materials and techniques.

The lights will be on in February late at night as I sit in the shop fiddling with something new. The neighbors might wonder what the hell is going on. I’ll be making slow progress in my craft and keeping the worst of winter at bay.

The Project Box

This time of year sees a flurry of shop activity as I finish the year. I am anxious because I have not seen the bottom of the project box for a month. What’s that, you ask? It’s a large tub full of “possibles”, pieces I want near because I will use them “soon”, and projects waiting for something. What are they waiting for…well sometimes it’s motivation, or they may be waiting for me to solve a problem with them.

Rather than call this my project box, I could call it the dubitable box – because, in some cases, it’s doubtful that I’ll ever finish what’s in it. Some box components waiting for assembly have resided in the bottom of the tub for at least a year. Sometimes I feel guilt for those incomplete works. When guilt creeps in, I avoid looking at the project box.

If the box gives me anxiety, why don’t I spend more time moving unfinished projects to the bench and towards completion?

My alibi is that the bench is covered with projects, and the waiting projects will have to take their turn. There, see? I can be assertive when I need to be.

Stocking Stuffers

These cherry spoons and spatulas are stocking stuffers for my daughter-in-law and her mother. The cherry is our native Massachusetts stock with its distinctive coloration and grain. Making these allowed me to use the laser engraver to personalize the traditionally made treen.
I love combining the traditional with the high-tech. In this case, the combination works well.

On Style

We were at a tavern in the Seaport district in New York. I had just won a bet on recognizing a carver’s work based on their tool cuts. It was an easy win; the carvings I had identified were by a carver whose work I was familiar with. Carvers have habits like everyone else, ways we like to do eagle feathers, eyes, or our taste in how fancy the volutes are ( those carved spiral designs that you often see on violins, columns, or holding up figureheads). See enough of this, especially if it’s your professional interest and you recognize the style.
Of course, the most carving is anonymous. Whether in stone, wood, or other media, most of us and our carvings will be nameless. An occasional mentor of mine had trained in France before the Second World War and told me that daily, hundreds of feet of exquisite trade carved molding and detail were produced in his master’s shop. All of it was destined to be nameless.
So yes, I can recognize the styles of Samuel Robb, Bellamy, Rush, or Skillin in many cases. But museums are full of unattributed work. Some of this is happenstance; the carver was in a small harbor and attracted little notice. Or, in the case of Bellamy, he was located in space and time when his work attracted attention. Bellamy also developed a distinctive and unique style that captured much attention.

Friends who’ve been with me on visits to the Peabody Essex Museum or the Mystic Seaport have to stifle yawns if we pass a particularly lovely piece of carving. Then, my whole demeanor changes, and I begin to discuss the style and execution of the design. Then, getting deeper into the weeds, I discuss if the carving represents a particular regional style. Please don’t laugh; when it comes to volutes on billet heads, there is a regional difference between, say, the Chesapeake and New England.

I imagine two old ships carvers in the 19th century getting snookered and getting into a fight over the curves on a volute to the disgust of their wives. The marine trades are full of passionate people.

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