It’s just a roll of brown contractors’ paper. About twelve dollars a roll. It’s probably one of the most basic tools in the shop. And at that price, it’s one of the cheapest. But I couldn’t do much of certain types of carving without it. 

Not everything is computers these days; you have to draw something out sooner or later to see if it fits and looks good. You could draft this on a computer, run it off on a large-scale printer, and then play with it. But using some Copenhagen Ships Curves, French curves, brown paper, and scissors to make this template was easier and cheaper to do.

You’ll find that a good pattern gets stored against future use. When doing this sort of stuff, do the intelligent thing, save the turmoil of digging through a collection of similar items, and label things like date created, project, customer, and vertical or horizontal orientation. How do I know? Let’s say it falls within the category of do as I say rather than as I do.

The second photo shows that this banner will have a significant amount of relief and curvature. I could do that with a thick piece of wood, but that’s pretty wasteful, expensive, and not necessarily the best approach. In this case, the ends are glued up from two pieces. I’ll carve them into curved shapes as needed. There are a few ways to make this sort of banner work. The easy way is to keep the area where the lettering will go flat. But if you wish to live dangerously, make all the surfaces curved. If you go the curved route, you’ll need a paper template with printing to naturally alter the lettering to fit the curvatures. Someone better at drafting might be able to freehand this, but I like the security of the pattern. The final photo shows how this effect came out on a large banner I did years ago.

No fancy tools, no drafting programs. Just brown paper and pencils. Amazing what technology can do these days.


Daily writing prompt
List three books that have had an impact on you. Why?

Among the things I like to do when visiting friends’ homes is to find a bit of time to browse their library shelves and see what they collect. You can learn much about interests, manias, and their life by browsing their bookshelves. Life is about more than one, two, or three books that have influenced you. Those books did their job in leading you onward to other titles. Here is a brief tour of my library.
I don’t have the typical sort of home library. Mine is a series of symbiotic collections. I am a carver of maritime themes, eagles, quarterboards, transom banners, and anything marine for a boat or ship. So the two largest collections are maritime and woodwork/carving. These two collections intergrade and work together.

If my library were in one room, it would have to be large. But I have to keep things in different locations. A friend commented that I could not possibly read all of them. And in truth, all were not there to be read in their entirety but are reference works.
These days, many reference libraries I once used have strange hours and are far away. So it pays to have my material at hand. If I am working on a small vessel built on the Clyde, I have one or two texts I can refer to as a start. It’s the same thing for a ship built in Bath, Maine.
I have books on Maritime art to look up work by Jacobson, Butterworth, or the Bard Brothers. Sometimes one rendition of a vessel is not enough. I used about five works for reference while working on a portrait of the Cunarder Servia.
Is the library comprehensive? Nope. It is far from complete at about 250 maritime texts of various sorts. There are big holes, and thankfully for the holes, there is the internet and used book dealers. So despite the construction manuals for building T2 class vessels, I have almost nothing on the Union Steamship company or their ships.
The carving collection is similar to the maritime collection but much smaller. There are standard texts on technique, books by artists I admire, and books on carving styles I like but don’t do. I weeded this collection heavily a few years ago because my interests had shifted, and I would not return to some of the styles I had carved years ago—the weeding left room for new titles as interests develop.

My third collection is a general library of material ranging from gardening to history, some anthropological texts, and anything else you might imagine.
The anthropological materials are a sorry remainder of when I worked as an anthropologist, and my library was almost solely oriented to topics that touched on my work in applied anthropology. Over the years, as I shifted to other work and interests, that collection shrank until there were a handful of volumes written by former professors and a few favorite works.

Somewhere buried in my library are the three books that greatly influenced me, but they were the seed that resulted in my library and are now part of its heart.


Creatively, talking to people visiting your shop is the opposite of being left alone. You get questioned, you respond, and in responding, you see the schooner you are carving in a new light. Something pops out that you now see needs fixing, and an idea occurs for the next project. The stimulation of the company can be a real boost to your creative energy.

By contrast, being alone allows a deep dive into your actions. For example, the current project is on wood that was improperly dried at the sawyers. A crack has developed late in the carving process, and it’s too late to abandon the work. How can you incorporate the damage, or can you ignore the annoyance?

Lots of Tools

Craftspeople accumulate tools and supplies, and some of us could use the help of the tool police to keep us in line with purchases of new bits and pieces. But the current project on my bench proves I eventually use all I accumulate.
The carving currently occupying my workbench is of the schooner Ada Bailey*. As depicted, she is on a starboard tack and is slightly heeled over to port. This means that the observer can view parts of the inside of her starboard ( right side) rail.
It’s straightforward to portray a hull flat on the water, and most times, that is the favored view. In this case, I have to show that rail which adds depth to the carving ( about an eighth of an inch) and makes it necessary for the groundwork behind the vessel to be cleared even deeper. Fussy, fussy, fussy! And a bit of a pain to carve. Out come all the little U-shaped veining tools that hardly ever get used and the tiny rifler files to clean up the odd whisker of wood.
Shaping the sails and hull? No problem. Getting this little bit of perspective correct? Well, it’s getting there.

*Little survives of Ada Bailey. Built in 1884 in the Sewall yard in Bath, Maine, for the A. Sewall Company she foundered ( probably ran aground) in 1894 – location unknown. I’m basing this carving on the 1888 portrait of the vessel by Antonio Jacobson. It seems to be the only rendering that’s survived.

Fake Craft

Recently I’ve noticed that there is a new online marketing ploy. “Craft” vendors are placing ads that state they are retiring their entire “Great Waves” or other collections. They sacrifice profits to clear this valuable inventory as they approach retirement or other significant life events. Pardon me while I laugh. I suspect the items were mass-produced in China or some other offshore location precisely for this commercial maneuver. These days it’s easy enough and cheap to create a folksy online shop on any online marketing platform, present yourself as a handcraft creator and sell via social media ads.
Craft, by and large, thanks to online marketing, has become formulaic in the online marketing world. But the concept of the craft itself is on the cusp of great things; if you go looking in the offline world. More than ever, there is a wide variety of items available.
Almost every weekend, there are shows where craftspeople display their work for sale. You only have to get off your computer, get to the fair, and rendezvous with them.
You can feel the textile, weight, texture, and weave at the weaver’s booth. You can have an honest discussion with the woodworker about the choice of wood. And actually, sample the cheese you are interested in.

I’ve struggled with whether I would or would not open an online shop. At this point, the Magic Eightball suggests that the answer is no. In part, I am worried about the competition. No, I’m not concerned about the competition in terms of quality. But many online crafts seem involved in a race to a pricing basement. As a carver, I have a pretty good idea of what materials, labor, and overhead will be on the simpler products I produce; spoons, spatulas, and such. These lack the labor intensity, research, and special skills required for a ship portrait. A spoon is a straightforward product. But the pricing and the lack of unique form on many “handmade spoons” I see online lead me to suspect that they are machine-made to look handmade.

Deal with craftspeople, not online robots that sell fake craft. For example, talk to a potter about their pottery and a jeweler about that earring.

New and Traditional

Many trades and crafts have techniques rooted in centuries of precedence. For example, I’ve known boatbuilders who, while depending upon computer systems to draw and print out plans, still like the feel and physicality of an old-fashioned half-hull model in their hands. 

The set of gouges racked in my carving shop is not an anachronism. Their tool steel and tempering are improvements over the Roman models, but the lineage is apparent. 

But some tools don’t have old origins, and woodworkers use them daily. For example, the bandsaw was probably invented in the 1830s and, by the 1870s, was a regular feature in workshops worldwide. It’s found today in all but a few boatbuilders’ shops and is part of the tool kit of the traditional boatbuilder. Its invention was propitious for the building of the clipper ships, and an early ships saw ( a large bandsaw for cutting timbers for frames) was in use by the mid-1840s in Daniel Mackay’s shipyard. So it was adopted in a traditional trade because of its undeniable utility. It might have been a bit asinine not to use it.

I go back and forth on the concept of what is traditional partly because of its interest to me as an anthropologist and partly because of my trade as a nautical carver. At some point, everything was a new-fangled gadget, in the words of a mentor of mine. And although we don’t note it, many of those gimmicks and gadgets fail to catch on – take a look at some of the supposedly modern wonders issued patents but which failed to either work well enough or fulfilled a purpose for which there was little need.

The ones that do catch on fulfill some fundamental need, and while they make room for innovation, they are often used to create the strictly traditional as well.

Let’s cogitate on this while using the new chatbots and AI tools.

New Patterns and Old

A Flashback Friday Presentation

New Patterns and Old

I carved intermittently from the 1960s through the mid-seventies. Going to graduate school ended most carving activities, and I didn’t pick it up again until 1992.
I returned to carving by way of small boat shops. My mentors were all boatbuilders. Consequently, my shop looks more like a boat shop than an artist’s studio. In a traditional boat shop, the rafters are hung with patterns of all sorts. Any given model may have additional marks, curves, and notes denoting the changes needed to add, subtract, or modify the design. This way, you easily alter a boat; or a carving. As this was the setting where I came to the trade as a real professional, I followed the model.
My tradition of nautical carving is, in a sense, a broken tradition. I had no access to old carvers to teach me the trade. My mentors in carving had no interest in eagles, transom banners, and the like. So, I was never really sure what my antecedents in the trade would have made of my shop or my approach.
I “thought” I knew what a ship’s carver’s shop would have looked like in the 19th century, similar to the boat shops I was familiar with, I was certain.
This made sense because the carver and shipbuilder worked closely together and carefully coordinated efforts to achieve the desired effects on the ship. Also, they frequently worked out of the same shops. But I wasn’t certain.

Recreations of such shops left me unconvinced. Then one Sunday returning from WoodenBoat, in Maine, it all changed. I had made a fast passage from Brooklin to Bath and had time to visit the Maritime Museum in Bath before it closed. Wandering around and snapping photos of carvings, I found an exhibit room tricked out as a carver’s shop. Leaning against the wall was a life-size pattern for a figurehead. Having seen many figures carved similarly to this pattern, my mind’s eye quickly thought of possible variations with this one pattern.
I was reassured. I went home and started a series of eagles originating from the same pattern, all very different—sort of a reverse E Pluribus Unum. Here are some shots from that series:

First published on March 29, 2021


Old toothbrushes don’t get trashed; they get second lives in the workshop. There, without too much ballyhoo, they clean out dust and chips from the inconvenient hollows and flats in a carving that you just can’t reach.
Since everything is available from some vendors as a specialty tool, I could buy a tool designed to do this challenging task. But, amazingly, this wonder of twenty-first-century technology can’t do the job as well as my old toothbrush. But, of course, this does not stop the tool vendors from trying to sell you their goods; nothing timorous about their approach!

A Shipcarver’s Rant!

These days a maritime carver is lucky to get a quarter board, transom banner, or an occasional billet head for a commission. But, of course, eagles have uses other than on boats, so you can still get orders for them. But vinyl is king for boat bling, and I no longer try to compete for the work remaining. So let the vinyl cutters have the job of festooning that Chlorox bottle of a power boat – the Party Boy III. But how did this unfortunate thing come about? Once upon a time, ships had elaborately carved quarter galleries, fancy transoms, and much more. So even a lowly fishing boat might have a tiny bit of bling.

At some point in the nineteenth century, the bean counters decided to begrudge us poor woodcarvers our just and due income. Maintaining and carving all the carved knick nacks we liked to paste all over ships was expensive. Although I’m sure many a carver took up quill pen to complain about the plain nature of the vessels, the accountants had their way.  

Pretty soon, even the figurehead was reduced to a mere bust, then a billet head, and ultimately to nothing. It got so bad that sailors on some ships refused to sail without a figurehead and may have resorted to surreptitiously adding one without the shipowner’s knowledge.

You can imagine the back in forth at the bar: “that tub you sail on is the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen. Not even a little tiny bust on the bow!” Being ashamed, the other sailor tries bluffing and replies, “yeah, but our ship’s cat can beat your ship’s cat!”

Some of my brethren dream of the day boat and ship owners will realize the folly of their ways and turn away from the silliness of vinyl lettering. A new day of wooden carved adornments will dawn, offering enormous employment for carvers. Nope, never. I’ve moved on to carvng portraits of shops and boats, doing an assortment of other stuff, and discovering that there is life beyond hanging off ladders measuring dimensions, attaching boards, or dealing with petulant clients who want unobtainable wood species for interior carving.

I’m waiting instead for digital computer graphics to light up boats with vulgar displays of color and images. Then I’ll have my revenge on the soul-less vinyl cutters and the glitzy taped-on trash! They can belly up to the bar with the out-of-work carvers and moan about the world that was. For them, I depart, leaving this quote from Napoleon Bonaparte: “Glory is fleeting. But obscurity is forever.” 

Noodling Around

It was a cold February afternoon, but the sun made it very pretty. Not having much to do, I worked on the portrait of the schooner Ada Bailey for a while. I then made some hair sticks just to see what sort of easy adornments I could come up with without too much fuss. I don’t like the burned in flower; too irregular. But I think the feather designs can be developed. My wife now thinks that I have the thickness and length correct. She wanted the wider top to aid in placement and removal. These six are a mixture of native cherry and mineralized maple. No stain has been used, and the finish is pure tung oil rubbed in and dried. I prefer the look of the cherry; the cherry will darken up a bit more if exposed to the sun.

I’ll be developing the designs further over the next week.

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