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.

Special Orders

Plum Island sunset -copyright, L.N Carreras

Woodcarvers sometimes get strange requests. But they are usually the sentimental type of thing, specialty designs of various sorts. Well, I know one carver who has a kind of specialty in erotic sorts of things, but this story is not about her designs.
I tried to break into the occult carving market by doing runes sets for people telling fortunes, only to be priced out by Chinese mass-produced junk. However, the shop owner in Salem did save my card and referred to me unique clients with special needs.

This was how I received a small series of annual commissions for boxes of a particular type. While dimensions varied yearly, they always needed to be made from hand split, hand sawn, and planed ash. In addition, the ash had to be fastened with wooden pegs. The hinges and lining were of a hide they provided for this purpose. Finally, each box was carved with specific runes on each surface. I received the orders in September; delivery was always the final week of October. The commissioners were pleased because the orders were repeated for several years.

Then one year, a new order came in from another group for oak sticks of a certain length, taper, and thickness. Each was inscribed with an old word in Glagolitic that I found impossible to translate. I felt odd about this order, and after completing it, I told them that I would not accept future orders of that kind. That was OK, they said, and the following year it was a specific type of crucifix they wanted. Crucifixes and stakes? The next year they sent along some small bottles with a design for a wooden holder. The text was something in Latin, and I suspected that the bottles were for Holy Water. They said they were so pleased with my work that they would mention it to their friends.

And oh, did their friends contact me; there were particular orders for Samhain and special orders for Beltane. And then came the orders from cults, sects, and rites from Africa, India, and Micronesia. It got so turning them down was difficult. There’d be pressure, a sort of do it, or misfortune might befall you. “Oh, Mr. Carreras, you over billed us on our last order. We took the liberty of reducing your payment. We hope you are satisfied.”

It was the damned Ouija boards that tore it. Having had a terrible experience with one in the sixties, I put my foot down and flat-out said no. As of three years ago, I refused all orders of the occult. Yes, they paid well and on time, but they were much more demanding than my nautical customers.

Then the little box with the doll arrived by FedEx. It was then I knew that I had to take action.

It pays to keep up your dues in specific organizations. Working in boatyards, carving eagles, and other significant work associated with the deeps stood me in good stead. A trip to the harbor, a few poured libations to Davy, Neptunas Rex, and the other deities of the port, seas, and oceans took care of things. Those powers of the depths resented flatlanders horning in on a dues-paying member. So cease and desist notices were sent.

I know this hasn’t turned out well. And I know that science refuses to believe that it’s a war of natural orders, But Ian, yep, the Santeria, Voodoo, and a few other groups found out that you don’t mess with the sea. That town in Idaho that became a ghost town, I feel awful about that.

I am very sorry now that I have started it. Evidently, the Olympians are trying to get everyone to the peace table. And I hear rumblings that some think It was all my fault for trying to do what I shouldn’t have.
But while the big guys are duking it out, most people think it’s just Climate Change.

I guess that’s good for me; I’d hate to change my name and move at this stage of my life.


One of my first stops after getting out of the Navy was in Baltimore. Many friends lived there, and it had been a congenial haven in my earlier “on the road” days. Since I planned on returning to my dissolute ways, it was a logical place to start; good friends, good parties, and a jumping-off place for frolicking detours.

I quickly found myself involved in my best friend’s schemes. My friend was one of those artists to whom success in art came quickly. But he had a problem—no money for materials. That was where I came in. I also had no money. But I was a good scrounger.

Set loose in industrial and commercial Baltimore, I rapidly scrounged discarded costume dummies for a sculptural piece, paints for a mural, and, best of all, a discarded piano that we salvaged for its many materials and repurposed into dozens of pieces. 

I was careful not to alarm any places from which I liberated materials. Instead, I always introduced myself and asked if the article in the alleyway was free for the taking. Later, friends would come in a car to pick up the goodies.

I soon moved up in the organization and became a clipper and trimer for the complex montages that my friend created. As a scrounger, I was always looking for interesting journals and obscure print materials that we could clip for a montage.

One day I scrounged a set of carving tools from a hardware store that was disposing of old displays and odds and ends. My friend suggested that we might venture into making Tiki figures for sale at some of the happenings and gatherings. I was set the job of carving, being that I had done a few pieces in emulation of my grandfather and carved a few things in the Scouts.

About three weeks later, we had an exhibit at a buddy’s bar – my one and only “one-man show.” On display were my first works. The funds raised allowed me to patronize those in attendance with several rounds of drinks.

That was my introduction to the world of “ART.” That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.


It’s that time of year when I must produce. Whether for a show, to rebuild inventory, or finish pieces held in shop Limbo by my obstinacy about completing pieces I am not a hundred percent happy with.

There is also a conflict with the day job, which suddenly gets busy. So, when I should be in the shop, I run out at night to cover an event or a meeting. So, I feel guilty about the three new projects I’ve also been determined to create, which have the wood selected, and the design completed, but no forward progress from me.

Completing and selling projects is good. The end is about payment after the creative whims have been satisfied. And there is a certain gleam in your eye as you count money. After all, it pays to keep the lights on and acts as a stimulus for creativity. So old projects go on to new homes, and new projects form on the bench.

I am unsure which end of the equation is most satisfying—the joy of the creation or the pleasure of the payment.
Actually, I think it’s important to balance them. Too much emphasis on the creation, and you can’t bear to part with a piece. Too much reliance on the payment, and you become a factory watching how many pieces you can move a day.


This is the time of year I am busy stacking firewood and preparing balks of wood for future use as cutting boards, and bowls. This fall, I am particularly busy preparing bowl and cutting board stock from a supply of ash that came my way. I precut the balks to my preferred size, measure the moisture content ( most of these are about 14 percent), paint the ends to reduce checking, and carefully store the wood to allow plenty of air circulation. I’ll periodically check the moisture over the following months. I won’t start serious work with them until they are at about seven percent moisture. When the humidity is proper, I’ll resaw the wood meant for cutting boards to about an inch in thickness and let it set for a while, as it loses additional moisture exposed by resawing the wood. After that, I’ll plane it to about 3/4 of an inch, joint straight edges, and glue up blanks for the cutting boards. After the blanks are prepared, I’ll let them proof for a few weeks before carving and finishing. I’ve found that this final proofing reveals weaknesses in the glue-up before it becomes someone’s property. Failure in use is something I work hard to avoid.

Remember, the wood I am using comes to me reasonably green. It’s not kiln-dried stock from the lumber yard.

Bowls are a bit different. I’ll start working them like cutting boards at about seven percent moisture. My first job is to joint the edges straight so I can glue up a wider blank for the bowl. I prepare several blanks at a time and wait several days before I begin rough shaping the contours of the bowl. Next, hollowing gets done with gouges. After rough shaping with the gouges, I’ll gradually reduce the inner bowl to a smooth surface with electric sanders and old-fashioned card scrapers. The final sanding is by hand. Which finish I’ll use varies; mineral oil, tung oil, or a food-safe varnish. Each finish has advantages and issues. And sometimes, the choice comes down to aesthetics, which brings out the beauty of the wood best.

Ash has become an on-again and off-again item in the shop in recent years. The emerald ash borer has destroyed much of the ash in New England, and what I get comes from salvage cuttings. Someday I expect that ash will be like chestnut before it, a rare and precious visitor to the carvers bench.

This is sad when you consider the many uses of ash in furniture making, basketry, structural timber, musical instruments, turning, flooring, and marine uses. As a carver, I was introduced to it through commissions to carve eagle heads on the ends of long ash tiller handles.

Another part of the tragedy the emerald ash borer brings is the inevitable decline of the environment where it grew. Species dependent on it suffer because their habitat shrinks. I have included a photo below of a piece of ash firewood. The picture shows the tracks of the borer on the wood.

I’ll be thinking about the implications to the environment, craft, industry, and aesthetics as I work this batch of wood.


A Flashback Friday presentation from 2020

Whatever I did, something was wrong with the grapevine I was carving. My mentor Warburton took one look and snickered. I decided that as a sign that it was terrible, quite terrible.
He suggested I knock off for the day and return to it tomorrow. “But before you go, stack and sticker this maple.” That’s what life was like with my off-and-on mentor. Rather than just telling me what was going on, he’d let me think on it until there was an “Ahaaa” moment. No such moment came for the vine leaf. Later that week, I contemplated chucking it. “Don’t do that. Not until you have an idea of what went wrong. You’ll repeat the mistake.”
Warburton took pity on me. He grabbed the carving and walked to his workbench. He shifted the carving around in the light. “See how the shadow cast by the sun changes the carving’s appearance. Look for where your work is out of balance. You’ve spent so much time working under light from one source and angle that you can’t see the error in your carving. Use the shadows. Think also in terms of the light where it will be displayed.”
I found the spot that needed fixing and cut away a too-heavy bit of vine. It was now balanced.
Thinking back, it sounds like something from Jedi Training Camp: “Use the Shadow.” But it works.

An Online Shop

A few years before the pandemic, surgeries on both eyes made me pause my schedule of annual outings to boat shows. After a year or two elapsed, I substantially retrained my eyes and hands to the new realities of my vision, was carving again, and considered resuming shows.

Without warning, Covid hit. I hit the pause button once again. I used the time in isolation to work on technique, research, and develop new products and methods. But I didn’t stand still.

I’ve started researching and will probably launch a show schedule this December; local one or two-day shows. I decided not to do any more three and four-day extravaganzas away from home. Between the eye surgeries and, now, the hip, I’d like to stay closer to home. But my thoughts have also moved to online sales. So a few months ago, I began investigating starting a shop online.

I figured it would help fill in the holes of the local shows, attract a broader audience, and allow the “rudder kickers” to go online and make choices after seeing me at a show. I also admired some of the online presentations I had seen.

I could start another blog about how this is going, but suffice it to say, It’s not pretty. My close friend, and partner at many shows, Ralph, laughed and stated, “Good Luck!” I am now appreciating the sarcastic twist in his tone. They all say, ” set up is easy,” “we make shipping simple,” and it goes on. Unfortunately, I’ll have to buy a book and view a dozen videos to get the basics because their tutorials and FAQs are all impenetrable. In the meantime, I am still working full-time and carving. And no, you can’t spend like crazy on my shop yet!

Woodcarving is the easy part of this craft. The business and marketing…well, that’s an entirely different story!

Woodenware II

In my last post, I outlined the best methods, tried and proven, for destroying your investment in quality woodenware. Now I know that many “craftspeople” use absolute trash wood for their woodenware – stuff I’d be ashamed to put into my woodstove. But most of us create good quality ware and hope you can use it carefree for a long time.

Most woodenware is sold to you with a traditional food-safe finish of mineral oil. Mineral oil is available in your local pharmacy, is listed as USP, and is generally accepted as safe. However, most carvers use some variation of the oil finish. For example, some prefer almond oil ( also food-safe), and some use walnut oil ( I avoid walnut oil because some people have walnut allergies).
I, and others, sometimes add a tiny amount of beeswax ( food-safe) to the base oil.
It is not invasive for you to ask a carver or crafter what finishing materials they used. This spoon, spatula, bowl, or cutting board will contact the food you eat. I would avoid anything finished with an oil that might go rancid, including olive oil. Highly refined vegetable oil should be OK.

Once you own a traditionally finished piece of woodenware, you will need to know how to take care of it. You can wash it with a gentle scrubber in hot water and soap. You should carefully dry it off and not leave it immersed.

Periodically you will need to recoat it with oil. I’d use a bit of mineral oil from the pharmacy. But you can find all sorts of spoon and bowl dressing oils in shops or on the internet. Mostly they are just mineral oil with some additives. I do not advise using anything with a scent. No matter how pleasing, the odor or smell can transfer to the food you are preparing. Be careful with tung oil unless you are confident it is food-safe. Labelings are inaccurate on some products. I have obtained food-grade tung oil from Lee Valley, but I am sure it’s available elsewhere. Just be cautious.
There are some non-traditional methods of coating woodenware that are beginning to appear. I have started to use a food-safe varnish from General Finishes. We’ve used it on woodenware in our kitchen with great success. I have begun to use it on the carved wooden bowls I make. I appreciate how durable the finish is and its appearance. But most spoons, spatulas, and cutting boards are still traditionally finished.

Now a word on woods that get used. Cherry, apple, maple, and ash are the primary woods that I use. Once in a while, I’ve also used lilac and redbud. In addition, you might find olive wood used, which is also food-safe, just not available to me on a routine basis.

I avoid tropical woods and woods where I cannot be sure of their food safety. This isn’t to say that they are not food-safe, just that If I do not know for sure, I’ll avoid using them. Besides, regionally available woods in my area are sustainably harvested and readily available through local sawyers.

Methods of work vary widely among carvers. Some use knives, gouges, and scrapers exclusively. Others use power tools.
I am in the middle. I shape the wooden blank on the bandsaw and rough out the spoon’s bowl with gouges.
I might refine the shape with knives or power tools depending on the grain. Sanding and burnishing are a mix of power and hand methods.

Most carvers like me make pretty individualistic products. We avoid making two of anything precisely alike. Nevertheless, there may be a sort of “family resemblance” – how the handle sweeps or the edging of the bowl is created.

Mass-produced woodenware sometimes strives to appear handmade, but unlike the resemblances in my work, the mass-produced items seem more like peas from the pod- produced by machines carving out duplicates. Don’t get me wrong; these may be perfectly adequate as woodenware. They are not handmade. If I was required to produce hundreds of pieces a day, I might be forced to do what the makers of mass-produced woodenware do. I am fortunate that my production is small.

I hope that this post has been useful and informative. Enjoy your woodenware!

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