Bad Jobs

If not golden, silence can be precious, especially when trying to find a way out of a bad design problem. As they like to say – “back in the day” – we used to layout lettering by hand. I was never good at it, and it was the part of carving that I least liked. As soon as computers came on the scene, I eagerly discarded the tracing and graph paper for a nice word processing application. But as I said back when it was by hand.
One particular week I was laying out a transom banner with a flowing font; the letters joined by graceful ligatures and flourishes. I had tried explaining to the client that the banner would be an illegible scrawl from any distance. But he was firm in his resolve. So there I sat, attempting to make the unintelligible both readable and stylish with my very inadequate skills. At that moment into my shop walked my nephew ( by marriage) Douglas. In the vernacular used by an English friend of mine Douglas was a “carker” – a whiney little brat who couldn’t shut up ( actually the term “bloody” usually preceded carker if Douglas was not around).

About eleven, precociously bright and with a mouth that was always moving, he was annoying. Today I was his babysitter, so I had the pleasure of his company while the rest of the family was in Portland shopping. I distracted him for almost an hour with a piece of wood and a plane as he practiced some plane craft. But now he was bored, and wanted to know more about what I was doing. It was not a good time.
Into the shop walked the client, spying the layout on the bench he started asking about progress. While we were talking, Douglas walked over and, grabbing the drawing, proceeded to turn it upside down and then back right side up. Smiling, the client asked Douglas what he thought of it. I was now flinching. Douglas was eleven, a motor mouth, and small for his age, but he was bright and didn’t like condescension. Flipping the drawing around, he plainly stated the obvious: ” This font is terrible. For identification purposes, the Coast Guard won’t like it. But if you turn it upside down, it’s a nice abstract design. I’d go with a nice font like Palatino on this, simple, elegant, and very legible.” The client was flustered; having your illusions shattered by a plain-speaking eleven-year-old was never pleasant. The client stormed out of the shop, and I had lost the job.
Sitting there, I took in the design I had sweated over, thought about the balance in the checking account, and pulled out my wallet and handed a dollar to Douglas. Douglas stammered out: “Uncle Wes…I am so sorry. What’s the dollar for?” Douglas had absorbed all my idle chatter over the past week about the design. He had also unknowingly relieved me of one hell of an unpleasant commission. ” Douglas, you did well – simple and elegant is good. I loved the way you capsized the design to look for a balance.” the kid seemed to glow, and for once was he was silent.
Another carver got the job after me and had similar issues. Sometimes you are just lucky when clients walk away. Douglas enjoyed an ice cream cone on me when we saw the completed banner gracing the client’s boat down at the harbor.


Two of the best artists I’ve known were fluid on the choice of media. Given the correct tools and approach, any material could yield to the creative genius. Both of them loved a challenge.
Warburton, my Baltimore mentor, gleefully recounted how he had worked with an ice sculptor on an elaborate piece for a wedding. He’d never worked with ice or chainsaws before. Warburton claimed it was oddly liberating. It encouraged some interesting, fun pieces in the snow with his grandchildren. The media’s impermanence was “captivating” to someone who worked in wood, silver, and gold.
Louis Charpentier was indifferent to media type also. Starting as a child on a farm in Quebec, his first creations had been in scrap wood, and the subjects had been the pets and barnyard animals on the farm. By the time he was the design chief of a plastics firm, he had carved everything from steel to balsa. But his favored material in later years was common styrofoam.
I once intensely offended a student by carving common pine; it should be quartersawn and perfect wood. But eloquent work is less about the media used and more about the artist. Don’t let prejudice blind you.

So Long January!

Today I bid a fond adieu to my least favorite month. With its short dark days, it constantly batters at me. The shop is bitter cold, and even the birds seem furtive while chattering at the feeders.
OK, I am also disappointed with February that promptly follows. At least in February, I plan the garden and prepare to sow seeds indoors. Just after Valentine’s day, I begin tapping our few maples for sap. Then it’s boil, boil, and boil for the sweet stuff. At last, there is enough snow to put on the snowshoes and head into the adjacent woods. The days start visibly lasting longer. Towards the latter part of the month, the effort to heat the workshop/ greenhouse slacks off enough that working there becomes a pleasure.
Again, I don’t love February, but I have a deal with it. It’s a hard cold month, but it eventually yields to more promising months.
I know that my winter angst is mostly subjective and individual. But show me a person, in this latitude, who effuses joy for January, and I’ll show you one hell of a sick individual!
With apologies; to January lovers where ever you are – good luck.


John was a con man. He reveled in the description. He claimed that he did nothing illegal, and his goal was to educate consumers. There was, however, a tuition fee for that education.
He tried to teach his approach and techniques to my friend Bill and me. It amused him greatly to watch us flounder through one of his pitches. He had the best luck with Bill. He was interested in the occult and was actually interested in John’s mystic claptrap. Me? Well, I’d go through some drill he had on poise and use of speech, and John would howl with laughter. Seeing a skinny 19 year old Folkie trying a confidence scam must have been amusing.

John was not an ignorant grifter. He regarded his skills as a gift that he was obliged to master through hard work and determination. He was studious in his study of the English language and the mechanics of physical poise.
He maintained that what the eyes don’t see was an essential part of the con. John was a fan of “enrollment.” The fish, never the victim, became part of the scam and didn’t see the con coming because they were in it. John told us that this was the reason why so many scams went unreported to the police.
Recently, with all the political upset in Washington, I recalled John’s later career on Capitol Hill as a political consultant. It makes things a lot clearer to me.


Little things can alter the path we travel as craftspeople, and opening ourselves to new influences is vital to keep our work fresh and exciting. And by exciting, I mean to ourselves – an artisan bored with what they do soon ceases to be one.
Looking for new influences was how Antonio Jacobsen (19th and early 20th century Danish American Marine painter) changed my craft.
In November 1989, I was buying Christmas presents in a museum shop. I came away with a goody for myself too, a large-format postcard of a ship under sail painted by Antonio Jacobsen. The postcard wound up pinned to a bulletin board alongside my desk.
I was beginning to create portraits of ships and boats carved in wood and became fascinated by the late 19th-century “transition era” vessels. At that time, wooden hulls gave way to iron and steel, and sail became superseded by steam. It was an exciting time, and many of the designs were ingenious and beautiful. I eventually decided to carve that vessel, the Belganland.
I am not sure how many carvings like the Beglanland I’d want to do. It was laborious and time-consuming. Eventually, I decided to incorporate the carving into a large blanket chest. For years it was the signature piece on display at my boat show booths -priced high enough that I didn’t worry about selling it. It also served as the inspirational spark for other projects and encouragement to try new approaches.

Many artists and craft people restrict themselves to looking for inspiration in their media alone. Woodworkers look to work in wood, potters to ceramic, etcetera. Avoid that error. Groom your interests by getting excited by what others are doing as well. It may very well yield an inspirational spark you were not expecting.

New and Old

We can easily get lost in the weeds talking about tradition in crafts. It’s just hard to avoid observing that technology casts long shadows when you make something and call it traditional. The majority of shops that work with wood use bandsaws, table saws, and jointers. These tools have been around long enough not to ignite a vendetta among purists looking for “traditionally crafted goods.” But the technological landscape is always changing for the craftsperson.
Recently I have been nosing about on the borders. A few years ago, a series of eye surgeries compromised my ability to do certain types of woodcarving, mostly lettering. After surgery, I began to explore what I could and couldn’t conveniently do. The vision changes prompted the carving shop’s move from the old basement workshop into the greenhouse – I needed lots of light. Last year I also began to play around incorporating laser engraving and cutting as an adjunct to my carving.
Some things worked well, and others fell flat. Frankly, it’s all a work in progress. The small sign shown above is one of the projects that worked. Some of the others wound up feeding the woodstove.
Is it traditional? Well, was it traditional when craftspeople and artists began using acrylic paints or using computers to assist them in design?

Years ago, when I worked as an anthropologist, I knew a woman who crafted the most incredible Ukrainian Easter eggs. One afternoon over coffee Elizabeth introduced me to the history of technological innovation in the world of decorated Easter eggs. Over the centuries, dies and methods of preparation changed. But the community accepted the eggs because of the continuity of design and meaning in the community.
Back in the ’80’s colleagues were musing about Cambodian kite makers shifting from traditional fabrics used in Cambodia to the ripstop nylon available to them here in the United States. The maker of traditional Cambodian dance costumes received mention also. One of them had adopted the hot glue gun and factory-made jewelry findings to construct elaborate headdresses and other costume bits. They looked like the old style, but the components and techniques had evolved.

On one project I worked on years ago with boatbuilders, I asked builders what they thought was the central concept that defined the traditional boat. I had expected them to talk about materials, construction techniques, and design. I wasn’t disappointed because they all mentioned those things to one degree or another, but as a group, they said the value placed on the boat by the community that used them was central. One well-known figure I interviewed ( Lance Lee) suggested the term “cherish” as the central concept – the boats were cherished and valued by the community. It was the community of users that made something traditional.

The laser engraver that sits in the basement, and my visual handicap, got me thinking about these things. The concept of craft, especially when labeled traditional, has some minefields laid in it for the artisan. Look beyond technology to intent, the community’s acceptance of the product, and the continuation of design tradition. Sometimes we might be daunted by what we see, but the first carver who moved from a stone or bone tipped tool to one of metal started us on the moving process of technology in arts and craft.


Infatuation. It stimulates emotions that range wildly from “she’s impossibly beautiful” – ecstatic – to “She’d never look at me!” – depressive. When she walked into the party, my eyes became fixated on her slender lines, long hair, and aristocratic nose.
Having an opportunity to speak with her convinced me that she was perfect. I decided that I needed to get to know this beauty. She seemed to respond in kind, and the next half hour was spent in a sort of mellow state of enchantment. Then it slipped out that I was a grad student in Anthropology; “God,” she muttered. ” How are you going to support a family?” I smiled politely and asked about her area of study. She smiled at me, turned her back, and started to walk away: “I’m just here to have a good time.”
Infatuation. It comes on fast and departs like a riptide. I don’t think it’s any different for a man than for a woman, and we’re lucky if it leaves without us.

Lobster Yacht

Spinney knew that keeping a small boatyard working during the winter months is not easy. It depends upon contracts signed during the warm season, repair work, and fortuitous restorations of “Boneyard Boats” with well off owners. This winter’s major project was a lobster boat to Lobster Yacht conversion- new transom, some new frames, finish carpentry in the cabin, engine restoration, and all associated work. Work proceeded despite the heavy snow that blanketed the boatyard.
As work proceeded into the cabin area, Bubastis, the nut-brown yard cat and queen of all she surveyed, got forcibly ejected from the nest of old blankets in the bow that she had appropriated as a throne room.
Following her eviction were several days of hissing at Spinney and any who came near. Dead mice showed up on workbenches and Spinney’s desk. Notably, she dropped one ripe rat to cook on top of the woodstove. This last caused the shop to be vacated and aired for most of one afternoon.
A deputation of workers visited Spinney to complain. None dared suggest that Bubastis depart the yard for Spinney’s home. She’d only wander back in a day or two. Nor did any suggest treats, toys, or new beds from the pet store; she’d turn up her aristocratic nose at them.
Nora, Spinney’s sister, came up with the idea. As a kitten Boo ( her kitten name) had slept in the Avon boxes that Nora got when she was selling cosmetics. Nora suggested an Avon shipping box and the old blankets from her former boudoir in the boat’s bow.
The next day a very nonchalant Spinney dropped the old shipping box by the lumber rack. About an hour later, Nora swung by and discarded the old blankets into the box. She casually kicked it under the rack. No-fuss or attention was made. About an hour later, Bubastis wandered by, briefly investigated the box while all in the shop carefully ignored her.
The next morning there was a line of dead mice by the shop door. The queen had accepted the new throne. All was right in the world.
A few weeks later, the Yacht owner stopped by to evaluate the progress on his boat. Perched on the bow was Bubastis surveying her domain. She condescended to allow him to scratch her ears. “My,” he said, ” I bet you run this yard just like you own it.” In the office, Spinney muttered, “She damned well does!”

Body Language

The cat’s mouth cannot smirk. But most cat owners will tell you that cat’s smirk all the time. They use body language to smirk. They sit, poised and posed, looking at you with self-satisfaction.
One particular time I came into the house to find the Grey Menace delicately cleaning his paws. In front of him was the fat from the edges of several roast beef slices. Dinner. Looking at me with a cat smirk, he seemed to be quoting Saint Augustine: “It was wicked. But I loved it.”
It was during my grad school days. The roast beef was a splurge on a very tight budget. As soon as I reached for him, another “cat’s can’t make that expression.” appeared on the Gray Menace – “shit! He’s crazy!” He was running, looking for a hidey-hole, and not finding one deep enough to stop me from grabbing him by the back of the neck and uttering one word: “Cooler!” If he could have spoken, it would have been to say “I dissent!” as he twisted to bite my hand. But I slowly walked towards the room he hated most -the “Cooler,” AKA the bathroom.
I tossed him into the “Cooler.” He promptly lay down on the bathmat and glared at me. “You’ll slap me? You slap me in a dream; you better wake up and apologize.” The Jimmy Cagney act, I was in trouble. Closing the door, I went and made myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. About ten minutes later, I opened the door to the Cooler. He was stretched out on the mat, and his body language was all – “yeah, I’m in here ’cause I want to be, and I’ll come out when I’m good and ready. You got that Copper!”
A few minutes later, he strolled out, hopped up on the table, and disdainfully examined the peanut butter and jelly. Sitting there, looking at the sandwich, his body language said it all – “pitiful, just pitiful.”

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