Wood

Daily writing prompt
What’s your favorite word?

I am inconstant. Depending upon the time of day or my activity, I find that the song playing as background music in my head has changed. Tom Petty’s songs seemed to play a lot yesterday “…Oh, no I won’t back down…” My favorite word changes, too. I have a vault of favorites, but wood rates very highly daily. The other day, I stopped into a local sawyer in the town where I work and found that they had some lovely wood. 

I resisted the Spanish cedar and the gorgeous walnut. But I was shamelessly ambushed by a plank of wide cherry. Eleven and a half inches wide. It’s just perfect for some lovely bowls. My resolve to resist purchases proved flimsy, and thirteen feet of this sensual, lustrous, irresistible wood found its way into my car’s trunk before I knew it.

I’ll be carving bowls as soon as I finish cleaning up the flooded cellar.

All in all, I am proud of myself. I only bought the cherry. But I can hear the cedar and walnut whispering to me at night. Wood is not only my favorite thing and word. When it starts sending songs my way, begging me to buy it and take it home…it’s my favorite obsession. 

My Precious!

Passion

Daily writing prompt
Name the professional athletes you respect the most and why.

I try not to get too personal about sports stars or performers. Their performance is what I am interested in; You will not find fan magazines in my house. I’ll recognize that I like what someone does but not link the name to the number or role. When someone says, “What about Paul Whozee? Great, don’t you agree?” Then they’ll have to explain to me, slowly and in simple words, who they are talking about. After which, I am still left wondering why this is important.

It wasn’t always this way. Growing up, I followed baseball, football, and hockey. I also eagerly followed performers I found interesting. But somewhere along the way, a circuit snapped open, and I found other interests. I lost track of who played for the Bruins, which guitarist played in a band I liked, and who that cute actress was. I paid attention to what they did rather than who they were. As I watched other people build insane cults of personality, I realized my lack of interest in individuals wasn’t alarming. Yes, some people loomed so large in my interests that I had to pay attention to them as individuals: Jimmy Buffet or Dr. John. 

Mostly, though, I’d think, “Oh yeah, I’ve seen that actor before.” Or, ” the Bruins lost, that’s too bad.” If you wanted to discuss personality, it would wind up with me nodding idiotically with a slight smile on my face. If you took me out to a sports bar, you’d want to wear a disguise so that no one knows that you’re with the guy who knows no one and nothing.

Now, woodcarving is different. I can identify the work of several of my favorite 19th-century shipscarvers. Just ask me about Benjamin Rush, Samuel McIntire, or Bellamy. I can tell you a bit about the details of McIntire’s tool kit or how the feathers on Rush’s eagled seemed to nestle together naturally. After we discuss that, I’ll tell you about the mysterious way Bellamy simply stopped carving years before he had to. Hey! I bet you don’t know where he got his wood from. 

There’s more, and I don’t have much to do today. Want another cup of coffee? I’ll give you a shop tour and show you the tools, gauges, and templates of the Bellamy eagles I particularly like. You’ll take a raincheck, you say? Sure, just call when you want. Hey? Want to see the library I have on marine carving? No? 

It’s too bad you have to be leaving so soon.

Recipe for Woodenware

Daily writing prompt
What’s your favorite recipe?

Your safari online for a new miracle coating for kitchen woodenware has led you down a rabbit hole into creams and liquids, promising to preserve your precious “treen” for posterity. Some are inexpensive, and some with mysteriously unnamed unique ingredients are expensive. What do you choose?


My advice is that you do not choose any of them. Creating a good woodenware coating at home in your kitchen is simple and inexpensive. Go to the drugstore, get a bottle of Mineral Oil (USP), and get a small hunk of pure beeswax. Heat the beeswax in a double boiler until it is liquid, and stir slowly into the mineral oil. The main caution here is to remember that you are dealing with hot wax and should be cautious not to burn yourself. I do not advise heating the mineral oil.
Recipes for this vary, but the proportions of oil to wax depend on how liquid or creamy you want your coating. Mine is harder after it cools, and I’ll sometimes reheat it a bit for better penetration into newly-made cherry spoons. Frankly, during the winter, when my hand’s chap, I’ll grab a glob and work it into my skin. It’s the cheapest, most effective hand lotion I’ve found.


I am certainly not the originator of this very simple concoction. It’s been around for ages in one form or the other. Some people add twists to it with other ingredients, hum magical incantations over the mixing vessel, or indistinctly make mystical passes with wands. That’s all marketing woo-woo and doesn’t alter the basic product. Look at the ingredients label on most dressings for wooden ware, and there will only be slight variations on the theme.


Why not use walnut, olive, or other fruit or vegetable oils? Mainly because they can go rancid, but also because, unless they are refined, they’ll add their taste to the wood. We usually don’t want our woodenware to become part of our recipe.


Why the beeswax? Beeswax is generally accepted as food-safe, as is the mineral oil. When applied warm to woodenware, the mixture will sink into the grain and provide a protective finish longer than the oil alone.
A small jar of the oil and wax preparation goes a long way. You do not have to use it too often; you can touch up the wood with a bit of plain mineral oil between applications.
Just remember that uncared-for woodenware in the kitchen is not only unattractive, but as it deteriorates, it becomes unsafe. The best way to avoid that is by careful cleaning ( Please!!!! no dishwashers or overnight soakings!) and occasional treatment with a food-safe oil.

Gifting

Daily writing prompt
Write about a random act of kindness you’ve done for someone.

I have much more in “I owe” than in “I’ve given.”
Over the years of a desperately poor youth on the road, I frequently survived on small gifts and “investments for the future.”One frequent giver admonished me not to think about paying it back to him but to pay it forward to others.

One of the ways I pay forward is with gifts of carvings, spoons, spatulas, cutting boards, and bowls. I’ve also given away some quarterboard carvings, canes, and other items in stock. Being that these items are functional and practical, they have reasonably immediate effects on the recipients. They also last, so the gift keeps giving through long-term use. While I always give to family and friends, I also gift random people I meet at craft and boat shows. I sometimes get asked why I would give some of these things away. My reply is that I do it because I can. Craftspeople should be generous with their gifts, Most of us have not been gifted with wealth, but we have been given the talent to produce useful and lovely items. We should share with others.

At its most optimal expression, a gift is an expression of goodwill from one person to another. When I see a person at a show who appreciates something I’ve created, I am sometimes moved to gift them with it. The look of pleasure on their face is my reward, and I know that the present will not be another gimcrack they’ll sweep away during a kitchen reorganization.

Magpie

My mentor Warburton was more than a bit of a magpie. He defined the term as being curious about all arts and crafts. His specialties were ecclesiastical carvings, but he was also proficient as a chaser and engraver, did a bit of Icon painting, and wasn’t afraid of doing the occasional cabinet work when a commission required it.
In art conversations, he was indefatigable, displaying his knowledge and wanting to stimulate your interests. He maintained that great artists saw art as an encompassing realm. Therefore, your attraction was not to just one form but to many.
I didn’t see things as he did and found some of his interests cryptic. For example, an interest in tonal music left me cold, and working to opera playing in the background did nothing for me. But I respected his opinions, and he opined that I would come to appreciate his point of view in the fullness of time.
While I like carving to quiet music in the background, I never warmed to tonal music or opera. But concerning more physical arts and crafts, I, too, became a magpie possessed of fascinations well beyond the scope of my carving. Over the years, these interests have grown rather than subsided, making me a better person because my focus is not on one point.

A focus on one point. Funny how that comes up. So often, we are told to focus on one thing, but in the Japanese art of Iaido ( the art of drawing the sword), we are told to diffuse our attention and gaze broadly at the mountains. Too much attention on one point may cause us to miss important things outside our focus. In Iaido, these may be attacks coming from other sides, not from the enemy facing us. In the arts focusing on one point means missing different approaches.

The great samurai, Mushashi, mastered poetry, drawing, writing, and painting. His maxim was that we could learn one thousand things from one thing. We were not limited except as we limited ourselves.

People interested in arts and crafts should be magpies, read widely, experiment, and play. I’ll never master pottery, but learning to “throw” a pot enriched me as an artist and gave me an appreciation for what people who work in ceramics achieve.
Get out there, cross over to the Wildside, and try something different.

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.

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

Wait

Ask different crafters and artists what’s most important. The answers will be all over the map: innovation, creativity, mastery of the media, balance, attention to the details, or on the opposite end, not missing the big picture. So you could spend time playing detective to find out who was right. My old mentor in Baltimore, Warburton, would have shrugged his shoulders.
Of course, you should be a master of the media. Innovation and creativity? Well, that kind of goes without saying. Balance, attention to detail, and the big picture? Let’s not get caught up in the details; we do an excellent design job before we start, and that takes care of itself.

Warburton took pains to inform me that the tortoise, not the hare, won the race. A rushed job was just that rushed. The client might be oblivious to the shortcomings, but every time you passed it by, you’d be ticking off on your fingers the shortcuts you took that reduced the quality.

My current carving is a case in point. It’s a portrait of a large schooner sailing on the starboard tack; she’s just a bit heeled over to port. The sails are all carved, and the surrounding groundwork ( the flat background behind the ship) only needs final sanding. The hull now needs shaping. A critical part of this part is the portion of the ship’s interior revealed since it is heeled over to port.

So I am moving at a snail’s pace here, determining how I’ll do this. I almost hear my old mentor, Warburton, whispering, “didn’t think about how you’d handle that part, did you? Stop, think about it, have some coffee, and then return to work.”

I have stopped. I am thinking about it, and I’m heading to the coffee pot now. Warbuton always gave great advice, but my coffee is much better than he boiled up for company.

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.” 

At the Buffet

Old-style apprenticeship programs had ceased to exist by the time I began my journey in craft. But I never would have fit into a traditional apprenticeship scheme. I wasn’t settled enough for the discipline or capable of listening to and grasping all the directions. So I picked things up in a helter-skelter manner, and instead of a master-apprentice relationship, I had a series of mentors and benefactors. They were people who understood that I absorbed things at my rate, and all of them found that I learned best through what I’ll call the buffet method of learning.
In the buffet learning method, knowledge is laid out for you to sample. Then, when you become spellbound by some item in the buffet, your patron feeds you additional knowledge that you gradually absorb, master, and incorporate. There is nothing ingenious about it. It’s just a practical method of transferring needed information so the student can absorb it.

There are disadvantages to the buffet system. One of the shortcomings is that there is no organization or pattern to it, which is why some things are hard to pass on through it as a system. But, eventually, you realize there are holes in your education and start backtracking to get what you missed. For me, it’s why my library has hundreds of books. But others may do well with classes at community colleges, craft schools, and the like.

Many people come to art and crafts as secondary vocations later in life. Even if vocational apprenticeships still existed, they would not be appropriate. Simarlily most are not going to apply to formal art programs at colleges. Instead, most will paste together a method of tuition that will be a combination of classes, books, videos, and mentorships – a buffet system of learning.
Formally trained artists can sometimes disparage people who have mastered their skills without formal training. But anyone looking at the broader world of arts and crafts over the centuries might see that the informally educated produced vast quantities of valued art and craft items.
If all that was available were that produced by art school graduates, the world would be an artistically impoverished landscape.

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