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


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.

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.

Conventional Wisdom

What is your mission?

I don’t think of myself as a folk artist. In fact, none of the craftspeople and artists I know are comfortable with all-encompassing labels. One of my peers who smirked at the folk artist label being applied to her and her work cackled and said, ” let them call me what they will as long as they buy the work.” I think she sells her impressionistic paintings at different galleries than where she sells her folksy greeting cards. It boggles the imagination that critics, folklorists, and others seem to think that just because you produce one type of work in a particular area that it renders you unable to do other things.

The little angel is me in folk arts mode. It’s my mission to confound and confuse the narrow-minded.

Darn it! Let’s fold, spindle, and mutilate convention, and have a good time doing it too!


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.

Designers Notes

By my long-standing tradition, January is a month for working with the design book first and the workshop second. The book doesn’t look much like a designer’s book of sketches. Over the past few years, it’s become page upon page of post-it notes placed on the book’s blank pages throughout the year. As an idea or concept is suggested to me or pops up, the note gets put into the book for later consideration.
As concepts develop, notes get more elaborate – so much carving or finishing time or the cost of materials. Eighty percent of the ideas never go anywhere for one reason or another. Some I can’t develop at a reasonable production ratio of time, materials, and profit. Others have practical production problems that are waiting for a solution to be developed.

some notes will sit in the book for a few years, some forever. but I rarely discard any. Instead, I’ll go back over the older stuff periodically as a source of inspiration or to reinvestigate my thought processes on ideas.

At some point, an idea jells enough for a prototype. So some prototypes wind up in the project box waiting for further developments while I move on to other things. Some will eventually go to the scrap box, too.

Another part of this process is the project woodpile. The project woodpile is an undercover collection of assorted wood pieces that I’ve put aside specifically because something is appealing in them, and I want to use them in something. This is a boxed and shelved collection outside of my carving shop under cover. I root around in the contents frequently, looking for select pieces of Cherry, ash, oak, and other woods.

It’s a messy sort of creative process, I admit it. But from this constellation of sources, I eventually cook up ideas, prototypes, and projects. I’m under no pressure to create any specific amount of work in January, to follow this creative process, as sloppy as it may seem.

Since January is my most hated month, using it creatively is an essential strategy to avoid the winter blues.

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.

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