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.

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!

‘Tude!

Attitude is sometimes what the rest of us get from those fortunate enough to have been in an apprentice program for their craft. Among the things they criticize is the self-instructed’s lack of planned tuition that they received at the hands of the “Master.”
Tough.
The truth is that no apprenticeship program was available for many of us, and we either hobbled together an educational plan for ourselves, no matter how flimsy or did not pursue something about which we were passionate. I hobbled together my woodcarving from books, many visits to museums, and several mentors who stood in for masters at critical junctures.

Besides, apprenticeships are not a panacea for all the problems you’ll run into in a craft. For example, I’ve known several who could not financially run their shop because their master had no clue about keeping books or filing forms when needed. Remember, Masters, teach you what they know. If they don’t know it, they don’t teach it, or if they were just not too good at something, that gets passed on to the student.

These days there are still things that you can’t learn from online videos, books, or fumbling around in the workshop. That’s where the many craft schools excel. An evening, weekend, or week-long class gives you the experience under an instructor to add that slight touch to your work that brings that technique into focus, whether you are trying to carve a Samuel McIntyre fruit basket or crochet something special.

To some extent, for the intent student, we are living in an optimal environment for gaining mastery. You are no longer restricted to one instructor and their styles. Through print, video, and classes, you can explore and master many things.

The traditional apprenticeship has probably met its match. Those who will not adapt will be the ones who will be deprived.

Circular

Different likes for different types of woodworkers. Elaborately figured wood is lovely on a cabinet. But kind of problematic for a carver. On the other hand, grain with no swirl or flare can leave you bored. So when selecting a board for carving, I look for a certain amount of balance; an attractive grain pattern without grain running in contrary waves or swirls.
Why avoid all the beautiful ripples, quilting, tiger, and birds eye patterns that look so lovely on a cabinet? Well, they obstruct the cutting and structuring of the carving. Tools run into them, snag, rip out, tear, and mangle.
I know you hear the legends of incorporating these into the carving, just like you hear the myths about studying the wood until you see what it wants to be. Hooey! I’m carving a commission for someone. I love that grain pattern in the cherry because it suggests water and cloud patterns in the sky. But I am carving a catboat, not an impressionistic masterpiece. I incorporate where I can, but that big knot? Firewood.

Firewood? Well, now we have another story. So much of the small cherry and ash wood that I carve comes out of the woodpile. And no, it’s not a matter of economy. It’s a matter of aesthetics. I run into beautiful wood that was not cut for commercial lumber for any number of reasons. I look over the pile while I’m stacking and select likely candidates for examination. These get tossed to a side, and later I open them on the bandsaw to see their potential. Out of this comes my blanks for spoons, some cutting boards, and a few for making into glued-up blanks for boat portraits. About twenty percent is useable, and the rest feeds the woodstove. Ash goes into the garden, so little gets wasted. Even sawdust winds up becoming mulch.

Mulch? Well, when I moved to this glacial remnant of a hilltop, the soil was as much gravel as loam. Over the years, compost, ash, charcoal, and sawdust mulch have turned the garden beds into actual soil for growing food.

Who’d have guessed that carving is a circular economy?

Sloop of War

Small vessels of the Napoleonic War era below the rate of the frigate were frequently termed Sloops of War. It didn’t matter if the ship was rigged as a sloop, a brig, snow, or an actual ship rig. A frigate was generally ship rigged ( square-rigged on all three masts) and had at least 28 guns on a single flush deck. 

So the handy little flush deck Sloop of War I’ve carved here is almost a pocket frigate. With twelve guns, she will not stand against a larger ship, say a Frigate, but is armed well enough to do some severe damage as a Privateer, dispatch, or reconnaissance ship. Fast and able ships like this served the British, American, and French navies throughout the era.

About the carving:

This was lots of fun to carve. I modeled the Sloop of War on several illustrations but modified things until I had the sail plan and view I wanted. The carving was executed in eastern white pine. After most of the carving was complete, I decided on a mixture of painted color and bare wood for the sort of contrasts I wanted. The sea combines crushed stone, blue ink, and acrylic paints. The quote is a favorite Horatio Nelson quote that is both era-appropriate and matches the scene.

Sailing before the wind is a challenging position to carve. It needs a bit of hollowing in the sails for drama, but it can be tricky to express. Remember you are trying to get this sense of depth and movement in 1/8 of an inch or less of carved depth.

I’ve been developing this carving style as an homage to nineteenth-century sailors’ dioramas and ships’ portraits. It’s not modeling, nor is it flat portraiture. It’s a sort of hybrid.

Borders

How-to and DIY books, magazines, and videos abound in topics ranging from videography and needlecraft to woodworking. The better ones demonstrate fundamentals and projects that build on those fundamentals. I have a number of them in my library because there are things I don’t often do, and having prompts on the techniques can save time and wasted wood. But I have no subscriptions to any magazines or video series, and I no longer buy books in that genre.

Around seven years ago, I realized that little was getting published about the styles and topics I carved or was interested in carving. Instead, I was more likely to find material relevant to my interests in modeling, painting, antiques, or even ceramics and industrial design.
This lack of material is no affront to me; it’s just that as part of the ordinary course of a person’s evolution as an artist or craftsperson, you tend to wander off beaten paths in search of the new. It’s a healthy sign that you edge towards the boundaries of the map into those places where old-time cartographers drew dragons and sea beasties. It means your skills and qualifications are growing, and your perceptions are widening.

I’ve seen this in aha moments from cooks and graphic designers. Sometimes, new technology alters their perception of what can get done with the new tool, material, pigment, or technology. There is a heady moment of realizing that you stand at the border. There are no how-to books and articles – just you, your abilities, and the need for a lot of experimentation. You find yourself looking on the internet for skill-developing modules developed for use by the original users. You adopt, adapt, and abandon what doesn’t work.

There is a lot of failure and backtracking. Many people might say, “you can’t do that.” Or, “that’s not traditional!” Just remember that few DIY books teach things the way they were done in the 19th century. The approach may not differ from the truly traditional, but the tools and materials have all developed.

A hale and healthy craft or art form benefit from experimentation. This isn’t to say that tradition is not valuable, but I’m not giving up my new bandsaw, acrylic pigments, or air filtration units to do things the way they were in 1870.

Whitespace

A Flashback Friday presentation from 2018

The carving shown here is in the Chase House in Strawberry Banke, a unique museum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, that preserves the 300-year history of a waterfront neighborhood. The carving is attributed to ship carver Ebenezer Dearing and is in the formal parlor. The rest of my family toured the house while I examined this carving. It’s carved in White Pine, almost certainly carved as a separate unit on a temporary base. Once carved, the artist removed it from the temporary support and undercut or “backed” the ribbon work so that it appears free of the surface beneath it. After finishing, it was added to a flat ground piece that comprises what I’d call the under mantle. I can’t tell if the work was originally painted or left in its natural color.
The carving was probably done in the mid-1760s when Dearing owned the building and timewise fits into the Georgian Period for design. I invite a ton of criticism, but the undercut ribbon work and some other design elements suggest that earlier baroque design practices influenced the carver. That was why I poured through my carving books at home for similar models and, not finding them looked online. Finally, I found only one that echoed the ribbon work.


After frustrating myself for several hours, I went to bed and, like all too often, dreamed about the issue. In the dream, my old mentor Warburton was scoffing at me and pointing out that the style or Period of the piece mattered very little. “It’s the design intent of the artist that’s important. Whitespace Louis, whitespace”.
Later the next day, while looking at the photos, I realized that among the reasons I admired the carver’s technique and design was because of his restraint in how he filled the space available space is filled. What is not filled with the design is as important as what is. Additionally, the design is well balanced as a mass within the tablet it occupies. Yes, Mr. Warbuton, Whitespace.
I’ve always admired the virtuosity of the Baroque, Rococo, and Neoclassical carvers. Well, to be fair, I’ve envied their mastery of the craft. But, while respecting them, I never wanted to follow them. I’ve always found the majority of the work to be too crowded.

And that’s why I like Ebenezer Dearing’s carving. Proper use of whitespace.

A long game

Wood swells and shrinks with humidity despite careful construction, drying, and sealing. We call this movement, and most commonly, we see it across the width of a plank or piece of wood. This is why you sometimes see splits in panels of wood. Wood remains a living item despite being cut, resawn, planed, shaped, and coated. All our work in creating from it needs to respect this fact. If you sell your work as I have, you want to control that movement. It’s embarrassing when a cutting board fails due to poor construction. Preparing wood, so it is not likely to move excessively and split is what comes before you carve or shape the wood. It can be a long game, but it results in quality down the line.

That’s why I dug through drawers in the shop the other day. I was looking for my moisture meter. I was about to glue up some blanks for boat portraits, and I wanted to check the moisture content of the wood. This little doodad comes in handy around the shop when you need to build cabinets or construct glued-up cherry blanks for projects like ship and boat portraits or cutting boards. Although I’ve known some woodworkers who thought of these as expensive toys or other junk to clutter up the shop, they serve an essential purpose.
I admit to waiting until their prices came into my budget before buying one. Since then, though, I have faithfully used it.

I resaw my own cherry planks for much of my small work. Recently it’s all air-dried stock that initially came in as small logs. I rough saw it, paint the ends to prevent cracking, and let it sit for a year. Eventually, the small logs get taken to the bandsaw and milled into rough planks. The rough planks are now allowed to dry inside or under cover. All the while, the moisture of the wood is going down slowly. Cherry, which I favor, is a bit of a PIA to dry correctly. Dry it too fast, and it splits. So the rule is to let it take its time. I want the wood to be between 6 and 9 percent humidity when I work it into a box, toy, cutting board spoon, bowl, or portrait.

Doing things this way is playing the long game. It’s more time-consuming than going to a lumberyard and getting Alleghany cherry plank stock that has been kiln dried. But the native cherry has a more delicate coloration and grain that I’ve come to prefer. Of course, my tool and shop limitations make this viable only for the smaller projects, but that accounts for eighty or ninety percent of my work these days.

So sometimes, the long slow game is best.

Tool and Materials do not the Artist Make – a flashback Friday presentation

The buzz among some of those studying traditional crafts was that they were not entirely sure that Louis Charpentier was “really” traditional. His roots in rural Quebec carving animal figures for an Ark were unimpeachable. His decades of service as a designer for a plastics manufacturer worried some. But, carving plastic, Carving styrofoam? For some, these placed him beyond the pale. 
Their opinion did not bother Louie one bit. He joyfully carved all and any appropriate material with his industrial carving machine. The machine was a large motor with chucks on either end. In the chucks were the sort of burrs you might use in a Dremel tool, but more robust. Using a wide variety of burrs and bits, he effortlessly carved anything from a dragon to a deer. He seemed to be a traditional carver turned loose in a machine shop. Louie just perceived the machine as an extension of his hands and mind. The tool or material did not matter it was the crafter that was important.
One of my favorite Louie stories happened one day while I was visiting his home in Leominster, MA. The conversation came around to what sort of work he did for the plastics company most often. He paused, went into his bedroom closet and then returned with several shopping bags of buttons. The bags were full of buttons and represented a significant amount of Louie’s output over much of his career. Think about it someone had to create the original. Then the molds get made so millions of copies can be injection molded. Many of the buttons Louie created are still in production today.
Most people in Central Massachusetts remember Louis Charpentier for his annual Christmas display outside his Leominster home. Louie would work for months on the figures. Each year many of the items were new. Louie would buy sheets of white Styrofoam, carve them into shape with an old steak knife, and glue up the pieces with toothpicks and carpenters glue. It was the Styrofoam that most irked folk art purists; that merely amused Louie.

So, as I stated in the title materials and tools do not the artist make

the summer shop

CAUTION: this post contains a photo of a shop with actual sawdust, woodchips, and shavings. It does not have a router table or a table saw. This extreme realism may trigger subscribers to woodworking magazines!

One of the reasons I love summer is being able to work in the shop with the door open to the warmth. If you’ve read my blog for a while, you’ll know that the shop is an 8X10 foot greenhouse. But a picture like this demonstrates exactly how small a space this is. And how cramped it is for all the tools I regularly use.

I have multiple projects running, and the chips and shavings cover the floor. I’ll shop vac the mess up sometime in the next day or two. You are not likely to see a shot like this in a magazine…yup…this is it – real woodcarving!

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