Decline & Fall – Ships Carving

The gilt-edged age for the ship carver had to have been the 17th and 18th centuries. The figureheads were the least of it. There were gilded coats of arms, allegorical figures, swags, and elaborately carved moldings everywhere.
Set sail, wind up in a storm, get into a dust-up with the Dread Pirate Roberts or meet up with a French corsair, and when you came back into port, watch the carvers bill rachet skyward. Those cherubs on the starboard Quarter gallery? Somebody’s cannon blew away? They need replacing.
I doubt that carvers grew wealthy. But, there was steady work. Think of it as a handy 17th and 18th-century body shop for ships. “Here’s the estimate- we can try to save that Neptunas Rex on the transom, but it’s cheaper to replace.”
Sometime in the Napoleonic Wars, the British Admiralty began to budget the purse into which captains could dip for replacement swag. Just so much for a frigate, this for a fifth-rate, that for a third and so on. I’ve suspected that the Admiralty knew that some skippers and bosuns were in on a deal with with the carvers – ” I’ve got some cherubs this week buy them from me rather than Smithwick, and I’ll kickback 5%.” The fine art of naval chicanery in practice.
Thus began the inexorable decline and fall of the honorable trade of ships carver. Over on this side of the Atlantic, there were no royal purses to fund tons of gilded frippery. During the glory days of American sail, journalists would visit the docks and write a commentary on which newly arrived vessels were most tastefully attired. Many Maritime Museums display the fine figureheads that once graced the bows of the clippers.

Collection of the Peabody Essex Museum

Then along came the Quakers. They caused crews to mutiny by taking figureheads off vessels and replacing them with sober billet heads. Sail without our Jeremey Bentham figurehead? Never. Figureheads continued to have their day for a while. But, gradually, more modest accouterments became the rule. The cost was part of the reason; fancy carvings were expensive to maintain.
The following photos are from the U.S.S. Constitution Museum (for a detailed article on the Constitutions bow candy dip into this Article:

The first photo came off the Constitution, and the second came from H.M.S. Cyane. Both are good representations of early 19th naval billet heads, spare and none too fancy. But, great representations of the carver’s art.

Two -headed equestrian figurehead from a Royal Navy vessel ( Peabody Essex Museum)

Compared to the two-headed equestrian figurehead ( circa 1750, in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum), the billet heads appear downright dowdy. The final billet heads are from the Penobscot Bay Maritime Museums collection. They have the distinction of being in mint condition Carved by either Thomas or W.L. Seavy of Bangor, Maine. They never were mounted on a ship and represent the end of billet heads for commercial shipping.

Here is a shot of more recent work on a contemporary sailboat.

Lastly, here is a ridiculous bit of plastic on an otherwise pretty boat.

sic transit gloria mundi

Pint XXV

I sealed Pint XXV shut last night, and that marked the close of another sapping season for the little sugarbush behind our house. Just a bit over three gallons of syrup, enough for family needs.
This morning the dog, cat, and I went out to survey the slow opening of spring in our tiny woodland garden. Hepatica, still not quite in bloom, trout lily slowly emerging from last fall’s leaves.
The opening of the maple buds and chorus of peepers marked the end of sapping, while the slow progress of the plants that we call spring ephemerals began the opening of the next phase of spring.

Xenia settles down for a day of supervising in the workshop

After the cat gets settled into her spot in my greenhouse workshop, and the dog wanders off to harass some early chipmunks, I settle down to woodcarving while listening to the radio.


Have little space, no time, and just a few tools? Try miniature work.
When I started woodcarving, I had just a few tools and almost no wood. I carved the little box from scraps of cherry and walnut. The tool kit for making the small sloop was minimum: a few small gouges, V-tool, and a riffler file. For work in this dimension, my bench was a handicap; I did most of it on a carver’s hook with some anti-slip fabric to hold the piece in place ( you can use woven shelf liner material or carpet underlayment). I did finish the piece in varnish, but you could do as many European carvers have done for centuries and rub the carving down with a bit of beeswax candle. The beeswax gives a beautifully mellow, soft look to the carving.

Small boat box

Access to a bandsaw made it possible for me to create a small box with the boat carving as a lid. But, I created similar pieces for small glued up business card holders and refrigerator magnets. This little boat has an LOA of less than an inch and a half.
Work in small dimensions doesn’t seem to be as impressive as more substantial work, but it requires thoughtful attention to detail and forces us to focus our skills. Doing small versions also can be a way of working out design elements for later work when you scale up your design.

A Halibut Schooner

I’ve had my prejudices when it comes to selecting east coast ships and boats to carve. Perhaps it’s that I’ve lived on the east coast, and sailed on the east coast. Recently a favorite Facebook group ( ships and shipyards before 1945) posted a photo and builders article of the west coast halibut schooner Republic. I was hooked and wanted to create a halibut schooner portrait.

There is no definitive book on halibut schooners. It’s hard to define a “type” there is so much variation. Some are transom sterned, but others like the one I’ve carved are canoe sterned. All had moderate deadrise ( not flat bottomed), and tended to be plumb stemmed, but not always. See the problem?
Common features included a midships fish hold, pilothouse aft of the mainmast, raised foredeck, and a “sorta schooner rig.” Described as auxiliary schooners, they depended on gas engines for propulsion. The sails were primarily for emergencies, or perhaps for use as steadying sails for stability. Old photos of halibut schooners frequently show them with a foresail and jib.

The main boom seemed to have served as a lift for dories when involved in the dory longline fishery; or as a cargo boom. I’ve no documentation of sails on the main. And, that’s why I’ve described it as a “sorta schooner rig.” The Republic was built in 1915 at the John Strand Yard in the Ballard area of Seattle. Extensively remodeled Republic is still afloat.

A hand-carved sailor’s model of the halibut schooner Republic

About the carving:
I’ve carved the hull bold in relief on eastern white pine. I like to place the boat on grain that suggests water and sky.
I applied the deckhouse and other details. After carving and gluing the added parts down with Titebond and cyanoacrylate, I sealed the carving and rubbed on a light coat of varnish.
I learned some new techniques and used some new materials in making this “sailor’s model.” That, in part, was the objective of doing this wintertime project. There is still a bit of finish work to do, and I am not completely satisfied with the railing.

Thoughts On Carving – Designs within designs

Those of you familiar with the U.S.S Constitution may recognize the featured photo as one of the boarding planks on the Constitution.
It’s been a frequently carved design for me since I first saw it, and I’ve used it to grace chest and box tops over the years. Despite being an intricate design, it is not a hard carving project.
If you’ve read some of my other posts, you know that I plunder designs. I love to alter things, pull elements out of context, and place them in new settings. It’s a common technique for artisans and artists. The boarding plank design’s most salient feature, for me, was the head.

Boarding plank carving on the USS Constitution.

At some time in the ’90s, a client wanted something carved on the end of a tiller; the usual Turk’s Head knot was not what he wanted. I plundered the boarding plank for the design, and the client sailed away very pleased. Here is the prototype for the tiller head:

Later, I again used the head for some quickly carved walking stick heads. Never meant to be fully featured carvings the stick heads were “sketches” that I could carve and sell as I worked. They sold well at boat shows.

Usable design elements are in plain sight within other designs. Plunder away!

Thoughts On Carving – Pine

A professional carver who gives internet lessons on carving commented online to a student that pine was not a suitable wood for carving, get some good basswood was the advice. I laughed at this. Pine was the go-to wood for several generations of New England ship carvers, and the lines of many a schooner hull were carved first in our regional white pine, not to mention figureheads and much of the work of John Haley Bellamy. Pine is terrific to carve is you are mindful of its character and use sharp tools.

Here is a pine paradox: southern yellow pine can be harder than many hardwoods, and was once widely used for pattern making and shipbuilding. In the ’70’s I was gifted with a section of southern yellow pine that had been a beam in an old factory. Cutting it up into carvable pieces was challenging. In that case, the sample was old-growth cut in the 1890s.

Regional variation, the environment in which the tree grew, how the sawyer cut it ( quarter sawn or plain), how fast it grew, how it was seasoned, and other factors all contribute to suitability for carving. For example, the transom eagle on the USS Constitution is ponderosa pine. These days ponderosa is better known for its use as structural wood and not for its use in carving. In 1910 the old-growth ponderosa selected by a Philadelphia shipyard carver was not exceptional. The ponderosa chosen was sturdy, hard for a “softwood” and tight-grained. Until the Constitution maintenance shop carpenter told me about the carving as he worked on it, I’d never have thought to select ponderosa for a project.

This Transom eagle on the USS Constitution was carved in 1901 from Ponderosa pine. At some point it was modified to allow a line through the lower section of the carving.

Another pine that you might be interested in trying is western sugar pine. It has a clean tight grain and a distinctive sweet odor. You may need to shop around for this, but won’t be disappointed in the real deal. I carved this little eagle out of sugar pine and loved the experience.

A few words of caution on technique while using pine: it can seem like a good idea to try to “hog out” wood fast with a large gouge and a mallet. If you are hollowing the wings of an eagle for depth and shape, this can be a temptation. In fast grown pine, this is a mistake. Your gouge will tend to dig into the grain, and if you attempt to wedge it out, the grain will tear out deeply, leaving you with a rough and deep tear in the wood. Be gentle. Remember going fast is not always going to get you there sooner.
Another issue can be cuts that run on a bit further than intended. The answer to this is less force and more finesse on the cuts, If you are using a mallet switch to a lighter one or use your palm. Some years ago, I took a knot of elm from the firewood pile and fashioned it into a palm mallet. The palm mallet protects my hand from impacts while allowing me to get a bit more force into a cut.

Pine is a worthwhile wood for carving: It’s readily available in a variety of species; many times, it will be the economical choice of wood, and with sharp tools can yield a rewarding carving experience.

Thoughts On Carving – Three Eagles

I once decided to carve ten eagles from variations on the same basic pattern. The 18th and nineteenth-century carvers had done it. Look at the repetitive poses of young women or men carved as graceful additions to ships bows. Eagles also seem to fall into family groups.
Shipscarver’s knew the knack of altering arm or leg positions, changing a collar, or a gown to something more 1860 than 1850. Who was I to pretend to know more than my masters?
I began with a photo of my favorite eagle at Mystic Seaport. The transom eagle from the first U.S.S Pennsylvania. I enlarged it to a size that I could use as a pattern, and from there, set about a two-year-long excursion into variations on themes.

In my first iteration, I found myself channeling a bit of McIntire as I played with the head . However, I checked myself short of going the McIntire serpentine neck route. I carved this one in a lovely piece of sugar pine, and the closeness of the grain allowed me excellent control of the tools. The movement in the legs of this eagle permited me to create a real sense of depth and movement in a piece of wood that was not that thick.

In the middle of the cycle of ten eagles, I channeled a very tiny bit of Bellamy with the head, neck, shelving of the upper wing, and banner. Anyone knowing Bellamy’s work though will recognize that he was an influence on my approach without any attempt to copy his style. It was just fun to acknowledge the master without imitating him. Made out of white pine, I gilded the piece, which I usually do only at client request.

Eagle based on the transom eagle for the first USS Pennsylvania

The final eagle was a bit more architectural in approach. The head looks downward, and the body seems to be marching forward under a canopy of threatening wings. The wings were hollowed, to giving the eagle an aggressive look. Carved from thick local Massachusetts pine, I had a piece of wood that could take bold carving. Preparatory to gilding, I thinly painted with bronze paint. I liked the semi-transparent effect so well that I’ve left it that way.

Boat shops are full of patterns with notes and measurements on how to alter the boat to desired length breadth or other features. The old-time carvers most likely did the same.

The great martial artist Miyamoto Musashi said that from one thing, we could learn a thousand things.
Mix things up. Learn something new from something old.

A Carved Star – as mariitme a decoration as you can get

A little carving can be a good thing for a boat. I’ve used chip carving to carve incised stars; compass rose designs and other designs on everything from quarterboard ends to compass boxes. Chip carving requires only a sharp carving knife and can be used to accent flat surfaces with pleasing designs that won’t foul lines. The average student picks up the basics in a few hours. Carvings can be simple or very complicated—simple works best for the beginner, and on a boat. 

The chip-carved designs I’ll show you all have one underlying feature: the small pyramid or chip which you excise from the workpiece in six precise cuts. Once you master these basics, everything else falls into place. The basic pyramid forms the basis of all chip carving from the easiest to the most complicated.

But, first a few words on safety: always wear eye protection, and always secure the work on a non-slip surface. Consider wearing finger guards or carvers gloves. The old rubric of never cutting towards yourself makes little sense when you need to reposition your work periodically. Preferably, avoid having to cut towards yourself, but if you must keep delicate body parts like fingers out of the path of a moving blade. Critically don’t carve while tired or on medication.

The Pyramid

If you look a the first figure, you’ll notice a triangle with three lines running towards the angles from the center. Each of the six lines represents one of the cuts you’ll make to free a pyramid of wood. 

We can start by selecting the wood. Basswood and close-grained pine are both excellent choices for beginners. 

The three lines inside the triangle are the ones you’ll cut first. They are started deep where the lines meet and run out shallow at the angle on the outer edge of the design. These first three cuts are made perpendicular to the surface of the wood. Don’t let these become angle cuts; keep them vertical. The photo I’ve included shows a practice board that I use to remind myself of the order of how cuts on designs that I frequently cut.

Remember, these cuts will be deeper at the center and shallower at the outer edges of the triangle. The best way to achieve this is to set your knife into the center deeply and pull back with decreasing pressure on the blade. You will need to ensure that your blade is very sharp. 

You do not want to overrun the edges of the triangle while making the initial perpendicular cuts.

After making the perpendicular cuts, you’ll make three cuts along the edges of the triangle. These are slicing cuts made at an angle of about 65 degrees. You can approximate this angle by placing your knife at 90 degrees, halving that to 45, and then bring it back towards the vertical about halfway. There is no need to be too fussy here. A few degrees in one or the other direction should not matter if you are consistent, and practice will ensure that. The cuts along the long axis of the triangle will be most straightforward, while the final cut at the base needs a bit more care because it is relatively short.

These angle cuts have more to do with your wrist movement than bullying your way through the wood. The wrist flexes, and the very sharp knife does most of the work. Reminder: keep that edge sharp. If you’ve done everything right, each chip will pop out cleanly. Practice makes perfect.

Avid chip carvers take it as an article of faith that all chips should pop out like toast from the toaster. If yours don’t all the time, you may not have cut deeply enough or used the correct angle consistently. If the angle of cuts is consistent, the cuts meet.  

Don’t yield to impatience and use the tip of your knife to wedge or flick the chip out. You’ll dull the blade and spoil the work. Or worse, flick that chip right into your eye. I’ll confess that not all my chips pop the first time all the time.

After you have the essential chip down, you’ll be ready to move along to cut the star.

The Star:

1.) Mark out the lines for the star. Include those radiating from the center of the figure to the ray tips, and those extending inward to stars base.

2.) Make the vertical cuts from the center outwards, deeper at the center, and shallower at the edges. Just as you did with the pyramid.

3.) After those make the ten angled slicing cuts to clear the chips. 

4.) Work your way around the star until you finish up all the rays.

The only caution on cutting stars is that it’s easy to cut the rays unevenly. Careful recutting can rectify this, but once out of balance, a star can become a carvers headache. 

A good trick is to take a compass and scribe a circle around the outside edge of the rays. If you don’t cut beyond the circle, the rays will stay equal.

The star is a lovely and traditional design you can use to finish off the end of a quarterboard, boom, chest, door, or whatever you fancy. Gold-leafed, it will be an incomparable decoration.

Here are some examples I’ve carved using chip carving:

Blade Work: in search of perfection

There are some interesting parallels between Japanese swordsmanship and effective carving technique. No, I am not suggesting that they are just alike, just that both involve very sharp steel blades, and reliance on muscle memory to complete accurate cuts. Let’s start at the beginning.
I always begin my classes in carving with sharpening. Nothing gets done effectively or safely without a sharp blade. After sharpening students have an opportunity to test the edges of their knives in chip carving. That being said sharpness is not the only thing needed to be successful. To be competent in chip carving you must have a sharp blade, and be able to cut at the correct angle and do so consistently. An incorrect cutting angle leads to irregular cuts and lopsided designs. Sharpness will not help with this.
A sword similarly needs to have the correct hasuji to achieve the intended effect; a clean, effective cut. Hasuji is the path your sword takes in a cut and the edge alignment which you maintain while you cut. Yes, one is with a very large blade, the other with a blade of an inch length, but the principle is the same.
In chip carving an angle too steep or too shallow dooms your project to failure; so correct hasuji is essential. With a sword, correct cutting angle will use less energy and will cut cleaner as well.

You can go to books on chip carving and find the correct angle at which you should cut to a degree. But, you are not going to get too far lining up each cut with a protractor. You have to learn it, and through practice put that angle into your muscle memory. This is pretty much what we do with a Japanese Katana too.
As with a Katana so with a knife; we learn correct hasuji through practice.

An additional piece of wonderment in blade work

You may have heard of a state called mushin ( mushin no shin), sometimes referred to as “no mind.” I have yet to achieve this state in martial arts, but when I was carving every day for hours on end, I’d frequently find myself awakening from mushin after an hour of doing something like hollowing the wings on an eagle. My body knew what needed to be done, and my training took over leaving my mind to relax, and think of no thing. You cannot achieve this sort of state if you are consciously thinking things through all the time.
My first martial art was Judo. My Japanese sensei heard me complaining one day that we practiced all these throws thousands of times. His response was to throw me and then sit down beside his thirteen-year-old critic and explain that we practiced the techniques thousands of times in dojo with the intent of learning them so well that when needed there would be no thought at all involved in their use. The first time I was jumped on a New York subway and defeated my attacker with a single throw and a wrist lock I knew that…as usual…sensei knew best. As sensei pointed out the key was practice. The swordsman Miyamoto Musashi was also an acomplished poet, pholosopher, calligrapher and painter. He advised that the principles involved in mastery of one thing can be applied to learn and master others – ” from one thing learn a thousand things.”

So, get out your tools, and start practicing.

The Fair Curve – closing your eyes to see

Fair curves are important to ship & boat builders, carvers, furniture makers, and traditional sailmakers. The Oxford English Dictionary describes a fair curve as “a smooth curve; especially (Nautical) one in the body of a ship.” That works out well until you put practitioners of different crafts together on a stage and ask them to talk about fair curves. Then it gets complicated.
1988 – I was working as an anthropologist at the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife in Washington. My job was “presenting” artisans to the audiences of festival attendees. I helped get the flow going and occasionally interpreted concepts to the audience. The audience had little idea of what planes, carvers gouges, sailmakers palms, fid, slicks, caulking mallet, or other such tools were. So I presented and made needed explanations. Later there were demonstrations.

One day I had a presentation to make with several craftspeople from different trades on the little stage we used.
We were to talk about their interpretation of craft. We’d been doing this all weekend, and the troops were getting bored. So, as we started, I asked the boatbuilder what he thought was a central concept in his craft. He opined that fair curves were critical. After a moment or so, I noticed that the silver tableware maker was getting excited and invited him to comment. Fair curves were crucial to him as well. Silverware with unfair lines didn’t please customers. Then the sailmaker chimed in with how fair curves were essential in sailmaking. At once, the three were in tune. And it all seemed like a sort of mystical union going on in front of the audience. The conversation continued after they ushered us from the stage for the next presentation.
All the members of the mystical union knew with exactitude what a fair curve was. When I asked, they repeated variations on the Oxford English Dictionary definition. But, I knew from the intensity of the conversation that it was more. Finally, the sailmaker told me that it was better if I saw and felt one. I was a bit mystified. But I had to move on; there was no free time for the pursuit of fair curves.

About four years later, I was working for the Department of Interior in Lowell, MA. My little corner of the National Park was the New England Folklife Center housed on the Boot Mill’s fourth floor. The Folklife Center was an educational hub for traditional crafts in New England.
I enlisted Ralph Johnson of the Pert Lowell Company in Newbury, and Bill Bromell, the Constitution Museum’s model maker, to build a project boat in the Center. After discussions of what we could make and still get out of the building, Bill commissioned Ralph to construct a thirteen-foot skiff based on a seventeenth-century plan. Bill was a nautical historian and model maker. He wanted something unique and historical.
Having decided on a plan they could build in the space available, Ralph set about producing all the drawings needed. We had a great time. Several members of the visiting public joined in the lofting and building. It was more like working in a boat shop than running a government program.
When we reached the point where we were planking the sides of the boat, Ralph decided that it was the right time for me to learn the proper way to mark out, cut, plane, and “hang” a plank. After careful measurement, sawing, and fitting, Ralph asked me if I thought the curve was fair and ready to hang. I took a few more cuts with my plane, stepped back, and declared that it looked fair to me. Ralph then had me close my eyes and walk down the length of the plank with my thumb bearing along the edge that I had declared “fair.” My finger felt every bump, unfair edge, and imperfection that my eyes had failed to pick up. Ralph grinned at me and said, “Sometimes you must close your eyes to see.”
What the sailmaker had said was true. Sometimes you have to feel to see.

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