Smoothing curly grain or decoratively knotted wood can always be an issue in carving. Cabinet makers have tricks with scrapers and planes, but they generally are not working in the tight spaces that a carver has. This spoon was a particular issue. When I first made it, I didn’t notice the tiny stable knots in the wood. When I did see the knots, I thought to myself, ” when I smooth it down, it’ll look lovely.” Then it proved challenging to smooth, and I put the spoon to one side – too pretty to discard, but a finishing problem for another day.

Sometime in January, I saw these little flexible disc sanders demonstrated on the Treeline Woodworking* site and decided to try them. They are perfect for getting into tight spots that need smoothing. They are designed for use in Dremels, mini-carving motors, and flex shafts. Unlike some similar products, they seem to have just the right balance of stiffness and flexibility for working into the curves of a hollow like a spoon, small bowl, or an eagle’s feathers.

The completed spoon is now a Valentine’s Day present for my wife.

* I am not associated with Treeline or Mooreplastic.

The New Bandsaw

This winter, I have been enchanted by my new bandsaw. What? A bandsaw, enchanting? If you are a woodworker, yes, delighted and enchanted.

My venerable Delta, 14-inch bandsaw, died last year. After multiple rebuilds, numerous enhancements to increase its accuracy, and lots of loving, it failed.
While carefully comparison shopping for its replacement, I made do with the small ten-inch capacity Rikon saw I keep for light work in the carving shop. It was a trial. It did mitigate the loss of the larger saw somewhat but had neither the size nor power needed for many shop chores.
After I made my choice, finding a saw occupied lots of time. Vendors offered saws for sale that they did not have, couldn’t guess if they’d actually have, or which they had, but it was sitting offshore as part of the great supply chain SNAFU of 2021. I had heated and visceral arguments with hardware dealers about their integrity.

I ordered in June for an estimated delivery date of October. I was almost flummoxed when it arrived unannounced in late August – all three hundred pounds of it. To get it into the basement workshop required a custom-built ramp, some seamanly rope work, and three people.
The new saw, a Laguna 14/12 with a horse and a half motor, proved to be a better saw than the beloved old Delta. As a result, the sound of resawing can now frequently be heard as I reduce small cherry logs into small cherry planks.

As you may know, I am famous for picking through my woodpile for wood too good to be burned. I am now unchained. My mania for seeing what lies inside the hear of a log is unrestrained. All the “good stuff” is put aside for further drying, and all the scrap is kindling for the stove.

The only problem is that I’ll pull out a piece of kindling, show it to my wife or son, and say, “it’s too pretty to burn.”

My wife and daughters had enough the other day when I started lining up kindling on the dining room table to take photographs. The tablecloth, they assured me, was ruined.

It’s cold in the downstairs shop, but I have been exiled there till I learn to behave. But I have my bandsaw for company!


Christmas list for the shop:

  • Additional dust collector for the basement shop
  • Lee Valley Panel Gauge
  • new respirator cartridge replacements
  • new hearing protector “earmuffs.”
  • new safety glasses

Only one of these falls into the strict category of “tools,” the panel gauge. Most woodworkers wood refer to others as a sort of accessory product. Not something you’d use for making a wooden product for your store, your next show, or to decorate a commission.

Many woodworkers would consider some of the things on my list to be hindrances in the shop. For example, the little Rikon dust collector rolls around and is a tripping hazard. It can be hung on the wall, but then the panel saws that belonged to your father would have no place to hang. Also, the damn respirator gets in my way when I do close-up work, and the hearing protectors get in the way of the respirator fit. Finally, when you add the safety glasses, I look like something from a 1959 Sci-Fi movie.

Most of the woodworkers I know are odd combinations of very reticent to adopt new things and over-eager to embrace and spend on new gadgets. The gadgets promise to make your life in the shop easier. One is seen as getting in the way, and the other as the key to woodworking paradise.

It all works out until your hearing becomes impaired or you begin wheezing.

There is one dust extractor in the basement shop, two air scrubbers for tiny particles, and a shop vac. The carving shop has an air scrubber as well as a shop vac. In the carving shop, I produce less dust but more chips. Both shops have respirators, glasses, dust masks, and hearing protection. I make every effort to make sure that I use them.

Overkill? I don’t think so. Look, I have intermittent mild asthma. I am very interested in making sure that it does not get worse.  

Being breathless is something I can do without. Hearing? I love the sounds of the birds outside my shop. I’m not interested in losing what I’ve got. My sight? Try being a woodworker without vision – I’m already mildly impaired and have no desire to lose what I have.

I once worked at a job site where the motto was that safety was a habit we all need to form. So we learn to work around the nuisances if we want to continue creating. Safety equipment used to make made rare appearances in tool catalogs and online. Not so now. Take a hint from the companies you buy the toys from and make shop safety a habit.

I’ll tell you all about the Lee Valley panel gauge in a later post. It’s sure to make life in my shop easier and more pleasurable. Toys, you can’t live without them!


You can’t carve without removing wood. And removing wood can be as delicate a process as lightly slipping the gouge through the wood or propelling it forcefully. Apply too much force in the wrong situation, and you have lovely kindling. On the other hand, be too bashful in pushing the tool through the wood, and you won’t remove the right amount.
The carver controls the movement of the tool through wood by holding and guiding with one hand and propelling with the other. With both hands on the gouge or chisel, your arms and the force of your body provides the energy. Need a bit more oomph? Use the meaty part of your palm to hit the end of the gouge. Here is the tricky part. It takes practice to learn to gauge just how much force is enough. Your body is continually giving you feedback on how effective your cutting is. With a bit of practice, you’ll learn to judge the force needed.
This sounds a bit metaphysical to the beginner, but it’s not – sensation is a free tool you need to learn to use if you’d be a carver.

When you need more force than a hand can provide, you bring in heavier tools. A carver’s tool to malleate, hit, or pound wood is a mallet; the words share a common root. Carver’s mallets come in many shapes and weights. But they are not the blocky square shape used by a carpenter or joiner. Instead, the carver’s mallet is rounded. The picture below shows some of the mallets I use regularly. Of course, the wood needs to be hard and dense to take the punishment the tool receives.

These are my mallets. Note that most are shop made from firewood, and yes the bench is dirty…I work on it.

Why do I have so many? Depending on the force needed, I’ll select my mallet. The largest one I use when “wasting” or removing large amounts of wood – as I might while hollowing the wings of a carved eagle. The smaller ones, like the little palm mallet, are for when I want more delicate control. I can often get finer control using this mallet than I can with both hands on the tool. Once again, it’s experience and paying attention to the feedback sensation from the tool and the wood.

Some of the mallets are shop-made, and some are purchased. My favorite palm mallet I shaped from a knot of elm. It was a hunk of firewood.
Whatever carving project you work upon, a star-spangled banner, or a delicate spray of acanthus leaves, You’ll make choices of tools. Like gouges and chisels, Mallets are not all alike. Don’t use the largest mallet if you don’t need it, and consider making some of your own. They are another helpful tool that you will need to master.

Methods of work: the nail board

Inelegant, unattractive, and probably never seen on a photoshoot for Fine Woodworking – it’s a nail board. I first learned the utility of this ugly beast working in a boat shop. It’s the ideal solution to keeping an odd or unbalanced piece of wood off a work surface while you paint or varnish it. The popular painter’s pyramids are another solution, but balancing an oddly shaped piece on them can be challenging. This humble board with drywall screws was made in a moment and did the job. It’ll get stored under a bench after its use for some future need.

If you are into elegant, I am sure you could cut a nice piece of walnut, precisely measure the placements, and use bronze fittings. But then you’d feel guilty about all the paint and varnish that builds up in it. Besides, I just wanted to get the damn thing varnished, not make a work of art.

Tools of the Trade: Sanding Mops

So, you couldn’t use these to mop a floor. The name probably derives from the mop-like look they get after prolonged use—sort of like the dark brown one at the top of the photo. The Yellow ones are just assembled and won’t look as moppy for a while. Sanding mops are lovely in the woodshop for sanding complex shapes because they’ll get into nooks and crannies. Depending upon the grit of the sandpaper, they can be more or less aggressive. I like to use these to get into the hollows of spoons and small bowls where hand sanding is awkward. The range of grits I use goes from an aggressive 80 grit to 120 and then a 220 grit shaped like a cup. You can use them in a drill, but a drill press is probably best.
I get mine from Canadian dealers ( Stockroom Supply and Lee Valley), but other suppliers sell them also ( unfortunately, I have no stock in either company).

If you haven’t tried this sanding tool and have an appropriate application, I’d suggest that you try them.


My oldest son would never read instruction manuals. Of course, lots could go awry with this strategy. His native engineering talents could usually extract him from near disaster, though. I wondered aloud where such a stubborn trait originated, only to meet the stares of the entire family focused on me. Did I unwittingly train my son this way?

Yes, but not quite. I have some built-in learning disorders that make reading blocks of a small, close type challenging to read. In addition, the English used in the manuals is so poor that three pages in, you are skipping whole chapters looking for what you need.

I figure that he saw my frustration and took it to its logical conclusion: manuals stink. So we all may now should say a humble thanks for all the online videos that supplant the manuals. I have come to believe manuals are deliberately getting written to be impenetrable.

Sometimes there is nothing for it but to dig into the manual; even my son now agrees with this. But if you need to hone the skills learned in the manual, that community of fellow users, crafters and artists has now become indispensable.

Some of my favorite tool vendors, Lee-Valley, Rockler, and others, have realized this and now have entire libraries dedicated to using their products. The world of instructional videos can be a Wild West of unregulated data, so this is good. 

Many videos are wonderfully generous in offering free training on complex subjects. But some are dangerously negligent.

Those of us who operate high-powered woodworking equipment, capable of taking fingers in a single pass, need to take care. If something looks dangerous, maybe it is. So step back, Shudder, and dig into the manual.


Woodworkers spend money on foolish things every year. Why? We see it on the web in a video or the catalog and realize that it is the solution to a problem we do not have. So out flashes the credit card, and next week we are looking for storage space for the new item.
Most of what we buy gradually finds its purpose. In my shop, neatly put aside in chests, rests the tool porn I could not resist: my collection of Leigh Valley planes. Now, remember I am a carver. So I may trot the beauties out once a year, exclaim over them, ” My Precious!!”, use them for ten minutes, and away they go for another year. I might also trot them out to show visiting woodworkers; they are pretty impressive.
But resting in one for the drawers are the set of exquisite Japanese chisels that I bought in the early seventies that have never been used. Back then, I envisioned a different shop and future, making elaborately carved chests. The chisels were to be part of my primary toolset. Guess what? They’ve never been used. I take them out and clean them once in a while. The vacuous look on my face says it all. I still haven’t figured out how I’d use them.
Now I’m sure that you have your little secrets tucked away also. But, before you gainsay me, let’s take an inventory of the: pots, pans, mechanics tools, yarns, or photographic equipment that sits idle. I’m not accusing you of waste or impulse purchases. It’s just that despite carefully considered plans, things can go in wildly different directions.
The chisels are my touchstone to early days, and I probably will not part with them. However, I have parted with other things that don’t and never will fit into my work scheme.
Some years ago, I gave away a set of high-quality miniature turning tools to a turner who had the will but no tools. I had the tools but no intention to turn. It worked out well. At Christmas time, I was gifted with some lovely miniature Christmas tree ornaments, a small bowl, and a few other items. I also cleaned my carving tool collection of unnecessary duplicates by gifting knives and gouges to students.
The critical thing in gifting things is to consider the utility and need you have for the tool, not how much it cost you. Frequently people keep what they neither want nor need, based on its cost. That’s a false economy. You paid for it years ago, and its resale value might be pennies on the dollar. Give it to a good home.

Flashback Friday – July 16 – Critical Tool?

Articles regularly appear in the woodworking periodicals about the essential power tool in your shop. The authors make convincing arguments for their choices, too. I prefer to think in terms of what suite of crucial tools makes your work possible? Your answer will vary with the materials you work with, how you change them, and the product you produce.
I’ll use my work as an example. In my work carving portraits of boats and ships, I need to resaw thick stock into thinner frequently. I then need to plane stock to the final thickness. My indispensable power tools are my bandsaw and my planer. I also have a small power jointer, but I have a shooting board and an old jointer plane that work as well. The shop is too small for the sort of jointer that you might find in a boat shop or cabinetmakers. As a result, the blades on the hand plane are sharp, and the sole is polished for when the little 6-inch power jointer won’t do. Without the jointers, I wouldn’t be able to glue up the panels I need for portraits. This suite of tools speeds my work. Could I do without them? Yes. There was a time before I could afford these aids, and I used small portable and manual tools to complete the tasks just like my 18th and 19th-century antecedents. I am thrilled that I no longer have to do that.

If I was a cabinetmaker, my bandsaw might gather dust because the star of my tool suite could be the table saw. But, as you see from the picture, my table saw serves as a place to stack recently resawed boards for a series of mast hoop portraits of small sailing craft. Likewise, my router table serves as a place to stack small logs before I resaw them; it’s a power tool that sees heavy use in many woodworking shops.
Most of us have limited space and limited funds to spend on tools. You must think in terms of space available and which tools are critical to your work. That large console table saw with digital readout to ten decimal points might have you drooling and daydreaming. But putting together a suite of tools that gets the job done is a better use of resources.
My primary goal is to get the wood to my carving bench with the minimum work, cost, and effort. Not till then do I start the most enjoyable aspects of my work. So think about that as you plan tool purchases.


I’ve always been a fan of the old saying that free is worth what you pay for it. My wood shed has much in it that was free or free for pick up—a small rotund log placed on the bandsaw yields stock for spoons, small bowls, and boxes. I do, however, live in terror of free tools and other objects being dropped off at my shop by the well-meaning.
Friends and even people you do not know are happy to dump stuff on you simply because they know you are a woodcarver or a woodworker. Once a friend dropped off a case full of old chisels. It was left one Sunday evening- conveniently in the dark. On Monday morning, it proved to be a solid mass of rusted together chisels and gouges. Twenty years ago, when grandpa died, it may have been a splendid collection of tools. Now it was only a lump of rust. Another time I was gifted with a garish painted No mask; these masks are frequently painted. But in this one had been poorly painted. Some indulgent parent had let a little barbarian loose with the paintbox. The result was an impossible job of stripping the paint.
So free is not always worth what you pay for it. The people responsible feel that they are contributing something, or at least recycling a usable object. It ain’t necessarily so. The horror of finding some behemoth of 19th century wood shop tool on your porch. is not to be underestimated.
I now set limits on what I accept. sooner or later I have to get rid of free junk. For example, at the last big house cleanout, I filled half of a dumpster with “possibles” – things I thought at one time I could possibly use. I am, however, still accepting wood.

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