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.
It was a cold February afternoon, but the sun made it very pretty. Not having much to do, I worked on the portrait of the schooner Ada Bailey for a while. I then made some hair sticks just to see what sort of easy adornments I could come up with without too much fuss. I don’t like the burned in flower; too irregular. But I think the feather designs can be developed. My wife now thinks that I have the thickness and length correct. She wanted the wider top to aid in placement and removal. These six are a mixture of native cherry and mineralized maple. No stain has been used, and the finish is pure tung oil rubbed in and dried. I prefer the look of the cherry; the cherry will darken up a bit more if exposed to the sun.
I’ll be developing the designs further over the next week.
My wife enjoyed the hair combs I’ve been making but wanted some hair sticks for her long hair. So I went into the shop this afternoon and whipped these up for her as an early Valentine’s Day present. In making them, I was influenced by 19th-century Japanese originals I had seen. While not slavishly following their lines, I let them guide the outcome.
I used my favorite native New England cherry for the wood, sanded to 400 grit, and finished them with tung oil.
My wife has promised to let me photograph her using the sticks next time we go out for dinner.
Well, we are almost out of the prototype phase with the combs. We have broken many, learned a lot about finishing them, and experimented with shapes, tooth size, and spacing. I’ve discovered that sanding to four hundred grit is sufficient for a smooth feel.
I am using food-grade tung oil for the finish. Right now, they glisten because the oil is still soaking in. Tung gives a soft, lustrous, and durable scent-free finish once cured. The oil I am using is not the same as in teak oil formulas or other finishing products. It is just pure oil without any additives. However, I am also testing other food-safe alternatives. My final choice must be non-allergenic and protect the wood. Right away, any number of food oils might spring to mind, but as in finishing spoons, you do not want to use anything that might turn rancid.
The small designs were added using my laser engraver. Using the laser, I can also add names on the combs.
My next post on combs will be the last as I develop these ideas into actual projects.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Jay Hanna ends his handy book on Marine carving with a story. It seems that he was interested in how a talented shipbuilder had accomplished a particularly masterful bit of carving. The old gentleman reflected for a while and then commented: “Well, it wasn’t easy.” That’s the story behind this hoop tray portrait ordered by a cardiovascular surgeon from New Jersey. Poor photos, off angles, no information on the builder, year of construction, model, or any of the usual stuff you expect for a commission. I had to correct for perspective on the design because he could never seem to get me a photo in the real profile. Somehow I finalized the design and carved this portrait. When asked by a friend how I had managed to do it, I thought about Jay Hanna’s story and said: Well, it wasn’t easy.
The surgeon was overjoyed at the portrait but not sufficiently that he paid the balance due. I was grateful that it has always been my practice on this sort of commission work to take a substantial deposit up front to cover materials, research, and costs. Since then, if a prospective client balks, I walk.
For further information, read my post on putting curses on sales until paid for:
A hand-carved wooden ring, you say? Actually it was one of my first commercial ventures as a woodcarver. When I was living in Ottawa my girlfriend wanted a ring to seal our deepening relationship, but I was much too poor to buy one. So being a carver I grabbed a bit of rosewood scrap that someone had gifted me and carved her a ring. Of course, it was just a simple ring. But it looked enchanting because it was rather lovely rosewood, and she was pleased to have her finger ringed by it.
It was the sixties, and everyone was into exploration, the natural, and feelings of the spirit. So I started making them on a limited basis for friends to give and receive. Unlike a metal ring, a wooden one needs a bit more heft to provide it with the strength it needs to resist splitting. Make it too thin, and it looks exquisite but not too durable. You had to ensure that the grain had a twist because this was one place where straight grain was not a plus. Grain that was too straight would split right along the grain.
Selecting wood was the key to making it as thin as possible and as lovely as you could make it. I liked very close twisted grain. I chose ebony, teak, and some burl woods that a friend provided from his pipe making.
The tools were a bit string to measure and mark diameters, a drill, a knife, and some gouges. The finish was with sandpaper, followed by steel wool and oil.
Wooden ring-making is still a thing, but I made maybe a dozen or two before moving on to earrings. Unfortunately no photos of that early work survive.
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