Boxes

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.

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.

Well, It Wasn’t Easy – a Flashback Presentation form 2020

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:

Wooden Rings

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.

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.

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.

business

Ask a craftsperson or artist what the least favorite part of what they do is, and they may very well say business. Being in business is part of being in craft and art unless you are totally capable of funding all your materials and tools and have no concern for the rent.

So, since the business end funds so many activities, why is it the least favorite part of our creative activity? Well, there are the long hours of packing and transporting goods for shows—the unresponsive web developer. Then there is dealing with gallery and shop owners who try to outfox us on what is owed when a piece sells.

My rave is saved for boat show customers who claim they could carve that quarter board themselves, and the price is too high. After years of trying to deal with this politely and rationally, I learned to stop engaging with total idiots. A contentious potential client will only become a lousy payment issue later.

The polar opposite of the people who create issues are the customers who enjoy what you have made. These are the ones who run their hands over an eagle for the sheer joy of the tactile. They love the curve and balance of the cherry spoon and commission another portrait of their beloved sailboat for their son to enjoy.
What develops with people like these are feelings of appreciation and trust. These mutually shared feelings are a big part of why you create and are in business to start.

It’s nice to see a craft work fly off the table as a sale, but it’s also nice to see it go home with someone who loves it.

Paper and Scissors

I found the wood sitting in the shorts at my favorite hardwood dealer. It was very dark, heavy, and dense. It was mahogany but so dark and heavy that I felt it was a wayward piece of Dominican, not Honduran. It was just what I wanted.
I wanted to create a banner with a distinctive font, Barnhard Modern. I also wanted to give the banner a center and ends that undulate. The result was pleasing. At shows, people run their hands over the banner as a sensual experience, precisely what I wanted.

How do you do this? You must carve banner ends to appear delicate when viewed from a distance. But up close, there needs to be enough heft that they’ll stand up to the abuse they’ll get on a boat’s transom. For a show display, you have to compromise. People are way closer to the carving than they would be in another boat.

Many banners have curvature, but in most, the area which is lettered is flat. On MANDALAY, the field of the lettering undulates. So, the lettering does not stay in the same plane while laying it out or carving it. To experiment with this, I advise using wood no less than 8/4 in thickness. Any less will be too thin for the effect to work.

First, I carved the banner with all its curves and undulations. It’s essential to control your pleasure in removing wood. Easy. Remember that the effect comes from the smoothness of the curves and contours. Abrupt changes will ruin the look. Periodically take a break to place it in natural light. Turn it upside down and see if the movement of the wood flows.
For lettering, you have several options: Old School layout by hand; or New School computer layout in vinyl or paper. I chose a compromise between hand layout and computer layout on paper. The key to the paper template here is that the paper is flat, and the surface is not – hence the title: Paper & Scissors because cutting the paper will allow you to follow the undulating surface.
To follow the undulations, you slice the areas between the letters to get them to lay in the correct planes. As you layout, you also need to adjust the kerning ( distance between the letters). When completed, take the design into natural light, turn it upside down, and check to see if it still looks proportionate and balanced. I left this for a day and returned to it fresh the next morning; rested eyes see mistakes. I also find that taking photos on my phone reveals things my eyes sometimes miss.

After the layout was complete, the letter carving was like any other letter carving project. The finish is about eleven coats of Captain’s Z-Spar rubbed out after the first three priming coats and each succeeding one. The lettering I painted with One-Shot yellow sign paint. Two thin coats are better than a single thick covering.

Although gold leafing is an entirely separate topic, I advise that you do yourself an enormous favor and allow the varnish to cure before gold leafing. Remember that’s cure, not dry. Varnish manufacturers will tell you that varnish dries in twenty-four hours. But that is not the same as curing.

Gold leaf has a nasty tendency to stick to anything. But especially uncured varnish. I frequently allow a week or more for the varnish to cure; move on to another project, and come back later to apply gold leaf.

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