Cherry – the versatile wood

The photo for the featured image was just taken this morning. I was finishing a batch of cherry treen. If it’s fall it’s time for me to start making treen for those friends who’ve requested spoons, spatulas, or spreaders for the holidays. The image illustrates four of the reasons I love cherry.

Cherry has a lovely color repertoire depending on the circumstance of the tree’s growth. Color, grain and hardness vary widely. Cherry is durable, and moderately hard to carve, but not so hard that it’s a a trial. In addition to treen I’ve done chip carving in cherry, and it’s my “go to” wood for ship and boat portraits. There is no other wood that I have had such an intimate and long lasting relationship with. I love our native New England cherry and I’m excessively fond of the Alleghenny cherry that I get from Pennsylvania.

In recent years I’ve had difficulty getting the wider planks I prefer for portraits and now regularly joint panels from narrower stock. Perhaps, that is a fifth reason why I love cherry; once glued properly it holds together well.

If you haven’t tried cherry because you thought it too hard I’d advise getting a sample and allowing the wood to appeal to you.

Bits & Pieces, or E Pluribus Unum

I remember being dismayed when Warburton, my mentor in Baltimore informed me that the elaborate carvings of Grinling Gibbons were composed in pieces and then joined together. I believe that I spotted a gleam of pleasure in his eye at my discomfiture. From my limited understanding of carving in those days, it seemed that anything carved from a whole piece was best. Later that day, I assisted him in selecting stock to glue up for a large carving. , I learned that frequently it was neither possible nor preferable to make something in one piece.
The nineteenth-century carvers of show figures and figureheads knew this. Whole logs seem to be a great place to start when working on a large piece. But, the radial splitting of the wood as it moves can begin the process of destroying the figure in the harsh marine environment. Then too, extended arms or legs posed problems. With the single large block, you become constrained to what you can include in that volume. My first eagle proved the point to me. I had a rectangular piece of Cuban mahogany; Now I might recut the block, and reassembled the pieces to get a more fluid design. But, I was at the very start of things and designed the bird within the block. As a result, the carving appeared to be in a straitjacket. Eventually, you either learn these lessons through mistakes or by observing your masters work. I always was a kind of bull-headed sort.

This doesn’t mean that joining pieces together is easy. Old figureheads were held together with “drifts” of iron, bolts, pegs, glue, and careful joinery. I believe that the Penobscot Bay Maritime museum has some x-rays on display that show the impressive ironwork hidden inside some of their figureheads. I’ve used wooden pegs, glue and the odd lag bolt to secure heads and wings on some of my work. I liked the way John Haly Bellamy used to build the “top shelf” on the wings of his eagles. I emulate that not by starting with a thicker plank but by gluing up that section of the blank in several layers. I like the look of drama and movement it gives the birdie. Like Bellamy and Samuel McIntire, I’ve been known to exaggerate the eagle’s neck. This approach makes the head look serpentine. The head needs to be carved apart from the body and added as the carving progresses. On larger eagles, I’ve drilled and countersunk a spot for a screw or peg and then glued and clamped the head in place.
I word about style here. I don’t carve naturalistic wildlife. I carve stylized eagles that reflect the design preference of the 18th and 19th-century masters I admire. Much of my technique won’t serve a carver doing more naturally styled birds.
But, back to bits and pieces. The massive eagle on the wall of the Whaling Museum in New Bedford was assembled from many parts. It was the only practical way to create it. Part of the reason that you can make out the individual parts is that, as you probably already know, wood continues to expand and contract. Being that this eagle has taken lots of weathering those seams started to show.

Searching the Internet, I am sure you’ll find lots of advice on how to and not to assemble blanks for larger carving. I like to use wood of the same species, air-dried if possible, and matched closely for moisture levels. When I first began doing this, I used epoxy, but stopped when I realized that I was getting excessive squeeze out on the glue lines, and as a result, winding up with starved joins ( joins between pieces that lacked enough glue to get excellent adhesion). Starved joins will lead to failures in the blank sooner or later, and the general rule is that they’ll tend to be where you can’t fix them. Remember: a good glue joint is stronger than the surrounding wood.
Depending upon how wet the piece might get in regular use you have a variety of glue choices from resorcinol glues to polyvinyl acetate glues like Titebond II. A certain amount of squeeze out is both expected and wanted. Don’t be excessive in your glue application, but do apply glue evenly, so you avoid starving the join.
If you have spent any time within a boat shop, you may have noticed the large racks of clamps. That’s due to that general law of boatbuilding that you always need one more clamp than you have. Carvers have the same issue when gluing up large or irregular blocks. Be prepared to have a few more bar clamps, C-clamps and such more than you think you might need. Remember to use backing shims between your clamp and the blank to avoid damage to the surface of the blank.
Here is a nasty little dirty secret: I have been known to draw pieces together temporarily during glue-up by using screws to pull pieces together or to hold something in place until it’s dry and cured. You can’t use this where the defect you create will be visible on a carving finished bright with varnish. But, it works great when the visible defect will be carved away or when the piece will be painted.
Always leave a glued up project in a dry, warm area. Always leave everything clamped together a minimum of twenty-four hours. After taking your clamps off, leave the assembled blank to “cure” for a couple of days before carving.
Have fun getting beyond the basic block piece by piece.

Bowls And Scrapers- Flash Back Friday – August 13 -2021

Sooner or later, most woodworking sites and blogs have some sort of post on scrapers. Rather than duplicate what others have demonstrated in the care, feeding, use, and maintenance of scrapers. I’d like to point out that they produce much less dust than sanders – that’s a hell of a significant point when you have a confined shop and allergies. They also can give you a crisper, almost cut, finish. If you look at the picture of the bowl with all the shavings, you’ll notice that they are shavings, not dust. A properly sharpened scraper produces shavings.

In this instance, the birch short had been around the shop for about ten years. At some point, I had outlined a bowl shape on it. Last week I moved it from the maybe soon bucket to the on schedule bucket. A few days ago, I rough shaped the outer contours and took some latex caulk to the bottom. I used the bead of caulk to paste a pine cleat to the base; when I no longer need to secure the bowl in a vice or a clamp, the caulk will quickly release with some alcohol and a putty knife. Cleaning up the caulk is easy with the scraper. In the meantime, It will take all the rough handling I can give it while shaping the bowl.

Today, I needed a break from some other work, so I roughed out the inside of the bowl. A few years ago I would have done all of this with hand gouges. These days I use a variety of Arbortech ball gouges and Kuztall discs to rough out the bowl. Warning: these tools require a dust mask, face shield, glasses, hearing protection, and heavy-duty gloves. Not used with care, they will cause severe industrial injuries. But, in hardwood like cherry, maple or birch, they save labor on the rough out. I like to use these tools out of doors. They produce prodigious amounts of chips.

After roughing out, I used a relatively flat gouge to clean up the shape to the proportions I wanted. At this point, you might be tempted to get the sander out, and I won’t tell you that it’s wrong to do. It comes down to work style.

I reached for my scrapers and put in about forty-five minutes, smoothing out the inside of the bowl. When I thought I liked the result, I applied a bit of Turps to the wood and observed all the holidays, dings, and other imperfections I did not see while the bowl was dry. Another test is to close your eyes and run your fingers around in the bowl. If you don’t like the feel of a bump or a small divot, chances are that the client might not either. Closing your eyes to see is a much underutilized free tool. Tomorrow I’ll go back with a pencil and highlight the areas I need to fix before I start to work on the outside.

This is a carved bowl, not one turned on the lathe. I tend to leave more meat on the sides and bottom of these. My goal is not to make a fragile walled vessel, but one which has some substance to it

My final picture shows a selection of scrapers and scraper tuning tools. Not shown are my collection of little homemade scrapers; they are pretty easy to make to any pattern you desire. The scrapers pictured, and more, are available from a host of suppliers for a wide variety of prices. If you don’t have any, I advise that you buy a basic set from a reputable dealer, like Lee Valley or Woodcraft Supply. Most of the people who are disappointed in scrapers have not put the time in on learning how to set them up. I know, because for years I was one of them.

Coastal English 202

I’ve posted previously about Psyche, about the Captain, and about the Captain and his family’s turn of Biblical Phraseology. Well, here is how it turned out one day with the Captain:

The Captain owned a beautiful Ketch called Psyche. As general dogsbody, I tried to keep up on the maintenance. One day I was aboard cleaning up from a week-long family jaunt to Monhegan when the Captain appeared and started getting ready to make sail. I fumed that half the items stowed below were adrift, and I needed a whole day to re-stow them. That started an argument. One didn’t argue with Frank…he’d spent the years ashore since swallowing the anchor selling soap for Lever Brothers. No was just another opportunity to get you to yes.
After ten minutes of futile argument on my part, he just tamped a new charge of Holiday tobacco into his pipe, lit up, puffed to get it going, looked at me, and said “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof” let’s get underway. I was desperately looking for a way to turn the argument back in my favor. But, sweet reason never did work with the Captain. I began digging through my collection of aphorisms for something that would stop him in his tracks. Let’s see – He who sups with the devil should use a long spoon? No. “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved” ( Proverbs). Nope. “the wise shall inherit glory, but shame shall be the promotion of fools ( Proverbs). Nope. Then, thinking on how tired I was, and how hard I had worked all day I came upon “Thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn” (Corinthians). This one stopped the Captain for a few seconds, I had picked it up from him, and it was a personal favorite. Then his eyes took on that steely glare that most Master Mariners learn, and he replied to me with a phrase that was probably ancient in the days of the Athenian Navy -“ Grumble ye may, but go you shall.”

We went for a lovely sail.

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. I prefer to think in terms of what suite of crucial tools makes your work possible. What you 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 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 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. 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 does yeoman service as a place to stack recently resawed boards for a series of mast hoop portraits of small sailing craft. My router table is serving 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. Think about that as you plan tool purchases.

For Beginners

I’ve prepared some materials for beginners, which I hope will make the first steps in carving easier, and help to make you a more successful woodcarver.

Please bear in mind that without attention to safety woodcarving can be dangerous. Always use protective goggles against flying chips, be careful to plan out cuts so that you don’t cut yourself. If a cut looks unsafe, it probably is; reposition your work for safety. 
Consider taking a course with a carver at either an adult education center, or at one of the many exceptional craft education centers. Safety comes first. Personal protective gear for carvers includes safety glasses, finger guards, cut resistant gloves, and an anti-skid surface on which to place your work.

Tools:
Tools for carvers come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and qualities. When I was getting started, it was easier to get badly cheated on carving tools. They were hard to find, and sometimes of very indifferent quality. I was lucky and unlucky: my first set was an old Millers Falls set that is no longer made; my second set was an expensive full-size set of truly awful English tools. When the whole kit was stolen in Philadelphia, I was heartbroken at the loss of my Millers Falls tools and grateful that those terrible English things had gone on to a more deserving owner.
Your decisions on tools have long-lasting effects. Take the time to do it right.

Tool kits:
The Sayres tool kit. This is a compact, and versatile toolset available from the Leigh Valley website. Lee Valley has these available pre-sharpened ( which I advise strongly).
3/8″ 60° parting tool
5/8″ #5 gouge
3/8″ #7 gouge
3/8″ #3 gouge
1″ #3 gouge
This kit around $ 259 at the time I am writing (2019). Yes, good tools are not cheap.

I mostly use Pfeil ( Swiss made tools). Here is a basic tool kit that I’d take traveling if I needed to do some necessary work.
I have given you the sweep and size of the tool. You can purchase these tools online from Woodcraft Supply.

# 5 sweep – 20mm
#7 sweep – 20mm
#7 sweep fishtail – 14mm
#8 sweep- 25mm
#11 veiner- 7mm
#12 V-tool – 8mm
#1 Skew firmer – 16mm ( a chisel beveled on both sides)
I have been satisfied with my Pfeil tools, and have used many of them for over forty years. If you needed to cut the size of the purchase initially, you could eliminate the veiner, and one of the number 7 gouges.

Either of these tool kits can be added to, but Sayres kit cannot be subtracted from. This is a very flexible assortment of tools for carving, and with your knife, it is a good foundation tool kit.

Knives:
Knives are very personal. If a knife is not comfortable to hold, it’s irrelevant how good the design or steel is. To start with you’ll need one knife: a curved back, straight-edged chip carvers knife ( sometimes called a sheepsfoot shape.
A couple of things to remember:
Don’t buy a stainless steel carving knife. Stainless steel will be hard for you to restore a really sharp edge on. Stainless is also brittle. You don’t want a blade snapping the first time you put a bit of pressure on it. The vendors I have listed will have a wide variety of knives available. Avoid folding knives, utility knives, knives made for modelers work. I advise chip carvers knives. Avoid thin blades. although most of mine come custom made from a smith ( Mudd Sharrigan in Wiscasset, Maine) I also have many from Murphy Tool, and from Lee Valley

Additional Tools:

Things you’ll need which are probably around your home:
safety glasses; ruler; number 2 pencils; transfer paper (carbon paper for transferring designs); erasers; nail or vegetable brush- for cleaning out dust and chips; box or case to hold your kit,
Ceramic stones: pocket size extra fine and fine
Importantly, you’ll need something to keep your work from slipping around dangerously. A piece of work that moves while you are cutting is a danger to you, and you may see hours of work ruined. A few clamps are of use for securing work. I also use anti-skid materials like drawer liners and carpet backing. Look at my post on carvers hooks for how to make a portable work surface. You will not be the only carver to start out on a table or countertop.

What brand tools to buy:
I buy from Pfeil (Swiss made Tools), Henry Taylor, Warren, Harmon, Murphy, Addis Brothers and whoever else has what I like and want.
Reputable companies include those above and: Sorby, Stubai, Ashly Isles, Two Cherries, and others.
Not all tools made by a manufacturer are of equal quality. Sorby makes fantastic turning tools. But I don’t care for their carving tools. Pfeil gouges are my preferred manufacturer for gouges, but I would not use their knives. This is a personal preference.

What to expect from a tool manufacturer:
Most of the time, the tools you order will arrive and be fine right out of the box. But you should be aware of a few points:
1.) Many manufacturers sell tools ground, but not finely sharpened or honed. For beginners, I recommend that they get their tools honed and ready to use by the company they are ordering from.
2.) All manufacturers use mass-produced handles. Some of these are very good, but others are awful. Watch out for too much finish on these handles. You may need to take a bit of steel wool to them and knock off a bit of the gloss and excess. If you don’t do this, the tool might slip in your hand, or give you blisters.
3.) Gross defects. You probably won’t find any, but look for misaligned handles, unevenly ground bevels and any other sloppiness. Send the tool back. It’ll take too long to fix the defect, and you paid good money for a useable tool.

An online search will show many tool vendors. Not all are reputable. Among the ones I deal with and have found trustworthy are:

Woodcraft Supply – one of the premier tool dealers for carvers and woodworkers in general. Source for Swiss Made Pfeil tools

Woodcarvers Supply, Inc. – This Florida based operation has a good selection of supplies for carvers. Sourceõ for Henry Taylor Tools.

Lee Valley/ Veritas – The Sayres tool kit is available through these folks – pre-sharpened. I’ve had some good experiences with their service and tools. There is an emphasis on hand tools which has been declining in the offerings of other retailers.
Reading list:

One of my favorite carvers, Ian Norbury, has pointed out that many woodcarvers don’t read works on the craft. The mystical experience of staring at the wood is overrated; it has less to tell us than the accumulated wisdom of skilled carvers. Read.
The first two books mentioned are essential to marine carving. The others are general carving texts:

Jay S. Hanna – The Shipcarver’s Handbook, WoodenBoat Publications, Inc. 1988. An excellent book for the beginner and advanced carver. This is the text for our course.

David Hassell – Woodcarving Decorative Signs and Eagles. Tiller Publishing, 1997. While he shows a different approach to letter carving than I use his book is one of the most valuable resources for marine carvers available.

These are some excellent beginners text works:

Charles Marshall Sayers – The Book of Woodcarving: technique, designs, and projects. Dover, 1948 – Dover edition – 1978.

Richard Butz- How to Carve Wood: a book of projects and techniques. The Taunton Press, 1984.

These days the issue of a book being in print and available new is less of an issue than it was ten years ago. All the titles I’ve mentioned are either in print or are available at many used book sellers; the internet is your friend.

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