What’s old is not necessarily discarded. Not in tools nor skills. My shop is soooooo small that I can only fit one of those tiny 6-inch jointers in it — this is fine for most of the hoop tray portraits that I do. But, the carving of the Cunard liner Servia is much larger, and I could not use the small jointer for the task. Out came the old reliable jointer plane procured in the early seventies. Back then I owned almost no power tools, and if I wanted to thickness or joint stock, this was one of the tools I used. Today the tool and the hard-learned skills came in handy because it wasn’t gettin’ done otherwise. What’s old, stays new.
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.
What to hit with: Mallets
Need a mallet? Sooner or later every carver does. You should use one even if you love the slam feeling of the gouge handle into your palm. There’s a perfectly reasonable reason why. If you become a professional carver or carve a lot as an amateur, you’re potentially doing a lot of damage to the palm of your hand. There’s no sense in setting yourself up for tendonitis or carpal tunnel syndrome. Using a mallet is a great way to avoid this.
Wait, what about the sort of sensory feedback I get on how much pressure I need on a cut. The mallet is going to change that. Well, only to a degree. If the tool is sharp, and your right hand is doing a proper of guidance you shouldn’t need a mallet on delicate cuts. A mallet is for when you need a bit more oomph on a tool. An alternative to using a mallet is a palm pad; these have an impact absorbing gel inside that cushions your hand.
But, to get back to mallets. The picture shows a selection of mallets that I use regularly; note that most of them are shop made. The mallet to the far left is one I purchased in the early ’70s. It’s made from low-grade Lignum Vitae and has withstood all these years of my heavier work. It’s not a light tool, and it wouldn’t be suitable for most of the lighter work that I do in portraiture or fine work. To the right of the Lignum mallet is a palm mallet made from a piece of firewood elm. I was jealous of the little palm mallets that Woodcraft Supply had for sale, but about twenty years ago I did not have the forty or so dollars needed to buy one. I found a nice piece of elm burl in the firewood pile and made one instead. Next over is a mallet made from an apple branch and a found counterbalance from some project of years back. I soaked the handle in linseed oil, and I’ll be cutting it down, but it’s proven useful because the brass head allows me to concentrate a good bit of force in a small area. The turned mallet is made from firewood pile ash and is the lightest of my collection. I use this one when I need a very light touch on a workpiece. The final mallet was made years ago by Jerry Cumbo, the shop manager at WoodenBoat School. Jerry made it for a student of mine who had shown up to class without a mallet, he made it out of black locust (otherwise known as New England teak), and it’s a nice addition to my collection.
Why do I have a collection of mallets? It’s so I can choose the weight and direction of impact while I am working. Do you need this many mallets? Probably not, unless you are doing more substantial sculptural work a smaller mallet like a palm mallet might be more appropriate to your needs, and you could make it yourself.
I picked up this letter opener in the ’90s probably at the big antique center in Newburyport, MA. I doubt that I paid more than two dollars for it, and felt that I had procured a lovely little piece very cheaply. I was attracted to it for a variety of reasons. The professionally trained carver had selected European walnut for the article; I’ve always favored European over American walnut for delicate pieces because of its color and tight grain. The word SOUVENIR had not been carved with a V tool or knife but was carefully incised by using individual gouge sweeps- a mark of a trade carver with a relatively complete range of curves and sizes in a set ( only trade carvers usually have that extensive a set.)
While this was no masterwork the acanthus leaf designs are beautiful, and accurately laid out and carved, and yes there is a right way and lots of wrong ways to do that. A reasonable conclusion from all the above was that the carver had been a European trained furniture carver.
There is age wear on the letter opener, but very little damage. It is a flat relatively thin piece that the craft person probably carved while glued to thick paper or some similar surface for carving. After completing the letter opener, a spatula would be slid under the edge to detach it. The glue used would have been a water-soluble one like hide glue, Applied hot it has excellent adhesive qualities but will release when wet. This method was and remains a good way of carving thin pieces like carved applique.
Keep your eyes open for pieces like this. They are not only lovely examples of the craft, but they offer visual lessons in how things get done. Watching a video, or reading books are fine, but handling a piece and looking at it close up is a great way to holistically understand the needed skills, tools and approach to handling complex carving. In lieu of this, I can’t emphasize the importance of museum visits enough.
From firewood to present. It’s a nice transition. As I pulled the bright reddish cherry from the piles of cordwood I began to get excited. I recognized some truly prime wood among the common red oak. A tragedy in a way, because I was thinking of the gorgeous planks for cabinet work that were now reduced to cordwood length. At least now they’ll be used for a better purpose than use as fuel.
So, wooden spoons in stunning natural cherry color. A great Christmas present for a cook. don’t you agree?
Finishing Treen – luxurious spoons & spatulas
After tempering the treen is allowed to dry for several days before finishing starts. Finishing begins with cleaning up unfair curves, and rough spots. Sanding with 80 grit, 120 grit and 240 grit sandpaper follow. A final whirl with a sanding mop ( a sort of flap sander in a drill press) acts to polish the wood.
After sanding and polishing I heat a mixture of beeswax and mineral oil. I also warm the treen. If you have the experience you can do this in a microwave, otherwise, do it in the oven. To much heat at this point will split wood, so less will be more. Just heat till the wood is warm to touch.
After the wood and beeswax mixture are both warm, I rub the treen thoroughly to cover the surfaces. In the picture shown here the treen has an excess of beeswax. That’s fine. Over hours or days it will be absorbed into the wood.
The reason for the beeswax mixture is not to make the wood look beautiful; although it does. The mixture seals and conditions the piece, so it resists moisture and the tastes and odors of cooking. At shows, I’ve seen folks pick up and smell spoons and spatulas expecting a pleasant fragrance. A subtle whiff of beeswax is pleasant, but I try to explain that you don’t want your cookware to either impart or acquire cooking odors — this is part of why we use hardwoods like cherry, maple, and apple for treen.
A final note I avoid using exotic woods. The woods that I do use are generally considered safe for use with food. Many tropical or exotic woods have toxic characteristics that make them excellent choices to avoid for food-related applications. Likewise, some oils carry risks as well. Walnut and peanut oils also are attractive on wood, but I avoid them because a customer may have an allergy to them. Oils like olive oil, safflower oil, and others I avoid because they can go rancid. There is no cure for a rancid spoon.
That’s why I stick with the beeswax and mineral oil mixture. It’s generally considered safe.
After coating I allow the treen to sit overnight. The next day I give everything a final touch up and rub down, and it’s ready to go.
Spoons boiling in a pot of water? Yes, this is tempering. The spoons and spatulas shown here are this year’s batch of Christmas and holiday presents for friends needing a new piece of treen – an old word for woodenware. The rough carving, shaping, and sanding have been done; the bowls carved first of course. Now comes the tempering to raise the grain so a final sanding and rubbing can finish the treen. The last step will be rubbing with a paste made from beeswax and mineral oil. The wood is from the cherry that my firewood provider told me was in the seven chords I bought this year. He casually informed me that: “…there’s a bit of cherry in there”. A bit turned out to be about twenty percent of a chord. Of course I couldn’t burn it. So, I have cherry blanks for spoons, bowls, spatulas, wooden forks, and other assorted treen for a number of years. I may even have to sell some.
A Cat Managed Shop
Mine is a well-regulated shop, as can be attested to by the Business Agent for the local pets union ( Teamster Affiliated). Pictured here is Xenia ( Empress of All She Surveys) on a recent tour of inspection. All were found in order, except that treats were not being stocked in the tool chest atop which is H.I.M is seen resting. The error will be corrected before the dog ( Shop Steward) files a grievance. I’ve asked repeatedly for a copy of the contract, but the cat just hisses at me and walks away. I’ve never been clear on how she can be H.I.M. and a union member, but I’m just the carver here.
Unless you have strict deadlines hanging over you project completion becomes a flexible goal. The little eagle in the picture was started at the end of June as a demonstration of carving in very sub-optimal wood. It should have been completed weeks ago, but work on gilding was held up while I waited for a period when I could gild without large amounts of dust ruining the gold leaf. On the other hand, the little Town Class sloop is handily racing towards early completion. It’s destined to be a Christmas present and will be done as soon as I sand and varnish the mast hoop that it is going to be mounted in.
In the machine shop, there is a large bucket of spoon and spatula blanks that have been roughly carved, and are now waiting for finishing. I finished the blanks in August. They are what made the carving shop unsuitable for gilding. The bench in the machine shop is covered with cherry planks destined for a large ship portrait (an 1880’s era composite steam/ sail vessel). I have to finish jointing the boards and make final decisions on the arrangements of the planks before gluing up the blank. To ensure that blanks are stable and won’t split open after carving they have to cure for a few weeks before I start carving. So while I am very excited about the project I know that I won’t start it till January. More likely to see early completion are a few blanks destined for portraits of small catboats that I hope to take to a winter show.
So completion gets to be an elastic phenomenon. Clients complicate this elasticity; they want their portrait in time for an anniversary, birthday or before launching so the new quarter boards, billet head or transom eagle can be installed. The carver, boatbuilder or other craftsperson learn to plan. Eisenhower said that: “in preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Although he never worked in a boatyard or carvers shop he had it right. You spend time planning, but admit that strict plans don’t always work well in small craft shops. That’s why there is that large rick of planks in the rafters – just in case. That’s why you have models, templates and notes on practice pieces for all your projects – in case you have to do it again.
Plans are certain to go awry: the wood needed is hard to find in local yards, the gilding has to wait, the paint or varnish is dry, but not cured, so, we have to wait. Most importantly to the company’s cash flow – The deposit has not been paid so now everything has to wait.
A Boat Portrait Carved In Wood
Much of my business in the past 27 years or so has been portraits of ships and boats. It all began at a crafts show at New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee. I had been making trays out of mast hoops for some time. I carved a variety of themes including an elegant Compass Rose design I had created. Towards the end of the day, a woman stopped by and asked if I could carve her husband’s Eltro 19″ powerboat onto a tray. That was the tray that started a line of products that have proven to be a gratifying part of my business. I’ve even made some money on it.
I have carved portraits in hoops from eight inches ( internal radius) up to about twenty-seven inches. Not all designs look great when overly compressed, and you have to be honest with potential commissioners about what is realistic in a standard size hoop. A carving of the Titanic won’t work in an eight-inch circle! Most people want something modest in a twelve-inch hoop. I try to avoid anything smaller than a ten for a portrait.
I prefer to carve my portraits in cherry. Carving in cherry is not for the faint of heart who do their carving in basswood. Cherry is hard, durable, and it is tight grained. Cherry takes and holds fine detail, an important consideration when carving a hull which might measure out to be six inches in length. The cherry grain pattern behind the boat gives the appearance of water, waves, sky and horizon lines; saving you from having to carve in those features. Nature’s provision looks more natural than what you can carve with a tool.
I’ve selected a series of pictures from completed portraits to illustrate boat portraiture in wood. No robot carving.
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