Whittling and Woodcarving

It is not on any list that I hand out to students. But E.J. Tangerman’s Whittling and Woodcarving got me started as a woodcarver. My rather ragged copy is a 1962 Dover edition of the 1936 publication. By today’s standards, it’s light on actual technique and long on ideas and illustrations. But the book launched a craftsman journey and changed my life.

Today there are easily a dozen titles I’d recommend to starting students for better-illustrated books with better descriptions of techniques. But in 1968, this was what was available to me for the grand price of two dollars.

My tool kit was that book, a pocket knife, a small boxed set of Millers Falls carving tools, a Speedball fishtail gouge, a C clamp, and an improvised carver’s hook that allowed me to carve at the kitchen table. With this little kit, I carved walnut trays, candlesticks, wooden jewelry, my first eagle, and many other pieces. Then, in the fall of 1969, an Ottawa crafts gallery took a chance on me, and I sold my first pieces. Soon after, my eagle was included in a gallery show with other carvers. I was on my way.

Carving is rarely trendy, and If I wanted more attention, I might have stuck to painting ( which I was also experimenting with at that time). I think carving matched my temperament better. But I had no premonitions that the tiny kit of tools would grow into an entire workshop. Or that carving wood could become such an essential part of my life.


My most memorable gift stands right behind me as I write. In 1962 My parents gifted me with my Harmony guitar. Over the years, I’ve owned Martin’s, Gibson’s, resonator guitars, banjos, and various other music-making equipment. None has had the endurance of my Harmony, Charlie – the worried man’s companion, the name came from a Kingston Trio song.
Charlie was coddled on road trips when it rained or got cold- clothing and waterproofs were wrapped around it by preference to human warmth or dryness.
It was the cause of more than one nasty fight with people trying to steal it. Steal from me, and you might wind up hurt. Used strategically, it felled drunks in bar fights, which is part of why I avoided performing in stews. Several women have accused me of loving the Harmony more than then – if they couldn’t take the heat in the kitchen, they should have gotten out.

Life for the Harmony probably started as a less expensive copy of a Martin guitar. But the makers overdid it, and the tones accurately imitate a Martin. So it sits in my office today, ready to be picked up and tuned. After all these years, it is enjoying a partial retirement. But every once in a while, the strings seem to chord by themselves. It’s like it’s saying, “hey, remember that road trip down from Montreal in ’69? Damn, it was cold!”


Family history can rear a gruesome head these days of DNA testing. Things come out. Items can no longer be hidden. And somber truths about ancestors are revealed. That idiot tenth cousin of yours who starts emailing you from Estonia wanting to know about common ancestors. The person from Alabama who asks if you’d host your 3rd cousins twice removed on their visit to the Boston area. Perhaps one should never have spit into the little vial, after all?
In my family’s case, it cleared up some mysteries by solidifying historical and genealogical research I’d already done. The Carreras family; seamen, jewelers, and merchants from Catalonia; in my specific family, that meant Girona, and the record of Louis’, Nicholas’, and Josep’s ( or Jose) stretched further back than I could research.

Bur most records for my mother’s little Caribean island were destroyed in a hurricane. Birth, death, marriage, and baptismal records were scarce. Here is where things get interesting. The island tradition has it that all the Robinsons were descended from a first mate on a ship in Morgan’s privateering fleet. On the way to the sack of Panama City, they took over the island as a base. On the way home Robinson decided to settle and raise a family there.
A little further research came up with the gem that the original colony had been founded by the second ship sent out by the same company that sent the Pilgrims to Cape Cod. But, in this case, they went way south, and those Puritans went bad; rapidly. They become the neer-do-wells of the Puritan faith. They actively engaged in piracy and other disreputable affairs.

I advocate paying less attention to DNA and more to the dastardly deeds of our ancestors. It’s actually a hell of a lot more interesting. It’s not how far back your family goes, but how interesting they are…or in the case of my mother’s family – Arrrr Mate

Apocolypse Now!

I can be brazen in putting down conspiracy theories. There is something about the repetition of themes that irritates me – the world is going to end because of :

  •  the godlessness of society;
  •   the worldliness of society;
  • mind control chemicals put into the chemtrails by the deep state;
  •  the greed of corporations

Just enough fact is in the recipe that otherwise sane people get drawn in like iron filings to a magnet. At holiday gatherings, it can take courage to argue with uncle John who has generously purchased the high-tech equivalent of tinfoil hats for each family member. These cost eighty dollars on the same site that offers AR-15 rifles, doomsday shelters, survivalist supplies, and dehydrated food to see you through your choice of the apocalypse or the rapture.

These tactics offer simple but frequently expensive solutions to complex problems – You and your dear ones will retreat to your basement and wait out the Final Days – to emerge in two weeks and repopulate the earth. Noah didn’t have it this easy.

For people falling for this brand of fantasy, there should be some prize for magical thinking. 

Most of us know by now that the problems facing our continued existence can’t be solved by stop-gap measures or mere hunkering down for a week or two. We’ve lost the treasure of pristine earth, and actual work, not magical BS, will be required to regain some semblance of what was lost – in a hundred years.

But instead of working to reduce our use of fossil fuels, plastic, or other things, it’s easier to seek an easy way out.

And considering our societal penchant for shopping, what could be better than buying a solution on our favorite online store?


I got a bad rap, I tell you…I was nowhere near the cat’s food bowl. I was in the other room. You won’t pin this one on me. And stop with that Three Time Loser stuff…I’m just misunderstood, pup. Yea. A misunderstood pup.

I’ll be sprung in time for dinner, got it? My public defender, Mom, will get me sprung. Sure I’m brave. I have her on my side. She has connections.

You’ll never make it stick ya’ stinkin’ copper! I’m innocent.

Star Crossed

OK, it’s confessional time. The stars and I don’t see exactly eye to eye. I’ve put some time into learning coastal piloting and dead reckoning for basic seamanship and enjoyed the sport of seeing how accurate you can get with experience. But celestial navigation was my true, shall we say, star-crossed experience.
Let’s add that among the things I learned in the Navy was that I have terrible night vision; stumbling around my bedroom in the dark is my speed. Stumbling around the deck of a heaving vessel or a boat is a scary proposition for me any night.

But my father-in-law, the Cap’n, was determined that my navigational skills should be polished enough that I should be able to take sights on objects in the skies to assess our position. So should we ever go outside soundings in our 34-foot ketch, Pysche, there would be a second navigator aboard. But, of course, the thought of going that far out scared my mother-in-law, Cora, to death and made my wife green to the gills.

For once, the Cap’n had a willing student. I did not neglect my studies. I even did well with the sextant and quickly mastered the noon sight and use of reduction tables. Because of my night vision, I had more trouble with the semi-diameters of the moon. But I eventually learned that as well.

No, the Rude Star Finder and its planographic discs tripped me up. First, looking at the flat circle of plastic in the dark was hard enough. Then transferring that to an actual star in the sky did not work well. Finally, if by luck I found the correct star, I still had to take a sight and use the tables. It was hopeless. After a few weeks, the Cap’n gave up; Cora and my wife breathed sighs of relief, and I used my navigational textbook to prop open the shop door.

I can look up at the stars at night and still wish that it had been otherwise, but if you stumble in the dark navigating by the lightof the stars may not be for you.

Note: all this happened many years before we had modern-day electronic aids to navigation and satellite navigational systems.


Happenstance. That’s the source of my mental playlist. The soundtrack runs through my mind as I write, drive or carve. Start talking about running, and it might prompt ten minutes of Jackson Brown. One lonely middle-of-the-night drive from New York through Connecticut Phillip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach was the featured soundtrack. Strange night.

I have little control of it. But related themes do stimulate like music. Like the day the neighbors got treated to three hours of sea songs and chanteys as I was carving a portrait of a schooner.

Aaaaah, my boots and clothes are all in pawn! Go down, you blood Red Roses – Go Down!!!

Now you sing along too mate


Solitude is a tricky subject for creators. Some want a cup of coffee and an old-fashioned typewriter with the cat perched on the shelf and nothing else. Others need an isolated spot where you might be prone to smash the cell phone if it rings. So there are ranges of needs from just merely having some privacy to needing total sensory deprivation.
I like a rich environment. My eight-foot by twelve carving shop/ greenhouse has my tools, smells of linseed oil, varnish, and wood chips. It has everything I need for carving. I am taken back to shops all over New England that I’ve worked in over the decades. It gives me a mainline connection to my creative roots, and I connect with my masters – the 18th through early 20th century carvers who inspire me and in whose traditions I’ve worked.

As I look over a native pine or cherry piece, I reflect on the job to come. In the case of an eagle, I may think of how my masters approached their work. I am not sure where I got the idea, perhaps from one of them, but after roughing out the shape of the eagle, the first detailed section I do is the eye so the eagle can watch me as I work.

Sometimes I think that I don’t have much isolation at all. It can be noisy with Bellamy telling McIntyre how to carve while Skillin talks to William Rush. It’s why I don’t keep a coffee pot in the shop. I’d never get anything done with the damn racket.

At the Job Interview

In interviews, a trap question can be, “what are your most admirable traits?” I’ve always desired to respond with, “Putting up with twits like you.”
Well, OK, what about admirable traits? I think it’s not a trait. It’s probably more like a cluster of characteristics that pull together in concert- ” all right, you seadogs row!” Much like sailing, it is not one thing. The old definition of Able Body Seaman was a person who could hand, reef, and steer. Not just work the sails. You needed multiple skills to be rated able. Otherwise, you were an ordinary seaman or a green hand.

Next time some officious turd dares ask you what your most admirable characteristic is, beguile them. Tell them how your diplomatic abilities coupled with your fine-tuned restraint and sense of justice act in harmony to resolve doughty issues. Smile broadly enough, and they may not sense the laughter bubbling inside of you for having a good one over on them.

Then take a moment to reflect on yourself. You have admirable characteristics. They are not the narrowly defined things that make an HR person’s heart strings twang. Like the Able Body Seaman, you have multiple traits that work together in concert. They make you resilient, confident, and capable. But remember, most HR types and head hunters want simple answers.

Have fun!


I have not one, but a raft of favorite quotes. But when asked to settle on one, I come back to time, and time again, it’s this one, “Luck is what you stumble upon in life. Providence is what God plans for you, and planning is how you thread your way between the two without getting crushed.” 

I often heard this bit of wisdom from first-class petty officer John O’Toole, Bosuns-mate USN. John worked hard to avoid becoming a chief petty officer and, in retirement, enjoyed telling tales of some sixteen years of a misspent Naval career. I first met John while I was in the Navy, and we became reacquainted in the years following. 

From John, I learned:

  •  the nuances of “gun decking” a report ( fixing them), 
  • how to successfully play Cheaters Monopoly, 
  • how to properly wear my sailor’s gob hat, 
  • and how to sew the thirteen buttons of my uniform pants so they could be rapidly undone if needed.

God bless you, John, where ever you may be.

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