Flashback Friday – from June of 2019 – One Of A Kind Eagle

This gem of an eagle was waiting for me inside one of the Jefferson St. houses at the Strawberry Banke Museum. If you are familiar with the Great Seal of the United States, you’ll see where the carver found his design inspiration.

There are notable design differences between the Great Seal and this eagle, however. The stars are on a blue field behind the head of the eagle, not in a rayed circular device over its head. The banner bearing the motto “E PLURIBUS UNUM” is gracefully scrolled through the eagle’s beak and across the wings rather than through the beak and upwards between the wings. Rather than thirteen arrows, the carver made five. The legs also have a bend in them rather than sticking straight out, and the tail feathers are nor fanned out as in the Seal.

In reading the history of the Seal, you would see that it’s authorized by Congress to have thirteen arrows. One rendition of the Seal that was in use for many years had only six; never represented with five. Careful examination of the shield also shows some liberties with the design; check and see if you can find them. The claws and feet of birds can be challenging. The feet on this birdie are masterfully figured and detailed.


A canopy surmounted the eagle with drapery swags hanging down. Similar swags saw use in both architectural carving and marine carving ( on a ships quarter galleries at the stern). The artist or the client wanted to suggest the Seal, but not blindly replicate it. There are legal limitations on portraying the Seal for other than official use, so it could be that the client was interested in avoiding censure.


OK, in my opinion, most of the variations improve upon the design, and I opine that the artist felt the same way. I’d suggest that the wood is native pine and that the artist if not a maritime carver, was very familiar with the techniques and preferences of that art.

The artist was influenced by the work of Samual McIntire of Salem. The neck and carving of the feathered crest of the head suggest that influence.
The curators at Strawberry Banke have dated the piece as circa 1890. The artist is unknown. I wish I knew more about the artist and the article. If you have any clues, let me know.

New Patterns and Old

I carved intermittently from the 1960s through the mid-seventies. Going to graduate school put an end to most carving activities, and I didn’t pick it up again until 1992.
I returned to carving by way of small boat shops. My mentors were all boatbuilders. As a consequence, my shop looks more like a boat shop than an artist’s studio. In a traditional boat shop, the rafters are hung with patterns of all sorts. Any given model may have additional marks, curves, and notes, denoting the changes needed to add, subtract, or modify the design. This way, you easily alter a boat; or a carving. Being that this was the setting where I came to the trade as a real professional, I followed the model.
My tradition of nautical carving is, in a sense, a broken tradition. I had no access to old carvers to teach me the trade. My mentors in carving had no interest in eagles, transom banners, and the like. So, I was never really sure what my antecedents in the trade would have made of my shop or my approach.
I “thought” I knew what a ships carver’s shop would have looked like in the 19th century, similar to the boat shops I was familiar with.
This made sense because the carver and shipbuilder worked closely together and carefully coordinated efforts to achieve the desired effects on the ship. But I wasn’t sure. Recreations of such shops left me unconvinced. Then one Sunday returning from WoodenBoat, it all changed. I had made a fast passage from Brooklin to Bath and had time to visit the Maritime Museum in Bath before it closed. Wandering around and snapping photos of carvings, I came upon an exhibit room tricked out as a carver’s shop. Leaning against the wall was a life-size pattern for a figurehead. Having seen many figures carved similarly to this pattern, my mind’s eye quickly thought of the variations possible with this one pattern.
I was reassured. I went home and started a series of eagles, all originating from the same pattern, all very different—sort of a reverse E Pluribus Unum. Here are some shots from that series:

Eagle Eyes

While teaching, I always like to decorate the workshop with carving examples for students to use as a reference. Week-long excursions to teach away from home mean emptying the house of many of my carvings. But samples in three dimensions often are better than pictures or demonstration, and the extra work was worth it.
During one summer course, A student was working on an eagle and suddenly stopped, got up, and went over to an eagle billet head. He picked it up and turned the head away from him. Noticing me watching, he shrugged his shoulders and said: “it was watching me.”
Smiling, I pointed out that he was perfecting the eagle’s body plan and feathers without working on the head, most notably the eye. He asked me why it mattered, and I told him that it was essential to fair the contours of the head and neck into the body, so the eagle looked all of one piece when finished. The head is temporarily attached to the body with a screw while you carve the neck fair to the body.
” But why was it watching me?”
Well, I explained, years ago, while I was first carving eagles, a talented carver from Boothbay Harbor advised me to always start the head before detailing and finish the eye first. There was a practical reason for this. The eye was a delicate piece of work, and if not done right could ruin the whole birdie. He then added that he had been taught to do the eye first so the eagle could oversee the carving’s remainder. ” As I was taught, so am I teaching you.” I then turned the eagle about so it’s beady eyes were on the student. ” Being that you haven’t done the eye first, this birdie’s cousin in watching you.” I can be a first-class pain sometimes.

I carved the eyes on that particular eagle with a “tunnel” eye effect. With that manner of carving, you could get the impression that the eye watches you and moves with you. To someone easily spooked, like my student, it could be an unpleasant sensation.
There are several ways to carve eagle eyes for traditional marine eagles. Please note that if you carve more realistic styles, these will not appeal to you. I’m a nineteenth-century carver stuck in the twenty-first century. Be all modern if you like. Another ships carver reminded me that most people do not get close eough to smell the eagle; all these things in full size are meant to be viewed from a distance. Here are some examples of eyes:

Adventures In Coastal Living – Free Trade and…

You probably have a friend who, if you met them today, you’d never befriend. They’re lousy drunks, never help out, or have egos beyond description. Your friendship has that exclamation or wonderment factor: “why is this person, my friend?” On examination, you might understand that what irritates you most about them are the character flaws you have in common.

We met after grad school and bonded over beer and conversation at Dunster’s Pub in Harvard Square. Charlie’s family was well enough off that they paid for his grad school experience, his apartment, and upkeep. None of that compared to the sartorial standards I had experienced in Philly. There I regularly dinned on beurre de cacahuète et gelée and haricots et franks (*), while living in less than rarified digs in West Philadelphia.
Charlie loved and coveted all things maritime, as did I. That mutual interest was probably the firm foundation of our friendship. There was a particularly interesting antique store on Charles Street that we would jointly haunt. The proprietor would have gladly asked me to leave, I never bought. But, Charlie would occasionally purchase for his “collection.”

I did have several things that Charlie envied: actual bluewater sailing experience, a family background that was really “wet” from Mercent and Naval service, and, most importantly, a collection of maritime carving. Charlie purchased his collection. If I wanted something, I had to get out the tools and carve it.
In particular, I owned one eagle that Charles lusted over. It was a small one similar to those carved by Bellamy with a banner reading, “Don’t Give Up The Ship.” After one too many beers at Dunster’s, he would frequently suggest that a true friend would gift him this fantastic prize. After all, I could easily carve another.


I eventually decided to give him a duplicate of the eagle for his birthday and asked him to write out exactly what should be on the banner.
On the evening of the birthday party, Charlie eagerly grabbed the eagle from the pile of presents. Ripping off the wrapping, he held the eagle up for all to see. The murmur of appreciation subsided and turned to giggles and laughter. Turning the eagle over, he read the banner: ” Free Trade & Semen’s Rights.” Those of us who had spell checked his articles ( in the days before spelling checkers) knew this about him – he was a notoriously bad speller, and he never caught his errors. I promptly handed him a second banner that read “Free Trade and Seaman’s Rights.”
I don’t think he ever undid the two little screws that held the banner in place and allowed replacement with the non-joke banner. He took a bit of perverse pride in Semen’s Rights.

*peanut butter and jelly, beans and franks

Thoughts On Carving – Pine

A professional carver who gives internet lessons on carving commented online to a student that pine was not a suitable wood for carving, get some good basswood was the advice. I laughed at this. Pine was the go-to wood for several generations of New England ship carvers, and the lines of many a schooner hull were carved first in our regional white pine, not to mention figureheads and much of the work of John Haley Bellamy. Pine is terrific to carve is you are mindful of its character and use sharp tools.

Here is a pine paradox: southern yellow pine can be harder than many hardwoods, and was once widely used for pattern making and shipbuilding. In the ’70’s I was gifted with a section of southern yellow pine that had been a beam in an old factory. Cutting it up into carvable pieces was challenging. In that case, the sample was old-growth cut in the 1890s.

Regional variation, the environment in which the tree grew, how the sawyer cut it ( quarter sawn or plain), how fast it grew, how it was seasoned, and other factors all contribute to suitability for carving. For example, the transom eagle on the USS Constitution is ponderosa pine. These days ponderosa is better known for its use as structural wood and not for its use in carving. In 1910 the old-growth ponderosa selected by a Philadelphia shipyard carver was not exceptional. The ponderosa chosen was sturdy, hard for a “softwood” and tight-grained. Until the Constitution maintenance shop carpenter told me about the carving as he worked on it, I’d never have thought to select ponderosa for a project.

This Transom eagle on the USS Constitution was carved in 1901 from Ponderosa pine. At some point it was modified to allow a line through the lower section of the carving.

Another pine that you might be interested in trying is western sugar pine. It has a clean tight grain and a distinctive sweet odor. You may need to shop around for this, but won’t be disappointed in the real deal. I carved this little eagle out of sugar pine and loved the experience.

A few words of caution on technique while using pine: it can seem like a good idea to try to “hog out” wood fast with a large gouge and a mallet. If you are hollowing the wings of an eagle for depth and shape, this can be a temptation. In fast grown pine, this is a mistake. Your gouge will tend to dig into the grain, and if you attempt to wedge it out, the grain will tear out deeply, leaving you with a rough and deep tear in the wood. Be gentle. Remember going fast is not always going to get you there sooner.
Another issue can be cuts that run on a bit further than intended. The answer to this is less force and more finesse on the cuts, If you are using a mallet switch to a lighter one or use your palm. Some years ago, I took a knot of elm from the firewood pile and fashioned it into a palm mallet. The palm mallet protects my hand from impacts while allowing me to get a bit more force into a cut.

Pine is a worthwhile wood for carving: It’s readily available in a variety of species; many times, it will be the economical choice of wood, and with sharp tools can yield a rewarding carving experience.

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.

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