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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Fair curves are important to ship & boat builders, carvers, furniture makers, and traditional sailmakers. The Oxford English Dictionary describes a fair curve as “a smooth curve; especially (Nautical) one in the body of a ship.” That works out well until you put practitioners of different crafts together on a stage and ask them to talk about fair curves. Then it gets complicated. 1988 – I was working as an anthropologist at the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife in Washington. My job was “presenting” artisans to the audiences of festival attendees. I helped get the flow going and occasionally interpreted concepts to the audience. The audience had little idea of what planes, carvers gouges, sailmakers palms, fid, slicks, caulking mallet, or other such tools were. So I presented and made needed explanations. Later there were demonstrations.
One day I had a presentation to make with several craftspeople from different trades on the little stage we used. We were to talk about their interpretation of craft. We’d been doing this all weekend, and the troops were getting bored. So, as we started, I asked the boatbuilder what he thought was a central concept in his craft. He opined that fair curves were critical. After a moment or so, I noticed that the silver tableware maker was getting excited and invited him to comment. Fair curves were crucial to him as well. Silverware with unfair lines didn’t please customers. Then the sailmaker chimed in with how fair curves were essential in sailmaking. At once, the three were in tune. And it all seemed like a sort of mystical union going on in front of the audience. The conversation continued after they ushered us from the stage for the next presentation. All the members of the mystical union knew with exactitude what a fair curve was. When I asked, they repeated variations on the Oxford English Dictionary definition. But, I knew from the intensity of the conversation that it was more. Finally, the sailmaker told me that it was better if I saw and felt one. I was a bit mystified. But I had to move on; there was no free time for the pursuit of fair curves.
About four years later, I was working for the Department of Interior in Lowell, MA. My little corner of the National Park was the New England Folklife Center housed on the Boot Mill’s fourth floor. The Folklife Center was an educational hub for traditional crafts in New England. I enlisted Ralph Johnson of the Pert Lowell Company in Newbury, and Bill Bromell, the Constitution Museum’s model maker, to build a project boat in the Center. After discussions of what we could make and still get out of the building, Bill commissioned Ralph to construct a thirteen-foot skiff based on a seventeenth-century plan. Bill was a nautical historian and model maker. He wanted something unique and historical. Having decided on a plan they could build in the space available, Ralph set about producing all the drawings needed. We had a great time. Several members of the visiting public joined in the lofting and building. It was more like working in a boat shop than running a government program. When we reached the point where we were planking the sides of the boat, Ralph decided that it was the right time for me to learn the proper way to mark out, cut, plane, and “hang” a plank. After careful measurement, sawing, and fitting, Ralph asked me if I thought the curve was fair and ready to hang. I took a few more cuts with my plane, stepped back, and declared that it looked fair to me. Ralph then had me close my eyes and walk down the length of the plank with my thumb bearing along the edge that I had declared “fair.” My finger felt every bump, unfair edge, and imperfection that my eyes had failed to pick up. Ralph grinned at me and said, “Sometimes you must close your eyes to see.” What the sailmaker had said was true. Sometimes you have to feel to see.