What you coat a carving with has distinct practical and esthetic consequences. I tended to make things for boats; quarterboards, billet heads, eagles, or transom banners. I always used carefully applied varnish, paint, and gold leaf. Polyurethane varnishes were unreliable for adhesion and tended to peel away, so I stuck with the older fashioned spar and marine varnishes.* It was a pragmatic decision. 

A quarterboard almost always received up to seven coats coats of varnish; a finish failure was a costly error. But, once you learn to prepare a surface for varnish properly and apply the coats evenly and thinly, it’s an easy finish to use. So don’t slop it on, and don’t over brush it.

The instructions for most varnishes call for applying later coats within twenty-four hours. The can will say something on the line of “…allow to dry for twenty-four hours before recoating.” That’s confusing because the varnish film may technically be “dry” but not completely cured. It’s that incomplete curing that allows for adhesion between coats. Wait over twenty-four hours, and the instructions will frequently advise a light sanding. The sanding roughens the surface enough to aid bonding.

A trick I learned from a professional varnisher was to coat with three thinned coats, twenty-four hours between coats, and only then lightly sand. On open-pored woods like Mahogany, this worked well. After those first three coats and sanding, you began to build the surface with full-thickness coats of varnish and sanding lightly between coats.

You may be saying, “seven coats of varnish! That’s thick!” Bear in mind that a marine environment is very harsh on wood. Don’t protect it, and watch it deteriorate rapidly. You may also be thinking about just dipping the finish from the can and smearing it. I’m not being facetious when I say that if I saw you doing that in a boatyard, you’d get fired that day. The idea is to build a lovely finish, coat by coat. No single coat is very heavy. 

Since we are dealing with carved wood here, you need to avoid varnishing so heavily that the finish pools in the carving. I like to use a good quality varnish brush or a nice foam brush to ensure that my letters are coated but not filled.

If a carving needs to be gilded, the gold leaf gets applied after the finish. Gold leafing is not a topic for this post, but let me warn you that you don’t want to finish the varnish cycle one day and start gilding the next. Remember what I said about finish adhesion. The day after you finish, the surface has just begun to cure. Put the gold leaf on right away, and it will not only go on where you want it but everywhere else too. Cure in a warm room for a week ( not a cold shop).

Finishing brightwork is an art. The idea is to create a protective finish against a very harsh environment and have one that you are proud to flaunt.

This post is only a brief probe into varnishing—a foray. I haven’t addressed “lace curtains” and “holidays” yet. If you are interested, there are several excellent books on brightwork; I tend to like Rebecca Wittman’s Brightwork: the art of finishing wood.

*Please note that the manufacturers of marine finishes have conquered many technical issues with polyurethanes in recent years.


Research for a carved ship portrait involves digging into the library and pulling out what looks applicable. So for a picture of a fishing schooner, I’ll have a selection of books on similar types of vessels. The photo shows what’s currently on the desk. It changes depending on what I am interested in or preparing to do. I hate to confess, but I dig out what I need and rarely consume the entire book. I recognize that the sea of data is immense, and the relevance of that sea to specific projects is limited. Sometimes, you need to dig through exciting things that won’t appear in the finished product.

Many artists and craftspeople don’t need access to such detail, and I admit I can overdo things. However, while I prepare to do a project, I am also indulging myself in a world of pleasure. I take enormous pleasure in items nautical.
Since there are so many vessels, traditions, rigs, and equipment, even a well-provided library may be inadequate for a proposed portrait. So then I am off to the used booksellers online.

Much of what I learn cannot be included in a portrait; perhaps you would not see it from the portrait’s view. But I need to know the rationale for the booms being without sails on that schooner. The small portrait shown is of a halibut “schooner”. The sails were rarely used, and the booms served as cargo and fish booms. But going into that project I did not know that until research confirmed it.

So it’s a voyage of discovery.
On a boat or ship, there is seldom a random item. Instead, it all serves a purpose. Ships are purposeful. There is little unaccounted for, and its portrait should reflect that.


It’s amazing what a couple of years’ perspective can do for images of the ordinary. At one phase of life, what had been extraordinary was prosaic only a few years later.

While I lived in Maine, there was a certain prosaism to life. Maintain the Cap’ns boat, live in the Cove, work at Spinney’s Boatyard. Individually parts were appealing. As though being normal was akin to getting enough fiber with your morning cereal or an abundance of vegetables in your diet.
A few years later, regular was paying student loans, sailing in the Charles River, and having enough money to keep a beater of a car on the road.
Within a few years, this had changed as well.

One night I was in my cups and wondering whether I was drifting. I felt that I had reached one of those existential plateaus. I had to move on, or I’d forever stay where I was. So, having no place else to turn, I sat down next to my cat. Now my cat Clancy ( AKA the Grey Menace) was reluctant to offer advice, being I usually didn’t accept advice he had to offer. Some of his stuff was pretty far out: using your tongue for cleaning and such like that.
But I was desperate. So against Clancy’s better judgment, he told me that normal and satisfactory boiled down to basics: enough filet mignon, a comfortable place to sleep, and nip. He then added that a regular supply of O negative blood was a bonus. He then bit me and cleaned the blood off his paws, claiming that was his professional fee for a consultation.

The following day I woke and remembered the bite and the conversation. The Menace was studiously ignoring me for a sunny spot to bask in. His very pose seemed to suggest the veracity of his advice. I wondered if I should check into the hospital for a mental health check just for considering a drunken conversation with a cat for life advice. He offered me a pitying look that seemed to say, ” Don’t say I offered bad advice later on!”

Over the years, I realized that there was a sort of minimalist sense to his advice, basics that provide shelter, comfort, food, a modicum of pleasure were fundamental. From there, you could build. Normal did not mean ideal or luxurious. Those were aspirational, and once you had the basics, you could work on those.

But his insistence on the O negative blood? There’s about as much chance of that as an enchanted snowfall in July. Yuck.


The world of woodworking is full of handbooks, videos, manuals, and magazines that aver to show you the best way to do things.
Full disclosure time, my woodworking library has more than a handful of these in it. But it’s essential to be selective in your choice. If you are not careful, all you’ll be doing is allowing a publisher to separate you from the cha-ching in your bank account.

I advise sticking to texts that teach fundamental techniques rather than those which spout about twenty-five beautiful projects for the woodcarver.

Here’s my rationale. Unless those twenty-five projects advance your skills, they are of little use to your mastery. Also, projects can be traps if they are not presented with skill-building techniques. Cut here, file there, and paint this color gives you a chickadee or a Santa, but not skills related to carving other things as well. It’s a paint-by-the-numbers approach to craft. And as a result, any long-term value is lacking. So it’s my view that projects are a means to increase mastery, not an end in themselves.

If you’ve read my blog for a while, you might know that my 19th-century craft masters were users of patterns. But patterns are just the beginning point for a carver. I completed a dozen eagles from one basic pattern. Only the last looked anything like the master from which I carved it.

I varied the pattern and sketches for each eagle so you could tell the family resemblance but not much more. This was possible thanks to having the fundamental carving skills needed. Knowing how to alter feathers, the head, eyes, and body make each carving stand out individually.

In the beginning, it may seem unbelievable that you’ll turn away from project books. But if you master underlying skills, you will. First, an idea will come to you, and then you’ll begin analyzing it for the skills you’ll need to create it. Then, working through the planning process will force you to modify your idea and go back to your library to look at a particular skill or approach you’ll need. Eventually, a completed project all of your own will take shape.

Here’s some final advice. First, start keeping a journal book of ideas and thoughts on technique. Not all ideas will jell at one go, and some might take years. So keep the journal handy to add notes and sketches to the concept as they occur. Secondly, make art a habit. Visit exhibits, look at art from areas other than your specific interests, grow your interests, and your inspirations will grow as well.

Develop a mindset that a new project is a journey, not a one-time destination. After all, art and craft are lifetime occupations, and not everything gets accomplished at once.

Hi, It’s Me

Hi, it’s me. Xenia. Father took mother to the cafe, so I got on the computer. These new touch ID pads are so great. While he was setting up the new computer, I snuck up and recorded my paw print while licking his ear. Watch out, world!

It’s been a busy day for me. It started about three this morning with me doing my warbling “I’ve got a mousie” song. I went from room to room and loudly let them know how wonderful I was. They all had to be careful where they put their feet this morning. They had no idea where I dropped my prize!

Nobody volunteered at 4:30 to feed me. I sang a few arias in the stairwell, but it wasn’t until six that my sister grudgingly got up to open a can of food. I’ll fix her wagon. I’ll drop my next mousie on her pillow! As a cat, I can’t spend all my time resting, just twenty hours or so.

The morning was hectic. The squirrel has knocked over the bird feeder on the side porch, and I watched for hours as the sparrow, juncos, and titmice flirted with destiny only inches from my teeth. But, father, that ass, refused to open the door. Doesn’t he know that thinning the flock makes the surviving birds smarter? Hasn’t he ever read Darwin? Allowing the slow birds to survive will have a debilitating effect on the breed!

Later, a flock of robins and cedar waxwings came through and cleaned the berries off the mountain ash tree. What an exciting sight! All that meat…I mean lovely birds flying about.

If I had the opportunity to leap at them more often, I might catch them. Then my father, that jerk, wouldn’t joke all the time about how I’ve never been able to catch a bird. Of course, I can’t help it if I’m big-boned.

Well, they are due back soon and I think I have comprised all I need to say. Father is not the only one capable of reading the word prompts!

TTFN: It’s nap time for me; it’s been a strenuous day.


I’ve found that growing your vocabulary can irritate. So try some new vocabulary item out, without explanation, on someone you are eager to inflame and watch the reaction. “You know Michelle; it was plangent and skookum watching your performance. You have a talent for fatuous redundancy in your art.”
It hardly matters that you might be complimenting her on something. But the manner of saying it fans the fires.

To achieve being annoying like this, you need some assistance. Unfortunately, a dictionary will not do. So instead, I use word prompts on the WordPress Blog and a screensaver that picks words out to flash on your monitor with their definition every day.

If you have a mission to annoy, there also has to be some repetitive element. Use the words in conversation with people you dislike, remember to be skookum ( excellent and impressive), don’t omit a bit being plangent (loud and resounding), and of course, always be repetitive.

Remember, success is the culmination of many small things done well. Have Fun.


There was a tinge of green, right around where gills would be if the Teahead had been a fish. But of course, the Teahead of the August Moon was a fully mammalian human, and the concoction on his face was the latest attempt to correct an unfortunate complexion that periodically oozed zits.
His beauty advisor on all things dermal was his girlfriend Andrea. She got the gook at the Filene’s beauty department, and it was, of course, the very best. The Teahead felt conflicted; he loved and trusted Andrea, but going about the house in green face seemed too much like wearing make-up. The other roommates’ snickering and me composing a song about a giant green frog were almost too much to take.

Looking in the mirror, he sighed and asked, “why me?”

When the phone rang, it was work, “Get in here pronto. The Sargent account is about to blow up any minute.” So into his suit and out the door in a flash, he had one thing and one thing on his mind only: the Sargent account, his first big account at Harpoole, Amstel, and Marston. So ignoring the pleas of roomies and Andrea, he slipped down the street.

He only paused to reflect when he noticed the snorts, wheezes, and funny faces on the platform at the Park Street Station—reaching up; he began to wipe away the green mask covering his face. “Why me,” he asked again.

A stop on the way to work at the Harvard Coop provided a new shirt, but after putting the Sargent account to rights, his boss sent him home, insisting that he looked a bit ill and greenish.

That evening the Monk, our chef and culinary forager extraordinaire, provided a green pea soup and Key Lime pie. All the jokes were off-color. The Teahead swore off cosmetics, scrubs, masks, and all flimflammery, “it’s better to put up with a few zits, damn it!”


Folly has gotten a bum rap. I mean, take a look at all the advice people get about the joyful misadventures of youth, “that was just folly; you should have known better.” But, of course, if it weren’t for folly, the studious types would have to petition the heavens for relief from maudlin regrets because their lives were so dull.
Much joy results from folly. And that’s not mentioning much of the unplanned population of the world.

Without a bit of folly, there would be less discovery, less mature reflection on the folly of youth – with a wistful grin on the face.
I’d go so far as suggesting that if there were a severe deficit of folly, it would be imperative to encourage it. Just think of a world of people who were serious and thoughtful all the time. Comedians, brewers, distillers, and rock musicians would be out of work. We’d all listen to the works of Mahler, drink weak herbal tea, only wear sensible clothing, and eat modestly. Oh, and go to bed early and rise at dawn.

I’m not sure about you, but I couldn’t take it long.


It’s important to know when to lie low. For example, not engage in an argument.
Actually, I guess it’s not even an argument -if you don’t listen to the other side. It’s a lecture.
” But this is not an argument. We’re just discussing this.”, the other person will say. Calling it a discussion when only one side gets heard is not a discussion; if you are continually talked over, it’s an assault. So there is a restriction placed on who gets heard and who is listened to.

You don’t have to be amenable to the downright ridiculous; learn how not to be drawn into someone else’s need for instant gratification. It’s not a discussion, it’s a diatribe- an angry critical and abusive speech.

Refusing this type of contest is not losing; it’s winning.

Specialty work

I have a protocol for handling people with outrageous projects and complex designs. It’s all cash upfront, paid design time at a high rate, and all change orders in writing. It wasn’t that I was out to fleece my customers; it was to render moot speculative projects that would never go anywhere. Most projects like that were efforts that I’d wind up spending time on for a return in frustration and little or no money. When I first started as a nautical carver, I’d chased a few of these.

Most people who’d been considering a transom banner or quarterboards would walk up and just state, ” I’m interested in a banner for the back of my boat with the words – too loose to trek – on it.” Then, I’d ask what make and style of the boat it was, and we’d start discussing specifics of cost, style, and anything special that they needed. Then, I’d later quote them a price to consider from my notes. It was a pretty straightforward part of my business.

There were twists galore, however. The hollow back on transom banner for stowing what I don’t know, but I can make an educated guess; or The ground ashes incorporated into the lettering on one job. I’ve also done some reasonably weird stuff for inside boats, Small signs, and symbols that got incorporated into the hull for “luck.” 

It must have gotten out that I’d do that sort of thing, so for a while, I had a clientele that asked for runes carved on ash, oak, and rowan. As long as I was not invited to the ceremony installing their talisman ( and I have a vivid imagination!), I did not care.

Lettering work for boats dried up due to vinyl lettering and Robo-carved boards, but this trade in specialty items did not. It seemed that these needed to be hand-carved to be effective. I was asked by a few why I accepted these pagan jobs but turned down political work. I stated that the pagans were only interested in calming the seas, pacifying storm elementals, honoring Neptunas Rex, and creating an avoidance of certain misfortune. Folks who wanted “Let’s go, Brandon,” Hurray for Lenin,” or other political sentiment were trolling the waters for trouble. I wanted no part of the misfortune they’d get when the opposing side rammed them. 

I have a clean record with the Coast Guard Auxiliary and don’t want any trouble. Besides, messing with the sea deities is much worse than pissing off some crackpot politician. One will sputter and call you names; the other might sink you and send you to Davy.

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