Exploration. That’s why I write. The keyboard is a sort of gateway to new and old experiences. A long time ago, I discovered a curious thing; I can verbalize something, and one stream of consciousness comes out, or I can write about it, and something divergent is the result. So writing is a sweet way of exploring my thought process, history, and world views.

This is not always without tears. Over the years, I have swept much out of sight and consideration. In lots of my writing, those things come oozing out of the dark corners, and I must come to terms with them. This is where driving comes in. I’ll be driving on a back road, and my mind is keying in on something I’ve written – say, my time on the road in the 1960s. Suddenly I’ll view an event differently as my understanding of that time shifts.
I also startle myself with how many idealistic views of youth remain intact. The abrasive nature of time has not been able to eradicate it – knock the corners off, perhaps – but not destroy it.

There’s a touch of surprise about what I write. It’s new to readers and new to me. So yes, I write to explore and a bit to wonder.

One Body

I’ll never do it again. But it stands for the “get it done” philosophy I’ve had to adapt. It’s an eight-by-ten storage shed in the back of the property. Currently, it’s my wood storage for planks and assorted odds and ends.
I built the shed solo. We had just moved into the neighborhood, and I didn’t know anyone well enough to ask for help, so I did it all alone. I raised it by myself using pulleys and two-by-fours to shore up the walls. It was not enjoyable, but I needed the shed.
Years later, when the kids were older, I had a workforce who worked well for pizza, putting up my greenhouse/workshop. So for a change, I got an opportunity to watch.

As the house empties of children marching off to their own lives, I again find myself without help. My wife says I should wait until I get some help, but it wouldn’t get done today or even this week. So I begin to calculate ways to make one body do the work of two.

Designers Notes

By my long-standing tradition, January is a month for working with the design book first and the workshop second. The book doesn’t look much like a designer’s book of sketches. Over the past few years, it’s become page upon page of post-it notes placed on the book’s blank pages throughout the year. As an idea or concept is suggested to me or pops up, the note gets put into the book for later consideration.
As concepts develop, notes get more elaborate – so much carving or finishing time or the cost of materials. Eighty percent of the ideas never go anywhere for one reason or another. Some I can’t develop at a reasonable production ratio of time, materials, and profit. Others have practical production problems that are waiting for a solution to be developed.

some notes will sit in the book for a few years, some forever. but I rarely discard any. Instead, I’ll go back over the older stuff periodically as a source of inspiration or to reinvestigate my thought processes on ideas.

At some point, an idea jells enough for a prototype. So some prototypes wind up in the project box waiting for further developments while I move on to other things. Some will eventually go to the scrap box, too.

Another part of this process is the project woodpile. The project woodpile is an undercover collection of assorted wood pieces that I’ve put aside specifically because something is appealing in them, and I want to use them in something. This is a boxed and shelved collection outside of my carving shop under cover. I root around in the contents frequently, looking for select pieces of Cherry, ash, oak, and other woods.

It’s a messy sort of creative process, I admit it. But from this constellation of sources, I eventually cook up ideas, prototypes, and projects. I’m under no pressure to create any specific amount of work in January, to follow this creative process, as sloppy as it may seem.

Since January is my most hated month, using it creatively is an essential strategy to avoid the winter blues.


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.

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