We were at a tavern in the Seaport district in New York. I had just won a bet on recognizing a carver’s work based on their tool cuts. It was an easy win; the carvings I had identified were by a carver whose work I was familiar with. Carvers have habits like everyone else, ways we like to do eagle feathers, eyes, or our taste in how fancy the volutes are ( those carved spiral designs that you often see on violins, columns, or holding up figureheads). See enough of this, especially if it’s your professional interest and you recognize the style. Of course, the most carving is anonymous. Whether in stone, wood, or other media, most of us and our carvings will be nameless. An occasional mentor of mine had trained in France before the Second World War and told me that daily, hundreds of feet of exquisite trade carved molding and detail were produced in his master’s shop. All of it was destined to be nameless. So yes, I can recognize the styles of Samuel Robb, Bellamy, Rush, or Skillin in many cases. But museums are full of unattributed work. Some of this is happenstance; the carver was in a small harbor and attracted little notice. Or, in the case of Bellamy, he was located in space and time when his work attracted attention. Bellamy also developed a distinctive and unique style that captured much attention.
Friends who’ve been with me on visits to the Peabody Essex Museum or the Mystic Seaport have to stifle yawns if we pass a particularly lovely piece of carving. Then, my whole demeanor changes, and I begin to discuss the style and execution of the design. Then, getting deeper into the weeds, I discuss if the carving represents a particular regional style. Please don’t laugh; when it comes to volutes on billet heads, there is a regional difference between, say, the Chesapeake and New England.
I imagine two old ships carvers in the 19th century getting snookered and getting into a fight over the curves on a volute to the disgust of their wives. The marine trades are full of passionate people.
I’ve had some doozies of lucid dreams in my time. But, about six months ago, I had the most extreme case. ****Spoiler alert John Haley Bellamy is the Dean of 19th-century American Shipscarver ( IMHO). Dali was my favorite Surrealist and habitue of New York growing up. So I wondered what would happen if Dali and Bellamy ran into each other. So – A Surreal Dream. I was sitting in my usual spot at the Rienzi coffeehouse in Greenwich Village, and joining me that night was John Halley Bellamy. John was down from Kittery for his first trip to the Big Apple. He wanted me to fill him in on who the local shipscarvers were, the best time to visit the Empire State Building, and the Guggenheim directions. We were pouring over one of those little accordion maps of the city that hotels give you when in walk Salvador Dali. Dali siddles up and starts praising Bellamy for being an early Surrealist. “My only dispute with you comes in the calculation of spirals and curves you use; I’ve always preferred logarithmic spirals; you, on the other hand, use something that looks like it’s part of an ellipse? Bellamy, admiring Sal’s logarithmically twined mustachios, takes time to twirl his mustache ends into a number seven Copenhagen curve and replies, ” I started in a boat shop, so I used ships curves.” They happily spent the next ten minutes discussing how to simplify for emphasis, stretch proportions, and play with conventions. For once, I was without words. After an hour or so, Dali said he’d pick up the check. So he and Bellamy wandered out onto McDougal Street. Dali suggested they head to Paris and visit. Pablo – “Not really a Surrealist, but an interesting artist…” Pondering my next move, I noticed the signed credit card receipt – I quickly pocketed it and walked out with a signed Dali.
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:
I think it was 2001 that I came across these small carvings on a boat in Newport, RI. I took the photos because I hadn’t seen many examples of small “hancing” pieces on modern watercraft. In traditional ship carving, a hancing piece was a carving applied to the break between decks. Or, placed at the end of a beam. In general, you might have a hancing piece in any place that needed a graceful transition. In this case, they have the semi-practical purpose of reinforcing a stanchion base. Both would be great projects for a budding carver who owns a boat and wants a bit of eye candy to make it genuinely notable. The star is an easy do. Navigate to my post on carving a star for much of the information you’d need to carve this piece.
The little eagle head is a gem, and more of a challenge to get the look right. Look for a pattern you can modify, and do a practice run; eyes and feathers can be painful to get right without practice. I have a tradition that I picked up from other eagle carvers. After roughing in the body plan, I work on the head of the eagle first. The nearly completed eyes and beak can watch me carve the rest. In this case, it would only be the head. So be kind to the birdie.
A little carving can be a good thing for a boat. I’ve used chip carving to carve incised stars; compass rose designs and other designs on everything from quarterboard ends to compass boxes. Chip carving requires only a sharp carving knife and can be used to accent flat surfaces with pleasing designs that won’t foul lines. The average student picks up the basics in a few hours. Carvings can be simple or very complicated—simple works best for the beginner, and on a boat.
The chip-carved designs I’ll show you all have one underlying feature: the small pyramid or chip which you excise from the workpiece in six precise cuts. Once you master these basics, everything else falls into place. The basic pyramid forms the basis of all chip carving from the easiest to the most complicated.
But, first a few words on safety: always wear eye protection, and always secure the work on a non-slip surface. Consider wearing finger guards or carvers gloves. The old rubric of never cutting towards yourself makes little sense when you need to reposition your work periodically. Preferably, avoid having to cut towards yourself, but if you must keep delicate body parts like fingers out of the path of a moving blade. Critically don’t carve while tired or on medication.
If you look a the first figure, you’ll notice a triangle with three lines running towards the angles from the center. Each of the six lines represents one of the cuts you’ll make to free a pyramid of wood.
We can start by selecting the wood. Basswood and close-grained pine are both excellent choices for beginners.
The three lines inside the triangle are the ones you’ll cut first. They are started deep where the lines meet and run out shallow at the angle on the outer edge of the design. These first three cuts are made perpendicular to the surface of the wood. Don’t let these become angle cuts; keep them vertical. The photo I’ve included shows a practice board that I use to remind myself of the order of how cuts on designs that I frequently cut.
Remember, these cuts will be deeper at the center and shallower at the outer edges of the triangle. The best way to achieve this is to set your knife into the center deeply and pull back with decreasing pressure on the blade. You will need to ensure that your blade is very sharp.
You do not want to overrun the edges of the triangle while making the initial perpendicular cuts.
After making the perpendicular cuts, you’ll make three cuts along the edges of the triangle. These are slicing cuts made at an angle of about 65 degrees. You can approximate this angle by placing your knife at 90 degrees, halving that to 45, and then bring it back towards the vertical about halfway. There is no need to be too fussy here. A few degrees in one or the other direction should not matter if you are consistent, and practice will ensure that. The cuts along the long axis of the triangle will be most straightforward, while the final cut at the base needs a bit more care because it is relatively short.
These angle cuts have more to do with your wrist movement than bullying your way through the wood. The wrist flexes, and the very sharp knife does most of the work. Reminder: keep that edge sharp. If you’ve done everything right, each chip will pop out cleanly. Practice makes perfect.
Avid chip carvers take it as an article of faith that all chips should pop out like toast from the toaster. If yours don’t all the time, you may not have cut deeply enough or used the correct angle consistently. If the angle of cuts is consistent, the cuts meet.
Don’t yield to impatience and use the tip of your knife to wedge or flick the chip out. You’ll dull the blade and spoil the work. Or worse, flick that chip right into your eye. I’ll confess that not all my chips pop the first time all the time.
After you have the essential chip down, you’ll be ready to move along to cut the star.
1.) Mark out the lines for the star. Include those radiating from the center of the figure to the ray tips, and those extending inward to stars base.
2.) Make the vertical cuts from the center outwards, deeper at the center, and shallower at the edges. Just as you did with the pyramid.
3.) After those make the ten angled slicing cuts to clear the chips.
4.) Work your way around the star until you finish up all the rays.
The only caution on cutting stars is that it’s easy to cut the rays unevenly. Careful recutting can rectify this, but once out of balance, a star can become a carvers headache.
A good trick is to take a compass and scribe a circle around the outside edge of the rays. If you don’t cut beyond the circle, the rays will stay equal.
The star is a lovely and traditional design you can use to finish off the end of a quarterboard, boom, chest, door, or whatever you fancy. Gold-leafed, it will be an incomparable decoration.
Here are some examples I’ve carved using chip carving: