Practice

I almost put on my hakama* without putting on my obi. The arthritis is bad enough to force me to do standing kata, but after two months, it feels great to be practicing – remember the Katana is long, but the ceiling low. Sword cuts in the ceiling are not allowed. Must not upset she who is not to be trifled with.

Covid-19 knocked me out for only a week. I had a mild case. But the recovery has been long, very long – weeks of low energy levels and fatigue.

Today though, I cleared the living room and slowly moved through three sets of standing seitei Iaido. I was tired, but not entirely out of breath. Eventually, the dojo will reopen, and I don’t want to be the one in the corner panting because the long layoff from practice has sapped my strength, although it has. 

The problem with long periods of no practice is that you think you are doing great, but then realize that your technique has atrophied. Like other forms of art, there is a fugitive component that you struggle to keep at bay through regular practice. I’ve had similar issues when I’ve stopped carving for periods. “how the heck did I do that?” Because so much of both those arts are tied to muscle memory, you can lose it if you don’t use it. 

Sometimes it’s interesting as you work back into things. You get little bursts of “beginners mind,” and you can use those to restore freshness to your work. You have an opportunity to avoid old harmful patterns – if you are careful.

Notes for those who don’t do Iai:

The hakama is a sort of divided pantaloon that was a typical style of dress in feudal Japan- being that Iaido is Japanese swordsmanship we dress in that style.

An Obi is a broad, very long belt that we wrap around our waist beneath our hakama ( but over our short jacket called a Keikogi).

Kata is a pattern of practice. In the case of Iaido, a pattern of sword cuts and movements that mirror a combat situation. Iaido gets practiced solo.

The Katana is the long Japanese sword used by the Samurai. It takes years of dedicated practice to master its use.

Seitei Iaido is one form of Iaido. In my dojo, we also practice a type called Muso Jikiden Iaido – another school of training. 

dojo is a place where you learn and practice Japanese martial arts.

Contact me is you want to know more.

Seeing Is Believing

I made some very sweet eagle-headed canes in the nineties. At one show, I sold the very best one to someone who was sightless. The details that people without visual impairment take for granted this young woman was able to take in by using her hands. I was immensely pleased, not at the sale, but to have my work so appreciated. The only other people who felt my work were children. I was continually telling parents that it was OK for kids to handle the carving. That is one of the beautiful things about carving wood- its tactile nature. I find myself hoping that people don’t just stop when they see my carving, but also touch it.
There are some things that people do automatically start stroking: spoons. I work very hard to avoid making an exact repeat. There are some lovely spoons out there that look handmade but are not. Take a look at the “family resemblance.” All the spoons and spatulas look graceful, smooth, and well designed, but there is very little individuality. Of course, I am not in the spoon business. I don’t have to turn out thousands a year to keep my enterprise solvent. I may make a few hundred if I’m doing shows. That quantity allows me to play around. I am looking for designs with excellent utility, well balanced, looks attractive, and feels nice.

To see and to feel are complementary senses. As a society, we tend to emphasize the visual at the cost of feel. That can be a mistake.
Boatbuilder Ralph Johnson drove this home to me years ago. We were planking a small boat. He asked me if the plank I had just finished shaping was fair. Based on my vision, I replied that it was. He just smiled and asked me to close my eyes and walk down the plank while I ran my thumb against the edge. As I progressed, I felt every rough bump, dip, and ding. In boatbuilders’ jargon, it was not genuinely fair.

Seeing may be believing, but feel will give you a less biased second opinion.

Collections

My mentors were just that, mentors. Several couldn’t afford the expense that having an actual apprentice would cost; others were not interested. But then by the 1960s, the old apprenticeship programs in crafts like carving were gone.
Then there was that little problem of my lack of maturity. When the opportunity to work with them presented itself, I was interested but not prepared. I think that was why several of them guided me in the direction of good authors and their books. Literacy and short-term courses at centers for specialized learning ( like WoodenBoat School) would replace the old system of craft shops and apprenticeships.
Even today, with the internet, there is no replacement for the book. I am working on a portrait of an early 20th-century Steam Yacht. The available information on the internet was useful, but I hardly all I needed to complete my research. Steam Yachts were a type of vessel that I had barely known existed. Using book dealers, I was able to find some titles that filled in the holes in my library. I am reasonably confident that this sort of need is true for boatbuilders, printmakers, musicians, and other professionals as well.
A funny thing happens as you develop a collection of books on your interests: your browsing habits change, and you begin looking to fill holes in your collection. Some of the side effects are less than pleasing. Bookshelves seem to appear randomly around the house; your selection must be housed. Friends with similar interests ask to borrow titles, and you clutch books to your chest, muttering about “…my precious…”
But the worst is the competition of your beloved spouse. My wife has a cookbook collection that seeks to rival my collection of maritime and woodworking titles. Sometimes she doesn’t see the natural superiority of the nautical. I stake out my claims very carefully. Eventually, someone will have to go.

Sign Work

I rarely do signs anymore. At one time, they were the mainstay of my business: quarter boards, transom banners, house signs, and small business signs. Then the CNC router revolution came along, and I decided not to do a John Henry. So I still carve, but not a lot of signs. Do I miss it? Not really. Carving a small banner for a skiff reading TITANIC is a hoot the first time, but the humor is thin the sixth time. The year the Pirates of the Caribean movie came out, I must have done ten BLACK PEARLS. Then there were the 12-foot sloops named POSEIDON, KEGGER, CLEOPATRA’S BARGE. The Cleopatra carving was eventually hung in a home because the customer ordered it in size too large for the transom. I had to tell them that I could not shrink it.

By contrast, there were thoughtful customers designing name boards for summer homes, boat owners looking for the unique and the nonconventional. One of the nonconventional customers was a woman with a gorgeous canoe. For her, I carved a pair of thin cherry bow boards that complemented the canoe’s style.

If you’ve listened to my story, but still want to engage in the traditional work of carving quarter boards, transom banners, and the like, here is my advice. Get a subscription to one of the graphics magazines that cater to signmakers ( Google is your friend). Many of these produce annual guides to production costs. Unless things have changed, pricing guidelines for hand-carved work is included.

There is a parable in the boat building Trades, it also applies to maritime carving: Want to know how to make a small fortune in the trade? Start with a large one—best of luck.

Sources

In January, I started what I thought to be a quick project for a portrait of the halibut Schooner Republic. There was not much online where I began, and even less available in terms of print sources. My collection at home also came up dry. I was able to complete the project in March but wished that I had better documentation. 

Typically, I budget about a quarter of my project time to research, unless the portrait is a well documented one design, or a small boat for which sufficient illustrations or plans are available. It’s when you start work on less documented material that you wind up in the weeds. The halibut schooner was in the deep underbrush.

Regardless of the craft you serve, there are documentation needs: patterns, illustrations, methods, notes on materials, or historical information. Over the years, I’ve grown a small but healthy collection of print and visual content. My urges to add to this depend on my current and proposed projects and general interest. Practice a craft long enough, and you wind up with at least a small library. If you love books, the affliction is much worse. Obtaining the material that you need can be a bit of a circus.

You might notice that booksellers don’t tend to hold onto extensive stock these days, and publishers have little motivation to make excess print runs for materials that they might have to sell as remainders. I suggest that you haunt library sales, befriend local used book shops, and support independent booksellers wherever you find them. But, this method of growing your collection can be hit or miss. If you are a chronic browser, this is a great way to expand your collection slowly. It won’t yield specific results when you need something for a project now.

As a sidenote for the public library user: I love libraries. However, except specialty libraries, like those associated with Maritime Museums, they don’t tend to have much for me. Sadly, every year I buy books for my collection that were initially library copies but got withdrawn and sold.

 Which, of course, leads you to the internet and the realm of search engines. Depending upon the popularity of what you are researching, sources can be very rich or impoverished. For those of you who claim that they can always find whatever they need online, I’d posit that whatever it is they are doing, it is what many others are doing as well. Take an excursion further afield, and you will soon find out that the internet is not an equal opportunity provider.

This precisely why sites like Biblio, Abe books, Thriftbooks, and other places are your friends. Their search engines index the holdings of associated book dealers. The descriptions can be sparse. So, you have to be on top of your game in terms of what you are seeking. The photo I am using for this post shows part of the workshop library. I bought a number of these books used online.

Here are a couple of pointers:

1.) learn to read and evaluate the descriptive methods sellers use to describe books – keep them honest – if a book is described as having a tight binding, but shows up with loose pages complain.

2.) compare listings among various booksellers for price, condition, and shipping.

3.) Research your purchases. Not all sellers describe the contents of the book accurately. 

4.) Develop wish lists for content that you are seeking. It may be available next month.

A current project I am working on is a portrait of a 1900 Victorian Steam Yacht. Thin online prospects and lean sources in my library led me to four online book dealers. I was able to find several low priced additions to the library that fill in some of my collections deficiencies. As the books arrive, I can fill the knowledge gaps in designing and executing the steam yacht.

A post on that should be forthcoming.

CAT

I was at my booth at a boat show in Maryland when another maritime carver came to visit. Lordan was the local “yaahd cavaah,” as we’d describe it in New England. We hit off right away, talking about the little niceties of our trade. Somewhere along the line, he asked if I would be willing to make a swap. ” I know that you teach carving, and I also do. I’ve found that if I teach the students to carve the word CAT, they get a complete guide to letter carving in one word. It has the verticals, horizontals, curves, and diagonals all in one word.” We continued talking about letter carving for a while. In the days before Robo carving stole that end of our market, we tended to do a good bit of hand-carved quarter boards, transoms, and banners. After a while, I admitted that this was going to be useful to my students, and I asked him what he wanted in exchange. ” You carve a lovely little compass rose design. I’d love to borrow it for just a few boxes for presents.” “Done.” Says I, and the deal was complete.
Over the years, I used CAT to instruct many in letter carving. By the time they master CAT, the student is ready to move along to carving a quarter board.
So, the CAT carving was supposed to be a practice piece. But I noticed more than one student carefully finishing off the CAT practice piece as a finished piece of work. At last, confirmation came in the mail of what I had suspected. There, in all its glory, was the photo of a cat happily eating dinner in front of it’s very nicely varnished and gold-leafed CAT carving.
One man’s practice piece is another’s kitty gift,

Share

Share; be generous.
It began with my mentor pointing out my stinginess. I had little money for presents, but he countered that I had my craft: “Give it away; it will come back to you.” I ignored his advice. No, it wasn’t a miserable holiday. People were generous to me. Eventually, it began to sink in that he was correct. But for years, I was not creating and had little to give. So like many of us, I bought for others.
When I re-established the business in the early ’90s, I created lists of things I needed to improve on before opening my business – right at the top was lettering.
I’ve always needed to link learning with meaningful work – so I planned projects that targeted lettering proficiency but would then become presents. The photo shows two examples. I made signs and other carved projects for a long list of nieces, nephews, sons, and daughters of friends, and of course, my kids. By Christmas, I had mastered all the serifs, ascenders, and descenders needed and made a lot of people happy. Cost? Almost nothing. I used odd cuts of wood; the only expenses had been for paint, glitter, and varnish.
My present to myself was a gift of increased skills and sharing the happiness I had created.
As I write this, I am planning some new products; the spring is always my most productive time for new things. That means it’s a product development and gift planning time. Need free product development advice; give a gift and ask: ” Terry, these boxes are something I’m developing. I’d love to get your input on them.”
Dare I say it! Do good while doing well? Try it; making someone happy is an excellent use for a craft skill.

Create

We so often admire the complex and then seek out and appreciate the simple. The examples I have chosen to show are small carvings from post-war occupied Japan. Both feature a popular theme in Japanese art; Mount Fuji.
The simplicity of the creative technique is central here. The entire subject gets rendered with no more than the bare required cuts, and for that matter, the bare number of tools. Although the artist makes multiple cuts, the amount is minimal. We can also see this at work in brush calligraphy techniques where the subject is composed and executed in one continuous stroke.


To be effective in this requires two things: a thorough knowledge of the capabilities of your tools; and mastery of your tools. As one of my senseis says, “and that’s all there is to it.”
One mentor of mine once knocked out about a foot and a half of fancy molding out of what was scrap wood. He cut all the cuts needed from one tool, moved on to the next, and so on in succession—the complexity of the finished piece derived from the repetitive simple cuts he made in the correct sequence.
Well, I don’t know about you, but I can tell you that I am still working on this, and probably will be until it’s time to put away my tools. Like so many creative endeavors mastering the complex depends on learning the very basic.

Obscure

Ego? Sure, I do. Why else would I have done all those shows? Blog posts and blather about my carving from one end of the internet to the other! I guess mine is as healthy as anybody else’s. But you know who I admire? It’s the woman or man who carved this little portrait. Its hidden away on a back alley on Rockport’s Bearskin Neck.
The person who carved it had to have known that 99% of the people passing by would never notice it. But, there it is anyway. Obscure and hidden. Now that’s self-confidence. The knowledge that your work stands on its own—a genuinely audacious lack of concern that your art receives admiration. Except by the 1%, who’ll acknowledge what you already know. Bravo!

Rules Of Thirds

The third-floor apartment on Park Avenue had its amenities, including a view of the Kuomintang sign down the street. I had shown up in Baltimore a few weeks earlier after discharge from the Navy and had been invited to share quarters with my friend Bill.

 Bill and I had a sometimes business carving “genuine” Tiki gods, and other countercultural junk. This we accomplished mostly with a Dremel tool and routers. One of us had to find cheap wood for these projects, and scrounging was my specialty.

Sometime that summer, I wandered into Warburton’s looking for free scrap. I walked into his studio just in time to be recruited. Three balks of wood were being prepared to become a Saint Joseph for a private chapel. I found myself helping move the materials into the shop. Warburton’s shop had extraordinary high ceilings. On one side was a balcony with a smaller workshop poised above the main work floor. The main work floor contained everything from large bandsaws to a 19th-century jointer that was ready to remove your hand in a second of inattention. Against one wall was the main work area for carving. There stood rack upon rack of carving tools. In a smaller corner was a bench upon which Warburton’s current engraving project sat with the burins and gravers of that trade neatly racked.

I asked Warburton why he used those old fashioned tools rather than use power tools. He looked at me for a while before replying than said, “You can find out yourself. I need an assistant, and if you can do the work, I’ll teach why I use those tools.” Real work on a steady basis was not what I really wanted, so I thanked him and said I’d be back to see what he was doing. 

I wound up, checking back almost every day. Warburton tolerated no lazing about, even by unpaid louts like me. He assigned me all the cleaning tasks he despised and was an apprentices lot since the Middle Ages. There was a logic to it. Being asked to sort walnut plank stock, I had to learn to gauge the quality of the planks, and how to properly sticker and stack the boards, so the was air circulation between the levels. Failure to do this could result in warped, twisted, and cupped stock that was worthless to the shop.

Warburton also had a box of old dusty wax fruit, cones, balls, and broken plaster castings that he periodically asked me to set up and draw. I would have gladly sorted several thousand board feet of lumber instead of doing still lives. It was my goal when asked to do this, to set up the items in absurd, obscene, or Daliesque tableau that I hoped would provoke him. He ignored this. Instead, he commented on the balance, composition, rhythm, and pattern formed by the objects. 

His most important lesson was about the rule of thirds. To this day, I am a terrible draftsman, but that summer, I did learn to do perspective drawings of Baltimore street scenes as I grew sick of wax fruit. I was always using the rule of thirds and looking at the balance and rhythm in the composition.

I did lots of scut work. I flattened water stones that had been used so often that they had hollowed surfaces, learned the basics of sharpening, and learned to actually use the knife. The maestro maintained that it was the foundational tool and that without being able to sharpen and control it, I’d never be a carver. 

Eventually, I was given a small block of walnut, a scrap really, and told to create an abstract shape. Emphasis had to be on the grace of curves, smoothness of transitions, and the quality of the tool work. I was warned that all the compositional elements I had worked on would also be involved. Was it to look like anything specifically? No. But he did pull out several books on the work of Jean Arp and Barbara Hepworth.

I began to be a snob when called upon to use a Dremel. My routing of Tiki’s became infiltrated with contamination from Hepworth and Arp. Bill accused me of ruining the business. In opposition to this, I began to critique his compositions, pointing out that they lacked balance or rhythm. I was eventually asked to leave the apartment. 

Down the street from our apartment was Oscar’s flower shop. Oscar’s was different. There wasn’t a real flower, stem, or leaf in the shop. Plastic floral material was just coming onto the market, and Oscar occupied his retirement, making incredible and fanciful arrangements. Oscar was impressed with my new found approach to carving. He began to offer me offcuts of cherry and walnut from his farm outside the city. These he posed with his floral creations. Our deal was a 40/60 percentage cut. This probably would not have been an issue with Bill except that Oscar decided that Tiki’s were…so yesterday. He chose to accept no more of Bill’s Tiki production and asked him to remove the unsold inventory from the shop. Riding the wave of artistic popularity, I decided to ask for a 60/40 percentage cut. I was an established “artiste.” Oscar smiled and said that we could revisit the deal when the current inventory sold. I agreed.

About that time, the desire to head up to Boston for a week or two came on me. I went on a frolicking detour, and my friend Bill sulked.

About three weeks later, I returned from Boston to find all my carvings on the back loading dock and some new carvings of Bill’s installed in Osar’s floral emporium. Asking what happened, I was informed that Bill had started routing and power sanding pieces similar to what I had hand-carved, but they cost Oscar about fifty percent less. Too Bill with his big red beard ripped and stained jeans looked much more like a real artist than I did with short hair and pressed khaki’s. 

This did put a strain on the friendship for a while. But Bill’s sense of art was not held by wood. His actual devotion lay in painting, and to that, he soon returned. Oscar also moved on. In a few weeks, he called Bill to come to get his stuff, which was left on the loading dock. Oscar had found a source for driftwood on the Delmarva that he maintained looked much better than anything Bill or I had done, and they were much cheaper. This was a different sort of rule of thirds for art: you innovate and sell. Somone copies and sells for substantially less. Lastly, the demand for the product declines.

Later that week, Bill and I stopped at Warburton’s to look at the progress on Saint Joseph. I mentioned to Warburton how we both lost a source of income from the sculptings. Warburton simply said: ” it’s hard to improve on nature.” To which Bill replied: “Yeah. Or to depend on the taste of a guy who sells plastic flowers.”

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