New and Old

We can easily get lost in the weeds talking about tradition in crafts. It’s just hard to avoid observing that technology casts long shadows when you make something and call it traditional. The majority of shops that work with wood use bandsaws, table saws, and jointers. These tools have been around long enough not to ignite a vendetta among purists looking for “traditionally crafted goods.” But the technological landscape is always changing for the craftsperson.
Recently I have been nosing about on the borders. A few years ago, a series of eye surgeries compromised my ability to do certain types of woodcarving, mostly lettering. After surgery, I began to explore what I could and couldn’t conveniently do. The vision changes prompted the carving shop’s move from the old basement workshop into the greenhouse – I needed lots of light. Last year I also began to play around incorporating laser engraving and cutting as an adjunct to my carving.
Some things worked well, and others fell flat. Frankly, it’s all a work in progress. The small sign shown above is one of the projects that worked. Some of the others wound up feeding the woodstove.
Is it traditional? Well, was it traditional when craftspeople and artists began using acrylic paints or using computers to assist them in design?

Years ago, when I worked as an anthropologist, I knew a woman who crafted the most incredible Ukrainian Easter eggs. One afternoon over coffee Elizabeth introduced me to the history of technological innovation in the world of decorated Easter eggs. Over the centuries, dies and methods of preparation changed. But the community accepted the eggs because of the continuity of design and meaning in the community.
Back in the ’80’s colleagues were musing about Cambodian kite makers shifting from traditional fabrics used in Cambodia to the ripstop nylon available to them here in the United States. The maker of traditional Cambodian dance costumes received mention also. One of them had adopted the hot glue gun and factory-made jewelry findings to construct elaborate headdresses and other costume bits. They looked like the old style, but the components and techniques had evolved.

On one project I worked on years ago with boatbuilders, I asked builders what they thought was the central concept that defined the traditional boat. I had expected them to talk about materials, construction techniques, and design. I wasn’t disappointed because they all mentioned those things to one degree or another, but as a group, they said the value placed on the boat by the community that used them was central. One well-known figure I interviewed ( Lance Lee) suggested the term “cherish” as the central concept – the boats were cherished and valued by the community. It was the community of users that made something traditional.

The laser engraver that sits in the basement, and my visual handicap, got me thinking about these things. The concept of craft, especially when labeled traditional, has some minefields laid in it for the artisan. Look beyond technology to intent, the community’s acceptance of the product, and the continuation of design tradition. Sometimes we might be daunted by what we see, but the first carver who moved from a stone or bone tipped tool to one of metal started us on the moving process of technology in arts and craft.

Adventures In Coastal Living: Missing Your Timing

The Captain thought it a good idea. Because the Captain thought it a good idea, my wife thought it a good idea. If I hadn’t felt railroaded into it, I would have thought it a great idea. Spinney, Kora, aunt Martha and my friend Bob all chimed in, and the consensus was that it would be a “bullet product” for a carver to create and sell. The fishermen would buy it because it was useful to them, tourists would buy it in the shops because it was a genuine part of local life that they could take home. 

The item was a netting needle. Netting needles are still used by fishermen to make and repair all sorts of network. My only surviving needle is the first crude attempt that I made. I did improve. My first five or so were kindling ( ash burns with a beautiful sweet odor). But then I caught the skill of cutting out the tongue ( that small needle in the middle of the netting needle) without splitting the whole into pieces. At about six inches, my one remaining netting needle is on the tiny end of useful sizes. Needle size depends on the net size you are creating. You charge the needle with twine looped around the tongue and the fishtailed end of the needle, and then you are ready to go. The images here come from an exhibit at the Maine Maritime Museum ( Visit it!!)

To make them traditionally, the Captain and Spinney had me split out local ash with a froe – a tool that looks like a sideways chisel. Spinney called this riving, and it is how planks were split off logs before pit saws, circular saws, and other machinery came along for creating planks. If you have ever split firewood, you’ve done it. Woods like ash and oak have tremendous resistance to rot when split this way. After riving the split piece of ash was planed smooth and flat, and then taken to the local tidal inlet, weighted with stones in the ebb and flow of the tide and left. Some months later, the salt darkened wood was ready to be worked.

The only additional equipment needed is a hook or ring, to attach the top cord of the net to, and a rectangular piece of metal or wood to determine how big the net’s boxes will be. If you must see the whole process, I advise a visit to Youtube. I just made the needles.

The needles are easy to make. When adequately finished, they have a nice feel in the hand and are useful. So why did I title this Missing Your Timing? Well, the wooden ones last for years as long as the tongue doesn’t break. You can whip one together in a pinch using a metal coat hanger and a pair of pliers. Any competent fisherman can make his own, and around the time I began to make them, they started to be available in plastic. 

They didn’t sell well in the shop where we placed them; people didn’t understand what they were for – they required too much explanation. A rubber lobster made better sense. So the stock I had carefully made were distributed to friends and their friends. I considered myself well rewarded if someone liked my needle well enough to make it a favorite.

My Brain Trust shook their collective heads, as did I. You can convince yourself that your newest widget is the best thing since Mayonaise, but that doesn’t mean it is. That’s why market research needs to be more than a group of people sitting around saying, “Hey! Here’s a great idea!”

I made some very sweet cutting boards with the remaining ash, and those sold well.


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.


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