On Style

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.

Wooden Rings

A hand-carved wooden ring, you say? Actually it was one of my first commercial ventures as a woodcarver. When I was living in Ottawa my girlfriend wanted a ring to seal our deepening relationship, but I was much too poor to buy one. So being a carver I grabbed a bit of rosewood scrap that someone had gifted me and carved her a ring. Of course, it was just a simple ring. But it looked enchanting because it was rather lovely rosewood, and she was pleased to have her finger ringed by it.

It was the sixties, and everyone was into exploration, the natural, and feelings of the spirit. So I started making them on a limited basis for friends to give and receive. Unlike a metal ring, a wooden one needs a bit more heft to provide it with the strength it needs to resist splitting. Make it too thin, and it looks exquisite but not too durable. You had to ensure that the grain had a twist because this was one place where straight grain was not a plus. Grain that was too straight would split right along the grain.

Selecting wood was the key to making it as thin as possible and as lovely as you could make it. I liked very close twisted grain. I chose ebony, teak, and some burl woods that a friend provided from his pipe making.

The tools were a bit string to measure and mark diameters, a drill, a knife, and some gouges. The finish was with sandpaper, followed by steel wool and oil.

Wooden ring-making is still a thing, but I made maybe a dozen or two before moving on to earrings. Unfortunately no photos of that early work survive.

Sweepers. Sweepers!

Yesterday was a reorganization day in the 8X10 carving shop. I have to reorganize spring and fall because the shop still fulfills its original purpose as a greenhouse for some of our tender perennials, such as the bay and our rosemary plants. 

The pressure is to move “almost done” projects to being done, so the space is freed up for plants. As a result, there is little silence during this project. Instead, I embrace my inner sailor and concoct epitaphs that would singe the ears of most seamen.

But somehow, I manage to find the space. So I created some new shelving over the workbench and a new drafting area. But, of course, working in a tiny area means creativity needs to be your motto.

Because yesterday was reorganization day, today was a sweep-out day. So I announced it to the only crewman, my dog Max, the cat sensibly had slept in while it rained. So there I was on the shop 1MC ( main communicator) – “Sweepers, sweepers, man your brooms. Give the ship a clean sweep down fore and aft, sweep all decks, ladders, and passageways…”

As the broom swept chips, sawdust, and debris out, I could again see the shop’s concrete deck. All ready for a new round of projects!

Sloop of War

Small vessels of the Napoleonic War era below the rate of the frigate were frequently termed Sloops of War. It didn’t matter if the ship was rigged as a sloop, a brig, snow, or an actual ship rig. A frigate was generally ship rigged ( square-rigged on all three masts) and had at least 28 guns on a single flush deck. 

So the handy little flush deck Sloop of War I’ve carved here is almost a pocket frigate. With twelve guns, she will not stand against a larger ship, say a Frigate, but is armed well enough to do some severe damage as a Privateer, dispatch, or reconnaissance ship. Fast and able ships like this served the British, American, and French navies throughout the era.

About the carving:

This was lots of fun to carve. I modeled the Sloop of War on several illustrations but modified things until I had the sail plan and view I wanted. The carving was executed in eastern white pine. After most of the carving was complete, I decided on a mixture of painted color and bare wood for the sort of contrasts I wanted. The sea combines crushed stone, blue ink, and acrylic paints. The quote is a favorite Horatio Nelson quote that is both era-appropriate and matches the scene.

Sailing before the wind is a challenging position to carve. It needs a bit of hollowing in the sails for drama, but it can be tricky to express. Remember you are trying to get this sense of depth and movement in 1/8 of an inch or less of carved depth.

I’ve been developing this carving style as an homage to nineteenth-century sailors’ dioramas and ships’ portraits. It’s not modeling, nor is it flat portraiture. It’s a sort of hybrid.

A Small Eagle – A flashback Friday presentation from 2018

This eagle is barely eleven inches wide, not my smallest, but diminutive none the less. It’s a good miniature project for a woodcarver. Pine is great wood, but fine detail in small sizes are not its strong suit. Would this pop out at you in cherry, plum or box? Sure, but my objective was to do what was possible with a butt end from a #3 common plank. A piece of kindling in other words. Why, just because it was the middle of summer and I needed something to do while larger projects developed.
Like my 19th century antecedents, I created my design from pattern elements used in other projects. I then altered them to make a plan I liked.
This method of work from patterns was traditional. Patterns adorn the walls of my shop, as they do in small boat shops. If you are good at drawing feel free to do so, but the advantage of patterns is having a good record if you need to duplicate work. Patterns are also handy if you need to make alterations in a design.

The photos show the method of carving through to completion; except the gilding. I gold leaf but acknowledge that I am not a gilder. I’ll do leafing for customers, but I feel ambivalent about the effect of gold leaf. Under most lighting conditions leafing washes out the fine details. But, so many love to see a gilded eagle that presenting one without it almost automatically invites the question “why didn’t you gold leaf it?” I’ll cover this in more detail later in other posts. For now, I’ll say that I’d rather leave an eagle varnished, or tinted with bronze.

If you enlarge the first photo you’ll see the defects in of pine I am using. I once had a student who got mad at me because I didn’t carve everything in the very best quartersawn stock.  he also refused to believe me when I told him that White Pine had been the preferred wood for most figureheads carved in the northeast. It’s too soft and prone towards rot he proclaimed. I suggested that he research the issue, but he departed my class in a huff when he discovered that basswood was not my favorite carving wood. I wasn’t being perverse. Patterns, molds and carving blanks come to a shop from boatbuilders with imperfections. Normally they understand the needs of the carver for clear stock, but not always. Of course, you send back anything that’s too awful to work, but life is not perfect and even a hobbyist needs to learn to work with imperfection.

The important thing to learn from the first photo is this:  we get rid of those knots before carving, but their effects on the grain persist just like water currents around reefs influence our path through the water. We have to learn to compensate in order to make something beautiful. The same as in our daily lives.

The Imp

The imp sat on my shoulder yesterday as I shaped the hollows on an eagle’s wing. We had visited Mystic Seaport the previous week, and I had spotted some carving on a transom that I’d never successfully modeled in three dimensions. Something about how to carve it had always eluded me.
I had no real impetus to carve it, no one was clamoring for me to carve it for their yacht, so it was just a furtive tickle in the back of my mind. An annoyance.

The imp knows how my mind works. So I may never carve something exactly resembling that carving. But deep in the back mind, some part of my mind is turning it over and over again. So in a week or two, I may not even recollect the piece. Until one day, I am carving something, and, wow, what’s this? I get enthused and excited. I finish the work, get some photos, and sit back in satisfaction.

Then the imp comes and smugly sits on my shoulder—a furtive smirk on his face. What the heck is he so smug about? It takes a week or two. Then I am glancing at my gallery wall, and it hits me. That recent piece, what does it remind me of?

Then it hits me that incorporated into the design is a bit of that element that frustrated me for so long. I am pleased but also a bit annoyed that my creative process is so murky that I didn’t see this for weeks after finishing the piece. There is a quote about creativity that I like. Here it is:
“Creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.” – C.E.M. Joad

I don’t have to worry about that. The imp takes care of that.

Flashback Friday – from June of 2019 – One Of A Kind Eagle

This gem of an eagle was waiting for me inside one of the Jefferson St. houses at the Strawberry Banke Museum. If you are familiar with the Great Seal of the United States, you’ll see where the carver found his design inspiration.

There are notable design differences between the Great Seal and this eagle, however. The stars are on a blue field behind the head of the eagle, not in a rayed circular device over its head. The banner bearing the motto “E PLURIBUS UNUM” is gracefully scrolled through the eagle’s beak and across the wings rather than through the beak and upwards between the wings. Rather than thirteen arrows, the carver made five. The legs also have a bend in them rather than sticking straight out, and the tail feathers are nor fanned out as in the Seal.

In reading the history of the Seal, you would see that it’s authorized by Congress to have thirteen arrows. One rendition of the Seal that was in use for many years had only six; never represented with five. Careful examination of the shield also shows some liberties with the design; check and see if you can find them. The claws and feet of birds can be challenging. The feet on this birdie are masterfully figured and detailed.


A canopy surmounted the eagle with drapery swags hanging down. Similar swags saw use in both architectural carving and marine carving ( on a ships quarter galleries at the stern). The artist or the client wanted to suggest the Seal, but not blindly replicate it. There are legal limitations on portraying the Seal for other than official use, so it could be that the client was interested in avoiding censure.


OK, in my opinion, most of the variations improve upon the design, and I opine that the artist felt the same way. I’d suggest that the wood is native pine and that the artist if not a maritime carver, was very familiar with the techniques and preferences of that art.

The artist was influenced by the work of Samual McIntire of Salem. The neck and carving of the feathered crest of the head suggest that influence.
The curators at Strawberry Banke have dated the piece as circa 1890. The artist is unknown. I wish I knew more about the artist and the article. If you have any clues, let me know.

Paper and Scissors

I found the wood sitting in the shorts at my favorite hardwood dealer. It was very dark, heavy, and dense. It was mahogany but so dark and heavy that I felt it was a wayward piece of Dominican, not Honduran. It was just what I wanted.
I wanted to create a banner with a distinctive font, Barnhard Modern. I also wanted to give the banner a center and ends that undulate. The result was pleasing. At shows, people run their hands over the banner as a sensual experience, precisely what I wanted.

How do you do this? You must carve banner ends to appear delicate when viewed from a distance. But up close, there needs to be enough heft that they’ll stand up to the abuse they’ll get on a boat’s transom. For a show display, you have to compromise. People are way closer to the carving than they would be in another boat.

Many banners have curvature, but in most, the area which is lettered is flat. On MANDALAY, the field of the lettering undulates. So, the lettering does not stay in the same plane while laying it out or carving it. To experiment with this, I advise using wood no less than 8/4 in thickness. Any less will be too thin for the effect to work.

First, I carved the banner with all its curves and undulations. It’s essential to control your pleasure in removing wood. Easy. Remember that the effect comes from the smoothness of the curves and contours. Abrupt changes will ruin the look. Periodically take a break to place it in natural light. Turn it upside down and see if the movement of the wood flows.
For lettering, you have several options: Old School layout by hand; or New School computer layout in vinyl or paper. I chose a compromise between hand layout and computer layout on paper. The key to the paper template here is that the paper is flat, and the surface is not – hence the title: Paper & Scissors because cutting the paper will allow you to follow the undulating surface.
To follow the undulations, you slice the areas between the letters to get them to lay in the correct planes. As you layout, you also need to adjust the kerning ( distance between the letters). When completed, take the design into natural light, turn it upside down, and check to see if it still looks proportionate and balanced. I left this for a day and returned to it fresh the next morning; rested eyes see mistakes. I also find that taking photos on my phone reveals things my eyes sometimes miss.

After the layout was complete, the letter carving was like any other letter carving project. The finish is about eleven coats of Captain’s Z-Spar rubbed out after the first three priming coats and each succeeding one. The lettering I painted with One-Shot yellow sign paint. Two thin coats are better than a single thick covering.

Although gold leafing is an entirely separate topic, I advise that you do yourself an enormous favor and allow the varnish to cure before gold leafing. Remember that’s cure, not dry. Varnish manufacturers will tell you that varnish dries in twenty-four hours. But that is not the same as curing.

Gold leaf has a nasty tendency to stick to anything. But especially uncured varnish. I frequently allow a week or more for the varnish to cure; move on to another project, and come back later to apply gold leaf.

Forgotten Tools

Principal carving is complete, finishing the coaming and adding some details are all that's left before fitting into the hoop

Every craft has a few tools that seem so insignificant and ordinary that we pass over them when discussing how we work. Three that I can’t do without are a simple glove with the fingers cut off, my mallets – a large lignum Vitae one for heavy work, and a little palm job for the delicate touch – the final on this short list is a palm pad filled with a shock-absorbing jell.
These are indispensable next to sharp tools, yet they barely receive a mention in handbooks on carving.


The glove keeps your hand from getting abraded while removing the bulk of the background in a carving – sometimes called wasting the background. Remove a significant amount of wood manually without this, and the most minor damage you’ll have are abrasions and scratches from the wood. Splinters are, of course, an issue that the glove helps you avoid.
The shock pad will protect the palm of your hand from injury caused by regularly propelling the tool into the wood. Depending on how sensitive your hands are, you could be talking about carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, or merely a sore hand.
Whenever you remove a significant amount of wood, using a mallet is a great idea. Carvers mallets are rounded and come in a wide variety of sizes, weights, and wood species. I have about five, but my favorite is the little palm mallet made from a piece of firewood elm. It fits my hand perfectly and is light enough to allow a bit of finesse in hitting the tool.

If you carve and don’t have these tools, you should acquire them – they are cheap and make your carving safer and easier.

%d bloggers like this: