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.


The new commission was a little banner for a sloop. It would be divided into two. One part gets placed to the port of the rudder, and the other to the starboard side. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite balance at seven letters – Sea Lion – with Sea to port and Lion to starboard. Someone obsessed with bi-lateral symmetry would consider this an imposition on their sense of universal order. You compensated for this by clever placement of the letters on the banner and playing with spacing. You created a sense of balance, if not actual, balance—very much like life.

The customer was an artist who had told me, “I’d do it myself, but I’ve never carved, and I’m just too busy with commissions to take it on. By the way, make sure the design has some syncopation. I love movement.”

There were a few problems with designing for this lady. First, the boat was a traditional older sloop built in the 1930s and looked very much like its age. Something very Jazzy would look very out of place. Second, she shot down the three designs I put forward. A little banner like this only cost about $180.00 (plus the price of gold leaf) in those days. So every spring, I turned out bunches very rapidly: Pearl, Josey, Daiquiri Don, Phalarope, or Daisy. I had to carve fast or lose money.

Having failed to require change orders in writing and a redesign cost, I would lose on Sea Lion. I hesitated.

Two weeks later, guilt forced me back to the design. I balanced the left and right sides by carving a sea lion’s silhouette on the left and choosing a font with curving serifs on the leading capitals. I carved the design, varnished it, and added gold leaf. Lovely.

I shipped it out with some trepidation, but three weeks later, a letter arrived thanking me for executing the commission in such a piquant fashion. Included was the final payment on the banner.

I learned several lessons from this, primarily that change orders must be in writing, and you charge for excess design time.

While this little story is fictional, it is drawn from experience in my practice as a carver. Not everything gets carved in four-inch Palatino with gold leaf, and not all clients know what they want. Since then, I have found ways to better determine at the outset if I want to work with specific clients. Sometimes the challenge is refreshing, and you rush into it with great interest. And sometimes, you see great impositions and fights on the horizon – think twice before accepting.

Apprentice Piece

I picked up this letter opener in the ’90s probably at the big antique center in Newburyport, MA. I doubt that I paid more than two dollars for it, and felt that I had procured a lovely little piece very cheaply. I was attracted to it for a variety of reasons. The professionally trained carver had selected European walnut for the article; I’ve always favored European over American walnut for delicate pieces because of its color and tight grain. The word SOUVENIR had not been carved with a V tool or knife but was carefully incised by using individual gouge sweeps- a mark of a trade carver with a relatively complete range of curves and sizes in a set ( only trade carvers usually have that extensive a set.)

While this was no masterwork the acanthus leaf designs are beautiful, and accurately laid out and carved, and yes there is a right way and lots of wrong ways to do that. A reasonable conclusion from all the above was that the carver had been a European trained furniture carver. Someone perhaps passing from Apprentice to Journeyman, and eager to show off hard won skills.

There is age wear on the letter opener, but very little damage. It is a flat relatively thin piece that the craft person probably carved while glued to thick paper or some similar surface for carving. After completing the letter opener, a spatula would be slid under the edge to detach it. The glue used would have been a water-soluble one like hide glue, Applied hot it has excellent adhesive qualities but will release when wet. This method was and remains a good way of carving thin pieces like carved applique.
Keep your eyes open for pieces like this. They are not only lovely examples of the craft, but they offer visual lessons in how things get done. Watching a video, or reading books are fine, but handling a piece and looking at it close up is a great way to holistically understand the needed skills, tools and approach to handling complex carving. In lieu of this, I can’t emphasize the importance of museum visits enough.

Easy Pieces

I admit that the sort of non complex carving that happens when I carve a small bowl is pretty alluring. No antsy detail. No pattern that needs to be followed. Just follow the will of the wood.

today I put up a new page on the site for hand carved bowls, but thought that I’d spend a bit of time taking about my favorites . I am kind of hoping that these do not sell at next weeks show. I’ve made the mistake of getting attached to them.

Only a few inches around, the banding on the sides and interior, and the rough lip make this one a favorite just to hold and look at. Made from a piece of cherry firewood.

This second one was also from firewood. I love the subtle grain pattern and the rough lip.

This third bowl was from a slightly larger piece of cherry firewood. I had enough wood to form a bit of a handle. I went experimental and charred the interior with a torch. Before finishing you scrape off most to the char, leaving just blackened wood. There are slight defects in the wood that in my mind make the piece even more interesting.

I’ve done a number of others, and like them, but these are my favorites.

The Fugitive Nature Of Art

One of my wife’s great grandfathers had been a successful chip carver in Vermont. He had even been mentioned in a contemporary book on artisans in that state. All this, as is often the case, was forgotten over the generations. About thirty years ago the elderly sisters who controlled the family estate began liquidating the old family homes and contents. Among the items that poured forth were carved pieces from grandfather. Like me, he sold the number ones and kept the number two’s as reminders of how to cut the patterns. One of these little boxes found its way to my wife. I was fortunate to receive a small book of designs that he regularly carved.
As a carver, my wife’s great grandfather was praised for the accuracy of his cuts, and the effortless nature of his carving (the photo I’m including is of one of his practice pieces; all that remains of his work as a carver).

Eventually, the cleaners reached the attic of his house. In the attic were the real reasons for his accuracy, and success at carving; Boxes and boxes of practice pieces. He had been a compulsive perfectionist in his craft and saved his failures as kindling for the woodstove. At the end of his life, the last five or six shoe boxes never made it to the stove and were consigned to the attic.

This post could end with an encouragement to practice for the sake of mastery – as Coveney put it the need to “sharpen your saw.” What you do often you do well. And, this is very true, but let’s take it just a bit further. One of my senseis in Iaido ( the Japanese art of drawing the sword) likes to talk about the “fugitive nature of the art.” It’s impermanent, use it or lose it. Try laying off a skill which depends on not just your intellect, but also the sort of muscle memory needed to cut accurately and the skill degrades. Don’t do it for long enough and while your brain may remember all the steps your body is cranky. Your muscle memory has degraded. This fugitive nature of the art holds true in sword work, in hand-carving, and I’d imagine in arts like dance.
We do not just achieve mastery once. We continue to reach for it through continued use because skill is fugitive.


Working in wood offers the opportunity for lots of contrast and continuity. Much of the wood I use for spoons, spatulas, bowls, and even minor signs start as part of someone else’s waste stream. This morning, a piece on my bench came from a flooring maker who sold the shortboard ends cheap rather than throw them away.
A pallet of cherry sits by my back fence; I’m slowly thinning it out as I convert it from salvaged firewood to lovely spoons and small bowls. The teak I am stacking in the woodshed began life as an outdoor porch rocker. After it deteriorated, I salvaged about half the wood. It’s rough to feel now, but after I plane the planks it will be smooth again with just the right sort of lustrous tones that older teak has; it would have been such a shame to waste.

While working wood, you have opportunities for sitting while you plan and think of projects. Later you have much standing, and doing as you select, plane, saw, and then carve the projects.
A well-regulated shop wastes little. Even scrap has a role in warming the house via the woodstove, and the woodstove ash fertilizes the garden in the spring.

The Golden Zapf Chancery M ©

For about six years, I made an annual pilgrimage from Massachusetts to Maine to teach marine carving at the WoodenBoat School. The courses tend to be intense, with long days full of hard work, camaraderie, and stories. So many stories that you’d think that we’d all run out by mid-week. But, there we were Thursday evening after dinner sitting in the cellar barroom of the Irish Pub telling stories. The group was about half students and half instructors. The theme that we all seemed to be following was weird tales about boat owners. Builders and yard owners have dibs on the best stories; they get to see the worst idiosyncrasies of boat owners.

It was a round-robin story session, and my turn finally came. Carvers get some odd requests – guys at boat shows who’ve had two too many drinks asking if you’d carve a figurehead of their wife, but with large breasts, and the like. But that wouldn’t match up against some of the golden goodies trotted out that night. So, when it came to be my turn, I settled for sharing a mystery.

Some years earlier, when I started as a nautical woodcarver, a friend who owned a yard called me with a commission. The owner of a lovely ketch wanted a fancy M carved & gold-leafed in his boat’s bilges. Taking a pause, I asked him if he was sure that he wanted it in the bilge. “Yep. Down as low as you can go, he said. But still visible from the cabin when the hatch is open. He wants a fancy Zapf Chancery M. One in bright gold leaf.” Taking every job seriously, I went to the yard and investigated the bilge. The M needed to be low in the bilge but visible when you looked for it. Eventually, I settled on a spot, measured the angle at which I’d be carving, and went to the shop to plan. Whenever I cut something directly into a boat, I do a practice piece to ensure my final cuts will be exact.

About a week later, I finished the job and collected the princely sum of $90 for the work. I also left the yard with a mystery. The yard owner had no more an idea than I did about the meaning of the letter M or the positioning. So, there you have it. The mystery of the Golden Zapf Chancery M, and I have no idea why he wanted it there.

Polite laughter followed the story. And then one of the yard owners from Mount Dessert piped up: “I know that boat, and I can solve your mystery. The boat’s in my yard right now. The owner is looking to sell. I asked him about that M. He told me that he was going through a terrible divorce six years ago and got taken for just about everything he owned. He managed to keep the boat because she just wasn’t interested in it. His wife’s name started with an M, so he had the M carved where it’d get wet, dirty, fouled, and where he could watch it and enjoy the process because it was the only enjoyable thing he got from the marriage.”
Not intending to, and with an unexpected assist, I had just won the informal “who can tell the best story” competition and had a mystery solved.

A Certain Avoidance Of Good Fortune

It was a slow day—the type of show where artists and craftspeople spend most of the time talking to each other. My booth neighbor was Josh, a ceramics artist. We were trading art and craft business horror stories. We both had some good ones. There was the poorly planned show on Plum Island. By noon everyone demanded show fees back, and by three, the producer had fled the show. Josh added his stories to mine, and we spent an hour talking. At some point, I mentioned how a client had stiffed me on final payment. Josh smirked and told me, “that doesn’t happen to me much anymore.” “Oh?” I asked. Josh settled back in his chair and related this story:

” Back about three years ago. I was reading a post from a guy in New Jersey who had trouble getting paid. The client ignored all payment requests. In frustration, He sent a note saying that he’d activate the curse at the end of the week. The curse? Yes, the jinx, he’d placed just for this sort of eventuality. A week went by, the second week, no cash. Week three rolled around, and he got paid. The client had a pinched nerve, his dog bit him, and he had shingles. He cashed the check and called the client to tell him they were square.”

I asked Josh If he had ever thought about doing something similar? Then he told me the rest of the story:

” I went down to a local Botanica and asked about having something like this done. After buying lots of candles, incense, and oils on my fourth visit, the owner admitted that something might be arranged. From the backroom, his grandfather emerged. The owner asked about my request. The older man looked at me and primly shook his head no. The translation from the owner was that his grandfather would never do such an evil thing. After much discussion, grandfather agreed that he could whip up something that translated as ” a certain avoidance of good fortune.” No ill-wishing, no tragedy in the family, just a particular avoidance of good fortune. I smiled, paid the requested cash, walked away with the bit of scribble and the activating ritual.

But Josh, I asked, have you ever used it? “Once. The client laughed at me. Then I told him where to find the mark on the bottom of the piece. I described the effects of the curse – nothing dramatic, but that raise? Instead of five percent, it was two. Instead of a great steak, it always came out overcooked. Forget about good weather on vacation or finding out that your auto repair was under warranty. Just a certain avoidance of good fortune; He paid later that week.”

I thought about this lot. Sailors and their wives made up a good percentage of my clientele; they can be superstitious. They replace old coins in mast steps when rerigging, do arcane things when changing a boat name, and I’ve even seen men surreptitiously pour libations to Neptunus Rex. If I told a client to look for a scratched rebus on a boat portrait of an eagle, they’d assume that I’d cursed their boats. I’d have an unfortunate accident in a boatyard.
I’ve thought about his little squiggle and the certain avoidance of good fortune a lot. But, in the end, all I’ve done is increase the size of my down payments. And I ask for cash in advance for anything under a thousand. It’s safer this way.


Boat shops, and woodworking shops in general, are often full of patterns. You frequently build variations on similar forms. It’s easier to have templates available for these frequent repeats than starting over fresh every time. A carver’s shop is no different. I have a couple of gallery walls filled with examples I’ve carved over the past thirty or so years and numerous patterns for items I need regularly. The carvings themselves can be assemblages of pieces. The great carver Grinnling Gibbons created his massive works through assemblage, and where relevant, I do too.
The photo shows a maquette of an eagle with an applied banner. The design I based this on was a decoration on the paddle box of a very elegant 19th-century paddle steamer.

Several years ago, I carved this eagle from scrap wood. It has three pieces: body plan, head, and the attached banner. Could this be done in one piece? Yes, but it’s more straightforward and sturdy in three. A small model like this can be used with a pair of proportional dividers and paper patterns to get you pretty much any size eagle you need.

The second photo shows the small eagle with a duplicate I am working on for a house sign. Included are the patterns and prep work on the banner that has to lay across the caved eagle’s body. Patterns are lovely for layout, but a model is better for trying to get the flow of contours for things like banners or drapery.
The term bricolage is a French loan word for creating work through the assembly of various parts. While working on boat and ship portraits, I am a bricoleur combining model parts with individually crafted wooden components, paper, plastic, or metal. But even while crafting this sign, the technique creeps in.

Items like models, patterns and proportional dividers are as important to your carving as sharp gouges and knives. They form part of a shop production culture that continues to flourish not because it’s some historic affectation, but because it simply works.

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