More Combs

Why break a perfectly fine comb? Well, to see if it can take some punishment.

January being my month for prototyping and study, I eventually settled on combs as a project. If you view many Youtube videos about making a comb, it appears to be just a one-two-three proposition, and there you have it. But, unfortunately, what seems to be straightforward is not. as is often the case, things can become a little more complicated than they first appear. Yes, anyone can make a comb using the video as a guide. How practical, durable, and effective that comb will be may be an issue, though.

At a show, one year couple came to my booth, and while the wife was picking out spoons, the husband was flexing them to see how sturdy they were. Luckily none snapped, but I was alerted to a tendency of some people to absent-mindedly bend and twist woodenware. Since then, I’ve designed the shafts of spoons to be graceful but strong. With combs, I’ve adopted a similar practice and put a bit of effort into testing the structural abilities of some of the prototypes to bend. Can you still break it? Sure! But I’ll know that much more than average effort was required.

The key to the added strength is making the comb’s spine thicker. It turns out that this also aids in making it easier to grip and use the comb and improves the appearance. You get all this from the cracks and crunches of breaking an otherwise good comb.

Why does a wooden comb need a thicker spine? Because the strength of the comb teeth requires that the wood grain flows the length of the tooth; be perpendicular to the body. Too thin a spine, and the lovely piece of wood cracks.
I am still making prototypes. There is a bit more to test out, and time spent at this stage on structural concerns means fewer issues later in making the combs. My wife has agreed to test the product but insists that the drawings I’m working on of hairsticks for long hair get a priority on the work schedule. There is a certain amount of compersion, a joy in seeing my wife get pleasure from using the comb I made, that exceeds anything possible if the comb had merely been purchased.

Combs of wood, ivory, bone, and shell were probably the origin of good grooming. A good comb can shape, hold, or groom hair into shapes. Combs are found in archeological sites going back thousands of years, but most of us never give more than a casual thought to something essential to beauty.
Like a spoon, a comb is something essential; its utility is valued, but its aesthetics makes it a pleasure to use.

Perfection, not in a day

January is my month to discover and prototype new things. The shop and the rest of life are slow, so taking advantage of this to do something that you may be too busy for otherwise is a good use of the time. But the creation process does not happen in a blinding flash of light with celestial trumpets blaring. Instead, things gradually fall into place, sometimes with a bit of annoyance and pain. 

It helps to have a process. Some of the methods and strategies I use came out of a background in Japanese Martial Arts. As a teenage Judo student, I was taught to examine my technique and progress and strive towards gradual improvements. Unlike cinematic martial arts, students often don’t have spontaneous inspirations or become black belts in a thirty-second montage. Instead, progress is made through good practice and incremental conscious work. Many businesses have heard of this as Kaizen, which has been at the root of many quality improvement techniques.

As I mentioned, I use January and February to investigate and create things I haven’t mastered or want to make. Right out front, I’ll tell you that carvers don’t bury the things that don’t work out. We either keep them around to learn from or use them to heat the house.

The real glaring failures feed the woodstove. Those with “promise” decorate the house. They are imperfect prototypes of things that I later mastered. Some examples are the curves on the little dolphin that are just a bit too chunky or the lovely portrait of the 1900-era trawler not designed with enough negative space for framing.

The prototype combs below are good examples. I set out to make some wooden combs only to discover that lots of the information available were “nuanced.” Some information was not given, some didn’t work for what I wanted, and some were bad when I tried to use it. So after research, I had to take the good information and my insights together and create some prototypes.

Prototypes are not finished products. They are functional but imperfect. Lots still need to be worked out. They say, “OK, it can be done.” Then the tough work of making it pretty and functional starts.

With regard to the combs, some things that needed working out were the wood species, grain orientation, the thickness of the comb along the spine, and the thickness of the teeth. Combs are available in various exotic kinds of wood, and some I have on stock from when I carved quarter boards and transoms for boats in teak and mahogany. But sustainability and material costs are significant issues for me. And I frequently need to apprise customers about how sustainable the products are. Luckily the species I use are both local and sustainable in New England. So my initial choices are cherry and maple. They have the strength and beauty needed.

OK, I have the basics worked out. Now, work on making it pleasing to look at and use. Perfection does not come in a day. We work at it bit by bit.

Whittling and Woodcarving

It is not on any list that I hand out to students. But E.J. Tangerman’s Whittling and Woodcarving got me started as a woodcarver. My rather ragged copy is a 1962 Dover edition of the 1936 publication. By today’s standards, it’s light on actual technique and long on ideas and illustrations. But the book launched a craftsman journey and changed my life.

Today there are easily a dozen titles I’d recommend to starting students for better-illustrated books with better descriptions of techniques. But in 1968, this was what was available to me for the grand price of two dollars.

My tool kit was that book, a pocket knife, a small boxed set of Millers Falls carving tools, a Speedball fishtail gouge, a C clamp, and an improvised carver’s hook that allowed me to carve at the kitchen table. With this little kit, I carved walnut trays, candlesticks, wooden jewelry, my first eagle, and many other pieces. Then, in the fall of 1969, an Ottawa crafts gallery took a chance on me, and I sold my first pieces. Soon after, my eagle was included in a gallery show with other carvers. I was on my way.

Carving is rarely trendy, and If I wanted more attention, I might have stuck to painting ( which I was also experimenting with at that time). I think carving matched my temperament better. But I had no premonitions that the tiny kit of tools would grow into an entire workshop. Or that carving wood could become such an essential part of my life.

Stocking Stuffers

These cherry spoons and spatulas are stocking stuffers for my daughter-in-law and her mother. The cherry is our native Massachusetts stock with its distinctive coloration and grain. Making these allowed me to use the laser engraver to personalize the traditionally made treen.
I love combining the traditional with the high-tech. In this case, the combination works well.

Ash

This is the time of year I am busy stacking firewood and preparing balks of wood for future use as cutting boards, and bowls. This fall, I am particularly busy preparing bowl and cutting board stock from a supply of ash that came my way. I precut the balks to my preferred size, measure the moisture content ( most of these are about 14 percent), paint the ends to reduce checking, and carefully store the wood to allow plenty of air circulation. I’ll periodically check the moisture over the following months. I won’t start serious work with them until they are at about seven percent moisture. When the humidity is proper, I’ll resaw the wood meant for cutting boards to about an inch in thickness and let it set for a while, as it loses additional moisture exposed by resawing the wood. After that, I’ll plane it to about 3/4 of an inch, joint straight edges, and glue up blanks for the cutting boards. After the blanks are prepared, I’ll let them proof for a few weeks before carving and finishing. I’ve found that this final proofing reveals weaknesses in the glue-up before it becomes someone’s property. Failure in use is something I work hard to avoid.

Remember, the wood I am using comes to me reasonably green. It’s not kiln-dried stock from the lumber yard.

Bowls are a bit different. I’ll start working them like cutting boards at about seven percent moisture. My first job is to joint the edges straight so I can glue up a wider blank for the bowl. I prepare several blanks at a time and wait several days before I begin rough shaping the contours of the bowl. Next, hollowing gets done with gouges. After rough shaping with the gouges, I’ll gradually reduce the inner bowl to a smooth surface with electric sanders and old-fashioned card scrapers. The final sanding is by hand. Which finish I’ll use varies; mineral oil, tung oil, or a food-safe varnish. Each finish has advantages and issues. And sometimes, the choice comes down to aesthetics, which brings out the beauty of the wood best.

Ash has become an on-again and off-again item in the shop in recent years. The emerald ash borer has destroyed much of the ash in New England, and what I get comes from salvage cuttings. Someday I expect that ash will be like chestnut before it, a rare and precious visitor to the carvers bench.

This is sad when you consider the many uses of ash in furniture making, basketry, structural timber, musical instruments, turning, flooring, and marine uses. As a carver, I was introduced to it through commissions to carve eagle heads on the ends of long ash tiller handles.

Another part of the tragedy the emerald ash borer brings is the inevitable decline of the environment where it grew. Species dependent on it suffer because their habitat shrinks. I have included a photo below of a piece of ash firewood. The picture shows the tracks of the borer on the wood.

I’ll be thinking about the implications to the environment, craft, industry, and aesthetics as I work this batch of wood.

An Online Shop

A few years before the pandemic, surgeries on both eyes made me pause my schedule of annual outings to boat shows. After a year or two elapsed, I substantially retrained my eyes and hands to the new realities of my vision, was carving again, and considered resuming shows.

Without warning, Covid hit. I hit the pause button once again. I used the time in isolation to work on technique, research, and develop new products and methods. But I didn’t stand still.

I’ve started researching and will probably launch a show schedule this December; local one or two-day shows. I decided not to do any more three and four-day extravaganzas away from home. Between the eye surgeries and, now, the hip, I’d like to stay closer to home. But my thoughts have also moved to online sales. So a few months ago, I began investigating starting a shop online.

I figured it would help fill in the holes of the local shows, attract a broader audience, and allow the “rudder kickers” to go online and make choices after seeing me at a show. I also admired some of the online presentations I had seen.

I could start another blog about how this is going, but suffice it to say, It’s not pretty. My close friend, and partner at many shows, Ralph, laughed and stated, “Good Luck!” I am now appreciating the sarcastic twist in his tone. They all say, ” set up is easy,” “we make shipping simple,” and it goes on. Unfortunately, I’ll have to buy a book and view a dozen videos to get the basics because their tutorials and FAQs are all impenetrable. In the meantime, I am still working full-time and carving. And no, you can’t spend like crazy on my shop yet!

Woodcarving is the easy part of this craft. The business and marketing…well, that’s an entirely different story!

Dining with the Devil- a flashback Friday presentation from 2018

When I restarted my business in the 1990s, I was eager to work and eager to do work that would build my portfolio. I was doing mostly boat portraits, transom banners, quarter boards, and that beautiful booth fee payer spoons, spatulas and cutting boards.
At one of my regular annual shows, I was approached by a boat owner who’d haunted my booth at this and other shows without doing much other than “rudder kicking” – looking, but not buying. That Friday however, Mr. Kicker seemed ready to do business. He needed a billet head and trailboards to dress up his newly restored sloop. We talked cost and design and agreed that I’d do both. That was when I failed to observe my first “Shipscarver’s Principle of Doing Business”; I failed to ask for and receive a down payment on the work. Sometimes failing to do things in the proper order dooms you to a downward spiral, and that’s pretty much what happened here.
I so wanted to do some impressive work for my portfolio that I was well into the design for the billet head that it wasn’t until then that I asked. His budget was overextended, but he’d get it for me soon. Soon.

The billet head was not a typical design with a concentric spiral wreathed with acanthus leaves, star or some other design elements near the center. It was very simple but of a design type more familiar to the Chesapeake Bay area. The spiral curves around an eccentric center and is off the vertical axis. The trailboards were also to be Chesapeake Bay style in design with cannons, cannon balls, and other decorations from that area. An interesting job.
Soon the little billet head was done and mounted. The design issues with the trailboards mounted, and the requests for money went unanswered. I began to hoard my design drawings; fearing that if I sent them to the client, they’d soon wind up in the hands of another carver. The client responded that without seeing the design updates, he couldn’t send a down payment.
That was when sanity prevailed. The billet head was gone; the design time on the boards was gone. But, it is evident that if I gave the design to Mr. Kicker, or worse carved the boards, I’d be out much more time and money. I stopped responding to emails and calls other than to state bluntly that without payment, work would not proceed.

Eventually, I became tied up in other projects. Mr. Kicker became a background irritation that I gradually ignored. Then one day at a large in the water boat show I stopped dead and stared at a sloop tied up to the wharf. My friend asked what’s wrong. “That’s my billet head on that damn boat.” “Are you sure?” “This father knows his own children” was my reply. Because, almost every carver has a style, cuts, tool marks, design quirks, something that marks his work as their own. And there before me was my billet head. But, some six or seven years on still no boards.
We stood there while I told him the whole sordid story, and I included the fact that some years ago, I had sealed the mess shut as a lesson in how not to do business. My friend looked at me and said, ” He just put in a big order for hoops and blocks.”

“Well, make sure that you get all your money upfront. ‘He who sups with the Devil should do so with a long spoon’.”

Moving On

There comes a time in every project where you have to stop. We’d fuss over everything forever if we didn’t just call a stop. and that’s what I’m about to do with my current ship portrait of Zaida. I’ve learned a lot from the project about what I like, and some about what I’d not repeat. You then move on- don’t repeat your mistakes, improve on what you did well, and try some new things. Otherwise each project would languish waiting for a conclusion that never comes.

I’ve already started looking for a new project, and I’ve set some stricter standards for acceptable plans. A lot of the issues with Zaida derived from a lack of of good plans, drawings and clear photos.

It’s part of the adventure of woodcarving that you keep on learning; mastery is in growth not static achievement.

Random Pieces

Diversity of products can be the game’s name when you are seeking to keep the volume of sales up as a woodcarver. A wide variety of products has always seemed to work for me.

The little laser engraved sign didn’t cost much for me to make or sell, but it caught customers’ eyes at a show. Of course, you could say that I filched the idea from the sign that leads this post, but from what I’ve heard, the idea has been around for a long time.

Another small piece that drew attention was this small carved breadboard. It is just the right size for a nice boule. The bread may have been made from a humble cereal, but resting on this distinctive board, it becomes something special. I often make my breadboards from maple, but this one has a large amount of flair thanks to the graining pattern of the ash from which I carved it.

I don’t find it fun to do just one thing, and I like to mix it up. A practical concern is that while you wait to attract lucrative commissions, you still have to pay bills. So the little stuff matters; it provides the cash flow that keeps the lights on in the shop.

Shorts

In the 90s, the government was busily downsizing, my Department of the Interior program was eliminated; My position became reinvented out of existence. 

Things were terrible for the first two years following that. I was in my mid-forties, and professional positions for an anthropologist were scarce.

I created my woodcarving business more from a need to preserve my mental well-being than a genuine impulse to be an entrepreneur. With cash scarce, I resorted to hunting out free or modestly priced wood to carve. Local lumberyards grew accustomed to my visits.

One day I happened upon an operation that milled hardwoods for flooring. Their business was thriving, the quality of their wood excellent. At first, I gratefully scavenged for free wood from their dumpster. I made many carved boxes, small chests, spoons, spatulas, and other items from their waste stream. Then, as I began to take orders, I purchased wood from their “shorts” for my projects. A short is a remainder of a plank after what is needed is cut off. It’s too short for most work but too good to be tossed. Eventually, I was a regular client coming down and purchasing planks for larger projects.

Most of the wood they milled was used for flooring and architectural trim. But because the owners were boaters, I often saw them at boat shows. They always were excited to see how their cherry, oak, and mahogany had been transformed into carved eagles, quarterboards, and chests. It was different than seeing just another flooring project.

The photos show a progression of projects from their wood, from small objects made from scrap to things made from more significant purchases. Visiting their yard was not just for business. It was an esthetic pleasure, and they always asked what I would make with the wood.

About ten years ago, they sold their business to spend some time sailing around the world. I’ll always be grateful to them for their interest and generosity.

Here is a sampler:

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