There’s No Blemish


In nature there’s no blemish but the mind,

None can be called deformed but the unkind.

William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, Act III, scene iv

As I was cutting and collecting this storm-fallen silver maple, I noticed in the end-grain the dark streaks and stains running through the creamy colored wood.  As more of the beautiful blemish was revealed during the carving process, I decided to carve the first line of a couplet from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night that expressed much of what I was thinking.  That guy knew how to say things.





On the exterior, I carved a strong texture, and I really like the way it feels and contrasts with the curves.



Posted in bowls, finding wood, Lettering, quotes and excerpts, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 16 Comments

Being at Ease


Every once-in-a-while, I get an itch to make another post-and-rung chair.  I really haven’t made too many, but I love the processes:  riving the parts, shaving at the horse, weaving the seat.  My first was fifteen years ago, following my discovery of the encouragement given to so many by Jennie Alexander through the book and video Make a Chair From a Tree.


I started this one, a rocking chair, several months back with part of a straight-grained walnut log that also had a section with a natural bend just right for the back posts of a chair.  After the parts were riven, I began refining them at the shaving horse, beginning with the rungs so that they could begin drying.


After the back posts had been shaved, mortised, and dried a bit, I had one more thing in mind for them prior to assembly.  I was making this chair for a friend who loves to pick a guitar and play a fiddle.  I wanted to personalize the chair with some carved lettering, and I had been thinking.


My friend is a big John Steinbeck fan and has a signed copy of Cannery Row.  I hadn’t read that one, so I listened to the audio book while carving.  I loved it, and I felt like I knew the complex characters, including, of course, Doc.  Doc is the most respected figure on Cannery Row, admired by everyone including the otherwise self-serving Mack and the boys.

“Doc would listen to any kind of nonsense and turn it into wisdom. His mind had no horizon – and his sympathy had no warp. He could talk to children, telling them very profound things so that they understood. He lived in a world of wonders, of excitement. He was concupiscent as a rabbit and gentle as hell. Everyone who knew him was indebted to him. And everyone who thought of him thought next, ‘I really must do something nice for Doc.”

But it wasn’t until I followed up by listening to the sequel to Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday that “the line” jumped out at me.  It was in another description of Doc.  Steinbeck writes, “Being at ease with himself put him at ease with the world.”  I started sketching letters.


I decided on curving forms that would read as a general pattern from a distance, but reveal itself as an inscription upon closer inspection.  I drew them on with pencil, then got to work with my knife.

Overall, the work on the chair was very intermittent.  I finally got around to the bottoming a few days ago, when Kristin and I wove the hickory bark seat.


I’m not going to get into the business of making chairs, and this one has it’s share of “character,” but I do like how it feels.  With fiddling and guitar playing in mind, I gave it a relatively low seat, no arms, and a supportive back that’s not too wide.  The fact that it’s a rocker gives it some versatility in positioning one’s body, as the seat angle changes when sitting forward to play a guitar, for example. Well, that’s my thinking anyway.

If you’d like to make a chair from a tree, grab your axe.  Here’s a short list of books to get you started:

The Chairmaker’s Workshop by Drew Langsner

Make a Chair from a Tree by John Alexander

Green Woodwork by Mike Abbott

Chairmaker’s Notebook by Peter Galbert

The Woodwright’s Workbook by Roy Underhill

Make a Joint Stool from a Tree by Jennie Alexander and Peter Follansbee

Posted in books, green woodworking, Lettering, quotes and excerpts, Uncategorized, walnut | Tagged , , , , , , | 15 Comments

Fine Woodworking

IMG_3425Like a lot of people, I have stacks of old Fine Woodworking Magazines in my house, and I owe a good deal of my woodworking education to them.  My copies, going back to the 90s, bring back a lot of memories for me.  When a new issue would land in the mailbox, everything slowed down a bit.

Now, about twenty years later, a couple articles I’ve written will appear in Issue #263, due out later this week.  One guides the reader along a carving journey from a log to a bowl like the one below,  illustrated with masterful photos and drawings by Jon Binzen and John Tetreault, respectively.


The other teaches the layout and carving of the necklace around the rim.


Of course, I’m amazed and thrilled.  It’s been an absolute pleasure to work with the folks from Fine Woodworking , and I’ll have more to mention later.  You’ll be able to read the new issue soon, either on your screen or in print.  I’m not here to tell you which option is better, but it’s print of course.



Posted in bowls, carving, patterns, teaching, Uncategorized, writing | Tagged , | 18 Comments

The Return of the Swallows


This little guy was in the pear tree yesterday morning.  I hadn’t made any in awhile, which is a shame because they are a lot of fun to make.  I based the design on the swallow and their graceful curves in body and in flight.  I sometimes lay in the yard in the evening and watch the show above as they loop and dive for supper.  The neighbors don’t call 911… anymore.

IMG_3241As I was carving this one, I was thinking about how similar it is to spoon carving.  For those who have done some spoon carving, it will be a natural transition to carve little sculptural bowls like these — sort of a gateway drug.  Just think of the tail as the spoon handle and stick a bird head in the front.  Unlike a typical spoon bowl, the hollow is deepest in the front, even a bit undercut.

I prefer to carve these from branch crooks.  This one is from a cherry crook, and the grain goes straight along the thin tail, down through the body, then rises up toward the beak.  It’s an engaging challenge for working with contour, line, and grain direction.


At the end of the green-stage of carving.

Size can vary greatly depending on the branch, but little one’s like these (8 1/2″ x 2 1/2″) don’t require any tools beyond a spoon carving kit of axe, knife, and hook knife.

This one has flown away, but others are sure to show up.


Posted in bird bowls, bowls, carving, cherry, patterns, spoons, tools, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 10 Comments

Carving like Caron


My version/copy, in basswood, of a carved figure by Paul Emile Caron

I often listen to audio books while carving in the shop, and I recently finished Irving Stone’s 1934 book Lust for Life, a biographical novel about the life and work of Vincent van Gogh.  Early on, as learning exercises, Vincent copied works that he admired and, as Stone writes, “Vincent learned that it is always the simplest piece of art which has practiced the most rigid elimination, and is therefore the most difficult to duplicate.”

I tried something similar a couple weeks ago when I carved the little (5 1/2 inches tall) figure to the left, my copy of a piece that I picked up several years ago by, I believe, Paul-Emile Caron (1915-1987).  He lived and worked in St.-Jean-Port-Joli, Quebec and most of his carvings were done in the 1950s and 60s.  I admire his figures and am fascinated by how much can be expressed with the cuts of the knife, a long tradition that can be seen in the work of famous Swedish carver Axel Petersson Döderhultarn and modern master Harley Refsal, among many others.


Original carving by Paul-Emile Caron in pine

I’ve seen many of Caron’s pieces through photographs, and, as would be expected, he hit the sweet spot on some more than others.  I’ve been captivated by this one.  In fact, I made a sketch of it which I used in a post a couple years ago.

I had no desire for a duplicate, but I did want to learn from Caron by careful study and observation of this piece.  Making a copy forced me to look and consider much more deeply than I had in terms of both design and technique.    For every minute of cutting I, necessarily, spent at least three minutes studying the original.  In making it, I learned and developed a deeper appreciation.  As a bonus, I’ll have a reminder of the exercise in my shop, a sort of twin brother to the original, but with a somewhat different expression.  I documented on the bottom that it was a copied version of Caron’s design.

Here are just a couple detailed examples of things observed on Caron’s carving:


The sweeping knife overcut indicates Caron’s method for removing the wedge of wood between the arm and body.


The chatter marks resulting from the knife blade twisting through the tight cut are left strategically and purposely to enhance the shadows of the folds in the cloth.


The top of the shoe (end grain) was reduced through a series of thin cuts, as indicated by the knife marks on the bottom of the pant leg.

I found that the blades on this pocket knife served well to make all of the cuts other than a couple gouge cuts on the back that Caron used to indicate folds in the jacket.  Pleasant work while sitting outside.



I’ll never carve this particular piece again, but the realizations and lessons will last and be applied in who-knows-what ways.  And since this little guy, it’s been back to the adze for me; I have several bowls underway in various stages.  More on those later…


Posted in carving, figure, historical reference, tools, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Barn’s Spōn

IMG_3166“In carving fresh, green wood for spoons I hope that the reader will discover trees; I hope they will discover that carving with basic edge tools, the knife and the axe, is a beautiful thing.  This book will suggest that spoons are really sculptural forms, with complex angles and facets requiring both measured and instinctive cuts — and often illusions of perspective — and that spoons are as subtle, varied and valid as any other type of sculpture.”

— Barn the Spoon, Spōn: A Guide to Spoon Carving and the New Wood Culture

One of the joys of Greenwood Fest was meeting Barn the Spoon. You’ll never meet a more authentic guy.  Barn has lived a fascinating life and approaches spoon carving with a great deal of thought and sensitivity.  Barn’s story, philosophy, and practical tutelage can all be found in his book, Spōn.  Spōn is the ancient Anglo-Saxon word for a chip of wood.

The book takes the reader through the philosophical side of working from nature, through the tools, grasps, and procedures of making a spoon, and on through sixteen designs of spoons to carve.  It will help anyone, carver or not, to develop an appreciation for the subtle beauty of these little utilitarian sculptures.

While on a trip with my family last week, I took some time away from bowls, but was still able to take a couple knives and some roughed-out blanks and get in some spoon carving.


No workbench or heavy tools required — very peaceful, calming work.  At a relatively small scale, it is fun to play around with designs and subtle differences in form.


After a few more touches here and there, these will be ready to take a swim in some flax-seed oil.


Then the real journey begins.  As Barn writes, “This deep sense you get is almost analogous to listening to a song, where the effect may not be that obvious to begin with but, when meeting it every day, a feeling builds up over time.”

Posted in books, green woodworking, spoons, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 9 Comments

Learning from Fred Astaire


Seeing this ale bowl basking in the sun, my wife asked my daughter what she thought of the new dragon bowl.  Emma replied, “What dragon bowl?”  Wonderful.


What Emma noticed were the flowing lines and the form, and only after looking more closely did she discover the dragons in their midst.  I like that.  Details and dragons are secondary.  I find the same can be true with calligraphy; regardless of the meaning, or if we even know the language, we appreciate the beauty of the form, the sweep of the line.

Japanese calligraphy “Love”.  I’m still trying to find the name of the calligrapher.

The overall question of what we find beautiful is full of fascination and mystery, and my wonder surrounding it grows all the time.  But we’ll leave that larger question for another time.  One thing that seems clear is that our eyes are drawn to beautiful lines and contours.  We appreciate the graceful lines of everything from cars to dancers.  Fred and Ginger certainly understood that idea.

Image result for fred astaire lines dancing

Now I’m entering dangerous territory.  Me writing about dancing is akin to a cat writing about canoeing.  Yet, I can still intuitively be awestruck by the beauty and flow of the lines, even if I can’t strike the pose.

Beatrix Stix-Brunell of The Royal Ballet Photo by Nathan Sayers ballet dance

Al Hirschfeld was known for dancing his pen across paper, speaking volumes and expressing beauty with the flow of line and subtle variations in its width.  Brilliant:

Image result for fred astaire lines dancing

Another Hirschfeld, just for Follansbee:

Related image

So I strive for the beauty of the line, the flow of the form.  And I’m drawn to the graceful lines in the works of other designer/makers I admire.  All the better if I can touch as well as see.  Our fingertips can tell us as much as our eyes, and, although I sometimes understand the necessity, a “Do Not Touch” sign is often a heavy blow.


You can not only touch this bowl, you can drink from it.  This is my second exploration of this design, again in black cherry, with a bit of the lighter sapwood running through the heads.  This design is challenging; maintaining the flow of the flutes through the grain along the heads is just one example.  Below is a slideshow with a few additional photos.

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13 1/4″ long, 6 1/4″ wide and 5″ high, and would hold 20 ounces.  I’ve just posted it to my website as well.



Posted in ale bowls, bowls, cherry, patterns, proportions, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 11 Comments