Sam Understands V-tools


As I was watching my buddy, Sam, poke his head into the kitchen through the cat door as he often does, I got to thinking about v-tools.  Sam’s problem is also the problem of many v-tools: his bottom is too wide.  In Sam’s case, too wide to follow his head through the cat door; in the case of a v-tool, too wide to follow the cutting edge deep into the groove.


From the workshop, the problem is clear.

Unless we get a bigger door, Sam is stuck.  But not so with the v-tool; that we can fix.  But what use is a v-tool anyway?


A v-tool certainly isn’t the first tool that comes to mind for bowl carving, but once the adze and axe are put away a v-tool can come in very handy, just as it does with various forms of relief or in-the-round carving.  Above is just one example.  I’m just about done now with this second exploration of the hen bowl design.  In the photo, I was using the v-tool to remove the material in the sharp angle between the tail feathers.



And for the large letters on this just-finished maple bowl handle above, a v-tool works well to remove just the bulk of the central material before moving in with a knife.  With harder woods, that initial excavation makes room for other tools and provides a release area for the chips.  I use a similar approach for removing the bulk of the material in large triangular recesses like those of the necklaces I carve around some bowl rims (left).

The photos and captions below show the difference between a v-tool as it usually arrives new and how it can be ground and honed in a way that will make it much more responsive.  Making that wide keel into a more sleek shape makes a lot of difference.  Sam is envious.


This is how a v-tool often comes new.  The angle of attack is very steep, meaning the tool must be held at a high angle to cut.  And the wide bottom of the tool meets the bevels in an abrupt obtuse wedge that resists following into the groove cut by the edge.


The edge could be touched up a bit, but this v-tool has been relatively easy to maintain since the initial grinding and shaping were done.  The angle from edge to keel is much shallower and the wedge at the keel has been ground back to offer much less resistance following the cutting edge.


This isn’t anything close to a full tutorial on sharpening a v-tool; I’ll try to do more along those lines in the future.  I’ve got some carving to get back to now.  Meanwhile, a great source on sharpening wood carving tools (and more) is Woodcarving Tools, Materials, and Equipment by Chris Pye.  Chris Pye is the man, and I learned a lot from that book.



Posted in books, bowls, sharpening, tools, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 12 Comments

On the Horizon


I don’t think Peter Follansbee is getting lonely, but he’s already talking about Greenwood Fest 2018.  That reminded me that I had neglected to mention this blog post about Greenwood Fest that I wrote several weeks back for the Fine Woodworking Blog.  The links at the end of it should be helpful if you want to stay in the loop regarding plans for the 2018 event.  And Ben at Fine Woodworking tells me that he and the other wizards are busy editing the bowl carving instructional video footage they shot in my shop over the summer.  They should be adding it to FWW’s lineup of Video Workshops over the next month or two…

Mirth Management Logo 2Meanwhile, I’ve been finding time to make some wood chips and I’ll have some things to share on the blog soon.  I even had some fun designing a logo for a great guy some of you may have met at Greenwood Fest.  Mike writes a bit about his new adventure here.

Posted in classes, green woodworking, Lettering, sketch, Uncategorized, video, writing | Tagged , | 4 Comments

Flute Playing


I really admire people that can play musical instruments, all the more since I’ve tried to do so myself — with poor results.  For the past couple months, I’ve been playing around with a penny whistle, and you should hear my “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”  My neighbors are forced to, after all.

I’ve had much more practice playing with flutes of the carved variety.  A pretty straightforward idea: a series of hollows separated by raised ridges.  That simple idea allows for a lot of creative possibilities.  The hollows can taper and curve in various ways, and I like how they can accentuate the lines and form of a piece.  Various gouge sweeps and how they are wielded also provide design opportunities.  This slideshow features a few examples of how I’ve used flutes on some bowls:


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Regardless, the process is the same: make sure the surface is fair and true, draw nice ridge lines, hollow between them with control.  That’s it.

I’ve tried ways to define the layout of the flutes, but I’ve found that the best way  comes down to simply hand drawing by eye — and erasing, lots of erasing.  A pair of dividers comes in handy for evenly dividing spaces at a spot or two, but I find the lines are poor if this is relied upon much.  After all, we are dealing with sculpted surfaces that are not uniform or perfectly symmetrical.  Mark a few guide points, then trust your eye.


Move the bowl around as you draw the lines, holding it in a way that allows for a natural motion of the drawing hand.

Once I’m happy with the drawn lines, I carve the flutes in two stages.  On my first pass, I remove most of the material in the hollow with the gouge, but leave an eighth inch or so around the pencil line.  I do this over the entire piece before moving on to the second pass.


After the first pass with the gouge. Notice the flats left between the flutes at this stage.


Another shot showing the bulk removal of the first pass, as well as the holding set-up which varies, depending on the bowl. In this case, an effective mix of pegs, holdfasts, wedges, and “hunks of wood”. I turn off any overhead lights and use the desk lamp to throw shadows where I need them to see things clearly.

The second pass deepens and widens each flute so that the pencil line is just removed leaving a distinct defining ridge line between adjacent hollows.  If you push the line over too far, it can be brought back by working the neighboring hollow, but try to minimize that or the ridge line may end up looking true when viewed from above but be a bit of a wavy mess when viewed from the side.  Take your time and enjoy the slow process.


In this photo, I’ve been working from right to left bringing the ridges between the hollows to distinct lines. Notice the difference with the flutes to the left and to the right.

On this latest cherry bowl, I carved a pattern of flutes different from any I had done before.  Several of the flutes taper and converge at the ends of the handles, while the lower flutes flow and curve under the handles.  Among the challenges of executing the design is cutting the flutes under the handles, a good job for a spoon-bent gouge.


Still working with a spoon-bent gouge to shape the flutes winding under the handles.

Here’s a slideshow of some more photos of this bowl, which has already hit the road.  My first Alexander chair provides some sense of scale, but the bowl is 18 1/2 inches long, 11 inches wide, and 6 1/2 inches high.  Now I’ve got to get back to my other flute; “London Bridge” is next in the book.  The neighbors are sure to like it more than “Twinkle Twinkle.”


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Posted in bowls, cherry, holding, layout, patterns, tools, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 8 Comments

Send Off Shaving Bowl


Next week, my son will be going off to college for the first time, so I’ve made him a practical gift as he heads to the dorm.  In his brief shaving career, he has become accustomed to lathering his face with a brush loaded with soap from a wooden bowl.

I carved the one we use now nearly ten years ago, and it makes a lot of sense.  No more buying, and throwing away, can after can of aerosol shave cream.  Plus, the brush is a much more pleasing and efficient applicator than my hand.

When I first made the switch, I bought a little round shave soap cake and popped it into a ceramic mug.  Works fine, but I prefer the wood bowl.  First of all, there’s no annoying clinking of the brush against the mug early in the morning.  The wood is also warm and comfortable to hold in the hand.  I buy shaving soap in bulk one-pound blocks — which are only around $4.  I cut it in about half and melt it in the microwave (a glass measuring cup works great for that), then pour it directly into the bowl.  You can even mix a little fragrant oil in there if you please.  When it cools, the bowl is filled with shaving soap and ready to use.  That one pound block lasts at least a couple years and the only waste is the small bit of plastic wrap from the block.


Have fun making one for yourself or another shaver.  There are lots of possibilities for texture, color, and decoration.  This one is in cherry, 5.75 inches in diameter and 2.5 inches high.  Of course, you can make one in any size you find convenient.  The layout for carving a round bowl is simple.  I wrote about it here.

It will be a bittersweet day next week.  I’m proud of Noah and excited for him.  I’m sure he will, and should, have other things on his mind next week, but I expect that my thoughts will drift back to a time when this was his shaving kit:




Posted in bowls, carving, cherry, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 22 Comments

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 , , , , , , | 16 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 , | 21 Comments