Bitty Bowl


That’s either a mutant lemon or a really small bowl.  As you probably guessed, it’s a small bowl — less than nine inches long (8 7/8″ x 3 3/4″ x 2 1/4″ high).  It came from this 5″ diameter branch of red maple:


I had been wanting to make a “model” bowl like this.  It’s a good way to explore a new design or experiment with proportions.  With less material and time invested, you won’t feel so bad about chucking the whole thing if it doesn’t work out.  If it does work out, you’ve learned a thing or two and now have a model on hand for reference when you make the larger version fit for a melon rather than a lemon.


Preparing the blank and the general shaping go relatively quickly.  I didn’t use an adze at all.  I did use an axe to rough out the exterior, but with a bowl this size a chisel and mallet can do the job.  The time savings is less noticeable when it comes to the finer stages and decorative carving, but is still a factor.


Maybe not the best fruit bowl, but still could be useful for serving small items like nuts or candy.  And the bitty size makes it a lot easier to pack and take along.


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The Gladness of the River


Coracle on the Little Shenango River, 19 May 2019. 

It avails not, neither time or place—distance avails not,
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
I project myself, also I return—I am with you, and know how it is.
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d,
            — Walt Whitman, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”, Leaves of Grass, 2nd edition, 1856
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Welcome Sign


I’ve never come across a redwood tree in my neck of the woods, but now I’ve carved the wood for the first time.  I’ve had this board (18″ x 9 1/2″ x 1″) kicking around since it was given to me at least twenty years ago.  It was reportedly salvaged from a picnic table out west if I recall.

I love it when a good use finally comes to mind for a board that’s been gathering dust, and so this one would fit the bill for a simple welcome sign to hang on the wall outside our home.  I had some fun with the design as I sketched the letters and the tree onto the board.  Carving it was, well, a bit of a learning experience.

This redwood board, at least, was brittle and very soft.  The tools had to be particularly sharp and have fine bevel angles to cut at all cleanly.  There was some gouge work on the tightest parts of the curves, but I stuck with the knife as much as I could.  The photo below shows a shot after getting rid of some excess material with a V-tool, then just starting in on the W with the knife.  You can get some sense of the brittleness.  I had to be particularly careful at the acute junctions between elements to assure that the short grain didn’t break away.


But, anyway, it’s redwood so it should hold up well outside.  I’ll brush some oil on it and pop it onto the house.

Joiner's Work dust jacketMeanwhile, I welcome the news that Peter Follansbee’s book is now out in the real-deal print form.  Hold it, smell it, hear the pages turn — and read it, of course.  Bring your copy to Plymouth CRAFT’s Spoon Day next month and ask him to sign it; I’m going to.


Posted in Lettering, trees, Uncategorized | 9 Comments

Thoreau and the Wooden Tray


Not long ago, a friend referred me to an unabridged entry in Henry David Thoreau’s journal.  Here’s the first paragraph:

October 19, 1858:

Barrett’s apprentice, it seems, makes trays of black birch and of red maple, in a dark room under the mill. I was pleased to see this work done here, a wooden tray is so handsome. You could count the circles of growth on the end of the tray, and the dark heart of the tree was seen at each end above, producing a semicircular ornament. It was a satisfaction to be reminded that we may so easily make our own trenchers as well as fill them . To see the tree reappear on the table, instead of going to the fire or some equally coarse use, is some compensation for having it cut down . The wooden tray is still in demand to chop meat in, at least . If taken from the bench to the kitchen, they are pretty sure to crack, being made green. They should be placed to season for three months on the beams in a barn, said the miller.

That inspired me to grab my axe, adze, and a maple log.  Thoreau leaves out some details about the appearance of the trays he saw in the room under the mill, so I filled in my vision with the basic form of this serving board I  made a couple years ago.  Then it was to the chopping block.


After splitting the log in half at the pith, I had laid it on my workbench to scribe double lines on each end.  Using the workbench as a reference assures that the lines on both ends are in the same plane.  then I split the majority of the waste away with a froe.   The swirl in the bark was a clear sign of an internal knot, but this was the log I had available.


I hewed away most of the material from both faces with an axe.


Then continued with the axe to straighten up the edges a bit.


After connecting the lines from the ends along the sides, I trimmed to the line with the axe, but just along the edges.


Because the fibers were all over the place around that big knot, I worked across the grain with the adze to flatten the field.


I went ahead and marked the ends square….


…then trimmed them with the axe.


Material to the sides of the eventual “feet” was removed with the adze.


And that’s it for now.  I’ll let it season, then finish if off with some final carving of the surfaces.


According to Thoreau and the miller, it should be three months in the beams of a barn.  I don’t have a barn, so there it is tucked up below the ceiling of my workshop, destined to tumble onto my head when I least expect it.

Triggered by the trays, Thoreau went on in the journal entry to serve some food for thought.  Chew on it as you wish:

I was the more pleased with the sight of the trays because the tools used were so simple, and they were made by hand, not by machinery. They may make equally good pails, and cheaper as well as faster, at the pail-factory with the home-made ones, but that interests me less, because the man is turned partly into a machine there himself. In this case, the workman’s relation to his work, is more poetic, he also shows more dexterity and is more of a man. You come away from the great factory saddened, as if the chief end of man were to make pails ; but, in the case of the countryman who makes a few by hand, rainy days, the relative importance of human life and of pails is preserved, and you come away thinking of the simple and helpful life of the man, -you do not turn pale at the thought, – and would fain go to making pails yourself . We admire more the man who can use an axe or adze skillfully than him who can merely tend a machine . When labor is reduced to turning a crank it is no longer amusing nor truly profitable ; but let this business become very profitable in a pecuniary sense, and so be “driven,” as the phrase is, and carried on on a large scale, and the man is sunk in it, while only the pail or tray floats ; we are interested in it only in the same way as the proprietor or company is .

— Henry David Thoreau, Journal, October 19, 1858.

It’s worth remembering that Thoreau had experience working in a factory, albeit manufacturing pencils rather than pails.  In fact, his innovations to the processes, including those for grinding and mixing graphite, were vital to the success of the Thoreau family pencil business.

Posted in adze, axe, green woodworking, historical reference, quotes and excerpts, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 9 Comments

Fluted Dragon


Here’s the ale bowl from my recent post on orthodontics, now completed.  I carved flutes along the exterior of this one.  The gouge I use for fluting depends upon the effect I want and the curvature of the exterior itself.  In this case, the bowl has a tight curvature, so the shallow curve of this #4 20mm gouge interacted with that surface well, although many other choices would have worked too.

I also have to keep in mind the thickness of, especially, the side walls.  The vertical end grain areas are left relatively thick.  I don’t measure, but at the middle of the sides I like the walls to be around 1/8″ – 3/16″ thick (3 or 4 mm).  If I don’t leave enough allowance for the material removed by the fluting… well, you can imagine the trouble.


There is a subtle texture left along each flute from each forward push of the gouge through the dry (at this stage) wood.  Here was that cherry wood last summer:


I wrote about busting up that log in this post.  I think this bowl was from the blank in the top right of the photo.


All said and done, it’s 13 1/2″ long and 6 1/2″ wide.  Ready for ale.

Posted in ale bowls, cherry, patterns, proportions, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 15 Comments

Yup’ik Bentwood Bowls

Among the many traditions of bowl carving is the Yup’ik method of bending a separate length of wood that attaches to the hollowed base and serves as a higher rim.  The interaction between material, hands, eyes — and teeth — to create the form and a tight connection is simply wonderful.  I stumbled onto the short video above that features Yup’ik traditional scholars sharing memories of how these objects were made.  The video also includes some close ups of the bowls.

I’m still pretty clueless, but one thing I notice is the thickening of the rims along the straighter portions of the bowl.  Seems to me that the wood has been made thinner where they want a tighter bend and vice versa.  This would facilitate controlling the curvature at various points along the rim while bending without a form.  Much to learn just from the short video and the accompanying information, drawings, and photos at this website through the Smithsonian Institution.

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Dragon Orthodontics


I roughed out this cherry ale bowl during the green stage months ago, and now I’ve gotten around to refining it in the dry stage, including carving a set of choppers, a point of pride for any dragon.


After sketching on a zig-zag guideline, I begin to make the triangular chip cuts that create the shadows beneath and between the teeth.  In dry cherry, I typically remove some of the bulk with a v-tool before turning to the knife.


I use the “coping” blade on my pocket knife that is thin and noses down to the straight edge.


Considering the grain direction, I clip the bottom of the triangle first, using my left thumb as a fulcrum and levering the blade along the cut.


Changing grips, I cut the forward walls behind each tooth.


Then the back wall in front of each tooth.  I’m aiming for crisp walls with sharp junctions to catch distinct shadows.


To add some simple form to each tooth, I grab a small gouge with a medium sweep.


I run it from the point of each tooth to the upper lip.


Blurry photo, but I then delicately slice off the chips still attached to each tooth at the upper lip with the pen blade.


I’ve still got a lot of carving to do on this bowl; some surfaces, chamfers, refining junctions, and the teeth that wrap around the front.  In the meantime, he’s at least ready to chew.

Posted in ale bowls, carving, cherry, patterns, tools, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments