Making Things from Trees



IMG_1919Not long ago, this book arrived in the mail, an unexpected and thoughtful gift from a friend.  In it, Robert Penn writes of his experience of felling one ash tree in Herefordshire and having as many things made from it as he could.  Among the dozens of things crafted are turned bowls by Robin Wood and a coracle frame by Malcolm Rees.

The book, The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees, is a tribute to the specific character and rich history of ash (all the more poignant due to the devastation caused by the emerald ash borer so evident on any walk through my neck of the woods as well).  But the real scope of the book transcends ash.  Not meant to be a how-to book, it incorporates history, mythology, biology, and more.  The book especially explores the intimate connection between wood and those who make things from it and make them part of their lives.  This concept was in Penn’s mind even in the planning stages:

“The simple story of one tree would be set in the present, but be about the past — about the ancient accord between man and ash.  It might also stand as a work of advocacy for the future, I thought.  We need to recalibrate our destructive impulse with respect to nature, with our needs….I also wanted to highlight something our ancestors implicitly understood — that the pleasure we take from things made from natural materials is an extension of the pleasure we take from nature itself.”

This feeling is all the stronger when we are able to work with a piece that we have gathered from nature ourselves, or maybe even from a tree that we’ve known well.  I get logs and branches from all sorts of situations, and I sometimes don’t know exactly where the tree stood, but I more often do.  In some cases, the tree is still growing.  I have a spoon carved from a branch of a pear tree that is currently in bloom in our back yard.

IMG_1758There is also pleasure in using parts of a tree that would have otherwise been discarded.  You can often find such pieces in fallen trees or branches left behind from utility company trimming operations and the like.  I collected these pieces in the top photo last weekend from treetops left behind at a logging site a couple miles up the road.  Notice the big sharp oak crook at the bottom.  I’m hoping there’s a cool bird in there.

Larger bowls require larger logs, but good sections can often be found in trees that are otherwise undesirable for sawn boards.  This bowl (in the slideshow below) that I just finished came to me as an offcut from a longer walnut log from a local sawyer.  My son had just painted the fence, so I decided to use it as a background while it was still clean.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

And trees can contain surprises, like the tight knot in this bowl.  I included the eggs for scale — it was Easter after all.



Posted in books, finding wood, green woodworking, nature, quotes and excerpts, trees, Uncategorized, walnut | Tagged | 1 Comment

Getting Started


For those interested in starting to carve bowls and spoons from green wood, the unfamiliarity and variety of the tools can be a little intimidating and confusing, especially when they see the large kits built up over many years by experienced carvers.  Compounded with the frustration of limited tool availability and/or limited funds, some put off making shavings: “I’ll start next year when my adze order is filled .” or, “I’ll start when I have the money to buy all of the tools on this list.”  Don’t wait.  Dig in.

Well designed, sensitively crafted tools do typically work better and their cost often reflects that.  However, you can get started carving bowls, spoons and other things from green wood with a very small inexpensive tool kit and begin to develop the fundamental skills and knowledge of the material.  Later you can expand your options with additional tools from the growing number of talented blacksmiths doing incredible work.  As with most of the things in our lives, it is better to have a few good tools rather than a bunch that don’t work well.

A good adze, for example, will cost two or three times as much as a bad one, and be worth every penny.  You will form a relationship with it and one day pass it on to another lucky soul.  If, however, you can’t afford a quality adze right now, or there is a long wait, there’s good news.  You can start carving bowls without an adze, and without a lot of other stuff too.  And you’ll be able to find wood for free — it literally grows on trees.  You don’t really even need a dedicated workshop.

If you’ve already been doing other types of woodworking, you can start by using and adapting some of the tools you already have — bench chisels, vises, workbenches, coping saws, spokeshaves, planes, band saws, etc. — and pick up some specialty tools along the way.  But let’s assume you are starting with no materials or tools and a small budget — where should you begin?  Here are the first three tools, in order, that I’d buy to get started carving bowls, spoons, hooks, and other things from green wood.

IMG_1738If I had only $25 available, I would start by buying a Frosts (Mora) #106 knife.  If I didn’t have $25, I would shovel sidewalks or skip some lunches, then I’d buy the knife.  With that tool alone, one could carve spatulas, hooks, figures, and all sorts of other things — all while developing knife skills and strengthening his or her hands.  There may be lots of reasons to own a higher-end sloyd knife, but in terms of performance, the 106 gets the job done superbly.  And after hogging away lots of wood with a knife, you’ll really appreciate the capabilities of the next tool.


In retrospect, the axe on the left was a bit of a bear to carve with; too heavy, bad handle (in spite of my ingenious wrap), and not an ideal shape.  But it was what I had, and I made many bowls with it before I bought my Swedish Carving Axe.

My second purchase would be a small axe/hatchet, providing the ability to split branches and shape wood quickly and precisely, leaving less work for the knife.  Tuning up an old axe is probably the most frugal and satisfying solution, but many old, and new, hatchets generally available would require a great deal of grinding to establish an edge effective for carving; the bits are typically just too thick.  Still, your first axe doesn’t have to break the bank; you may be able to find worthwhile examples available at prices to fit a limited budget.  We may hear of some examples in the comment section.  Robin Wood has addressed the situation with  the Robin Wood Axe — a great axe and a real bargain.  Down the road, you may choose to add a heavier specialty axe to your arsenal — there are many available.  Meanwhile, you’ll have been making things and learning.

IMG_1745To make spoons and bowls, you need something to make a hollow, which is beyond the realm of a straight blade. If you’ll be sticking with spoons, pick up a hook knife.  For bowls (and it can hollow spoons as well) I’d buy a long-bent gouge.  If it were to be my only one, it would be something like a #7 sweep and around 30mm (1 1/4″) wide, although that exact size is not at all critical.  There are several good brands available through different suppliers.  It opens up all sorts of possibilities due to its versatility.  You can drive it with a mallet or pare with hand pressure.  A mallet is pretty cheap, but you can also easily make one as simply as shaping a branch with your axe and knife.  A bowl could be made, start to finish, with the axe, the gouge, and the knife.

With the axe, you could hew the exterior to shape (you’ve found a chunk of log for a chopping block by now) and even rough out the hollow somewhat.  Continue shaping that hollow with the gouge and mallet.  An adze is faster, but you can still make quick progress; just get in a rhythm and keep hitting that handle.  Refine the exterior as well with the same dynamic duo, then refine all surfaces by paring with the same gouge. For more holding options, make a low bench or just bore some 3/4 inch holes in a picnic bench (yours) and get a couple holdfasts.  Finish up with some chamfering and detailing with the knife.

So have fun digging into some green wood and exploring the possibilities with resourcefulness.  With experience you’ll know what additional tools you may want to add for your preferred ways of working.  I’ve written some other posts about tools, just check the topic list and search feature on the right sidebar.  And there’s some related information on my website as well — especially at the Frequently Asked Questions page. But don’t spend too much time there before you start making chips and shavings.



Posted in adze, axe, carving, green woodworking, tools, Uncategorized | 13 Comments

Surely You Can’t be Serious?


That’s what I was thinking when Fine Woodworking Magazine’s Jon Binzen contacted me about the Back Cover for the March/April edition.  Turns out, he was serious and payed a visit to my workshop.  To call this an unbelievable honor would be an understatement.  I am well aware of the hallowed history of Fine Woodworking Magazine and the vital role it continues to play.  It is humbling to consider the incredible work that has graced the back covers over so many years, and I am incredulously grateful for the honor.

They’ve also asked me to write some articles and record a video.  I got right to it before they had a chance to change their minds.  In fact, the film crew was here last weekend, but there’s lots of editing to be done back in Connecticut to sort out my rambling, chopping and the blood (don’t get your hopes up — I still have all my fingers).  So if all goes well, you’ll find some of my thoughts on the pages of Fine Woodworking and in their web content over the coming months.

In the meantime, I’m hoping to write a blog post soon with some straightforward recommendations for those who have questions about tools, equipment, and materials for getting started in carving bowls.  Sort of a tying together of things I’ve mentioned in scattered posts and locations.


Posted in classes, publications, teaching, Uncategorized | Tagged | 22 Comments

“Fish Say…” Shrink Pot


“Fish say…” cherry shrink pot

As I was shaving down the walls of this cherry shrink pot, I couldn’t help but notice a few small tight pin knots, mostly because the swirling grain direction around them was causing me fits.  Then I thought they might be eyes — fish eyes.  And the fish now swim among words from Rupert Brooke’s poem Heaven:

Fish say, they have their Stream and Pond;

But is there anything Beyond?

The words flow around the front curve of the pot, so I’ve put a series of four images in the slide show below that show it all, including the oval sassafras bottom.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The pot is 4 3/4 inches high and 4 1/4 inches wide.

As usual, I cut this small lettering with my penknife, which took much longer than making the pot itself.  If you’re ready to dig in yourself, the bevel on a new penknife won’t be acute enough for effective wood carving.  I took some close-up photos of mine to show how I shape the blade tip — keep it thin.  The left photo shows the back of the blade, followed by a rotation over to a side view.

Posted in cherry, Lettering, quotes and excerpts, sharpening, shrink box, tools, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 15 Comments

Winter Window


I like working in front of this window.  The directional light creates shadows that honestly reveal form and surface.  I have a small high bench there, too high for heavy work, but perfect for finer bits like cleaning up the necklace around a walnut bowl this week.  The work is closer to the eye and easier on the back.  Of course, when working in front of a window one runs the risk of distraction.


March Robin

I mean, who can continue carving when this fellow shows up wondering what happened to our early spring?



Curiosity got the best of him, and he fluttered from the chair to the window box for a closer look.  I usually have a board across the top with some sunflower seeds in the winter, but I think he’s more of a worm guy anyway.

Getting no answers from me, he left.  The juncos (I think — help me Plymouth birders), came to see what they were missing….


….and found some seeds that had fallen into the bottom corners of the box.


Red Squirrel Sketch

No curious squirrels this week, but when the seeds are out they sit still long enough for a quick sketch.


delicate tracks in the snow

And the birds are even kind enough to leave behind delicate patterns in the snow.

If you find yourself inside, there are worse places to be than in front of a workshop window.

And here’s another good option: the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, Massachusetts.  This weekend is the opening of their exhibit Living Traditions: The Handwork of Plymouth CRAFT.  There will be many beautiful things to see and explore, including Peter Follansbee’s chest.  It is a real honor for me that they’ve included a couple of my bowls as well.  The exhibit runs through June 25, and I’m looking forward to experiencing it myself in early June.

Posted in bowls, carving, events, holding, nature, patterns, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

Tradition and Jane Mickelborough


Folding spoon in the Breton tradition by Jane Michelborough

We dwell with satisfaction upon the poet’s difference from his predecessors….Whereas if we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously…

Yet if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, “tradition” should positively be discouraged….Tradition is a matter of much wider significance.  It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour.

— T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” from The Sacred Wood (1921).

I think T.S. Eliot might have appreciated the labours of Jane Mickelborough.  Although I’ll be too busy at Greenwood Fest to take her class on making the fantastic folding spoons that she has delved into with hand and mind, I’m excited for the chance to talk with her about them and other things.  She’s coming all the way from Brittany (that French peninsula that seems to be reaching westward), and I hope she’ll be wearing a Bigouden.

Jane’s work is amazing.  If you haven’t seen this recent post by Peter Follansbee featuring an interview with her, check it out.





Posted in classes, historical reference, quotes and excerpts, spoons, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

The Ongoing Journey of Drew and Louise Langsner

img_1058There was a time when I didn’t know an adze from a hoe in the ground, then I found Drew Langsner.  Here was a guy who could make anything from a tree, and explain the process in writing so that even I could understand it.  His Green Woodworking book and this article were my guides as I started really sorting out how to carve bowls.  If you don’t have his books, you’re missing out.

Me (left) talking with Drew and Louise Langsner in Maine, 2015  (photo by Peter Follansbee)

Although Drew and I had corresponded a bit, I had never met him in person.  So I was thrilled to get a chance to talk with him and his wife Louise at a Lie-Nielsen event in Maine a couple years ago.  I’m looking forward to catching up again at Greenwood Fest this year, where they will be Guests of Honor.

Today, Drew and Louise sent out this newsletter informing everyone of the “closing down” process for Country Workshops.  Included are reminders of the past, news of the present, and thoughts on the future.

There is also some exciting news for the many folks out there seeking the quality tools that Drew has supplied through Country Workshops.  Drew provided unique access to only the best quality tools long before they were in the present state of wild demand. Now Kenneth and Angela Kortemeier will be stepping in to supply many of the same tools through their new craft school in Maine.  I enjoyed talking a bit with Kenneth in Maine, and he is a great guy. Hopefully, Drew taught him how to sweet-talk Hans Karlsson.

As you can see in the newsletter, Drew is enjoying his new fantastic explorations in art. He and Louise are sure to continue living lives with the same spirit of adventure and curiosity evident in their first book, Handmade, published in 1974.  In it they travel through Europe, sharing and documenting the lives, homes, food (check out Louise’s Garden Kitchen blog) and traditions of rural villagers.  The Afterword begins with, “Looking back, as well as ahead, we see our year abroad as the beginning of a much longer journey.”  That journey continues and has already touched the lives of many, many people — myself included. Here’s to Drew and Louise and their new adventures.




Posted in books, green woodworking, historical reference, quotes and excerpts, tools, trees, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 6 Comments