Rainbow Dolphin and Whale Shark


There is nothing that reminds me of the magic of creating more than having a kid or two in the shop, as with my niece and nephew this weekend.  They encourage fast and uninhibited work full of wild imagination.  No fancy tools required; with a coping saw, pocket knife, a little sandpaper, and some cheap craft paint, we brought into existence a most colorful dolphin and an eerily realistic whale shark — all while wearing paper hats.

These projects were in-the-round, but I wrote another post awhile back with some ideas about relief carving and working with young kids in general.  And if you’d like to make one of these cool workman’s paper caps, I found the directions some time ago at this blog post from Joel at Tools For Working Wood.


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Hot Oil Treatment


If you’ve seen my noggin, you know this post won’t be about hair care.  Over the weekend, I finished the dry-stage carving of an ale bowl I had roughed out a couple months ago.  I thought it might be a good opportunity to briefly discuss my oiling procedure.


The most important factor in finishing is the quality of the final cuts.  A properly sharpened edge will leave a cleanly cut, almost burnished, surface behind.


Once the carving is done, I pour some flax seed (linseed) oil into the bowl, then dip my fingers right in and slather oil all over the bowl.


I’ve explored many rabbit holes regarding oil choice and all of that, and I know it is a subject with a depth and breadth beyond this post.  One thing these natural oils have in common is a long curing time — potentially months.  Time to turn up the heat.


I have found that heat drastically reduces the drying time of these oils.  In the heat of summer, I place a newly oiled bowl in direct sunlight.  We were treated to a beautifully sunny weekend but the sunlight is not intense enough now.


At other times of year, I’ll place a bowl in front of the fireplace or in a little light bulb kiln that I made for drying chair rungs years ago and I still use it for that occasionally.  Based on a design by Jennie Alexander, It is simply a plywood box lined with foil-faced insulation board.  There’s a sheet metal baffle above two porcelain fixtures.  It is essentially an Easy-bake oven and the temperature can be controlled by varying the wattage of the bulbs.  My wife even uses it for making yogurt.  With two forty watt bulbs, it maintains a temperature of about 110 degrees Fahrenheit.

After a couple hours, I rub off or rub in any excess surface oil.  Then, after a day or so in the box, I’ll begin with other coats, moving on to a blend of flax oil and beeswax.


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Not All Those Who Wander…


All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

— J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

img_0713“Let’s see where this road goes,” my dad would  say as he turned the car onto an unknown route.  We’d wander around back roads, unencumbered by any sweetly demanding GPS voice.  We would see old farms that were new to us, and stop to look down into an unknown stream.  I often assumed we were completely lost. Yet we always, magically it seemed, found the way home, richer from the adventure.

I know that’s a long way from Middle-earth, and Tolkien’s verse has a much deeper and broader meaning.  Still,  when I focus on that second line, riding around as a kid with my dad is a memory that comes to mind.  I also think of Thoreau and his ideas about “sauntering” in his essay Walking.  Tolkien and Thoreau knew, and my dad knows, that there is much to be gained from what may seem to be aimless wandering, and exploration extends to realms beyond a walk or a drive.

I thought the free flowing form of this cherry bowl shared a bit of the same spirit.  When it came to designing the lettering, I did my wandering on paper.  There, I can play with different ideas while marking and erasing freely.  After I’ve worked things out, I can redraw the idea onto the wood.  Sometimes, I’ll experiment with ideas by drawing directly on the wood before paring the final surface.  I can take a photo of the design, surface the bowl, then redraw the lettering using the photo as a reminder.


Navigating the curly figure with carving tools was certainly an adventure.  This vertical grain blank came from the central area of a log — to one side of the pith.  The bowl is 21 inches long, 8 1/2 inches wide, and just under 2 inches high.


For this bowl, I found it best to do the lettering while holding the bowl in one hand and the pocket knife in the other, as can be seen in the second photo near the top of the post.  Raking light helps to see edges and facets clearly when working.


While on the subject of lettering, I want to include another lettered bowl I completed recently in this post.


This walnut bowl represents the second time I’ve used the same Robert Frost verse, this time on a 20 1/2″ x 12 3/8″ elliptical ring.


As with the cherry bowl, I used the pen knife to cut these letters, but I found it best to secure the bowl with a couple holdfasts to enable me to use both hands.


I’ve written several other posts that relate to lettering.  Just look under “lettering” in the category list on the right side.



Posted in cherry, holding, Lettering, quotes and excerpts, Uncategorized, walnut | Tagged , , , , | 12 Comments



I’ve carved several of these horse-head ale bowls now, and each one seems to end up with it’s own personality.  Much of that, thankfully, happens in spite of me.  Each log is different, imparting it’s character on the finished piece.  And much of the final design is a result of spontaneous decisions made with the knife, rather than with a pencil long before.

img_0496This one in cherry brings to my mind a team of workhorses, a lovely thought.  I live in an area where one can still see Amish farmers working with teams of horses, but I’ve not had the opportunity to spend much time on a farm, and, admittedly,  my knowledge of horses is so limited that I may have a difficult time distinguishing a mare from a stallion.  Still, whenever I am around one (like Sue, the beautiful haflinger at the home of my brother-in-law and sister-in-law), there is no denying the magnificence and magnetism of a horse, and it is easy to understand why they have a special place in the hearts of so many.

In the horse barn at a local fair, the workhorses strike me with awe and feelings of nostalgia.  To think of the work that was done with such muscle power before the advent of the internal combustion engine….

James Herriot wrote of this transition in his story “A Change of Horse Power for Cliff” which begins:

Probably the most dramatic occurrence in the history of veterinary practice was the disappearance of the draught horse.  It is an almost incredible fact that this glory and mainstay of the profession just melted quietly away within a few years.  And I was one of those who was there to see it happen.

The story goes on to describe the personal attachment, even love, that practical men such as Cliff had for their horses.  It reminds me of Gary Paulsen’s depiction of Bill and Bob, a team of workhorses in his book Harris and Me.  When my son was younger, we enjoyed reading many of Paulsen’s books together, including the well-known Hatchet.  But none was more touching, or made us laugh more, than Harris and Me.

The book tells of a childhood summer spent on a Midwestern farm in the late ’40s and the adventures of two cousins that become close friends.  Bill and Bob are a constant presence:

Then, from a stand of poplars close to the river, two huge grey horses walked out into the open… They weren’t just big, they were almost prehistoric — like two hair-covered dinosaurs walking slowly up from the river — and when they moved closer I could see that very little of their bulk was fat.  Bunched beneath the skin on their rear ends and in their shoulders were great bulges of muscles.

Everything about them was massive.  Huge heads that lowered to nuzzle Knute’s hand while he stood in the back of the barn, enormous round feet that sunk forever into the mud in back of the barn, great, soulful brown eyes that somehow made me want to hug the giants.

There’s a scene later in the book of a plan involving Bill that the boys cook up after watching too many Gene Autry movies that may make you pee your pants, especially if you’re old enough to remember Gene Autry.


It’s not a complete accident that this bowl made me think of work horses.  I decided to make the neck a little thicker and the face a little nobler.  I thought the bold tool marks along the back of the neck added a feeling a strength as well.  And it holds a bold draft of ale, topping out at about 24 ounces.

One final workhorse reference is this episode of the BBC’s Edwardian Farm series, the beginning of which discusses the transition from horses to tractors.  Set just before World War I, this episode also includes a portable sawmill, a blacksmith, and hedgerow laying.  This series is just one of many of the brilliant BBC productions in the same family.



Posted in ale bowls, bowls, cherry, historical reference, patterns, Uncategorized, video | Tagged , , , , | 13 Comments

Spokeshaves and Stumps

spokeshave-at-stump-sketch-scan_newSince I listed a spokeshave on my tools-to-bring list for the Greenwood Fest class, I’ve received a couple questions about choosing and using one.

A spokeshave is a handy tool for bowlcarving. It excels at fairing a curved surface, and it’s easy to control with a push or a pull stroke.  The same cannot be said of the drawknife, although I use it much more.

I love working with a drawknife at the bowl horse, where it can be “drawn” with power and control. But a standard drawknife is awkward to push. Although “push-knives” with straight handles are a little more wieldy.

A spokeshave is extra handy if you’re without a bench, horse, etc.  Just put some notches in your hefty chopping block.

chopping-block-idea-sketchAfter doing all the hollowing and hewing at the block, refine the surfaces with a spokeshave.  The bowl can be held steady by leaning into it while the opposite end is registered in a notch in the edge of the block or against a stop on the far side.  A couple woooden pegs could substitute for the integral upper stop.

Granted, it’s nice to have other benches and vices, but much can be done with little as well.

As far as choosing a spokeshave, There are two main varieties:  standard and low-angle.  I typically use a standard metal shave for general use and a low-angle shave for any work on end grain or delicate work like chamfering.  Even within those two categories, there are many configurations and brands of shaves available.  The most useful is the standard flat-bottom shave, but there are other bottom shapes.

I don’t know much about all the brands out there but when looking for new hand woodworking tools you can’t go wrong with Lie-Nielsen or Lee Valley Veritas.  Someday I need to pick up one of those.  And there are many small-scale makers of wooden low-angle shaves out there.  Any attempt on my part to list them would fall far short, but a quick internet search will yield many, and some possibilities may turn up in reader comments.

img_0587img_0586The one’s I use most are a standard metal shave by Stanley and a low angle shave I made from a Ron Hock blade and some apple firewood many years ago.  I do prefer the old Stanley #52 to their #51.  The handles are lower — more in line with the blade, so it’s easier to control.

Neither of these are perfect; for example, I need pliers to keep the Stanley shave set to a good depth.  But I soldier on.  The only thing I can’t get over is dull.  Keep your shave sharp.



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Black Walnut Bowl


While not as big as Der Mollenhauer’s bowl, this large bowl will still hold a lot of fruit or bread.  It’s 20 3/4″ long, 12 1/4″ wide, and 4 1/4″ high and carved from a lovely black walnut log.


I decided on a delicate necklace of small nail cuts around the rim.  I think they were just enough to enhance the form a bit while letting the wood speak.


I carved the underside in four curving panels that meet in ridge lines that flow from the corners of the handles to the corners of the bottom.


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Der Mollenhauer

I should have paid more attention in my high school German classes.  I do remember singing a song in German about a three-cornered hat or something — and I can still count.  It would be nice to sit and watch this with someone who speaks German well sometime. The good news is, this story is filmed so beautifully that words are hardly necessary.

Watch as this venerable master carves a giant bowl.  He has retained incredible skill with an axe and the technique for removing the core with thin wooden wedges is spectacular.  Consequently, Kristin and I have committed to beer and schnapps at lunch from now on.  Near the end, one can see the variety of smaller bowls that he makes.

I had seen this some time ago, but I could watch it a thousand times.  It is so skillfully filmed, and there is so much to be learned.  Thanks to Peter Follansbee for reminding me of it.  There is a whole series of these “Der Letzte seines Standes?” films on youtube.  I think it translates to something like “The last of their craft?”  And I’m guessing Der Mollenhauer is something like “The trough/bowl hewer.”  Perhaps someone can provide a better translation.

In a similar vein are the films available from Folkstreams.  I wrote this post about them a couple years ago with some links.  Always worth revisiting.



Posted in axe, bowls, finding wood, historical reference, tools, Uncategorized, video | Tagged , , | 23 Comments