Coopering Connections

As athletes from around the world gather in Pyeongchang, I’ve been thinking about the craft of coopering.  That may seem like an odd connection, but it’ll at least result in some great video links, so hear me out.

I can’t get into medal counts and all that jazz, but there is something about the Olympics that appeals to me: the idea of people putting aside differences to share a common bond.  Sport is a powerful shared bond, and so is craft.  International connections both online and in person abound in the world of craft.  Greenwood carving is certainly a good example, but there are many others, including coopering.

Now, I’ve never made so much as a single stave, let alone a bucket or barrel, but like most crafts, I find coopering fascinating.  I stumbled upon a video this week of Australian cooper George Smithwick.  I loved it, and it reminded me of a couple old favorites.  Each cooper from a different continent, yet bound by a shared craft.

If you need a break from ice dancing, check ’em out:

Here’s the aforementioned George Smithwick from Australia.  Wonderful video, including the end parts where he discusses his decision to enter into the trade.

This one brings back lots of memories for me.  I still have it on VHS ordered from Drew Langsner at Country Workshops years ago.  Ruedi Kohler was one of Drew’s original woodworking teachers.  The serendipitous story of them coming together in rural Switzerland ended up benefiting many people over the years.  The video is a great example of craft transcending language barriers.

If you like this last video featuring Alex Stewart, an incredible character and craftsman from the Appalachians of Tennessee, then I’d strongly recommend the book Alex Stewart: Portrait of a Pioneer — one of my favorites.  Here’s the video link:

I like to listen as I’m carving.  I’ll have some bowl photos to share next week.






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Look What Arrived From Brittany

Yesterday, a package arrived from Jane Mickelborough.  After having the pleasure of getting to know Jane at Greenwood Fest 2017, I requested a porte-cuillères, a traditional Breton spoon rack that is meant to hang over the table.  It incorporates a clever arrangement of cord that allows the rack to be pulled down for access, then raised back up to clear the view.  I tested and admired the porte-cuillères in the workshop this morning.

Jane is a fascinating person and incredibly skilled in many ways.  She carves, she turns, she makes fan birds, she dances elegantly and can sing you a sea shanty.  And that’s just scratching  the surface.  She’s also deeply steeped in the craft traditions of Brittany, which you can read about more in an interview with Jane that Peter Follansbee shared in this blog post last year.


Many Breton elements are featured in the details of the walnut porte-cuillères that Jane made for me, like the brass tacks:

And the intriguing and beautiful wax inlay technique that Jane used around the central hub of the porte-cuillères:


Kalon digor is Breton for “bon appetit” which is French for something.  Seems to make me hungry.


The ermine is a Breton symbol.

The rack will hold many spoons made by friends:


Jane’s crossing the pond to be at Greenwood Fest again.  Still time to sharpen your knives and practice your sea shanties.


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An Encounter with a Woodworker


It was a balmy 35° F today, and I got out for a walk in the late afternoon as the sun was getting low.  As I was walking along the high bank above the river, I spied one of nature’s greatest woodworkers.  Drawn out by the warmer temperatures, she(?) was squatting on the ice along the edge, eating the thin bark off of the branches she had clipped.

The soft snow made for quiet walking, and beavers have poor eyesight.  I walked within 20 yards and stood watching her work the stick like a long ear of sweet corn.  I could hear each little nibble.

I just had a little point-and-shoot camera with me, and snapped the best shot I could get before moving on, grateful for another encounter with one of my favorite animals.  Most meetings have occurred while canoeing, and they usually let you get pretty close, not knowing quite what to make of it.  My son and I have even been splashed by a thrilling tail slap off the starboard bow.


That’s not my son; that’s Sam in the bow intent on a beaver swimming out ahead.

IMG_5157I keep a few beaver-chewed sticks in the shop, and I marvel at the lovely pattern left on the surface, better than the tool marks left by any gouge.  I even made a bowl once on which I left the handles and rim straight from the beaver’s teeth.

Seeing the beaver today also got me thinking about we humans that are nibbling on sticks with bits of steel.  These beaver-inspired thoughts may apply especially for those that are just beginning their carving journey, or just thinking about it.   (It’s been three years since I started this blog, so I’m bound to repeat myself.  I even included links as proof!)

Dig in.  The information available can be overwhelming, and you don’t need nearly all of it.  Read, take a class, watch videos, but mainly put steel to wood.  Savor the process and your personal progress, without asking too many devilish questions.  That beaver may be acting on pure instinct, but we humans also have our instincts.  A strong one is to create;  act on it and revel in it.  You’ll overcome problems as they arise, or at least learn where you could use a little more help.

Don’t be overwhelmed by the dizzying numbers and varieties of tools available as you get started.  Get a few good tools, then get to work.  The tools will add up over time.  At some point you’ll probably wonder where they all came from.  This can be a tough thing to balance.

I may not be qualified to judge a beaver’s intent, but I’ve seen fallen trees that sure looked to me like the toothed-one was shooting for a different outcome.  Make mistakes and take chances with design.  Have fun.  I have dumb ideas and make carving mistakes all the time, and I’ve got plenty of company.

SAM_3839When you screw up or things just aren’t going right, take a walk.  You might see a beaver while you’re out, or a sunset as you near home to help put it all in perspective.







Posted in carving, nature, tools, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 18 Comments

Four Spoons


In between bowls, I came upon a few good branch crooks that I’ve carved into spoons — two in cherry and two in rhododendron.  They’re all straight from the knife and treated with flaxseed (pure linseed) oil.  The lettering and chip carving on all of them was done with my pen knife.  They’re all serving/cooking spoons, way too big for eating spoons.  I’ll mention each spoon’s unique characteristics with the photos below.  Rather than listing them separately on my website, I’ll offer them right here in the blog post.  If you’d like to purchase one, send me an email at  All prices include shipping in the U.S.  Orders outside of the U.S. will pay an additional shipping charge, but it’s not usually too high for small items like spoons.  I’ll get back to you to confirm, and you can pay by mailing a check or through paypal.

Spoon #1 (below):  I carved “Tiramisu” into the handle of this cherry spoon.  Most people know it as the name for a dessert, but I thought it also appropriate for the handle of a spoon.  Tiramisu is Italian for “pick me up” or “lift me up.”  9 1/4″ x 3″  $155 includes shipping. SOLD





Spoon #2 (below):  “Fabas indulcet fames” is the Latin proverb meaning “Hunger sweetens the beans.”  Whether one is focused on the literal or figurative meaning, I like the reminder on a cooking and serving spoon.  After I cut the letters, I experimented with this rhododendron spoon by texturing the surface around the letters with the filed end of a small bolt.  I held the spoon in my lap and repeatedly moved around the “stamp”, hitting it with a small hammer.  13″ x 2 3/4″  $155 includes shipping. SOLD





Spoon #3 (below):  This spoon comes right out with it in English: “Hold Me.”  Cherry 10″ x 2 1/2″  $155 includes shipping. SOLD





Spoon #4 (below):  This rhododendron spoon is non-verbal.  Chip-carved handle.  9 1/2″ x 2 3/4″  $90 includes shipping.  SOLD




Posted in Lettering, spoons, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 13 Comments

Lettering Large


I do have some bowls in process to share before long, but some photos from a couple recent lettering projects first.  I find myself adapting my tools and techniques according to the wood and the size and style of the lettering.  I learn something from every new opportunity.

The top photo shows part of a large butternut board that will be framed in walnut by a cabinet maker for a sizeable display case for an electric train collection.  Actually, there will be two display cases as you can see from the two full-view photos below.  I was provided with some general guidelines such as including the logos/symbols and what the text should say.  Beyond that, I was given the freedom to explore.


The boards were 50″ x 7″.  To allow for the frame, the letters ended up at about 4 inches high.  So this was not a lap-and-penknife project.  The L logo represents Lionel.


The Steelmark logo goes back long before the Pittsburgh Steelers adapted and adopted it.


After much thought and sketching in various sizes, eventually it’s on to the board.  I can really burn through an eraser, but time spent in this stage is important for a project like this.  Got to calm that itchy carving finger.



I should mention that before the drawing took place, I put a final surface on the face of the board with a finely-set hand plane.  I could have sanded the surface, but it’s nice to avoid the grit that remains embedded in the wood, waiting to dull the edges of carving tools.


It’s convenient to have access to the board from either side.  My workbench is attached to the wall, so I gave myself full access by holding the board cantilevered beyond the workbench, held firmly with holdfasts.  You can also see in the photo the main tools used.  A couple v-tools on the right to excavate much of the bulk, and a couple knives.  The larger knife to the top left is reground from a Garrett Wade marking knife I’ve had around for years.  The three successive shots in the slideshow below show me using it to pare a side of the stem of the letter T.

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In some areas, gouges are a help.  A penknife blade is still handy, even in letters this large for tidying….


and for tighter curves like these numbers.


Similar techniques were used for this sign done a few weeks ago, except the overall style is a little more loose and the surface of the board was textured with a gouge before carving the lettering.  The photo is a little blurry on the left side, but you can see the texture more clearly on the right.  This is my second go with the same William Morris quote.  The first one is here.

Next post should be some spoons with much smaller lettering.


Posted in Lettering, tools, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 16 Comments

I Have One Word for You


I want to end the year and begin the next with a simple note of gratitude.  Thank you all for taking the time to read the blog.  Your comments, questions, and interest in the things I make are always helpful and encouraging.  I appreciate it all very much.  Who knows what 2018 will bring, and here’s to the thrill of exploration and a very happy New Year to you!


May nothing come between you and your wish for the new year!

Posted in Lettering, nature, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 26 Comments

Carving Books and Vintage Video

IMG_4923About a year and a half ago, at Greenwood Fest 2016, Jögge Sundquist taught a class on carving a Swedish distaff, traditionally used for holding flax or other fibers while spinning.  As Jögge explained, when a man proposed marriage to a woman, he carved an ornamental distaff as a gift for her.  The skill reflected in the carving would be a reminder of his qualities as a potential partner and mate.  If she accepted the gift, all was set, no need for words or a jumbotron proposal.

IMG_4932I had started a distaff then, but hadn’t gotten around to it since.  I’ve finally finished it as a little Christmas gift for my daughter, my wife having been fooled, I mean wooed, by me many years ago.

With the vibrant colors and whimsical bold patterns, it was a fun, if temporary, exploration into Jögge’s style, and it reminded me that Jögge’s book, Slöjda I Trä, will soon be out in English (Sloyd in Wood).

The photo at left shows Jögge’s colorful book.  My copy is in Swedish, but the photos of Jögge’s amazing work are in a universal language, as are the wonderful pen and ink illustrations.

IMG_4933Many of you know that Jögge’s biggest woodworking hero is his father, Wille.  Wille’s book, Swedish Carving Techniques is a must-have book if you’d like to carve spoons and bowls.

That book is not only an incredible resource for technique and method, but also design considerations.  Before I read that book, I thought of a wooden spoon as an object with a straight handle behind a flat oval.  Wille opened my eyes to the sculptural potential in household objects like spoons and bowls.  Objects that are a pleasure to look upon, hold, and use.

I’ve been carving some more spoons recently, and those ideas still guide the way I work.  Here’s one example recently finished that I think reflects Wille’s influence.

Back in 1982, long before my spooncarving introduction, Wille taught a spooncarving workshop at Country Workshops.  Drew Langsner informed me today that during that event, Rick Mastelli filmed Wille carving a spoon from start to finish.  The video was just posted to youtube yesterday, and it’s a must-see:

I’ve already decided to pay tribute to Wille at Greenwood Fest 2018 by wearing the same outfit he wears in the video.

IMG_4935And before I leave the subject of carving books, I’ve got to suggest another great one, just published.  Carving the Acanthus Leaf by Mary May is a spectacular book.  I was captivated by the story of Mary May’s childhood and inspirational journey into woodcarving.  It is interwoven into an incredibly well-researched exploration of the acanthus leaf and its interpretation across many cultures.  Along with general advice on the selection of carving tools, sharpening, and such, are step-by-step instruction s for carving many different styles of acanthus, all richly photographed along with clear plans.  Truly an incredible accomplishment that will help many carvers.





Posted in books, paint, patterns, publications, spoons, Uncategorized, video | Tagged , , , | 14 Comments