One of the reasons I was most looking forward to Greenwood Fest was for the opportunity to look over Dave Fisher’s shoulder as he did some letter-carving. Dave is a maestro at this work (for example, here, here and here). He has even done a blog post specifically about lettering. But a blog just didn’t quite give me the confidence to try it – I wanted to see it in action.
To be honest, I have tried letter-carving in the past, but I was never particularly happy with the results. In fact, I actually carved my initials into the very first spoon I ever carved, six years ago in 2010. I had no sloyd or spoon knives at that point. I carved the whole thing with a gouge and a drawknife, and then I carved the letters with a chisel. The spoon is quite good – I still use it every week:
And the letters are neat enough, but also pretty bland and lifeless. Not something I really want to showcase on all of my spoons:
I didn’t try to carve letters again for three more years. When my first son was born in 2013, he spent nine days in the NICU. There wasn’t much that I could do for him, but could carve a spoon for him. I decided to try carving letters again. By this point, I had proper spoon-carving knifes, so I attempted to do the letters with the tip of my sloyd knife. The sentiment was laudable, but the execution was not. It’s the thought that counts?
Anyway, after that I was pretty much ruined on letter-carving until I had some proper instruction. After quizzing Dave about his tools, techniques, and unspoken wisdom, I was ready to give it another go. The biggest takeaway? A knife with a short blade and a rather tight radius near the tip seems to be mission-critical. He uses the tip of a pen knife. I had this little guy which seems to be close to the proper geometry:
After sketching a simple design that I liked, I did my best to follow the lines, being careful not to cut too deeply (but also not being too timid either. No need to go over the same cut five times to get to the proper depth). Long, flowing lines like this were actually pretty easy to execute. It’s the stopping and starting that makes it tough!
I was pretty pleased with how Elam’s new spoon turned out, but the cursive lettering was tricky. I highly recommend starting with all-caps font. Straight lines are a lot more fun than tight curves. It might be impolite when sending emails to your co-workers, but it’s perfectly acceptable to shout on a spoon.
I was on a roll, so I decided to keep going. I carved a quick spoon while I was at Greenwood Fest and ate with it all week. Peter Follansbee made it “famous” on his first blog post after the event (sixth picture from the top). In honor of its provenance, I decided to give the spoon an appropriate name:
So now I have a new skill that I’m not altogether embarrassed about. Score one for the home team, and Tip o’ the Hat to you, Dave Fisher.
If you follow the online greenwoodworking communities at all, then you’re probably well aware of the smashing success of Greenwood Fest in Plymouth, MA over the past weekend. Instagram, the Green Woodwork Facebook group, and Peter Follansbee’s blog have been aflurry with photos and positive comments since Sunday night. I was fortunate to be in attendance, and I can say without reservation that it was one of the most inspiring events that I’ve ever attended.
Really, I don’t even know where to begin. I still haven’t quite processed everything that I learned, nor fully appreciated the people I was able to meet. I met folks who have been a huge inspiration on my journey over the last few years, as well as folks who have slipped under my radar, but will now be certain to inspire me over the coming years.
I got to talk to Dave Fisher about bowl carving and lettering (more on that in a post to come):
I got to witness Peter Follansbee’s skilled and efficient carving first-hand:
I talked with Tim Manney about steam-bending and chair-making. I’ve been absorbed with Windsors for the last year, but Tim actually got me excited about ladderbacks again. And if I ever build another shavehorse, it will be one of Tim’s design:
One of the folks that I was most happy to meet stepped in at the last moment when another presenter had to cancel. If it seemed that Darrick Sanderson was under-the-radar when the weekend began, he was certainly well-known by the end of the week. Of course I was already quite familiar with him – I’ve been following his work for about six months and I was delighted when he got added to the schedule.
You may remember him from a post a while back: The Best Spoon I’ve Ever Seen. Well, I must revise my previous post. Darrick brought a whole chest full of The Best Spoons I’ve Ever Seen. Seriously. Every single one of them was amazing. His productivity, his creativity, and his control over form is demoralizing stunning. Like Dave Fisher, Darrick is one of those guys who is at the forefront of his craft, yet still finding a way to drive it forward. It’s a bit humbling, knowing that I was happily carving away in my little silo for 6 years, making perfectly nice spoons, but not doing anything particularly impressive. Meanwhile, Derrick burst through to the front of the pack in a couple short years, and the rest of us have been struggling to keep up ever since. He’s a special talent, and I expect that his impact and renown will continue to grow over the coming years.
If I seem like I’m gushing, just feast your eyes on this cornucopia of spoons. (And oh yeah, did I mention he also does wonderful carved and pole-turned bowls as well? I told you, he’s impressive.)
So anyway, that was my weekend in a nutshell. Like the title said, I’m still coming back to earth. Not quite there yet, but I’ve already been putting some things that I learned into practice. I have a feeling this was one of those events that will stick out in my memory for a long, long time.
A couple of weeks ago, I saw this video shared on a Facebook group:
The video is 11 minutes long and completely in Norwegian, but it’s wonderfully vintage footage of a few old dudes collecting and processing whetstones from a centuries-old quarry in Eidsborg, Norway.
What made the video all the more fascinating for me is that my wife and I actually visited Eidsborg (among many other stops) last summer. I don’t know how old this video is, but I recognized several buildings from a small settlement about a mile from the quarry.
First, at minute 1:08 in the video, is the famous Eidsborg stavkyrkje (stave church). The building, remarkably, dates from 1250-1270. The level of detail evident in the craftsmanship is arresting. I could have spent an entire day exploring this building.
Standing in front of the building, it’s much smaller than you might imagine from the pictures. You would have to duck to walk under the eaves. Unfortunately, the building was not open for visitors on the day we went, but there was plenty to see from the outside.
Adorable horse carving.
The effect of the shaped, riven oak shingles is striking.
Church and sky
The whole cemetery was filled with headstones from the local quarry.
A side door
At 8:55 in the video, you’ll see another pair of remarkable buildings that I recognized immediately. The one on the right is known as the “Loft”. It was built in 1167…850 years ago. What are you building today that will still be around in the year 2865? Anybody?
This building is regarded as Europe’s oldest secular wooden structure. There are older churches made of wood. There are older homes made of stone. But if you want to see a wooden building that isn’t a church, you can’t do much better than this little beauty. A sign beside the building reads “Listed storehouse from upper Vindlaus farm, built 1167. Legend claims the three sons of rich widow Ase Stalekleiv built it to store quantities of linen. Runes by the upper level door (ca. 1300) read, ‘Vestein wrote these runes. Hail he who wrote, and hail he who reads.’ Europe’s eldest secular wooden structure.”
The second building is a newbie by comparison. The date in the carving above the doorway was a bit hard to read, but I believe it reads “ELEFOUVERSON ANNO:1757”. Of course, the building could be older than the inscription. I don’t recall seeing a sign beside this one, and if there was one, I didn’t snap a picture.
A sign on the Loft
“Elefouverson. Anno:1757”. Look at the detail on that strap hinge!
This ingenious style of foundation was ubiquitous in this part of Norway.
I love that even the footing is carved.
One last view.
Did I mention how amazing Norway is? It’s amazing. Plenty more pictures where these came from.
A couple of weekends ago, I had a minor incident while hollowing out a large shrink pot. (What’s a shrink pot, you ask? Luckily Dave Fisher covered that topic a couple of weeks ago – click here). I thought I was being clever by using a chunk of maple too knotty for spoons or kuksas for my shrink pot. Turned out to be a costly error. I got one of my favorite gouges stuck in a knot, and it shattered as I was trying to persuade it loose.
The gouge was a vintage Swan that I picked up for $5 at an antique store in Louisiana. Hard to replace (at least for that price). I determined that there was enough steel left to grind it down and put it back into service.
The tricky part here is trying to cut down to good steel without getting the blade too hot and ruining the temper. I took a hint from a blacksmith friend and stuck the gouge through a potato to just below the lowest point of the break.
The potato acts as a heat sink, so you can grind as needed without getting the steel too hot. I used a cutoff wheel on my Dremel to cut off the bulk of the waste, and the potato worked as advertised – the steel never even got hot to the touch.
Of course, I still had to reshape the bevel at this point. I do this with a deft tough on the grinder. I prefer an 80-grit white Norton stone for this task. It runs considerably cooler than the cheap hardware-store gray stones. I also prefer to do the final shaping on the side of the stone rather than the face. This allows me to get either a flat or slightly convex bevel. I find that a concave bevel is counterproductive on a carving gouge. It tends to cause the tool to dive into the wood uncontrollably. A slightly convex bevel helps the tool slice into and out of the wood.
A steady hand and a gentle rolling of the gouge against the side of the wheel produces a neat bevel that requires very little finishing work with stones and a strop.
The inside of the gouge required some attention as well. This old tool had a fine layer of surface rust and some minor pitting to go with it. To remove the pitting, I first turned a small hardwood dowel, slightly smaller than the inside diameter of the gouge, and cut a small kerf along the length. Chuck the dowel into a cordless drill. Slip a narrow strip of 220-grit sandpaper into the kerf and wrap it around the dowel. A bit of masking tape helps hold it in place. Now you can use your custom “stone” to hone the inside of the bevel and clean up the pitting.
I find it easiest to hold the gouge in a vise, using two hands to guide the drill. It can get away from you if you’re not careful, but a nicely polished interior is your reward. You can quickly buff the edge to a perfect shine by charging the dowel itself with honing compound and power stropping.
I now have a functional gouge once more – but I will admit it doesn’t have quite the same balance after losing more than an inch of its length. Time will tell how much use this gouge will see in the future.
The tavern table was a fun build, and quick, too. Relatively speaking. I compare everything now to the Windsor chair build that stretched on for three months. It’s amazing how simple everything becomes when all of the angles are at 90°. And how convoluted things become curves and angles that aren’t right come into play. I started the table on a Friday evening, and it was fully assembled by that Sunday afternoon.
I have a few pictures, but must apologize for the quality. The lighting in my house is atrocious, and outdoors isn’t any better. Our yard is a scrubby wasteland of sand and weeds a few blocks from the beach.
I was surprised how much visual interest this simple molding on the bottom of the aprons adds to the table. I’ve never used a detail like this before, but I’ve noticed that some sort of molding is present on the aprons of nearly every joint stool and tavern table that I’ve seen. Definitely worth the small effort to get this effect.
The legs were a blast to turn. The shape is very, close to the original, but I didn’t hold myself too closely to the details. I felt that they could use improvement, so I improved them. I’m very happy with the way these turned out. Plus, it was extra practice for my next Windsor chair! I’m still having trouble with the skew chisel on those beads – I find that to be the hardest part of baluster turnings.
Another tweak to the original design: I reduced the number of lower stretchers from four to three, and moved the long stretcher to the center. I did this so that the table can be used as a children’s dining table when we have a lot of company. My son is in a wheelchair and needs to be able to roll up close to the table; outer stretchers would prevent that.
I also used chamfers and lambs’ tongues instead of the simple roundover on the original. No reason, other than I like the way they look.
I do love drawer-building. Especially small ones like this. It becomes harder to make a smooth-running drawer as the size increases. This drawer fits nicely with maybe 1/32″ gap on the sides and 1/16″ on the top. It slides sweetly.
And of course dovetails are ever fun to cut.
I even found time to add a bit of bling to the drawer bottom. I have wanted to try some Peter Follansbee-style carving for years, and I finally made it happen. I didn’t want my first carving to be front-and-center on a piece of furniture, so a drawer bottom seemed appropriate. The carving is a bit of an anachronism – 17th-century English carving in an 18th century Charleston table – but it doesn’t bother me. Avert thine eyes if thou art a pedant.
The table still needs a finish. It will be painted, like the original. Unlike the original, I will not be using oil paint with toxic heavy metal-laden pigments. Milk paint will suffice. I’m thinking blue over yellow, with shellac topcoat.
As I was carving the seat last week, it became apparent that it would be difficult to achieve the surface quality that I was after by going straight from the inshave to the scraper. I really needed to add a travisher to my arsenal. I really can’t afford to buy one, and I had been hesitant to make one. It’s a complex tool, and the resources for building one from scratch are mostly nonexistent, so I was afraid I would be unable to make a functional tool without ever having seen one in person.
Ultimately, I realized that there were few other options, so I would just have to make my own. Elia Bizzarri sells travisher blades for the very reasonable price of $30, so I ordered one from him and in a few days it was at my doorstep. I was very pleased with the quality of the blade. The steel is substantial, and it comes with the bevel very well-ground to the proper angle. It’s not honed, but I can do that myself, no problem. It even comes with the threaded inserts and machine screws necessary to attach the blade to the wood – all I had to supply was the wood (I have plenty, just ask my wife!)
I started by googling “Galbert Travisher”and clicking on “Images”. This gave me a wide range of different shots that I could base the design on. I kept the images pulled up on my phone while I worked in the shop. It was a big help to have a handy reference for just about every angle of the tool, almost as good as a measured drawing.
Next I had to choose the wood. I thought about making it in Osage-orange to give it a little bit of bling, and because it’s incredibly hard-wearing. I quickly dismissed that idea, though, because I was afraid I would mess up my first attempt, and if I was going to mess up, I wanted to do it with a wood that was easy to work. I settled on cherry instead. Cherry is quite a bit softer, so it may wear out faster, but I figure if I have to make another body, I’ll do from a harder wood when I’m confident that I know what I’m doing.
Now, on to the build. It’s best explained in pictures, so my commentary will be minimal:
Once the tool body was complete, I still had to sharpen the blade. I won’t go into detail here. Claire Minihan has already done that, and better than I could. With the blade razor-stinking-sharp, I re-installed it and gave the tool a test drive. I had to do a bit more fettling with the sole to get the proper reveal (the blade must project slightly above the sole, but not too much) and curve (the sole must be angled slightly so you’re able to carve a dished profile front-to-back).
Before long, I had the tool cutting oh-so sweetly. It’s a treasure to hear the sharp ‘snick’ of a finely honed blade slicing through wood.
Well, it took all of a week, but I’ve finally completed the shavehorse. More or less. One of Peter Galbert’s bits of advice from The Chairmaker’s Notebook is this:
Don’t build your first shavehorse out of prized wood you’ve been saving. More likely than not, you will want to change or customize your horse, and an ugly one is much easier to alter or put out on the porch.
This isn’t my first shavehorse, but I took him at his word and used a knotty cypress board for most of the horse. It’s 100% functional as it is, but as Galbert astutely predicted, I’ve already come up with a few changes that I’d like to make. I’ll have to put some hours on this horse before I go mucking with it any more, though.
The ratcheting head works quite nicely, but I’m not yet convinced it was worth the hours that it consumed. For any would-be chairmakers out there, I would strongly recommend building a regular ol’ dumbhead to start off with. After you get comfortable with it, you can always retro-fit it with the ratcheting head if you want – and you’ll probably do a better job of it later on. I wish someone had given me that advice a week ago…
The seat was a treat to carve. I had no desire to cut up my prized 24″-wide, 2″-thick poplar slabs for a Windsor chair seat without first getting a good feel for the process on a lesser subject. This seat came from a 2″ x 13″ poplar board – not quite as dear. Perfect size for a shavehorse seat, though.
I started off by flattening it with a couple of hand planes, then cutting out the profile with a jigsaw (use a sharp, thickblade, unless you want it to wander all over in the thick poplar…I was wishing I had room for my bandsaw in my shop as my jigsaw groaned). I sketched the profile I wanted on the edge of the slab and started hacking away with my adze. I just held it on the floor with my foot (clean shoes are a must, unless you want to dull your adze in a hurry). I need a better way to hold my seat blanks, but it worked fine for a quick job.
There was no joy in adzing the poplar, I’m afraid. It was quite a bit more difficult to carve than the sassafras I tested it out in. I was wishing for some thick sassafras or white pine, but poplar will have to do, since it’s all I’ve got.
I was once again pleased with the performance of the inshave. I was able to refine the rough work of the adze with a surprising degree of control, and it left a nice surface to work with. I did notice, however, that my sharpening job needs improvement: I found out quickly which sections of the inshave were sharp and which were not, and I found myself favored the sections that were sharp.
I followed up the inshave with the drawknife and spokeshave to round over the perimeter. I could have left the seat just like this, and it would have been quite comfortable. However, since I considered this task a practice run for Windsor(s) that I will build, I couldn’t help but follow up with the scraper.
It was more difficult going straight from inshave to scraper than I would have imagined. The curves of the seat looked pretty uniform after the inshave, but the scraper proved that sentiment wrong. I found myself wishing for a travisher. Still too rich for my blood, I’m afraid, but eventually I’ll have to get one, I know.
Since I decided to proceed with the scraping, I pretty much had no choice but to finish up with sanding. Not my favorite task, so I sped it along with the random orbit sander and some 120-grit.
I didn’t aim for a perfect surface, but it still turned out nice when I finally slathered some walnut oil on the seat. I do love the contrast between the creamy sapwood and the yellow-green heartwood. I wish the planks were 100% heartwood, though, because it seems to be so much more workable than the sapwood.
Whatever the seat lacks in appearance, it makes up for in comfort. I definitely haven’t had a seat this comfortable in my shop before.
Well, onward and upward! I did manage to sneak in a bit of work on the Windsor itself over the weekend…
It feels a bit strange writing a “how-to” article for a task that I’ve completed exactly once in my life. I would prefer to link to an article written by an expert who’s made fifty of these things, but the internet seems curiously silent on this topic, so here we are.
An elbow adze gets its name from the shape of the handle. Unlike the more familiar western adze, with a straight handle fit into a metal socket, an elbow adze uses branch union for the handle, where the grain naturally follows an elbow shape.
The elbow adze looks like a crude tool, but like any tool, it can be as refined as you make it to be – and even a tool that looks rustic is capable of very fine work if it’s well-made. So what’s the advantage of the elbow adze? More than anything, the advantage is the cost – forming the eye of a Western adze is no simple task, and adzes simply aren’t made on the same scale as a hammer, so it’s difficult for a manufacturer to make a half-decent tool while taking advantage of economies of scale. The plain fact is that nobody’s going to sell a million of these things. The best adzes today are still made by craftsmen, and their work doesn’t come cheap.
By removing the eye from the equation, you drastically reduce the amount of metalwork, but you complicate the handle-making process somewhat. That’s a win for us, though – we’re woodworkers; we can handle the woodwork (pun intended?)
So where to start? Well, I started at Kestrel Tool. They do sell complete adzes, but they also sell unhandled blades for a very reasonable price. You’ll also need a forked branch from a suitable hardwood. Choosing the right fork is a fun job, kind of like scouring the woods for the right crook for a spoon. The most important characteristic of the fork is the angle. You want something in the neighborhood of 60°.
One thing that was impressed upon me as I scoured the web for information was that it’s not so critical that the handle is made from a traditional “tool handle” wood like hickory, white ash, white oak, or hard maple. All of those woods will make fine adze handles, of course, but this is a tool that will be used for slicing through wood, not banging into it like a sledge hammer. You also don’t have quite the same concentrated stress points like you do where the wood fits into the metal socket of a western adze. As a result, you can easily use a wood that isn’t quite as stiff and strong without a problem.
In the Pacific Northwest, where these adzes are still used for traditional carving (think totem poles), red alder is apparently one of the preferred tool handles, primarily due to the fact that the branch unions grow naturally at the proper angle. Red alder is similar to yellow-poplar in its strength characteristics. I would still be a little wary of using yellow-poplar, but I wouldn’t hesitate to use cherry, walnut, red maple, or red oak. I ended up finding a mulberry fork that looked just right, so I sawed out the fork, shaved off the bark, and left it to dry for a month.
Satisfied that the handle was dry enough to work, last night I set about finishing up the tool. I started by planing blade end of the fork down to the pith. There was probably about a 3/4″ thickness of wood left when I stopped. You’ll want to take some care to get the “flat” perpendicular to the handle, or else your blade will sit cattywampus.
When I was satisfied that the handle was ready to test, I used a tip from Kestrel Tool and fixed the blade to the handle with a couple of hose clamps. It worked like a charm and held the blade tightly in place.
One of the firm principles of making proper elbow adze: The cutting edge of the blade should be at 90° to the spot on the handle where the index finger rests. This can be tweaked in a couple of ways. The blade can be pushed backward and forward slightly along the top of the blade, or the angle of the flat can be changed slightly to to dial in just the right configuration.
The adze looks about right, so now it’s time to put it to the test. I pulled out a scrap of sassafras started hacking away, holding the board on the floor between my feet. It was working well and pulling out some nice chips, so I roughed out an oval and tried to see how closely to the line I could cut.
Satisfied with the way the tool was working, I was almost ready to lash the blade onto the handle. Before I did that, though, I decided to add a “shelf” to the top of the handle, behind the blade. Most adze handles have this part integral to the handle, but I found it much easier to adjust the position of the blade and ensure a tight fit if I was able to plane the flat, instead of sawing and rasping.
Finally, it was time for the lashing. This was the part that had me nervous, but it turned out to be the easiest step of all. I used “artificial sinew” – basically just some nylon or polyester cord that’s heavily waxed. It’s very strong, and the wax helps keep the lashing tight as you go. I’ll describe the steps briefly, but I think you should be able to figure it out from the pictures.
That’s it! The wrapping took, maybe, 5 minutes from start to finish, and that was with me stopping to take pictures every so often. If you do a good job of it, your wrapping should last for years. Time will tell if I’ve done a good job, but the blade certainly seems as tight and immovable as I could hope for.
Now, I’m one tool closer to building that Windsor chair.
Ahhh! October. Best month of the year, as far as I’m concerned. At least it is if you live in the Deep South. The heat and humidity of summer finally breaks, beckoning even the most climate-control-loving indoor enthusiasts into the open air. It was a month made for camping, so this past weekend, we headed for the oaky woods of Georgia with a few friends and pitched some tents by a lake. I packed a few simple tools – a small axe, a Sloyd knife, and couple of bent knives – and spent Saturday whittling by the fire.
I love my workshop, but sometimes at the end of a long work session, I gaze at my bench stacked haphazardly with so many complex tools – metal planes with a couple dozen precision-made parts, taper-ground saws, micro-adjustable marking gauges, multiform chisels and gouges all of different shapes and sizes – and I marvel at the hundreds or thousands of hands and minds that coalesced to create this toolkit that allows me to create a simple (or sometimes not-so simple) piece of wooden furniture.
When I carve spoons, the tools are so simple so few that the opposite feeling is invited. One man at a forge could easily make in short order all of the tools that I need to turn a crooked branch to a ladle. I find few things more primally satisfying than taking a few pieces of sharpened steel and a stick of wood and carving something useful and beautiful.
Choosing a branch for spoon-carving is a good way to start any morning. It’s just a walk in the woods with a purpose. The woods around my campsite were filled with oak, hickory, and ash. All of them have large open pores, but I want a close-pored wood for carving spoons (It’s a preference, not a necessity. Some of my favorite spoons are catalpa and sassafras, which have big, open pores but the golden glow of the heartwood makes up for it). Sweetgum and blackgum were plentiful. Both have small pores and are easily carved, but they don’t split well due to interlocking grain so I passed them up (they are pretty homely woods, too, unless your sweetgum has rich reddish brown heartwood, but they don’t develop heartwood until they’re pretty big). I found some chalk maples, too. Maple makes a good spoon but chalk maples (Acer leucoderme) are a species of hard maple, and hard maple is, well, too hard. I prefer red maple for carving. The understory was filled with sparkleberry, and the occasional wild plum, crabapple, and hawthorn. All of these species are perfect for spoon carving. Close-grained and attractive wood.
Crooks always yield interesting shapes, and sparkleberry always has plenty of crooks. Sparkleberry (Vaccinium arboreum) is a species of blueberry, and one of the few that reaches the size of a small tree. I’ve carved it before – the wood is hard and dense and honestly one of the tougher woods I’ve ever used – probably close to hard maple or yellow birch in hardness – but it has a lovely pink color that makes it completely worthwhile. Since it was the most plentiful, it was the easiest to find a branch that was worth carving.
The grain of this branch was particularly sinuous, so I took care to follow the grain perfectly. Not only does this result in the strongest spoon, it also creates an eye-catching shape. It’s slower going than carving straight-grained wood, but I love the end result.
I have never left the pith (the very center of the branch) in a spoon before, but for this spoon, it was too eye-catching to whittle it away. It’s wide and bright red and completely solid. I took special care to leave it on the underside of the handle. Sparkleberry has an eye-catching ray fleck as well, somewhere between maple and sycamore.
After I finished up the big serving spoon, my friend (a coffee aficionado) mentioned that he could use a replacement for his plastic coffee scoop. So I took a straight-grained section of wood and tried to carve something that was more worthy of his prized Guatemalan java beans.
This trip wasn’t all about woodworking, though. We still found plenty of time for hammock nonsense,