This blog is continued with older entries on my website's 'Latest News' page, where you can see projects and images going back to February 2009.

There's loads of images of my carvings and projects on the website, going right back to when I first started out carving. There are also, of course, a few stories. To see them or to return to the website, please click on this link

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Ancient and modern woodworking on the Somerset Levels

Somerset Levels Avalon Marshes

The Avalon Marshes are three nature reserves (Shapwick Heath, Westhay Moor and Ham Wall) on the Somerset Levels, not far from Glastonbury. The wetlands are formed from the remains of peat workings that have since filled with water to form a valuable habitat for many kinds of birds.


westhay moor


As part of new work at Westhay Moor, the Somerset Wildlife Trust had commissioned me to carve designs drawn by children at a local school onto two larch boards, each about 3 metres (8 feet) long.

First, I enlarged the drawings and reproduced them onto the boards using a grid.



Next, the designs were carved using a Dremel, a small drill which had a burr-shaped cutter mounted onto it. I have found that carving into some softwoods (like larch) using power tools can sometimes give a better result than using traditional hand tools, no matter how well-sharpened they are.



The designs were then painted in with durable black gloss paint and finished with a finishing oil.

Somerset woodcarving

While out at the site to deliver the boards to the Trust, we took the chance to explore a bit. 

Westhay Moor

The marshes were beautiful and quiet, with only a few dedicated bird watchers about. We heard a Cetti's warbler and saw a reed bunting; so we got in some birdwatching too. There were several carvings dotted about the marshes that were also interesting to see.





The sculpture shown below refers to the murmurations of starlings, which the reserves are famous for. In winter, millions of starlings roost here and on clear, cold evenings they swoop and swirl in great clouds over the reeds.


Starling murmuratio

While visiting Westhay Moor, I couldn't miss going to see a new bird hide that was designed and built by my friend Tom Redfern and his colleagues at Roundwood Design.


The two-storey hide is reached via a causeway and gives a great view out over a pool that is very popular with many different kinds of birds.


The wooden-clad side that is visible as you approach the hide is fine but when you go inside, the roundwood framing that Tom specialises in becomes visible. I think you will agree that it looks great.

round wood timber framing

round wood design


This area has also turned up many pieces of very important archaeology. The marshy, peaty ground preserves wooden artefacts well as the lack of oxygen prevents decomposition. 

The second oldest walkway ever discovered in Northern Europe was found very nearby - the 'Sweet Track'. 


Image by E. Mortalmans from http://avalonmarshes.org/the-avalon-marshes/heritage/sweet-track/

Found in 1970 and named after its discoverer, Ray Sweet, the 2 kilometre (1.24 miles) long track was constructed in either 3807 or 3808 BCE along the course of an older walkway, known as the 'Post Track'. It was only in use for about 10 years before being abandoned but many finds have been made around it, including an unused jadeite axe head that was created from rock which originated in the Alps.


sweet rack axehead
Image from http://www.somersetheritage.org.uk/record/11000
Many wooden artefacts were also found, including pins made from yew timber, a throwing axe, four paddles and a small wooden doll that could have been a child's toy or a votive offering. They are preserved in different museums now but most of the Sweet Track is still where it was found, although not visible to the public. It is buried again, with a system in place to ensure constant immersion in water so that it doesn't dry out and start to decay.


Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Exploring Bristol with Hazen Audel: craftsman and presenter of 'Primal Survivor' on the National Geographic channel

meeting Hazen Audel

Hazen Audel was in Bristol doing some work connected to the show that he presents, called 'Primal Survivor'.  As well as his television work, he is also a very keen craftsman, working particularly with metal and wood. 

A few weeks previously, I'd been running a woodcarving tutorial for Alex, who has worked with him on the series for Icon Films. He knew that Hazen would love finding out more about the handmade objects and historic buildings to be seen in the city and thought that it would be great if I could show him around.

I always enjoy meeting other makers, particularly those with an interest in woodworking, so was very happy to do it. In fact, the prospect of exploring the city that I know pretty well with someone who was seeing a lot of it for the first time (and who is also interested in making stuff) was really exciting!

First of all, we visited the Cathedral. The very first thing was an Anglo-Saxon sculpture that is around a thousand years old. We also got to see the misericords, including one which I believe shows one of the first turkeys ever brought back to Britain. Straightaway, Hazen noticed the beautiful, elaborate hand-forged iron gates and door hinges around the Cathedral; pointing out stunning constructions that I would almost certainly have just walked past if there on my own.

Next was a visit to the Central library to see the Grinling Gibbons overmantle. This had to be included on the itinerary. 


Grinling Gibbons oak carving


One of the librarians very kindly took time to show us the room in which the overmantle is kept and to point out some of the other treasures in there, such as this beautifully designed Arts and Crafts chair which neatly converts into steps to access high shelves.


Arts and Crafts chair

Next, we walked over to St Mary Redcliffe church to see the stone carvings and a whale rib that is reputed to be one of the first things ever brought back from the New World to Europe on John Cabot's ship. A bone seems a curious object to have been chosen but in those days such an object must have been like bringing back a chest full of gold: 
"There are huge whales there and no one is hunting them!"

I also pointed out the roof bosses under the tower. One shows a very rare image of a green man-like dog or cow. Nearby is another carving showing a man defecating! Medieval Christian attitudes to religious buildings were certainly very different to modern ones - see if you can spot both of them in the picture below:


St Mary Redcliffe

After a walk along King Street (which contains many 17th century buildings) and dropping in at Icon Film's offices, we stopped off at the Hatchet Inn for lunch.


Hazen Audel visits the Hatchet Inn  in Bristol

The Hatchet is reputed to have first got a license to sell alcohol in 1606, making it the oldest pub in Bristol. Before that it was Frogmore farm and monastery. Legend has it that the pub door has a layer of human skin from an executed felon, hidden under layers of paint and tar. If you are wondering about ghosts; well, I've had strange experiences in there before - but that's another story!

After finishing lunch, we headed up to Bristol Design. This second-hand tool shop is a must-see for anyone who loves working with tools and Hazen had been there before, so we had a chat about them and then headed on, stopping occasionally to look more closely at things of interest on the way, such as the Cafe Wall illusion.


Hazen Audel visits Bristol Design

After walking down Jacobs Wells Road, we headed over to my studio at Bower Ashton. This route gave a chance to look at the Hotwells area of Bristol, the Harbour and to see the Suspension Bridge spanning the Avon Gorge. 



Several of the members of the Forest of Avon Products cooperative who have workshops at the Bower Ashton Woodyard were about and chatted to Hazen about the wide variety of projects that they were working on.



After visiting my own workshop, the weather had taken a turn for the worse and it had been a long day so he got a taxi back to where he was staying in town.

All in all, it had been a very enjoyable day. It was great to spend time with Hazen and it also made me realise how, even though we packed in a lot of things, there was still so much we hadn't had the chance to see in Bristol in one day. When given the opportunity to explore the place that you live with fresh eyes, it quickly becomes apparent how much is taken for granted or passed by in ignorance each day. 

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

A drum stool with a difference! Making carved wooden drums as seats

The story of this project begins last summer...

I had been invited to make some carvings for Gwalia farm near Machynlleth in North Wales, in return for a stay there at their stunning 'Cabin by the Lake'. This beautiful spot has a private lake, canoe and wood-fired hot tub.


Gwalia cabin by the Lake

Luckily, an oak tree on the farm had just dropped a large branch and so there was plenty of timber to carve!



The cabin was missing some nice seating around the fire, so by the end of the week I'd carved an owl stool...

carved wooden owl stool

As well as a stool with a carving of a Natterer's bat (as a few of them were flying around the cabin at dusk).The second stool also had slits cut into it, to make bars which made a note when struck. They are a bit similar to a West African 'krin' drum:


Natterer's bat carving in oak wood

Krin drum


I really liked the drum idea and showed a few people when back in Bristol. Jono at Touchwood Play realised that the drum stools would work very well in a new project that they were working on. After making a couple more examples to refine the idea, I was commissioned to make six of the stools.

First there was a trip out to Backwell, near Bristol, to look at the oak timber available. It had to be of a certain diameter to make a good stool. Once the logs were back at my workshop, the hard work began!


Bower Ashton woodyard

Firstly, the logs were cut to size, the bark removed using a mallet and chisel and then the stools were smoothed to remove tool marks. I used a chainsaw to cut the bars into the logs.


chainsaw carving

The bars then needed to be sanded and cleaned up, which took a lot of time. Once that had been done, I carved two rows of ridges onto each stool, to make an effect a little bit similar to an instrument called a 'guiro'.



krin drum stools

The drums still needed sticks to play them with. These were turned from locally-grown hornbeam timber. Hornbeam is a very tough wood, traditionally used to make butcher's chopping blocks and the teeth for large cogs, such as in mill workings. It was perfect for this job.


woodturning on an electric lathe

The sticks were chained onto the drums using good-quality stainless steel chain (as stainless steel doesn't react with and discolour oak, unlike normal iron or steel). There was also a hole drilled into each drum to hold the sticks when not in use. The chain is attached halfway along the stick to avoid it making a dangerous looping foot snare when stored in its holder.




The drums just needed a few coats of finishing oil and they were done. Using a tuning app on a phone, we also managed to find out what notes the different bars made. There was a surprising range! Quite a few were A or B, but one played three C notes with an octave between each. Others played Gs and Fs. You can hear them on this Youtube video:



I'd like to refine the tuning methods on future drums, although the tuning on these drums will probably change a bit over time anyway, as the wood dries.  

I did notice that small cracks in the oak, formed during seasoning, didn't seem to affect the sound much at all.



The drums will eventually be mounted in a circle onto a wooden platform in a play tower. They will be fixed down using large screws, so that they can't fall over or be thrown and injure anyone. To allow them to resonate and make a good sound, there will be rubber feet under each one. I've placed wooden sticks under them in these photos to allow a good resonance when playing them in the workshop.


carved wooden drum

Monday, 2 January 2017

Carving a scene featuring a canoe from the North American pioneer days


This picture, slightly larger than an A4 sheet of paper in size, was commissioned as a gift. The recipient loves his canoe and so the person who commissioned me to make it wanted the panel to show a canoe being used in a historical setting, as well as an otter and a heron (which were favourites of the person receiving the present).

Luckily the grey heron that is commonly seen along European waterways has a North American cousin, the great blue heron, which looks similar apart from being slightly bigger.  

The oak panel was carved using a mix of traditional tools and a Dremel hand drill. The drill was used to give the texturing effects to the woodlands in the background.



The mountain man and his Algonquin friend/guide look more surprised than overjoyed to see the heron take flight. Maybe they are carefully watching to see exactly what disturbed it? 

I think that the picture has the feel of a 'Boy's Own' style illustration from the 1940s or 50s, which is perfect! I'm also very pleased with the way that the grain of the wood adds to the feel of movement in the image.


I'm also happy to let you know that Kirsty, who commissioned the carving, was very pleased with it. She wrote on my Facebook page to say:

'I'm extremely honoured and happy to have commissioned this beautiful plaque. You're a hugely talented fella, Alistair. The whole process, from conception to passing it over to the delighted recipient, was wonderful x'

Thursday, 15 December 2016

'Starman', a portrait of David Bowie carved in wood


It's strange, the route that leads into some projects. 

I had signed up to have a stall at the St Werburghs Community Centre Christmas fair in Bristol and planned to sell wooden stars. I've always liked these stars, made from locally-grown larch timber, so decided to make a few and see if they appealed to other people too. 



After making quite a few of the larch stars, I cut a couple from some oak that was lying around in the studio. The largest one, the same size as the largest stars shown on the table, is about 18cm (7") across. It seemed to need a carving on it and the star shape made me think of the song 'Starman'.

I like to test myself by carving portraits. They aren't easy. Carving a face can be tricky enough, particularly in relief. All the elements of a face carved in relief need to work together without having the same distances between them as in a face seen in full three dimensions: the tip of the nose doesn't come out as much as in a real face, for example.

To successfully make it look like a well-known person is even tougher.

A day was spent before the fair carving to get the piece looking roughly right, then more work was done during the fair itself, in quiet moments between talking to visitors.



I left the portrait with the tool cuts still visible. Sanding carvings of faces can sometimes make them look lifeless and 'plasticky' and hopefully this finish keeps some vitality in the appearance of the carving. 

The star sat in front of me at my workbench for a few days after the fair, being taken down and worked on again as the changing light showed areas that needed reworking. I'm happy with it now.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Repairing damaged African sculptures, made from wood which has been made to look like ebony


Occasionally I'm asked to repair or restore a damaged sculpture. They have needed repair due to a range of reasons, ranging from wear-and-tear to having been knocked over by someone's mother-in-law!

These two racing male cheetahs, 90 cm (3 feet) long, were carved in Tanzania and had been damaged in transit to the UK. Although the wood looks superficially similar to ebony, it is actually another kind of timber (probably Ironwood [Olea capensis] or Bleedwood [Pterocarpus angolensis]) that has had a dark stain and then black shoe polish applied. This darkening really brings out the form of the sculpture, as it reduces the visual impact of the timber's grain. 

Since both of these are a fairly widespread and common trees in Tanzania, I must admit to being happy that a different wood has been used to make this sculpture instead of ebony. Genuine African ebony trees (Diospyros crassiflora) are not native to this area, as well as being much scarcer and threatened by over-exploitation, so it was good to see a Tanzanian sculptor using what I believe to be local timber.



The tail of one cheetah was almost completely broken off and there were a couple of other nasty breaks as well. 


I really enjoy studying the sculptures to be repaired to see how they have been made by the carver who created them, so that the repair can echo their work as closely as possible.  

Some might be surprised to find out that these cheetahs were constructed from at least ten different pieces of wood, carefully jointed and then held together by nails. This actually has more than one benefit. It means that the carver wastes less timber than if the whole sculpture was carved from a single piece of wood. It also means that the grain runs along each leg and tail, so making them stronger and less likely to break across the grain.

The joins between pieces of wood were also filled with some kind of pitch or resin, which has been modelled in places to follow the shape of the carving. It was interesting to see this, as I've found the technique used in other sculptures from East Africa too.

To repair the piece, I carefully fixed the broken pieces together, with an internal supporting rod if necessary, then filled the remaining gaps with a paste made from wood dust mixed into a resin compound. 



This was left overnight and then any remaining holes or gaps filled with the same mixture. When it was all filled and set, the repair was very carefully sanded smooth and then polished with black wax polish.



It's quite a time-consuming and fiddly job, as the resin must set fully between each application. After the work was finished though, it was great to finally see the sculpture restored back to its former glory. The sense of movement and energy is very well portrayed, which I think is one of the hardest things to get across when removing material to shape a carving.



You may also like to see this previous commission to repair a damaged sculpture by the renowned Zambian sculptor, Friday Tembo. The owners were personal friends of Mr. Tembo, who had since passed away, so this repair was even more important to them. When it arrived at my workshop, the piece looked like this:



It shows a shaman in the act of transforming between the form of a fish and that of a man. The repair took a while, but it was interesting to use this process to study in more depth how this unusual artwork had been made and the techniques that had been used.



Again there was a real sense of satisfaction in restoring the piece, which was heightened by knowing who the sculptor was and how important this sculpture was to its owners.