As well as this blog, I also have a website with lots more images of my work as well as a few more stories.
If you like woodcarvings, you'll want to have a look.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Carving a kestrel and a nuthatch for 'Woodland Arts'


'Woodland Arts' was a small, two day exhibition held on a piece of woodland next to the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol during October 2017. I was invited by the organisers to show some work in it. I like the opportunity to create work for exhibitions, as it allows ideas to be explored that may not have been suited to previous commissions.

I hadn't carved a bird sculpture for a long time, so decided to make a nuthatch. I'd thought of carving one before as I think that they are particularly elegant birds and also interesting, as they are the only British bird that regularly moves headfirst down tree trunks as well as up them. 

There were a lot of offcuts of European larch around my workshop, produced by other businesses there. This wood is durable outdoors and has beautiful ring markings, but is quite tricky to carve with hand tools. I find abrasive discs, burrs and wheels work more efficiently on it, usually mounted on angle grinders.

carving wood using power tools

The action of the discs also gave the sculptures a smoother, more abstract feel that I like a lot. I did consider painting the carvings, but the smoothness seemed to suit a finishing oil better.


After carving in some simple detailing, I fitted a beak and eyes made from small offcuts of greenheart timber. This wood is a piece of Bristol's maritime history. The greenheart was given to me by furniture maker Jim Sharples and was originally part of a tree trunk fitted to the top of the nineteenth century North Junction lock gates. These gates formed the connection between Bristol's harbour and the Avon Gorge, from which ships headed out to sea. When the gates were replaced a few years ago, Jim was asked to make a bench to go next to the Mshed museum in Bristol and had some trimmings left over, which he kindly gave to me. The dark wood was perfect to depict a small bird's beady eyes.


bird wood carving sculpture

After several coats of finishing oil, I mounted a picture hanger on the back of the sculpture, so that the piece could be hung with its beak pointing down - as a real nuthatch moves down a tree. These timbers are durable outdoors, so the sculpture could end up hung on a real tree. I particularly like the grain pattern that loops like contours around the head.

nuthatch sculpture British bird

After making the nuthatch, I fancied making another bird. So I looked for another suitable bit of larch...

larch sculpture log

This piece was to become a falcon. Until I had started roughing out the block, cutting away chunks with a bandsaw, I wan't completely sure if it would be a merlin or a kestrel. 

roughing out sculpture

Eventually I decided on a kestrel as, like the nuthatch, it lives in that area. The body was also shaped using angle grinders fitted with mini arbortech blades or abrasive discs. Again, I really liked the slightly abstracted form and the contour lines winding around the finished body, especially at the bottom of the belly.

Bird sculpture roughed out

As well as greenheart wood, this sculpture uses a piece of  pale-coloured hornbeam wood in the beak. It originally came from a tree that  grew in the grounds of Southmead hospital in Bristol, which had to be removed during building work. The kestrel looks like it has been to hospital itself in this photo, taken when the glue holding the eyes in was still drying.

bird sculpture

I was very happy with this sculpture too and it got a lot of attention at the exhibition.

kestrel bird sculpture 

The show had a good mix of work, including a picture by Lord Bath. He owns Longleat house and was the patron of the show. I won't show an image of his picture here though, as this blog has people of all ages reading it! Thanks to Jasmine who curated the show and Topper, who organised it, for asking me to be part of Woodland Arts.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Building a shelter/gazebo at the allotment garden using reclaimed materials

allotment shelter

Recently, work slowed up a bit. It's a natural part of the cycle of being a self employed maker but can certainly be stressful - wondering when the next job will come in. However, it does give a chance to catch up on things like website updates and also doing projects that are a bit different.

Luckily, this period of free time coincided with some redevelopment work at the woodyard where I have my studio. As part of this work, a quantity of reclaimed European larch was up for reuse. This larch timber is very durable outdoors and so I decided to use it to build a shelter at the allotment that I share with a friend.


building using reclaimed wood


For those who don't know what an allotment is, most towns and cities in the UK have areas that are owned by the local council which are rented out to local people for them to grow their own flowers, fruit and vegetables. There are usually regular inspections and some rules about what can be grown. I find the allotment a great place to unwind - digging all day certainly clears the mind.

Our allotment really needed somewhere to shelter from rain (ah! British weather!) as well as a place to just relax and enjoy the place. As well as the larch lumber and some slab wood left over from milling timber, a couple of larch trunks were available which had been drilled full of holes by wood wasps (horntails) and so were not suitable for use by the businesses that had bought them originally.

I set to making the structure. All of the work was done using hand tools (apart from a couple of battery-powered drills) as there was no power on site. There was also no one else to help with the build but that was quite nice - being free to just do it by myself.



After a few days of work, the main structure was finished. I then fitted a small jettied platform going out over the pond. It was lovely to sit and watch the wildlife around. Brightly coloured damselflies flitted over the water and several different kinds of wasp and bee flew around the posts. Some were large, strange looking parasitic ichneumonid wasps - harmless to humans and looking to lay their eggs on the wood wasp larvae. Others were small bees investigating the holes as nest sites. They were no threat to me and some, in fact, were helpful predators on pests feeding on the plants. Another welcome creature that is happy to eat garden pests is the slow-worm. It's neither a worm nor a snake, being a lizard without legs. I think that they are very beautiful animals and they can live for around twenty years.

slow worm

The next stage of construction was to fit a roof. This meant buying two sheets of FSC-certified plywood - the only timber bought for the project. Getting the sheets up onto the roof was a bit of a struggle but once in place, they could be covered with offcut strips of tough butyl rubber. This was reclaimed waste material left over from building bike sheds. Joined with Sikaflex EBT+ adhesive, the rubber is a perfect waterproof covering.


allotment shelter made from larch timber

That's the shelter done for now. I may fit some removable walling to protect from driving rain that can get under the roof but I'm happy with it the way it is at the moment - simple, natural and understated. The local allotments officer likes it and it is definitely a relaxing spot to appreciate the plants growing and wildlife busying around you.

Thanks very much to Roundwood Design, Touchwood Play and the Bike Shed Company for kindly donating the materials used to make this structure.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

When you wish upon a tree... the curious tradition of wishing trees in Britain and Ireland

coin tree

Uley is a small village on the edge of the Cotswolds in Gloucestershire. It is overlooked by a large Iron Age hill fort named Uley Bury: rings of large ditches and earth banks that are over 2500 years old.

I got the chance to explore Uley a bit more through a guided walk with Cotswold Guided Walks. As we climbed up towards the hill fort, a fallen tree across the path revealed a strange decoration - dozens of coins hammered into it.


wish tree (coin tree) Uley

None of the coins seemed older than the twentieth century, indeed the tree would probably have rotted away by now if it had fallen that long ago. It was completely dead. Not all the coins were pocket change of low value either - there were a few commemorative coins bashed in, with their edges following the line of the woodgrain.



This is a wish tree. These particular ones are known as 'coin trees' and can be found all over Britain. People hammer coins in and make a wish, usually for the end of an illness. The trees may be stumps or fallen, or sometimes living. Apparently the metal toxins may sometimes even be concentrated enough to kill the living trees. 

It seems to be a surprisingly recent phenomenon, the first examples of these being recorded in the early eighteenth century. The one at Uley also shows an example of Christian and Pagan beliefs mixing, as some coins have been added in the shape of a crucifix.


coin tree mixing Christianity and Paganism

This wasn't the first coin tree that I'd come across. There are also some at Portmeirion in Wales. The coins inserted into some of these are so densely packed that, from a distance, they seem almost like a chainmail coat around the timber.

Coin tree Portmeirion

There is another kind of wishing tree in Britain and Ireland. These are the 'clootie trees'. Clootie trees are, I think, an older tradition than coin trees and are trees that are more usually associated with a place that pagans would consider to have particular power: springs of water, ancient burial sites etc. 

A clootie tree will have rags and ribbons tied into its branches, sometimes many of them. The name 'clootie' comes from the Scottish name for a small piece of rag or cloth.

Thorn trees (Blackthorn or Hawthorn) seem particularly likely to be so decorated, perhaps because they are quite commonly found and are also considered to be powerful trees in Paganism. A small clootie tree can be found directly in front of the blind 'entrance' to Bela's Knap Neolithic long barrow in Gloucestershire.

Clootie tree

This little tree is certainly not very old but is already decorated with brightly-coloured rags and ribbons.

clootie tree bells knap

I've also seen clootie trees at Berry Pomeroy in Devon and also the thorn tree on Wearyall hill in Glastonbury in Somerset, which I'm very sad to say has since been badly damaged by vandals.

Why tie things in trees? Some suggest that it could have similar roots to traditions in the Far East. For example, followers of Shintoism in Japan hang paper streamers called shide from ropes around or in trees that are considered especially important and sacred. The two could be an example of ideas spreading along ancient trade routes or may not be directly linked, being instead an example of similar traditions arising in different places.

I certainly like to come across a clootie or a coin tree on a walk: a strange testament to the way that humans perceive and interact with the power of trees.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Bristol street art 2016-2017


When I'm out and about, pedalling around Bristol on my bike, there's always a lot of great street art to see. Here's a few pieces that I've seen fairly recently and particularly liked. Some go back a while and have long been painted over. I hope that you enjoy seeing them too!



These artworks (including the one above) were painted as part of the 'Upfest 2016' street art festival in Southville, Bristol. The next one is happening at the end of this month, when many of the bigger pieces will be covered over by other work.

This amazing painting was done by the Spanish duo Pichi and Avo.


bristol street art upfest

Dale Grimshaw, who painted this, was originally from Lancashire but is now based in London.


bristol upfest street art

I cycle past this one, by Gamma Gallery, all the time when going to and from my workshop. The billboard sometimes changes and the different adverts seem to make the whole piece next to them read differently.



This one is near to the Gamma Gallery artwork above:




Not all of the bits of street art that caught my eye were the big, impressive ones though...


bristol graffiti

There are also pieces popping up all the time in hidden corners, like under bridges.


Or even in hollow trees, like this one in Ashton Court:


I liked this, painted last Hallowe'en near the M32. It's been covered over by other stuff for a long time now.

bristol funny graffiti

There are also nice pieces in Easton, on the other side of Bristol. This one is by Sepr, a local artist:

sepr street art

And this lovebird is by Kid 30 (aka Smallkid), who is based in the Midlands:

kid 30 street art bristol

These last two were done with the permission of the people living in the houses. They really brighten up a dingy alleyway/road as well.

Friday, 23 June 2017

One-handed woodcarving - a few thoughts about tools and techniques that could help people with the use of one hand only

Recently, someone contacted me with a very interesting question. This person had suffered a stroke a year ago and was now confined to a wheelchair, having also lost the use of their left hand. They were previously right-handed. 

The question was simple: did I think that a person with the use of only one hand could carve?

I sent a reply and, after some thought, realised that it may also be of interest to others who are temporarily or permanently in a similar situation. Although I currently have the use of both hands, I have experienced periods when injury has brought such considerations to mind.

The answer that I emailed back is reproduced in this post, with some alterations, extra images and information:

Can someone with the use of only one hand carve? My answer is a very definite yes!

I'd say that the question might be: what would you like to carve and which tools and techniques will enable you to do it?

Some techniques could be more difficult (such as using a gouge and mallet) but many tools are traditionally used one-handed anyway. Carvers in many parts of the world (including Africa and the North-West Pacific Coast of the US and Canada) have been creating huge, stunning pieces such as totem poles for many centuries by using adzes swung with one hand to do much of the work. Two types of adze used by First Nations carvers in Canada are shown here, to the right and also above the stone tool.


First nations wood carving tools from Canada



Adzes require a bit of practise to wield accurately and can be quite hard work to carve with for long periods of time if you aren't used to using one. However, they are fundamental tools for carvers all over the world and were also a vital piece of kit for most carvers and other woodworkers in Europe for many centuries.

Reciprocating (aka power) carvers are available that can be used one-handed. They are a bit like an electric bread knife that a gouge or chisel blade fits into the end of, which then moves back and forth very quickly to enable easy cutting. 

Bosch power carver
Image from: http://www.woodworkersinstitute.com/wood-carving/kit-tools/power-tools/power-carvers/bosch-pse-180e/


I have one made by Bosch and I believe that Wecheer, Axminster and Proxxon also make them. They would be very useful for large and medium sized carvings. Blades made by Flexcut can be used with some of them by utilising adapters - some people find the range of Flexcut blades a bit more delicate and useful for carving with. If these tools are of interest to you, I'd really recommend buying an anti-vibration glove at the same time, as the vibrations when using these power carvers can be quite strong and could lead to 'white finger' nerve damage over time. 

For smaller scale work, I'd investigate rotary tools such as a Dremel or Foredom tools. They are like small drills that can be fitted with various shapes of cutter, including diamond ones for working on metal and stone. They can also be fitted with long, flexible shafts to enable more delicate handling of the cutters. 

As with any power carving tool, buy eye protection and ear defenders at the same time if you don't already have them. If using these tools, particularly with certain woods and stones, you'll also need to consider wearing a dust mask and using dust extraction (a Henry vacuum cleaner has been known to work well - maybe with some kind of mesh over the nozzle to stop small workpieces disappearing inside!)

Another range of tools worth looking at would be palm gouges and chisels. They have rounded handles that sit comfortably in the palm of one hand and aren't used with a mallet, so could be ideal. Very good ones are made by the Swiss company Pfeil. They aren't cheap, but they are usually excellent quality and are available in Britain.  

Some tools are also sold with a choice of either traditional handles or palm handles, such as the 'Ray Gonzales hook skew' made by Ashley Iles which is one of my go-to tools for many fine carving cuts.


ray gonzalez hook skew
Image from: http://www.ashleyiles.co.uk/ray_gonzalez_tool.html

One question that will need thinking about is how work pieces will be held. As long as the workpiece is securely held all kinds of tools can be used on it, even a simple pocket knife. To be honest, it's the same question that any carver faces regularly when working on fiddly or awkwardly-shaped pieces! 

I'd suggest having a range of clamps, vices, wooden blocks and simple home-made frames that can be used in different combinations to hold work. 

One-handed 'quick' clamps similar to this one would be useful. They can be used relatively easily with one hand, but can easily work loose with repeated vibration from carving work so might need regular retightening.
Image from: http://www.irwin.co.uk/tools/clamps/quick-grip-medium-duty-one-handed-bar-clamps

G-shaped cramps (a cramp works with a screw mechanism, a clamp doesn't) hold work more securely, but could perhaps be more fiddly to fit on when only using one hand. 

G cramp
Image from: http://wsdt.wellingboroughschool.org/resources/dtoncd1/school/cramps.html

An interesting, simple method for holding sticks to be whittled is shown on this blog. What you need will depend entirely on what you're making, so perhaps start trying to make things with an experimental and adaptable mindset and evolve methods to hold your work as you go along. 

One place not to hold work is on your lap - slipping with the blade and hitting one of the arteries running inside your thigh wouldn't be a great way to finish your carving! 

Another place to get further info might be through the local occupational therapy unit. They may well have ideas for techniques and devices that could be adapted or repurposed to enable easier carving.

I hope that this information is useful to you and encourages you to give carving a go if you are considering trying it and have the use of one hand only. 


If you have experienced carving one-handed and would like to comment or add to what has been written here, please do. I'd be very interested to hear other thoughts and ideas. 

If you do decide to have a go at carving and make something that you feel happy to share, please feel free to send me an image. I'd love to see what you create! 

Friday, 16 June 2017

Carving the 'Jackie Collins Inspirational Woman of the Year' award 2017

carved wooden bowl for penny brohn uk



Last year, I was commissioned to make this award for the Penny Brohn UK cancer charity. It was a real pleasure to be asked to do the same this year.

The award was to be presented to Jo Malone MBE, who is well-known for creating perfumes and fragrances. I used timber from a cedar tree that was cut down in the grounds of the charity's offices in Bristol, which was an off-cut left over after making the 2016 award.



The award was designed to be the kind of thing that Jo would like to have. Apparently she is a very practical person, so it made sense to produce an award that would have a practical use. A bowl seemed ideal, as it can be both beautiful and useful.

The shape was inspired by the leaf of a pomelo, which is the key scent note in Jo's new line of 'Jo Loves' fragrances. These leaves are quite distinctive, having secondary leaflets coming off the petiole (the stem of the leaf).


Image from: http://ucjeps.berkeley.edu/moorea/dicots2.html

It seemed appropriate to use cedar wood to make the bowl for a person who works with scents, as the wood has such a distinctive smell of its own.

Most of the shaping was done with power tools, for speed and also because I find that power tools often give a better result when working with softwoods such as cedar.



The words carved onto the bowl - 'Passion, Resilience and Creativity' - were chosen by someone who works closely with Jo, as they were felt to be particularly important to her.


The bowl was finished with a good-quality finishing oil and was presented to Jo at the end of May 2017.




Sunday, 28 May 2017

Seventeenth century carvings, filming locations and stories of ghosts at Chavenage house in Gloucestershire

Chavenage House

Chavenage House is situated near Tetbury in the Cotswolds. It may seem familiar to some readers, as it's been used as a filming location for many films and television series, including being Trenwith house in the most recent adaptations of Winston Graham's Poldark novels.

The house has only been owned by two families since the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The approach that you can see above is very much as it was left by Edward Stephens in 1576.

Edward's grandson was Colonel Nathaniel Stephens, who was Member of Parliament for Gloucestershire during the English Civil War. He was a somewhat reluctant party to the execution of Charles the First and Oliver Cromwell is said to have stayed in the tapestry-lined bedroom which can be seen on the first floor in the wing on the left in the photo above.


Cromwell's bedroom at Chavenage House

The picture of Cromwell on the wall staring down at the bed is more than a little creepy, as is the tiepin on display set with two clear crystals that cover pieces of the hair of Charles the First, which were cut from his head after it had been chopped from his body.



The adjoining bedroom is named after Cromwell's general and son-in-law Henry Ireton. It is also lined with tapestries and is full of Civil War weapons and armour, including these firearms:


civil war firearms

There is also a leather hat cover hanging on a wall, over what looks to be an Elizabethan or early Stuart carved over mantle:



A chair in the corner of the Ireton room is said to have been sat in by Nathaniel Stephens himself.

civil war chair

The house, and the Cromwell room especially, have many ghost stories attached to them.  On the website for Chavenage, one can read the well-known tale of the curse of the Stephens family:

'After the cessation of hostilities whilst Charles I was imprisoned, it became apparent to Cromwell that the King would have to be executed in order to stop any form of Royalist uprisings. To this end he sent Ireton to Chavenage, to try to persuade Colonel Stephens to add his support to the regicide. Ireton arrived whilst Colonel Stephens was keeping the festival of Christmas in 1648. Stephens, known as a mild man, had shown much irresolution in deciding upon sacrificing the life of King Charles I and was on the verge of wavering when Ireton reached his destination. It is said that they sat up all night and eventually Ireton obtained from Stephens his very reluctant acquiescence. 

Shortly after his daughter Abigail returned from having passed the New Year elsewhere, she, in a fit of horror and anger, laid a curse on her father for bringing the name Stephens into such disrepute. The story goes that the Colonel was soon taken terminally ill and never rose from his bed again. When the Lord of the Manor died and all were assembled for his funeral, a hearse drew up at the door of the manor house driven by a headless man, and the Colonel was seen to rise from his coffin and enter the hearse after a profound reverence to the headless personage, who as he drove away assumed the shape of the martyr King, Charles I - this being regarded as retribution for the Colonel's disloyalty to the King. Thereafter until the line became extinct, whenever the head of the family died, the same ghost of the King appeared to carry him off.' 

The Cromwell room has even been exorcised on the orders of the present owner's grandmother. Did I see anything there? I'm afraid not, although I would say that that room felt noticeably colder than the rest of the house (but that could just be due to it being at the end of a wing).

More carvings can be seen in the Oak Room, which dates to Elizabethan times and has carved panelling that is often dated at 1590. However, it clearly shows the date 1627, which was during the reign of Charles the First.  

I think that the representations of the musicians and dancers are some of the most beautiful carvings that I have seen from this period.


wood carving charles the first

More seventeenth century carvings can be seen in the Great Hall, which was also originally Elizabethan but was modified during the Stuart period.


stuart wood carving


There are some fine character heads on the wall of the chapel that is attached to the house. Apparently, this tower was built as a folly in the seventeenth century before being turned into the chapel.

stone carved face


Another folly can also be seen to the left of the driveway, hidden in the trees.


folly

I was lucky enough to be shown around on this visit by a friend who has visited the house many times as a locations manager on productions such as Wolf Hall, New Worlds and Poldark. Thanks to Leon and also to Caroline Lowsley-Williams, the current manager who very kindly gave us access to see the fascinating history and carvings of Chavenage.





chavenage house