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Tuesday 30 September 2014

Continuing the tradition: Putting my mark onto the handles of my woodcarving tools

'Tools have a particular appeal because, in a sense, they carry the history of all those who have used them... so you are, in a sense, carrying on a very personal line of dedicated craftsmanship.'

Antiques expert Paul Atterbury, talking to woodcarver Glyn Mould on BBC's 'Antiques Roadshow'

'There is a great sense of continuity, seeing tools passed through several hands and being aware of contact with a carver who may be long dead'

Chris Pye, woodcarver

'Some of these tools go back almost halfway to Gibbons' era (the late 17th and early 18th centuries) and some of the old carvers wrote their names, or stamped their names, on their chisel handles. (Looking at the handle that he is holding) A. Gordon; I wonder who he was? It's sort of like shaking hands with the old fellow whenever I use it. So there's a romance about these tools which affect me, even, after all these years.'

David Esterley, carver and authority on Grinling Gibbons, on BBC's 'Carved with Love: The Genius of British Woodwork' episode entitled 'The Glorious Grinling Gibbons'

'Used tools moralise'
Ian Hamilton Finlay, poet and gardener


Today, I finally got round to doing something that I've been meaning to do for some time. Thanks to an unexpected break between jobs, my carver's mark was stamped onto the wooden handles of all of my carving gouges and chisels.

name on a woodcarving gouge handle

Many handles of woodcarving tools show the stamped or carved names of their previous owners. I suspect that many were so marked in busy workshops, to prevent prized and expensive tools being spirited away by other carvers working there. As Chris Pye says, the names give a sense of connection to those previous owners, as my own hands grip the handle of the same tool to put it back to work once more. 

antique woodworking tools

What letters did W. Hawkins cut with that carver's chisel? Did A. Brown have a hand in creating a carved piece that I have admired in a church or grand house? Or were those carvings destined to travel on the prow of a ship or a fairground ride? Did E. Meadwell find that gouge particularly easy and enjoyable to use, as I now do?

I did ask at Bristol Design, a shop from which I have bought several tools, whether anything was known about the origins of their second-hand chisels and gouges. Charles the proprietor said that nothing was known for most of them, although he had acquired a sizeable number from the collection of a former producer of fairground carvings and also from a ship's figurehead carver. However, neither seems to have marked their names onto the handles. 

He also told me something interesting that he had heard. Years ago, woodcarvers couldn't get their tools insured by insurance companies, so would insure them through their trades union. One of the requirements for cover was that tools could be identified as belonging to a specific owner. This would also explain why some tools have names carefully stamped over others (I have a gouge with 'A. Sprague' carefully covering B. Fare's name). It would reduce the chances of any confusion in the event of claims from several people working in the same shop.

Most of the tools that bear these stamps are quite old. The ones that I can date (from the maker's marks stamped into the blades) were produced between 1890 and the outbreak of World War One. The names on the handles could have been applied at any time and the handles may be replacement ones, but the style of the lettering of many names is quite similar. Perhaps the bespoke stamps were produced by the same company and sold around commercial carver's workshops up and down the country?

woodcarving fishtail gouge

I found a lot of difficulty in getting hold of a name stamp myself. In Chris Pye's book 'Woodcarving: Tools, Materials and Equipment', published a few years ago, he mentions that they can be bought from several suppliers and that adverts can be found in woodcarving magazines. After a long time of asking around carving supplies shops without success and reading magazines without such adverts in them, I decided to just make my own. 

Using printer's metal type was an initial idea but there was some concern that it could be too soft to take repeated knocks into wood. Instead, I used diamond burrs in a Dremel hand drill to carve the end of a steel rod with my carver's mark. 

Here's the initial design, made up from my initials and first scratched into my bedroom wall with a thumbnail when I was about nine years old. I chose it as it is easily carved in any size:

Here's how it looked when cut into the metal rod:

...and here is the mark left by the stamp:

Most of the tool handles took the mark quite well and cleanly, particularly those made of box (Buxus) wood. The only ones that were tricky were those that had been thickly varnished. The varnish tended to fracture a bit but it wasn't too bad. 

By the way, the cut line on the handle above is the only mark for which I know much about the person who made it. That cut was made when it was owned by Jo Seitfudem, who sold the gouge to me. 

The handles were held in a groove between two triangular-sectioned pieces of wood to stop them moving about whilst being marked, which you can see in the top two photos above.

Now my own carving tools have taken their place in this line of tradition. I wonder if a carver in the future, on seeing my stamp well-worn on the handle of an infrequently-used gouge, will wonder who that carver was and what they made during their lifetime? It inspires me to keep on trying to make work that the tool's former and future owners might also be proud of.

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