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

Friday, 27 November 2015

Teaching wood carving lessons in Bristol and Nailsea, to individuals and schools

I've been teaching carving regularly for about nine years and really enjoy sharing the craft that I love with people who would like to learn the skills to make their own wood carvings. 


woodcarving lessons in schools

It isn't necessarily a one-way process either; it's always interesting to experience things through the eyes of someone who is new to carving. Often 'learners'  will come up with great ideas that I might not normally think of. Even after over twenty-one years of carving, new ways of imagining designs are always good to see.

In the last month, I've run two very different teaching sessions. The first was a session of individual tuition at my studio. One particularly enjoyable thing about individual tuition is that it means that the learner can practise with my own full set of professional carving tools, which wouldn't really be appropriate to use with larger groups of inexperienced carvers. I always use good quality, sharp tools when teaching anybody but with individuals, I can first make sure that they have the knowledge to safely use some of the particularly delicate tools in that set. The person attending can also have the entire session completely tailored around the particular information or skills that they want to learn more about.


sharpening chisel

I had worked with Rich before when he brought groups of disengaged young people to Boiling Wells, where I used to work part-time. He's been getting more and more interested in woodworking since then and wanted a few pointers about things that aren't necessarily taught in conventional carpentry or joinery courses, such as the uses of different kinds of native timbers.

Another subject that especially interested him was sharpening techniques. It strikes me that this is really best learned by actually being shown it, by some one who knows how to sharpen, and then practising it regularly. We covered everything from using different kinds of bench grinders to making an effective strop to hone blades until they are razor-sharp. By the end of the session, Rich not only knew how to sharpen using various types of sharpening device but also had his chisels and an axe honed again, to take back with him and use.

Later in November, I travelled over to Nailsea school to teach carving at the D.E.N. project. The school uses this area in its grounds to run forest school sessions and they are very interested in teaching students practical skills.


Nailsea school DEN

Throughout the afternoon, groups of up to five pupils came out to the small shelter in the D.E.N. area and carved oak plaques to take home with them. 



They could carve pretty much whatever they liked and it was fascinating seeing what designs were produced. I was particularly interested by how many chose themes to do with computers, such as items from Minecraft, which they reproduced using the very traditional techniques of wood carving. It was also interesting seeing the journey that some people had during the session, from initially being very frustrated with new, unfamiliar skills to finding more confidence and eventually making pieces that were nicely done and that they could feel happy with.


woodcarving tuition in Bristol

Miss Hollingdale, who invited me to run the session, really got into the carving too and I anticipate that it's going to be a regular feature at D.E.N. sessions from now on!

Bristol wood carving lessons

Friday, 13 November 2015

Fishes for St Monica

The St Monica Trust run retirement homes and specialist care for older people. They have a large site on Cote Lane, by the Downs in Bristol.


st monica trust cote lane

I've worked with the Trust before and did some presentations about carving there earlier this year. It was great to be asked recently by one of the residents if I could help with a project.

St Monica Trust was originally founded to cater particularly for people who followed the doctrine of the Church of England (although they now accept people of other faiths, or none) and that Church is still very important to many residents. The chapel at Cote Lane is an impressive sight.


st monica trust chapel

Peter is a retired architect, a resident at Cote Lane and a keen woodworker. He was interested in making two collection plates, using their fine on-site wood workshop, to donate to the chapel. 

Collection (or Offertory) plates are passed around at services and those attending can donate money to go towards the upkeep of the church, or various good causes.

Peter planned to turn the plates from spalted beech wood and to then insert discs turned from rosewood into the bases of them. The beechwood plates were pretty much finished when he came around and looked very nice indeed. 



The part that I could help with was carving identical designs into both of the rosewood discs, which were about 100mm (4") in diameter. The carved areas would later be filled with a mixture of resin and metal dust to form a striking finish. I had some previous experience with this technique (which has been used by other makers, including the late Tim Stead), and this meant that Peter and I could discuss how to go about it. I also mentioned to him about the hazards of breathing in the fine metal powder and the fumes given off by some resins when curing, which can both be very harmful.

The elegant design shows three interlocking fishes and was originally created by David Saxon, a retired architect who is also a resident at St Monica Trust.


David Saxon Ichthys design

Fish are a symbol that Christians have used since the early days of their religion to identify it and themselves. You may wonder why:


ΙΧΘΥΣ (Ichthys) is an acrostic (a word made up of the first letters of several words) that is made up from the first letters of the Greek words "Ίησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ". These translate into English as "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour". In Greek, Ichthys means 'fish'. 
There is also a miracle mentioned in the Bible where Jesus feeds large numbers of people with a small number of loaves and fishes. Some of the first disciples of Jesus to be mentioned were also fishermen.

Carving the discs

To get two identical designs carved by hand onto each disc, I first printed out the design and glued it onto the surfaces with spray mount, then cut straight through into the wood. 




The discs had round blocks underneath, to fix them into the dishes. These could be held in a clamp made up of a bench hook holding two pieces of thick plywood with semi-circles cut out of them and a strip of rubber inserted to give more traction.


I needed to make the fine lines wider, to prevent them breaking. The eyes also broke off a couple of times during carving, so circular plugs were cut out of the round blocks (which would be cut down and then hidden when glued into the plates) to carefully replace them. The grain of the wood made it almost impossible to completely avoid some breakage of the very fine and fragile details during carving but this was easily worked around with some thought.


Once the discs had been carved using traditional hand tools, a Dremel rotary tool was used to clean up recesses and to put some texture onto the floor of the head areas. This looks pleasingly like scales, but will be covered with the metal and resin mix and provide a key.

ichthys design

When Peter saw them, he was very pleased but requested lines to be cut that also clearly defined the backs of the fishes. I was happy to do the carving there and then, so gave him a cup of tea while he waited. These lines also suggested carving the head area to run into them, which both us very agreed looked very nice too and made the carved designs appear more lively.


Wood carving of fish

A few weeks later, the completed plates were on show at St Monica Trust, together with other work made by the residents, as part of an Open Day. I went up to see them.


This image shows the display in the wood workshop watched over by David Saxon, who created the fish design originally. I thought that Peter had done a great job of the plates and I'm very happy to have been able to contribute to the project. 

Collection plates

Image courtesy of Peter Caird

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Carving a statue inspired by the Gruffalo: carved using some rather special wood and then painted

It's always exciting to produce a kind of sculpture that I don't get to do very often. One example would be painted woodcarvings based on recognisable characters.

Recently, I was asked to carve just such a piece. It was a bit like carving a portrait of a person; there's a definite 'right' and 'wrong' look to such work and it's important to get it right!


gruffalo sculpture


The request was for a statue about 40 cm (16 inches) tall that took its inspiration from the hugely popular children's book 'The Gruffalo', which was written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler. The first thing to do was to find some timber to use. I had some suitable pieces of Lawson's Cypress in the workshop (it's called Port Orford cedar in the US), which were to be used in a carving project that had to be abandoned a couple of years ago.

Lawson's Cypress is a softwood and can be a bit hard to carve using traditional hand tools such as gouges. It seems to want to  'chew up' a lot, even when the tools are very sharp. However, this timber was a bit special and I really wanted to use it, so most of the carving was done with power tools, particularly an Arbortech mini carver and sander.


arbortech mini carver

The wood originally came from a large tree taken out at Ashton Court mansion, on the edge of Bristol, during landscaping work a few years ago. Some bits of the trunks had been left there to rot and, with the permission of the estates department, I went with a couple of friends to mill some in situ with chainsaw mills, to use in woodworking projects.


chainsaw mill ashton court

The person who requested the sculpture is a fan of Bristol City soccer team, who have their ground just below Ashton Court. The trees were also well-liked in the area and there was some controversy when they were cut down. I knew that the future owners would appreciate their statue being made from this very special timber.

First, an Arbortech Pro-4 disc was used to rough out the shape. These things are very aggressive and need to be treated with respect! I have mine fitted to a Makita angle grinder with a paddle switch, so that if my grip is released the grinder stops. Many angle grinders (including Arbortech's own brand ones) have thumb push switches which can, in my experience, clog up with wood chips making them impossible to turn off and therefore dangerous.


arbortech pro 4

Once the basic shape was there, the mini carver (with a similar but smaller disc to the Pro-4, mounted on a boom) was used to refine it.




A Dremel rotary tool made detailing a lot easier than using hand tools on this timber, although some cuts were still done with gouges.



The Dremel was also very handy for texturing the fur on the figure and for drilling holes for the spikes and claws, which were carved from bamboo. You can see the tip of the Dremel on the right in this photo:


I fixed the ears, horns, claws and spikes on afterwards, as they would have been too easily broken across the grain or might have looked clumsy if carved in one piece with the rest of the figure. All of them were shaped using my trusty old Opinel knife, with which I learnt to carve over twenty years ago! The ears were whittled from cedar and the horns from sycamore.


whittling wood

The figure was starting to take shape. I must admit that it almost seemed a shame to paint the carved wooden sculpture. I was very pleased with the surprised and happy expression, perfect for a surprise gift!



Grey undercoat was suitable for the areas to be painted with a drier-coloured topcoat, but the eyes, teeth and horns needed white undercoat so as not to look dull.


At this point, I also remodelled the feet because they weren't quite right; not enough toes and not outward-pointing enough. Then it was time to start putting the colours on, using enamel paints.



Suddenly, painting the sculpture definitely seemed like the right thing to be doing.



With a bit of shading and blending - I knew those childhood days spent assembling and painting model kits would be useful one day - the carving was pretty much finished. All that was needed was a spray coat of acrylic lacquer (to protect the paint) and a base made from oak with green baize underneath.


gruffalo  woodcarving