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Wednesday 30 October 2013

Getting some medieval-style woodcarving tools made by Dave Budd in Devon, to be used when carving the 'Matthew' figurehead

As part of the Matthew figurehead project, I wanted to get some woodcarving tools made which would be similar to those used by carvers and carpenters in the 15th century. It was important that the tools were not only as accurate to the time as possible, but also worked well as they are to become part of my woodcarving kit. Therefore, a mix of traditional and modern techniques and materials would be used to make them.

Dave Budd was the first person to come to mind for the job. He is based to the north of Dartmoor in Devon and is well known for his interest in recreating iron tools. Dave is often at reenactment shows and festivals, demonstrating iron working techniques from the past.

dave budd

So my friend Alex Arthur (a woodsman and charcoal burner) and I headed down to Cheriton Bishop to go and see him. Dave's workshop is tucked away in ten acres of woodland and getting to it involves a walk across a field and through the woods.

After walking a short way along a track, I came to Dave's forge:

The first thing to be done was getting the kettle on!

Dave used a chrome/vanadium alloy steel to make the blades. This means that they will be better in use than alloys used in medieval times. 
First, the iron bar was roughly brought to shape using a power hammer. Again, not a medieval method but it saved a lot of time.

Each blade was then shaped by hand on the anvil and swage block. I wanted the forged look to the blades, as carving tools in medieval times would usually be made by the local blacksmith or by the carvers themselves. 

Another interesting tool that Dave used was the fly press. This was used to stamp his logo onto the blades and to cut the shoulders which butt onto the tang (the spike that goes into the handle).

Finally, after the blades had been shaped, they were ground on an abrasive belt to put on the bevels of the cutting edges.

And here are the three blades that Dave made:

The next stage, after some final shaping, is for the blades to be heated slowly and then cooled to give them the correct temper. There will also be another large gouge made with a socket into which the handle will fit, rather than the tangs that these tools have. I'm then going to make the handles, probably from locally-sourced boxwood, which will be fitted and then the tools should be good to go!

Whilst at the workshop, Dave also showed me two spoon augers that he has made for use at the Peat Moors Teaching Centre in Somerset. Before the familiar spiralling drill bit was invented, spoon augers were the normal tool for cutting holes larger than a gimlet could manage. Anglo Saxon and Viking carpenters would have used spoon augers and chair makers used them even into the nineteenth century. 
The pointed blade is more suitable for drilling into endgrain, whereas the rounded blade is better at cutting into sidegrain, although care needs to be taken that the blades don't catch which could make them snap. The larger auger with the rounded blade has a chest brace fitted, so that the weight of the user's body can be put behind it.

We also had a wander around Dave's woodland and saw his teaching forges, where he runs courses in early smithing techniques.

It was a very enjoyable afternoon in the woods with Alex and Dave and I hope that we get to meet up again soon. You can see more of Dave's work at his website, just click on the link here.

A visit to 'Old School Woodcarving' in the village of Walton, near Glastonbury in Somerset

Whilst travelling to Devon recently (to get some medieval-style woodcarving tools made by Dave Budd), I had the chance for an unexpected visit to 'Old School Woodcarving'.

Anthony Griffiths has been teaching carving in an old primary school building there since 1998 and has been carving for about 30 years. He is on the left in the photo below, enjoying a tea break with some of his students:

The classes seem very nicely set out, with a range of good-quality tools for students to use. The teaching spaces are also well-lit.

Anthony himself enjoys carving large flower displays. There is one being worked on to the left of the first photo above. Another is in the corner of the large teaching space:

Since I visited in 2013, there have been big changes at Old School woodcarving. Anthony has moved to Pembrokeshire and is apparently still teaching there. Charles Oldham now runs the courses in Walton.

Sunday 13 October 2013

Teaching Woodcarving at the Northern Slopes in Knowle West, Bristol

I was teaching yesterday at Wildfest, an event in Knowle West run by the Wild City project, in association with Youth Moves. 

Lots of young people had the chance to carve their own pendants to take home with them and we all had a great time. It's quite a view from up there too!

Steve was about, leading some walks to show people the interesting plants and animals living even in the suburbs of the city. Keith and Linda of Specialised Nestboxes were also making their birdboxes (and generously sharing their carrot cake). It was great to catch up with everyone, although there were so many pendants to be carved that I didn't have time to chat for long.

Saturday 5 October 2013

Teaching Woodcarving in the Sunshine at Bradley Stoke in Bristol

There was a lot of fun had in Bradley Stoke today. It has been a lovely sunny weekend and I've been teaching local people woodcarving on behalf of Touchwood Enterprises, a local company which makes play structures using local, sustainably sourced timber whenever possible. Both Touchwood and I are members of the Forest of Avon Products, a not-for-profit cooperative based around the Bristol area.

Touchwood are making a play structure for Knightstone, a housing association, and asked me if I would work with them to carve some larch poles with local residents. It will be fitted into a green space in Bradley Stoke for them to enjoy.

Working alongside me, Katie and Ellie from Knightstone and Nico, who led the peeling of the bark off the larch poles and the digging of holes, everyone got stuck in and worked really hard.

We had some very keen hole diggers at work:

Who checked the quality of the holes very carefully after they had been dug:

Everything was also helped along by a plentiful supply of free tea, coffee and delicious cupcakes, supplied by the 'Dandy Cabin'. 

Chatting with Joachim Seitfudem about the Bavarian woodcarving tradition (and lots of other stuff)

I dropped by today to visit Jo in his studio at The Island in the centre of Bristol. It was great to catch up with him and to see two panels that he has recently carved in the traditional Bavarian style. He learned much of his craft from his father Hans-Joachim Seitfudem, who is a master carver there.

Jo is currently making more contemporary-styled work but said that fancied carving the panels to make sure that he doesn't lose the skills that he learnt in Bavaria from his father.

They are both carved from lime (linden) wood. It's interesting to see how he gets the shapes on the relief panel by cutting planes into the timber; flat surfaces that add up to give the curved surfaces making up the design. He also much prefers a finish that shows the tool cuts, rather than one that is sanded. We agreed that the latter can look very 'plasticky' if done badly.

Jo noted that things tend to be in threes in Bavarian carving (see the three dogs in the panel). He also showed me a small figure that he carved under his father's guidance when he was about fifteen or sixteen years old. His dad gave his a small carving knife and told him to whittle it using that and no other tools. It seems like a good way to learn the importance of working with the wood without relying on your tools to do everything for you.

Against what the general advice to people looking for whittling knives seems to be, I noticed that the carving knife that Jo uses has a sharply curved bevel on both sides, so that it is almost sharpened to have two angles of bevel on each side. It was originally his father's. Usually, the advice in most articles or blogs is that the knife should have a single bevel, sloping from the back to the cutting edge.  My own knife is similar to his in that there is a second, steeper, bevel to the blade. The steep bevels mean that the knife travels naturally out of the cut towards the surface, rather than wanting to travel straight on into the timber. A knife with this steep bevel can do some pretty fine work too:

We also had an interesting chat about the guild system in Bavaria. Woodcarvers have a guild system there, like carpenters and many other traditional trades. The carvers can also follow a journeyman path, where they study with at least two master carvers before making a 'master piece' to become a master themselves (if the master piece is good enough). Traditionally, only master carvers could open a workshop so the quality of work in the trade was kept high. Jo said that he did not complete his training to master level, mainly because it is quite expensive (about 10,000 euros).

Guild journeyman carvers dress, like other wood-based trades, in black with a black hat. The earring that they wear in the left ear is of gold, with a small carving tool (gouge, mallet etc.) that they have carved from wood fixed to it. Like other woodworking  guilds the ear is pierced using a rusty nail, which the journeyman will then carry on them often in their hat band. We discussed how sad it is that the traditional skills have become more fractured in Britain, which does not have a guild system in the same way. There is a 'Guild of Master Carvers' in existence here, but it is a very different kind of thing.

Jo has a show in Bath at the 44AD gallery from the 7th to the 13th of October 2013. You can see some of his current work from a previous show here.

Friday 4 October 2013

Links to the 'Matthew' in St Mary Redcliffe church in Bristol. A treasure brought back from the original voyage and a more recent model

St Mary Redcliffe is a parish church in Bristol, near to the harbour. Much of it was built between 1292 and 1370, although there were earlier churches on the same site.

The church is so grand that it looks a bit like a Cathedral, thanks to donations by wealthy Bristolians (particularly William Canynges) who would have masses said for their souls there in return. Queen Elizabeth I is supposed to have said of St Mary Redcliffe that  it was "the fairest, goodliest, and most famous parish church in England."

Two items held within the church were of particular interest to me because of their links with the 'Matthew' figurehead project. One is held high up on a stone corbel in a side chapel:

This is a whale rib bone reputedly brought back by John Cabot from the land that he discovered, what is now Newfoundland or Nova Scotia. I don't know of any other surviving artifacts from that original voyage in 1497. This may be the first thing brought by anyone from the New World back to Europe (assuming that the Vikings and St Brendan didn't return with anything).

Another item linked to the Matthew is above the door from the North Porch into the church. It is a model of the replica ship (the one currently in the harbour) which was given to the church to be blessed for luck, in the same way that the owner of a new ship in medieval times would do. 

There is a famous original medieval model used as a blessing object still in existence. It is called the 'Coca de Mataro' and is now in a museum in the Netherlands. It seems appropriate to have the nautical artifacts in this church, as the crew of the original Matthew may well have prayed here for a safe voyage and would have navigated back into the harbour using it as a reference point (although the current spire only dates to the nineteenth century).

St Mary Redcliffe is full of interesting things. Here is the memorial to the poet Thomas Chatterton, who spent a lot of time in here. You might notice that the memorial next to it commemorates a distiller:

Some of the most interesting things in St Mary Redcliffe are the stone carvings, despite the attentions of Oliver Cromwell's miserable Puritans. The roof bosses are amazing, but you may need binoculars to see some of them!

 I like the grotesques carved around the North porch as well. The stone masons must have enjoyed carving these odd characters:

There are intricate carvings running around inside the porch. It's been suggested that they might show panels in a story, but no one seems to know what that story is any more.

There are also lots and lots of 'green man' figures hidden away in carvings. There is even a very unusual 'green dog' figure here, but unfortunately the Chapel of St John the Baptist, where it is found, was too dark to get a photo: