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

Wednesday 10 December 2014

Revisiting previous bench projects - how were they doing?

Yesterday, I was on the other side of town and decided to check in on a couple of previous projects. They are two benches installed in public areas, so I wanted to make sure they hadn't been vandalised or damaged.

The bench at Shirehampton was made with a group of local people of various ages at the end of 2013 and installed in January 2014. Here's how it looks after the first year:

The first thing that I noticed vandalism! Apart from the evidence that wild birds were using it as a perch occasionally, the bench was as it had been when installed. It was nice to see that the untreated wood was aging beautifully. Larch, Sweet chestnut and Oak are all durable timbers, so I didn't use finishing oils on them and they have turned a lovely silvery colour.

The next bench was up in Leigh Woods, on the protected area of Stokeleigh Camp iron-age hill fort. It was made and installed in 2009 and did have some finishing (tung) oil applied at first. The five years since then have allowed mosses and other plants to move onto it and I think that it now looks part of the landscape in a pleasing way.

I could see that a couple of old attempts had been made at scratching names into the timber. Seasoned oak doesn't give up that easily though! The scratches were hardly noticeable. Judging by the wear in front of the bench, it has had plenty of use and hopefully has been enjoyed by a lot of people.

Saturday 22 November 2014

Libby Houston visits my studio to see her portrait carved in relief and to chat about rare plants and Whitebeam trees

libby houston at my studio

Libby Houston is one of the subjects carved into the large oak bench that I've been working on. She has had six books of poetry published as well as being a winner of the prestigious H.H. Bloomer award, which is given by the Linnean society to 'an amateur naturalist who has made an important contribution to biological knowledge'.

It was a bit nerve-wracking for me, as this was the first time that I've actually shown someone a carved portrait that I've done of them. Libby seemed to like it though...Phew!

I've also carved two lines from her poem 'The Trees Dance' onto the tops of the backrests.

Libby looked over the text to be carved about her on a previous visit, which meant that I don't need to worry about any inaccuracies too much! It was great chatting with her about the rare and unusual trees and plants that can be found in the area. One that was mentioned is Spiked Speedwell, which is rare and lives on the rock faces in the Avon Gorge. 

Image from:
This plant colonised the area just after the land was stripped bare by the glaciers of the last Ice Age. It is at home on steep rock faces and very thin soils, so survived in the Gorge when other plants and trees took over elsewhere in the area. It is also perennial, so it grows back from the same rootstock every year. 

Libby said that there is debate amongst botanists as to how long these plants can live for and some believe that in favourable conditions, such as in the Gorge, individual plants could be thousands of years old, possibly even 10,000 years. This is impossible to test at the moment as far as I know but if it is true, it would mean that the plant seen now is exactly the same one that started growing next to the retreating ice sheet!

We also chatted about Hutchinsia, a tiny perennial flower that lives its life cycle through the winter to avoid competition from other plants. It starts growing in autumn and flowers in March. By springtime, when everything else begins their season, it is done for the year and dies back.

Image by natterjacktoad from
Whitebeams are also a bit unusual in the natural world, as they will hybridise with certain other species (such as the Wild Service Tree Sorbus torminalis) and produce fertile offspring. Usually when species interbreed, the offspring are sterile. An example of this would be mules, the result of a horse breeding with a donkey. Nearly all mules cannot produce offspring themselves.

Whitebeams are also often found on steep slopes and thin soils, where they can live without being overshadowed and having to compete for resources with larger trees such as ash, beech or oak. This local high density of population, together with their fertile hybrid offspring, means that they often interbreed and produce new species. There are at least three unique species in the Avon Gorge alone. 

One of the Whitebeam species has possibly my favourite name of any tree. It grows near Watersmeet, on Exmoor in the Southwest of England, and is called the 'No Parking Whitebeam' (Sorbus admonitor). Why the strange name? The first example was found next to a road and had a 'No Parking' sign fixed to it.

libby houston

Libby also kindly gave me two fallen leaves from a Whitebeam tree that she discovered in the Avon Gorge to copy in a woodcarving on the bench. It is named 'Houston's Whitebeam' after her. There is only one specimen of this kind of tree known to exist, so I suppose it must be one of the rarest trees in the world.

houston's whitebeam

By the way, the piece of dowel next to the leaf on the right is plugging a hole left when I dug some lead shot out of the wood. I wonder how long it had been in there?

Thursday 20 November 2014

An inscription and emblem carved onto an unusual object

One of the more unusual things that I've carved an inscription onto! This commission involved carving a message onto the ash wood handle of a garden fork, together with the emblem of a local cricket club. The emblem was carved using traditional hand tools and was then painted by hand. The lettering was done with a Dremel.

Monday 10 November 2014

A sneak preview of some of the carvings on the bench for the Bristol Downs

I've been very busy for the last month or two working on a big new bench that will go onto the Downs. Very few large pieces of sculpture are allowed to be permanently placed there, so it's a really exciting project.

The bench is made from oak that grew nearby and it was milled near Chelvey, just down the road. The work on making the bench has been done at my studio at Bower Ashton, so it really is a local bench for Bristol. I'm carving one of the two backrests in the photo above. Each is about 2.5 metres (about 8 feet) long and 7.5cm (3") thick. Pretty sturdy!

The bench is scheduled to be finished by December and then installed in the children's playground next to the Observatory and the Suspension Bridge in March 2015.

It will be a cross between an information board and a bench, so people can read about wildlife and people associated with the area while having a comfy place to sit. There will also be a 'treasure trail' of carved little spiders for visitors to find; some easy to spot, some not so easy!

Here's a preview of a few of the other carvings for you to see:

The purseweb spider, a tiny relative of tarantulas that lives in the Avon Gorge.

The 'Bristol Dinosaur', Thecodontosaurus

Carving one of the bearers that will hold the bench up. It shows a brachiopod, a shellfish that is found fossilised in the Carboniferous limestone under the Downs. Much larger than life-sized though!

This bearer shows the coral Lithostrotion, also found in the Carboniferous limestone.

Chalkhill Blue butterflies live in the Gorge. They are nationally uncommon, living in very specific areas in the south of England.


This is Libby Houston, who is a poet, botanist and rope access expert. She has had several books of poetry published, and gave permission for me to carve two lines from her poem 'The Trees Dance' onto the bench. They read:

'Forest-father, mighty Oak,
on my back the lightning-stroke'

Libby spends much of her time abseiling into the Avon Gorge and mapping the rare plants that live there. For her work, she was awarded the prestigious H.H. Bloomer award by the Linnean society. Amongst other achievements, she has discovered some of the very rare hybrids of Whitebeam trees that grow in the hard-to-reach parts of the Gorge and nowhere else, one is even named after her: Sorbus x houstoniae. There is only one specimen of this tree known to exist and Libby kindly gave me some examples of its leaves to copy.

I researched most of the information for the bench myself, but could not have done it without the help and advice of a few people, who I'd like to thank here; 

Francis Greenacre has been a great help, providing feedback, liaising with the members of the Clifton and Hotwells Improvement Society (who commissioned the bench) and also supplying very useful images and ideas, particularly about Brunel's designs for the Suspension Bridge. Thanks also to RoseMary and Linda of CHIS, for meeting and chatting about ideas.

Ray Barnett, Mark Pajak and Isla Gladstone at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery all gave their time to meet and discuss ideas and images for wildlife and fossil subjects to use. Mark and Isla also supplied very helpful images to use.

Dr Clive Lovatt, Richard Bland and Linda Edwards helped in researching the poetry featured on the bench, as well as supplying information about local poet Peter Gabbitass who is one of the subjects.

Libby Houston very kindly gave permission to use her poetry and supplied leaves to copy, as well as explaining her work and checking the facts were correct! It was great to meet her.

Thanks also to Joe Cooper of Touchwood Enterprises, Andy O'Neill and Sam Mond, without whom I might not have had any local timber to carve into in the first place.

Sunday 26 October 2014

Eighteenth century woodworker's clothing and equipment, shown as part of the Hellbrunn Mechanical Theatre in Salzburg, Austria

The Hellbrun Mechanical Theatre is a huge automaton. It was built between 1748 and 1752 and is housed in the Hellbrun palace in Salzburg. The machine was built by a salt miner called Lorenz Rosenegger and was commissioned by Archbishop Andreas Jakob Graf Dietrichstein. 

I came across this animated sculpture while watching a fascinating BBC programme called 'Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams' which was written and presented by Professor Simon Schaffer. That's him standing in front of the mechanical theatre in the image above. All of the images of the Mechanical Theatre used in this post are screen shots saved from this documentary.

The theatre shows a scene of different trades and professions busily working, watched by the governing elite whose figures move relatively little.

Apart from the incredible skill of Rosenegger in carving the 200-odd figures used in the machine and animating most of them with a water-powered system of mechanisms (together with a water-powered musical organ to cover the sound of the workings in action), I was also struck by the glimpse that the theatre gives into the clothing and tools used by the woodworking trades of the time.

The woodcarver has his workpiece held on a kind of rotating spit-like frame. Chris Pye notes that this type of device is still in common use in some places, such as Southern Germany. I've seen it on illustrations of medieval woodcarvers at work centuries before the Hellbrun machine was constructed. Many contemporary carvers prefer to work on larger pieces with the carving held vertically instead of horizontally, so that it is orientated the same way that it will eventually be displayed.

This frame for holding work is in the studio of Jón Adolf Steinólfsson in Rekjavik, Iceland

This frame is in Joachim Seitfudem's studio. Jo is based in Bristol but trained in Bavaria. 

The sawyers at work. All of the tradesmen are shown wearing aprons and many have coloured lederhosen-style braces across their chests. I wonder if the colours of their hats or braces mark them as members of different craft guilds, or if they are just random?

The turner is at work on a pole lathe (which I imagine would be powered by a springy frame rather than a pole, as it is indoors). His tools are hung on the wall behind him. 

The timber framers build a roof. Two workers wear caps, the others are dressed very similarly to each other with black hats. Journeyman carpenters from this region wear their brimmed black hats as one of the signs of their status even today. Are the two workers lower down the roof journeymen, or do these figures represent different trades altogether?

The cooper works with drawknife and shavehorse to make barrels and buckets. As with the pole lathe shown above, modern green woodworkers use equipment that has basically changed very little from that shown by Rosenegger. This pole lathe and shave horse (made by Tom Redfern) were in use when teaching these skills at the Green Gathering a few years ago.

Schaffer also notes that there is another, darker side to the Hellbrun mechanical theatre. The salt miners were 'radicals and insurrectionists' and Rosenegger had an armed guard to keep him at his work. The machine was not just an entertaining snapshot of life at the time. To its intended audience of wealthy aristocrats, it gave a view of workers behaving themselves in an 'ideal society'.

Sunday 12 October 2014

'The Creation', carved brick panels by Walter Ritchie on Bristol Eye Hospital

One of the first things that I saw in Bristol, on walking out of the coach station, was this series of large sculptures carved into brick. They are on the wall of the Bristol Eye Hospital and were produced during the mid 1980s by Walter Ritchie, who was one of the last apprentices to work with the famous and controversial sculptor and designer Eric Gill.

bristol eye hospital

If you don't recognise Gill's name, you would have regularly seen the typeface that he designed called Gill Sans, which is pretty much a standard on any word processing computer programme. I think that you can see his influence in the style of the designs that Ritchie carved.

walter ritchie carved brick

Walter Ritchie died in 1997 and many of his other carvings in brick have sadly been lost, as the buildings that they featured on were demolished. He preferred to make public sculpture rather than private artworks.

The brick panels were the largest non-reinforced brick sculptures at the time and were actually produced at Richie's home in Kenilworth, Warwickshire. Each panel was then transported in two pieces to be installed into their present homes. The quote on the final panel of the series comes from a lecture on the theme of 'Creative Man', given in Oxford in 1947 by Viscount Samuel.

I still think that these relief carvings are beautiful and inspiring, despite having seen them many, many times when passing by. The use of carving techniques directly into house bricks is also unusual and interesting.  Here are some details, so that you can see the textures and markings that he created.

A pendant carving workshop for 'Wildfest' at the Northern Slopes, Knowle West in Bristol

'Wildfest' is a small festival organised by the community in Knowle West, together with Ben Carpenter of Youth Moves. It is held on the Northern Slopes, an area of public land with a fantastic view across Bristol.

I've run the pendant carving workshops there before and it was great to be invited back again.


People visiting the festival can carve their own designs into pendants made from locally-grown  hardwoods, then take them home. A few of the visitors remembered doing the activity last time and some had even managed to keep their pendants until now, which was very nice to hear.

It was also nice to catch up with a few fellow festival regulars, especially Keith and Linda Hall of Specialised Nestboxes.

Even a heavy shower of rain in the middle of the afternoon didn't stop the fun and there was pretty much a continuous stream of keen young carvers.

...and in the rare brief gaps in between, the view was there to be enjoyed.

Thursday 2 October 2014

Milling the oak for a large bench to go on the Downs in Bristol

After several unexpected delays, the locally-grown oak to be used in making a new bench for a public space in Bristol has finally been milled!

This new bench will be situated next to the famous Clifton Suspension Bridge, at the end of the Downs.   It will be the centrepiece of a newly-renovated children's playground and will feature carvings celebrating local history and wildlife.

I was helped a lot in milling the timber, at a yard just outside Bristol, by local chainsaw carver Andy O'Neill.

andy o'neill

Andy brought along his Alaskan mill, which is basically a frame fixed to a powerful chainsaw. This allows boards to be cut fairly accurately, to a given dimension, from timber that may be in places inaccessible to larger mobile sawmills.

The first board is now in my studio and I'm really looking forward to getting started. Hopefully, the bench should be finished by the end of November.

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.