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.

Friday 28 February 2014

Sculptures that contrast carved areas with uncarved surfaces; The Idea emerging from the Uncarved Block

One of the most charged moments in producing many carvings, particularly when whittling a shape from a piece of rough timber, is the moment when the sculpture is cut away from the piece of wood from which it has been carved. Sometimes I have been really torn as to whether I should take that step, as the sculpted piece looks so right against the uncarved timber that it emerges from.

I want to talk, in this post, about a few other carvings in which original block to be carved is present in the final piece.

Perhaps some of the most famous examples are the unfinished marble sculptures by Michelangelo known as the 'Prisoners'. These were carved between 1525 and 1530. The one below is sometimes called the 'Awakening Prisoner', sometimes the 'Awakening Slave':

Image from:

It's not certain whether Michelangelo stopped working on them because the building project that they were intended for was reduced in scale (the tomb of Pope Julius II, which was never completed to the original designs). That is the the usual interpretation, but I wonder if he just decided that the sculptures expressed what he was looking for and left them at that. Michelangelo saw himself as freeing the image created in a sculpture from within the confines of the uncarved block and that is certainly the feeling that these marble sculptures get across.

According to Rick Steves (mentioned in;
'Michelangelo believed the sculptor was a tool of God, not creating but simply revealing the powerful and beautiful figures he put in the marble. Michelangelo’s job was to chip away the excess, to reveal. He needed to be in tune with God’s will, and whenever the spirit came upon him, Michelangelo worked in a frenzy, often for days on end without sleep.'

Another sculptor who used the shape of the rough, unfinished block in their final sculptures was Auguste Rodin. This sculpture, produced in 1898, is 'The Hand of God', sometimes known as 'Creation' or as 'The Hand of the Devil':

Image from:

In common with a lot of famous sculptors, Rodin would have modelled the sculpture in clay and then one of his assistants would have carved it into the marble. However, Bernard Champigneulle wrote that  his use of uncarved areas in the design was influenced by Rodin's initial career as a stonecutter. He would have understood the 'exhilaration' that came from 'the tussle between man and recalcitrant matter, with the removal of stone which could never be replaced, with the contest between a hand-held tool and an inanimate block from which life was about to spring.' On possible influences for this design technique, Champigneulle noted that 'Rodin's visit to the unfinished tombs of San Lorenzo (partly designed by Michelangelo for the Medici family in Florence) had taught him that to leave some areas unfinished could enhance the impact of others. Where Michelangelo had left marble untouched because time did not permit him to complete his task, Rodin did so deliberately. The delicacy of his modelling benefited by this contrast, which displayed the sculptor's skill to even greater advantage.'

Gilles Néret says that 'Though accused of making excessive use of the unworked surface, Rodin was again far ahead of his time; he appealed to the imagination rather than to the roles of sculptural convention.' It was certainly a controversial technique and ruffled the feathers of the nineteenth-century art establishment.

Whilst chatting to Joachim Seitfudem (who carved the sculptures below), he noted that many traditional Bavarian limewood sculptures use the unworked surface of the log (with bark removed) to frame the carvings emerging from within. Jo's father is a master carver in Bavaria.

Giuseppe Penone is not specifically a woodcarver, but was one of the leading figures in the influential 'Arte Povera' movement that developed in Italy in about 1967. Artists associated with Arte Povera used inexpensive, often found, materials to make artworks. Penone was very interested in making sculptures that reconnected people to the natural environment and since the 1970's he has been making these sculptures, in which a growth ring inside a wooden beam is revealed by carefully cutting away the wood around it. 

This reveals an echo of  the tree at one point in its growth. In 'The 20th Century Art Book' published by Phaidon, each of these works is identified as 'an act of reclamation, an attempt to discover the natural shape of the tree within the man-made form.'

The resulting sculptures seem to me to share a lot in common with the others shown in this post and must be every bit as painstaking to produce. Sometimes, Penone would make the work in a gallery during the course of an exhibition.

Image: Sphilbrick from

One piece of sculpture that really made an impression on me when I first saw it is 'Hinewai Calling from the Mist' by the New Zealand sculptor Paul Deans. The piece is carved from an old, found gatepost and illustrates a Maori legend about 'Uenuku and the Mist Girl', which you can read by clicking on this link to a previous post on this blog.

Image courtesy of Paul Deans

Apart from the great, dynamic use of contrast between the smoothly carved areas, areas of toolmarks and the rough, weathered original surface of the post, the way that the rough texture of the weathered timber is used to portray the thick mist around the face really appeals to me. 

Maskull Laserre, who is based in Montreal, Canada, carves delicate forms emerging from everyday objects. I like the way that he will use more than one object put together to form the timbers into which he carves. Maskull works mainly with power tools to get these delicate sculptures. Personally, I'd prefer to see some of the carved skeletal shapes sculpted to a smoother, finer, more bone-like finish so that they would stand out more clearly from the tool marks in the timber around them. That doesn't take away from the fact that it's a great idea and these pieces are getting a lot of well-deserved attention at the moment.

Finally, here's another one of my sculptures from about 1998. It was carved from a weathered piece of beech wood found in Derbyshire's beautiful Peak District. At the time, I was interested in imagining a world where every detail could be synthetically created, down to stones and pieces of wood, so that they could also have 'intelligence' and interact with their environment.

So, sometimes areas of a sculpture might be left uncarved as part of the story that the sculptor is trying to convey, sometimes those areas frame carved areas and sometimes those areas are just the result of the project being unfinished. The narrative and aesthetic tension that Rodin tried to convey, between carved and uncarved surfaces, still seems to be an important reason for carvers including this contrast in a design. 
Perhaps another attraction for a carver is that the sculpture emerging from the block allows them to reveal another narrative, that of the work that went into producing such a carving, in a way that a completely finished sculpture might not show.
There is also something very compelling about seeing the carved work emerge from the block. It is like a glimpse of the making process, a way for the viewer to connect more closely with the hands of the maker. 

Friday 14 February 2014

More extreme wood workshops for Touchwood Enterprises!

The last two days have been spent in Dorset, working with my friends at Touchwood Enterprises to deliver a bench and run carving workshops around it. Local children were invited to carve images onto the bench, which has been installed at Tucker's Field in Poole.

Unfortunately, the first day coincided with gale force winds and heavy rain sweeping across the area, so the carving sessions had to be cancelled in case our shelter blew away!

In the absence of anyone to teach carving to, Nick and I walked to the nearby seafront to have a look at it instead.

Surprisingly, there were no ice-cream sellers about so we walked back. We had managed to get some carving done on the now-soaked bench before the rain hit hardest. 

The next day, the bench had dried a bit and we had much better weather. About 32 young people from the area got the chance to try some carving and they seemed to really enjoy it.

By the end of the day, the seat was covered in carvings and everyone was happy. Hopefully, the bench in Tucker's Field will be enjoyed by local people for a long time to come.

Friday 7 February 2014

Ancient Egyptian wood carving and stone carving tools

Whilst looking around the museum in Bristol, I saw these ancient carving tools on display and thought it might be nice to share them with you.

The tools were bought by the museum in 1919 from a Captain E.A. Mackay. The metal is a copper alloy, which makes the carving achievements of those ancient craftsmen seem all the more amazing as the copper alloy is softer than the steel used in modern tools. Other elements used in ancient copper alloys included antimony and arsenic. Arsenic often occurs naturally in copper ore, so may have been the original alloying material with copper to make bronze. Eventually it was superseded by the use of tin, as tin was easier to add in specific amounts and was non-toxic . It wasn't until the time of the last pharaohs, long after these objects were used, that Egyptians began to use iron for this purpose.

The chisel with a wooden handle seems very similar in size and shape to a modern palm chisel and was probably used for detailed work without a mallet. It is thought to date to between 3,300 and 3,600 years ago, what was the eighteenth dynasty of the New Kingdom. The awl in front of it (a spike used for making small holes) is thought to date to the same period.

The larger chisel in the holder to the right would have been used with a mallet. It is believed to be older, from the twelfth dynasty of the Middle Kingdom about 3,800 to 4,000 years ago.

Ancient Egyptian images of woodworkers show them using many tools that woodworkers into the medieval ages of Europe were still using variations of. Axes and saws were used to roughly shape the wood into planks and blocks, adzes shaped it further, awls and bow drills were used to make holes and chisels and mallets were used for fine work. Much of the timber used was probably imported from what is now eastern Africa and the Lebanon, as Egypt did not have large forests at that time.

Nearby, there are examples of stone carving tools. The mallets certainly look familiar; I have a couple very like them in my own studio! The caption on the display speculates that the worn one may have been buried with a carver in the belief that, although it was worn out in this world, it would be perfect again in the next. They are thought to date to the third dynasty of the Old Kingdom, between 4,620 and 4,700 years ago according to the museum caption.

The stones on the shelf would be used for grinding down stone sculptures to smooth them. The copper alloy chisel in front of them dates to the eighteenth dynasty of the New Kingdom, between 3,300 and 3,600 years ago. It would have been used to shape stone, with a more rounded, bar-like shape of chisel used afterwards to smooth the sculpture. 

The British Museum Collection

There are more tools on display at the British Museum in London. The information used here comes from the labels with each exhibit.

King Djer reigned during the First Dynasty, about 5,100 to 4,900 years ago. His tomb is surrounded by the remains of over 300 people; his wives, guards and servants. They must have committed suicide or been killed at the time of the king's entombment, to serve him in the afterlife. One retainer was called 'Hem', meaning simply 'servant'. He was a craftsman and was interred with two copper chisels, a copper adze head and the tool on the right, which is thought to have been used to cut leather. The copper axe head on the left was one of several found with other bodies. It was a high-status possession and these people were probably special guards. This axe head is inscribed, including with an elephant design, but no one knows what the inscription means.

King Khasekhemwy ruled during the Second Dynasty, about 4,904 to 4,700 years ago. He was keen on construction and developments in such things as large-scale use of dressed stone during his reign led the way for the later building of the Pyramids. 194 thin copper models of tools were found underneath a collapsed wall in his tomb. They include models of chisels, harpoons, adzes and needles. Many are in  groups of eight, possibly reflecting the Egyptian working week of eight days according to the label. I wonder why they are models and not genuine tools?

The New Kingdom dated from about 3,564 to 3,084 years ago. Below is shown a wooden mallet from this time, found at Thebes. See the similarities between the shape of this one and the much older ones shown in the Bristol Museum display above. The bow-drill found at Deir el-Bahri exhibited next to it uses bronze bits to drill holes. The end of the wooden bit holder would be steadied inside a hollow cut into the conical wooden piece displayed behind the drill. The bow would then be moved back-and-forth to spin the drill bit.

The tools shown next come from different periods. The chisel with its wooden handle dates, like the saw immediately below it, to the New Kingdom in Thebes. They use bronze blades, like the pull-saw at the bottom which came from Deir el-Bahri and dates to the 18th Dynasty about 3,600 to 3,300 years ago.

The two bronze-bladed adzes also date to the 18th Dynasty. The one on the left is from Thebes during the reign of Tuthmosis III which was about 3,493 to 3,439 years ago. The one on the right was found at Deir el-Bahri and was used during Hatshepsut's reign 3,493 to 3,471 years ago. This adze still has the original leather thongs holding the blade on. Its wooden handle is carved with a hieroglyphic inscription. Compare these tools to the image of the workers using an adze and a saw shown above.

A label near these tools also shows some commonly-used ancient Egyptian woodworking joints:

These damaged corners from coffins show how joints would also be strengthened using dowels or cramps, made from a close-grained wood such as sidder. 

The sidder wood cramp top right in the photo above dates to the 17th or early 18th Dynasty, 3,600 to 3,500 years ago. It is inscribed with the name 'Ameny'; maybe the name of the cramp's maker or its user, in a similar way that modern workers in busy workshops or building sites write their names on their tools to stop them 'going for a walk'. The coffin boards on the left comes from Asyut during the 12th Dynasty, about 3,950 years ago. They have been joined with such cramps. The dowelled joint on the right is from the same location and period as the cramp-joined boards and has some dowels from the Middle Kingdom (4025-3,630 years ago) displayed below it.

What timbers did ancient Egyptians use? 

It can be hard to tell from the names that they gave them, but scientists have analysed woods under the microscope and worked out what many of them are from their cellular structures. They are generally associated with things made for funerals, as these have been preserved in tombs.

The main local timbers used were sycomore fig (Ficus sycomorus), tamarisk (Tamarix sp.) and Nile acacia.  To make coffins and the like, carpenters would need longer, straighter boards and these were obtained by trade, mainly with the Levant. Coniferous softwoods such as cedar as well as juniper and cypress were bought and used. Cedar was especially reserved for the coffins of high-ranking people, although different parts of a coffin could use different timbers, depending on their suitability for different purposes. You can find out more, including some ancient Egyptian names for different timbers, at the digitalegypt website.

There are some more images of ancient Egyptian woodworking tools on this post by Marijn, of the St Thomas Guild: follow this link. There is also an illustrated history of the development of the saw online here.

A Personal Favourite

Finally, I had to include my favourite piece of ancient Egyptian woodcarving. It is a statue of a priest who would have said prayers for the dead. His name was Ka'aper. 

He lived during the fifth dynasty of the Old Kingdom. Dating this period seems quite difficult, but it is somewhere between 4,686 and 4,520 years ago. The people who excavated the carving, at Saqqara, thought that the statue looked like the chief of their village so they called it 'Sheikh el-Balad' which means 'village chief'.

The statue is 112 cm (about 3' 8") tall and is carved from sycamore wood (I'm assuming that this refers to sycomore fig (F. sycomorus)). The eyes were made to look 'alive' by using a copper lining with white quartz and a central disc of rock crystal.

People in other parts of the world use similar optical tricks on their carved statues. For example, in New Zealand traditional Maori woodcarvings have inlaid paua (abalone) shell eyes that twinkle in firelight to look like they are watching.

Photograph copyright James Shook from Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday 5 February 2014

Bristol's mayor visits my studio

A couple of days ago George Ferguson, the mayor of Bristol, visited our workshops to have a look at the work being produced there. He seemed very interested and took quite a few photos. Also in the group were representatives of the local Neighbourhood Partnerships and Tess Green of the local Green Party.

It was great having visitors and we got to briefly discuss the future of the woodworking cooperative that we are all members of with the mayor.

We hope that when our lease on these workshops expires in two years time, we can renew it. That would mean that we could continue renovating the nearby derelict council-owned listed buildings, so expanding available workshop spaces in them with the aim of continuing to promote local, sustainable timber use and making Bristol a national and international hub of woodworking expertise.

Without the workshops, it will be difficult for the Forest of Avon Cooperative, which has been in existence for over twelve years, to continue operating. It would also make life very tough for the twelve successful small businesses operating from them. We shall wait and see...