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 29 August 2014

Making carved oak whisky bottles for the launch of 'Naked Grouse' whisky in the UK: Part One

In May this year a marketing company based in Glasgow, called Material, contacted me about a carving project.  I was recommended to them by Andy O'Neill, a chainsaw carver who is based in Bristol.

The company that make the well-known 'Famous Grouse' whisky were putting a new premium malt blend on general release in the UK, called 'Naked Grouse'. The marketing would highlight the craftsmanship involved in making the drink, which is where my woodcarving came in.

Image from:
I was asked if I could make wooden replicas of the Naked Grouse bottle on plinths, to go on display as part of the promotion. The plinths would then be carved live in bars, with the logo of each establishment.

First of all, I took measurements and a profile from a sample bottle...

...then got on with turning six replica bottles using these measurements. The wood came from an oak tree that grew near Nether Stowey on the Quantock Hills in Somerset. Oak seemed a particularly appropriate timber to use, as the whisky is aged in oak casks. It was interesting to note, whilst turning, that the oak shavings had a particular smell that could also be noticed in the whisky.

It's been a while since I've done any woodturning and it was nice to get back to it, even though an electrical fault in the first lathe managed to short out the electrical circuits in my workshop! However, one new lathe later and the bottles started coming out nicely.

The turned bottles were then carved with the embossed grouse logo and the writing on the neck label. I used a Dremel hand drill for this part, as it could reproduce the fine lines that the designs required.

If you are wondering why the tops and bottoms of the bottles still had wood attached, it meant that I could work on them without handling the surfaces of the bottles too much and making them grubby, which can be a problem when working with oak (perhaps because of the tannins in it?).

Once the bottles had been carved, it was time to make the plinths. These were boxes constructed from offcuts of oak floorboards.

At the same time, I did colour tests to get the right blend of stains to match the colour of the oak bottles to the whisky. You may also be able to see that the level of liquid in the sample bottle has dropped by now-all in the sake of research of course!

It was back to school for the next bit. I stopped studying physics back then, but found that making the circuits for the LED lights was going to require some education online. Resistors, diodes, voltages: phew!

By this time, the bottles had been carved and I'd started to stain them.

I fitted the LED lights into the plinths using some short lengths of aluminium tubing, to give a neater uplight effect that showed off the grouse logo and the carved label nicely: 

After some adjusting of the height of the plinths, six bottle sculptures were nearly complete.

naked grouse whiskey

There was just the final, very important, part to be done. I needed to travel to London to carve the names of the bars on location!

And that will be in the next post...

Teaching woodcarving with a knife at my studio in Bristol, together with some thoughts about whittling

Yesterday, Jack came to my studio to learn how to carve with a knife.  We had a great day and he wasn't the only one learning new things. He told me about a very interesting video of a talk by Denis Dutton, part of which concerns prehistoric stone tools that were possibly made solely to show the maker's skill; very interesting to a craftsperson!

Jack sent me an email afterwards saying how much he had enjoyed the day and learning a new skill. It also made me think about whittling as carving. Some carvers can be dismissive of whittling with a knife, thinking that it is an 'inferior' kind of carving. This teaching session was a strong reminder of just how daft that view is in my opinion. 

The knife is one of the most versatile tools for a carver. It was clear from watching Jack's progress that the knife work taught many lessons in working with wood that are transferable to using all other edged carving tools: working with the grain, the importance of the slicing cut, sharp blades being vital etc. These points are fundamental to a carver, they certainly aren't trivial things to learn.

The use of a single carving tool to make a complete sculpture is also a good carving exercise. My friend Jo Seitfudem told me once about his father, a master carver in Bavaria, giving him a single gouge and telling him to carve an entire sculpture with it. Without a range of tools to use, the importance of working with the timber itself to achieve a finished piece is much clearer to a novice carver.

A look at the work produced in regions that regularly use knives as a basic carving tool (Africa, Papua New Guinea) also easily illustrates that carving snobbery about their use is just narrow-mindedness.

Here's a photo of the walnut pendant that Jack carved during the session, We agreed that it looks great and it seemed to capture just what he was aiming for, with the tooled finish and the delicately carved spiral that he achieved:

It's interesting how the process of teaching a skill can so often lead to the teacher learning and seeing their speciality with fresh eyes too!

Tuesday 26 August 2014

Building wooden benches for the Meadow at the Shambala festival in Northamptonshire

I've just got back after being invited to make some wooden benches for the Healing Fields at the Shambala festival. They were situated in an ancient water meadow next to Kelmarsh Hall, where the event was being held.

It was a lovely spot to be based. When I arrived on the Sunday before the event began, there were wild field mushrooms growing on the site.

I've worked on the set-up of a few festivals now and it's probably my favourite time of all. It's great seeing the event spring up around you and meeting the other crew. It's also a nice feeling to be part of the whole thing, although there was a real sense at Shambala that a lot of folks made an effort; dressing up and participating whether crew or paying guests. 

After a pile of sawmill offcuts had been dropped off, we began working out what we could do with them. There was no mains electricity, so any work was done with a couple of handsaws, some hammers, a couple of bags of nails and a temperamental chainsaw. Benches seemed a priority, so they were first.

The first bench came out well. A lot of benches at festivals are interesting, but not always very comfortable. I wanted these to be really comfy and welcoming. They also needed to be sturdy enough to withstand a weekend of partying people using them, before being destroyed by cleaning crew at the end.

It was great watching how the benches were used by so many different folks during the weekend.

Len, who was also doing woodworking as part of the Meadow crew, had an idea to put a structure next to the lake that separated the Healing Fields from the rest of the festival. We built a bench based on two African-style wooden seats. This was the only seating that looked in this direction and was tucked away, for people to find.

At one point during the festival, some people on the crew reported that they had seen a marriage-style ceremony being conducted at this bench, which was surrounded by gifts.

Shambala was a lovely festival and I hope to go again next year. Here's a few images from the festival for you to see...

shambala festival

Hooping Hannah

Friday 15 August 2014

Visiting Barn the Spoon, spoon carving at his shop on Hackney Road in London

Barnaby Carder, or Barn the Spoon as most people now know him, is a man dedicated to one particular passion; carving wooden spoons.

barn the spoon

He has spent time with many well-known faces in green woodworking, people like Robin Wood and Mike Abbott. However, Barn's path is definitely his own. When I asked him if he'd mind me writing about him on this blog, he said that he didn't but that he neither looked for nor really needed publicity.  A lot of people are very interested in what he does and the shop isn't usually short of visitors. 

Some woodworkers can be a little taciturn (well suited to a workshop-orientated life I suppose) but Barn was friendly and happy to chat about his projects, surrounded by wood shavings and tools. It was a very enjoyable afternoon spent talking with him, with occasional breaks so that he could chat with other visitors and customers.

As well as carving the spoons, Barn also teaches spoon carving and organises Spoonfest, a festival of spoon carving that was sold out this year.

It was interesting to hear him say that he didn't have many pictures of his spoons. He was interested in perhaps getting some black-and-white photos one day, as he said that they could show the form of each spoon more clearly. Forms are more important than colours to him in his spoon carving (although the one that he was working on was carved from a beautifully-coloured piece of damson wood). 

The spoons are also left with the facets of the carving cuts still visible. He prefers this finish to sanding, which he feels 'deadens' the surface finish. He also said that, even though he has carved hundreds of spoons, the fascination with it hasn't diminished. In fact, quite the opposite.

The shop at 260 Hackney Road in London is only open from Friday to Sunday, to leave time for other things. The first time that I met him, Barn was sitting on the pavement in Stoke's Croft in Bristol, selling his spoons from a blanket spread out on the ground. He said that he still really values time spent like that and enjoys getting out of the shop to roam when he gets the chance; although that's not too easily done at the moment as he is so busy.

I couldn't resist buying a 'cawl' spoon carved by Barn from rippled sycamore while I was there. Here are some photos of it:

carved wooden spoon

Monday 4 August 2014

Woodcarving and woodworking tools seen at the British Museum; from the Stone Ages to the Anglo-Saxons in Northern Europe

After writing about ancient Egyptian woodworking and tools from ancient Nubia and Mesopotamia, it's time to head north and look at Europe. I have focussed mainly on the woodworking tools that are in the collection of the British Museum.

Stone Ages

The Stone Ages in Britain ended with the arrival of settlers who knew how to use copper alloys to make tools and weapons, about 4,200 years ago. It's hard to find a lot of evidence of woodworking from the earliest known human habitation of Northern Europe. A perishable material like wood just doesn't often last for long enough. However, there are a reasonable amount of wooden objects known from the last part of the Stone Age, the Neolithic Period, including what was a raised wooden trackway through marshy ground. It was found in Somerset and is called the 'Sweet Track', dating to 5,821 years ago. The stone axe shown above was found at Ehenside tarn in Cumbria and dates to between 5,700 and 5,100 years ago. It is made from a local stone that was also traded elsewhere due to its suitability for toolmaking.

The Neolithic period saw an important change in the making of stone tools in Northern Europe. During the Mesolithic, about 7000 BCE, stones like flint were 'knapped'. Flakes were knocked off the workpiece to form sharp edges in order to make scrapers, knives, axes and other useful bladed tools. During the Neolithic, about 4000BCE, stone started to be ground to shape by using the time-consuming method of rubbing against abrasive stones, or perhaps leather with abrasive rock powder on it, using water to aid the process.

Why spend so much extra time grinding down blades? BBC television's 'Time Team' programme did an interesting experiment for an episode called 'Sussex Ups and Downs' aired in 2006. The action of a ground axe blade was tested (by cutting down a small hazel tree trunk) against a blade made by knapping. The ground blade was found to work much more efficiently, cutting far more cleanly and not becoming damaged by bits of timber getting lodged in the blade and causing fractures to form. It required less effort to use and would last much longer without becoming damaged beyond further use.

The objects in this image were put in a pit dug into a cairn (a mound of stones) and may well have been part of a burial. They were found at Ayton east field in North Yorkshire and date to the Late Neolithic, about 5,300 to 4, 500 years ago. There are three flint axe heads, a flint adze for carpentry work, five flint arrowheads, a flint knife with two flakes, an antler mace head and two boar tusk blades.

After seeing First Nations tools from the North-West Pacific coastline, it is obvious that complex woodcarvings were possible with the tools available in Europe before the discovery of copper alloys. The hard stones were shaped into sophisticated and sharp blades. I also wonder if the teeth of the native European beaver were used to make woodworking tools, as the teeth of American beavers were in the North-West Pacific before contact with Europeans. No such tools have been found in European archeological studies to my knowledge, but in her book Cedar, Hilary Stewart comments on how a split beaver tooth was one of the principal tools for making wooden bowls, spoons and ladles in the NW Pacific region, being the original 'hook' or 'crooked' knife. It strikes me that the boar's tusk blades shown above could perhaps also serve a similar function. She also notes how, when 'roughly hollowing out a cedar bowl using a maul and a bone-tipped chisel I had made, I was surprised by the blade's strength and cutting ability'. Stewart also notes the usefulness of mussel shell (Mytilus californianus) when scraping or shaving wood. However, she notes that it fractures easily when mallet blows are applied even though early ethnographers describe it being used in chisels.

Some very interesting and enigmatic stone carvings are known from the Neolithic. The carved chalk 'Folkton Drums' date from around the end of the Neolithic or the start of the use of copper, about 4,500 to 4,000 years ago. They are unique and were placed under the head and hips of a child buried in a barrow mound. Their purpose is unknown, although the chalk probably came from nearby Folkton Wold in Yorkshire.

These small stone objects shown below fascinate me. Over 400 have been found, mainly in northern and eastern Scotland. They come in various shapes and their use is unknown.

The Bronze Age

These bronze axes date to about 2,750 to 2,500 years ago. Two of the three below were found at Walthamstow in London and in the River Thames near the Tate Gallery, also in London. The other was found in South Yorkshire.

These axe heads were found at Petter's sports field in Surrey, England. They date to the Late Bronze Age, about 3,000 to 2,750 years ago.

The L-shaped wooden handle would fit into the socket at the back of the axehead and would be lashed on using the loop:
Image from:
It was interesting to see the similarities between these bronze axe heads and some found in China and Siberia shown below.

The two socketed heads on the left come from the Shang or early Western Zhou dynasties in China and date from between 3,200 and 3,002 years ago. The one on the right (note the loops) is about 3,000 to 2,800 years old and came from Southern Siberia, although it is based on a Chinese design.

There are obvious similarities between the Chinese-style bronze axehead on the right and the Northern European ones. I wonder if they show a kind of 'convergent evolution' of design, where similar requirements created similar tools, or whether they reflect a passing of ideas between cultures, perhaps by contact through ancient trade routes such as the Silk Road.

Again, a lot of wooden items from the Bronze Age must have rotted away over time. The photo below shows a wooden ladle at top left found at Flag Fen in Cambridgeshire and dating to the Middle Bronze Age (about 3,300 years ago). Around it are various bone and pottery utensils from this time until the early Iron Age (2,650 years ago) that were found in Surrey, North Yorkshire and Suffolk, England.

The Iron Age

The files, gouges and chisels in the top row came from Tiefenau in Switzerland. The tools on the left appear to have tangs ready to fit handles onto them, whereas the one on the right seems to have a ready-made handle cast as part of it. The gouge second from the right has a socket to fit a handle. No dates are given for these tools.

The adze head below them came from Lisnacrogher in County Antrim, Ireland. Below it is a circular disc cutter from King Harry Lane cemetery in St Albans, Hertfordshire, England that dates to between 2,014 and 1,064 years ago. 

In the BBC documentary 'A History of Celtic Britain: Age of Iron', Neil Oliver shows examples from a hoard of iron tools discovered near Fiskerton in Lincolnshire (the next two images are screenshots from that programme). They are thought to date to around 2,400 years ago. It is very noticeable how similar they are to tools dating from more recent times. 

Oliver holds up a file and points out that 'if someone was to show you this and say, "this is from my great-grandfather's toolbox"', you would believe them. He also shows a fragment of saw blade and notes that iron working allowed much stronger and  thinner blades than cast bronze, making more efficient tools that were relatively cheap and simple to make and repair compared to their bronze equivalents.

Roman Britain

Many of these Roman tools really are similar to modern examples. The curved blade top right is described as a 'drawknife' and came from Hod Hill in Dorset, England. It dates to the first century CE (or AD, if you prefer).  

I recognise this blade as an 'inshave'. It is used to hollow out chair seats and also by barrel-makers (coopers) for shaping the inside of barrel staves. Similar ones can be bought today from woodworking suppliers. Travelling clockwise from this blade, we come to a solid-handled punch (with a grooved face for decorating woodwork) and a broken spoon-shaped drill bit (probably used with a bow-or strap-drill according to the label), both from the 1st century CE and found at Camerton in Somerset. Bottom right is a tool suitable for use as a 'float', to remove stone in masonry work, as a coarse rasp to remove wood in carpentry or for filing horse's hooves. It also came from Hod Hill and dates to the same time as the inshave. 

The thin-bladed paring chisel on the left came from Walbrook in London and dates to the first or second century CE. It would have been hand-pushed and used for fine work. This tool has the maker's name MARTIALIS stamped onto it, a custom with tool makers that survives to this day.

The tools shown above and in the following two photos probably all date from the first or second century CE. Going clockwise from the top left;

A double-ended spatula found in London, probably used for spreading wax onto wax tablets,

A very well-preserved awl, for making small holes in wood or (more probably) leather, found in London. This one has an iron point, a bronze collar and a handle made from turned boxwood (Buxus sempervirens),

The paring chisel mentioned above,

A socketed carpenter's gouge found at Camerton in Somerset,

A carpenter's firmer chisel with a socket for a wooden handle, found at Smith's Wharf in London,

A firmer chisel with a solid handle, found as part of the 'Sandy Hoard' in Bedfordshire,

A solid-handled mortice chisel, with the handle battered down by hard use. Found at Hod Hill.

The adze head on the left was found at Camerton. The small hammer head on the other side of the eye hole for the handle has been burred by use.
In the centre is an adze-hammer, used by carpenters and boatbuilders and found at Bull's Wharf in London. The handle is a modern reconstruction.
The axe on the right also has a reconstructed handle. It is a kind of military axe called a dolabra, found at Hod Hill. It would have been carried by a Roman soldier in addition to his weapons and was used for felling trees and construction when on a campaign.

The pickaxe head at the top of this photo is immediately recognisable as such. It was found at Camerton and is a military-pattern tool, used by Roman soldiers for construction work. The axe head below it was also found at Camerton and would have been used to fell trees. It has a short inscription stamped into it, perhaps a maker's mark, but it is now impossible to read it.

The axe head at the bottom came from an unknown source, but represents the commonest kind of Roman axe. A weld line shows that the cutting edge was welded onto the rest of the axe head. This may have been hardened metal, to give a sharper cutting edge.

This ship's figurehead made of oak looks like a Viking one, but it was actually made earlier, during 300-400 CE. It was found in the River Schelde in Belgium and had a tenon allowing it to be removed, maybe for travelling under low bridges. It is not known if the figurehead was made by Gallo-Roman craftsmen, Germanic craftsmen who settled in the local area or by Germanic craftsmen who used the Gallo-Roman style.

The wooden objects shown below were found in various parts of Britain and illustrate some of the humbler day-to-day Roman uses of wood. They include spindles and spindle whorls, a tent peg, a wooden key for a wooden lock, a bowl and a strange object that is listed as a bobbin but which also looks a lot like a yo-yo. The board on the right was a barrel stave, which was reused to line a well near Mansion House in London. It bears two stamps of Fuscius Macrinus, who is thought to have been the cooper who made the barrel.

The Anglo-Saxons

These Anglo-Saxon woodworking tools were found at Hurbuck in County Durham and date to around 1,200 - 1,000 years ago. The curved adze at the top would be used for smoothing and shaping wood. The splendid T-shaped axe head is labelled as being used to 'fell and chop trees', although such a broad yet lightweight cutting edge would seem more suited to hewing felled timber into beams and boards. On the right is a spoon-shaped auger, used to drill holes in wood. You can see Dave Budd's reconstructions of such drills on one of my previous posts, which you can find by clicking on this link.