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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.

Monday 1 September 2014

A strange Norman stone carving in St Nicholas' church, Combe St Nicholas, Somerset

combe st nicholas church

While visiting this church for a wedding, I noticed the strange carved stone capital on a pillar near the north entrance. Apparently, it is the only remnant of the Norman church that once stood on the site (although a round font dating to Saxon times is thought to be the oldest object in the church, surviving from the Saxon church building that was here before that).

green man combe st nicholas

It is an odd carved design and some people think that it represents the devil. I wonder why the medieval builders who rebuilt the church in the 13th century decided to keep this bit of stonework in particular? The pillar that it tops does not seem to hold up any arches, so it probably isn't structural. 

The way that the weird-looking head seems to sprout the paired 'snail track' lines out of its mouth reminds me a lot of 'green man' carvings, some of which have foliage coming from their mouths in a similar fashion. I wonder if this could be an example of such a design? According to 'The Company of the Green Man' website, this carving would seem to have been identified as such by Clive Hicks in his book 'The Green Man: A Field Guide'. 

The carving on the capital to its left looks to me like it could represent a crown.

If you are visiting the church, the oak screen in front of the altar is also worth a look. A plaque tells how it was first carved around 1480, then was taken down and moved in the 19th century before being repaired and returned to it's original position in 1921, when a memorial to the men of the parish who died in the First World War was also added to it.

Live carving demonstrations in London bars to promote 'Naked Grouse' Whisky: Part Two

Six turned and carved oak whisky bottles were in my studio, ready to be carved in bars in London with the logo of each establishment.

However, it turned out that only five bars were involved in the final project. I was sent their logos by Kirstie at Material (the marketing company that had commissioned me). After digitally resizing them, I transferred the images using carbon paper onto the plinths.

The bars were all located around the Mayfair and Marylebone districts of London and were quite a mix;  from a fun party bar, through a Lebanese restaurant to a very exclusive place with no sign and a doorman.

I set off on the first weekend very excited to see the first one but also a little nervous about carving live in front of (possibly drunk) people with a two hour time limit. The first establishment was called 'Match!' and was holding a beach party that night. 

I was working with Donna, who was there to help talk to people (although when it comes to talking about woodcarving, I suspect she may have been required to help rescue them!) The staff made us welcome and we had some great chats with some of the customers.

At the end, the carved sculpture was left with the bar for them to use in promoting Naked Grouse whisky.

The next weekend, there were three venues to be visited. I was working with Nadine and Mark came to take photographs on the Friday evening. First was Apres.

It was quite early and the bar was pretty quiet. Mark did get some great photos though and both he and Nadine were good fun to work with. 

Normally, I'd use a range of traditional lettercutting tools for lettercutting; fishtail gouges, woodcarver's chisels etc. I did feel, however, that a large selection of tools might have been a bit vulnerable in bars (that I'd never been to before) and while being carried around town from hotel to venue and back after dark. Fewer tools also meant they didn't get spread about and that they were easier to keep an eye on, which made things safer for me and others in the bars too.

Most of the carving at these demonstrations was done with 'V' tools, to produce a good standard of work fairly quickly and leave time to chat to people who might be interested in what was going on. A small bullnosed number 3 gouge also came in useful for producing and cleaning up carved curves in the designs. The V tools had to be kept razor sharp (as they would be anyway!) to cut neatly through the oak. I took a couple of sharpened spares of each tool to save spending time honing them at the venues.

The next place was called Hush. It recently won a Tatler restaurant award and was a very well-presented and classy place. 

It was interesting arriving at each establishment and seeing what kind of spot was provided for me to carve in. In Hush, it was at a low table which, as in the other venues, I covered with a black cloth to protect it. It was a bit lower-down than my usual carving spot, but the carving came out well.

As it turned out, the staff were very pleasant at Hush and made us welcome. The food going past on trays looked incredible too!

The next day Nadine and I went to Levant, a Lebanese restaurant off Wigmore Street in Marylebone. 

If pushed to make a choice, I think that this was my favourite venue of all. The staff were very welcoming and friendly, customers came up to chat and the exotic feel of the place was added to by Arabic dancers performing around me at one point!

The design to be carved was also the most complex and taxing. It was a bit of a head-scratcher to work out at times but I got there in the end.

On the next weekend and the final visit to London, I worked with Gillian (one of the managers of Material) and Will, who took photos of the event. We went to Mr Foggs, tucked away in a non-descript back street in Mayfair with no sign over the door.

Mr Foggs has a door policy enforced by a doorman and certainly felt like it cultivated an 'exclusive' air about the place. The staff inside were friendly though and some customers came up to chat. The 'Victorian' decor was also fun to look at as I carved their logo, while sat next to the piano.

I was very happy with the finished carving too:

All in all, the three trips to London were a great experience and thoroughly enjoyable. It was also very satisfying to hear from Kirstie that the client was 'delighted' with the project. 

If anyone reading this would like me to do more live carving demonstrations for them, please feel free to get in touch with me via the contact form on the right.

Thanks to Andy and to Kirstie and everyone that I worked with at Material. Plus, of course, thanks to the staff at the bars who made us welcome and, together with Nadine, took some of these photos.