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Thursday 15 December 2016

'Starman', a portrait of David Bowie carved in wood

They are strange, the routes that lead into some projects. 

I had signed up to have a stall at the St Werburghs Community Centre Christmas fair in Bristol and planned to sell wooden stars. I've always liked these stars, made from locally-grown larch timber, so decided to make a few and see if they appealed to other people too. 

After making quite a few of the larch stars, I cut a couple from some oak that was lying around in the studio. The largest one, the same size as the largest stars shown on the table, is about 18cm (7") across. It seemed to need a carving on it and the star shape made me think of the song 'Starman'.

I like to test myself by carving portraits. They aren't easy. Carving a face can be tricky enough, particularly in relief. All the elements of a face carved in relief need to work together without having the same distances between them as in a face seen in full three dimensions: the tip of the nose doesn't come out as much as in a real face, for example.

To successfully make it look like a well-known person is even tougher.

A day was spent before the fair carving to get the piece looking roughly right, then more work was done during the fair itself, in quiet moments between talking to visitors.

I left the portrait with the tool cuts still visible. Sanding carvings of faces can sometimes make them look lifeless and 'plasticky' and hopefully this finish keeps some vitality in the appearance of the carving. 

The star sat in front of me at my workbench for a few days after the fair, being taken down and worked on again as the changing light showed areas that needed reworking. I'm happy with it now.

Tuesday 22 November 2016

Repairing damaged African sculptures, made from wood which has been made to look like ebony

Occasionally I'm asked to repair or restore a damaged sculpture. They have needed repair due to a range of reasons, ranging from wear-and-tear to having been knocked over by someone's mother-in-law!

These two racing male cheetahs, 90 cm (3 feet) long, were carved in Tanzania and had been damaged in transit to the UK. Although the wood looks superficially similar to ebony, it is actually another kind of timber (probably Ironwood [Olea capensis] or Bleedwood [Pterocarpus angolensis]) that has had a dark stain and then black shoe polish applied. This darkening really brings out the form of the sculpture, as it reduces the visual impact of the timber's grain. 

Since both of these are a fairly widespread and common trees in Tanzania, I must admit to being happy that a different wood has been used to make this sculpture instead of ebony. Genuine African ebony trees (Diospyros crassiflora) are not native to this area, as well as being much scarcer and threatened by over-exploitation, so it was good to see a Tanzanian sculptor using what I believe to be local timber.

The tail of one cheetah was almost completely broken off and there were a couple of other nasty breaks as well. 

I really enjoy studying the sculptures to be repaired to see how they have been made by the carver who created them, so that the repair can echo their work as closely as possible.  

Some might be surprised to find out that these cheetahs were constructed from at least ten different pieces of wood, carefully jointed and then held together by nails. This actually has more than one benefit. It means that the carver wastes less timber than if the whole sculpture was carved from a single piece of wood. It also means that the grain runs along each leg and tail, so making them stronger and less likely to break across the grain.

The joins between pieces of wood were also filled with some kind of pitch or resin, which has been modelled in places to follow the shape of the carving. It was interesting to see this, as I've found the technique used in other sculptures from East Africa too.

To repair the piece, I carefully fixed the broken pieces together, with an internal supporting rod if necessary, then filled the remaining gaps with a paste made from wood dust mixed into a resin compound. 

This was left overnight and then any remaining holes or gaps filled with the same mixture. When it was all filled and set, the repair was very carefully sanded smooth and then polished with black wax polish.

It's quite a time-consuming and fiddly job, as the resin must set fully between each application. After the work was finished though, it was great to finally see the sculpture restored back to its former glory. The sense of movement and energy is very well portrayed, which I think is one of the hardest things to get across when removing material to shape a carving.

You may also like to see this previous commission to repair a damaged sculpture by the renowned Zambian sculptor, Friday Tembo. The owners were personal friends of Mr. Tembo, who had since passed away, so this repair was even more important to them. When it arrived at my workshop, the piece looked like this:

It shows a shaman in the act of transforming between the form of a fish and that of a man. The repair took a while, but it was interesting to use this process to study in more depth how this unusual artwork had been made and the techniques that had been used.

Again there was a real sense of satisfaction in restoring the piece, which was heightened by knowing who the sculptor was and how important this sculpture was to its owners.

Friday 28 October 2016

New website!


Normally feeling under the weather isn't particularly useful. The latest bout of cold/flu/ sniffles has definitely had a happy outcome though. Instead of going out and about and
after a couple of weeks of hammering away at a keyboard, my new website is finally on line. 

Why not check it out? If you have any feedback too, I'd love to hear it.

Monday 10 October 2016

When a journeyman goes home: a travelling 'naver' returns to Copenhagen

I've written before about the tradition of the German travelling journeymen. One post is a more general overview and the other a more detailed look at some of the traditions that come with this life. Another post talks about what some of the geselle (German journeyman) traditions mean to me, as a settled craftsperson in Britain.

Nat was the first person travelling in the tradition of the German guilds that I had met and talked to about it. Through him I also met several other people doing the same thing and I feel quite privileged to have had an opportunity to do so. Meeting journeymen travelling in the tradition is not that common an occurrence in Britain, even amongst craftspeople. Some of those that he put me in contact with I would now also call friends.

Journeymen in Berlin around 1900
Image from:,_karriere_og_ledelse/Håndværk/Håndværk_generelt/naver

The normal length of travelling is three years and a long day. The long day is the part that lets someone keep going if they don't feel that it's time to stop yet. During their travels, journeymen carry a map with a circle marking an area with a fifty kilometre radius and their hometown at the centre. They are not allowed to go into that area for the whole of their time travelling in the tradition (unless there is an emergency, such as a member of their immediate family becoming seriously ill).

Nat himself is Danish and came into the tradition as a naver, which is the Danish equivalent of the German journeyman. Danish navers are not as frequently encountered as German gesellen and I was told that Nat was one of few Danish navers currently travelling at that point. He himself was travelling in the German tradition, having been introduced into the tradition by a German journeyman. 

After over five years, it was time for Nat to go home.

Having been notified in advance of the day and location, Nat's friends and family were gathering next to a town sign on a busy road just outside of Copenhagen. The weather was bright with some cloud and the first chill of autumn on the breeze. As the journeymen would be hitchhiking to the spot, times were very approximate - he would be there some time after 3.30pm.

I could feel the excitement build, with people crossing the highway to see as far as possible along it. It was great to have a chance to meet and chat with the others who were also waiting. Four journeymen arrived early, then headed back down the road to find the others so that they could all arrive together.

Eventually, at about 5pm, a group of around twenty figures wearing the distinctive clothes and carrying the spiral Stenz sticks of the gesellen came into view. All of the friends and family gathered on the other side of the sign. As they got closer, the cluster of journeymen separated into a line and, walking in single file, the line snaked around and back on itself. 

It wound up alleyways and across the road, before finally gathering on an island in the middle of the carriageway. There, a few words were said between them, there was a cheer and Nat drained the last of a bottle.

The group approached the other side of the sign from the waiting friends and family. Not all of the people in it were currently journeymen, some I knew had already finished their own travels but had put on their wandering clothes again for this day

They then formed two lines with their stenz sticks held between them. 

Nat climbed up onto this 'ladder' and clambered up to the sign. He then climbed back over, his journeying years done. I knew that in his pocket, in accordance with tradition, would be five euros: the same amount that he left with.

There was still one more thing to do while we were there. When he left, Nat's friends and family had put letters for him into a bottle which was then sealed and buried at a certain depth five paces from the sign. Traditionally, Nat would dig the hole to bury it and his family would try to throw handfuls of earth back in to show that they didn't want him to go, while his journeymen friends defended the hole from being refilled.

There were a few toots on car horns from passing motorists as the spade was brought out and Nat started to dig to retrieve the bottle, with some journeyman songs being sung at the same time.

Eventually, other friends took over the work to give him a chance to talk to those who had come to see him.

After a while, it was realised that the bottle wasn't there! The sign must have been moved in the meantime. So any rubbish was gathered up to be taken away and the hole was carefully refilled before everyone went off into Copenhagen to celebrate Nat's homecoming.

The next day, there was another party, although everyone seemed a little more subdued after the drinking of the night before (together with the partying that had gone on before they arrived at the sign). All of the journeymen got up on a stage in front of the family and friends and short speeches were made before some traditional travelling songs were sung. It was simple but also quite moving.

Nat's family had brought clothes with them, which he changed into from his travelling clothes while the songs continued. Then there was a quiz. All of the stenz sticks were put into the middle and Nat had to guess whose stick each one was. Not easy with so many travelling companions there!

naver homecoming

It was great to catch up with old friends at the party, as well as meeting new ones. 

I hope that these posts allow English-speaking people who haven't met journeymen travelling in the German tradition to learn a bit more about it. It would be good to think that they might open a few extra doors to those travelling in the UK and elsewhere, where the traditions are less well known and understood than in continental Europe.

And, of course, good luck to Nat for his next adventures!

Wednesday 5 October 2016

Passau: the beautiful baroque city where three rivers meet

St Stephan's Dom, Passau

Passau is a city in Bavaria, in the south-east of Germany. It is not far from the borders with Austria and the Czech Republic. 

The city has a long history and it stands on the strategically important junction between three large rivers: the Donau (known in many countries as the Danube), the Inn and the Ilz. These rivers join at a point called the drei flüsse eck (three rivers corner) at the end of the promontory on which the old town stands. From there, the river becomes the Donau (Danube).

Danube (Donau) at Passau

The town is first mentioned in Roman times and was the residence of a bishop from 739 CE. Bishops became the rulers of the small independent city state of Passau in the 13th century. The town was devastated by fire in 1662 and was rebuilt shortly after, using designs by Italian masters, in the baroque style. Passau became part of Bavaria in 1803 and the baroque had a big influence on Bavarian architecture, even through to the nineteenth century palaces of King Ludwig II.

The most impressive example of this baroque architecture in Passau has to be the Cathedral of St Stephen, in the centre of the old town and surrounded by cobbled alleyways and courtyards. It was designed by Carlo Lurago, with stucco work by Giovanni Battista Carlone and frescos by Carpoforo Tencalla. The overall effect can be seen in the first image above and in these below: the floor and lower parts of the pillars of the nave are fairly sedate, rising overhead to a tumult of colour and form.

The cathedral also houses the Europe's largest cathedral organ.

Passau cathedral organ

Even though most of the decorative sculpture is made from stucco (which is a mixture of lime, sand, water and sometimes a binding agent such as horsehair) there is some carving in wood. The organ has carved and gilded decoration and there is a large crucifix and some smaller statues. 

Perhaps the most impressive woodcarving is on the pulpit, which was constructed from carved and gilded lime wood. Designed by Vienna-based Antonio Beduzzi, with figures carved in the workshops of Lorenzo Mattielli, it was made between 1722 and 1726:

This cathedral replaced an earlier, medieval, one which was destroyed in the fire of 1662. Now, one of the few remaining identifiable pieces of the original cathedral is a carving that has become a symbol of the town and is displayed nearby - a large face carved in stone and now known as 'Der Passauer Tölpell'.

As well as the incredible work in the Dom, more beautifully-made pieces could be seen in many of the streets and alleyways around the old town. Some were statues..

...but more impressive to me were the stunning doors leading into many of the houses and courtyards. 

I wonder if these also date to the mid-late seventeenth century?

Tuesday 27 September 2016

Revisiting Eggenfelden: my first large woodcarving and the first piece made using chisels, carved and painted over twenty years ago

In the summer of 1995, an international environmental work camp was held outside Eggenfelden in Bavaria. I was the only British person there, with other volunteers from the US, Canada, France, Germany, Slovenia, Poland, Czech republic and Lithuania.

We worked with the LBV (Landesbund für Vogelschutz), a local environmental group, to transform a disused electricity substation into a wildlife sanctuary with spaces for birds and bats to roost. It was a great time, camping in the adjoining field and cooking for each other.

Woodcarving had interested me more and more over the previous year but I'd only produced work using found timber with my Opinel knife up until that point. As the construction project drew towards a close, I asked if it would be okay to carve a date plaque for the building. With a piece of softwood (probably larch), a gouge and two carpenter's chisels donated by the neighbour, the date plaque took shape. I painted it and then fixed it onto the tower. 

carving a wooden date plaque

With the help of Emmanuelle, a French volunteer, the two metal doors on the structure were  also brightly painted.

painted flowers

At the end of the work camp a small conifer tree was put onto the roof, the traditional way that the end of a building project is celebrated in the area.

At the time, I never got a decent photo of the carved plaque and had always regretted it. The panel was the largest project that I'd worked on for several years afterwards and it was also my first carving made without using my knife. I often wondered if the panel was still there and what it looked like.

So last week, with mounting excitement, I sat in a car travelling along a dusty farm track towards the same spot. The satellite view on Google maps had told me that the building was still there, but were the panel and paintings?

As the car pulled up next to the tower, I pretty much threw myself out and ran round to the other side. There it was, aged but with the colours still visible and the whole panel looking in much better shape than I'd feared!

The painted doors hadn't fared quite as well, with one almost completely faded and rusted away.

However, the birds and bat on the main door were still quite easy to make out. I wonder why someone had gone to the trouble to paint out the blue tit sitting on the fencepost?

It was fantastic to see that the plaque was still there and also that the tower was clearly still very much serving its purpose as a wildlife refuge. 

LBV Bayern

LBV Projekt Eggenfelden

Saturday 24 September 2016

The woodcarving tradition of the Ammergauer Alps: visiting Oberammergau and Hans-Joachim Seitfudem's studio in Bad Kohlgrub

oberammergau woodcarvings

The town of Oberammergau is in Bavaria, the most south-easterly state in Germany, not far from the border with Austria. It is famous for the Passion Play, which depicts the suffering and death of Jesus and has been staged there every ten years since 1634. 

The town and the area around it are also renowned for the woodcarving tradition that predates the first performance of the play. In 1508, the Florentine statesman Francesco Vettori visited Oberammergau and described it as a 'very healthy but poor village, where most of the inhabitants were fine woodcarvers. The villagers were famous for carving crucifixes and different scenes inside a walnut shell.' These kinds of sculptures are still produced today; this example was carved by Joachim Seitfudem:

carving in a walnut shell by Joachim Seitfudem

In the 18th century, the woodcarvers from this area would travel around Europe carrying a distinctive type of rack called a 'Kraxe', on which they carried carvings for sale. 

Kraxentrager statue

The peddler, called a 'kraxenträger', is a figure whose hard work and resilience is still celebrated in the area today, both in public statues and in sculptures by contemporary carvers.

Oberammergau kraxenträger


Carvings made in Oberammergau can still be seen in many places outside of the area, even in Britain. This nineteenth-century crucifixion scene in the church of St Carantoc, near Newquay in Cornwall, is an example of a piece made by carvers based there.

There are quite a few shops selling woodcarvings in Oberammergau and I visited several of them. It was interesting to see that certain figures and subjects came up again and again. The kraxenträger is one, as is the crucifixion of Jesus, St George slaying the dragon, St Hubertus (who is associated with hunters) and of course Nativity scenes, amongst others. Another secular subject that particularly interested me were the many figures of morris dancers, taken from famous original versions which were carved in 1480 by the Munich-based sculptor Erasmus Grasser.

Erasmus Grasser morris dancer

In one shop, the staff were happy to explain about the process of making the carvings. 

They said that their sculptures were still carved in Oberammergau, however the pressure of producing enough to satisfy demand at a reasonable price meant that most were now made using a pantograph (a copying machine) rather than by hand. A bronze master figure was produced and used to create other figures, which could be scaled up or down by setting the machine differently. Such devices have been in use for centuries and, in a world of computer controlled processes, machines working from a metal master figure are quite traditional in themselves. Once carved, the figures would be checked and finished with wax or painted by hand. 

I have been told, by another local carver, that German law also says that if a sculpture has had at least ten percent of the work done by hand, it can be sold as 'hand carved'. 

Some larger figures will be roughly shaped using a computer-controlled routing device and then carved by hand over a period of two or three days to speed things up. To be honest, this seems fair enough to me in a commercial context. Most carvers would use machinery, such as a bandsaw, to roughly shape a sculpture nowadays and the hand carving would still require a lot of skill to execute well.

The same person told me that some of this carving work is sometimes also done outside of Germany, in countries such as Rumania, then sold by retailers in this area as locally-made. I don't believe that the shop shown above does this but apparently some other, less honest, places do. 

I saw three kinds of wood being used to produce carvings. Larger ones and hand-carved small figures were produced using timber from the lime or linden tree (Tilia sp.), as it is soft and easily worked. Smaller carvings, especially those made by using a pantograph, were also often made from the harder timber of sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus), which is called 'Ahorn' in German. Traditionally, this would usually be sourced from the South Tyrol region of Italy, but nowadays it sometimes had to be bought in from further afield. In one shop, a small number of carvings were made from pine or larch timber. This didn't seem to be a common practice although I did see an interesting grave marker, also carved from softwood, in a graveyard in the nearby village of Bad Kohlgrub.

Bavarian carved wooden grave marker

This region is quite staunchly Catholic and many woodcarvings of saints, Jesus or Mary his mother could be seen on local shrines or around important features such as springs of drinking water.

Bavarian woodcarving

To make the wooden carvings ready to be placed outdoors, they are coated with layers of a special compound made from three different kinds of powdered chalk, one of which is Champagne chalk from France. The number of coats used varies between three and seven, with each layer being allowed to dry and then carefully sanded before the next is applied, so that the finer details of the carving aren't obscured. The figure can then be painted and gilded.

The village of Bad Kohlgrub is not far from Oberammergau. One of the most respected local woodcarvers lives and works here; Hans-Joachim Seitfudem. This is his shop:

Hans-Joachim Seitfudem's shop

I was in the village to celebrate the wedding of his son, Joachim, who is also a woodcarver. Jo kindly explained a lot about his father's work, as Hans-Joachim is friendly but speaks very little English and my knowledge of German is not much better.

Unlike the larger woodcarving outlets in Oberammergau, Hans-Joachim does the majority of his carving by hand using linden timber and does not use replicating machines. He is an extraordinarily quick and skilled worker, having explained to Jo that a carver must be fast to make a living.

I was very interested to notice that, even though all his work is done by hand, two sculptures of the same subject would be almost identical. 

There wasn't much in the way of reference material visible around the work area, so I suppose that this must come from familiarity with and repetition of the carving process over decades of work and knowledge passed on from master to pupil. All of the other carvers that I spoke with in the area knew of Hans-Joachim and respected his work very highly.

Smaller figures would have hands and sometimes forearms carved separately, then glued to the rest of the figure using a dowel for strength. This meant that the wood grain could run along both the legs and the hands, making them stronger and less likely to snap.

Hans-Joachim is one of the last master carvers in the area to have had apprentices. It is very expensive for a master woodcarver to train an apprentice, so most young people who wish to learn the trade nowadays go to a carving school. The majority of them are not from the local area, coming instead from other places to study because of the reputation that Oberammergau has. However, it was said to me that the quality cannot be expected to be the same: learning from a real master being far superior.

I did notice that the work of younger carvers that I saw in Oberammergau was often technically excellent, but that attempts to produce their own style often seemed to lack self confidence. Many would emulate other styles and it led me to wonder if the strong tradition of the area held them back from really exploring new forms of expression in woodcarving. At the same time, carving has been around for thousands and thousands of years and has been practised all over the world. It can be a struggle for any carver to find new approaches to it.

Thanks to Jo, Hans-Joachim, Toni and to all of the carvers of the Ammergau Alps who shared their knowledge with me.