Saturday, 14 December 2013

Wood Club

I've spent a fair bit of time in the workshop over the last few weeks. I haven't made much, instead I've been helping my friends Nick and Dave turn some bowls and make some oak chopping boards. It's been a lot of fun and we've had regular meetings of what Nick has now named 'Wood Club'.

Dave turned two big sycamore bowls out of two halves of the same log. These were both made as presents for his colleagues.

And here are the finished bowls:

It was a really interesting experience teaching someone how to turn. Having taught myself and not really understanding why I do what I do, it was a good learning experience for me to have to explain the process and through doing so, gain a better insight into what's going on.

Here is Nick's bowl:

Though it is a fair bit smaller than Dave's, it was a bigger challenge because of hollowing out in a smaller space. Both lads did a great job and are hooked on turning now. Nick has already got himself a lathe and I'm sure Dave will follow suit just as soon as he can get a dedicated space.

Wood Club in full swing

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Tortoiseshell serving spoon.....

I made this spoon a couple of months ago. It's laurel and it was a copy of a spoon Julian bought from a charity shop some years ago and uses a lot for cooking - or at least he did until I nicked it to copy!

Not sure how this picture came about?

Anyway, It's not a bad spoon, as spoons go. The bowl wasn't as deep as I'd have liked it to be, but that was dictated by the size of the piece of wood I started with. It's about 10" long. It's not particularly decorative in design, but I absolutely love the natural colour and patination (I'm sure that's a real word, but spell check says 'no') of the wood. It was quite colourful to begin with, but after a little bit of oil and a couple of months in the spoon jar on the window-sill of the kitchen, it has gone even darker. At first i thought it looked a bit like cow-hide, but now it reminds me of the fur of a tortoiseshell cat.

I haven't used the spoon yet, but am convinced with use, and washing and subsequent oiling, the colour would come out even better. Oh the eternal dilemma of using or selling spoons. I haven't made that many spoons yet - a couple of hundred maybe, altogether, which may sound a lot, but there are those who would do that in a month or two - and so I'm still a little bit precious about them all. They are a bit like my children and all live in a drawstring canvas bag in the garage (the spoons, that is, not the children). I guess I can't go on carving for ever and never getting rid of any. I've given away and sold the odd one here and there, but one day I'm going to have to get serious about them.

Anyone out there got any tips on how to cut the apron strings (again, I'm talking about the spoons, not the children).

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Craft or art....?

I was reading on Jarrod Stonedahl's blog today, where he talks about what he does in terms of whether it is art or craft and the nature of those two terms. It is a question I have heard raised before and one I will hear again, I am sure. Others have added their thoughts - Peter Follansbee, Robin Wood, to name but two. It made me think, and I enjoyed the process of thinking - it's not something I get to do as often as I'd like. I began to write my thoughts down with the intention of posting them as a comment on Jarrod's blog, but when I tried to cut and paste it in I had exceeded the allowed character count, so thought I would put them on here instead.

Please don't think that I think I am some kind of oracle and have the definitive answer to this question - I don't and what follows are just my thoughts and musings. Indeed, I really don't think there is a definitive answer and anyone who thinks they have it is just kidding themselves.

The debate between art and craft is largely a question of semantics. Language is not objective nor transparent, and meaning not fixed or self evident. You can no more proscribe the meaning or definition of a word than you can stop it changing and evolving. If this were not so, then there would be no Oxford English Dictionary – or any other etymological dictionary for that matter. When I was studying grammar at university, the subject was dominated by the eternal wrangle between those traditionalists and fuddy-duddies who wished to proscribe grammatical usage, saying that one way of speaking was inherently ‘right’ (always their own way, incidentally) whilst another was inherently ‘wrong’, and those who believed grammar was a functional tool to aid and support clear communication, that the way people spoke and wrote was correct as it reflected popular and contemporary usage. Is grammar there to school people to talk correctly, or is it there to describe actual speech? Similarly, should language constrain us or serve us? Do I have to keep harking back to antiquated definitions in order to define myself or my craft? Not if I don’t want to – what I make is what I make and no amount of labelling or defining it can change it one bit (nor improve it, unfortunately).

As a teacher who teaches poetry, I have to tell my students that there are no rules to what constitutes a poem, other than, perhaps, some vague notion of poetic subject matter. That’s not to say there never were rules to writing poetry, of course there were throughout history and across cultures and nationalities, but an Elizabethan sonneteer cannot tell Ogden Nash his writing was not poetry because it did not match his own definition of a poem. A writer of quintains cannot deny Homer’s epics are poetry because he used more than five lines.

When I talk with my students about race and the names we use to describe them, I try to explain that it is not for us, of one race or nationality, to choose the label to impose upon another – it is their right and there’s alone. It would be wrong for me to call Native Americans ‘Red Indians’ because that is the convention where I come from, if they would call themselves Native Americans. Equally, it would be wrong for me to call them ‘Native Americans’ if they would rather be known as First Nations.

I guess what I am trying to say is, who am I (or anyone else for that matter) to call someone an artist just because that is my opinion when they would call themselves a craftsman; or for me to call them a craftsman if they prefer the title artist? Who am I to say what someone has produced is art, if they say it is craft, and vice versa? You asked is the body design of a car art? If the guy designing it says it’s art, then who am I to argue with him. When Damian Hurst stuck half a cow in a glass box and said it was art, there were a lot of wealthy impresarios who were falling over themselves to agree with him. Personally, I didn’t get it but my personal response to the piece did not negate that of those who loved it. And I think you can extend this idea even further – I know I greatly simplify Barthes’s notions of ‘the death of the author’, but basically, once you have created something and put it out there for the public to enjoy, it is then their interpretation of the thing that counts. Why you made it, what you were thinking when you made it, what you wanted to express – it all becomes irrelevant and subordinate to the notions of the recipient. Unfortunately, that means that your canoe, though you consider it craft, if someone else considers it art, is art. You might not like it, but that’s the world we live in – there are no constraints other than those we put on ourselves. The idea of restricting people or their work based on archaic social notions or antiquated definitions that are as slippery as an eel and just as impossible to pin down, just doesn’t work anymore, which is why this debate will go on and on, round and round in circles, endlessly, never settling on any one answer or definition, and being batted back and forth by one opinion to another.

Let’s not under sell ourselves or fall into the trap of pigeon-holing ourselves (or allowing others to pigeon-hole us) – I make spoons; I craft them from wood with my hands and hand tools. In my book that makes what I do craft and makes me a craftsman. If anyone wants to disagree with me, they are welcome to, just so long as they keep it to themselves. When I craft my spoons I consider the design and aesthetic qualities and try to appeal to people’s taste in what looks beautiful. That is an artistic process and I think that makes some of my work art and me an artist. Again, disagree if you wish – it won’t stop me carving nor trying to make something that looks beautiful. As for all the ‘status’ stuff, whilst I accept that such perceptions exist, I think they are generally notions that are impressed upon us, by those who would categorize and ultimately restrict us and that they belong to an industrial history that I for one am glad to be able to move away from, along with notions of Empire and class. My parents and grandparents lived believing themselves to be ‘working class’, just because someone more privileged who wanted to look down on them said that’s what they were and labelled them as such. I refuse to class status, just as I refuse to have anyone else label what I do or what it is I make – because it is what it is.

And of course, this is all just my opinion, just as if anyone disagrees with me, it is just theirs.

No one can say my poems are not poems because they don’t rhyme.

Saturday, 23 November 2013


A while back I watched a short video of a talk by Gabriel Branby, CEO of Gransfors Bruks AB. In it he talks about how he turned Gransfors around from a failing company to what it is today. One of the things he mentioned was the idea that the products should come with some kind of information about them. I think the quote was: 'less mass, more information'. For this reason every Gransfors axe comes with a copy of their axe book.

This is a 36 page booklet, which provides information about their products, but also about axe use in general.

Another Swedish axe company, Wetterlings, provides a similar booklet with their products, though on a much smaller scale.

I've always wanted to create some kind of booklet to include with the products that we sell. In the past we've made a little information leaflet with some information about who we are, how we make our products and how to care for them. This week I sent a bowl off to it's new owner and included the first version of our little booklet. It's very humble in comparison to pretty much anything, but it's a start and hopefully our customers will appreciate it.

And here's the talk by Gabriel Branby if anyone's interested.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Just nice stuff.....

My copy of the new Niwaki catalogue arrived in the post this week so I thought I'd share it with those of you who have not yet discovered the joys of this company.
Niwaki are an England based company who, as the name would suggest, sell a range of Japanese tools, predominantly for the garden or ornamental topiary (including bonsai) and I came across them a couple of years ago when looking to buy a folding pocket saw. There were a few to choose from, but the main contenders were the good old Bahco Laplander saw, which seemed to be the preferred saw of the bushcraft community and the Silky Pocket Boy, which was a good £10 dearer, but had received some good reviews (I think I had read about it on Robin Wood's site).
The Laplander and Pocket Boy folding saws - both great tools.
And it was whilst looking for the Pocket Boy that I came across the Niwaki site, and fell in love.

What with, I hear you ask? Well I shall tell you - the ethos, the aesthetics, the playfulness, the family values behind the company and, of course, the tools themselves. I know very little about Japanese tools, but from what I have read and seen myself, they are generally excellent quality and I love the fact that a tool that does the same job as a tool I am familiar with and grew up recognising, looks entirely different from the way I would expect them to look. Take these Japanese rip saws, for instance:

 Nothing like a western saw. And it makes me smile to think that somewhere in Japan there is a hobby craftsman, looking at British tools, admiring their foreign lines and thinking exactly the same thing.
 Here are a few pages from the Niwaki catalogue.

After browsing the site and imagining myself a landscape gardener for a while, I ordered the catalogue and it has been coming ever since. It's worth a look so go to their site and order your own - it's always nice to get something cool and quality through the post.

A little while later, I read something on line about a traditional Japanese peasant knife called a Higonokami.

Having been fascinated with knives all my life and especially with the knives of the working people, I looked into these very simple but incredibly sharp friction folders, read a little of their history and thought, I have to have one - they are right up there with the classic French Opinel folders

and Algerian Douk-douk knives.

If you are interested in the story of the Higonokami knives, have a look at this article on British Blades:

I think they are wonderful and the easiest way to get one, I would suggest, is through Niwaki where they begin at £16, while the original Higonokami, made by the last surviving craftsman of the Miki corporation, is only £29 - not a bad price for either since they are laminated blades. Don't get me wrong, they are very basic knives and as suggested in the British Blades article sometimes need a bit of finishing, but I love them and if you love someone who loves knives and tools and whittling, then they will love them too and I think they are a great stocking filler and a pleasant surprise for Christmas morning.
Here is my Higonokami with the very soft leather pouch I made for it - I added
the lanyard too.

Now, anyone who owns a friction folder will know that there is a danger that the blade will fold up on you in use so what I would like to do (one of the many jobs I've been intending to get round to but keep putting off for ages) is to turn a nice handle into which it can then be inserted in the open position, like the classic barrel knife that used to be so popular in this country, but that you now can't get anywhere. Here is one that Julian picked up from a car boot and very kindly donated to my collection.

I had never seen one of these until a few years ago but am lead to believe that during the war years their was barely a working class lad in this country that didn't have one. I can't believe they ever went out of production - they're genius.

As it happens, my friend Dave gave me a nice piece of American Walnut this week that just might do the job of a handle for my Higonokami. Watch this space.

By the way, if anyone knows where I can get a douk douk (without first going to France, where incidentally I was unable to get one last year despite looking specifically for one, or Algeria) I'd be thrilled to hear from you.

Scrub that - just looked on line and they sell them on the Heinnie site, here:

Sunday, 3 November 2013

About time

Sorry, it's been ages since I've posted. Richard called me yesterday to ask what's been going on and considering I've been off on half term, where are all the posts? Well sadly, I haven't had much time for making recently. We've been doing a lot of DIY on the house and I spent the first four days of half term in Belgium on a school trip to see the WWI battlefields. I did get to do some stuff though starting with this sycamore bowl.

I have to say that this is a complete rip off of a beautiful bowl by Jim Sannerud. Please don't check out the original as it makes mine look rubbish.
On Friday my mate Nick came around with some big slabs of oak that he wants to plane down. I've not had much opportunity to work with oak, but this stuff is great, the smell is amazing. I'm going to help him with this, and he's assured me that there's plenty left, so I'm hoping to bag me a log that I can convert into a joined stool.

Nick has also just bought himself a lathe, so I offered to show him some of the basics. We put a chunk of sycamore on and he had a bit of a play. When he left I turned his test piece into this candlestick. If I get a chance I'll make a few more to go with it this week.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

That noise you can hear is the penny dropping....

It has just come to my attention that the man who I thought was spoon-carver Martin Damen, is not Martin Damen at all, but Martin Hazell.

This is of course Martin Damen
Martin Damen 
Spoon and bowl carver from Banbury (where I was born, incidentally) and here some of his lovely wares


and this is Martin Hazell (recognisable by his trademark Viking sandals)
and this some of his very lovely spoons
Since Marttin Hazell lives a semi ascetic life he doesn't have much of an online presence so I couldn't actually find many pictures of his spoons, which is a shame as they are brilliant.
So how did I manage to get these two mixed up? Well, they are both greenwood carvers, and both called Martin. The clincher is that I first met Martin Hazell at Spoonfest #1 where he did a presentation about St Peter Damian (Damian easily mistaken for Damen), who he was promoting as the patron saint od spoon-carvers, and it was there that the seed of confusion was sewn.
Suffice it to say I have seen spoons carved by both of these Martins and they are equally very skilful and professional. The Martin that I met at The National Forest Wood Fair - Beacon Hill Country Park, Leicester that I blogged about previously was in fact Marti Hazell, nor Martin Damen as stated, and I have to say, if you get the chance to see his spoons, especially the tiny burl ladles that he sells on a thong as a necklace (which I wish I'd bought when I had the chance), you will love them.
I hope that clears it up some.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Scorp update

Just a quick update on my customized scorp. I carved my first spoon with it last week and, as promised, thought I'd report on how it worked.

Pros - I've never really used a scorp before, but I have to say, with the right tool (and I'm not convinced yet, for the reasons below, that this is the right tool) I think scorps are the future of spoon bowl carving. Why? it just seemed easier with a scorp, and not only easier, but safer. I'm quite pleased with the edge that I've managed to get on it, thought with regular stropping I anticipate it getting even better, so it carved through the wood (despite it being fairly seasoned) very well. There are no additional viciously pointy bits - like on a Frosts crook - or razor-sharp straight sections that end up cutting your thumb - like on my Robin Wood knife - and with it having a nice tight radius, it somehow just felt less 'threatening'.

Cons - If you look at the circumference profile of my scorp, you will notice it is eliptical rather than circular and that when you carve with it it is the point of the elipse, not the belly, which is doing the cutting. Not a huge problem, but the actual bit of blade in contact with the wood is quite narrow and at first had a tendency to cut deep, rather than shaving a nice wide section. If I were doing this again, I'd stick the blade in a bench vice before sharpening, and give it a gentle squeeze to make it more circular, hence broadening the main cutting surface. Hope that makes sense.

It does chatter a little, too, but then, so do both my other knives, so I'm not going to be too critical about that. All in all, for under a tenner, I'm really pleased.

A bit 'nibbley' maybe, but not a bad finish.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Fantastic Bowls

Having made my first carved bowl I've now got the bug and have been looking in to different ideas and designs. That's when I came across the work of David Fisher. His bowls are absolutely amazing and his website is inspirational. When I first saw his website I thought that he must be a professional bowl carver, but when I read more I discovered that he's a History teacher like me. I guess I've got no excuse. Check out his website here and enjoy this great video of the man at work.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Carved Bowl Finished

So I finally got around to finishing my first carved bowl and I'm kind of happy with it. It's not perfect, but I learned some lessons and the next one will be better. I'll definitely put more effort into the planning next time rather than just going at it free hand and I cant wait to try with some proper green wood.  This stuff was a bit spalted, which looks nice, but wasn't the easiest to work with.

What I really enjoyed was trying the different tools and experimenting with what works for each part of the bowl. To shape the outside I used a knife, a drawknife, a push knife, a spokeshave and a block plane. Unfortunately I didn't get to use my lovely Hans Karlsson dog leg gouge as the bowl was too small and the bottom was too tight for the sweep of the gouge. Oh well, next time.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Just beautiful spoons...

This is a cheap post as I'm just going to post pictures of someone else's work. But I make no appologies.

For a long time now Julian and I (and I'm sure hundreds of other spoon carvers) have been big fans of Jarrod Stonedahl work. I have been following his blog for a couple of years and was very excited when I discovered he was not only going to be attending the first (and subsequently second) Spoonfest, and was then equally gutted that I was unable to get on his workshop.
The white spoon is one of my favourites and if I could reproduce that I could die happy (sorry, a little hyperbole)
Any way, seeing his spoons at Spoonfest was a revelation to me. The ones he had for sale sold fast - Julian managed to get the last one and I know he has posted about it before - it's the spoon he eats breakfast with each morning. There is something about Jarrod's spoons which on a fundamental design and aesthetic level simply talks to me.They are delicate, perfectly preportioned and, well the only word I can think of is 'authentic'. Though I am sure they are his own design, there is something about them which to me is timeless and remeniscent, not so much of the Scandinavian spoons which are understandably very popular, but of Colonial American and Edwardian British - good, sensible, wooden spoons with a hint of decoration.

Not only that, but Jarrod often paints and then distresses his spoons, making them look ageless and antique - whether this is an intentional look or not I don't really know, all I know is I love them!

So, when I looked on his blog this week and saw the new spoons he has been making, I nearly swooned (ok, a little more hyperbole perhaps, but I just can't say how much I really admire these shapes). They are as well made as ever, but with one or two tiny little twists and embelishments which I haven't seen before. I just love the little 'horns', 'scrolls', call them what you will, that extend down from the handle to the top profile of the bowl. Not to mention the tiny, almost un-noticeable notches on the shoulders of the end of the spoon.

If you have not seen these spoons before, have a look and buy if you like. I know I for one will get one as soon as I can and will then be endlessly trying to copy his exquisit style. Check out his blog - so much more than spoon carving.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

All Made by Hand

Some great friends gave me this book for my last birthday. It's by James Arnold who also wrote the Shell Book of Country Crafts, which Richard mentions in one of his previous posts. It's illustrated by the author with some lovely drawings including one of a pole lathe turner and a spoon carvers tools.

 The author has obviously paid close attention to the craftsmen he observed and their tools. I particularly like the 'hooking knives' with their different sweeps. What I find slightly puzzling are the dividers that are included with the spoon carvers tools. In the text he mentions that the turners would often carve spoons and ladles as well, so maybe he has confused a tool that he would use for turning for  a spoon carving tool. Any other suggestions? Maybe it was used for marking out curves or measuring thickness, but I doubt it. Does any one do something similar? Comments welcome.