Sunday, April 26, 2009

Chipping Away at the Future

This week I carved out a spoon and my first bowl. The bowl was carved from a 4" x 4" x 2" piece of butternut. And, before you ask, yes, it was intentionally asymetric. Still turned out looking a bit like a flower pot. I'm considering trying to correct that by extending the concave curve of the side all the way up to the rim. And, no, I didn't do it on a lathe. I used bent knives, hook knives and sloyds. an interesting process for me, but not much to say about it otherwise, except watch your grain direction!
The other thing I finished this week was a spoon carved from alder. I pierced the s-curve in the handle to give it a little more interest.

What I really wanted to talk about this weekend were my thoughts on reading A Handmade Life by William Coperthwaite. It's a beautifully done book on high quality paper with lots of color photographs. The introduction by John Saltmarsh was, IMHO, pretty much a waste of paper. As soon as I got into the first chapter, however, I started seeing things I could relate to.

I am at a time of life when most people start wondering what they are going to do with the rest of it. In my case I figure I've got maybe another 25 years of productive life left, if I'm lucky. I don't want to spend that being an engineer. I've been doing that for over 30 years. It's time to do something else, something simpler and more satisfying. I think Coperthwaite is pointing me in the right direction.

One of the things I like about him is the fact that he is not a luddite. For all of his living in the wilderness in a permanent 3-story yurt, he uses modern technology when it is appropriate. He paddles his canoe 40 minutes to get supplies rather than using his pickup to do the same thing in 15 minutes because he prefers the silence. That is the same reason I use all hand tools, including most recently, a hand drill. I don't begrudge anyone the use of power tools, just don't try to get me to use them. 

I've only read through the first chapter, but I am looking forward to chewing and digesting my way through the rest of it.

Enough navel-gazing for one day. Until next time, let the chips fly!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Knives I Use, Hook and Bent

I forget the exact circumstances, but I was tweeting with Kari Hultman, accomplished woodworker and new spoon carver, that I had several hook knives and had ordered some new bent knives. I mentioned that the two types of knives were different, something of which she wasn't aware. Since I just received two new bent knives from Preferred Edge I thought I would blog about it.

Now, keep in mind that I am no expert on the subject. This is just my take. If Mike Komick from Preferred Edge or Del Stubbs from Pinewood Forge want to weigh in on this in the comments, and correct anything I say or expand on it, they have my explicit permission to do so.

In general I distinguish between bent knives and hook knives by their origin. The way I see it, bent knives are of aboriginal American (I refuse to use the term "Native American", but that's a rant for another time), and hook knives are of European origin. Their design and method of use are similar, but different.
For instance, what you see here is called a high-curve, inside bevel, bent knife from Preferred Edge. The blade is 1/4" wide, 1-1/2" long and made from 1/16" thick tool steel. The inside bevel allows for deep cuts and moving lots of wood. It comes straight from Mike sharp enough to shave the fuzz off a ripe peach without breaking the skin. Keep in mind that I don't sand any of my pieces. Using the right technique, these knives leave a smooth, glossy finish. Mike's website has a great section on the history and use of the bent knife.

I used it to start the eye sockets on this Santa, work on hollowing the cheeks and relieving the rectangular areas in the base. You can get a nice, flat surface with this knife. That thing in the photo with the Santa and the knife is the sheath I made for the knife. Apparently the traditional way to store and transport bent knives is to wrap them in a rag (or, more contemporaneously, a tool roll). I have never been happy putting sharp edges inside of fabric. Call it a quirk. So I made a wooden sheath that opens like a book and is secured by a 1"-wide strap of cordura nylon with a velcro closure. It is safer and affords more protection to the blade.

Moving right along, I've had that knife for a while, but I just received two new knives from Mike: a high-curved and a hook outside bevel knife. Here are all three of them together.
The two knives on the bottom are the same knife except that one is an outside bevel and one is an inside bevel. The difference is that the outside bevel allows you to make thinner shavings more easily. The blade tends to rise out of the wood rather than digging in like the inside bevel does.

You can see how the blade is attached to the outside of the handle rather than inserted into it. This allows you to get really close to the work. This type of knife also requires a different hold than a more conventional knife. It's a reverse grip like the photos below. Before you get all excited about how unsafe I'm being, I have to say that I was not actually carving when I took these photos. These are just for illustrating the grip. While they are really well suited for carving in one's lap, I DO NOT recommend working like that without a board or other means of armoring your legs!
As you can see, I use these knives when I'm working on some of my smaller things. The thin, short blades make them great for hollowing out small spoon bowls. Of course Mike makes a wide variety of knives of all sizes as well as the largest selection of adzes that I've seen from one place. 

You might think that these blades, being so thin, are fragile. They are NOT! In learning to use that first knife (still learning) I did some things I probably shouldn't have done. In the interest of not incriminating myself, I shall not enumerate those things. The point being (ha, ha) that the blade didn't bend, chip or break. Mike makes one tough knife.

On to the European-style hook knife. I think more people are familiar with these. Some of the best knives made in this style are by Del Stubbs at Pinewood Forge. Of the eleven carving knives on his catalog page, I own eight. And he's coming out with another one! Del, ya gotta stop doing that! My wife is gonna kill me.
These are the hook knives he makes. He forges the blades himself, as does Mike Komick. These knives are so sharp they'll cut you if you even think about touching the edge. Actually, that's not strictly true. You have to think real hard! 

You'll notice that the handles are relieved on the edge side of the blade so you won't be bumping into the wood as you carve. Just one of the many thoughtful elements of design of these knives. Del's knives are single-edged so he makes these in both right and left hand models.

Some people don't like the roundness in the handle, but I don't see it. The finish Del puts on his handles provides a good grip. My hands sweat a lot, and I have no trouble hanging on. I use these knives with a conventional grip rather than a reverse grip.

I've probably rambled way too much here, but, hey, it's my blog. I can ramble if I want. If you have any questions, leave a comment, or (my recommendation) get directly in touch with Mike or Del. Both of them are friendly, great guys to deal with and very willing to share their knowledge. I use both makers' knives, and I love both makers' knives. You can't go wrong.

Until next time, let the chips fly!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Greenwood Carving or One Man's Trash . . .

Started snowing this morning about 7 AM (April 12!). I took this photo about 10 AM. No outside work today!

This is important because on my way home from work Friday (sunny and 65 deg) I saw one of my neighbors had been cutting down some young aspens and had put them out on the street. Never having met the people I was a bit apprehensive as I walked over to ask them if I could have some of the wood. I'm really starting to look like an old biker dude (I'm a big guy), and I didn't want to scare them. So I took off my cap and sunglasses, put a big smile on my face and rang the doorbell. The man couldn't have been nicer and said, "Sure, take as much as you want. Please!" So I grabbed a couple of 10-foot long sections that tapered from a little over 3" in diameter down to about 1-1/2" and had a couple of branch takeoffs that will make decent ladles and dragged them about 3 blocks back to my house.
Now keep in mind that this is my first foray into carving green wood. I forgot to start taking pictures (still kinda new at this blogging-with-photos thing) until I had both pieces of wood already cut into 12", 10", 8" and 6" lengths and had already started debarking and splitting. True to my philosophy I did everything with hand tools. Cutting green wood with a hand saw just isn't that big a deal. I do get odd looks from the neighbors, though. My neighbor across the street was doing some home improvement work with a circular saw. He asked if I wanted to borrow it for a while. Nice guy, but just not clear on the concept of doing hand work. Besides which, I hate the noise power tools make!

Moving right along, the next photo shows my bench with the tools I was using and the first couple of blanks. That's Baby over on the far left. I prefer using her to a hatchet or hand axe for work like this because I feel I have more control with her. Baby handles the debarking, splitting and blank chopping. The next photo is Baby at work on a 3" diameter branch.

So from dragging the wood into my yard to the point you see here was about 2-1/2 hours. You can see in the background the wood I still have to debark and split. On the footrest of the bench you can see the pieces still to be made into blanks, and the blanks I've "finished" on the top. Next to Baby you can see "mi palo", the baton I use with Baby to split wood.
It was at this point that Baby told me it was time to stop for the day. Believe me, NOBODY, especially me, disrepects Baby! So I packed up and threw all the blanks and debarked wood into a bucket of water hoping to continue on Saturday. Saturday it was cloudy and rainy. Today it is snowing, and the snow will be gone by tomorrow afternoon.

Anyway, it gave me an opportunity to try my hand at my first greenwood utility spoon. I picked a blank out of the bucket of water, dried it off and went to work. Green wood is so much easier to carve than dry, seasoned wood. Forgive me if I'm the only one to whom that is a revelation. However, there are other things with which to contend, such as it's tendency to split while drying. On the advice of some much more experienced spoon carvers than I, once primary carving was done, I wrapped it in a paper towel and put it in the microwave for 30 seconds. That was about 10 seconds too long, apparently. When I took it out (it was hot and the paper towel was wet) there was a split in the bowl which I immediately carved out to keep it from spreading.

My working habits made the bowl the best place for a split to occur allowing me to still save the spoon. I learned early on doing lovespoons that I should never establish the finished height of the rim of the bowl until I have carved out the inside. Inevitably I will nick the bowl rim, so I always leave way more rim than I will eventually need. After carving out the split, I microwaved the spoon as before but for only 20 seconds, then put it in the freezer for 5 minutes. I repeated this 8 times. Putting the spoon in the microwave essentially boils out the moisture, and putting it in the freezer until the entire spoon is fully cool ensures that moisture on the spoon's surface won't be reabsorbed. When the spoon was as dry as I wanted it, I corrected the damage to the bowl and treated it with food-safe mineral oil. The result is below. Click on the photo to see it full-size.

Overall, this spoon took me about four hours from the time I took the blank out of the water to the time I dunked it in the mineral oil. Yes, Sean, I know. I'll go to the poorhouse and my family will starve. :) But it was an enormous amount of fun. From now on, I'll be on the lookout for downed limbs and cut trees. My wife will be thrilled.

Until next time, let the chips fly!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Random Thoughts, Twitter Inspired

I was visiting a blog today called ahardslojdlife about the traditional use of wood and saw a video on that site showing Niklas Karlsson using a bowl adze. I remembered that Kari Hultman from the Village Carpenter blog had just bought her first bowl adze, so I tweeted to her about the site and the video. 

I also tweeted about Niklas' philosophy on traditional woodworking and how closely it parallels mine. He believes (paraphrasing here) that the aesthetic of tradtional woodworking is not about copying forms, but about using the old-fashioned work processes. 

Quoting here: "Understanding that aesthetics I have found to be a long process of patiently working with the conditions given by the traditional way to work. You have to feel familiar with the tools and materials from that coherence until you loose, in a way, the respect for them. Because there has to be a carelessness involved in order to resist the modern mans urge to make the perfect and impeccable design."

The last sentence smacked me between the ears. (You know the first thing to do to teach a mule something, don't you?) It bears repeating for all us galoots out there. "There has to be a carelessness involved in order to resist the modern mans urge to make the perfect and impeccable design."  

By the word "carelessness" I believe Niklas means that we have to get so familiar with the process of using hand tools that it becomes second nature to us. We don't have to think about it any more. We accept the fact that our pieces will not be perfect, while not using that as an excuse to be sloppy. Perfect beauty is recognizably artificial. Imperfect beauty is much more interesting. Imperfections, tool marks, a slightly "gappy" joint, a small tear out, show that the piece was made by hand by a human being, not a machine. As handworkers I believe that we leave a little piece of our soul in every piece we make.

OK, starting to ramble and get a little "woo-woo" here, so I'll leave it at that.

One more thing. Go to Niklas' YouTube site and watch the video entitled "Fetved". ROFL! I won't ruin it, but most of us would stop what we were doing. Not Niklas! That is one determined man!

Until next time, let the chips fly!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Lovespoon Lite or You Would Think I'd Learn!

Hi, my name is Bob, and I'm an idiot. That will become clearer as the post progresses. 

I'm going to let you look at the finished product first, and then begin beating myself about the head and shoulders while telling you why. 

I got the idea, while looking at a lovespoon site somewhere in Great Britain, to do some smaller, less complicated lovespoons for use as wedding favors or gifts to the mothers of the bride and groom. This spoon is about 6" long and 2" wide made from 1/2"x2"x6" poplar, believe it or not. I'm really pleased with the dark color. I finished it with Williamsville Wax. According to the bottle ($8.99 for 8 oz from my local Woodcraft store) it consists of beeswax, lemon oil and other natural oils with no solvents turpenoids or other nasty stuff.

From these photos you can see the most basic "uff-da" mistake I made: the design is unbalanced. The spoon bowl is too small and the entwined hearts are too large. Also I feel the strands forming the entwined hearts are too wispy. That last is due to my trying to save the spoon after having noticed the design issue during rough out. And for future reference note in the side view how thin the wood is at the first strand crossing above the bowl. You will see this material again!

All this springs from the same damn mistake I made with the first lovespoon I posted here: not working the design out full scale on paper before transfering it to the spoon. 

You see, I figured that since this was going to be a small, simple, quick-to-carve spoon, I didn't have to spend all that time drawing the design full-scale on tracing paper so I could mirror the design, making it symmetrical, work out any design issues like the proper sizes of the elements and the proper over-under sequence of the strands. 

Yeah, no prob to freehand the design onto the wood and just go to cutting! Certainly not! I don't need to follow the rules I made for myself after making this mistake before. Nah, it's just a simple spoon. No need for all that complicated stuff.

Would have saved myself a lot of aggrivation if I had, though. 

The fourth photo shows the spoon at the roughout stage. It's a little more clear here that the central elements are a little too big for the size of the spoon's bowl. It's also apparent that my pencil marks are not terribly visible against that dark wood, a point that will become important in a bit. If you enlarge the photo you can just see that I have the over-under sequence of the strands the first time they cross above the bowl shown properly. It's supposed to be over, under, over, under. 

I didn't screw up the side view too much except for ripping too far down. I wanted the strands for the entwined hearts to grow more organically out of the bowl. This is something else that would have been easier to plan for had I drawn the design out, and if I weren't such an impatient sawyer. Turned out all right, though, as you have seen above.

The fifth photo shows a little more progress. I've begun the piercing process. Here is where it became really clear to me that the design was unbalanced. What was unclear was where my pencil lines were. You see, I didn't have a real drawing of the design that I could refer to. You see where the two entwined hearts come together, that little divot on each side of the spoon handle? Now go back and look at the first photo of the finished spoon. See that divot anywhere? No. That's the way it's supposed to be. Took me a little bit to figure that out. After my wife told me to stop banging my head against the wall (she was trying to watch television, and I was making too much noise) I decided I might as well try to kill two birds with one stone. I would bring the outside edges of the two hearts in so that there was no divot and then skinny-down the strands so that they wouldn't overwhelm the bowl.

That's what the sixth photo shows. It also shows how I went over my pencil lines with a fine-point Sharpie so I could see them. What a concept! At this point I've also started relieving the strand cross-over points. It was here that I messed up the sequence. Where I had it correct before, when I drew it in with the Sharpie, I messed it up. Back to banging head on wall!

Well, I hadn't gone so far in the relieving process that I couldn't correct myself. At least in one thing I listened to David! It was, however, going to make that crossover point really thin!

As you can see in the next set of pictures, I paid for that. Told you you were going to see that thin spot again!

You can clearly see the glue joints where I broke the spoon while thinning down the strands. Super glue to the rescue! I was a bit worried about how that would look with the finish I was going to use. I haven't used Williamsville Wax before and I was afraid that the glue would cause some obvious spots on the spoon. so I carved off as much of the surface glue as I could without reducing the thickness to that of a sheet of paper. Fortunately, if you refer back to the photos of the finished spoon the joints are barely visible.

So, there you have it! My small, simple, quick-to-carve lovespoon! Actually, in spite of my bumbling, it turned out OK. Still a little unbalanced, but I can live with it.

Having gone through all the qvetching, I don't want you to think that I'm unhappy with the result or that I'm fishing for compliments. My whole purpose of doing this blog is to help others by showing everyone my own mistakes and how I went about trying to correct them. I hope, in that, that I have succeded a little bit.

Until next time, let the chips fly!

UPDATE: Go to the Woodbee Carver, Don Mertz's blog, and read his post about learning by doing. That's what this whole blog is about.