Saturday, December 31, 2011


This time I'm introducing an intermission in the Faces Tutorial to talk about something that has been weighing on my mind of late: the limitations imposed on design by the way we work. Clint Eastwood, in one of his gajillion movies, once said that a man has to know his limitations. Well, a lot (by no means all!) of my limitations can be summed up in the fact that I don't use power tools: band saw, scroll saw, circular saw, table saw, router, sander, Dremel, Foredom, Weecher, etc. Another of my limitations is that I don't like to use gouges. The worst cut I ever gave myself was with a gouge. Irrational, I know, but . . . .

Take a look at old 9-Toes Nelson here. I carved him from a 1-1/2" square by 6" long piece of bass wood. He is all one piece of wood, including the rifle. Since I don't use a band saw to cut out the basic form of a piece, I am limited to smaller carvings if I don't want to spend more time hoggin' off waste wood than I do carving. Nor do I clamp things to a bench and work off the wood with gouges. If a design requires that kind of thing, I don't do it. I have to be able to hold the piece in one hand while I work on it. That's a limitation. Isn't it?

Let's talk about painting a minute. Old 9-Toes up there is just about my most ambitious painting effort to date, what with that striped shirt and all. If you want to see some real painting go to Lynn Doughty's website and look in his gallery. THAT's what I call painting! I would love to produce pieces of that quality, but I find that I just don't enjoy painting. Even the limited painting I do takes as long or longer than the carving. Why spend all that time doing something I don't enjoy when I could be carving, something I do enjoy. There's another limitation. Right?

I call this my Birds & Fishes Love Spoon, one of my early efforts. It's 11" long and about 2-1/2" wide. There are some pretty complex and small celtic knots in that piece. Pay particular attention to the necks of the cranes. All done with a drill and a knife. (A battery powered drill is the only concession I make to the no-power-tools rule, since I can use it anywhere and hold the piece with one hand and drill with the other.) Took for-freakin'-ever! Even though it's done in poplar, which is a pretty soft hardwood.

Now go take a look at some of David Western's love spoons. I admire his work more than I can say. And, boy, would I like to be able to do that kind of complex work. But I've come to the conclusion that if I stay with using only hand-powered tools I'm going to be limited to only doing things like this.

That's a real limitation. Isn't it? Somehow I don't think so.

I didn't always think that way. For a long time I wanted so badly to do all the beautiful, complex things I saw people like Lynn and Dave do. And I was frustrated. Lately I have come to my senses. I think.

Of late I have come to see my limitations, the constraints I impose on my way of working, more as opportunities than as limitations. I don't have to paint like Lynn Doughty. I don't have to do complex knots like Dave Western (though I still find myself wanting to!). What I have to do is improve the skill with which I do what I want to do. I have to develop designs that make the most of the hand tools I use. I have to find the opportunities that exist within the constraints I have imposed upon myself and use them to do things no one else does. Only in this way will I grow as an artist, a carver.

Design limitations? No! Design opportunities.

I want to encourage everyone who reads this blog to evaluate how you work, what you really like to do. Develop your own designs to make the most of your tools and your methods. Don't let these things limit you. Find the opportunities that are there and grow!

[Rev] By all this I don't mean to imply that those who use power tools are any less an artist than the mossy-backs like me that just use hand tools. Artistry is artistry whether you use a chainsaw or a pocket knife. Use whatever makes you happy and to hell with those who say you're wrong!

Until next time, let the chips fly!


  1. Hi Bob
    This is an excellent posting and you bring up a number of interesting points! There is definitely a fine line to walk when getting into this type of much machinery to employ and how much handwork. I very much like your approach to carving and were I not trying to make a living as a carver, I think I would tend to lean to your 'old school' way of working. I LIKE the quiet and peace of handwork and I especially like the lack of disgusting dust and shrill noise...BUT...doing everything by hand adds hours of hard work to a project. For me, that extra time kills the remote chance that I might make minimum wage and takes me into full-on poverty country!!! Added to that, it sucks up a lot of time and energy that I like to save for the 'fun stuff' of wrestling with my knotwork!
    So I guess the whole time vs end result issue becomes my limitation! I remember back in my student days at the London College of Furniture, enormous brawls would break out as the 'handcrafters' battled with the 'machiners' over who made the best furniture. At that time I realized that while the romantic me was on the side of the handcrafters, the practical me was all for letting machines do the hard lifting!
    Like pretty much everything in life, I realized that woodworkers all have their own way of doing things and as long as the outcome is happiness with the product and the way it was arrived at.. then I don't think there are limitations, only possibilities!! This time last year you would have not even considered carving an elegant spoon by hand from you've done it... so I am in total agreement that your 'limitation' is really not so limiting! I'm a fan of your enthusiasm and tenacity Bob, AND I admire what you achieve as each of your spoons gets better and better. I like the way you make 'em and I look forward to seeing what you create from further 'limitations'!!!
    With best wishes,

  2. Bob, interesting post. There is a theory in the Writing world that the more limitations one puts on oneself (a high-impact short story in only 350 words) the more creative one has to be, and that opportunities open up, otherwise overlooked. I think it applies to All artistic endeavor, and an artist who 'tries everything' rarely get good at any one thing. The key is to decide on one's preferred method, and become The Best at it. No matter what the object is, if it is The Best, the market will open up. Even today. Dave Western's Love Spoons are works of art for sure. That's his niche. To try his designs and methods could only lead to Copies of what he's already done. We all have to follow our own heart. That is what Creativity is about!
    -Just another two cents worth of opinion-
    BarbS Woodworks

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. I find your choices inspiring. I am just getting into carving and at the moment am starting with spoons using an axe, knife and crook knife. I hollowed the bowl out on my first spoon only using a hollow reed and an ember as I did not own a crook knife. I do not have all the money these machinists have, I am inspired to see what you can do with your limitations as they are similar to the limitations of someone on a budget. Thankyou and I look forwards to your next post. edited previous for mistake

  5. Good points, Bob. I think that your not using power saws, etc., because you don't like to is really exactly the right reason. I also think you've proven that these self-imposed "limitations," in fact, do not limit you, as I watch your spoons progress. I agree with the one above who said something like limitations inspire creativity. Also, I don't know if it's like this for you, but if I do something that's difficult to do with my tools, I tend to find that part especially enjoyable. I suppose I like a challenge.

  6. I can really reach with that article,after decades of developing as a carver & amassing a whole workshop of tools I've just went & sold them all! Well not all I've kept my trusty home made knives-that's all.I realised that what I really enjoy about carving was how I started.... just a knife.Sure, I can't carve some of the complex shapes I used to with a full kit but I am enjoying it again.I never did want to inhale endless dust & wear ear defenders, nor spend hours sharpening loads of exotically shaped gouges,it kind of just developed..Now I just enjoy myself without all the negatives. As you say there is plenty of creative designs to be worked at within the "limitations" of limited tooling,indeed they lend a unique character to the work.ENJOY! isn't that why we carve?