Sunday, May 31, 2009

WIP-Part 3: A spoon to nourish the body & soul

The "Beast" is finished!

Yes, the beast is now complete and prepared to turn the eyes of many an observer for hopefully many years to come. I've decided that I'll most definitely find a special place for it in my kitchen and although it can be used at meal time, I think that I just want to observe it for now.

As you can see in the pictures I decided to go with a green tone for the extensive vein system. I felt that green best represents the life blood of plants or at least it does in my own twisted mind. For the three hearts I went with a red tone of course. I applied thinned down acrylic paint and put on several layers until I was happy with the final look. At first I thought that I'd accent some of the detail work but saw quickly that it wouldn't be necessary since I had rounded all of the raised relief detailing which created a shadowing that gave the spoon a natural accent and feeling of depth.

I then completed the spoon by applying several coats of mineral oil which is food safe and it seems to get a little darker with each application allowing several hours between coats so that it penetrates deeply. Bob Tinsley described an interesting method in the comments of the last posting about a friend who preserves his spoons like this: "He melts the beeswax in a double boiler and submerges the spoon until the air bubbles stop rising. He then removes the spoon and lets it drain." Thanks for this interesting tip Bob and I'd like to do a little experimenting with this method. I bet that wax gives the spoon a nice feel and also a beautiful sheen

You might also notice that the spoon has three significant darkened areas that appear to be knots or where a limb might have once branched out. I don't believe that I mentioned it before but those are artificial knots that I added to the spoon as I was carving it. At the time of carving I wasn't sure if they would end up as knots and several ideas went through my head but yes, they did end up as knots. The pictures I posted don't give a close up view of the knots but I used my Detail Master IV woodburning pen to incorporate a series of old looking growth rings as though a limb had once been there. I think that the knots make the spoon a little more interesting but a lot of creative things could be done with this idea depending on the theme of any particular spoon.

Well, this has been the most delightful project and I'm going to miss having it in the cargo pocket of my pants after a month's habitation! Oh well, I've already got some new ideas and I'll probably be working on a walking stick for my next project. I've already pulled down a fine red maple stick that has been curing for 6 or 7 years now and I'm developing some interesting new ideas for the carving that will certainly make it unique. Stay tuned and I'll keep you up to date when the carving starts!

Friday, May 29, 2009

WIP-Part 2: A spoon to nourish the body & soul

Finally finished the carving & sanding phase

Upon a close examination of my new spoon today one of my students said to me, "Chief Dave, that spoon is a beast" and I had to agree with him. Yes, it's certainly not any ordinary wooden spoon... it most assuredly is a beast! I mean this thing has a protruding vein system that stretches from one end to the other, top and bottom, and these aren't just surface veins but you can actually feel their hold on the spoon as they encompass the entire project as though it were a living animal.

A little zoom in shot of the intricate vein system

After several weeks of riding around in the cargo pocket of my pants the "beast" is finally ready for a final finish but I feel that I need to sleep on it for at least one full night before I make the decision that will carry it forward for hopefully many generations ahead. After the carving phase was completed I then proceeded to use the medium 150 grit sandpaper followed by 220 grit, and then finally I gave it a nice polishing with a piece of steel wool.

Top view

The spoon has a great feel to it in the hand and this time I even got the curved bowl at just the correct angle for a right handed person. Unfortunately, when carving a spoon with such twisting in the handle it's probably going to end up for use by only a right or a left handed person. Also, notice in the picture above how beautiful that the grain turned out on this piece of found wood... a piece of wood that was blown out of a tulip poplar tree about a month ago and now it will be joining my kitchen arsenal of eating utensils. Taking something from the wild of the forest floor then turning it into an interesting and practical object is the kind of thing that energizes the core of the human spirit and literally norishes the well being of the soul. It's an activity that makes me feel the entire human experience.

More of the protruding raised relief detailing

At this point I am now looking so forward to seeing if I can get the right finish on the spoon because the wrong finish would be devastating after spending sooooooooo many hours of effort with the carving and sanding. Speaking of the time spent working on this found wood spoon, well I'm not sure just how many hours went into it but you can bet it was a bunch! Yesterday one of my students asked me how much money that I'd sell it for and my reply was, "I wouldn't take a hundred dollar bill for it... just too many hours of labor went into it." Of course the typical teenager has a duty to take the question one step further and then asks, "Would you take a thousand dollars for it"? As usual, I then put the ball back in his court and told him that the only way to find out was for him to put a thousand dollars on the table and then he'd find out. I think that he got the point that I highly value the time that I spend creating a unique piece of art and that is what I also encourage and expect from my students. When they begin to take pride in creating their own carvings then they can begin to take pride in themselves as the successful people that they are capable of becoming.

I'll post new pictures of the spoon when I get the final finish completed and sure hope that it won't end up embarassing me. That's the chance you must take when posting a WIP (work in progress)

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

WIP-Part 1: A spoon to nourish the body & soul

A funky vein system connects hearts with bowl

This will be a WIP (Work-in-progress) and I will update when more progress is made. From the picture above you can see that this spoon project is something quite different from your ordinary twist-handle spoon, and that is exactly what I was looking for. However that is all that I was looking for because this spoon was begun with literally no plan in mind and I just wanted to let it discover itself for the most part. A second goal on this carving was to make it as complicated and complex as possible, you know... something that was really interesting to look at and would surely generate a lot of conversation from onlookers so it would have a lot of detailing. Thirdly, I wanted this carving to have some kind of central theme that brought everything together "full circle" and that mission has also been laid in place as you will see.

The bowl is still rough and I've just begun
extending the "veins" into the spoon bowl.

Like a lot of my recent spoons this one was also cut from a found wood poplar limb with my bandsaw. It measures exactly 10" long and the bowl is exactly 2" at it's widest point and I have been carving it with my Flexcut Carvin' Jack knife. Found poplar makes excellent wood for spoons and I've been carving it almost exclusively as of late. When I started the carving I made one wrong push of my blade and sadly broke off a little chunk of the forming bowl. I always teach the kids in my woodshop class that mistakes should be looked at as opportunities to discover a great new idea in the creation of their projects and this is advice that I follow too. After a bit of study and a little further shaving on the tip of the bowl I was delighted to now have a much flatter scooping surface and I also saw it becoming a "spork" by adding a few teeth to the tip.

On the tip of the handle I carved a heart then later I began to see a theme form. After looking at other folks spoons I saw one where the fellow carved in an interesting thin brace-looking extension of wood from the base of the handle and into the bottom side of the bowl. That was so neat and I began to do the same thing. Later I was led to carry this "extension" all the way down the underside of the spoon and connected it with the heart at the opposite end. I really liked that and thus my theme had been found. The central idea here would be a spoon that had a vein system to connect it with the bowl of the spoon so that when a meal was consumed I would not only be nourishing my body but the heart would nourish my soul. Cool!

A shot of the floor at today's carving class

Today I was able to work on the spoon just a little but I had it on the floor in front of me which gives me a lot of extra energy when I'm helping the kids create their own carving creations. This week the woodshop has been closed temporarily because of North Carolina state testing. I wasn't needed as a proctor so I've been spending some great quality time with the 9th and 10th graders helping to facilitate various projects such as woodcarving. Although I'm really into my new spoon I get just as much contentment from teaching and helping them with their own projects and teaching new skills is where the real joy of carving can always be found.

This has been a rainy day but also an absolutely great day for carving and I will keep you updated as more progress is made on my new funky love spoon because new ideas are always dancing forward in my head. Stay tuned!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Powerstrop endures the test of time

I have no financial ties to the knife sharpening aid known as the Powerstrop but I do believe that quality products deserve attention. As a woodshop teacher for 15 years with about 50 kids passing through my class each week I'm also in a good position to find out what works and what doesn't and I give the Powerstrop at least 9 out of 10 stars when it comes to endurance and delivering what it says it will do.

Still going strong after more than a decade!

I quickly became a big fan of Powerstrop back in the 1990's when I was looking for a better way to keep my carving blades razor sharp that was also economical and this looked like the way to go. They worked so well that I ended up purchasing a set for our school woodshop program where the carving knives are used almost every single day.

You can buy the standard strop for about $20.00 from most carving supply stores but I'd recommend getting the deluxe kit for around $30.00 which includes the standard and the "V" strop. I use the standard strop most for the flatter surfaced blades but the "V" strop is invaluable when it comes to keeping my parting tools and small u-gouges razor sharp.

The "standard" Powerstrop

The Powerstrop is made from laminated leather sort of the way that plywood is made so it is some kind of strong. Although I use mine mostly in the drill press where it best frees up both hands to safely concentrate on the knife blade being sharpened, I have been known to put it in my hand drill in a pinch but I wouldn't recommend this practice unless you have your drill well secured to a table with a good clamping device. Don't compromise safety! The kit comes with a little chunk of buffing compound which should be applied to the sharpening surface of the strop and that will really put on that shiny razor sharp finish.

Polishing my parting tool with the "V" strop

The Powerstrop alone will not keep your blades sharp and actually they must already have been given an initial sharpening first by other means before the Powerstrop can do it's job. If you're using tools that already come from the factory razor sharp out of the box such as those made by Flexcut, then you're set and Powerstrop will keep them sharp forever unless you knick them up. Otherwise you'll first have to get the steel edges of your blades sharpened then you can touch them up from time to time with the Powerstrop to keep them razor sharp. As a general rule I give my blades a touch up with the Powerstrop for about every 20 minutes of carving.

I've been using mine consistently and heavily in our woodshop for more than a decade and the Powerstrop continues to keep on going. Good product!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Profile: Remembering my friend Jack Fair

Jack Fair

Some folks say that to build a meaningful friendship takes months or even years and to a large degree I also subscribe to this belief. I'm also open minded enough to know that's not always the case and certainly not for the 3 hours that I spent visiting with Jack during my 2001 thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, Mexico to Canada. My first acquaintance with Jack (and my last) came on the 26th day of my hike on the parching hot afternoon of May 21, 2001 at Jacks home just on the edge of the Mojave desert in southern California.

For many years Jack was a well known character on the trail who opened the doors of his home for tired PCT hikers and a crucial last stop before crossing the hot and unforgiving Mojave desert. He would give hikers a ride to the nearest store to re-supply their packs which was about a mile from his house and he'd wait there until they were done and take them back to his house or the trail. From reading various hiker journals some people had a hard time understanding how to befriend Jack who was a former motorcycle rider adventuring to most parts of North America. Yeah, Jack had the vocabulary of a drunken sailor with every sentence uttered from his mouth and he often referred to himself as a philosopher evidenced from all the hand painted signs covering his house with some pretty sharp and perhaps shocking messages to some. The more that I've thought about it the more that I now believe that this was a test... Jack's way of finding out just who you were.

Jack at the door and a hiker

A lot of hikers would just fill their water bottles and leave wanting no part of what they assumed was just a crusty old eccentric man whom they didn't understand. I arrived at his door waking him from a nap as I gradually heard his loud grumbling voice saying over and again, "I'm #$!!!$#@%% coming". When the door finally opened he instructed me to go to his nearby open garage to take off my backpack and he'd be there in a minute.

At this point I was still the only hiker at his house so I enjoyed the shade of the garage and browsing through some hiker journals and some scrap books that were full with newspaper articles written about Jacks illustrious past motorcycling adventures for which he was obviously proud. Jack eventually came out to the garage and after elaborating on some of the articles for me he asked if I could help him with a small chore in the house, putting the paper tape back in his calculating machine. As we walked to the house he grumbled about how his vision was failing and he just couldn't do the simplest of chores anymore.

When I was finished Jack invited me to have a seat in a chair next to his revered recliner and gave me a notebook of poetry written by a past female hiker that had also developed a good friendship with him. Meantime he went to the kitchen and brought me back a glass of ice cold sprite cola. As I was reading the poetry about Jack some other hikers had begun to arrive at the house and it was obvious that they only wanted some water, a ride, and a little rest and Jack just let them drink the hot water from the tank in his yard as he continued to serve me iced sprite and cold water.

Bishop and Jack's dog

After a while Jack drove the other hikers to the store and I hung out in the garage with an 8 year old boy named Bishop. As we talked I learned that the school bus dropped off Bishop each afternoon at Jacks house until his dad could pick him up after work. Jack later told me that boy worships the ground that he walked on and it was obvious they thought a lot of each other. I'm not sure if Bishop completely understood the concept of my hike from Mexico to Canada but I sure enjoyed talking to him and listening to his enthusiastic stories about his encounters with rattlesnakes.

It was somewhat ironic about the contrast in age between this 78 year old man and an 8 year old boy. My heart goes out no stronger than to the very old and the very young. Perhaps it is because these two extremities warrant more compassion and I found myself located somewhere in the middle. Perhaps it is because I grew up with a dad who role modeled compassion for the underdogs, the weak , and the most vulnerable. For whatever reasons it was an interesting contrast of ages that I thought about for a long time.

Jack waving goodbye

After a few hours I had to get going since the late afternoon and nighttime was the coolest time for hiking off into the Mojave desert which was ahead of me. As you can see from the picture above I think that Jack was waiting for me to turn back and wave to him and when I did we both exchanged a huge wave and smiles to match. From the beginning of my visit I knew that Jack respected me and I greatly enjoyed his company. He was definitely a unique man and at 78 years old he wasn't changing for anyone but a friendship awaited anyone willing to accept him for who he was.

Me beside the L.A aqueduct entering the Mojave desert

The PCT follows the L.A. aqueduct for several miles into the Mojave and you can hear the loud flowing of cool Sierra water underneath and no way to get at it. The sound of that flowing water was like the soothing sound of being on the beach and I walked for the rest of the day thinking about my short time with Jack and considering his failing health I hoped that he'd be okay. Some time after my hike I learned from various hiking message boards that Jack was found dead from a self inflicted gunshot about a month after my visit. Like a lot of folks along the trail I was at first shocked and saddened but then I felt so grateful to have had the opportunity to have met him and to honestly say that Jack Fair was a friend of mine. I remember him almost 9 years later and I will remember him forever. Jack wasn't a perfect man but he was a good man.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The new Wood Trails logo

Due to a recent sprained ankle injury I've been laid up in the house healing so I've tried to be as productive as possible. One of those accomplishments was finally getting this blog opened since this is something that I've been wanting to do for years but just never found the time to get it going. Well thanks to my injured ankle that was finally done.

I like Blogspot but they really limit you on the templates for your blog, none of which best communicated who I am but they do give you a LOT of freedom in manipulating the HTML code so I began searching for the answers I needed. Creating and uploading the new logo was the easiest part since I love working with images on my photo editing software and Blogspot does make uploading such an image fairly easy.

The hard part was figuring out how to manipulate the HTML code to widen the posting area of the page from the dreadfully tiny strip that comes with their templates. I began with a Google search using something like "wider Blogspot pages" and after a morning of clicking on different folks solutions I finally got my page right where I wanted it. I can't explain exactly how I did it because at the time I didn't realize that this would be my next posting but it can be done if you have a morning for research and want it bad enough. I tried several things that didn't work then after more research I realized that I had one of Blogspots more complex templates called something like "Rounded 4" which required changing a LOT of HTML coding.

Finally I found the "look" that I feel personalizes my page to more accurately reflect who I am and I'm now quite pleased and I hope y'all like it too. If you too are a risk taker (and I sure am) and want to mess around with manipulating a more personal look for your own page then I highly recommend using Blogspots template backup feature before you start so that if anything goes wrong you can easily get back to where you were.
I thought that you'd like to see the original picture that I used for the woodspirit in the logo. I carved it about a year ago from a fine seasoned chunk of sassafras. You can tell that it's sassafras from that nice reddish colored bark and when green, that sweet ginger like smell. This chunk of wood stands about 13" high and 4-1/2" diameter. Like all woodspirits, this one was also a lot of fun to carve!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Carving a sunflower spoon

Since my life is mostly "on the go" from sunrise to sunset, it seems that most of my carving projects end up in the cargo pockets of my pants at one point or another. This particular spoon rode 1st class in one such pocket for the most of the last month and I would carve on it when I could with my highly portable Flexcut Carvin' Jack.
I just now finished it and I'd have a hard time parting with this one because I really liked the twisted handle that only God could design, I liked the light and dark core contrast markings that God also threw in for good measure, and I love the little sunflower that just plain ole me added. It measures 8-1/2" in a straight line from the tip of the bowl to the handle, not accounting for the great twisting which probably adds a bit more "actual" length.
I made it from a fallen tulip poplar limb that was bone dry so it was some hard wood for carving but heck, when it's just riding in my pocket all day I really wasn't in a big hurry to finish. This is the kind of stuff that gives me a reason to wake up another day and gets me into a contented sleep at night dreaming about that next cut. It's these kind of connections with simple things that give all the reason to live.

I cut a chunk of the limb to the desired length then split it right down the center with my bandsaw, just like a log is fed into a sawmill. This left me with two sides of the limb to make two spoons. This particular limb was greatly twisted which provided an interesting project. On the flat side of the cut limb I sketched out the spoon I wanted then once again took to the bandsaw to give me a rough-out that my carving knives could then handle.
Finally finished I decided that it needed a little decoration so I burned my favorite flower into the base of the handle and that was a sunflower. I lightly stained the colors of the leaves and flower with highly watered down acrylic paint. I then applied several coats of mineral oil which gave it a nice luster and was the food safe finish I wanted since I just might eat my oatmeal with this one.

Spoons are the greatest carving projects ever because no two ever turn out the same. They are all unique in their own way if you just let the wood tell you how to find the spoon. Spoons are also great beginner projects for new woodcarvers providing a just right challenge and introduction into carving in-the-round 3-D projects. Hey, they're also practical because this is a carving that you can actually use to do something instead of just retiring it to the nick nak shelf.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Making a case for the Ashley Iles Hooked Skew

Last week I was excited to add two new tools to my carving arsenal. They are the 15mm and the 19mm hooked skew produced by Ashley Iles in England. The hooked skew is a specialty tool that looks like no other carving knife that I've ever seen and THAT alone was enough for me to justify spending the three quarters of $100 that they set me back. Actually I did my homework before the purchase and after a weekend I knew that I wanted this product.

On the message board at Woodcarving Illustrated Magazine it was the technical editor Bob Duncan who regularly praised this interesting little tool that caught my eye right from the start. Bob said that he found himself reaching for his hooked skew more than any other tool while he carved. I then looked at the website of the largest U.S. supplier of Ashley Iles tools at and learned that Ray Gonzalez worked with the Ashley Iles factory to design a carving tool that would meet his needs for carving detail in confined spaces. The website described this tool, "You can use it as a knife - for example to shape the beak of a bird sculpture; as a skew chisel on a shallow relief; or use the points of a blade to scribe a line. The narrow stem gives you complete visibility when you cut. It's a very flexible tool suitable for sculpture, relief and decoy carving, and a very precise one." So as you can see this funky designed blade can do the job of several knives, from stop cuts to paring, push cuts, and just plain ole carving.
Ok, before I get too carried away with all my gawking about the knife let me tell you about the No. 1 drawback. Yes, it's a quality tool from top to bottom but as you can see in the picture above the cutting blade is shaped something like the execution ax you'd expect to see that medieval fellow in the movie Braveheart chopping the heads off of those who threatened the king. Nothing is more important to me when carving that safety and this rounded ax-like blade comes from the factory razor sharp with two pointed edges on either end that will draw blood with the slightest mishandling. Noticing this right away I knew that I had to design some kind of container to transport them around in my pack and to just protect the blade from nicks when I wasn't actually using it.
I grabbed a piece of small scrap basswood and split it down the middle with my bandsaw, then traced out the shape of the blade on one side of the wood. Next I carved it out so that my blade would fit snug and secure inside the two sides of wood. As the pictures show I then used some adhesive backed Velcro and a stapler to attached the two pieces of wood together where it would open like I was reading a book.
Anyhow, I was very pleased with the result and I now feel like I've made my carving environment much safer while also protecting an expensive investment. I'm still in the experimental and exploration stages of discovering just what I can accomplish with this little funky tool so I'll have to report later on that assessment after I've had ample time to give it a fair go. Buttttttt... so far I'm really loving it and find myself reaching for it more and more and yes, it really does reach into some of those hard to get to places like no other tool can do. Yeah, I think I'm gonna like it.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A spirit is born

After recently twisting my ankle while running I've been grounded to crutches, canes, and occasional crawling. Cabin fever finally got the best of me today so I grabbed my greenman cane, a few carving tools, and my fanny pack then went for a short walk into the woods. I was looking for the perfect tree.Up the hill then over to the ridge line of a valley watershed I found my tree, a little oak that was only about 1-1/2" diameter at its widest section. The tree was low in the forest and being greatly shaded by a canopy of taller trees but this was exactly what I was looking for my project.

My little woodspirit was about to be born as I scraped the outer bark away with my pocket knife. It was only about a foot off the forest floor so I had to lie on my side while carving in about as cumbersome a position as I must form when greasing the bearings under my truck, but I managed just keeping my eye on what was forming. As you can see in the above picture I hit a nice streak of very dark wood just below the surface giving great accent to the deep cuts in the eyes and sides of the nose. It usually don't work out like this but sometimes I get lucky!

I went on to round out the face and was pleased with my progress and that is when I heard the sound of shuffling leaves in the valley below me. I stopped carving and let my eyes penetrate the opposite hillside about 30 yards away when the wobbling brown furred body of a big ole groundhog showed itself. Around these parts of the Appalachian mountains the local farmers call them "whistle pigs" and it took me a couple of years after moving here to finally understand what they were talking about. Most of the farmers don't like them because they burrow, dig, and plough up good farmland but this little pig wasn't doing me no harm today and I enjoyed watching him without a hint of him knowing about my spying eyes. Sort of a neat moment.
Finally I was back to putting the final touches on this new guardian spirit of the woods lying low on the forest floor. With such a small carving I didn't try to put in a set of full eyes and went for the "squinting" eye look but since he was only a foot off the ground I just figured that this would help keep his eyes clean with all the debri that could splash his open eyes during a rain.

I swatted a few mosquitoes but they must not have been too thirsty for blood since they mostly stayed at bay and I went on to seal the spirit with a protective coat of Sikkens Cetol 1 finish that is originally meant to be a high quality finish for the exterior of log homes. Colin Partridge, a chainsaw carver from Ontario, Canada first led me to this wonderful product and although it's expensive it's the best stuff I've ever found for preserving outdoor carvings.
So there it stands all proud and overlooking everything that might pass it's way through the forest. At only a foot above the ground you'd have to be looking down and looking hard to even see it but I can assure you that it is there. After this first coating of Cetol 1 is dry I will return in a day or two to apply the Cetol 2 which is the final protective layer of the Sikkens finish. Colin Partridge explains that when carving into live trees, applying the finish correctly is like putting a band-aid on a cut finger... it allows the tree's wound to heal without any permanent damage. Colin also warns not to carve more than 1/3 the diameter of the tree and try to make it a more "shallow" carving than you normally would carve. I carved one other woodspirit into a live tree, a persimmon tree, about 4 years ago and that particular tree is thriving well. I will now keep an eye on my new forest friend as the years pass by. I think that he'll be just fine.
I thought that the picture above was quite revealing and I put a red circle where the finished woodspirit is located. So now you can probably better understand why he'd be so hard to find unless you knew exactly where it was at. I guess that he will be my secret friend and I'm sure that I'll get many years of amusement by return pilgrimages. I know, you ask why would anyone carve something way out in the woods and far off any beaten trail that no one but me will probably ever see? Carving things in trees is something that I've been doing ever since I was a kid and I still get just as much contentment from this engagement today as I did forty something years ago. It's so therapeutic akin to spending hours working the soil in a vegetable garden, I renew my own spirit by spending some quality time alone in the woods. It's just what I do.
I packed the following things with me: Of course I always have my Flexcut Carvin' Jack but I also brought along my small palm Swiss-Made u-gouge and v-parting tools, a small can of Sikkens Cetol 1 and a small model paint brush and paper napkin. A nice afternoon it was and another spirit is now born.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Carving whimsical spoons

Like a lot of my carving friends on the Woodcarving Illustrated message board, I've been on a spoon carving marathon lately. I used basswood scraps 7" long X 1-3/8" wide X 1/2" deep. I didn't do any spoon in one sitting and just pulled them out on the whim and let the designs invent themselves. Now that is what I refer to as relaxing carving!

I think that my favorite one is the "Womble family". The one with the long red and turquoise hat is a cross between a wizard, circus clown, and Dr. Seuss... so how's that for whimsical?!? I won't be using these spoons to eat my cereal tomorrow morning as they are more in the "decorative" folk art category.

I used thinned acrylic paints and polyurethane for the finish.