Saturday, July 31, 2010

Hands-On Pictures Of Rural America from 1939-1943

 I just came across an amazing collection of color photography from an era in American history when life was tougher, but in a lot of ways life was much better than today:
Captured: America in Color from 1939-1943 – Plog Photo Blog

The pictures found at the link above are special because they are some of the only color photographs taken of the effects of the Depression on America’s rural and small town populations. I didn't even realize that color photography was around during this period in time but after a little research I was amazed to discover that the first color photograph was taken in 1861. Apparently it never took off on a massive scale since the color process was not as "convenient" as our digital photography today and certainly not as affordable. Thank goodness that someone was able to capture at least a few glimpses into the past that help us understand a time gone by.

Kodachrome color transparencies  first came onto the scene during the mid 1930's from which most of these pictures were taken. Kodachrome offered the most highly developed process for recording our world for about 74 years but unfortunately it has not been produced since 2009 with the advent of the digital age taking hold. Kodachrome 64 was my  choice for recording the events in my own life for over 27 of those years and I still have thousands of these quality color transparencies today. Digital is hard to beat these days in both value and quality so a great warrior known as Kodachrome is now gone. Kodachrome was the "digital" quality of the day and viewing these pictures can easily fool your eye into believing that they are digital... they are that clear.

Of course my favorite pictures from this rare and magnificent collection are those where the kids are making things with their hands. I have posted two lower quality prints here from that collection but you need to see them at the link provided for their full glory and vivid detail. The first picture posted above (on top) is number 29 in the collection and shows a boy building a model airplane as a girl watches in Robstown, Texas, January 1942. The other picture just above is number 42 which shows children aiming sticks as guns, lined up against a brick building. Washington, D.C.(?), between 1941 and 1942.

Pictures from my own family's  past  have been know to capture my attention for many hours at a time as I scan every detail. I especially enjoy studying the pictures of my own great-grandparents as they were during a time that I never knew, but sadly there aren't many of them. Every detail of that person and their surroundings seems to release a new clue to understanding my own past every time that I zoom into their hidden stories. All of these pictures are "black & white" which have their own charm but to see a quality color picture shows us the world more "as it was" and that's what makes the pictures in this rare 1939-1943 collection so special.

The b&w picture to the left (still no color) shows my two best friends, Scott and Van, (me in the center/9 years old) stretching out a snake for the camera. I like this picture because even in the mid-1960's when this picture was taken, most of the kids spent their days outdoors and/or in the woods and we were barefooted 99% of the time (as in the picture) during our 3-month summer vacation between grades. We'd never heard of "Air Jordans" and would have laughed at the prospect of our parents foolishly forking over $200 for a pair of shoes when we had our own feet to use. In the background can be seen laundry hanging out to dry in the sun... folks don't have time for that today because our societal priorities have been rearranged. Seems most parents now believe that it's more important for their kids to have Air Jordans on their feet while they play their video games indoors than it is to have a parent home hanging out the laundry.

All of the pictures in this collection are striking and I was amazed at how lean and tough that these people looked. Obviously they were from an era where more people lived on farms, grew or raised their own food, and had neighbors that they depended upon for their very survival. Notice that so many of the children were barefooted in the pictures and I bet they didn't feel the least bit deprived without a $200 pair of designer shoes. This was a time of mostly no running water, one room school houses, and no free meals at school. This was a proud, tough America where people provided for their own. Yes they were poor but most children from that era today would tell you that they never knew they were poor. It was a time where nearly every kid, both black and white,  came home every day to a mother and a father and that has become the exception in today's world. As one  commenter so perfectly said, "It was a Real America. Not a hypocrisy, as now."

It's great to know (and to see in living detailed color) that kids were busy using their hands to make things so many years ago. Technology is a great thing but I often wonder where you could find a group of kids like in the second picture above out playing with their sticks and play guns today? Some folks say that there is more "hope" to be found in the future but the future means nothing if we forget the past.

Friday, July 30, 2010

And Even More "Hillbilly Pencils"

Sometimes I just can't too much of a good thing and this is one of those moments when it comes to carving hillbilly pencils. Several days ago I posted all the details of how I make them here, but since then I've pumped out a few more that I thought I'd share.

From left to right in the picture to the right is what I consider to be a worm going into the wood on one side then coming out on the other side. Although it's hard to see in the picture I did wood burn a tiny face on him. The next one is the lips and tongue design for the Rolling Stones. That one has become quite popular since it's so bizarre. Oh, and there's that darn roadrunner again. Lastly is a little wizard man with his tall blue hat with a red ball on top.

In the picture to the left are a few of the unpainted pencils from above AND a few more that I'm still working on. One is a rooster and another one is my version of a coo-coo bird.

These easy little pencil carving projects make great gifts or collectibles. Right now I'm already thinking about making a simple display stand to show them off. Perhaps a foot long piece of 2 X 2 would work just fine but I'll probably go with using a straight piece of seasoned tree branch with the bottom planed flat. The natural design would go much better with this rustic wood-themed carving project.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Meet "Swamp Man Sam" (A Cypress Knee Project)

Here's a neat little cypress knee that I picked up last week then finished painting it this weekend. It's about 10" tall and these smaller knees are the ones that I like best for carving. It's a convenient size for tucking inside a cargo pocket then pulling it out whenever a moment to carve can be found. Like this one, cypress knees bring birth to some of my most hilarious carvings because you have to go with the wood which is quite a difference from your average "squared" basswood block.

If you look closely there is a little story being told by the carving. Ole Swamp Sam down below has got his swishy tongue ready and his beady eyes fixed on the little purple dotted lizard that is perched just above. It's quite a comical piece which has already brought many smiles. 

As you can see from the pictures above I first tried to take advantage of the knots, bumps, and free-form twists found naturally in the cypress knee. There was nothing planned out with this carving in the beginning and I just let the wood gradually find it's own story. I first began with the mouth where I made use of one "bump" of wood for shaping the tip of the tongue. After adding teeth and lips I then moved up the wood using a twisted section for its funky nose and then of course, those beady eyes. With a bit more thought I got the idea for the lizard and then the complete story came full-circle.

This was a fun carving project and if you haven't yet discovered the joys of carving cypress knees then you're in for a treat.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

WIP: Indian From Core Of Red Cedar (part 1 of 2)

 WIP="Work in Progress"

Eastern red cedar has always been one of my favorite "found" woods for carving. Because of it's sharp contrast in colors between red and white, this is a very appealing wood for making everything from simple carved nameplates to making a jewelry chest. When I was a counselor the kids in my group valued its carving properties so much that they created their own monetary system using the wood as a valued trading item. Needless to say that we had to put a stop to that but it goes to show that eastern red cedar has always been a valued wood for carving.

I just recently re-found the piece of wood used for this project from where it had remained hidden for many years under a woodshop table. During a cleaning mission it was a great find so I decided that I'd put an Indian into it. Looking at the first pictures above you can see what a fantastic center of core red wood that this cedar had... just at the right proportion to white surface wood to make it ideal for an Indian warrior carving. This carving will only require a clear finish when completed because painting it would bring ruin.

For the most part I am very pleased with the results so far. With the Indian finished I then decided to add some supplemental surface carvings around the main carving and the Thunderbird is the first. I was careful not to go too deep because I will later lightly add some hints of color to this one and I only wanted the upper layer of white wood to show. Not sure what I'll do next but I'll let you know when I get there.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Woodspirit in Black Locust

During the last couple of days I've had the opportunity to teach a quick woodcarving class on woodspirits. The complete carving took us just a bit over an hour yesterday afternoon then today we put the final stain and finish on it.

I had about 5 students help me with this project and they were fired up and proud to be helping. As you can see in the picture to the right they chose a barkless slit about 2' long and 5" wide in a black locust tree. At first I cringed in serious doubt because locust is one of the hardest woods around our parts and only hickory is probably harder. My head immediately had visions of broken carving knife blades that could cost me as much as $75 each to replace. It's happened to me before so I approached this tree with caution.

As everyone watched in anticipation I made the first few cuts outlining the nose and eye-wells with my v-parting tool. I was very careful and made my cuts very shallow until I could get a feel for this particular tree. As you see by the red circles in the pictures to the left a multitude of creepy crawlers, ants, and bugs were in full military patrol with all the hammering going on upon their tree.

The carving went better than expected and with small calculated cuts I decided that the locust was doable. As several of the surrounding pictures indicate, I allowed  the kids an opportunity to do some of the carving with specific instructions as they enjoyed making the cuts. Carving the beard is not too difficult and a good place for kids to get a feel for the carving. Basically they just tapped the large v-parting tool with the wooden mallet trying to keep a smooth flow of the cuts with no crisscrossing.They did an amazingly good job!

With the carving finished we all initiated the new woodspirit as an official member of the group with a pinky kiss.  One by one, we each kissed the tip of our little finger then quickly gave the spirit a fast tapping. It was now there to serve, please, and protect us from all that roamed the wooded forest around us.

The boy seen in the picture to the right was one of my most loyal students and he volunteered to haul the gallon can of finishing stain about a half mile to the carving so I allowed him the high honor of applying the final finish. After this "honey-brown" stain was on he couldn't hardly keep his eyes off the new woodspirit and like the others, he would repeatedly walk past it in admiration. These students did a great job and couldn't be prouder of the new woodspirit friend that has found a new home guarding the entrance to their campsite.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Easy To Carve Hillbilly Pencils

Here's an easy carving project that I've recently re-discovered: carving hillbilly pencils. For the most part they are pretty easy to make and carve because even if your carving doesn't make it to the level of a Picasso, then you've still got a pencil.

Lately I've been using hillbilly pencils as a project in my carving classes with the kids and they're really enjoying them. As you can see from the pictures my first pencil ended up having a funny little hairy-legged roadrunner on the top. I used a stick that had a forked top and carved out some shavings for feathers on one end. It's hard to see but I also cleaned out the wood between the birds long legs thus giving it a little more perspective and eye catching charm for the observer. All in all it took about an hour to prep the stick, place the lead tip, paint, and finish it up completely but times will vary depending on skill level and complexity of your design.
Although I used a well seasoned twig of sweet birch for my roadrunner, I later discovered that rhododendron twigs worked great. Most of these east coast bushes have tons of dry twigs on their lower ends making them perfect for my purpose of pencil making. The wood is amazingly strong and they have very interesting twists and bends to tickle the imagination.

As seen in the pictures to the left I first trim the twigs to the desired length and try to leave a "fork" on top that I can use for an interesting design. Next I use a very small drill bit (same size as lead "graphite" being inserted) to drill out the hole where the writing lead will go. I only make this hole about an inch deep, plus or minus.

Next I saw up a bunch of old woodshop pencils and strip them for their graphite "lead". You can use a nice thick lead purchased in a box but I have so many old used up pencils in the woodshop this is what works best for me. Plus, it's a great challenge to see how good that you can get stripping the lead without breaking it. I then roll the tip of the lead in some wood glue then insert it in the drilled hole and allow to dry. Before long I'm writing right along with the great admiration of all my hillbilly (and non-hillbilly) friends.

The picture to the right shows about 30 pencil "blanks" ready for carving with the lead tips already in place. I suppose that it took me about two hours to gather them out of the woods, to cut and prep. This is a great way to prepare for success during a woodcarving class with kids and I'm amazed at some of the designs they come up with. I'll post more pictures as they develop. Have fun and keep on carving... and hopefully writing with your new funky-fine hillbilly pencil!

Friday, July 16, 2010

An "End Of The Trail Mystery" on a Creek Ramble

Hands-on learning comes in many shapes and forms. Woodshop class and woodcarving are most certainly a powerful catalyst for extending a child's eduction to a higher level but they aren't an exclusive end to a well balanced curriculum. These pictures are from a creek ramble that I joined on a wet, moist morning a couple of days ago with one of our more adventurous groups.

This mountainside forest was prime for discovery after the previous days warm rain. As seen in the picture to the right, the mist was heavy as we walked up the small stream to it's source. Our 900 acre campus is a true mountainside ecosystem that is a very fragile environment as it is the upper limits of the watershed source that feeds life to the land for hundreds of miles from the mountains to the sea.
This is a special place hidden in a deep Blue Ridge mountain hide-away deep in the forest which is full with life... and the kids know it. All of our creeks follow the steep mountainous terrain upwards and end with the discovery of a cold trickling spring where underground cracks and shifting rocks determine the changing course of our streams over time. This is prime environment for the birthplace of deep woods life and these creeks have it all. Everyone loves to ramble in the water where a new discovery awaits with every step. Just look at the salamander cuddling an acorn in the picture to the right.

During this creek ramble we found crawdads, frogs, spiders in their webs ridden with early morning dew drops, red newts, lizards, salamanders, a garter snake,thick cushy mosses, plus the lichens and fungus which clinged to the outcrops of exposed rocks gradually breaking them down into new soil over thousands of years. Such discoveries are a teachers mecca where potential lessons can be found in abundance and where a kid can learn answers that he won't forget.

The greatest discovery this morning was found in the pictures shown below. On a gravel bar beside the creek one of the boys discovered a pile of animal bones which was complete with skull, jaws, ribs, and legs. Although the bodily tissue had decayed, this was a relatively recent "end of the trail" for one particular animal. This was definitely a raccoon and looking at the evidence which also included bits of fur, this woodland bandit had most likely expired approximately 2 to 4 months ago while also considering that spring floods hadn't dispersed the evidence left behind.
From Wood Trails - Dave Brock
Finding the final spot where an animals life has ended is a rare and special event that has always been one of my greatest anticipations whenever I enter the forest. Such finds usually don't last long since Mother Nature has a very quick way of cleaning herself up. Field mice gnaw away bones and antlers quickly just as a creek side track is washed away with the first rain. Most hikes into the woods will reveal the "parts and pieces" to the puzzle of an animals mysterious life trail, such as tracks, feathers, disturbed vegetation, or a freshly dug hole but none of these compare to the thrill of finding a place like in the picture above.

This is the "end of the trail" for one animals life and this final place (sort-of) brings full circle the mystery found in a pile of bones. The complete mystery of that animals life still can't be completely solved but it causes one to pause and to consider that animal and its part in the web of life. The woods are full with lessons about both life and death but you have to get your hands dirty and your feet wet to discover them.

Note: All of the pictures above were taken during the course of the one-hour creek ramble described above.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Frisky Froggy and Carving on the Porch

Even in the cool Blue Ridge Mountains the July heat has been somewhat brutal this summer. Hard to believe that there was a couple feet of snow on the ground about six months ago. Fortunately for us, today was a cooling off period and the killer humidity died down a bit. Being a wilderness camp we live and work in the Great Outdoors so keeping an eye on the weather becomes the forefront of our daily planning as teachers, students, or staff.

After lunch this afternoon I held a great woodcarving class out on the porch with about six students who participated in making a variety of woodcarved crafts which included woodspirit faces, hillbilly pencils, and other neat little projects as seen in the pictures to the right. Something about cool weather in the woods that  mixes well with woodcarving as the kids were anxious to be using their hands.

For any successful carving class it's first important to "prime" the kids prior to bringing out the knives. This morning I began that when I picked up a random sycamore limb off the ground and saw two distinct knots lined up just perfectly for the eyes of a little frog as you can see in the pictures to the left and below. As the kids were finishing up chores or waiting on their logs for breakfast I kept their curiosity on high alert as the little frog came to life. I continued working on it wherever I could muster up a few minutes and in-between the groups scheduled classes.
This was a relatively easy carving as I first sketched the outline of the frog using the natural shape of the knotty eyes to center my drawing. From there I made a series of stop cuts along the outline then began removing the wood around the frog until I reached a depth that felt right. I then shaped up the body a bit then used my small U-gouge to create a somewhat "worty" frog skin. Before lunch I had named him "Frisky Froggy" which was a name that brought out a nice smile from the group. Now the kids were primed for a successful carving period where everyone had a great afternoon just relaxing, laughing, practicing their cuts, and everything else that makes up an afternoon of carving on the porch.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Pioneer Lashing Sparks The Imagination

I very rarely meet a kid who doesn't like to be part of building something from the natural materials in the woods. Using only freshly cut poles or bamboo I've seen (or helped to construct) everything from 30 foot towers, sleeping shelters, Indian tepees, bridges, tables, or like in the picture to the right a catapult.

Pioneer lashing is one of the funnest classes that I teach in Scouts where if a kid can imagine it then he can build it. For those industrious kids who really develop a knack for the craft, they can proceed to learn a very high level of mastering the lashing skill, including how to make their own twine and rope, by pursuing the Pioneering merit badge.

As seen in the picture to the left all lashings start with either the clovehitch or the timberhitch knot so this is the first thing that my lashing classes learn. Also, I've found that during those first classes it greatly helps to have a lot of visual aids handy such as those seen in the pictures to either side. Pioneer lashing at Scout summer camp is always a popular activity and there you'll find tons of neat projects to spark the imagination. However, I teach this skill year-round as part of our educational program so it helps to have some props. As you can see I first made several scaled down examples of how to tie a square lashing, a diagonal lashing, a shear lashing, and all the other lashing including my favorite the tripod.

If a kid can see it, small or large-scale, then they can learn to build it is a fact that has proven true almost 100% of the time over the years so if you can't build the real thing, then come up with several scaled down models to tickle their brains into action.

 If you're looking for a fantastic activity that beats the daylights out of TV, video games, or ipods, then I would strongly suggest trying your hand at teaching kids some pioneer lashing. Learning how to maneuver rope and poles into something fun, useful, or just plain interesting is another great way to spend quality time with kids. These are the kind of experiences that will develop meaningful memories and they will be very grateful for your leadership as the years in their lives transition them into the kind of adults that will find great pleasure in passing on the skill to the next generation.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Outdoor Education: Drama At Its Best

Today I had the opportunity to work with a group of kids in the woods who were experiencing some behavioral issues and they couldn't make it to class. Normally I like to use woodcarving in these situations to get the hands busy and the mind engaged in producing some positive results. That's not always possible when the kids aren't at an acceptable level of "calm, cool, and collect" that is essential for safety during such activity with carving tools.

Sometimes I have to switch gears and look for other ways to make sure that our precious time isn't squandered and another opportunity to learn isn't lost. This is when the digital camera comes in handy and I'm able to save an otherwise lost day. This hot July weather has brought out an amazing movement of wildlife and I've found wonderful opportunities to capture some amazing wildlife shots using the micro lens of my camera. I immediately got the kids busy to see how much wildlife activity that they could identify and I told them to think "small" because on just one of our mountain trees there were probably a thousand scenes of natural drama if only they could find it.

Within minutes a couple of the boys brought me a nice slimy salamander from the nearby creek but most of the sightings were close at hand right where we sat. An army of termites were busy all over the logs where we sat, moving in and out of their holes with their wings buzzing in activity. This was a great opportunity to talk about natures cycle of life and how all this activity going on all about us kept the forest alive and well.

The grand jewel of the morning was when one of the boys yelled for me to come see a spider in his web as it devoured another spider. These kids were ecstatic over their find and so was I as I pounced over a log while flicking the on-button of my camera. This time it's the drama produced in the trap of a spiders web as one vibrant and determined predator spider captures a Daddy Long-Leg spider, spins it into the trap of its web, then injects a paralyzing poison and proceeds to suck out it's nourishing body juices. Just don't get much better than this! Here's the video of that amazing event:

On a nearby rocky hillside we spotted a groundhog but he quickly vanished into his hole... no ordinary "human" hole but a special hole that only an animal can make which aerates the soil in the forest helping it to breathe, drain, and continue the cycle of life. To some this was only a groundhog but the story goes a lot further for those observers who ask questions and wonder about the complete story which is usually beyond what the eye can see.

On a few occasions the kids aren't able to make it to their regular classes but that's when new opportunities must be found to learn because time is precious and our kids are just too important to  observe from the side lines. If you're a teacher, a parent, or a youth leader always be looking for ways to engage the kids in your charge because the most powerful classrooms in the world are those found in the Great Outdoors. Get your kids hands dirty, their feet wet, and with a little direction their own curiosity will lead to some of the best lessons in their lives.

Note: All of the pictures used in this article were taken on location during the last couple of days in our outdoor classroom with the kids. These were only a very few of the creatures that we found.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Indian Test of Manhood Group Trophy

Here's a little woodshop project that I put together in about 90 minutes complete. Every July 4th since about 1979 our camp has held a mountainside foot race that is approximately 1/2 mile long. That doesn't sound like much of a race unless you are able to actually see the course in person. The path of the race is literally up the side of our mountain which is no easy feat to win. The student who wins gets his choice of a $100.00 pair of shoes on a special shopping flee.

This year someone asked me at the very last minute (only 3 days before the race) if I could come up with a trophy for the group who had the best "overall" times for the race. This would encourage team work and a full group effort. Fortunately I had a very small window of time that I could devote to the project so off to the woodshop I went. About 90 minutes later I came up with the trophy in the picture above.

 This wasn't a complicated project at all and I used materials that I had on hand right at the moment. In the shed I found the materials in the picture to the right which includes a nice chunk of western white cedar which came from the scrap wood left over from a log cabin. The "swirled" maple leg was part of a huge wood donation to our woodshop program from a local furniture company. The third item is a 3/4" poplar dowel rod.

From the chunk of cedar I cut out the shape of an Indian moccasin with the bandsaw, drilled out the hole on top using a fostner bit with the drill press. Nothing pretty but it has a nice homemade effect that I like. I then woodburned the laces and a defining line around the sole of the shoe and I painted the sole of the shoe black.

As you can see in the picture to the left I decided to paint the base of the trophy jet black. I hate to cover up and hide the beauty of maple wood but to save it would have taken a ton of time that I didn't have because it had all kinds of furniture company makings all over it.

The trophy is now finished and will sit proudly on the table of the group who won it for the next 12 months. A little time, a nice result, and a lot of pride is what we got.

Monday, July 5, 2010

"Wild Man" From A Tree Limb

In the beginning I didn't intend for this to be much more than a momentary pastime carving. But the more I carved, the more that I began to like it.

Like a lot of my carvings this one began with a piece of dry poplar limb that I picked up off the ground. Basswood is nice but there's just something super special about picking up a piece of found wood right up off the forest floor then transforming it into something to admire. Just don't get much better than that in my raw approach to carving.
Also in the beginning I never intended for it to make it to the blog or I would have taken more pictures along the way. The picture to the far left shows the limb just after I'd roughed it out on the bandsaw. The original branch had two limbs forking outward and directly across from each other and yes, outreaching arms is the first thing that went through my mind. I love finding wood like this since there are so many possibilities.

Also notice how the wood of the right arm is dark as compared to the light color of the left arm. Sometimes poplar can vary in color from white to cream to even shades of green. After carving I then went on to lightly sand it with 220 grit paper and painted it with watered down acrylics.