Saturday, 28 March 2009

Two knives

Angels from heaven have descended and delivered a Del Stubbs open sweep hook knife into my quivering hands. Oh how it shines, it almost generates its own light, its soft gentle curves sending me into ecstasy. The ultimate tool now completing my life.

Well enough of this flowery language, I do rate Del`s hook knife very highly, it is a joy to use and very well made and designed. Apart from making tools Del also carves spoons as well as fan carved birds,, so he knows what is needed in a tool. I have mentioned in another post about trying to make a 10 minute spoon, and that I was unhappy with the hook knives I already own, mainly because of there tight curves. This knife leaves a far flatter finish, because it takes off a wider shaving, and so saves time.

I am impressed with its finish, you can use it as a mirror as all surfaces are so highly polished, not something you find on all tools. There is no point on the tip, instead it curves round (see photo). The back edge of the blade is also rounded. I have ground off the point on my Frosts as it gets stuck into wood or flesh.

The only point that I would say could be changed is the handle is too smooth, I much prefer Ben Orfords elm handles with lots of flats on, but may be that is just personal preference. These are not cheap tools because the exchange rate with the dollar is not so good at the moment, but I consider it a great investment and well worth the money.

left to right; Del Stubbs, Frosts and Ben Orford hook knives

The other tool I got at the same time was a Trevor Ablet woodcarving pocket knife, made in Sheffield. I decided to buy one after seeing Nicola wood`s videos on folding knives. Again a craftsman made knife and very good too.

I had to spend some time sharpening it. It seems to take a good sharp edge and I am liking it more and more, I did not think it would be to comfortable to hold, but I like it, as it fits my hand well. Carving with a folding blade is something I gave up about 20 years ago, but if we look at American tramp art and whittling in this country, much of the most amazing stuff was done with just a pocket knife, from captive balls and chains to fan carving figures and gypsy flowers etc. I am looking forward to using much more of it.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Bench for Paignton Zoo

Through Andrew Cowan of Arbor Ecology I was introduced to Kevin Frediani, Curator of Plants and Gardens Paignton Zoo, which is only a few miles away from where I live. The outcome is that I am to make a bench for a show garden at the Devon County Show, which afterwards will be installed at the Zoo. Kevin is very keen on sourcing and using local material and craftsmen.
The bench is to be be made from a fallen oak in the wildlife reserve in the Zoo, so our first job was to safely cut the trunk from the root plate and sit it on the ground. In the photo below, you can see this oak partly obscuring a woodland path. The path is an old track way dating back to when these were 'working woodlands' and coppice and occasional standard trees were taken out of the woods for use. Paths originally built for carts are quite narrow and, being overgrown, a tractor could not extract the tree; so we had to convert it before carrying it out.
Dave Ellacott the Reserves Warden also participated in this work.

I would have liked the butt to be cleaved into quarters and then into planks, but because of the way the tree fell, we could not get wedges into the bottom end. The butt forked at the top and I did not feel confident that we could accurately cleave through the fork. So Dave ripped down its length and we split that quarter out with wedges.

Jenny is standing on the first quarter to be split out from the butt and its starting the second split along the pith. It is always good to have a couple of narrow metal wedges as fat wedges spring out from the wood. We used 2 metal, 1 plastic, and a couple of wooden wedges to split this open with.

The only things holding the top quarter on are a couple of cross fibres which had to be cut before we levered it round to the chainsaw mill. Cross fibres occur when the wood does not split evenly and strips of wood are attached to both sides of the split.

Dave screwed a flat plank to the top side of each quarter and ran the chainsaw mill across and under the plank. We got 5 good 3-inch thick quarter sawn planks out and a number of split triangular sections, plus what was left that Dave will use for various projects.

The only way of getting them out of the woods was to carry them and we soon gave up the carrying and pulled them instead. These may not look very big but they are extremely heavy. Just as shire horses pulling logs or carts speed up on an incline, we found ourselves doing this quite instinctively as well.
It is great working with other people, as I tend to work on my own most of the time. I really appreciated that Dave could call in help from other people. If Dave and I had had to remove all the oak on our own, I would have not have had the energy to walk back to the van at the end of the day.

We had to tie a rope around the rear end of the plank as it wanted to slip off the track, down the hill.

At around this point we saw the first bluebell of the season.

I wanted to use cleft and/or quarter sawn wood as it is the most stable and will not warp and cup as it dries out, but we would have had to cut the tree into smaller pieces anyway as the chainsaw mill was too small for the diameter of the tree.
The wood is now all at my workshop, and next week I will start making the bench.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Wooden flowers

I had an email from Ana, a young lady from Spain and woodwork student. Ana spent some time last year working and learning various new green woodworking techniques in my workshop. She went back to Spain with a couple of knives I gave her.

"I have a nice story for you.
I took my knife with me, and went to the river to get some dead branches for making small gypsy flowers in my spare time.
When I made them I put them in an empty water bottle. Now it comes the good part..
After about a week I had a look at them and realised the bottle wasn't completely empty... And one the small branches had reached some water and started to grow a new plant!! Now I've taken it back to the river and put it into the ground :D

Here's some pictures of it"

That`s what I call sustainable, collect some willow and carve flowers from it, and display them in a bottle. When the roots have grown plant out and repeat next year, If one person in a hundred did this every year we would soon have more woods. If you stick some willow into the ground it will just grow as will hazel and some other trees. You can cut them to the ground and they will just grow again, weave them into structures, these are very versatile trees.

A gypsy flower, as I call them, is a wooden flower carved with a metal blade. They have traditionally been made by the travelling community and were sold along with their other wares. When making them at shows some older ladies occasionally tell me that their mothers would buy them off the Gypsies when they came through there town or village.
The great thing about them is that are made from hedge row materials all you need is a knife and maybe a drill or awl. The materials are available all year round, hazel is one of the best, but anything works, but I prefer to work willow seasoned. I have also use oak and alder off cuts from the billets I use for the pole lathe, these are first rounded off on the shaving horse and then made using a draw knife.

I have been making gypsy flowers for over 15 years now, and first started by using a knife and thin bits of seasoned willow. These were not very good and some time later I started using a drawknife on a shaving horse, the flowers got bigger. Some of the people I have met over the years have only used a knife to make them, and very often just a folding pen or pocket knife. These flowers are medium size being 3 to 5 inches diameter, I have on many occasions tried to make large flowers with just a knife and find it difficult and painful on the hands.

Small flowers made with a knife, like the ones I used to make.

The picture above are small flowers made with a knife from willow, note that I always leave the bark on, from 1.5 to 2.5 inches across. They are made from dry willow. I also make smaller ones that are only an inch across that are great for button holes etc.

Made from green hazel, and these are 4 to 9 inches across, the bottom right hand side one has the petal curving anti clockwise at he bottom and clockwise at the top. Old seasoned willow can get a bit brittle if kept very dry and it helps if you can increase the moisture content of the wood by keeping wet for a few days.

Again made from seasoned willow, these are 3 to 5 inches across. I love the ones with the bark on, the bark just does its own thing in an unpredictable way, I love this chaos which is in contrast with the tight curls of the flower.

A collection of of finished heads drying out and waiting for sticks, these have been made from green hazel. I use sticks from 1/2 inch up to 2 inch for the really giant ones.

I have already posted some pictures of Sue Hinton making flowers at Westonbirt click here to go to the post and scroll down to the bottom of the page

Thursday, 19 March 2009

10 minute spoon

After chatting to Robin Wood about green woodwork, production work, and about Ion Constantin, spoon maker, from Slatina, that Stewart King and Robin filmed in Romania. I decided again to see how quickly I could make a spoon, I am sorry to say that 10 minutes was not achieved, my fastest being 16 minutes and 25 for the big one. This is not fast enough, my family and I will be going to the workhouse.

The link to the video is

I find this process very interesting and how it can inform and change all my other knife work. I love a well made spoon, the time spent on achieving perfect form and a beautiful hand worked finish, but as we all know there is not a very big market for a £25 or more spoon, so we need to reduce the price and the only way of doing this is by compromising. It has got to function, we can not compromise to much here, but the look and design can change, the finish can be rougher the knife marks and cuts bigger, in other words bigger `flats`. We can not compromise on wood, we can use willow and alder which are some of our softest woods, or cherry and sycamore, but we must use them green, just felled. Do not try doing this using slightly dry wood it will slow you down and will be harder on the hands.

One thing that would have shaved a few minutes off my time is a suitable hook knife. Frosts hook knife? No, because it has a too tight a curve and also it has an angled bevel which should be rounded. My little Ben Orford knife is too small, so I am going to have to make my own hook knife with the right shape and edge geometry etc, a carving adze would help as well, just to take the bulk of the bowl out.

I have decide to use a shaving horse and a drawknife to save my knife holding hand, I find that the intense knife work even for 10 mins can be very hard on my hand and to be honest I rather look after my body.

These are not the most beautiful spoons but there is honesty in seeing tool marks, and we have become conditioned by the plastic society that needs a smooth sanded surface with a gloss finish. I want to sell spoons, and the only way of doing that is by finding the price people will pay and making a spoon to that price. So lots more practise for me.

The woods that I have used are cherry, willow and alder buckthorn. I will also be practising and refining the design and process and maybe one day I will be able to make a spoon in 10 minutes.

If you would like to buy any spoons do have a look at my website for details of how to buy

Friday, 13 March 2009


I have for some years been trying half heartedly to make one piece nutcrackers as seen in "Treen for the table" by Jonathan Levi. Until a couple of months ago I have only been using dry ash and not steaming it properly. The bent piece has been splitting out, even with using a supporting strap. Anyway I got some willow, just cut, and decided to try again and wow, no need to stream the wood just bend it round into place and tie it off.

Finished willow nutcrackers, the coin is an English £1. The cord is made from willow bark

The wood is split from the log, axed down into an even plank and then drawknifed. The bark is taken off carefully, I try not to cut into the wood as this is the bit that gets bent. I have a template which is placed on the wood and drawn around as in the photo. The middle is cut out with a bandsaw or copping saw and with willow it is just bent, with ash (far left in the photo) I steamed the wood and then bent it. I tie them to keep them in place. Carving is best done when the wood is still green.

They work very well and are a great looking piece of traditional treen. I would say that they would not last forever, especially if heavily used and history bears this out as there are only a few surviving examples of this type of nutcracker.
I do have a few for sale, contact me for details.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Spoons, wooden spoons and spatulas

I have been making spoons since I was a child in Wales. My first one was for a spoon carving class in the local fair in Tregarron and I have no idea of what happened to it. After college I spent time living under canvas in a woodland and wanted to learn how to create everyday artefacts for daily living. Learning through trial and error, I made some beautiful spoons, which have gone the way of most wooden spoons back into the earth and atmosphere. Not all my spoons are good, I have made a fair few that may be functional but are not well made or designed, after all it is possible to eat with stick or chip of wood.

Spoons can be made with just a knife and hook knife or a carving gouge, a saw is also helpfull but not nessessary.

Some of the knives I use and would recommend both on quality and price are the Mora Frosts knives from Sweden.

164 single edge hook knife
120 short bladed carving knife and maybe a 160 which has a long narrow blade, not recommended for beginners
840, 860,740,760,780 which are good beginners bushcraft knives and very good for general woodcraft
S-1 and S-2 wooden handled carving knives.

The hook knives are OK but do not buy the double edged one. I have never got on with it. For quality hook knives you will have to buy them from craftsmen that make themselves and the price is usually £30 upwards but they are well worth it.

Good tools are fantastic, we can all put on our anoraks and talk for hours about the pros and cons of this or that tool. I started off with a Stanley knife and I have seen the most amazing work from some of the oddest looking tools ever. What is most important is the sharpness of the blade and the skill of the maker.

Spoon made from sycamore, carved at WOMAD festival during the mud fest of 2007

Some tools of the trade; hook knives 164 and a hook knife made by Ben Orford, knives; bushcraft and 120 frosts, and spoon.

Apple wood love spoon with one ball in the cage and a chain, this has been carved from one piece of wood.

Rattle with captive ball with 2 heads carved into it.

Love spoons designed and made by Sean Hellman.

  • Why so many people are now whittling spoon? I can only really talk from my own experience, and I have a number of theories.
  • The eco aspect, to make something yourself with the minimum of tools from natural materials.
  • You have bought your expensive Gransfor burk axe and spent even more on a bush craft knife and you want to use them.
  • A need to be self reliant, a need to create something in a society that hugely undervalues craftspeople, well manual workers.
  • To get in touch with, or to connect with our ancestors, by using similar tools, the same techniques, and materials. A link with the past.
  • To create a sacred tool, one that nurtures, well enables nurturing, ok putting food into your gob. The spoon can be also seen as a symbol, the bowl archetypally represents the womb or feminine principle and the handle represents the male principle, they are combined into one (unity) and used as a tool to feed ourselves with.
  • As a meditation.
  • To get rich and famous as a world renowned spoon maker, get real no one makes money from making things by hand.
  • To get a wife, this one worked for me. I met my wife after exhibiting at a friends Christmas show, she saw my spoons and wanted one carved in a certain design as a cake stirring spoon to be made from apple wood. She got in touch and we met in my workshop, I am sure my eyes were popping out and my tongue was on the floor. We met again a week later at a party and things just got better. Love blossomed and the spoon took a couple of years to be made, but she got it ibefore we married.
  • To learn the craft or art of using the most important tool ever, the knife. Give me a knife and I can live in comfort. Try living in the wilderness without a knife and see how long you survive!

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Fan Carving and Fan Birds

Fan Carving is thought to have originated in Russia, east of Finland. Within Europe the fan bird dove is also known as Holy Spirit, dove of peace, ceiling bird, Christmas bird, spirit bird, whittled bird, shaving bird, among many others.

The bird was hung from the ceiling in the home so that it can moved with any breezes, It represents or symbolizes the Holy spirit , protection, health, and happiness for the family. Customs in Europe vary, some are more religious but all are about happiness, protection and good health

Fan carving is not just about birds, all sorts of artefacts have been whittled from a single block of wood, including Fans, flowers, birds, and dancers.

All fan carving is made from a single block of wood, the feathers are rived or split from the wood with a small hinge still attaching them to the rest of the wood. The solid part is carved into a bird and then the feathers are twisted and interlocked together to form the wings and tail.

If any of you would like to learn how to make these wonderful birds, get in touch as I will be running workshops in how to make them in 2009

Top fan bird made from mountain ash and the smaller from recyled pine

The legend of the fan bird
This is from Sally and David Nye who wrote the exellent book" more fan carving"

During the Medieval Era, families lived in one-room log houses that were covered with clay inside and out. There was just one window covered with a dried animal stomach during the winter and a small smoky stone fireplace.

One family in northern Russia lived in such a house with a young boy who was very ill. He lay on his bed where he was covered with furs. People came from neighboring villages to try to help him regain his health, but all efforts were in vain.

It was the end of winter, and his father was sitting by the fireplace making baskets.

Tired of lying in a stuffy house, the ill boy asked, “Dad, is summer coming soon” His father replied, “soon son, very soon. Just a little more and summer will be here”. Then his father got an idea. He thought, “I will make a bird-from this piece of wood. I will make it to look like a real bird with it? Wings and a tail. Maybe my son will think summer has come and thy birds have returned. That would make him very happy”. The father said, “I will make summer for you”

He made a bird and hung it from the ceiling near the fireplace where his son could see it. The draft of the hot air streams from the fire caused the bird to spin. Its wings began to move and suddenly it became alive. Thus, the bird assumed magical powers and became known as the Holy Ghost, safe keeper of children and symbol of family happiness The son was filled with joy and his health improved. The people from the neighboring villages returned to ask how the boy was healed. When they heard the story about the bird, they asked the father to make a bird for their home to safeguard and protect their family.

3 views of the same bird made from recycled pine from our local bed factory

Small bird from mountain ash

These fan birds are now for sale, the standard size is about a 16cm wingspan, 12cm from beak to tail tip and 8cm high.

I have been blessed for the past weeks to have a student from Spain working and learning in my big cold workshop. I love working with people who want to learn and already have good skills.

Ana mentioned one day as I dropped a long 2x2 inch stick end first on to the concrete floor, that they have a musical instrument in the Basque region of Spain that made a sound just like the dropped stick. It is called the txalaparta; it consists of at least 2 planks place supported on trestles and is played by 2 people with 2 sticks each.

Having watched a lot of these videos I am impressed by the range of rhythm and sound that a couple of sticks of wood can produce. I once made a pair of clap sticks from yew and because they were shaped asymmetrically and had knots in I could get all sorts of different notes from them, depending on how and where I hit them.

From what I have managed to make out so far, the txalaparta developed from cider making. Apples were mashed in large wooden troughs with long sticks before being put into the apple press. I am sure that when mashing the mashers would sometimes bang their sticks in time with each other. As we all know work, and repetitive work is over quicker if we sing or beat out a rhythm together.

You tube video in Basque but well worth watching, sorry embedding has been disabled on youtube

To find out more have a look at the wikipedia entry on txalaparta.