Wednesday, October 20, 2010

All New Natural Soy Candles Added to My Votive Holders

Many of you may know about the candle holders I've been making out of the pieces left from carving my bowls but if not check out this blog post from a few weeks ago . This will give you some background on the "River Rock" series of candle holders I carve. These Votive holders have proven very popular with customers who love to display them in bathrooms and nightstands.

I decided recently to look for a candle supplier that could supply locally made natural candles for the candle holders. I found this in "Lotus Soy Candle Co"  of Columbia. Kailey Fleming owns and operates this great local company and makes beautiful products in her own line. I feel the addition of these candles to my products makes my candle holders greener and more locally produced. You can buy replacement candles for my candle holders directly form here at her website.

 I also carve some more traditional looking votive holders in two, three, and four candle styles. These are usually long and narrow. They start out life as odd pieces of cutoffs from irregular boards that are carved, not cut, into these long shapes. This means that every piece has its own unique elements in the spirit of the Japanese art form Wabi-Sabi.  

So folks you can see more of these at my ETSY store and my Artfire shop. In the next few weeks you'll also be able to order these from my own website. If you have any questions you can email me directly or contact me through either of my stores. Feel free to contact with any questions about the candles and the many other candle products she offers. All the best and happy carving....or what ever it is you enjoy.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

How to Make a Dough Bowl Blank

When a piece of wood lands in your lap it's easy to assume you just tear into it and hey presto we have a bowl. This is exactly how I approached the process in the early days but experience has thought me to be just a little deliberate and careful in my assumptions of what the end product from a piece of wood will be. On your left you see a large piece of cedar about 24 inches long and 9 inches wide that I purchased at Reggie's (link for context) along with a few pieces of cherry and some catalpa last week. "What's catalpa?" I hear you ask. Well that's another blog post my friends.

In the picture above you may assume that this blank is fit to produce the mother of all trenchers at 24 by 9 however a closer inspection shows some problems not immediately apparent. On the right you see a picture of one of the largest cracks in the wood. Wood splits like this because variations in the moisture content across the wood cause pressure differences within the grain. This will happen in any piece of wood that is not dried in optimal conditions.  You can see at A the crack dives through the end grain and follows a track along the grain B into the block of wood. This crack will generally become shallower until it eventually disappears.

Another large problem with this process is determining just how the knots have behaved in the drying process. In the picture on the left you can see two knots and three cracks B that could have serious ramifications for the outcome of the carving process. A knot like this can compromise the integrity and validity of a bowl as an instrument of utility and render it a pretty but useless lump of wood in the general shape of a dough bowl. You can also see another but much shorter end grain split at A. In the end these pieces of the block are useless to me and need to be removed to determine just how much of this blank is valid for carving.

It's tempting to try to maximise the size of the bowl
blank at the expense of integrity in order to produce the largest possible bowl. I'm a firm believer that the quality of the bowl trumps the quantity of the bowl every time. I want to produce a flawless bowl so that I know if the customer is dissatisfied with the product it's just a genuine difference of opinion rather than a compromise on my part. That said the knots that produce so many cracks and problems also create beautiful grain. I feel it's best to cut the blank as close to the knot as reasonable and carve back to a clean line in order to capture those beautiful grains in the bowl.

When you have determined the cut lines it's time to saw. At this point many woodworkers will power up the band saw or table saw and Bob's your uncle. I however have not yet invested in one of these fine instruments of efficiency. Growing up in Ireland I took five years of shop in  high school. The Irish shop teachers didn't believe in power tools. This article of faith was reinforced by pathetic Department of Education funding. They truly felt that if you didn't know how a hand saw or chisel felt in the wood and how it would react you just didn't know wood. There are many wonderful wood workers that produce works of wonder on power tools to contradict this theory. However, my experience has been that after a twenty odd year hiatus from wood I was able to pick up a very cheap saw and cut a perfect right angle across a 4 inch thick piece of walnut with no hesitation. It literally saved me thousands of dollars in power tools I'd have to purchase otherwise.

 Here you see two options when it comes to which direction the shape of the bowl should follow in relation to the grain of the wood. The first example shows the bowl cutting thought grain, diving towards the pith or heart of the tree. The other example shows the opposite. You'll notice that the second example will travel with the grain rather than crossing it meaning that the bowl will have very little grain detail in the finished product. Also the fact that that bowl travels away from the pith means that the bowl will have very little detail in it's crater with an awkward looking concentration of grain at the rim of the bowl. This in my opinion produces an imbalanced bowl that never looks comfortable in it's own skin. Try this test. Search wooden bowl in google and go to images. Compare the images of the bowls with the pith or concentration of grain at the bottom of the bowl with those that have the pith in the center or top of the bowl. Which to you looks more attractive and well hued. There are times that you have to travel from the pith when carving or turning a bowl. Knots, checks, cracks, and bark edges have sometimes  much more to say about the outcome of the grain pattern of a bowl than I do. 

It's now time to map out exactly how your bowl is going to look. There are many different formulas that I use to determine this and sometimes none at all. One I particularly like and have been unconsciously using for some time is the Golden Ratio . This was apparently discovered by the Greeks and then Blah Blah Blah, check out the wiki thing. Suffice to say it produces a pretty and proportional bowl. First draw a square by placing the point of your square at the corner of you blank  mark the edge of your square (B) and then have this square again using the same square technique. This produces the point A which is used as the fulcrum for you compass to scribe the line C.  Now if your really cool you'll make the curved ends of the bowl a perfect Fibonacci spiral ark but really you'd only be getting as crazy as me.

  So now you have the plans laid and the tools primed. It's time to carve. On the left you can see the finished product and hopefully see the fruit of our planning and execution. The bowl is proportional, not to long against it's width. The curve is comfortable with the other proportions. The grain is detailed and works with the shape of the crater of the bowl, adding great detail to the overall aspect of the entire work. "Wait a minute!" I hear you exclaim, "how did that lump of wood become this finished bowl?" Well that my friends is a whole other blog post. Happy carving....or what ever it is you do.       

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Heat is Gone

The worst of the Summer heat has finally left Mid Missouri folks and I'm back in the shop with abandon. Those who have not spent a Summer in the Show Me state may be unaware of just how uncomfortable it can be here. Temperatures regularly hit the high 90s by mid afternoon and the heat indexes push the 110s. They say of the weather around here that if you don't like it just wait a few minutes and it will change. I find this only applies to months other than July and August. In these months the temperature builds and builds and doesn't let go until the later part of August.

"What does this have to do with a wood shop?" I hear you ask and would speak the same in your position. May I draw your attention to the picture on above. You'll notice in the picture I'm wearing quite an assortment of safety gear to protect me from the dust and the tools I use. In an non air-conditioned shop this is really uncomfortable and could only spend two to three hours working before I had to pack it in.

Now that the weather has broken I'm able to go full force again. Carving, sanding, polishing and sawing. I've considered putting in air-conditioning but really it's just a few weeks of the year that this really is a problem and the dust would only clog up the entire system in a matter of hours anyway.

August has been an amazing month for my wood shop in other ways. I have been blessed with more customers for my bowls than any other month by far. It really makes me itch to get back into the shop and create more as I read the emails of appreciation from customers across America  describing how much they love their bowl and how they plan to use it. Thanks to all those you appreciate art and all things hand carved.

Now for a few of my more recent bowls:

The bowl on the left is carved from Sassafras. This is a beautifully easy wood to carve and it gives off a wonderful aroma that reminds me of the friars balsam my father poured into boiling water as a treatment for my terrible sinus pain as a child. Fond memories of a caring father, and the stuff works too. Several of these bowls should be available for sale at in the next week.

The bowl on the left is carved from walnut. You can see the light colored sapwood on the lest of the bowl and watch the color change to the beautifully dark heart wood as the bowl descends. This one is about to go on a 3700 mile journey to Ireland as a wedding gift for a cousin of mine that's getting married in September. I hope she likes it.

 This pretty little thing is carved from a walnut burl that I found on a saw mill. It had been thrown aside as a useless piece of wood. Imagine my delight at finding such a large burl! Unfortunately it had already been cracked severely from exposure to the elements before I found it. I still managed to carve this bowl from it with the cracks present. I felt the cracks added character to the bowl and didn't detract from it at all. Someone else agreed because if sold about three hours after I put it up online.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

My Friend Reggie

There are people you meet that you know instantly are going to make some aspect of your life better or easier just by virtue of the fact that they exist. Reggie Power is this person for my wood shop. I recently had the honor of presenting him with the bowl I made for him in exchange for a generous supply of beautifully seasoned walnut. We made this trade about 6 weeks ago. The making of this bowl became more than just a matter of exchange for me though for one main reason. We had agreed to meet on a Saturday earlier that week to make a trade. He'd give me lumber from which I would carve many bowls. One of these bowls I would give to him for the entire stock of wood. When I arrived at his mill that Saturday we exchanged pleasantries as we've become friends and everything seemed normal. After a while though he asked me about my parents and were they still alive and all that.
This conversation eventually revealed that Reggie's mother had died unexpectedly the last evening. I naturally expressed my sympathies and informed him that he could have called and rescheduled our appointment to another date to which he said that working in the mill and talking with me made him feel better. I was touched by these kind expressions of friendship and it warmed me even though I felt sadness for my friends loss.  The next day in the shop I set to work on his bowl with a sense of purpose and responsibility. I had to make him a good bowl, and I feel I did.
Driving to Reggie's is a jaunt through the beautiful Missouri country side as it sweeps down to the broad majestic Missouri River. It's as honest as the people who inhabit it, "don't tell me, Show Me" the saying goes, and on these back roads Missouri shows you just how pleasant she is and why I live here. Stepping out of the car I knew there was Garlic afoot, it was everywhere. Reggie had just harvested his crop for the local markets. It reminded me of walking through Garryhinch wood outside Mountmellick in Ireland when I was a child.  The tall oaks, elms, beeches, and chestnuts impeded the undergrowth as far as you could see. Creating a world beneath the canopy that looked cultivated and manicured. But every now and then you would wander into a vast field of wild garlic in flower like Wordsworth into the daffodils. Beautiful and pungent, what a great memory.
Reggie's is a treasure trove for folks like me. Oak, sycamore, walnut, cherry, elm, and on and on. Each cut to a respectable non industry standard sizes and seasoned. For most applications you need kilned wood. The kilning process drops the moisture content down to 5-7% of the over all weight of the wood. This means that the wood is far less susceptible to cracking and splitting in our air conditioned homes where vast variations of humidity and temperature occur on sometimes a daily basis.
The problem with kilned wood for me is two fold. Firstly the reduced moisture content means that the wood has far less detail to it. You take a piece of seasoned walnut and put it next to a piece of kilned walnut and the seasoned will win  any beauty contest you through at it. Secondly the kilned wood is dryer so the fibers of the wood are dryer and harder to finish. You can polish a piece of seasoned wood to a far higher grit and gloss than any kilned wood you care to mention.
So I love the seasoned hard woods, but you try to build a complex piece of furniture out of it and your going to be in serious trouble. Each component of your furniture is going to expand and contract at different rates, causing a lot of pressure across every joint and seem of the entire piece. Eventually the whole thing will just collapse like the car at the end of the Blues Brothers. The bowls however are all one natural piece of wood that is able to expand and contract in a uniform manner.
Traveling to Reggie's is incomplete without scouring through his vast stock of aged seasoned hardwood. Today I picked up some Sassafras which I've never carved before and some more walnut. Over the next few weeks you'll see some of that carved into dough bowls, trenchers, and votive holders. Thanks for reading and here's to Reggie.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

River Rock Votive Holders

In the process of carving my dough bowl and trencher bowls I end up with lots of little pieces of wood lying around. Most of the wood gets pulverized into shavings that get sucked into my dust collector or gather on the floor, bench, shelf, you know, any available horizontal surface. Some of the pieces though are larger and I always felt I should do something with them rather than throw them out. I thought about doing parquet with a scroll saw and some clamps, or gluing blocks together to form larger carving blocks for bowls. I even considered buying a small lathe to make pen blanks and maybe even a few pens. The expense on this project though was prohibitive.
No I needed to something out of the scrap pieces that
I could do with the tools I already had and was true to the goals and beliefs of my wood shop. That is to produce as natural and simple a product as possible that relied on the natural beauty of the wood rather than chemicals, dyes, glues, and the use of jigs in carving. In my humble opinion once a jig enters the fray the piece is no longer the product of carving but something else. I'm not saying relying on a jig is a bad thing it's just not what I wanted to do. Any thing I made from these pieces had to reflect the natural aspect of the wood, all that beauty should be displayed in an item that reflect the natural world from where it came. This was my challenge.

One night after a hard days carving and running after my twin boys to prevent the inevitable I was lying in bed pondering the Universe or some other unfathomable thing when an image hit me. River Rocks, carved out of wood. Simple, clean, natural. The shape can be manipulated to accentuate the natural beauty and texture of the wood. They can come in all kinds of shapes and sizes so no two will ever be alike. They can also be carved with the tools I have with no new tools to buy or learn to use. Eureka! I have my new product line...but wait a minute. Who wants to by a wooden river rock and what would they do with it?

Well I was going to worry about that question later right now my task was to create a couple of them as prototypes and see if it could be done and what they looked like. The first one I carved was the persimmon one shown below. It came out just as I envisioned it, smooth, natural, and carveable. It was however a pretty but not very heavy paperweight. I was losing hope in the viability of my project and offhandedly showed it to my wife Julie. Distracted for a short time I came back to find my wife playing with a votive glass and my river rock. Well she did it again folks! Hence the River Rock Votive Holder Series came into being. 
 I did in the end have to by a drill press and a Forstner bit to drill the holes. Finding a drill press that can drill a 2" Forstner at a reasonable price is a whole other blog post. Especially when you consider the five I returned for being virtually useless. So now folks I hope this explains some of the story and thoughts behind this line of wood products. They are a great joy to make and photograph. The new price point has allowed me to offer products to a much broader range of potential customers and this has been very good for my small wood shop. Until next time, thanks for reading and happy carving...or what ever it is you do.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

How to Make a Sycamore Dough Bowl

It may seem intuitive but I guess it's still worth saying that any wooden bowl starts out life as a lump of wood. This particular lump of wood is a piece of sycamore destined to become a support for a mobile home somewhere in Mid Missouri before I graciously intervened in this fate. I scout lumber yards like varsity coaches do high schools looking for that diamond in the rough no one else has noticed. Once rescued the block is roughed out, sealed with Anchorseal and left to season. Seasoning a block of wood is an entire blog post but suffice to say that roughing out the blank significantly speeds up the process. Sycamore is a nice wood to use in my experience as it's stable when seasoning, far less likely to crack and split, and is easy to carve with a rich but consistent color lending itself to a pretty bowl.

The first task is to define the exterior of the bowl. Dough bowls can have many different shapes. Some are wide, some are narrow, some have handles and some don't. Many dough bowls, although beautiful, are designed with utility in mind. This is where the handles, taller, deeper, rounder aspects of design come in to play. Many serious bakers look for these characteristics when buying or commissioning a bowl.
The design I use is strictly geared towards what I find visually pleasing. I like the shape, it feels uncomplicated and appropriate our modern sense of design and living. That said I'm still governed by what the wood can do for me. You have to "listen to the wood". See where the prettiest patterns are, work around the knots and cracks and deliver the most bowl for the blank possible. My bowls will either emerge with a rounded side or a pretty straight side, I'm really not quite sure why it just seems to happen. This one is of the straight variety.

You can see in the photo on the right a large knot on the top side of the bowl that caused me some problems. When I first opened the blank it seemed to be clean and fit for carving. I lose about half the wood I season due to flaws like this that are apparent before carving. There are many reasons for this but the main ones are that I don't have the room to store large pieces of fresh cut green wood as many carvers and turners do. This storage ability gives the woodworker control over the conditions to which the wood is subject very shortly after the wood is felled. The sooner you seal the wood and place it in a stable environment the more likely you are to emerge with a successful blank. I have to rely on wood that has been sawn at a mill and may have been exposed to the elements. The fact that I loose some blanks only bothers me when it's a particularly nice piece of wood that I loose. I find many other things to do with this lost wood and visitors to my etsy store will see in the form of votive holders. This particular crack proved not to be a major issue as I was able to work it out of the final product.

Once the exterior has been defined it's time to bring the interior out to meet the exterior. When I started carving bowls I carved the opposite way. This came to a crashing stop when I found that after carving out the interior of a particularly nice piece of walnut the exterior had a flaw. The fact that the interior was already carved left me no wiggle room to correct the problem and much to my chagrin the entire piece and several hours work had to be discarded. It's still possible for the interior to pose a problem but this hasn't happened yet.

You can now see the bowl starting to take the familiar shape we all know and love. The vise you see in the picture is one I designed myself to hold bowls in place and be flexible for the many different stages of carving. It's made out of 2X2 oak which interlace to form a floating work surface that protrudes from the bench. After messing with clamps and such for a long time with little if any success this vision came to me as the elixir of all my carving problems. I'm quite proud of it for with the exception of sticking a little in very humid conditions it has been extremely successful.

The exterior and interior are then sanded and polished. This process has been made significantly easier with the addition of this flexible shaft from King Arthur's Tools. It has a chuck on the end of it that allow me to attach sanders and polishers and move them almost anywhere on the bowl. This flexibility means that a bowl can be finished quicker with far less irritation when it comes to getting a sander to a particularly hard to reach part of the bowl. Ye have to thank Julie, my wife, for this one as it was an anniversary gift.

The finished bowl is now ready to oil. Oiling makes the wood "come alive" as a friend describes it. It also seals the wood against damage from a variety of sources.

I use an organic tung oil from The Real Milk Paint Company. This oil is natural and food safe but is labor intensive to apply. It is however the best and most permanent natural finish to apply to a food safe bowl and is well worth the six weeks or so it takes to fully cure.

Now for this weeks other bowls!

This bowl is a large walnut dough bowl, 19X7X4
This is another large piece of walnut. 18X10X3

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Better Photographs

I received some advise on improving my presence on blogs and etsy. Apparently people really like good, interesting photos, go figure. After initially feeling a little defensive on the implied lack of  Ansel Adams talent I decided to set my mind to improving my photos and making them a little more interesting. I have found myself wandering the vast and mostly vacant halls of the web discovering little and feeling a little numb. However when you have a particular question or need it is the most amazing tool of knowledge from which many good things can come. Here are some websites I discovered from which I garnered most of my knowledge on the subject of photos. It does little good to regurgitate what they have already said  just go there for yourself.

I set about lighting the bowls according to the ideas presented in these articles. I used two cheap table lamps which I coupled with 2 100 watt equivalent energy efficient bulbs. Over the bulbs I placed a sheet of light tissue paper to defuse the light and make it a little less harsh. I used a sheet of white wrapping paper as a background to keep the focus on the bowl itself.  Placing the bowl in  the frame took some getting used to as they can be quite large. Once I got used to this though it is simply a matter of placing the bowl in positions experience tells me would look best.

 The camera, a Cannon Power Shot A1100 AS,  is mounted on a small cheap tripod which rests on the floor. I place the camera in "program" mode and set the ISO to 400, the light source to tungsten, the effects to vivid, and move the lens setting to Macro. I focus the lens on a forward edge to the bowl or item to be photographed which causes the images furthest from the camera to be slightly out of focus. I feel this adds character and interest to the photo.

The last step in the process is to edit the photos to make them look their best. I use picnik which you can find and use for free at simply upload your photos and you can edit them like a pro. I would caution against trying to use software like this to make a bad photo look good. It really takes very little editing to make a photo really look "shopped", it is best to have a good photo to begin with and use this software to crop, re size, and and subtly bring out some of the finer details in the already fine photograph.

 I hope some of the tips and links here help you find your way to even better photos and a more enjoyable experience. It is simply not good enough in the online world to have a great product, you also have to have great photographs. While some I know have hired professional photographers at what I imagine to be relatively great expence I hope my photos show that  you can achive good results with a lower end digital camera and a little know how.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Walnut, Heat, and Allergies.

The boys are back in daycare which gets me back into my "shop". When I say my "shop" I'm really referring to the back wall of my garage, unconditioned, unheated, and until quite recently completely free of wasps. I started this week carving through the large batch of great walnut I received from Reggie Power who runs a small mill just outside Columbia. He exchanged 30 odd board feet of walnut for the promise of a dough bowl carved from said wood. I haven't decided which piece to declare his but needless to say it will be the finest bowl from the batch.

The heat Monday and Tuesday in the shop has been almost unbearable. It's been riding in the mid nineties outside so you can imagine what it's been like inside. Anyway I started to get a rash on my arms on Monday which got significantly worse on Tuesday after a few minutes carving. With a little research through the power of the Internet I found that a significant portion of the population can have allergies to walnut dust and shavings. This didn't seem likely to be the solution to the situation as I've never had an allergy in my life. Yet there it was on my arms itching an burning. Well this really was a bummer, here I am with a huge dose of walnut to carve and I get allergic to it! Not only could this be a waste of wood I just don't have the capital in the business accounts right now to replace this amount of wood with anything comparable in another species. And that's even if I could get access to any wood in the right dimensions (a whole blog post could be written on this struggle).
The more I though about this the less sense it made. I've carved 6 walnut bowls previous to this batch without any problems. So while checking out at The Do It Center, where I'd gone to get some new dust masks, I mentioned my problem to them. They've always seemed like knowledgeable, helpful guys and I think yet again they've pulled through for me. They said that walnut contains acids and tannins that can be activated by heat and sweat when they come in contact with sweaty skin. There we go, I have my answer, and as soon as it cools down some I should be able to go right back at the walnut. The problem now is that I have no other wood ready to carve. I'm out of the shop for the remainder of the week anyway, I have no plans to aggravate this rash any further especially considering I woke up at 5am this morning with itching and burning arms. Two coats of calamine lotion and it's still burning.

On to the bowls!
This oak bowl measures 9.5" by 5.75" by 2.33" deep. It's from a piece of scrap quarter sawn oak that I had essentially discarded but decided to carve for no apparent reason. I must say that I'm delight I did as the picture shows the quarter sawn nature of the oak really adds some nice detail to the bowl (sold).

This walnut bowl is one I'm considering for Reggie. Its 17" long 6.5" wide and 2.5" deep. (Bluestem)

This is the bowl that first produced the offending rash, 17.5" long by 7.25" wide by 2.5" deep. (bluestem)

This was the last bowl made this week and may be the last walnut bowl till the fall. 16" by 7" by 2.5" (For Reggie)

These bowls have been oiled with organic tung oil and will be ready for sale in about 4 weeks. They'll either be up on or in one of the local craft stores.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Elm Bowl

Elm Bowl
Otherwise known as "man bowl" by my wife. Very heavy, sturdy bowl with a nice grain throughout. Soon to be added to Etsy site, keep a look out for it.

Two Persmimmon Votive - Sold
Part of the "River Rock" series of votives. I like the way these turn out and will continue to make these.