Trying Something New

I often approach carving very cautiously, but recently  decided to be more bold. I think I’ve been cautious because I approach carving from a position of scarcity: “there is only one piece of wood like this in the whole world and I could wreck it! Ergo, go slow, Grant. Be careful.”

What does it mean to approach a carving more boldly? Take this carving of dogwood flowers.

Dogwood Flowers (safe version)

I intend that it will start low to the table on one end and rise in the middle before dropping back down at the other end, somewhat like my powerful looking biceps muscles (smirk!). So I started carefully by drawing the flowers and branch on the wood and cutting out the shape on the band saw. The first thing I started carving was the centers of the flowers, followed by the petals of each flower with the intent that I would gradually sculpt down from the surface, lowering each flower centre and each petal until I felt the flowers were at the right height. You can see in the photo that I started carving  all the flowers at the same height, that I separated the petals and had begun to lower them slightly. Not too much at a time because, hello scarcity! This is how I carved the last dogwood carving, and it was very safe. But it took me longer to carve than it takes Canada Revenue Agency to complete my tax refund, and I thought there must be a better way! Which is also how I think about paying taxes.

I have long been a fan and subscriber to Chris Pye’s carving training videos, and noticed that he confidently and aggressively removes waste wood before he starts carving details. So I thought I would give it a try. In less than an hour, I had the first flower and stem at the correct depth and roughly carved. All that is left to do is to smooth the petals, undercut the flower to throw a good shadow, and stamp the centre (stamen), which will take another half hour of time.

Dogwood Flowers (bold version)

In short, I’m happy with this new way of thinking and I am happy with the the process and the outcome. As I always say, “Go bold or go home!”

Ok, maybe this is the first time I’ve said that – it must be my bold coffee speaking. Bring on the boldness, in coffee and in carving!

My First Ever Art Show Auction

A while ago, I became a member of the Fort Gallery in Fort Langley. This Saturday evening, I am inviting you to a gala event in support of the Gallery. At this event, Paint the Town, my carving of the dogwood flowers, will be auctioned off

Dogwood Flowers

in a silent auction. This is the first time I have participated in an art show silent auction and, to be honest, I am a little nervous about it. What if no one bids on my art? However, as Helen Keller said, “Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing at all.” I’m all in on this one! [Update: the Dogwood Flowers sold. Insert happy dance.]

Tickets to the gala are $50 each, and there will be appetizers, dessert, music and dancing, and of course, the silent auction. The link to the tickets and information is here. I hope to see you Saturday evening!



A Good Art Show

What makes a good art show?

This past Saturday, the Central Fraser Valley Woodcarvers club hosted our annual Art of the Carver art show. I think a good art show should have top quality art, have some strong energy, and be an event that people want to be and linger at.

Pumpkins carved in a caricature style

Photo Credit: Mark Smith

I had the privilege of being a co-chair of the Show along with Mark Smith. Mark is an excellent photographer and has a lot of experience in senior management, so he knows how to get things done. We had some challenges putting the show together, but with the help of club members, it was a successful event.

There were several things I liked about how this show.

Good Judges Make a Good Show

Judge Norm Williams speaks with Co-chair Mark Smith
Norm Williams and Mark Smith

First, we had a phenomenal judge in Norm Williams. He is a sculptor from Abbotsford who is well known for his bronze sculptures of Roger Neilson and Pat Quinn which are standing near the entrance to Rogers Arena in Vancouver. Norm was great because he is a very experienced judge and he also hung around afterwards to talk with carvers about their work, offering advice and encouragement. I personally talked with him for over an hour about how I can improve my carving and sculptures. This is very beneficial and is appreciated by carvers.

Show Judges at work
Judges at work

Good Displays Make a Good Show

Dan Lefebvre’s display table
Dan Lefebvre’s display table

Another good thing about this show was the display table for professional carver Dan Lefebvre. It was Dan’s first time participating in an art show like this, and he stole the show! The size and complexity of his carvings meant that they drew a crowd. In the end, one of his carvings won the Best of Show, The People’s Choice, and the Carvers Choice awards, so he really did steal the show.

Good Carvers Make a Good Show

Dan Lefebvre was not the only excellent carver at this show. We had other world class talent, as well as many emerging talented artists who put their carvings on display.

Carvings on display

Carvings on display

Ribbons and Awards

The show award winners were as follows:

  • Best of Novice: Phillip Guite
  • Best of Intermediate: Ted Kieneker
  • Best of Advanced: Yours Truly Grant McMillan
  • Best of Expert: Dan Lefebvre
  • Best of Show: Dan Lefebvre
  • People’s Choice Award: Dan Lefebvre
  • Carvers Choice Award: Dan Lefebvre

There are several improvements planned already for next year. I hope you’ll be able to make it.

Fireman Helmet Carving

This is a carving that has been in the works for over a year. Kirk has had a most interesting and storied career, or should I say several careers? One career was as a Fire Fighter in Greensboro, in the US. He retired from that profession several years ago and talked to me about his dream of having a carved fire helmet to be a memento of his years in the Fire Service. But it was after this most recent change in jobs that his wife approached me and said they were ready to start and gave me Kirk’s helmet for reference.

Initially, we thought I would carve a helmet “in the round,” or as the kids say: “3-D.” But then it occurred to me that he already has the helmet and does not need two of them. Plus, helmets are large! I was surprised at how large and how heavy the real thing is. Instead of a full 3-D carving, I suggested a carving in relief that could be hung on a wall as an art piece. It would take up less room, be just as dramatic, and be less prone to damage. They agreed and I started working on a design.

It started with joining two pieces of 2 inch thick slabs of yellow cedar that I got from my friend and fellow carver Ken Smorang.

Then I took about 100 photos of Kirk’s helmet from a variety of angles and with a number of different lighting angles. The hardest part was choosing the best one to work from, but I did finally choose.

Photo of the yellow cedar slab with a photo of the helmet placed in the middle
The image of the helmet is ok but perhaps not large enough

Next, I laid out several options with paper on the slab of wood, and sending pictures back and forth with Kirk’s wife (she’s also a graphic designer). After landing on the preferred option, I started carving. I began with my typical approach of using a plunge router to establish the exact depths all over the slab, but as I started routing, I soon realized just how much dust and tiny wood chips were being created and thrown around the studio. I wasn’t happy with that. I have safety concerns about cedar dust and there was no efficient method of containing it with my Bosch router. So I switched to using my largest 2″ wide carving gouge.

Once the background was lowered down to the correct depth, it was time to start on the helmet itself.

Now and then, I like to stop and get out the dividers to check distances between the elements of the carving.

Relief carvings really come alive when you work on the little details. For example, the way the letters on the badge wrap around the curve and give the impression of depth. It is a small thing, but the stitching around the edges of the leather badge has to demonstrate perspective. This means that the farther away it is supposed to look, the smaller it gets. So, I made each stitch that wraps around the badge slightly smaller as it drops to the background.

And the best part was the voice mail from Kirk! Apparently I made his day 😃

If I can make your day with something special like this, contact me.

Passion and Patience

This post was inspired by two others: Nancy Hillier and Rick B, who posted a quote from Maya Angelou that grabbed me.

Seek patience and passion in equal amounts.
Patience alone will not build the temple.
Passion alone will destroy its walls.

– Maya Angelou

Below is an example of how I apply this to my carving. I’ve been “working” on this relief carving of a fireman’s helmet for several years. In fact, I started working on it before I even knew what it looked like because the person who commissioned the carving hadn’t provided me with a photo or a concept – just a “Hey Grant, one day I’d like you to carve my fireman helmet.”

This is an in-progress photo of me carving a fireman helmet in relief.
Fireman Helmet Relief Carving In Progress

I was itching to get started, but I have started and ruined many a carving by, to use a track & field image, jumping the gun. I’ve learned to be patient, and in this case, rolling the helmet idea around and around in my head for several years before the client said, “Go!” It’s a good thing, too, because it turns out he was hesitating and I was hesitating because we both thought it meant carving a full-size, in-the-round, 3-D, helmet, and neither of us really wanted that. With due patience and thought, other ideas came to my mind and with them, a measure of relief (see what I did there?).

Once that was settled, the passion could take over!

Handcarved Pendant Necklace

This one-of-a-kind pendant necklace is inspired by fall on the West Coast. We often come across salamanders on our outdoor adventures. This one is much like the little fella we found near the ruins of an old barn near Fort Langley, BC.

Carved in teak wood, finished with linseed oil and beeswax. The necklace cord is attached with a hand made brass ring, attached to the tail with a whip-finished brown thread.

This necklace is for sale for $119 plus shipping, if needed. Email me at to purchase it.

Carving in the Margins

People often ask me when I find time to carve. They ask because they know I am busy. I have a career as an administrator at a university, I have a family, I volunteer with my church and I serve on the board of a large camp. I also like to play sports, and enjoy fishing and hunting and camping, as well as going to the theatre such as Bard on the Beach. The question contains a bit of incredulity, as this seems to be a busy life!

The question contains a flaw that I think needs addressing. I don’t find time to carve, I make time! After all, who else is responsible for how I use my time? I have many responsibilities, it is true, but I chose to get married, I choose to love my wife and kids in practical and daily ways. I choose to be as busy doing things that are important to us and to me.

This means I choose what I do and when I do it. A couple of weekends ago, we went to the beach for Canada Day (July 1), and I knew that we would be sitting around talking with friends and family, so before we left I cut out a spoon blank, grabbed a carving knife, and while being sociable and soaking up some vitamin D from the sun, I carved the spoon. In a couple of hours, the spoon was finished. When I got home, I parked the car in the garage, grabbed some 220 grit sandpaper and gave the spoon a couple of swipes with it to soften the edges. Then I wiped a finish of butcher block oil on it and posted two photos on social media. That literally took me 15 minutes. Within 5 minutes of me posting the pics, someone asked me if they could buy it.

I could have spent the day at the beach doing other things, but I chose to carve.

I have renovated three homes while we lived in them. We all know people who never finished their renovations. I swore I would not be one of those people, and my method for not losing momentum was to promise to do something on the home every day no matter what happened. Some days it meant I replaced the entire roof. Other days it meant that I tightened one screw on an electrical outlet cover plate. But the key was doing something every day.

Many years ago I decided that if I was going to be any good at this carving thing, I would need to take the same approach. On days when I am sick, maybe it is just reading a book or researching a sculpture. On a rainy winter Saturday when my wife is away, I might spend 8-10 hours in my studio. But most often I carve each evening for an hour or so. I am fortunate to have a dedicated room in our townhouse (one vacated by our oldest child who got married), so I can leave my work out and all I have to do is pick up the gouge and start carving where I left off.

I have to take responsibility for my time. If I don’t, who else will? So I squeeze it in here and there, carving on the beach or at halftime during the televised World Cup soccer games. Maybe even in the 15 minutes after I park the car to finish and sell a spoon before going upstairs to do the dishes.

So often, carvers are asked to carve the margins of things (bread platters, picture frames, etc.). I choose to carve in the margins of my life. It’s both therapeutic and productive!

Restoring Two Antique Carved Tables

A few months ago, a long term client asked me to restore two antique side-tables for him. These two tables were originally made for his father in the Congo sometime in 1930.

The tables had suffered from moving to three different continents, and the results of changes in humidity and some dodgy repairs attempts. The top of one was seriously warped and needed a lot of careful work with a hand plane. It was made of one solid piece of rosewood, and I couldn’t risk running it through a thickness planer for fear it would break in half.

This was followed by working both sides over with a card scraper.

Perhaps the most difficult part was fitting the feet of the legs with thick sheets of copper, drilled and screwed into place. The difficulty was because everything about these tables was hand made with no two pieces exactly the same. On top of that, the legs were badly warped and twisted. So each sheet of copper had to be individually fitted into the feet. This meant that I had to clamp the legs together, make individual cardboard templates for each foot, cut these out of the copper sheets, and then inset them into the feet. One I had the copper feet properly fitted, I clamped them into the legs and marked them for drilling. Many hours were spent at my drill press first drilling the correct holes and then drilling matching pilot holes for the screws in the legs.

At this point, no carving was done, but don’t worry, that’s still coming.

Next, the owner asked me to make the two tables match a little better. One table had nice arabesque cutouts in the legs. The other table had solid legs. So I made a template for the cutout, bought a new blade for my bandsaw and with a lump in my throat, I started cutting into the solid rosewood legs.

After a quick clean up to remove the saw marks, it was time to restore the carved elements. I pulled out my chip carving knife and went at the repetitive work of skim-cutting surfaces of the diamond facets on the legs. On the legs that I cut the arabesque shapes out, I used a scratch stock to etch a line around the shape, matching the other table legs.

Once this was done, I took the card scraper to the legs, touching the tops and legs with 400 grit sandpaper afterwards to soften the edges a little.

now to what type of finish to use! The client really didn’t want the carved diamonds to fill with lacquer or varnish thereby muting the crisp cuts. So I chose Tung Oil which would soak in and form a very thin layer, yet still have the soft sheen of the rest of the woodwork in his estate home. This was a labour intensive choice as it turns out. I ended up putting on 6 coats, which were hand rubbed with cotton cloths, and then, 24 hours later were buffed by hand before the next coat of oil was applied. After a week of drying and curing it was time to put the tables together.

The delivery of both tables ended with a surprise. The client has a book stand from the same place and era that he wanted restored in a similar fashion. I went home with another job!

Woodcarvers need to be creative and in some cases, we need to have technical woodworking skills too. I am thankful for men like my father and his good friend Ivor Monahan, and my shop teachers years ago for the good training and showing me that every problem has a solution. This project had more than its share of problems, but with time and resources, I was able to make it work out!

Mostly I am thankful for a client who trusts me with his antique heirlooms.

Grant McMillan

The Carver Video

A little over a year ago, I was featured in a video produced by the guys behind EastPost Media. I forgot about it, but while searching for another video I stumbled across it on YouTube: The Carver.

It was a fun video shoot. It was my second time behind the camera (Shaw TV did a 2 minute promo in 2016), and these guys spent a lot more time managing the light and shadows and created what I think is a pretty cool vibe with this. I was impressed that with their creative use of shadow you can’t see the mess in the background!

I could have used a hair cut, and I normally don’t carve spoons and let them flop around like a fish out of water, but we were trying to allow the camera to see me at work. I just happened to be filling a commission of some coffee stirring spoons. Next time I’ll work on something larger and easier to view through a camera lens. Near the end, they took a few interesting shots of some carvings in my studio.

These guys are good – I can recommend them based on personal experience.


Carving Art Show in Richmond, BC

This weekend is an exciting weekend because one of the very best woodcarving art shows is being held in Richmond, BC. There will be hundreds of carvings on display, from beginner level to world-class expert level!

I have entered my dogwood flower sculpture.



I highly recommend this show because of the high level of quality carvings on display, but also because most of the carvers will be there and you can ask them questions about their carvings, and potentially purchase a one-of-a-kind piece of art for yourself or an amazing gift.

It will be busy – lots of people attend this show, so it has a kind of buzz about it that is enticing and enjoyable, too. Here’s the link to the show info:

And here is the show poster:

Artistry in Wood Poster-2019

I hope to see you there! If you see me, please say hello.