Carved Growth Chart

Last year some friends from Saskatchewan brought us a board from our old house on which we had marked down our children’s heights as they grew. We had to leave it behind when we moved because it was part of the house. But when the new owners renovated, they took it out and our friends were able to get it and drove it out to us on a visit. The memories!

We do not have this many children!

That inspired an idea to carve a growth chart for our grandchildren. I decided to keep it simple so that there would be lots of room for names. I chose a 6” wide maple board. Because our family is fairly tall (both of my sons are over 6 feet) I made the board 7 feet long.

The tools I used

I marked it every half inch, every inch and every foot. The half inch marks are half inch in length. The one inch marks are one inch long and the one foot marks are two inches long.

As you can see, I also carved the family name. I did not paint or varnish the board so that it would be easier to write on it.

If you want one like this for your family, please contact me by email at gvmcmillan@gmail.com Because wood prices are so volatile right now I can’t set a standard price, but we can make arrangements in advance so that you can order with confidence.

Professional Photos of Carvings

Title: There Are Cracks In the Environment

I am a DIY guy. If there’s a challenge, I am up for it. If I need to learn a new craft, I do it. If it requires tools and technical skill, I’ll research it and try and try again until I figure it out. Over the years I have built several canoes, renovated homes including concrete work, roofing, plumbing, cabinets and finish carpentry (crown molding required a lot more research and skill than I realized at first). I have done a lot of vehicle repairs and maintenance. I enjoy working with my hands and don’t particularly like paying others for something I can do myself. However…

However, there is one skill I can’t seem to master, at least not up to the standard I am looking for: photographing my sculptures. Every time I try, I am never satisfied.

I set up a background with a backdrop. My photos? Meh.

I got up early to catch the morning light. My photos? Meh.

I saw an ad for the newest iPhone with a camera that made NHL star Marc Andre Fleury (one of my all-time favourite players) look like a professional photographer, so I got one. My photos? Meh.

I got semi-serious and built a light box with filters, backdrop, and fancy schmancy daylight LED bulbs. I even used a tripod with a remote. My photos? You guessed it. Meh. For proof of my meh photos, check this previous post.

I was getting desperate because there were two art shows coming up that I wanted to enter, and I needed great photos. So I got truly serious and contacted my friend Dwight Friesen, who is a professional photographer (who also has a Ph.D.) to ask for help. Dwight and I go back a long ways – to 1995, in the middle of the bald prairies in Caronport, Saskatchewan. Even back then his super-skills with an SLR could make a southern Saskatchewan snow storm look good. I needed Dwight.

And Dwight came through! The difference in photos is remarkable.

The moral of the story? If you want your carvings and sculptures to “pop” and yours are only “meh” then call Dwight Friesen (or your local professional photographer).

The seal itself is carved from Pohutukawa wood from New Zealand, and I worked with the naturally formed cracks to emphasize the unhappy eyes of this seal. The base is carved from spalted maple, which is a stage of decay that is halted when it is cut open, exposed to oxygen, and then sealed (pun intended).

Size: 12″ long x 7″ high

Finish: Seal has multiple layers of Tung Oil, hand-buffed between each coat. Base was sprayed with multiple coats of water-based clear finish.

Price: $649

Cute Little Frog Sculpture

Netsuke Style Frog Sculpture

I just finished carving this little frog after working on it here and there for several years. It is carved out of Vera wood, which I picked up in a specialty wood shop over 20 years ago. I don’t remember what it cost but it wasn’t cheap!

It is far and away the hardest wood I have ever carved. Much harder than Ebony, which seems crazy but it’s true. It is so dense it doesn’t float in water, and it’s naturally oily. In fact, finding a glue for the eyes was challenging because most glues just pop off the surface. The trick I used was to make the eye sockets quite rough on the inside, and I used a special epoxy that held up in my tests.

I carved this in a Netsuke style, which is an ancient Japanese art form. The addition of the abalone shell eyes departs from Netsuke, but adds that all important “je ne sais quoi” to this sculpture.

This little fella is available for purchase for $98 Canadian.

Small but cute, eh?

For A Good Cause

Bread Plate Carved in Poplar Wood

My friend David Greb contacted me about donating a carving to the Burnaby Counselling Group’s Spring 2021 virtual auction. I thought that this bread plate would be ideal for this purpose, as I believe there is something socially and spiritually important about breaking bread together. Preparing and serving food is a foundation of hospitality. Eating and drinking together lowers our defenses and allows for relationships to be possible.

The words which I have hand-carved around the rim of the plate are taken from the story in the Bible of the Last Supper. It’s a profound story about relationships and hope for the future. I believe this plate has something important to say when we sit at the table to eat together.

When you bid on this plate, or other items in the auction, you help subsidize the cost of counselling for those who need it. Professional counselling can change someone’s life, providing hope and wellness, but it often takes time and can be costly. Perhaps your bid will make it possible for someone’s life to change for the better because they receive subsidized counselling.

This plate is approximately 13″ in diameter, and is carved from Poplar wood. I hand-draw the letter around the circle, which is a painstaking process, much like counselling. Each letter is uniquely shaped and spaced around the circle. Regular letters would look too large at the bottom and be too spaced apart at the top. The bowl and under rim are all hand-carved – no lathe work is involved. Finally, I brush on a coat of warm, melted bees wax and food grade mineral oil. Then it is bake it to perfection in my oven while I watch to make sure it isn’t overcooked. Ok, maybe “baking” is a stretch here. I heat the wood in the oven so that the bees wax/oil mixture melts and soaks in deeply. Then I buff it with a soft cotton cloth until it glows like the photo above.

To care for this plate and make sure it lasts a lifetime, do not use it as a cutting board. Instead, use it as a serving plate. When you’re done, simply give it a wipe with a dry or damp cloth. Never put it in the dishwasher. If it ever looks a little dull, buff it with a cotton cloth. You can always add a little cutting board oil and buff it after letting it soak in for 15 minutes or so.

These plates normally sell for $180, but I’m hoping that a worthy cause like this will raise much more. This one is donated to the Burnaby Counselling Group’s auction, and you can bid on it. But if you want one and didn’t make the winning bid, you can order one directly from me by emailing gvmcmillan@gmail.com

There Are Cracks In The Environment

There Are Cracks in the Environment
“There Are Cracks In The Environment”

My latest sculpture is titled “There Are Cracks In The Environment.” The story of this piece began in New Zealand. Our family took a trip there a few years ago, and I was struck by how rugged and beautiful it was. The scenery is amazing, and the beaches are non-stop!

We were there over the Christmas holiday, which is their summer season. We fell in love with the beautiful Pohutukawa tree that blossoms bright red and is known as the New Zealand Christmas tree.

Pohutukawa tree in full bloom. My wife Kathleen also in full bloom from being near the ocean.

Our friends there knew I liked to carve, and gave me a piece of wood from this tree that had fallen and had partially dried. I wasn’t sure what I would carve at that moment but later in the trip we travelled to Christchurch and saw the devastation from the two massive earthquakes that city endured a few years earlier. We traveled to Greymouth on the west coast of the South Island and watched the seals on the rocks. Suddenly I knew what I would carve.

I started carving the seal with my Opinel knife, which I really like because the carbon steel blade takes such a sharp edge and holds that edge really well. I made decent progress on it while sitting on some rocks in the little town of Granity. Then I packed it in my suitcase for the trip home where I would occasionally work on it in between commissions for clients.

Over time and as the piece of Pohutukawa wood dried, a couple of cracks began to form. As my friend and fellow carver, Tim Babiuk likes to say, you should love knots and cracks in wood because they provide opportunities for truly creative work. I took his words to heart and incorporated the cracks into the face of the seal and they gave me the idea for the name of this sculpture.

The title, “There Are Cracks in The Environment” is a reference to the country of New Zealand and the obvious results of the earthquakes and ancient volcanoes, the changes in the environment affecting seals, and the cracks in the wood of the sculpture.

The base is its own story. It came from a piece of spalted maple that my father cut and dried. when I cut into it, a rotten knot fell out, leaving a cool hole. It is a remarkable piece of wood in itself. I love that it brings together our new family (on my daughter-in-law’s side) and my parents, who lived for several years in New Zealand before I was born and said it was their favourite place on Earth.

It is finished with several light coats of Tung Oil, with lots of buffing with a soft cotton cloth.

This sculpture is 12” long, 8” tall, and a hair over 3” wide, and is available for purchase. The price is $590 CAD. I can package it up and ship anywhere.

Baking Bread Platters?

I have been struggling to keep up with the demand for bread platters carved with “Give us this day our daily bread” around the rim. These have proven to be very popular. I recently had to create a new template for the lettering because the old one simply wore out. This time, I payed more attention to the kerning, and the serifs, which are technical terms in lettering. Kerning refers to the spacing of each letter. Serifs are the little curves and extra strokes of the pen in the corners of each letter. I also livened up each of the straight letters, such as an “I” by giving them a very slight hourglass shape.

And on particularly chilly winter days, I warm up the wood in my oven so that it allows the mixture of oil and beeswax to soak in better. I find when I don’t do this, it tends to sit on the surface. A little bit of buffing by hand with a cotton cloth brings out the nice luster of the wood afterwards. The bread platter in the photo is carved in poplar wood. Maybe that’s why these are so popular. (Dad joke!)

Anyhow, if you want one of these you’ll have to get in line. You can email me at gvmcmillan@gmail.com to ask me to make one for you. Or you can ask me to make something else for you too. I am always open to new ideas. But it might take a while, because, well, I just told you why.

Hand Made Is Best Made

Cherry blossom hand carved in a cherry spoon.

This has been a difficult year. Covid-19 has slowed everything down except for hospitals and anywhere there is an outbreak of the virus. Right now, as I write this, Canadians are in the midst of the toughest government restrictions since March. Many Canadians are stressed and anxious worried about their kids, their parents, their grandparents, their jobs, the future. We hear reports that Canadians are packing on the pounds from stress eating, and liquor sales are way up. Our coping mechanisms are clearly out of whack.

Are you worried about Christmas and what it will look like this year? Don’t fall into the trap of pandemic purchasing, hoping you can buy love with a few clicks on your computer. Instead, why not accept that Christmas will be different and pivot your plans? Buy a tool and make a Christmas gift!

Hand made gift box

Making your own gifts has more benefits than you might think at first. When I was young, we heated our house with a wood stove, and my dad used to say, “The person who heats their house with wood warms themselves twice: once cutting the wood and once more with a fire.” I think the same applies to creating gifts. When I create a gift for someone, I am filled with love twice.

I believe anticipation is important for our social and mental health. Instant gratification (a click today on Amazon and delivery tomorrow by Prime) robs us of the joy and anticipation we feel as we take a few hours to make something truly unique and hand-made for someone we love. Wrapping that gift made with love for someone we love is a very different thing than fighting the crowds (pre-Covid), or panic purchasing with the Amazon app on Black Friday. Instead, with hand-made gifts we can imagine and hope for the joy we will see in the person we plan to give this very personal, thoughtful creation. Our hearts are warmed with love twice.

Pepper grinder purchased second hand getting a hand made upgrade

If you don’t want to make something yourself but still want to give a personal gift, support a local small business or artist and purchase something hand-made. Ask them to personalize it, even if they don’t advertise this as an option. The other day, I was commissioned to create a special Christmas gift for a baker, and the client asked me to put a note in the package. I personalized the gift, wrote a note with wording from the client, and wrapped it with the shavings I had from the carving process. This gift will be a truly unique sharing of love.

Don’t let this pandemic steal your joy or make Christmas a disappointment. Instead, take control and hand-make Christmas with all the love you want your people to feel from you.

* This blog post was inspired by Joshua Klein.

Wine Box Gifts

Hand made gift box for wine bottle

Earlier this fall a hockey friend commissioned me to make 9 boxes that could hold a bottle of wine or beer or tea bags or [insert gift here]. His company is giving these as service awards for employees who have worked for them for 5 years.

The company is based in Canada but has offices around the world, so he wanted something particularly Canadian: a Canadian carver, Canadian wood, etc. So I chose poplar and maple. These woods are plentiful in our area, and carve quite nicely.

He sent me the company logo and the lettering, and I got to designing the boxes. I grabbed a bottle of wine and a pad of paper and pencil. I was fortunate to grow up with a father who was a hobby wood worker who built more boxes in a weekend than I have built in 30 years. He taught me well about how to build strong, simple designs, and how to problem solve when something goes wrong. He also taught me how to make juices for repeat jobs. Oh he loved jigs! So I made a story-stick and a jig and bought the wood and got after it!

I carved some of the designs in the poplar boxes and some in maple boxes, and I can confirm that I am much more pleased with the maple. The carving turned out well in both, but the maple was less “stringy” and the wood snipped out under my gouges and chisels much nicer. It left a pleasing burnished look, too. I had to work harder to get that look from the poplar.

I met my friend at the Trading Post in Langley to have a beer, catch up on life without hockey (no thanks to COVID-19), and to deliver the boxes. I always feel a little regret handing over a carving, and this was no different, but the thanks I received and the way he handled the boxes tells me they are in good hands.

Now I am back at the bench being Santa’s elf, sculpting for Christmas. Ho ho ho!

Is this Jenga?
Burning my maker’s mark on each box.

Hand Carved Charcuterie Boards

Gather Charcuterie Board

We like to entertain guests and family around here. My wife is an excellent cook who is very creative with food. It has become a little more difficult to do this in the time of COVID-19, but we are still able to do some entertaining in a physically distant kind of way.

There is something spiritual about gathering together around the dinner table with friends and family. I recently made two hand carved charcuterie boards in honour of this important family tradition. These two boards were cut from the same block of maple. I grabbed a pencil and hand-wrote “gather” on the two boards and the hand-carved the letters into the wood with my carving gouges.

One these boards was snapped up by a relative already (thanks sis-in-law!) and there’s a bit of a tug-of-war over the second one, but if you are interested in having one made, send me an email. These are approximately $100 each depending on the size and type of wood. The text can say anything of you want.

My daughter Miriah is the design genius behind the food items on this board. She is a brilliant florist and has a flair for design. Follow her on Instagram here: https://instagram.com/thebotanistsdaughterdesign?igshid=1ronyll2cseug

Hopefully we can all get together with our important people again soon. When you do, make sure it’s a memorable event!

Sculpted Vase

Sculpted Vase
For sale

The last time I was at my childhood home (where my mom still lives), I dug through my father’s pile of wood that he was drying and saving for one of his many woodworking projects. I found a lovely piece of maple that was very rough, had broken pieces, was grey and weathered but I could also see that it had some serious character. It was a piece of wood my dad had cut down, probably for someone who needed a tree taken down because it was in a tricky spot, perhaps hanging over their roof or power lines, or one that had broken apart in a snow storm. He had split it, noticed the ripples that hinted at figuring (you’ll see in a photo below), and set this piece aside for later.

This is Figured Maple (sometimes called Quilted Maple)

Later never came, as his life ended much too early due to cancer, 14 years ago today. I thank God every day for him and all that he taught me about life and wood. It is in his honour that I present to you this sculpted vase.

Gosh that’s beautiful wood!

It is carved in figured maple. I left the remains of a split down the one face, and smoothed out the other sides. One edge is painted white with acrylic into which I sculpted the repeating pattern. There is a hole in the top for dried flowers or branches. The finish is a custom blend of tung oil, spar varnish, and mineral spirits, buffed by hand to a smooth, soft feel.

Here you can see the remains of the surface split and more figure!

I used my father’s crosscut hand saw (to trim the bottom flat, which I had to do twice to remove all the splits in the wood). then I used a 1 inch wide #3 gouge, followed by a 20 mm wide #2 gouge to flatten the faces. I used a V gouge to sculpt a curved line on one face. Then I used a card scraper to smooth the sides and yet retain the natural curves in the wood. I painted the one edge and used a 6mm #9 gouge to sculpt the pattern in it. The hole in the top was tricky because of the slope, and I pondered for a while how to drill it, but my father’s hand powered bit brace (a large drill) worked like a charm and was much safer than trying to clamp an irregular piece of wood into my drill press. In the end, I decided it was much faster too, something my father always said was true for that drill. The last tool I used was some 320 grit sandpaper. Oh, and a quality paint brush – can’t forget that!

The size is 19.5″ tall by 10″ wide and 3.5″ thick.

Thanks Dad, for the gifts you keep giving long after you’ve passed. I miss you every day. I think you’d be happy with this vase.

If you want to see a video of it in better light, click here for my Instagram page https://www.instagram.com/p/CBUXfu5A22o/?igshid=xyj0mj7s0vn6

Some in progress pics:

Just a hunk of firewood right? 😉
This is where I decided I needed to cut more off the bottom
Sculpting a curve, flattening the face.