Squirrel! Family Crest Carving


VanDyk Crest
Family Crest Progress

The family crest I have been working on as a commission is coming along. After some cleanup and undercutting of the leaves, I will add a few details such as the name of the family on the banner at the top, and some fringes on the ends of the ropes to the right and left of the banner. One more evening of work should have all that done. Then will come the finishing work – stain, varnish, etc.

This is carved in pine, which has strengths and weaknesses for carving. It is a softwood, and it really is quite soft. It cuts easily, sands easily, and doesn’t have a distracting grain pattern. On the other hand, it  also dents, scratches, and breaks easily and must be designed in such a way to minimize these drawbacks. Of course one can’t protect against the clients dropping it or having a dog chew on it, but I have designed it in such a way that it shouldn’t be too easy to knock bits off if it is reasonably protected. But then again, pine is also very easy to repair, so if it happens, it happens.

This carving is approximately 8 1/2″ by 11″ and is for a family in the Lower Mainland of BC, who are long-term clients of a realtor who commissioned me to make this.

Letter Carving Course Again

The letter carving course at the Central Fraser Valley Woodcarvers club went well on Wednesday night. So well that we ran out of wood for the number of people who wanted to do the course. This is what we carved.

Peace Carving
Peace Letter Carving

When was the last time you could take a 3-6 hour course for $5? The fee only covers the cost of the course – the rest I’m volunteering because I love carving and I love this club.

Want in? Come join us this Wednesday evening again. I’m coming supplied with more wood and we’ll do it again. Bring your pocket change, and a few carving gouges and one chisel. The gouges should be #3, #5, and #7 in about a 1/2″ width (or so). Bring more gouges if you have them.

What do you have to know about carving? Not much. There were two people who’d never even held a carving gouge before, and while they were a little behind the rest, they made good progress and assured me they would be back next week. You won’t be out of place, believe me.

I’ll see you there.


Letter Carving Course

Interested in learning how to do incised letter carving in wood? The Central Fraser Valley Woodcarvers club is offering a course on Wednesday, November 18, with a follow-up session the following week if needed or wanted. 

The instructor is yours truly. We will be carving the word “Peace” in 1×5″ Aspen. If you have never carved a letter in your life or you want to hone your well-developed skills at lettering, the club welcomes students of all levels of experience. 

You must have the following tools, or ones very close to these:

  • Pencil
  • 3/4″ chisel (bring other sizes if you have them),
  • 1/2″ gouges in #3 and #5 sweep,
  • 3/8″ gouge in #7,
  • More gouges if you have them,
  • Methods for holding the wood (double-sided carpet tape is great), the shop has vises at each table too. 

The club meets on Wednesdays from 6-9 pm in the wood shop of Yale Secondary School. The cost of the course is $5 for members. There may be an additional fee for non-members (but membership is only $30). 

I hope you can make it. Please let me know you are coming so I can bring enough wood for you.


The Maker’s Struggle


I was inspired by a blog post by David Savage, who may be the world’s finest bespoke furniture maker alive today. His shop, Rowden Atelier, produces fine furniture that in my opinion offers the perfect blend of beauty, usefulness, craftsmanship and artistic statement. I have similar aspirations for my carvings and often lament the number of cheap, reproduced (3-D printed or laser-cut) “carvings” out there. There is no question that they can look perfect, and I believe there is a place for them. However, there is a real difference between the art being made by an artist working with her hands and art produced by a machine. David Savage explains the issue here:

We make only by putting in effort, time and love. Good making is an act of love. I wonder as I am laboriously cutting those pins and tails WHY? I quite enjoy doing it but that is not enough. I enjoy sitting in the sun just as much. A good CNC would do this perfectly, so why bother?
But it would be perfect. And it would be so perfect it would be intimidating.  We are not that good. We screw up, we miss the line or slightly crack the carcase with too tight a joint. I did both and the evidence is there. I struggle to be perfect and fail. The evidence is there. You can see it in a hand made piece. You can see the human being, skilled but human, attempting perfection, struggling and failing. Again and again. And that is the attraction of it. Not the doing of it, that is O K, but if the doing is to be worth doing, then the object bears witness to the struggle. Hopefully it like proper Art  helps us understand and see who we really are.
 As a sculpture artist, I am embedded in the process of creation – inseparable from it. I suppose that my work is full of imperfections, but when I think that through, is that even possible? Here’s what I mean. My hands choose the wood. By its very nature, the wood is unique. No two trees are identical, and no two sets of grain structure are the same. I suppose it could be called imperfect, but no more imperfect than you are from me. My hands choose the design. They pick up the pencil and sketch the shape of the sculpture. I’m an imperfect designer/sketcher, but that’s hardly the point. Once I pick up the carving gouge and start cutting, the design/sketch can only be the outline – the draft of the finished product because I have no idea what’s under the surface of the wood. It is only by cutting away everything that isn’t a horse or a frog or a leaf is the final sculpture revealed. That unique grain structure has to influence the final product – why else use wood? I could use plastic and a 3-D printer, but it would be lifeless, impersonal, perfect.
I can still royally screw up. My gouges can be poorly sharpened and show “teeth marks” in the cuts. I can knock bits off that I shouldn’t. I can get the perspective wrong. All the things that an art critic would highlight as errors or imperfections are possible for me. However, that is the point Mr. Savage makes – it is the struggle, the evidence of love, the embedding of me in the sculpture that makes it what it is. A CNC machine or laser engraver cannot do this. We may be impressed by the perfection of the laser-cut letters or the exact arcs of the circles, but these do not contribute to the art. In fact, they may even detract from it. This is why we marvel at the plot, the writing, the style of a novel and the author, not the perfection of the letters on the page. We are not after perfection. We are after the pursuit. Without the struggle, my sculptures cannot exist.
Without love, art cannot exist.

Weekend Letter Carving Seminar

On Saturday, September 12, I taught a letter and number carving seminar at Lee Valley Tools in Coquitlam. The seminar went from 9:30-4:30, which was just the right amount of time for the students to create a sign, and have about an hour near the end of the course to either embellish the sign with a carving or start a new project of their own making.

Letter Carving Seminar Students working hard.
Letter Carving Seminar Students working hard.

We started with introductions and what people hoped to get out of the course. I presented a short historical overview and use of letter carving before moving on to typical fonts and how they are applied in wood carving. We reviewed a few tools and how we planned to use them throughout the day, and then started carving.

To start carving we learned how to hold a gouge effectively and how to carve a circle. Following that we learned how the same gouge can carve a smaller or larger circle as well as an ellipse using a few simple techniques. After a few practice circles, we moved on to carving a sign. We talked about how to lay out the letters and I gave them a small problem to resolve where the letters were too closely aligned. We discussed kerning and fonts, and a few common printing/type-setting matters. Then we discovered how to remove wood from letters without them chipping or splitting outside the lines: my woodcarving mantra is that you have to give wood a place to go or it will go where it wants without regard to your desires. I showed them how shadows make or break letter carving and we learned that a very common letter-carving angle is 60 degrees because it creates a pleasing shadow.

The seminar participants got to work and we spent a few hours with mallets and chisels and gouges. After lunch we had a quick sharpening review with the seminar coordinator Derek Darling, and we took the opportunity to touch up the tools and get back at the carving. Later in the afternoon after everyone had finished carving the sign they had the chance to add some extra carvings to it or start their own design.

Letter Carving Students trying their own designs.
Letter Carving Students trying their own designs.

All in all, it was a lot of fun and good learning. The techniques can be applied far beyond what we did in the course. The students saw the benefits of having only a few tools and “making do”, but we also saw how more tools can make letter carving faster with the advantage of requiring less cleaning up of the letters.

If you would like to take a carving course like this, check out Lee Valley Tools seminars. You can also check with your local woodcarving club to see if they offer anything similar. I hope to offer this course at my own club soon, so if you live in the Lower Mainland area of BC and want to take this course, please let me know.

Grant McMillan

Horse Bust Completed

The horse bust is completely finished!  

This sculpture captures the history and the future of horses in the area in which it was carved. It is sculpted out of an old material (wood), remade into something new with the most modern technology (parallam), all supported by a strong base that isn’t interested in stealing any of the limelight. It represents the nature of horses in the Langley region. Originally used as working animals in the lumber, ranching and farming industries, they have been repurposed for the modern industries of equestrian therapeutic riding for the disabled and people with special needs, as well as the competitive world of show horses, with hunter jumper, vaulting, western and English shows. Both industries demonstrate the future of horses in Langley. And the material is a mess of torn up strips of wood fibres pressed and conformed into a controlled product. The sculpture captures the wildness and the structure of the modern horse. 

This sculpture  is for sale. It is 23″ tall by 21″ wide on a base of steel custom made by my friend Steve Bennett. 


Horse Sculpture

i have completed the carving stage of the horse head sculpture. This included a few last minute adjustments to the eyes, mouth and mane. Then I determined the way it would stand before cutting the base of the neck at the proper angle.

The next steps are to put a finish on it and make a stand. Does anyone know where I can find some plate steel, something at least 1/4″ thick onto which I can weld a post? 

Thank you to my lovely daughter Miriah for the photos.