Carving a Bust of a Horse

Nose to Nose with a Horse
Nose to Nose with a Horse

Months ago I started carving a bust of a horse out of a parallam beam off-cut given to me by my friend Carl, which I wrote about here. I’ve been chipping away at it in my spare time between commissions for clients. It has been a most interesting project for me. The parallam “wood” acts like most other woods except for when it doesn’t. I have discovered that not all the wood fibers have accepted the glue. These show up when I’ll be using a gouge, cutting away by pounding it with my mallet. The gouge will suddenly slip and skip over the sculpture. What happens is my gouge will partially cut through a long fiber (more like a strip of wood) and will pull the strand loose when it will slide out of the sculpture and cause my gouge to take off for regions unknown! I have learned to keep a firm grip on those gouges. Fortunately, this has happened only once in an obvious location, leaving a gap in the left nostril. I am undecided about whether to fix it or leave it, although I’m leaning towards leaving it.

A good look at the wood strands.
A good look at the wood strands.

This “wood” is unique in another way. The wood strands used to make up the beam are softwoods (spruce, pine, and fir), but the glue is incredibly hard. It causes my gouges to dull quickly, sometimes even folding over an edge. It’s much worse than carving in hard rock maple! I’m wearing my tools down at an alarming rate, and spending an inordinate amount of time resharpening them.

Horse Bust Progress
Horse Bust Progress

Years ago I learned from an experienced carver/sculptor to work on the whole carving all at once so as to not lose perspective. In general, that’s what I’m doing here, sculpting the snout, neck, ears, etc. as I go along so as to not lose their places as I remove relatively large chunks of wood. I plan to leave parts which will have more delicate details like the mane, ears and eyes, to the end. For now, I’m just giving them the basic outlines with the details to be added later.

But this will go back on the shelf for a while because a client dropped off another carving project.

Cheers!

Grant McMillan

Ironing Wood

Ironing wood
Ironing wood

Woodworkers and sculptors have to be a resourceful bunch. The problems we face take a little ingenuity to overcome, which is why I enjoy this work so much. In this case, a client contacted me about carving a couple of corbels for his home. These turned out to be very large – much larger than can typically be purchased from a catalogue of pre-cast architectural elements (I won’t call them carvings because they’re not carved anymore). They were so large that his carpenter couldn’t find a band saw to cut them out whole. Instead, they were cut out in smaller widths before being glued together to make the large corbels. Of course, they weren’t perfect at this point, with some lumps and bumps to be smoothed out and some curves had to be hand-carved before his designer could transfer the drawings on them.

Of course I said it was no problem to do this. After all, I solve these sorts of issues all the time for people. How hard could it be?

As it turned out, It was harder than I thought. The corbels would not fit in my 14 inch band saw. My hand planes would not work because the design wouldn’t let me get into the corners. Hmm. What to do?

[Sits, stares into space, runs through mental list of tools available, crosses each one off the list, stares into space…]

I was fortunate to have a father who was an excellent wood worker and who took great pleasure making jigs to expand the use of his tools and to solve common problems of wood workers. He loved making jigs so much that when I gave the eulogy at his funeral, I said that he was up in Heaven making jigs so God could make more stuff. Taking inspiration from my father, I asked, “What would Vic do? He would make a jig.” Lights went on, ideas were formed and I went to work creating two jigs.

The first jig was for my well-loved and very sharp cross-cut hand saw. I set up the jig to control both the depth of cut and to remove any chance of it wandering and creating a waggly line. It was simple and worked like a charm. I used the saw to ensure a uniform elevation of each straight line across the width of the corbels.

The second jig was more complicated and took a couple of days to create. In fact, it turned out to be a fairly common form of hand plane, although it was custom fitted to this project. It required some hardwood, epoxy glue, four screws, and some drying time, which is why it stretched out over a couple of days.

Chisel Plane
Chisel Plane

I needed a plane that would get right into the corners, and yet be large enough to leave a perfectly flat finish over a long span. This chisel plane “jig” worked better than I could have hoped. I designed it so I could insert wedges to change the angle of blade at the mouth of the plane to reach into the corners of an acute angle. That meant I had to grind a straight chisel into a skew chisel to make that happen, but it worked!

And one more problem emerged. Somehow, between the three people involved in making these corbels, some dents were made in the wood in some highly visible locations. These needed to be removed. I knew that fitting these corbels into the entire architecture of the location would be challenging enough without sanding down the sides and changing angles and widths, so I didn’t want to do that. Also, I enjoy wowing clients, so I set about removing the dents with a hot iron and damp cloth – essentially ironing the dents out of the corbels. I deliberately left the pencil marks which would show the client that no sanding had occurred that would change the edges or angles. He noticed and I got a punch on the arm when I said I used a little magic to remove the dents.

Now I could begin carving the initial shapes into the sides and corners of the corbels.

Cleaned up Corbel
Cleaned up Corbel

Happy clients mean more work, and solving difficult problems is what I enjoy doing. It doesn’t hurt to have an inspirational father and a little magic up your sleeve.

Work your magic!

Grant

Horsing Around: Sculpting a Horse Bust

The Township of Langley where I live has a ridiculous number of horses. I have heard numerous times that Langley has more horses per capita than anywhere else in North America! The Langley Horse and Farm Federation puts the number at over 5000!

Did you hear that, Calgary, Alberta? Did you hear that, Montana and Texas? More than YOU. Put that in your cowboy hat and smoke it!

Everywhere we drive in the Township we see horses. One of my favourite places to see horses is the Thunderbird Show Park. This place hosts some amazing, world class shows of people horsing around. I have a 7 minute drive to work, and on that short commute I pass about 20-30 horses. There is a lady who occasionally rides her horse over to the church we attend, and a number of our favourite hiking trails in the area also allow horses. We do a lot of hiking which means we also do a lot of avoiding horse… um…, er, droppings.

I’ve always believed that art is personal and reflects the heritage, location, and culture of the place where the artist is. It is for this reason that I have wanted to sculpt a horse for a long time now. But to do so I needed a substantial piece of wood and I felt that it needed to be a very unique wood.

Enter my friend Carl. He was building a large shop and two of the parallam beams he’d ordered came too long. He wondered if I wanted the cut-offs. they were exactly what I had been waiting for.

Horse Bust Cutout
Horse Bust Cutout
Horse Bust Rough Out
Horse Bust Rough Out

This horse is just a little on the wild side. Only barely tamed, he is a horse who is feeling his oats. The unique wood and direction of the “grain” (strands of the parallam beam) highlight the wildness and sense of action in this sculpture.

Merry Christmas and Year-in-Review

Friends and readers of this site, I wish you a very merry Christmas from my wood carving and sculpture shop. It’s been a very busy year carving for different clients and sculpting a few pieces of my own as art-for-art’s sake.

The year started with a project for some friends who were renovating their home and needed a custom piece of woodwork made for them.

Filing the edges
Rounding over the sharp edges

You might remember that project as I blogged about it here.

Then I was privileged to be asked by the incoming Bishop of Victoria to carve a Bishop’s Crozier and a Pectoral cross for the installation service. That was a fun project because it involved some creative woodworking as well as a good bit of creative carving.

Pectoral Cross
Pectoral Cross

I always enjoy carving celtic designs and you can see the project here. And you can see the Bishop with the Crozier and Pectoral cross here.

Then it was on to a very large carving project. I’ve been working for this client for a couple of years now and we’ve become good friends. He has a unique and intriguing vision for the house that he has been building for the past 25 years. Quite frankly, nobody builds this way anymore. This house is being built to last at least one hundred years, not 25 like so many slap-happy builders are doing jobs these days. But Jack is a man of vision and legacy.

Silver Ridge Estate
Silver Ridge Estate

My most recent work for him involved carving acanthus leaves, and if you’ve followed this blog for any time you’ve seen the work here. The next project involves carving two oak corbels for the entry. The carpenter, Larry Kwiatkowski, is the best I’ve ever seen. That is no hyperbole – he is world-class. He’s gluing up the wood for these now, so I anticipate getting a call to carve again soon.

The last two projects this year were a hummingbird sculpture out of red cedar and ebony that you can see here, and a burly shelf that I just finished after working on it in fits and starts all year. You can see it here.

People often ask me what I carve. I think you can see from the snapshot of this year that I can carve anything. I enjoy letter carving, as well as sculpting animals, and even some fine wood working, and basically solving problems for people or providing them with something so unique there is no one else around who can do it. I don’t work for free, but I do try to make my work accessible. If you would like a carving or sculpture, contact me soon as I have work booked for many months in advance for 2015.

My email address is gvmcmillan@gmail.com

Wishing you many blessings this Christmas season.

Grant McMillan

A Burly Shelf for Christmas

One of my favourite things to do is to go home to my mom’s place in beautiful Hope, BC, and snoop around in my dad’s old woodpile searching for treasures. Last Christmas we spent a few days there when I discovered a sort of triangular shaped chunk of wood. It was covered in dirt, bark, spider webs, and chainsaw marks. At first glance I wondered why this was piece was there. It wasn’t in the burn-in-the-wood-stove-pile, but rather in the I-could-use-this-someday-pile, so I figured there must be some potential that Dad saw in it. He always had an eye for potential.

I lugged the piece inside and made a few passes over one of the flatter sides with a #4 Stanley hand plane. What I saw got me excited. I spent a few more hours in Dad’s old workshop working over the piece, truing up the two flat sides to get a 90 degree angle and level sides. Then I took the piece home after Christmas, where I worked on it for the past year between commission carvings. It truly became a labour of love as I peeled back the bark to reveal some amazing art work by the Creator.

After many hours of work with hand planes, cabinet scrapers, wire brush wheels and dental picks, I lightly sanded it and prepared it for finishing. I chose my favourite finish for projects like this: Lee Valley Tools Tried and True Original Wood Finish, which is a mixture of raw linseed oil and beeswax. After 5 coats of this, hand-rubbed and buffed between each coat, here is the finished product:

Burl Shelf underside
Burl Shelf underside
Burl Shelf
Burl Shelf

Isn’t the wood amazing? It positively glows!

This shelf is a red cedar burl. It is approximately 19 inches wide by 8 inches deep and about 9 inches tall. It is currently hanging on the wall in my home, but it is for sale (shh, don’t tell my wife!). Please feel free to contact me by email if you would like it: gvmcmillan@gmail.com

Hummingbird Carving for Sale

This hummingbird was carved out of red cedar, spalted birch, and ebony.

Cedar hummingbird
Cedar hummingbird

It’s unusual to carve something like this out of red cedar, especially as it is carved from a solid block of cedar. It would be easy to break, so I had to design it carefully to minimize the chances of that. The wings and tail are the most at risk, however, there are clues to strengthening them from nature. The wings and tail of the real birds are gently curved to improve flight and, I’m sure, to protect them from breaking too. I carved similar curves and the wings and tail are surprisingly strong as a result.

There are many carvings of hummingbirds out there, but if you search the internet for images of carved hummingbirds, they look similar. How many of them have their beaks tucked into a flower to hold them up? All of them? So it seems. I wanted something different, something that portrayed some motion and a sense of action. Hummingbirds have a most intriguing way of hovering and swooping in arched flight patterns, which was something I hoped to capture in the tiny sculpture. I found a piece of curved spring steel which served the purpose quite nicely.

Speaking of curves, the other thing I observe in real hummingbirds is the beak is slightly curved. It was a challenge to carve the beak so thin with a very slight curve along the length of it. Sanding it with the taper and curve required extra care and attention as it was difficult to hold and very easy to break. And *newsflash* it’s very hard and dense wood – sanding it took a really long time, but I think it turned out.

The base is from a piece of birch, cut by my father-in-law from their back yard, and the cedar came from a tree that my father cut years ago. I wish the ebony had a special story behind it, but I simply bought it from Windsor Plywood.

The carving is finished with water-based, semi-gloss varnish, and hand-rubbed with a finishing paste wax to give it a slightly softer glow and smoother feel. It is for sale.

IMG_0886.JPG

IMG_0887.JPG

IMG_0888.JPG

Carved Acanthus Leaf Panels Finally Finished

The acanthus leaf panels have been stained, varnished and installed. They turned out very nice indeed, although I had nothing to do with this part of the job. The client invited me over to take some photos of the completed work, and so on Sunday afternoon Kathleen and I took the quick drive out to Silver Ridge Estates.

The client told me the story of how challenging it was to get the guy responsible for all the stained and varnished wood in his place to be brave enough to do this job, but I think he did quite well.

This is the angled panel going up the staircase.

Carved Stair Panel
Carved Stair Panel

And here are a few panels from the bottom edge of the balcony.

Balcony
Balcony
Balcony Panel 2
Balcony Panel 2
Balcony Panel 3
Balcony Panel 3

And the full finial.

Finished Finial
Finished Finial

And the half finial.

Half Finial
Half Finial

And I’ve saved the best for last – a full panorama shot of the entryway taken from the first platform of the staircase.

Panorama
Panorama

You can see from the panorama shot that the house isn’t finished yet. There are many oak panels to go all around the room. The circles in the middle of some of the walls are for sconce lights. The front doors of the main entrance are barely visible to the right of the image. They will need a large carving over them, but the final design drawings are yet to be completed. The double doors in the lower middle might still have a carving to go over them too, but I haven’t heard the final word yet. As you can tell, this room is intended to make a pretty large statement as you walk through the main entrance.

It has been a very great pleasure to work on this job with this client. He has incredibly high expectations, and there are very few contractors who have been able to meet his standards, but when they do meet them he is very supportive. I feel a deep sense of pride that he has let me be part of his vision for his estate.