Restoring an Antique

I enjoy woodcarving very very much and one reason why is because I get to solve problems for other people. The other day I was contacted by a gentleman who restores antique phonographs and gramophones, because he needed someone to carve decorative appliqués that had been lost on an early 20th century machine.

Acanthus leaves

There were 3 main carvings to replace, and some smaller details to add, such as egg and dart motif to some capitals. Two main carvings are of acanthus leaves curving around a frame, which would have held posters advertising the music this machine once played. These were quite straightforward and are very common decorations on many different kinds of furniture.

Acanthus leaves

The most challenging of the three carvings was the acanthus leaves and ribbon, also a fairly common decoration .

This was all carved in oak. The interesting part for me is these pieces were already applied to the phonograph cabinet and I simply needed to carve them. “Simply” might be an understatement, for this oak was some of the worst I have ever carved. It chipped off at very inopportune times, and with no warning. But in the end I made it work.

Dogwood Sculpture Number Two

A local realtor friend came to the Art of the Carver 2019 show and appreciated the dogwood flowers I carved. When he saw I was carving a second version, he immediately asked for it as a gift for his wife.

This carving is is sculpted from one solid piece of alder wood. It is painted with acrylic (the flower stamens and the branches. The whole piece is clear coated with a satin water-based lacquer.

Crow And Fire Sculpture

This sculpture is inspired by the legend of the crow who saved the animals from freezing to death.

This was a commission from a realtor for his business partner who loves crows. When my son heard about it he said, “That reminds me of the legend of the crow who brought fire to his community and saved the animals from freezing.”

I did not remember this story so he reminded me of the details. He probably heard or read the story 20 years ago but his memory was spot on! The gist of the story is that during a long deep freeze, the animals were afraid of freezing to death. Crow, who used to have beautiful feathers and a musical song, volunteered to travel to the Creator to ask for relief. The Creator was impressed with Crow and gave him a burning coal to take back to the animals so they could have fire and warm themselves. As Crow flew home with the burning coal in his beak he burned his tongue and feathers black. He sacrificed his beautiful feathers and voice, but his heroism saved the animals from certain death. Ever since, crows have black feathers and a croaky, raspy caw for a voice.

Inspired by this story, I tried a new technique of turning the sculpture black. This involved a plumbing torch and my BBQ.

The crow is carved from a solid piece of yellow cedar. The legs are steel, and the base is cherry wood. The crow is finished in a waterborne clear satin finish.

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 ruin 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!