Herald Angels or Heraldry?

It has been quiet on this site but not because it has been quiet in my carving studio! It had been crazy busy with carving work such that I have neglected you, my loyal readers! 

The Christmas season always sneaks up on me and I have to be careful not to overcommit. Must leave time to sing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and other Christmas carols.

Some projects I am working on include a blanket ladder with dovetail joinery. 

It isn’t really carving work, per se, but I wanted to show old Roubo that his rants about carvers being imprecise are misplaced. I was building furniture and doing complex joinery long before I picked up a carving tool. 

I carved two other pieces that I have done before: a lettercarving piece (the first photo above) and a stylized acanthus leaf in relief. 

And on the heraldry front, I am working on a large family crest that is getting close to being finished. The short video below shows some progress. 

Stay tuned for more updates. I have a very large lettercarving project that I am on the verge of starting. In the new year I am picking up the wood for an ornately carved lintel over a front door in a large foyer. And I have another family crest in the works. It’s nice to have work, but I am feeling the pressure to get things completed! 


It’s A Torch!

The Torch I am sculpting for the Trinity Western House in Fort Langley finally looks a little like a torch. 

I am so pleased with the natural colours of the cedar and how they are a mirror image on each side. 

Next I will finish sand all the pieces down to about 280 grit. Then I will put the finish on and mount it to the metal frame. 

Torch Sculpture Progress

Laying out the pieces on a beautiful piece of western red cedar.

I managed to squeeze an hour in the shop this afternoon to work on the Torch sculpture. I transferred the various parts of the drawing onto the wood and used the band saw to rough cut the shapes.

Laying out the pieces on a beautiful piece of western red cedar.

Once a few of the pieces were cut out, I started sanding them to show the grain. I love the look and smell of freshly milled and shaped cedar!


The Problem With Perfection

Tall Ship Closeup
Tall Ship Close Up

I don’t often wax philosophical in this blog, but as the demand for my carvings has grown so much I am left with the question of why that is so. Why do so many want to buy my carvings or commission me to make a unique carving for them or for a loved one? Why not buy a 3-D printed item? Why am I not in competition with the laser-cut, the CNC machined products? Why am I not afraid of the factory, the reproduced and infinitely replicateable and therefore cheap volume discount products?

The author of this article in the New York Times (re-tweeted on Twitter by @maxwellarm) said something very interesting, “We want to know where our free-range eggs come from, and where our coffee beans are grown and roasted. We also want the vessels we use to consume those things to embody a deeper story about craftsmanship and creativity.”

Carving Students Right
Letter Carving Seminar Students working hard.

In the article, potter David Reid made an insightful comment, “People are looking to have their humanity reflected back at them.” Marshall Mcluhan said that media or technology are extensions of ourselves. We have dreams of perfection, so it makes sense that we want a reflection of that around us. In my mind, this is the attraction of the perfectly linear designs we see in architecture and home decor. These are the brushed stainless or nickel hardware on cabinets, the perfectly flat, shiny, fake stone countertops, the square, linear trim.

But there is only so much perfection we can accept. Hence the creepy movies where the psycho bad guy lives in the hyper-perfect world, where everything is crisp white (so white it hurts the eyes) and nothing is ever out of place. I believe we are unsettled by this perfection because we know we are unable to attain it. We know this so well that we distrust any human or human made product that claims perfection. We know the perfect guy in the movie is going to have an evil side – somewhere, buried, so we look for it and we are ready when it appears. The problem with perfection is that it is impossible and when we find the inevitable flaw, it becomes all we can see. It stands out and laughs at our feeble attempts to be something we are not.

Mahogany Fruit Bowl
Mahogany Fruit Bowl

As I noted in a previous post, David Savage has some excellent points about perfection, quality, and the struggle of the maker. Perfection is cold. It is aloof. It is unhuman. If we want the things around us to reflect our humanity, then perhaps this explains the interest and growth in the handmade. In the article, Fashion designer Steven Alan said, “There is beauty in imperfection and having items that are really handmade.”I agree, to a point. We would not accept an imperfect factory made item. That means poor quality control and uncaring factory owners. No one accepts that. However, we see beauty in imperfection when we know the maker and the struggle he or she took to make something. We love the struggle because we can identify with it, unlike a machine-made product. We want to know that love, care, and attention has been part of the process.


My carvings could be reproduced and even made perfect by a CNC machine. But they would cease to have that je ne sais quoi quality, and would have no soul. I believe that art reflects its maker and the viewer. I believe that we want to see the world through the eyes of the artist. I believe that we want to see evidence of love in the art. I believe we want to have a little piece of that love of the artist. This is the appeal of the human, handmade, art. This is the appeal of the craft market, the art studio, the public art, the commissioned piece of art and the craftsmanship we so enjoy. It makes a statement about the world and, perhaps more importantly, about we ourselves and who we are.

Carved Corbels

Completed Corbel
Completed Corbel

As regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve been carving a pair of corbels in oak for some time now. I’m proud to say that they are complete and are waiting for finishing (stain, lacquer, installation). These have taken a long time to complete from start to finish, so I thought you might like to know what steps were taken to complete these.

  1. Dream and vision: the owner of the home has had a vision for his house that spans at least 30 years. He knew he wanted corbels supporting a beam in the entryway for at least that long.
  2. Contact the carver (me) to confirm the possibility. As you now know, I said yes. I don’t remember the exact wording my reply, but it probably went like this: “No problem – I can do that.”
  3. The owner and I with our partners took a cruise (ok, it was on BC Ferries) to Vancouver Island, specifically to look at and photograph some of the architectural details in Craigdarroch Castle in Victoria. Several different photos of the corbels in the Castle provided the ideas for the ones I carved (pictured above).
  4. The owner’s partner Sandi Stephens drew up the design.
  5. The owner’s carpenter, Larry Kwiatkowski, glued up the wood and cut out the shape on a bandsaw.
  6. The owner had me rough out the general shape of some of the curves. I argued this was an unnecessary step, but he couldn’t envision the job without me doing this, so I did it (hey, it’s his money).
  7. Sandi Stephens transferred the drawing to the wood (also unnecessary, but again the owner…).
  8. I roughed out the leaves and stems of the acanthus motif, set the basic depths, and showed the progress to the owner, who approved with a few modifications.
  9. I finished the carving to about 90% complete, and took the corbels to the owner for one last chance to make changes. I looked at the other carvings I’ve done for him and determined how to complete the corbels so they would match the rest of the carvings.
  10. I completed the carving and spent numerous hours sanding. A helpful sanding product is self-adhesive emery paper, which I cut out and stuck to my fingers, sticks, needle files and just about anything that was the right shape and curvature to help speed up the monotonous sanding. Personally, I hate sanding and much prefer carvings that are finished right from the chisels and gouges, but see my previous comments about the owner….

There are two headblocks to be carved, which will be placed above the corbels and under the beams. Stay tuned to see what they look like.

Carving a Corbel

A corbel is a piece of architecture that supports a beam or some such structure above it. Corbels are almost always decorated and often quite extensively. One of my very best clients has contracted me to carve two of these pieces which will sit at the top of a staircase and balcony overlooking the foyer and entrance of the home. They will support a gorgeous oak beam with some traditional Georgian elements to them.

Cleaned up Corbel
Cleaned up Corbel

This corbel is designed to look like a large scroll with acanthus leaves growing up the front and sides. The acanthus leaves are extensive and richly designed.

Acanthus Leaf Drawing
Acanthus Leaf Drawing

My first task was to carve a curve along the top left and right sides which allows the acanthus leaves to wrap over the front of the corbel like fingers of a large hand gripping the architectural piece. Then I carved the scroll and leaves on the side.

Corbel Side
Corbel Side

Then I turned my attention to carving the top face of the corbel and those large finger-like leaves curving across.

Corbel Top Quarter
Corbel Top Quarter

Then my job was to continue to the other side and do the same work.

Corbel Top
Corbel Top

On one side, the leaves curve down to the background, but the other side will curve up and away from the background at the tips of the leaves.

Next, i will turn my attention to the heavy bottom of the scroll. These leaves will be easier to carve because I don’t have to blend them into the side of the corbel. However, the grain of the wood shifts from side grain to end grain as the scroll wraps around, which adds some complexity. The main problem is trying to ensure the carved leaves have enough structural strength to not have little bits vulnerable to being knocked off during the carving process or afterwards when cleaners will be dusting the work.

Check back soon to see the progress on the lower half of the corbels.