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.
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.
This hummingbird was carved out of red cedar, spalted birch, and ebony.
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.
A few weeks ago I was contacted by an Anglican minister who was going to be installed as a Bishop and was looking for a few items to be made for the ceremony. He wanted a Bishop’s Crozier and a Pectoral Cross, both with Celtic themes. Not being an Anglican I was unfamiliar with these terms and had to do some research. Based on the research I made a few proposals which he kindly helped me to refine. After giving me the go-ahead on the carving I had some difficulties finding the right materials for the job. Finding straight grained Black Walnut of decent length is harder than I thought. After scouring all the local (and not-so-local) hardwood lumber shops with no luck I remembered my dad had a length of it in his shop. I hoped it was straight-grained, as he was pretty picky about his wood. I found the chunk of 2″ by 8″ by 4 ft length had 3 feet of length that would suffice, which was a huge sigh of relief. But finding the right kind of ash was much, much easier, fortunately.
I started by glueing up a few pieces of the walnut to make the shepherd’s crook. I needed to join the pieces in such a way as to make the crook stronger, as any end-grain would be prone to breaking. Then I drew up a shape that looked pleasing to my eye and appeared to be traditional, which the client was looking for.
Then I shaped the crook with a rasp until it looked like this.
After this, I got to work with my table saw, cutting the walnut into two 3 foot lengths and then rounding them with a spoke shave and hand plane. Of course, you remember that the longest straight-grained walnut I could get was 3 feet, so I had to join two lengths together. I did that by inserting cane couplers from Lee Valley Tools into the end-grain. I used my drill press and some epoxy glue for the task. It proved to be a little tricky to get them to be straight!
After rough-sanding everything, I got down to carving a Celtic cross into the shaft of the Crozier. I’ve rarely done relief carvings “in the round” so to speak, so that proved a little interesting. I drew the cross onto the shaft and then clamped the shaft in my vise and worked on a section before rotating the shaft to work around the bend. Setting the right depths was important, especially working around the shaft. But in the end it worked out and I couldn’t wait to test a little patch with my favourite oil & wax finish.
Finally, after sanding through several grits of sand-paper, and down to 400 grit wet-dry paper, I oiled the entire project and immediately fell in love with it. This is the moment I wait for every time I carve something. It just pops. But that’s just my opinion. Take a look at this next picture and tell me what you think:
Finally, I worked on the Pectoral Cross, which is a cross the Bishop wears on his chest. This was fairly easy, as I’ve carved numerous Celtic crosses in the recent past. The biggest challenge of this carving was stopping all the little bits from breaking off. In the end, I had to find a happy medium between enough depth so you can see the carving, but not so deep as to have parts break off.
I had the opportunity to meet the client and deliver the carvings in person, which is a real joy. And as a bonus, I also was able to meet his wife and daughter. Meeting clients adds so much to the experience for me. The connection between maker and receiver is one of those intangibles that makes my work important to me. It is something you can’t get at the cash register in the big box home decor store.
My wife went to visit her folks for a few days this week and sent me a photo of one of my earliest carvings that I made for my mother-in-law. She loves hummingbirds and goes through about 30 pounds of sugar feeding the hummingbirds over the summer. That’s a serious addiction to hummingbirds, if you ask me!
So a number of years ago, I decided to carve her a hummingbird. I foolishly decided that figured maple would be the wood of choice, mostly because that was what what my dad had given me. What a lot of hard work that was! I tried to capture the idea of movement and gracefulness, with the beauty of a hummingbird in mid-hover.
After about a month of Sundays sanding and sanding and more sanding, this is what emerged from the wood.
About the carving:
It’s about 8 inches tall, carved in figured maple and black walnut. It is finished with Krylon. It’s in my mother-in-law’s private collection.
This nativity set comes with a story. I started carving it in 2007, as a personal project. It was personal because the piece of cherry wood I carved it out of was a gift from my father. He brought the wood to me the last time he came for a visit. He had cut a large limb that he got while trimming a tree for a friend in the town of Hope. Unfortunately, in the process of drying, it developed a split that meant it wasn’t useful for making furniture, and he hoped I might be able to do something with it.
It sat for a while as I considered what would be a suitable carving. In the meantime, my father passed away from cancer, which somehow made the importance of what I carved with that piece all the greater. My father, Victor McMillan, was a committed Christian and someone who made a significant difference in the lives of many people. This was evident at his funeral which saw well over 500 people in attendance. That Christmas season, as we unpacked a nativity set that he had made for our family, I knew exactly what I would carve: a nativity.
It suits my father because it is representative of his Christian faith and the difference that following the Baby Jesus can make in anyone’s life. That old cherry tree limb found new life too – in this carving!
It is sold now, to a family that knew and were influenced by my dad. How appropriate! Approximate size of the largest character is 3″. The wood is cherry, finished in many coats of natural tung oil, hand rubbed between coats. This is a one-of-a-kind carving from a unique piece of wood, carved in memory of a unique man.
If you were to sign up for a beginner carving course, chances are you would learn to carve a spoon. It’s the perfect project for a beginner because it involves many carving techniques, yet it is relatively easy and requires only a knife and a gouge. Everyone knows what a spoon should look like, so the shape is non-threatening. The shape of a spoon means that there are some parts that are fragile and require extra care to ensure that the direction of the grain in the wood will support those parts to the best advantage.
Carving the bowl of a spoon teaches students how to hold a gouge, especially when to carve with or across the grain. Carving the neck of the spoon will show how to give the illusion of a thin, delicate neck, while actually leaving it heavier and stronger than it looks. Carving the handle will teach you how to use a carving knife while dealing with grain direction, splitting, and how to shape a gentle, comfortable curve.
Finally, finishing the spoon also teaches some important points of carving. Sanding is tedious, and the better the carving technique, the less sanding is required. And the choice of what finish, if any, to use on the spoon is very important. If the spoon is purely decorative, any finish will do: varnish, wax, oil, or unfinished is fine. But if the spoon is to be used, the finish needs to be food-safe. This limits the choices down to a few, and most of these are oils or special waxes that do not contain mineral spirits or other toxins. Mineral oil, 100% natural tung oil, beeswax, or salad bowl wax are the most common choices. It’s possible to use walnut oil, but it’s a bit hard to find. Some people use olive oil or vegetable oil, but the problem with these is that they can go rancid.
Why don’t you pick up a gouge with a #5 sweep, 10 millimeters wide, and a pocket knife (or carving knife), and give it a go?
About the carving:
The wood is Black Walnut. It was carved in about an hour, and finished in a natural oil finish. As you can see from the last picture, it’s about 6 inches long by an inch and a half wide.
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Too much serious wood carving can be the same for me, so every now and then I enjoy making a fun, whimsical carving. For this carving, I wanted to make something that you can pick up and hold – a carving so smooth it feels like a river rock, worn glossy smooth.
I had a small piece of Lignum Vitae left over from another project, which would be perfect. It’s one of the heaviest, hardest woods in the world. It’s also naturally oily and shines beautifully when smoothed. Now to decide what would be fun to carve as well as fun to hold…
One day were out walking at Derby Reach near Fort Langley, BC, when we found a little salamander crawling on an old foundation of a ruined barn. It was so shiny and smooth, with a long tail that curled around, and a bulbous head. We watched it for a while until it seemed to find a nice sunny spot to warm itself to sleep. We would have liked to pick her up, she was so cute, but we decided it was better not to disturb her. Yes, this would make a nice fun little project to carve, and one that no one would mind picking up and holding.
If you’ve been a regular reader of my blog, you also know that I enjoy carving projects that have a little pleasant surprise – a kind of “Oh! Look at that!” experience is what I hope you’ll have. So, for this fun little girl, I added a little something extra fun. I inserted a powerful rare-earth magnet into the bottom of her tummy, which means she can hug walls (on a drywall screw) and fridges and corner-beads of walls, etc. My sister has one of these little salamanders and her kids have fun moving her around. The last time we were at her house, I saw it on her fireplace screen. Such fun!
About the carving:
It’s carved in Lignum Vitae, and sanded smooth. There’s no finish on it as it is naturally oily. It is 4″ long by 1″ wide and about a 1/2″ thick. I can make you one in something other than Lignum Vitae, as it’s an endangered wood and I don’t have any more left. But there are numerous other hardwoods available. $45 each plus shipping & handling.