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! 


Acanthus Leaf Study

Finished Acanthus Leaf

I call this relief carving “Acanthus Leaf Study” because it is the one I use as a model to teach introductory woodcarving classes. It has all the elements of a classic low relief sculpture. It has a level foundation, some high sides, some low, some slopes, deep vees, undercuts and undulations. It has curves like Venus de Milo and is evocative of Ancient Greek and Roman sculptures. It throws a lovely shadow and will gradually warm to an antique shade over time.

Unfinished Acanthus Leaf

It is carved in Aspen wood. The dimensions are 6 inches by 4 inches, by 3/4 inches thick. It is signed as an original with my brand initials.

Owned by a private collector.

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.


Woodcarving Course Update

Yesterday I had some fun teaching a woodcarving course at the Coquitlam location of Lee Valley Tools. There were seven students with varying degrees of experience. We carved an acanthus leaf in aspen.

Acanthus Leaf in aspen.
Acanthus Leaf in aspen.

Lee Valley Tools is doing a good thing with these seminars that teach skills such as wood carving. The participants got to try out new tools and many of them bought one or two that they liked. This will improve their carving experience. We all learned new things, and everyone went home with a mostly finished new piece of art. My own personal favourite carving gouge is a Henry Taylor #3 in half-inch width.

Carving in aspen is very nice. It is much cheaper than basswood and is at least as easy to carve. It does tend to fuzz when sanded and can be more brittle and prone to breaking, but it hold good detail especially in a low-relief carving such as this one.

I left my card with each participant in the hopes that they will contact me and keep up with their carving.

I look forward to doing this again.

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!


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