One of my joys is teaching chip carving to church members and friends. I have a class coming up in May that will be held at the St. Olaf Retreat Center in Devils Lake, ND. Our Retreat Center is beautifully situated right along the shoreline of the lake. The class is being sponsored by the Lake Region Woodcarvers Club and will guide participants through the basics of chip carving. I have some students who are returning too. Lately, I’ve been teaching some 3 hour carving sessions at the local senior center and it is cool to see how some students can quickly grasp the carving technique. Part of my interest stems from the connection of chip carving to Scandinavia when it was applied to Viking ships, architectural elements, and household items of that time. I find it fascinating too how Peter Follansbee and others have included chip carving motifs into their fabrication of spoons. Make no mistake that my interest in woodcarving is not restricted to chip carving, as I’m also striving to progress in figure carving and acanthus carving as well. But for now it is cool to offer chip carving to those affiliated with the Sons of Norway organization and members of my congregation at St. Olaf. It gets one more inspired to carve when others share your enthusiasm and you can encourage each other. I am very grateful to serve at St. Olaf Lutheran Church and to be part of the Devils Lake Community.
What do you do with a discarded kitchen base cabinet from long ago. If you are like me you salvage it for your shop!
That is what I did. After moving into our new residence some five months ago, I pulled this cabinet from the wall in the basement and couldn’t wait to repaint it. The bright red paint slopped on it by a previous homeowner didn’t appeal to my shop sense. Once I did that, I immediately discovered that it was handmade. It has a face frame made of yellow pine along with some hardwoods like birch. The drawers were made from popular. Since the craftsman didn’t use particle board and very little plywood, it got me excited. I was further delighted to see some saw marks from a hand saw. The cabinet is solid and sports rabbet joints and nail construction.
To re-purpose it, I attached a solid wood top made from 3 salvaged 2 by 12s, edge glued, and made the width to be flush with the legs. The top of the bench is 27 1/2″ wide. The top once surface planed and sanded is about 1 3/8″ thick, but okay for my purposes. I’ve seen antique benches that sported thinner tops than the 3-5″ tops being advocated nowadays. To reinforce the base, I built two leg assemblies so each side of the cabinet has a solid mounting for the top. Carriage bolts were used to attach the top to the framing at each end. The cabinets rest on two 2 by 4’s that are half lapped onto the backside of the legs which are doubled 2 by 6’s. The half lapped joints are bolted together with 5/16- 3/8 diameter carriage bolts. The legs at each end are assembled with upper and lower stretchers (2 by 4’s doubled at top and 2 by 6’s doubled at the base. The legs and stretchers are held together with mortise and tenon joints that were drawbored. To stiffen the cabinet assembly I added a piece of 3/4 inch thick plywood that was screwed to the back. I also used steel corner braces inside the cabinet to beef up the structural integrity of the nailed together case work.
For clamping I made a leg vise on the left side of the bench using an antique wooden screw of 2 inch diameter and installed a used Columbia 5″ wide shop vise for the tail vise. I am sure that it will make for a nice bench that is located along the wall. I patterned my leg vise to have a chop of 10″ width at the upper part and then made it progressively narrower toward the base. I used 2″ thick cherry for the chop. This was following the vise chop design that Chris Schwarz sports in his woodworking book on benches. I still need to carefully fit the wooden vise screw to the leg vise chop, add some trim pieces, and then fabricate and add a thick vise chop to the tail vise. The drawers and knobs will be returned to the casework also.
Admittedly, it looks tall in the picture at 36 1/2″ and it is a few inches taller than my other benches. It will be less desirable for some hand planing operation too, but I think it will work for me. In defense of my lofty bench, I’ve noted that some woodworking writers have mentioned bench heights reaching this one or higher, so I though it worth doing. It is my belief that it will be quite useful for some woodworking operations, possibly chair making and woodcarving operations, and to also serve as a platform for some of my sharpening equipment. Maybe this will encourage you to build a workbench using your own creativity and by re-purposing some old cabinets too. If nothing else it will still function as a counter top.
My tale picks up with the vintage vise I recently bought at an antique mall. My purchase of $27, as you’ll soon see, has been rewarded. I am happy to say that the evaporust application, light sanding, and wire brushing made it look like new. I treated the clean metal castings to Rustoleum primer and then a Rustoleum black semi gloss oil enamel coating. I’ll make a new handle out of some scrap walnut. The dog slot will be left empty for now since it made no sense to fabricate a steel one. Perhaps I’ll mill a chunk of wood to fill it for esthetics.
What I opted to do with the vise was to use it on my chairmaker’s bench. This bench is an evolving bench project. In my mind a workbench doesn’t have to be a thing of beauty, but just function well. Practicality and economy kinda dictate that route for me as a woodworker. I still plan to build a nice Roubo bench based on a Chris Schwarz design when time, money, and situation allow. But for now I will tweak the design of this chairmakers bench. The centerpiece of this bench has been the Veritas twin screw vise, but due to the smaller footprint of the bench top, the design didn’t include a tail vise. I admit that I favor having two vises on a bench for a host of reasons. One of which is that I often use my vise for holding spindles so that I can shape them with drawknife and spokeshave for Windsor chairs. So buying this antique vise, and reconditioning it, got me wondering how it might become part of this very stout but smaller bench. By beefing up the dimensions of the undercarriage it showed me that pine/fur stock offers plenty of mass for any hand tool work I’ll do. Bottom line the bench doesn’t move.
With no bench top overhang on the end, I cut a 10 inch by 3/8 inch deep mortise in face of the top stretcher (4 by 4 inch stock) and then mounted the rear jaw flush with the side of the bench. This also required me to cut another mortise about 10 inch by 1 1/8 inch deep on the underside of the stretcher. The only negative that I have with the installation is that the chops have to be fairly wide, 6 inches, to accommodate the installation of the vise. Alternatively, I could have made the chops even wider and passed the vise screw and guide rods through them. The tail vise is mounted at the base of the stretcher versus installing it directly underneath the 3 inch thick top. Judging by the trial fits the rear vise jaw will also include a 3/4 inch thick chop. When I designed the chop for the front vise jaw I realized that it could now include several dog holes in it to give me multi-point hold down capability on the bench from end to end.
My tale of adding a tail vise is to install a vise chop of red oak that is roughly 3 inches thick by 20 inches long. That length gives me 3-4 dog holes for clamping. I would have opted for a shorter length on the vise chop however the installation forced me to mortise the vise dead center on the top stretcher so that the bolts holding down the 3 inch thick bench top were left alone. By using 3 inch stock it eliminates any issues with the depth of the chops.
All it took for me this past week to get hooked on acanthus carving was to learn it through the instruction of Norwegian carver Hans Sandom. Of the ten students at the Milan Village Arts School (MVAS), I was one of two beginners to acanthus carving. It was humbling to be around all the talent. It was also great to see progress on their projects and appreciate their commitment to master this form of carving. It’s contagious I think. Kinda like finding old woodworking tools, you want to keep searching for them.
On day one you have to learn the basics and variations of carving acanthus leaves. So after carving practice leaves for about two days, I started on a bread board carving project that looks deceptively simple until you start carving it. You quickly realize how much goes into carving the elements of the acanthus design. During the last day and a half I worked on a small shelf project. I completed half of the carving so I could complete the project at home.
Of all the things to bring, I left my larger V tool at home. If you carve acanthus then you know that the V tool is critically important in helping to define acanthus carving as you work into greater relief. Fortunately for me, Hans provided a V tool for me to use. Some of the virtues of acanthus carving is that it comes with the challenge of maintaining your concentration, and taking the necessary time to cut smooth continuous bevels on the leaves. It takes patience, and, then when you get into it, you can loose track of time which is a good thing. It offers a needed respite from what many have as occupational stress. Since I have wanted to take a class in acanthus since 1997, this has been a real treat for me.
You might ask why did I opt to learn acanthus at MVAS? Aren’t there some other carvers that you’d think of right away? Well, MVAS is a lesser known jewel in southwestern Minnesota that offers classes in Scandinavian folk arts. I recommend that you check out those opportunities. For one thing, Hans Sandom and Bob Yorburg are among the few carvers to recently publish anything on acanthus wood carving. Get their book Acanthus Carving and Design and you’ll see that not all acanthus is the same. It isn’t all the same even in Norway or Scandinavia. Having the last name Paulson (it was spelled different ways over the generations), has inspired me to also celebrate some aspects of my Scandinavian heritage. I have ancestors on my dad’s side that can be traced back to the New Sweden Colonial settlement in Delaware around the 1600’s.
Another great school of Scandinavian folk arts is at the Vesterheim National Norwegian-American Museum and Heritage Center in Decorah, IA. I have been to Vesterheim and have become a member of the museum, but this was my first time to MVAS. I look forward to pursuing this style of carving with all it challenges including the art of painting those carvings in the Scandinavian tradition. Like putting on the veins of the leaf, one has to be careful not to ruin the whole piece by rushing the completion. Careful and deliberate effort pays off in accenting and not detracting from the beauty of the piece.
One thing you learn as a woodworker is that what is good for somebody else might not be good for you. Alternately, what works for you might not work for another person. Take my chairmaker’s bench that I built roughly a year ago already, I love the bench. I modified a design from woodworker Drew Langsner and incorporated some other features. After seeing the storage compartment on a Chris Schwarz bench, I added one to mine. I like having a storage compartment underneath. I would have liked to build the whole bench longer with an end vise/tail vise, but I had space constraints. The trick with the hinged storage area underneath is you don’t want to store things on top of it. Dah. In particular, I love having all the dog holes through the bench top. I’ve heard other woodworker’s complain at different times that they don’t like benches with that many dog holes. That’s when you hear that a bench top looks like Swiss cheese, but my response so don’t have them. Having that many dog holes works for me and I like them. My clamping needs and preferences are clearly different than yours if you only need less than 10 dog holes. Even my Ulmia carver’s bench which has two rows of square dog holes has 30. It might not look as esthetic for others to have 30 plus holes, but as a practical woodworker I appreciate the capability. Whether it is making a spoon, fabricating chair parts or holding a woodcarving, I want those clamping options. When I invested in the Veritas twin screw vise, it made all the holes that much more important. Don’t get me wrong, some day I’ll build a thick Roubo bench with dovetailed legs, wooden threaded leg vise, and a nice tail vise, with significantly less dog holes. I don’t plan to do it for awhile though. Other than having a fastener or dust fall through one of the many dog holes on my current chairmaker’s bench, the benefits for me far outweigh the disadvantages.
What is an exciting new addition to my chairmaker bench is that I now have a WoodRiver Patternmaker’s or Gunstock Carving Vise. If you don’t have one, it is sweet for holding anything higher on the bench. I just used it to trim some tenons on some dining table aprons. All it takes to mount the vise is to find a dog hole to attach it anywhere on the bench. Options for changing orientations of stock are there. How cool is that? Like some others, I confess I drooled a little over the elegant Benchcrafted Carver’s vise, but I simply couldn’t afford the cost. Nor could I find the time to build a similar carver’s vise from scratch right now. If you’ve looked you know that there are some nice designs for building a vise for above the bench top clamping. Other than the lower part being cheaped out on the Woodcraft carving vise, by using stamped steel instead of cast iron, I am quite happy with the new vise. Replacing the light weight base with something heavier is one of the upgrades I’ll eventually make.
Since woodworking is such a broad application, I am glad for being blessed to do it. Whatever the interest level a person has in woodworking, there are numerous publications out there that can feed you with inspiration, new knowledge, and offer project ideas. To that end I have enjoyed Popular Woodworking Magazine for years and it was Fine Woodworking Magazine before that, but let’s face it our tastes change and publications change. I’m a currently a subscriber to Popular Woodworking, but I find other woodworking magazines also helpful at different times. The fact is that we have many opportunities to share woodworking information through magazines, blogs and websites, to take a class, to buy a DVD, or to watch a video clip on YouTube. What’s growth for me though has been to focus on my experiences of hand tool work in the moment. I find that my just doing the activity of woodworking gives peace, provided the performance goals are kept reasonable. If you read contemporary spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh sometime, you’ll get the idea that savoring our experiences is key to finding joy and contentment. Perfectionism can hold some of us back from the enjoyment part and if that is our experience sometimes, then think about using mindfulness as a way to keep the fun in woodworking. I won’t define it here, but suffice it to say that it involves greater appreciation for what you are doing as you do it. If your shop time gets squeezed in with all the other priorities, or you succumb to feeling some pressure to accomplish a lot on a free day, then enjoying the experience in the present tense may help you as well.
It is new for me to contribute features for magazines, but I’ve already learned that it does fire up a person to do new and greater things in woodworking. Truth is that I have more challenging projects in mind now than ever before. First, I am very thankful to the great folks at Fox Chapel Publishing for giving me the opportunity to write about using carving to personalize a tool chest.
You can find a reference to it here http://woodcarvingillustrated.com/blog/woodcarving-illustrated-winter-spring-2016/
Their publication is great for inspiring people of all skill levels to try and excel at woodcarving. It was fun to share about my woodworking/woodcarving experiences in this recent issue. Second, I want to say that I think chip carving really gets a bad rap in woodworking circles and it really puzzles me. It seems there is some thinking out there in the woodworking world that if you don’t use a chisel and mallet to carve something then you haven’t made it into the realm of fine furniture. Frankly, that is crap and this comes from a preacher/woodworker who chooses his words carefully. I for one use carving chisels a lot and while I am not into chip carving plates per se, I’ll argue that there is great skill in using one tool, a sharp knife, (see photo above) to make V shaped cuts in wood. True you are limited to softer hardwoods or pine. But heh when it comes to reproducing country furniture that many of us still love, chip carving has greatly enhanced many pieces over time. Look at how cool it is to add chip carving to a handmade wooden spoon. It definitely personalizes it. Bottomline, think and say what you want, but if it suits me to pick up my chip carving knife and to add some motifs that compliment the piece, then I am going to do it.
Saying all that, in 2016 I am going to learn more and more about acanthus carving, letter carving, and flat carving which all use chisels. It is the challenge of learning something new more than anything else. When it comes to acanthus, I am partial to the Norwegian/Scandinavian approach to it. It is me and I have some Swedish blood in me. I am and have been in love with woodcarving for a long time. I think a real woodcarver has multiple approaches at his or her disposal and that chip carving has its place among them.
Thanks for reading my rantings,
I begin 2016 by sharing that I have a three page article entitled “Tips for Personalizing a Toolbox” in the Winter/Spring 2016 issue of Woodcarving Illustrated Magazine. As you can see I even made it to the cover. The article discusses my carved chair maker’s tool chest that I built just before I took my first Windsor chair class in 2007. It was a class to build the Sack Back chair. Thank you to the editors of Fox Chapel Publishing for giving me this opportunity to be in print.
Mike Dunbar in Hampton, New Hampshire, has been my teacher for Windsor chair making. Mike recently announced that he and wife Sue were retiring from teaching Windsor chair making and that the buildings at the Windsor Institute were sold. I wish them good health and the very best in this transition. Now whenever I look at the top of that same carved tool chest I will remember all the people, like Mike, who have influenced my woodworking.
You see I was blessed, like many others, to catch the bug in the mid 80’s to build Windsor chairs simply because we had champions like Mike. They kept up the appreciation for reproducing these fine and classic specimens of American furniture. But as things change, I look forward to what inspirations in 2016 that I’ll have in exploring my passion for wood carving. My chair work will continue and one reason is that wood carving remains very important in making beautiful reproductions of Windsor chairs. Likewise with wood carving, I am grateful for having been taught and influenced by many outstanding wood carvers who enhanced my carving skills. Stay tuned as there is a good chance that you’ll hear more carving talk from me.