Thursday, December 30, 2010

Winter time is fireplace time.

At Christmas time we had our first fire of the year in our fireplace. I gathered some old wood from outside and also a box of scrap wood from my workshop; the remnants of a variety of projects over the past few months. My 5 year old granddaughter was helping me throw the small scraps on to the roaring fire. Then I realized that she was keeping about every third piece because she liked the way they looked, especially the ruby stains in the box elder. Ah, a girl after my own heart.

Here's an old English poem about firewood:

Beech-wood fires burn bright and clear
If the logs are kept a year;
Store your beech for Christmastide
With new-cut holly laid beside;
Chestnut's only good, they say,
If for years 'tis stored away;
Birch and fir-wood burn too fast
Blaze too bright and do not last;
Flames from larch will shoot up high,
Dangerously the sparks will fly;
But ash-wood green and ash-wood brown
Are fit for a Queen with a golden crown.

Oaken logs, if dry and old,
Keep away the winter's cold;
Poplar gives a bitter smoke,
Fills your eyes and makes you choke;
Elm-wood burns like churchyard mould,
E'en the very flames are cold;
Hawthorn bakes the sweetest bread -
So it is in Ireland said;
Apple-wood will scent the room,
Pear-wood smells like flowers in bloom;
But ash-wood wet and ash-wood dry
A King may warm his slippers by.

Do the dancing flames really symbolize dancing wood nymphs?
Keep the home fires burning brightly this winter.
I wish you all a happy and a peace-filled new year.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Herbie's Auction

I’ve always been fascinated by trees with names, but we’ll talk more about that some other time. Right now I want to focus on one specific tree by the name of “Herbie”. Herbie was a 217 year old elm tree, and held the official title of the biggest elm tree in New England. It towered 110 feet above Yarmouth, Maine. It was about 8 feet in diameter at the widest point. Herbie died from Dutch elm disease. The only reason Herbie lived as long as he did was because of the loving care of Yarmouth’s tree warden, Frank Knight, who cared for the tree for over 50 years. Frank is 102 years old himself. I’m not making this up folks. It’s a great story.

Herbie had to be cut down in February of 2010. That in itself was no simple task. We’re talking about over 40 tons of wood, and about 6,000 board feet of usable lumber.

If you read this blog, you know I believe there is something special about these old trees. You also must know that I believe that the spirit of the tree is, in some way, reincarnated in the beautiful and useful objects that are made from their wood. The good news is that even though Herbie the tree may be gone, he is still alive in his wood. When Herbie came down, Chris Becksvoort, a New Gloucester furniture maker found himself in charge of the wood distribution. He had the great idea of letting artisans and craftsmen use the wood from Herbie to create objects that could be auctioned off. The auction would raise money for the Arbor Fund of Falmouth to plant new trees. He got his idea from the Onetree Project in England where artisans did the same thing with a 170 year old oak tree that was dying and had to be cut down.

Over 80 artisans and artists participated creating over 300 objects for the auction. Objects included benches, tables, carvings, lamps, bowls, vases and an electric guitar. There was even a mobile made from paper from Herbie. The auction was held two weeks ago and netted $25,000 for the arbor fund. Click on the links to see an article on the auction and a video of a news report on the entire story.

This is the guitar made from Herbie wood by Andrew Olsen of AO Guitars.

These turned and carved vases were made by Jacques Veresy.

Reclaiming the wood from any old tree is a great idea but I think that using the wood from an important historical tree is very special. Apparantly The people at Historical Woods of America agree with me. Visit there website and find out more.

Have you ever crafted something out of wood from a special old tree?

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts and Wood

Lately I have really been immersing myself in the flowing beauty and simplicity of Art Nouveau and the Arts and Crafts Movement that flourished in the early years of the 20th Century. The Art Nouveau style is exemplified by artistic geniuses such as Alphonse Mucha, Gustav Klimt, Louis Comfort Tiffany and Charles Rennie Mackintosh. During the same time period, other artisans such as Gustav Stickley, Elbert Hubbard, and Charles Rohlfs, and architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Greene & Greene contributed to what came to be known as the Arts and Crafts Movement. Both movements became interwoven and formed a new design style which was a deliberate departure from the overly ornate Victorian style that preceded it. Each artist, artisan and architect had his or her own style, yet each expressed a common belief in simplicity of form and a communion with nature. The art of this period took a critical look at the new age of machinery and mass production. As an alternative, it emphasized hand craftsmanship and locally skilled creative workers.

Personally, there is no other period of time which has produced so many pieces of art that can take my breath away. Walking through a Greene and Greene home gives me more pleasure than eating an ice cream sundae…and at zero calories. My wife and I had the opportunity to tour the Gamble House in Pasadena, CA, a beautiful city which is the “Mecca” of Arts and Crafts on the West Coast. The house was built in 1908 as the winter retreat for the son of the founder of Proctor & Gamble. It was designed by the upstart young architect brothers, Charles and Henry Greene, who had just been to the World Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, where they became influenced by Japanese architecture. The whole place is a symphony in wood. Mahogany, teak, maple, oak and cedar. Each room is a new treat. The joinery, the carving, the details! It’s an overdose of some of the best wood craftsmanship I have ever seen. If you are ever near Pasadena, a tour of this National Historic Landmark should be on you itinerary.
The above photo shows a detail of the carved cedar frieze in the living room of the Gamble House. The artist used the deep natural grain of the weathered cedar plank as part of the carving. This freize circles the entire living room. It was subtle yet overwhelming at the same time...if that's possible. I found myself staring at it with an open mouth.

If you’re stuck on the East Coast but still want some indulging Arts and Crafts desserts, I recommend the Gustav Stickley exhibit at the Newark Museum going on until Jan 2, 2011. I was especially impressed by the inlay work in some of the pieces. See Stickley chair on the left.

If that isn’t enough dessert for you, I suggest the special exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City called “The Artistic Furniture of Charles Rohlfs”. It ends Jan 23, 2011. See Rohlfs chair on the right.

Immerse yourself in the pleasures of Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau as I am doing, and let me know what you think.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Ah, the burn of a good cigar... box, that is.

I picture one of my early ancestors, thousands of years ago, forging a metal spear point out of bronze and laying the hot metal object down on a piece of wood. “Hey, would ya look at that!” he would say, as the hot metal spear point burned a design into the wood. Thus, the art of wood burning or pyrography was born.

As crude as that early experience might have been, my recent experiences have not been much better. I have taken up the art of pyrography, which means I have invested in a decent burner transformer unit, a few tips of assorted shapes and a tip holder pen. I’m just a beginner, and still in the experimentation stage, but I’m starting to really enjoy this new hobby.

I am very fortunate to have a cigar superstore about 5 miles from my house. They sell empty wooden cigar boxes for one dollar each, ten for $6.00. There are sitting in a huge crate right near the entrance to the store, which doesn’t seem to stay full very long. I’ve been stocking up on boxes for several months now. Some of these boxes are very well made out of solid exotic woods with beautifully crafted box joint corners. Why do I feel like I’ve just given away my secret? Oh well, there are lots of boxes to go around.

This new interest of mine combines art with recycling, which makes me feel good about the enterprise in general. I’m still not sure what I will be doing with the finished boxes, but Christmas is coming up and they might make good gifts.

Have you ever tried pyrography? Have you ever tried to turn old cigar boxes into new works of art?

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Shape of Spoons to Come

My family has a lot of left-handed people. I am not one of them, but my wife is and so are two of my four children. We once had a family celebration at a restaurant and out of 12 people, 8 were left-handed! This brings me to the subject of left-handed and right-handed spoons. I like carving wooden spoons. They are so utilitarian. You can be very creative and they make good gifts. Recently I have made several non-symmetric, ergonomic shaped spoons. I used cherry and maple “firewood” branches from my backyard. I have designed one shape for a right-handed person; and the other for a left-handed person. In the photo above, the top spoon is the righty; and the bottom spoon is the lefty. “Not so”, says my wife. She would prefer to use the one I designed for a righty, and she is left-handed. I showed her photos of similarly shaped spoons on the Internet. They are all labeled “left-handed” and they are shaped sort of like my design. To make matters worse, all the other lefties in my family agree with her. I guess it’s not right to label things…or people, for that matter.

What do you think? Which spoon shape would you prefer using? Perhaps you would rather use a straight, symmetrical, old-fashioned wooden spoon instead of one with a curvy shape.

Monday, July 12, 2010

One Awesome Walk in the Woods

"This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,

Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic."

Evangeline A Tale of Arcadie
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

My wife and I took a weekend trip to northwestern Pennsylvania, to attend a regional woodcarving show at the Sawmill Arts Center in Cook Forest State Park. The show was enjoyable, but the highlight of the trip was a hike through an amazing old growth forest of ancient white pine and hemlock trees aptly named: “the Forest Cathedral”. The big ones were over 36 inches wide and over 150 feet tall. Most of these giants were over 300 years old. The forest floor was covered with fallen tree trunks and, as Longfellow said, blanketed with moss and ferns. I took photos, but they just don’t do justice to the grandeur of the place.

The history of this forest is interesting. It seems a lumber baron by the name of Anthony Cook became very rich in the late 1800’s, by stripping most of the area of trees and floating the logs down to Pittsburgh. However, he never touched the old growth in the center of the property. In 1928, he became somewhat of a conservationist and deeded 7200 acres to PA which became the State Park. Fact: By 1920, two-thirds of the trees in Pennsylvania’s forests were gone as a result of the lumber industry.

I would recommend a trip to Cook Forest State Park to anyone. It might not be Muir Woods, but it’s one of the best old growth forests in the East and very accessible, by a short two mile hike. Looking straight up the trunk and seeing a 150 foot tall, 36 inch diameter pine tree swaying in the breeze, is a sight I won’t soon forget.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Joy of Regional Woodcarving Shows

I recently attended the 37th Annual Woodcarving & Wildlife Art Festival sponsored by the Lancaster County (PA) Woodcarvers. It was an enjoyable and inspiring experience full of beautiful carvings and friendly people. The exhibitors were willing to share their knowledge with anyone who would stop by to chat. They were competing for ribbons. For some, this is a serious hobby. For others, it is their primary source of income. There were carved waterfowl, song birds, funny characters and Santa Clauses. If you were looking to buy beautiful hand-crafted works of art, this was the place to be.

I was totally in awe of some of the wildlife carvings on display. I have never tried to carve a detailed, life-like waterfowl, and I don’t think I ever will. I just don’t have the skills or the patience. No doubt, many of these carvings took several weeks or even months for the artist to complete. The prices on the tags would never compensate the artist for the amount of time spent.

Whether you live in Pennsylvania, or Kansas, or Oregon, these regional woodcarving shows are precious gems. They demonstrate that we are still a nation of talented artisans with wood craft skills passed down from generation to generation. The craftsmanship is honest, down-to-earth and surprisingly good. Many of the exhibitors I spoke with had never taken an art class in their life, yet their work is museum quality.

What has been your experience with regional wood carving shows?

Thursday, April 29, 2010

These are for the birds

Spring is here so I built a few birdhouses. Actually I built one new one and refurbished two others, all with scrap wood. Admittedly, they are not much to look at, but they meet all the latest recommended birdhouse dimensions and include all the latest recommended features. I’m not sure the birds care how the outside of their houses look.

There are some interesting things to consider when building a birdhouse. For instance, the size of the entrance hole and height above the floor of the birdhouse is very important to appeal to the right species of bird. Also, the popular perch stick is just below the entrance hole is not needed, nor recommended. It provides a place for predators to sit and wait. Another feature to prevent hungry squirrels from chewing through the hole area is to reinforce the hole with a ¾” thick block of wood, making the entrance passage longer. All the specifications and suggestions you will need are on the internet. If you are interested, go to the following websites: or

After I finished hanging the birdhouses on nearby trees, I got to thinking maybe birdhouses are an opportunity to get creative. As long as all the proper dimensions and features are included, and the birds don’t really care what the house looks like, why not carve something on the front. Perhaps a wood spirit or something humorous. Here’s a challenge: Design a clever birdhouse and send me a photo of it. I’ll publish the best ones on the blog.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

"A Reverence for Wood" by Eric Sloane

What books do you keep on the nightstand near your bed or on the shelf next to your favorite chair? Those books (and magazines) probably say a lot about who you are and what is important to you. The subtitle of this blog, “a reverence for wood”, was not chosen casually. One of the five or six favorite books on my nightstand is “A Reverence for Wood” by Eric Sloane, originally published in 1965. Actually, the book I have is called “Sketches of America Past” and combines two other Sloane books, “Diary of an Early American Boy” and “A Museum of Early American Tools” along with “A Reverence for Wood”, in a single bound edition.

I first read “A Reverence for Wood” back in the early 1970’s and remember being totally captivated by it. I have re-read it many times since then. It’s my kind of book, lots of interesting illustrations, all by Eric Sloane himself. It is also a historical book about “the old ways” of making practical things out of wood. It shows that our ancestors had close relationship and intimate understanding of wood that, for the most part, has been lost by our present generation. It is a book about history and the ingenuity of the early American pioneers. It has definitely been an influence on my life and my pursuit of woodcraft.

I was not going to post this entry on my blog since I couldn’t imagine my blog visitors, most of who are interested in woodworking, as not having already read “A Reverence for Wood”. It is practically required reading for anyone interested in wood. But then I thought perhaps there are people out there, especially visitors from other parts of the world, who may never have heard of the book. But even if you have read the book before, it is worth getting a copy and going through it again. Every time I open it, it gives me a new incentive to go make something out of wood.

Have you read “A Reverence for Wood”? What are your thoughts about the book, or other books by Eric Sloane?

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Presto Box

Well, here’s what I did with the box elder wood. I designed a new type of band saw box. I call it the Presto Box. It has two compartments, each with a lid, and normal hinge pin construction. However, I extended the top of the box beyond the hinge pin to create a, sort of, actuation lever. When you press the top ends of the box, “Presto”, the lid opens.

Construction was kind of tricky using templates and lots of careful cuts on the band saw. I made two boxes since I found it is always better to multiples of a new design to learn the most about what not to do next time.

A coat of tung oil on the finished boxes really brought out the red streaks in the box elder. Almost too vivid. It looks like my granddaughter scribbled over a maple box with a Magic Marker. The larger box is 7 1/2" x 4" x 2".

This shape is only one adaptation of the design concept. I can picture all sorts of shapes that would give the same effect. These first two boxes are really “proof of concept” prototypes. Don’t look too close, or you will see all the flaws and mistakes. The next ones will be much better now that I’ve learned a few tricks. I guess we should all learn from our mistakes and keep on trying to improve.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Old Growth Forests

In 2003, a writer by the name of Kara Gebhart Uhl wrote an informative article about old growth forests. See In the article she talks about America’s historical usage of wood and the deforestation that occurred, especially at the end of the 19th century. She talks about old growth wood and ancient forests within the United States. She also talks about the value of using reclaimed wood, from old buildings and barns, and where to purchase it. A very informative article.

Kara Gebhart Uhl is no novice when it comes to knowledge of wood and wood working. She has done many articles for Woodworking Magazine and Popular Woodworking. She obviously knows the difference between a spokeshave and a skew chisel. She also knows the importance of preserving our natural forest heritage. Read the article and tell me what you think. a Google image search for “old growth forest”. You’ll discover some amazing pictures.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Box Elders Aren't Even Elders

About 2 miles from my house, they were cutting down a small grove of old hardwood trees to make way for a new assisted living facility. Most of the trees were 18 inches to 24 inches in diameter. Some were over 3 feet. They were carting them off for firewood. It was sad to see this thicket of trees destroyed. My boys used to play in it when they were younger.

There were piles of large cut chunks. My car is conditioned to stop upon approaching such tree cutting sites. I started roaming the piles. A workman shouted “Hey, what are you doing?” I explained that I was a wood carver looking for some wood. The foreman intervened. He allowed me to take two pieces. I grabbed a nice cherry stump that was 18 inches in diameter. He pointed out a box elder chunk that was about the same size. It was just cut and the red color streaks were very bright. It looked like it was bleeding.

I carted my trophies home in the trunk of my car. From my exuberance, you would have thought I just won a gold medal in the Olympics. I began to picture the boxes I could make out of the wood after it dries. As usual, my wife though I was crazy.
I did some research and found out that box elder isn’t really elder at all. It’s a type of soft maple. Scientifically, it is acer negundo, and also known as Ash-leaf Maple. The wood tends to be brittle with many internal splits and it has no real commercial use except for cheap wooden pallets and crates. However, most of the time, the wood has red or purple streaks which are created by a fungus that results from insects or other forms of distress. These “blemishes” make it very valuable to box makers or bowl turners. Distress and imperfections result in unique beauty. There is a life lesson in there somewhere.
I am in the process of making some boxes out of my chunk of box elder. I’ll tell you more about my progress in future posts. What has your experience been working with box elder?

Monday, February 8, 2010

Aunt Millie's Cane

My Aunt Millie would always ask me when I was going to make her a carved cane. I was always willing to make one, although I wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to do it. And what would I carve? Flowers would be appropriate, probably roses. I’m not good at flowers, especially roses. I put off attacking this project for over a year. I started collected pictures of real roses and carved roses. I practiced carving roses in scrap wood, but nothing looked very good. They all looked like cinnamon buns.

I had a piece of cedar from a big old ornamental shrub I took down in my yard. It had a natural right angle bend in it. Perfect for a cane handle, but I was hesitant to start carving because I had no confidence in my ability to carve a rose that wasn't laughable. If I messed up, this nice piece of wood was useless for anything else. Finally, I took a deep breath and jumped in. A lot a times major projects are like that. Ya hafta just jump in and hope for the best. Like most of my first time woodworking adventures, I learned as I went forward; sort of like feeling my way in the dark.

I used the straight section of an old curved top cane I got at a yard sale. I sanded off the thick dark varnish. I think its ash. I bought a nice brass joining collar on the Internet. A little bit of epoxy, and a little bit of luck, and "Presto!" it looks like a cane. I must admit, the finished product came out pretty good…for an amateur. I have to learn not to be so hesitant before jumping in to challenging situations.

Have you ever had situations where you were afraid to start cutting beautiful wood for fear of screwing up? Tell me about it.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Wild Horses of Newbury

I firmly believe in the spirituality of trees. I can’t explain what it all means, it’s just that trees have been revered as sacred living things longer than we have been worshiping as Christians. There must be something to it. I believe that making beautiful or utilitarian objects out of the wood from trees gives them a new life after they have been cut down. I also believe that too many old growth trees are being cut down.

My recent research all started with the movie “Avatar”. (Great movie. Go see it in 3D.) In the movie, the great “Tree of Souls” is destroyed by the ruthless and greedy exploiters of the mineral resources of the planet. There is enough symbolism here to keep a discussion group busy for months. This giant tree is analogous to Yggdrasil, the great Tree of Life in Norse mythology.

Researching Yggdrasil I came across the website of an interesting music group from England called Moksha (see: (More on Moksha some other time.) Moksha’s website links to a video called: The Wild Horses of Newbury, which just blew my mind. It’s about the unexplainable spirituality of the old trees, a spirituality that we as a modern, progressive society, just can’t comprehend. Go to: . Watch this video and tell me what you think.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Lithuanian Wood Carvings – Part 2 – the Rupintojelis

The Rupintojelis (pronounced roo-pinto-YAY-lis) is an important part of Lithuanian wood carving folk art. Derived from the Lithuanian word rupestis it can be translated as anxiety, concern and solicitude. This image is a repetitive subject in Lithuanian woodcarving. It depicts a man in a sitting position, leaning on his elbow, looking pensively and sadly at passers-by. At times the Rupintojelis is sitting on a tree stump or a stone wall. This image is carved in various styles, but always in a way that you immediately know he is suffering. Some scholars think that perhaps village woodcarvers consciously or unconsciously expressed their own worries, and fears through woodcarving. The Rupintojelis was found in the home, at crossroads and other public places.

The Rupintojelis image started as an a representation of a suffering human but, after Christianity came to Lithuania, the image gradually evolved into Christ, the Man of Sorrows, pondering all the ills of humanity. All emphasis is placed on the facial expression of deep thought and infinite sorrow. From what I understand, Rupintojelis can be seen along the roadside and in cemeteries throughout Lithuania…and of course at every tourist gift shop.

Some say the pose represents Jesus' anticipation of his crucifixion, after his scourging and crowning with thorns. Others say it depicts Christ after the resurrection and not yet ascended. Polish people have their version of the rupintojelis. It is very similar. They call it Chrystus Frasobliwy. One Polish legend says Christ travelled through the world with his crown of thorns. Tired from his journey, he sat on stones near the road and wept. This statue means many things to many people. Lithuanian Christians believe it shows how Christ was human and one of us. He shared our feelings and concerns. In it they see God's endless compassion and care for his people.

Here is a photo of contemporary wood sculptor Julius Urbanavičius with his wfe and one of his Rupintojelis sculptures. As you can see, some of them get pretty large.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Lithuanian Wood Carvings - Part 1 - Sacred Woods

My wife noticed a book listed on my Amazon wish list and got it for me for Christmas. It is entitled: “Sacred Woods – The Contemporary Lithuanian Woodcarving Revival”. The book is a catalog of the exhibit held at the University of Wisconsin in 1998 with great photos of Lithuanian wood sculpture. These are works of contemporary sculptors that perpetuate the long history of Lithuanian wood carving. (See the photos in this posting.)

The introduction to the book by Ruta Saliklis gave me great insight into the Lithuanians’ close personal affinity to wood and wood sculpture throughout their history. If you have been reading my blog, you know that this personal harmony with wood, and the spiritual nature of trees, is a recurring theme. Here is an excerpt from the Introduction of the book:

“Vast Forests once covered Lithuania. Evidence of the importance of woods in Lithuanian culture can be found in folklore, religion and mythology. The Lithuanian language itself shows the importance by the numerous words for woods, depending on the type of trees within them. Lithuanians see wood not merely as an organism, but as a vibrant living entity. Thus traditionally a tree can only be chopped down during the dormancy of winter. In pre-Christian times certain groves of trees were considered sacred and no one (not even the King) would dare cut a tree from such a grove, or even take wood from the ground.”

The entire subject of Lithuanian wood sculpture and folk art is very interesting for a number of reasons. First, the Lithuanians were the last of the Europeans to be Christianized. This happened in the late 14th century. The close connection to their pagan past, as well as the conversion of pagan symbols to Christian ones, is reflected in their wooden sculpture. Also, they have been many political changes over the past few centuries. A great deal of their wooden sculpture is an expression of their resentment to occupation and oppression by other nations. Much of this is done in a coded message of symbols included in the carved object. The book goes into wonderful detail about the history of Lithuanian wood folk sculpture; more than I can talk about here.

Most northern European cultures (German, Polish, Danish, etc.) were big on wood carving, but it seems that the Lithuanians had them all beat. I get the feeling that every Lithuanian baby is given a set of carving gouges along with a teething ring.

Most of the sculpted wood carvings shown in the book are now on display at the Lithuanian Museum of Art in Lemont, Illinois, just outside of Chicago. I would enjoy going there someday to experience this art in person.

Are you familiar with Lithuanian wood carvings and their significance? If not, you might enjoy doing some research on Google. Tell me what you think.