Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Carving Japanese Crests on Old Cigar Boxes

In my search for interesting symbols to carve on recycled wooden cigar boxes, I discovered Japanese crests. These crests, also called mon, or in the case of family crests, kamon, have been an important element in Japanese design for centuries. Their history and usage throughout the ages is an interesting subject. I will not go into the history in this posting, but you can do your own research on the internet. The crest symbols were originally used by the samurai and powerful warlord families. Today they are used primarily as decorative symbols for fabrics, tattoos, and corporate logos. The three diamond Mitsubishi logo for example, seen on all their vehicles, is actually the family crest. It symbolically represents three water chestnuts.

I started by getting a good reference book which shows hundreds of Japanese crest patterns and variations. Certain designs are perfect for carving; others are not. Some crests, even though very beautiful, are just too detailed and intricate to carve in wood. Some crests are very dramatic and impressive; others are rather mundane.

Most representations of the mon symbols are seen as two dimensional impressions on paper, fabric or skin. Carving them into wood presented some problems with proportions and spacing because of the depth dimension and sloped edges. Also, in the two dimensional representations, there is almost always an important contrast of positive and negative spaces…usually dark printing on a light background. Showing this contrast in uniformly colored wood required some added steps. I wound up using dark background stains and pyrography.

Despite these challenges, I was able to find a few crest designs that seemed to lend themselves to carving on the top of a wooden box. Three are shown in the photo above. Have you ever used Japanese crests in your work?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Back Porch Project

I have not posted on this blog for quite some time now. There are a number of reasons for this, one of which is spring. Spring always brings an abundance of thing to do, mostly outdoors and away from my workshop. There is yard clean-up, planting and lawn maintenance. I haven’t been doing any small woodworking projects; instead I have been totally consumed by one big one. I built a new wooden back porch.

In simple terms, the porch is a platform with two steps. I could have worked in simple rectangular shapes, but no, I had to get complicated. My design had 45 degree angles and had to fit in over the existing porch which was a crooked, sinking concrete monolith. I even built a cardboard model to get the approval of the “authority having jurisdiction”, namely, my wife. I also had to draft fairly detailed plans since many of the measurements had to be precise.


This project took a long time to complete, far longer than I had imagined. A good friend of mine told me that when you have a project like this, you should figure out how much time it will take to finish it; then double the estimate…then multiply by ten. He was not far from wrong.

The end result is not perfect, but it is functional and looks good. I learned a few things from this project. First, I learned that words like “level” and “square”, which I always thought were absolutes, turn out to be suggested goals. I learned that driver screws and metal corner brackets result in an unbelievably strong construction. The porch could probably support an elephant. I learned that wet wood shrinks after it dries. This should not have been a surprise to a wood person like me, but I learned the hard way. The 1/8” gaps between the decking boards are now ¼” gaps. Finally, I learned not to be a perfectionist.


Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Yew: Tree of Death...wood grain to die for

In the USA, we tend to think of yew as a shrub. I have a few in the landscaping around my house. Actually, these are probably a dwarf variety of Japanese Yew. In Europe, especially the United Kingdom, the yew grows as a tree, and has been growing there for thousands of years. The 5000 year old “Ice Man” mummy discovered in the Alps, had a bow and an axe handle made of yew wood. The yew tree is ancient, magical and mystical. It is probably the most interesting tree type on the planet.

The botanical name for the yew tree is taxus baccata. The Latin word taxus is from the Greek “taxon” which means “bow”. For millenniums, yew wood has been used for long bows, and still is today. Most parts of the yew tree are poisonous and thus it is often called the “Tree of Death”. Shakespeare acknowledged yew as a poison in both Macbeth and Hamlet.  In mythology and Celtic tradition, the yew is associated with dark goddesses. It is the tree of winter. Go to any New Age, Celtic folklore or Wicca website and you will find enormous amounts of information on the mystical nature of the yew tree. One very informative one is White Dragon.
Tree of death, but also a tree associated with rebirth since the yew sends up new shoots from its roots.  This may be why, throughout the British Isles, old yew trees are found in grave yards near churches.  The interesting fact is that, in most cases, the old yew tree near an ancient church predates the church itself.  In many cases, the trees are older than the date that Christianity was introduced to the region.  Some have recently been scientifically verified to be over 2,000 years old.  It is believed that the early Christian churches and cemeteries were built on the site of old Celtic holy places and burial grounds where the sacred yew tree already existed.

Box in yew wood by James Baxendale
The wood from the yew tree is known for its beautiful grain patterns.  Even though it is classified as an evergreen, yew wood is very dense and hard.  The tree grows very slowly and has tight growth rings.  Objects made out of yew wood have a naturally hard and smooth finish.  A lot of sanding with fine grit sandpaper is often unnecessary.

Artwork in yew wood by Edric Florence

My own pocket boxes with compass made out of yew wood
There is so much to write about the yew tree that I could fill volumes.  For instance: It is a fact that a new cancer curing drug called Taxol has been derived from the bark and berries of the yew tree (Tree of Death or Tree of Life?).  Or the fact that, even though vast yew forests once covered many parts of ancient Europe, the yew is an endangered species today.  Then there are the pictures by Archie Miles, who is on a quest to photograph all the spectacular and interesting trees of Britain, including many yews. You will enjoy his website.

Photo of yew wood grain by Archie Miles

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A More Manly Cigar Box Transformation

I was getting tired of carving flowers into empty wooden cigar boxes and transforming them into jewelry boxes and tea caddies.  I needed to make something more manly; something a man could appreciate.  I wound up making a box for my son-in-law for Christmas.  A woman puts her “stuff” in a jewelry box.  A man puts his “stuff” into a…valet box, or utility box, or something. I guess it doesn’t have an official name.

The design is a Celtic snake which is an adaptation of a tattoo design.  That’s manly.  I call it the Snake Box…very manly. The cigar box is made in Honduras using sapele wood, which is native to Africa.  Sapele is pretty nice to carve, sort of like mahogany, but it can get splintery in spots.  You also might run into hard knotty areas and irregular grain patterns. Most of the side pieces of these cigar boxes are made of quarter sawn sapele which usually shows a brilliant ray pattern.

After carving and sanding, I used an Ebony stain to darken the recess area.  I then stained the entire box with a Golden Oak stain.  I lightly sanded all the raised areas of the design to give added highlights.

I made the interior trays entirely from wood from other scrap cigar boxes.  The sides are Spanish cedar and the bottoms are thin plywood.  It is not shown here, but I left the cigar manufacturer’s imprinting and brand on wood on the bottom of the trays.  It sort of keeps a connection with the original use as a cigar box. It says “Made in Honduras” and “Hecho a Mano”.  I added small wooden feet, which helps the transformation from an ordinary cigar box to handsome valet box.

I used a maroon felt with an alligator skin pattern, adding to the manly look.  The top tray slides back and forth over the bottom tray to expose or hide the bottom compartments.

If, like me, you are tired of carving flowers, find a Celtic tattoo pattern and carve something manly.