Problems, problems…

Anyone working in wood will be able to tell you about this…

I mentioned a while back that I had carved a couple of little animals for Ella and Toby, children who live next door.   Toby’s little brother has asked me to carve him a bear – a bear on its hind-legs, roaring, to be precise.   To be honest, I’ve been putting this off.   Partly, it’s because I have a couple of jobs to complete for colleagues in the Education and Events Teams at English Heritage.   Partly (mostly, let’s be honest), it’s because a bear is really hard.   Really hard for me, given that my woodworking is mostly limited to spoons, bowls and other hollow forms, and spindle turning on the pole lathe.

Nevertheless, I thought it was about time I got on with the bear.

My original thought was to base the piece on heraldic bears.   A simplified version of the Warwick bear and ragged staff perhaps, and I did some sketches.   But my carving’s not up to that, so I turned to the bears that I saw at the British Museum’s Ice Age Art exhibition.   The bear is a common motif in both Palaeolithic portable and mural art.   There is an almost complete bear in the ceramic assemblage at Dolni Vestonice, for example, as well as another 20-odd incomplete figures; bear heads from Kostienki 1; and two fabulous bears painted onto the cave wall at Ekain.   I love these two bears for their simplicity – the artist has perfectly captured the form with a few well-drawn lines.

Bear rough-out in apple

Bear rough-out in apple

I cut myself a piece of apple roundwood.   The branch had come from a friend earlier this year, shortly after it had been cut from the tree, and had been standing upright in my store for a few months.   I had started to rough-out the shape of an ambling bear, head down, snuffling at the ground.

The weather has been jolly hot and dry.   The piece of unseasoned apple, freed from its parent branch and divested of its bark, started to dry out very quickly (and unevenly).   The more wood I cut away, the greater the surface area (in relation to volume of wood) became; and the faster it dried.   The inevitable has happened.

Bear rough-out in apple wood

Bear rough-out in apple

A number of radial cracks have developed in the piece.   It took no more than a day for one of these to run the whole length of the bear.    The greatest shrinkage in roundwood like this will always be in its tangential plane, and most quickly from its outside surfaces.   It’s no surprise that this piece has pulled itself apart in this way.   Time to start again…

Bahn, P.G. and Vertut, J. (1988)  Images of the Ice Age   Leicester: Winward PressCook, Cook, J. (2013)  Ice Age Art   London: The British Museum Press

Wooden animals

There is a long tradition of whittling or carving little wooden animals in many countries and a wonderful range of techniques is used in their manufacture.  As well as commercial production of toys such as Noah’s Arks and farmyard animals, individuals seem always have whittled little creatures for their own enjoyment and for presents.

The most amazing technique to carve animal shapes that I have come across is in the Erzgebirge region of north-eastern Germany.    Wooden rings are turned on a lathe, cutting the profile of an animal.   Once off the lathe, the ring is sliced up revealing the animal in the section.

My father carved me a small pike many years ago, which I still have on a shelf in my sitting room.   And I have a vivid memory of watching a bodger carve an owl at one of our local agricultural shows (I was perhaps eight or nine years old).   He had a short length of a fairly close-grained roundwood, about two inches in diameter and four inches long.   The owl appeared out of the wood, as though perched on a fence post.  It was all done with a knife until it came to finishing the furled wings on the owl’s back, when the bodger used a little gouge to pick out the effect of the feathers.

This past-time could even be said to go back to the Upper Palaeolithic carvings of animal forms in mammoth ivory, so beautifully displayed at the British Museum’s recent Ice Age Art exhibition.   Were these little figures models, toys, totems, signifiers of group or personal identity, art?

I was asked by one of my neighbour’s daughters to carve her a duck.   I’ve no idea why she chose a duck, but Ellie was adamant that I should make her a duck.   Being my first foray into figurative carving I was a bit nervous.   This is what came out of the little bit of ash that I used:

A duck, carved in green ash.

A duck, carved in green ash.

On seeing the duck, the older son of another neighbour asked for a whale.   Toby likes dolphins and whales.   Using the same tools – a straight knife and a spoon knife – on another ash scrap, here is the whale:

A whale, in green ash

A whale, in green ash

The photo doesn’t really show you the shape of the tail, but I’m glad I kept the bark on to suggest the whale’s scarred, barnacle-covered skin.    These are simple, plain shapes and it is interesting to see what the human eye can do to fill in the gaps and identify a form that is suggested by a few lines and planes.

Toby’s little brother would like a bear…

Learning about willow

There are some really interesting wooden artefacts from the Flag Fen excavations, preserved in the fenny waterlogged deposits.   One of these is a scoop, find reference A8458, carved from a piece of willow.   It was found in one of the lowest levels of the main excavated area of wooden timbers that make up the post alignment and platform of this major prehistoric site.   Associated with Phase 1 structures, it probably dates from around the thirteenth-century BC and is now in the British Museum.

Maisie Taylor analysed the wood from the excavations.    When describing the scoop she wrote, “The bowl of the scoop was shaped across the grain and so well finished that no clues survive as to the method of fabrication” (Pryor 2001:226).

Willow is a fibrous wood with a very open texture.   There are many British varieties and it hybridizes very easily.   The wood can be cut cleanly, but there is a risk that the fibres will tear out; apart from cricket bats, the most common use of willow is its withies for basketry.

With half an eye on the Flag Fen scoop, I’ve been trying out some unseasoned willow that came from a fallen tree in the River Kennet at Lockeridge.   The tree fell across the river and was affecting its course, so the landowner cut it up and I was given a few pieces.

This bowl was very easy to carve, using my small adze and a wide, shallow swept chisel designed for just this work.   However, the long, coarse fibres caused problems in the bowl bottom and where the bottom and sides meet as the chisel’s cutting edge went parallel to the grain rather than across it.   It will be interesting to compare with the behaviour of seasoned wood.   The bowl base is at the centre of the log and the oval form runs parallel with the log.

willow bowl

Willow bowl, March 2013


Pryor, F. (2001)   The Flag Fen Basin   Swindon: English Heritage