Summer is quickly winding down, the colors of fall are covering the hillsides, and my wood stove is again warming the chill from my cabin’s hand-hewn timbers. With the cooler weather and shortening days, I’m finally finding more time to hole up in my corner of the studio and play with the ideas that have been floating through my mind all summer. To further my skills in embellishment carving, one of my main goals while in the Artisan Development Program, I’ve decided to spend some time in the world of shrink boxes. Though many people in the traditional craft world are familiar with these amazing little containers, many are not, so in a nutshell, these canisters are created by hollowing out a recently cut log, cutting a groove on the inside of one end, and popping a base made from a dry piece of wood into that groove. As the hollowed log dries, it shrinks around the dry base and creates a tight seal. Carve a tightly fitting lid and you have a perfect container for various food items, storing craft supplies, or whatever else you can imagine. Since my main focus with these containers is embellishing them, I’m trying to find some ways to make the process quicker so I can break out my chip carving knives and gouges for relief carving and explore to my heart’s content.
After felling a small birch tree, I take it back to the shop to cut to length. The project I’m currently excited about is creating a set of spice jars, each with the name and image of the spice carved into it. This sage spice jar is the first I’ve completed and I’m planning to try out different fonts, various carving methods, multiple lid styles, and a variety of paint combinations throughout this project. I like the approximate size of 3 ½” high and 2” in diameter for a standard spice jar but may go bigger for the ones I use a lot and smaller for the ones I don’t need much of. After cutting the log to length, I take it to the drill press and drill a hole through the middle with a forstner bit
This allows me to mount the log on the lathe using expanding jaws that fit within the hole and widen to hold the log in place while I turn the main form of the shrink box. End grain hollowing can be more challenging for me than some other styles of turning, but the initial hole made by the forstner bit creates an easy start to further hollowing with a hook tool. Once the inside is widened to about 1 ½” I use a skew chisel to create the groove that the base will fit into. By hand this process can take some time, but on the lathe it can be completed in seconds. After the inside is complete, I take the outside down to my desired 2” diameter with a spindle roughing gouge, not being too concerned about the finish it leaves because I will later carve the shrink box for a hand tool finish and more desirable surface for the embellishment carving.
To create the base, I pull out some thin slabs of birch that I rived out and planed down a couple years ago when I first explored the world of shrink boxes. I trace the inside of the box onto the thin piece of birch, cut it out and carve the edges down to fit into the groove that I created. Then I POP! the base into its groovy home and set it aside for a week or so to dry out and shrink around the base.
When I return a couple weeks later, I carve the outside of the box with a sloyd knife and use an incannel gouge to add a nice finish on the inside of the shrink box. This is an amazing gouge that my mentor Dennis Chilcote introduced to me and has graciously loaned to me. As opposed to a more traditional carving gouge which has the bevel on the outside of the curve, this gouge has a bevel on the inside. This allows me to run the length of the gouge straight down the inside sides of my shrink boxes, allowing me to get deeper into them with a more consistent cut than a gouge with the bevel on the outside. Then I am free to explore, using freeform chip carving, similar to what I did in the Bretton Spoon Carving class I took earlier this year with Jane Mickelborough, or relief carving, similar to what I explored with Else Bigton at the February Artisan Retreat, and with Jock Holman while serving as a class assistant in his Timber Carving class.
I’m excited to see where this shrink box journey leads and look forward to the day when the conglomerate of mismatched glass and plastic containers on my spice shelf are replaced with a full set of colorful and artistic wooden containers.
These last couple months have been jam-packed with teaching, assisting, art festivals and demonstrating. It’s the height of summer and though the days are still long, the liveliness of the North Shore is keeping them full and leaving me with little time in the studio. I was able to steal away one afternoon last week, however, to help ensure that one of North House’s spinning wheels will survive many more revolutions around the sun.
The short backstory is that an antique Finnish spinning wheel was donated to North House but was in need of some loving care to get it back in working condition. It is believed to be from the late 19th century and has “P I S” stamped on the end of the bench, which could be the maker. One of North House’s fibers instructors graciously took on the task of cleaning and adjusting the wheel so it would spin smoothly once more. The bobbin that came with the wheel was missing one end, and it would be useful to have a couple of extras, which is where I entered the scene.
I was sent the partial bobbin, the flyer (the piece the bobbin fits onto), and the whorl, along with a request to repair the existing bobbin and make a couple of replicas to go along with the wheel. I was excited to take on this project since it required the skills of repairing, joinery and replicating. I thought it would be a fun challenge.
My first order of business was to turn a new end for the original bobbin and to get that in working order so I then had something to replicate. In looking at the bobbin alongside an experienced spinner (of which I am not), we deduced that what was left of the original paint indicated that the tenon of the bobbin shaft likely protruded past the bobbin end which would help keep the bobbin from rubbing against the flyer. We chatted a bit more about design and then I headed to the studio to turn something I hoped would work. The original bobbin was very light and likely made out of pine, so I grabbed a piece from my firewood pile and mounted it on the lathe. It was pretty straight-forward, turning a disk and fitting it to the original bobbin shaft, and a test run indicated that though the flyer is far from symmetrical, it should work just fine. Now on to creating a couple more.
I had some long pieces of maple around the shop and decided on using those for the shaft of the bobbin and birch for the ends. Since the bobbin is longer than a standard drill bit, I dug out a long ¼” bit that I had from making lamps a while ago, mounted that in the drill chuck on my lathe and bored out the original hole. I would later need to widen the hole to fit the flyer, but with the original hole going all the way through, it was easy enough to drill from each end of the shaft with a larger bit to widen it. I then cut the shaft to length and mounted it on a mandrel to turn it down to the appropriate diameter and create the tenons on each end. The next order of business was to replicate the two bobbin ends. The end that I had already created was easy enough to replicate, but the other end had a notch for the drive band and took a few more measurements and a bit more thought. My calipers were too wide to accurately measure into the notch on the original bobbin, and with all the paint and years of gunky buildup, it was difficult to get an accurate measurement. One interesting side note: when looking at the original bobbin it is obvious that the part that rides along the whorl has been carved away a bit. I’m curious about whether this part was already a repair on the bobbin, especially since it is not painted in the same way as the other parts that I was sent. These quirks definitely made it a bit more difficult for me to be sure I was making an exact replica! After test fitting all the parts and mounting them on the flyer to ensure they would spin smoothly, I painted and glued up the whole assembly. I was specifically asked not to match the paint so it would be obvious which bobbins were the replicas and which was the original. I did want to maintain a somewhat similar aesthetic with the new bobbins, however, so I painted and distressed a couple layers of milk paint on the bobbin ends while leaving the maple shaft exposed. I’m looking forward to hearing how everything works and hope that I’ll have a chance to see the wheel in action around North House!
There are a lot of fun elements of the Artisan Development Program, but one of the elements I most appreciate, and will probably look back on as most memorable, is the opportunity to travel and to work with interesting and skilled people with whom I might otherwise never have the opportunity to work.
When I heard that Jane Mickelborough would be teaching lead-in coursework at the Milan Village Arts School Spoon Gathering (learn more about the gathering and school here), I jumped right on board and signed up for the class. I’ve been following Jane’s adventures in the spoon world for a number of years now (check out some of her work here), and still remember the first time I saw a video of her – grey haired, strong, upright woman taking an ax to a spoon blank with confidence, power and passion. I was hooked. She emanated so many things that I admire, and I’ve continued to be impressed by what I’ve seen online, so I traveled to the spoon gathering with excitement and a little trepidation – What if she didn’t live up to my expectations? What if I wasn’t a “good enough” carver for her class that was advertised as only for “experienced carvers”? What even was this wax inlay that we would be working with – something weird and synthetic? Thankfully, I was not disappointed!
We skipped right over introductions and delved into the world of Breton spoons, looking at photographs Jane had taken at museums, tracing and drawing out the profiles of the spoons we hoped to carve while keeping with the Breton tradition, and rummaging through a box filled with blocks of frozen hard maple that would soon become our spoons.
Hard woods are necessary to keep the wax inlay from bleeding into the wood, and in France these spoons would have been carved from box wood (not to be confused with box elder). We moved quickly on to ax work and carving, needing to almost finish our spoon by the end of day one so we could get going on the traditional decorative elements that really makes these spoons exciting. I was in the rhythm and feeling good about my progress, so I decided to work on two spoons side by side, each carved using a different grain direction. One of my goals in this program is to continue learning about wood movement, grain direction and how these things impact a final product, so this was the perfect opportunity to not only experience how different knife cuts impacted the two spoons, but I would also be able to learn about chip carving on the two types of surfaces, the effect of the wax inlay, and how the spoons will wear over time with the strengths and shortcomings of each grain orientation.
On day two, Jane reviewed the fundamentals of chip carving, talked about traditional geometric designs versus more organic flowing designs and shared what she’s explored in the world of wax inlay. Many of the spoons in museums were made hundreds of years ago, and Jane has not been able to find any recipes or information on the process of making these spoons, so many of her accomplishments have come from experimentation. For the class we used sticks of traditional sealing wax, the type used for sealing letters and bottle tops, not ceiling wax (which probably doesn’t even exist). Some students experienced initial confusion about these two very different words that sound just alike! Though now days many sealing waxes are paraffin based, they were historically made from rosin, shellac, beeswax and natural pigment. There are still a limited number of companies that manufacture the traditional waxes in many colors, and Jane also shared her personal recipe with us so we could make our own at home. We spent days two and three carving practice designs, carving our spoon handles, melting the wax into our carving, and scraping away the excess to reveal the final designs. Jane even took the time to show me a new method she was playing with – pounding brass tacks into the spoon handles, which was inspired by some designs she found on traditional Breton furniture. I played around with adding the tacks to my carvings, working with ¼” long sections of tacks using needle nose pliers and a tiny hammer, worrying all along that I was going to crack apart my spoons, into which I had already put almost 20 hours of work!
I think what I enjoy most about my focus on woodturning and carving in the Artisan Development Program is exploring the ways that I can incorporate these skills into a wide variety of craft areas. I came into the program excited about advancing my fundamental skills in these areas, knowing that though I love woodturning for the sake of woodturning, and carving for the sake of carving, I get so much joy out of the idea of fitting a birchbark canister with a lid with a carved design in it, or decorating a broom handle with a carved poem, or turning a lid for a black ash basket, or adding carved embellishments to a pair of handmade snowshoes, or turning and carving buttons for a hand-sewn Scandinavian work shirt. What I did not foresee was the idea of incorporating materials traditionally used in other craft areas into turning and carving.
During one of my first weeks in the program, I was hanging out in the studio in the evening, chatting with another artisan about birch bark and wanting to find ways to incorporate more of it into my work. I had recently been researching puukko knives (you can check out some examples of these knives here) and was aware of the oft-used stacked birch bark handles in those knives, and through this conversation I was inspired to attempt turning birch bark. I wasn’t quite sure where to begin with this budding idea, but as I continued unpacking and setting up my studio, I found some old pen-making materials that I had not used in quite some time. Thus began a small adventure down a little side path in my world of woodturning.
I started by pulling a stash of bark from my dark cabin loft and finding the thickest pieces that didn’t delaminate easily. I then cut them into two-inch strips, and then into squares, resulting in piles of small birch bark pieces.
I used epoxy and small presses that consisted of plywood and bolts to laminate a number of squares together to make a stack of bark that I was hoping would have enough integrity to mount on the lathe and turn. I also thought of adding some leather, antler and wood pieces sandwiched amongst the birch bark to lend an aesthetic similar to that of some of the puukko knives I have seen. I had never turned antler, birch bark, epoxy, or leather, but could not think of a reason why any of them might not turn smoothly with sharp tools. After weeks of cutting, layering, clamping, drying, re-cutting, and drilling, I was finally ready to mount the first blank on the lathe. All of the materials involved ended up turning fairly easily. I only needed to make small adjustments to compensate for turning the very soft birch bark right next to brittle antler and stringy leather.
I’ve now made a number of these, each with a slightly varied pattern of materials and using various hardwoods to achieve an aesthetic that I like.
Just a fun little way to bridge the gap among varied crafts and to write on in sloyd style.
This past weekend a group of folk artisans working in varied media (mainly wood, clay and metal) descended upon the farm of Phil Oddin and Else Bigton, renowned carvers and instructors at North House Folk School. Their farm serves as their home, shop and dressage training center, as well as our weekend getaway. Check out some of their work here.
They have hosted such gatherings in the past with their peers but decided that as they are slowly winding down their livelihood of carving it would be inspirational and informative to include the younger generation of people who are making a go at it. Various people came and went, visiting just for the day or staying for three or four. Together we worked on carving and building projects in Else’s shop, shared meals, and drank coffee and beer (in the morning and evening respectively), and delighted in the amazing collection of carving, pottery, tapestries, wood block prints, furniture, and books that Phil and Else have amassed over the years. We played Musical Kubbestols (traditional Scandinavian chairs made from a log) to find the one that hugged our body just right, and watched the sun set over the freshly fallen snow from the warmth of the kitchen. Conversations revolved around the sustainability of making a living in craft, regional traditions, the nuances of travel in Scandinavia, mentorship and apprenticeship in a modern context, and the demeanor of trolls.
On a more personal level, Phil helped me understand more fully some of the carving history in Garmo, Norway, the small town from which I received my family name and which is only 50 km from where he and Else went to school for woodcarving and furniture-building in Dovre. Else inspired me by drawing out Acanthus motifs that would fit well on my handled wooden bowls and taught me some introductory surface carving methods to help me on my way.
I’ve been gaining a lot of insight and inspiration from the Norwegian online digital museum archives, such as the scalloped carving around these bowls:
inspired by this image in the digital archives:
Even more similar to what I explored with Else is the design on the handle of this spouted bowl that I turned and carved
which was inspired by this bowl in the museum archives:
I drove away from the farm with my hands itching to carve on the bowls I am turning and to experiment with some ale bowl designs inspired by the Tokheim stoneware around their home, and with my mind brimming with questions about life, craft and how it fits into my personal experience.
I’ve recently been spending a lot of time with professional craftspeople and teachers, and as the weather cools and the winter solstice hovers just around the corner, there is much discussion of our winter hibernation.
Now when most people think of hibernation, they think of the winter slumber of bears, or the below-zero body temperatures of the arctic ground squirrel. But when craftspeople speak of hibernation, we’re thinking of that cold, dark time of year, when most people are hunkering down, but when we are active and excited – hard at work next to the vibrant heat coming from the wood stoves in our shops. We’re thinking of the conversations with other craftspeople, the freedom and time to create new things or try out different methods, the excitement and joy of catching up from the last year and hopefully getting ahead for the next.
The life of a craftsperson, especially one just getting started, is a busy and often overwhelming one. We’re still striving to perfect our craft, but are also engaged in so many other interesting endeavors, some of us may be working another job to make ends meet, we’re trying to figure out the markets for what we make, what stores are a good fit for our products and which art/craft festivals are supportive of our work. Sourcing materials may still be a struggle as we try out different suppliers or harvest methods, and packaging and shipping orders may yet be inefficient until we have the appropriate setup. Spring, summer, fall, and early winter are filled with teaching at Folk Schools, selling at festivals, working seasonal jobs, accepting custom orders, and stocking up for the winter holiday rush.
And so after the holidays have passed, when the world is dark and cold, we feel a weight lifted, free to create, pursue our passions and refresh our minds and spirits for the coming year.
For those of you who have visited the Traditional Necessities website or Etsy page before, you may have noticed the recent disappearance of Kerry’s name. Don’t worry – there has been no major life crises or rifts! After a lot of careful consideration, Kerry has decided to follow a slightly different direction when it comes to how to pursue his livelihood. I won’t go into details on that front, but do want to convey my deep gratitude that he was there as a friend and business partner when the dream of Traditional Necessities was first being schemed and realized. It was so much less intimidating to show up to our first few art festivals as a team – having each other’s back, bouncing ideas off each other about website design, business cards, and the overall landscape we wanted the business to paint – what our morals, expectations, examples and goals would be.
I am thankful that Kerry will continue to be influential in my continuing development as a craftsperson and will thus continue to inspire the crafts that results. As time moves forward and I continue to pour my blood, sweat and tears into Traditional Necessities, I hope those that visit my shop will continue to be inspired by the work that I do, and that I will in turn continue to be inspired by others.
I mentioned in an earlier blog that we were planning on tapping birch trees after the maples had finished running for the season. After a month and a half of hauling sap buckets and keeping an outdoor fire going day after day from sunrise to hours after sunset for producing our maple syrup, it was a daunting task to keep it up for what we were referring to as “birch bush”. I’m not sure how it happened, but sometime during our conversations about whether we wanted the birch syrup enough, we decided it would be more fun to try making a birch beer (the alcoholic type, not a soda) instead of more syrup. I think that our motivation behind this was mostly to avoid having to boil our sap all the way down to syrup, which for our birches would have meant boiling about 100 gallons of sap to produce 1 gallon of syrup! I’ve been an avid fermenter and brewer for about nine years now, so this did not seem to be any extraordinary idea – a little research and we thought this could be a fun experiment!
I did a little online searching on making “beer” from sap (I must disclose now that this is not true beer as it does not include any grain, however the alcohol content ended up around 4% and I did add hops, so I feel that it is more appropriate to describe this beverage as a “beer” rather than a “wine” or “champaign”) and found this wonderful article on the NPR website:
Granted this article was on brewing with maple sap and didn’t go into great depth about hop and yeast varieties or sugar percentages, but it provided an interesting historical context for what we were trying to do and gave me that last needed confidence booster that this could actually work.
So we got down to it, harvesting about 80 gallons of sap and boiling it down to about 4 gallons, which ended up around 10% sugar content. We then filtered it, added a variety of hops that I thought would go well with the birch flavor and boiled it for about an hour more before adding champaign yeast and leaving it in the fermenter for a few weeks.
The birch beer never fermented quite as vigorously as your average beer, taking it slowly and releasing a bubble of air periodically over the next few weeks. As I had no idea how quickly the fermentation would take place, I was sure to use a “satellite fermenter” and hydrometer to test when the sugar content had bottomed out, indicating that all off the usable sugars had been turned into alcohol.
After bottling with a little additional sugar to carbonate the beer, we again had to wait while the yeast continued its job of making what we hoped would be an enjoyable summer beverage.
After about two months of work, we are very pleased with the result! The beer has a very birch-y flavor (which has been described as tasting of savory minerals) but everyone who has tasted it has also commented on its surprising sweetness. It is unexpectedly dark, probably comparable to a brown ale, and thus far quite lightly carbonated.
This is definitely an experiment I will be repeating, again with birch sap and I would love to try maple sap as well next year! We will continue to get feedback and think about how to improve it for next year… and who knows, maybe when you visit the North Shore in a few years you’ll find our birch beer on tap at the local brewery!
We just finished harvesting the last of the wild leeks (ramps) that we’ll be drying and using throughout the next year. This spring harvest season has brought about a lot of questions and confusion about how to live a sustainable life without a consistent home. Kerry and I have both moved around quite a bit over the past few years but are trying our best to settle down and make a stable home. Until that happens, however, we need to continue to spend time finding new harvest sites for each of the wild edibles that we depend upon for our sustenance throughout the year.
We were lucky this spring since we saw a lot of last year’s ostrich fern growth at our sugaring site and knew that it would be a great place to return later in the spring to harvest fiddleheads. From previous experience, we also deduced that the site could be a great spot for harvesting wild leeks, but when the time came, they just didn’t seem to be around. We drove the road slowly, peering into the maple forest looking for that vivid green carpet in early spring that indicates an abundance of wild leeks. We talked continually about how it was the perfect environment for them and that they “should be here,” though we both know that there are countless factors in nature that we will never understand about why a plant is one place and not another.
Finally, we decided to park and walk up a hill a bit, just on a hunch. We wandered through dried raspberry canes, and weaved through the maples, scanning every direction for the elusive wild leeks. “Well, I guess we’ll just circle around and back down to the car,” Kerry finally said, a bit of defeat in his voice. Just then I saw a hint of green a few hundred yards uphill of the direction he had started to wander. “Ok, well how about we head just a bit further that way” I said, and pointed to the hint of green way off in the distance. We exchanged a hopeful glance and continued closer, finding a wild leek here, and another there, until we were finally in the midst of a large patch that extended as far as we could see! That hunch sure paid off this time.
Once home, we enjoyed delicious meals of wild leek pasta, eggs with leeks, venison stews with veggies and wild leeks, and made a delicious leek pesto for eating with crackers. The rest of them, we chopped up and spread out on our window screens (which haven’t yet replaced winter’s storm windows), and let them dry before storing in plastic buckets for use throughout the rest of the year.
The height of the summer season is quickly approaching - the days are growing long, there is only one small patch of snow left in a shady spot in our yard, and the spring leeks and fiddle heads are peeking through the leaves. I'm sure it will prove to be a busy one as I spend much of it with the Forest Service - paddling through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, maintaining campsites and portages, and conversing with other human visitors to this vast and beautiful area.
I'm also looking forward to continuing to learn about traditional craft and to sell the useful items that we make. As of now, we're scheduled to be at the following festivals, and hope to add more later in the summer, so be sure to check back often!
And we're also scheduled to teach classes at a few Folk Schools throughout the season.
I hope you'll stop by one of the festivals or sign up for a class!