As I’m writing, I’m sitting in my small cabin next to a crackling wood stove with a mug of steaming tea and almost all that can be seen from my windows right now is heaps of snow that have been shoveled from my drive or fallen from my roof. I enjoy these quiet mornings, where looking around my home I see countless useful items that I have made or that have been made by friends – of course the expected broom hanging on the wall, the stack of wooden bowls and plates, the jars filled with wooden eating spoons and cooking utensils. But so much more as well – hand forged ladles and knives, cutting boards, ceramic mugs, bowls and bakeware, quilts, hats and mittens, mukluks, the list could go on and on. It is important to me to have traditional craft and handmade items as such a ubiquitous part of my everyday life. For me these items are not simply curiosities, quaint reminders of the past set around as conversation pieces. No, for me these are the things that I rely on to keep my everyday life moving smoothly, the things that are crafted locally and sustainably, the things that will outlast and outperform anything that is available at most stores, and the things that for the most part, once their useful lives have come to a close, can be tossed out my door to resume their position in the cycle of life.
Time in the studio has been ample on these chilly and windy winter days, and though I am grateful for the time to create, it is also so important to get away from that space and to renew inspiration. So in early January, I set out on a six-day winter camping trip into the Boundary Waters with two fellow North House instructors, two boatbuilders and very experienced backcountry travelers, and two naturalists. Among our gear was a large proportion of hand-made items that we would literally be depending upon to keep us alive and well. As with the things around my home, these are items that I or my friends have crafted with the intention to use, and experiences such as this put them to the test.
As we were packing up our handmade toboggans, I made a mental list of all of the handmade items that were heading out into the wilderness with us. This list included a 12 foot diameter snow walker tent, numerous pairs of snowshoes, toboggan bags and other totes and duffels, knit hats and mittens, beaver fur hats and mittens, a wanigan holding our cookware and food, much of which was hand-harvested such as venison sausage, wild rice, blueberries, maple sugar and jerky, wooden bowls and spoons, whisk brooms for brushing snow off of people and out of tents, mukluks and choppers sewn from brain-tanned hides, felted boot liners, beeswax candles, ice spuds, knives, knife sheaths, and I’m sure so much more that escaped my attention.
Once at camp, half of the group snowshoed away each morning to drop lines through holes in the ice, while the rest of us cut and chopped fire wood, watched and listened for the few bird species out and about, followed martin and snowshoe hare tracks, and hiked around, learning the surrounding lakes, forests and ridges. While out exploring one day, I started thinking about what I was wearing to keep me warm and was able to count up seven different species that were contributing to my survival! Beaver (in the form of a hat); sheep, dog and alpaca (in the form of knit mittens and neck gaiter and much more wool in pants, shirts and sweaters); silkworm (in the form of glove liners); moose (in my mukluks); and whatever ungulate (maybe a cow?) contributed to the rawhide lacing of my snowshoes.
Our gear held up through snow, cold, high winds, and slush, and I already have a list going of all the other things that I want to make before the next winter camping trip. Experiences such as this, which get me out of the studio, do so much to keep me going both physically and emotionally. They solidify my faith in this handmade lifestyle that I have chosen to pursue and serve as inspiration for carving on my next bowl or broom handle. I’ve already started a few projects that were inspired by conversations, sights or feelings experienced during this quiet winter journey into the Boundary Waters, and perhaps I’ll write about them in a future post.
She sweeps with many-colored brooms,
And leaves the shreds behind;
Oh, housewife in the evening west,
Come back, and dust the pond!
You dropped a purple raveling in,
You dropped an amber thread;
And now you’ve littered all the East
With duds of emerald!
And still she plies her spotted brooms,
And still the aprons fly,
Till brooms fade softly into stars -
And then I come away.
I was introduced to this poem through the music of Josephine Foster, who has an album completely devoted to the poems of Emily Dickinson. Since one of my more well-known craft focus areas has been broom-making, this poem understandably grabbed my attention. The words of this poem, in which Emily Dickinson uses a sweeping housewife to describe the sunset, have been swirling around in my mind for the past few years as I’ve pondered how to incorporate this into broom-making.
My mentor in the Artisan Development Program (in which I am currently participating at North House Folk School), Dennis Chilcote, who is also a broom-maker and has added some beautiful carving to broom handles, challenged me a few months ago to broaden my vision of artistic brooms by making brooms worth more than one hundred dollars. A few ideas have come to mind since then, but the one that has excited me the most has been the opportunity to incorporate “She Sweeps with Many Colored Brooms” into a series of twelve brooms.
Tackling one line at a time, I’m working to create a visual representation, either figuratively or literally, onto each handle. I am then carving the line of the poem into the handle using free form chip carving methods, which I’ve also been using on my recent shrink box projects.
The first handle that I completed is “Till brooms fade softly into stars –“. This handle I first painted with a deep blue oil paint to represent the evening color after the sun has set and the red and orange have faded from the sky, but before it is fully black. I then carved the words through the paint and finally created my stars. For this, I used a method that Jane Mickelborough showed me at the Milan Spoon Gathering, and which I used in a couple spoons that I carved in her class. Using brass and copper tacks, I cut short lengths, sanded them down, and tapped them into pre-drilled holes in the handle. I then used a combination of chip carving and a stab knife to add lines to represent sparkle around each star. I finished the handle by painting light gold into the carved letters and chip carving around the stars.
My plan with this handle is to tie a broom onto the end that incorporates dark blue broomcorn fibers along with yellow or gold crosses over the blue string used to tie the broom flat. So far, I’ve completed three of the simpler lines of the poem and have lots of fun and more intricate ideas for most of the other lines. I love that this project is allowing me to experiment with a variety of carving and embellishing methods, as well as new paint types and techniques. I’m not sure exactly where the final products will end up or how this project will factor into my identity as a broom-maker, but I appreciate that the Artisan Development Program is allowing me the time to follow my whims and work on projects like this.
Surface design, be it carving or painting or inlay, is fascinating to me. Just a simple embellishment can bring an everyday item from being strictly utilitarian to the status of usable art that can be enjoyed both while in use and while being stored on the shelf or hanging on the wall. I’ve lately been delving more into the world of surface design, focusing over the past month on freeform chip carving and various painting techniques. Chip carving is generally defined as a method of carving in which one makes angled cuts into the surface of the wood which results in clean chips being cut away. The chips are removed in such a way that a form or pattern takes shape, often quite geometrical in nature. This picture of an old wooden dustpan that was lent to me (and which I hope to replicate sometime soon!), shows two typical chip carving patterns that are often repeated in traditional Scandinavian chip carving.
Though there are examples of a huge variety of chip carving methods and techniques from around the world, this one was common in Scandinavia during the 1700s and 1800s as a method to decorate chairs, tables, clocks, spoons, and many other household items. A quick online search will give you an idea of how intricate some of these designs can get and will likely lead you down a rabbit hole! One of the things that I love about this method of embellishing work is that it generally only takes one or two small knives to achieve a huge variety of shapes and patterns, so it is extremely attainable for those with limited budgets.
Although I’m intrigued by geometrical styles of chip carving, I’ve been mostly exploring what is referred to as freeform chip carving, which generally takes the form of long flowing lines combined with smaller shapes to create designs that mimic the natural world such as plants, animals or really anything you could imagine. I’m still on the shrink box journey that I wrote about in my last blog, and these little containers are the perfect project with which to explore chip carving. Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been making a bunch of spice jar sized shrink boxes and I am now using chip carving to add the name of the spice and an image to each jar. Below is a series of photos showing the methods I use for carving into these little containers. After penciling the design, I use the chip carving knife to slice out long smooth cuts, doing my best to meet the bottom of each initial cut with a paired cut that leaves a clean line in the wood. Tight corners are still challenging, but it’s fun to push the limits.
After finishing the carving, I get to explore paint and color. I’ve been working with milk paint, acrylics, and oil paint to learn about the various finishes and methods required to achieve the look I’m trying to obtain. I’ve been having a lot of fun mixing colors and using teeny tiny little brushes to fill in the letters and images. I’ve been called crazy by numerous people so far, but I just love painting the little details while sitting in the studio listening to music or an audio book.
In addition to my ongoing spice jar adventure, I’ve been continuing to play around with different forms of shrink boxes. I want to make square or rectangular ones for storing loose tea, so I made a small square shrink box as a test run on how to hollow it out and how to cut the groove for the base into the very corners of the box. With my trial run finished, I had a little box that was in dire need of some chip carving decoration. I wanted to try out the method of painting the box first, then carving through the paint so the bare wood creates the pattern. I painted the box in a deep purple-ish blue then carved the image of trees through it using the combination of long smooth curves and smaller pointed ovals. Though there were no tiny details for me to paint with my little brushes, I really like the results and plan to continue exploring this method as well as many more.
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.