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Author: Alistair Park

Sgian Dubh with wooden handle and sheath

Making my Sgian Dubh (worn with a kilt)

I’m in the process of buying a kilt and wanted to wear a sgian dubh – the traditional knife –  in my hose (sock). Looking at ones online, they were either well out of my price range or looked a bit tacky (covered in thistles and saltires etc.)

Being a woodcarver with a particular interest in knife carving there was no chance that I was going to wear something that impersonal, or carry about a blunt blade for that matter. So I decided to make my own.

 What is a sgian dubh?

The name comes from the Gaelic meaning ‘dark knife’ or ‘black knife’. Although many sgian dubhs (it’s pronounced something like ‘skee-an doo’) will have dark-coloured handles made from ebony or bog oak, the name is thought to reflect the way that the knife was hidden when being worn (‘black’ in the same sense as ‘blackmail’ or ‘black ops’).

There seem to be two main ideas about how the sgian dubh came to be part of Scottish national dress:

The first is that no one with any common sense in the old days in Scotland would completely remove all their weapons when visiting others – things were a bit too wild in the Highlands for that. To show respect and friendship to the hosts when in their house, visitors would put their knife into their hose, so that it was on show for all to see as an expression of good faith (although it could still be accessed in a hurry!). Another knife, called a sgian achlais, would also be worn under the armpit. Wearing the sgian dubh on show symbolises goodwill and friendship combined with an readiness to defend oneself if necessary.

The other influence on wearing sgian dubhs is thought by some to come from hunting. Knives are carried by hunters and ghillies in Scotland, so that deer can be skinned and gutted (‘gralloched’) in the field and brought back. Trying to get a dead red deer off a Scottish moorland in one piece would be a thankless task; far easier to cut it up first. Gralloching also involves removing the deer’s intestines, which means the meat isn’t tainted by gut contents.
The traditional design of a sgian dubh has small dimples along the back of the blade away from the cutting edge. I wonder if they echo the saw-type section on the blade of many hunting knives, which I suppose are used to cut through tough parts of a carcass?

Is it legal to carry a sgian dubh in public?

 
A sgian dubh is part of the Scottish national dress, so it is legal to carry one in public in England, Wales and Scotland when wearing that national costume. There are exceptions, such as particular kinds of knife (a flick knife just ain’t gonna pass for a sgian dubh). Carrying any blade in security-sensitive places and onto aircraft is also not going to end well. The law may vary in other countries, best to check before heading out!

Making my sgian dubh

 
At first, I wanted to try and make the blade for my sgian dubh. However, blade making is a real skill involving knowledge of tempering steels and access to suitable equipment. I didn’t have enough time to learn the craft of knifemaking to the level where I would be sure to be happy with the blade in use. I also fancied having a damascus steel blade (where layers of steel are fused together, to make patterns in the blade). Eventually, I decided to buy the blade from Rab and Tanya at Loch Ness Origins. It is carbon steel so will take a sharp edge, although it will need regular honing as it will dull relatively quickly. I think that it might be a bit brittle for very heavy work, but this knife isn’t intended for that kind of use.
The sheath and handle were made from the piece of laburnum wood that you can see above. The tree grew in the garden of the house in which I was brought up, so it means a lot to me and has a strong family connection. My father would hang one end of a hammock from it for my mother to rest in when she was pregnant with me. The tree was felled long ago and the house has been sold since then.
First, the wood for the sheath was cut and sanded to make usable blocks to work with:
The blade was laid onto the blocks and its outline drawn around, remembering to flip the blade over in between so that the outlines and the blocks were a mirror image. I marked the edges of the blade onto the wood at the top and also measured and marked the position of the point of the blade, to make sure that the two sides matched up neatly:
The wood was then carved out carefully, to give the space inside the sheath. The sides corresponding to the back of the blade are slightly more hollowed out, as this part of the blade is thicker. I thought about putting a shim of copper into the sheath to protect it from damage, but decided this might just dull the blade and it wasn’t really necessary anyway.
The two halves were carefully glued together using Titebond III and clamped. It took a few goes to make sure that the halves hadn’t shifted out of alignment whilst being clamped. Note the bits of paper, to stop any leaked glue from sticking the workpiece to the clamping blocks.
The next day, I shaped the sheath with my trusty old Opinel carving knife, rounding the edges to make it comfortable to wear. The grain of the wood is visually quite striking, so I didn’t want too much elaborate carving clashing with it. A simple Celtic knotwork pattern suited the overall design well.
The handle was cut from the same piece of wood as the sheath, to give a continuous grain pattern running through both. I roughly shaped the end to go next to the sheath, so that I could shape the rest accurately and find the precise spot for the blade to be fitted in. With careful measuring, holes were then drilled to hold the tang of the blade. The hole also has a recess to hold the sloping shoulders of the blade, so that it fits in flush to the handle.
Shaping the handle was done with a knife. Using my Opinel was important to me in the process (as it is the blade that I learnt to carve with) and holding the handle as it was being shaped meant that I could constantly monitor how comfortable it felt in my hand.
Once the blade had been fitted and glued into the handle using slow-drying two-part epoxy (I find it less brittle than superglue or Titebond),  I noticed that it still moved a little in the sheath. Even though the fit was as snug as it could be, the blade could shift about and loosen itself a tiny bit. I decided to fit a tension spring made of silver (as it would be softer than the steel of the blade) into the sheath. At the same time, a piece of antique ebony veneer given to me by a friend many years ago gave a nice contrast to both the silver and the wood.
After gluing in the tension clip, I drilled a tiny hole and fitted and glued a pin made from silver wire, to give extra strength to the join. The clip is just a piece of flat silver, bent into a slight curve with a bit at the end bent to a right angle for fixing the clip onto a recess cut part-way into the veneer. The curved part is fitted over a shallow recess cut into the inside of the sheath. In hindsight, it would have been easier to fit it before gluing the halves of the sheath together, but it wasn’t too tricky to do and the pinned silver does make a nice feature.
I then decided to use a stone to decorate the end of the handle, There were three choices, which you can see in the image above. The piece of jasper at the front was picked up by me from a stream in the Isle of Man. It was attractive but a bit too small. The larger reddish stone was collected from a stream in the Scottish borders. It was the right size and had the Scottish connection, however I wasn’t sure about the colour or the strength of the stone itself.
I decided on using the larger, paler coloured pebble. I picked it up on the beach at Peel, on the Isle of Man, in 1988. It is a kind of stone called microgranite containing a mineral called riebeckite and originally came from a small Scottish island called Ailsa Craig, which is in the Irish Sea.
Image by Andy Hay, from www.rspb.org.uk
This kind of rock is rather special. It is used to make the ‘stones’ used in the sport of curling, with the only other source of material for curling stones being a single quarry in Wales. One company, Kays, has the exclusive rights to collect it from Ailsa Craig but they are forbidden from quarrying by blasting (as the island is a nature reserve), so must pick up stones that are already loose.
ailsa craig riebeckite
I cracked a piece from the stone, then spent a couple of hours trying to find it again after it shot off into a big pile of timber in my workshop! When it had been located again, it was ground down using diamond bits in a Dremel hand drill (not forgetting eye protection, dust extraction and a face mask) and then polished with jeweller’s rouge. The groove around the stone will hopefully make it easier to set onto the handle, while the cross-hatching will give a key for the epoxy adhesive that I’m planning to use.
After shaping the stone, I discovered that the island of Ailsa Craig has other names, one of which is Creag or Carraig Alasdair. It means ‘Alasdair’s Rock’ in Gaelic; very appropriate!
At this point, the parts of the knife looked like this:
The next stage was to make silver ferrules, one to go around the handle next to the blade and another holding the stone in place. Again, I didn’t have the time or the equipment to do a more technical silversmithing job like this, so I contacted local silversmith Amy R Lee. She made two beautiful silver ferrules and also sent them to Edinburgh to be assayed and hallmarked at the assay office there; a nice extra touch.
When the ferrules came back, the knife was assembled and then sharpened. It has taken a very good edge and is razor-sharp now, perfect for whittling with! I also finished the wood with a furniture wax and buffed the blade.  I’m very happy with it and I hope that you’ve enjoyed seeing how it was made.
Front
Reverse side
making my own sgian dubh
cactus fruit eating kit

Cactus fruit eating kit

In early 2000, I spent some time living on the Canary Islands. The area was arid semi-desert and prickly pear cactus (Opuntia sp.) grew abundantly. The fruits were edible and delicious, but the small, hair-like spines that grew in clusters on them were very painful if they pierced the skin, as well as being very hard to see when trying to remove them.

 

cactus fruit

Image from: http://landscapingchennai.com/nutritional-value-of-cactus-fruit/

I therefore carved a pair of cactus fruit eating tools to safely eat these fruit. They came in extremely useful!

 

wooden cactus fruit eating kit

 

The pronged tool would be pushed into the fruit, then twisted to remove it from the plant. The sharp-edged spoon end of the other tool was used to slice open and peel away the skin of the fruit. The scoop- shaped other end of this tool was then used to gouge out any remaining tufts of hair-like spines. The fruit could be held on the pronged tool and eaten using the spoon-like other tool. Juice ran away down a slit in the pronged tool, which was shaped like a cactus flower.

 

cactus fruit eating kit

 

Stone and Meerschaum Carving

Now and again, I like to try carving something other than wood. Although it must be said that working with timber is where I am happiest, a challenge is always good too. The carving above was shown at the ‘Mythic Garden‘ exhibition near Drewsteignton, Devon in the summer of 2004. Apparently the stone originally came from a wall facing which fell off the ‘Queen’s Building’ at Exeter University years before.

 

Stone carving at the Mythic garden on Dartmoor

 

This is another stone carving, of sorts. It was carved on and off between 1997 and 2002 and is a pipe bowl made of meerschaum that represents the green man, with fruit, birds and a snail hidden in the foliage. These photos were taken before the finishing wax had been applied. The bowl has not had a stem made for it yet.

 

green man meerschaum pipe bowl

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handcarved meerschaum pipe bowl one of a kind

 

Pendants carved by hand

I have been carving pendants since I first began whittling and woodcarving. For many years they gave me a chance to create work that required little in the way of tools (just my Opinel knife and some sandpaper) and could utilise little fragments and splinters of wood which were easy to carry in a backpack.

 

wooden pendants carved using a knife

 

These pendants were carved to represent the seasons. the plants are ones which are particularly associated with each season in Britain. From the left, primroses come out in spring, bluebells in summer, blackberries in autumn and ivy stays green all through the winter.

 

carved oak sculpture, with inlaid stone

 

This piece ws carved from a fragment of holm oak collected at a youth hostel in Oieras, Portugal (where this type of wood is known as azinho). The wood had been previously charred in a fire, which darkened and hardened it. The inset stone is a piece of calcite collected in a valley named San Pedro in Almeria, Spain where I was staying at the time. It was smoothed by rubbing against an old whetstone. The beautiful desert valley has a group of hippies and travellers living in it. This carving is so-called because it was carved on the beach at San Pedro on the first day of the new millennium.

 

wooden pendants carved using a knife

 

Like all of these pendants, these ones were both carved using my four-inch bladed Opinel lock knife.

 

Lilies pendant carved using a knife

Dragon castle whittling

Dragon and Castle

This detailed small sculpture shows a dragon lying around a small hill with a castle built onto it. There are towers, steps and even a waterfall. It was carved from strongly scented Camphor Laurel wood, which was used in China to make map cases and storage for clothes as it repels moths.

In Australia, the introduced tree is now quite invasive. This piece of timber was found in a firewood pile at a youth hostel in Byron Bay, New South Wales. I was working as a woodchopper for a place to stay – perhaps my ideal job at the time!

 

Wooden dragon sculpture

 

I started carving it while in Australia and continued working on and off on the sculpture for quite a while after returning to the UK.

 

camphor laurel wood carving

carved wooden bowl

Carved Wooden Bowls with Inscriptions

These bowls, like a lot of my earlier work, were made from found wood. The textured and smooth surfaces are wonderful to touch and the bowls themselves become robust containers for the stories which they acquire; from initially finding the wood to the places which the pieces travel to after being finished.

 

fern worthy forest bowl inscription

 

This charred, textured and scraped bowl was made from beech wood, which had come from a tree that grew high up on the wild and rugged plateau of Dartmoor.

 

carved wooden bowls

 

When I picked up the timber, left over from tree felling operations, this is what I could see:

 

Fernworthy forest dartmoor

 

The second carved bowl has charcoal on the rim which has been solidified using resins. The piece of wood came from a large arts complex and squat in Berlin called ‘Kunsthaus Tacheles‘.

 

Kunsthaus Tacheles Berlin 2004

 

I found it, already charred, in a long-dead fire on the snowy ground outside the building. I have heard that since then, the squat has been forcibly closed down. If you don’t read German, the inscription says:

‘Tacheles is an old Jewish word which means to make things clear, that is to get to the point’

 

Tacheles carved wooden bowl

 

When beginning to make these sculptures in 2004, I was studying the work of the artist Richard Long, who can condense the tale of a walk of a thousand miles into a picture of a spiral which traces the path. Short pieces of text are carved onto each bowl, telling a little about where the wood came from, so hopefully beginning the process of holding tales which these bowls were made for.

 

carved wooden bowl

 

The following cherry wood bowl was made for the fifth wedding anniversary of two friends in 2009. The blackened outside was made, like the bowl above, by scorching the bowl with a blowtorch.

 

carved cherry wood bowl
In Britain, wooden gifts are traditionally given to celebrate the fifth anniversary. The quotation carved onto the bowl is from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

‘What is now proved was once only imagined’

 

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ceramic stamps

Carved Stamps for Pottery

These boxwood stamps were made for a very experienced professional ceramicist named Steve Carter of St Werburghs Pottery. He has been extremely impressed with them. They are very durable, not too absorbent and do not stick to the clay. Steve says that he prefers them to any other clay stamp that he has used.

 

ceramic stamps

 

Some stamps were made for an open day at the Botany Arts Studios in Bristol. Cups were produced by Steve to serve mulled wine in. The text on the stamp is based on the Botany’s window sign.

 

botany arts studios stamp

 

These two stamps were made in February 2010. The one on the right is for garlic storage pots, the one on the left for general use. The goose motif comes from a legend about St. Werburgh, a Saxon woman after whom both the area of Bristol and therefore Steve’s pottery (which is situated there) are named. She is supposed to have resurrected a favourite goose (called Grayking) which her steward had eaten.

 

ceramic stamps for st werburghs pottery

ceramic stamp

carved Opinel knife handle

Carved Knife Handles

This knife handle was carved for a commission in 2011. The buyer gave me his own designs and I carved them onto the beechwood handle of a number 10 Opinel lock knife. The handle is 10.5 cm (41/4″) long. As this was the type of knife with which I learnt to carve, it ws very exciting for me and the whole carving was done using my own Opinel, which is also shown here.

 

Carved Opinel knife handle

 

The knife at the top is the carved commission. It’s easy to see on this image how much metal had been sharpened off the blade of my knife over the previous 21 years- both blades would have once been the same size.

 

carving an Opinel knife handle

 

The blade of the knife to be carved was extended and wrapped in thick card, to give more to hold on to when working. Work in progress can be seen below.

 

carving with an Opinel knife

 

…and here are two images of the completed handle, finished with a very light sanding and then linseed oil…

 

Beautiful carved Opinel handle

Un couteau Opinel sculpté

 

Here’s another, which was carved for a commission a couple of months later. The knife is an oak-handled EKA. The client drew a (very good) representation of his idea for me to carve, which includes his son’s initials, the sun and the moon.

 

carved oak knife handle

 

carved EKA knife handle

 

The next knife handle was carved in New South Wales, Australia way back in 1997. It was made for a very talented Spanish leatherworker named Guille. In exchange for me carving a walnut-handled knife that belonged to him, he made a pouch for my carving knife (shown below). He loved Celtic designs and so the knife has a celtic-style dog’s head on the pommel, with eyes made from inlaid reindeer antler beads.

 

Celtic knife pouch

 

I still have the beautiful pouch that he made for me to this day but after leaving Byron Bay I never met Guille again.

Here are two images of his knife:

 

carved celtic knife handle

dogheadknife2

 

If you are interested in these then you might also like a more recent commission to carve a pagan ceremonial knife handle from oak, which is discussed in a separate post.

 

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Friday Tembo sculpture repair

Repairing an ‘Ebony’ Sculpture by Friday Tembo

In January 2009, I was offered a commission to repair a sculpture by the late Zambian sculptor, Friday Tembo. The piece was carved from African Ironwood timber that had been darkened to look like ebony. Unfortunately, it had been accidentally knocked from a mantelpiece and had broken into several fragments.

Friday Tembo was one of Zambia’s top sculptors, who exhibited internationally. He was a personal friend of the owners and had given them the carving himself. It therefore had great sentimental value, particularly as he had since passed away.

It was a real privilege to be given the opportunity of repairing and restoring this strange, beautiful and interesting work. It represents a shaman in the process of transforming between the shape of a man and that of a fish.

 

repairing an ebony sculpture by Friday Tembo

 

This is how the sculpture was given to me. The small bag holds fragments which had been knocked from the fins.

 

Repairing Friday Tembo sculpture

 

Below are shown these same breaks after being repaired, retextured and then finished using the original methods that Friday Tembo would have used.

 

Ebony sculpture repair Bristol

 

The break shown below had to be reinforced with an internal metal rod to strengthen it.

 

ebony sculpture repair

 

The repaired sculpture, waiting in a friend’s workshop for collection by the client. The tools give an idea of the size of the piece.

 

Ebony sculpture by Friday Tembo