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Playground musical instruments

Musical Instruments for a Playground

St Werburghs Community Centre in Bristol have been redeveloping a car park as a play area and asked if I could make some ‘sensory structures’ for the area – which gave the chance to make musical instruments!

playground musical instruments

Researching how to make and tune them was a fascinating process. It was made a little trickier as I wanted to use reclaimed timbers to make some of the wooden parts. The larger companies around my workshop sometimes get deliveries of timber on bearers made from offcuts of sapele wood – a tree that grows in tropical Africa. Although many are reused by those companies when stacking timber for storage, it seemed a real shame to waste any of the used bearers by burning or throwing them away, especially as sapele is a great timber to use for xylophone bars. I’m very glad to have found a better use for the wood.

Playground xylophone made from reclaimed timbers

The beautiful locally-grown larch posts holding up the instruments were provided by Tom and the team at Roundwood Design.

The four instruments are:

A set of four tuned metallophone bars, made from discarded ends of scaffold pole. The limited space between the existing planters meant that the instruments could only be  a certain width. I also made the beaters to play the bars, using golf balls on aluminium rods.

met allophone made from reclaimed scaffold pole for playgrounds

A tuned xylophone was probably the most difficult thing to get right; especially as there is a certain amount of wastage when using reclaimed materials due to imperfections and damage in the wood. I’m very happy with how it turned out and would like to explore the idea further, perhaps by carving the bars into interesting shapes.

Xylophone for playground

The next instrument was made using stainless steel threaded bars and washers. The washers slide down the bars, making a sound a bit like a rain stick. It’s strangely fascinating to watch them as they move downwards, glittering in the sun.

Playground instruments play area

The final instrument is something I call ‘rattle poles’. These were turned from the sapele bearers, with a stick to play them that was also turned using reclaimed timber from a bearer.

wooden play instrument

Woodturning to make instruments

The two vertical sticks were the largest turned wooden items that I’ve produced so far. It gave me a chance to get my vintage Myford ML8 lathe fired up, which was great fun.

Woodturning on a Myford ML8 lathe

I think that the finished turned sticks look beautiful, especially against the rustic larch poles.

wooden sticks to play

It’s a lovely thought that these musical instruments will provide fun for children and their parents for many years to come. What do they sound like, you may be asking? There’s a Youtube video which will show you.

carved wooden rabbit

Making the Jackie Collins Inspirational Woman of the Year Award: 2016 – 2018

This award is presented every year by the cancer charity Penny Brohn UK. For the last three years, I have been honoured to be asked to carve each one. All of them are different in design and a lot of effort is put into making each one special to the person receiving it.

In 2018, Jacqueline Gold was presented with the award. She is the boss of the Ann Summers chain of high street shops, which sell lingerie and other products to spice up people’s love lives. Her award references one of the company’s most famous products, which has a rabbit theme…

wooden rabbit bx

The wood used came from the Ashton Court estate in Bristol and the carving also has a small box included in the design, as the Trust wanted the award to be functional in some way.

carved wooden rabbit box

Here’s a photo of Jacqueline Gold receiving her award in May 2018. The image was supplied by Penny Brohn UK and is credited to Andre Regini.

Jacqueline Gold receiving the Jackie Collins woman of the Year award 2018

In 2017, the recipient was the perfume designer Jo Malone. Her new line of fragrances uses the scent of pomelo as its keynote and so I came up with some designs based around the leaves and flowers of pomelos.

Penny Brohn UK Jackie Collins Inspirational Woman of the Year award to Jo Malone

There were a few considerations that influenced the design of the award. Jo is a practical person, so it needed to be a useful object. It also had to be created from a piece of cedar from the grounds of the Trust’s headquarters, which I already had left over after making the award for the previous year.

Penny brohn uk award

The piece was also going to be engraved with an inscription suggested by Jo’s personal assistant: Passion, Resilience and Creativity.

A bowl was the perfect, practical item to make. Pomelo leaves are quite distinctive; they have a second pair of leaf lobes coming out from the stalk (or petiole) and so that was worked into the design. Most of the bowl was carved using power tools, as the cedar seemed easier to work with when using them.

carving a wooden bowl

I was very happy with the finished bowl, as were the people at Penny Brohn UK.

Jo Malone award

Apparently Jo also really liked the bowl and now has it on her desk. Here’s a photo from the ceremony, kindly supplied by Penny Brohn UK and used with permission:

Jo Malone

The first recipient in 2016 was Nina Barough, who founded the walks against cancer which have raised millions to fund research into fighting the disease. Her award reflects Nina’s love of flowers and it was carved from cedar that originally grew in the grounds of the Penny Brohn UK HQ. The piece also had to be carefully designed, to account for changes in the timber as it seasoned.

Penny Brohn UK award

Here is a photo, again with kind permission of Penny Brohn UK, of Nina (on the left) receiving the award:

Nina Barough

I feel very proud that these inspiring people each have one of my sculptures.

 

Carving of oak leaf in wood to say thanks

Gifts: wood engraving and carvings that say ‘Thank you’

Quite a few carvings that I have made were for a particularly lovely reason: to say thanks. Sometimes they were for people who were leaving a job or other role, sometimes they were just for valued friends.

 

scouts sign carved in wood

 

Sometimes, I’m asked to carve inscriptions on unusual objects which are to be given as gifts. Perhaps the most out-of-the-ordinary was this garden fork. Unlike many computer-controlled engraving machines, I can carve directly onto irregular and curved surfaces so there was no problem making it and then painting the image. In fact, it was a fun challenge to undertake!

 

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Carved Inscription on wooden object

 

Some people also want me to make gifts out of timber from trees that have had to be cut down. This plaque was carved out of wood from a much-loved cedar tree, for someone who was retiring from their job. I had to carefully cut up and join pieces of the timber in a very particular way, to ensure that the sculpture would last well indoors. It didn’t only require carving skills but also a good knowledge of joinery and how different timbers move as they season.

 

cedar wood carving

 

Some projects need a bit less letter cutting and a bit more artistic design, as with this plaque that was given to someone who was moving away from Bristol after many years living in the city. He loved the place and this illustration shows the ‘Matthew’ (a replica of John Cabot’s famous ship, which the recipient used to volunteer on) sailing under the Clifton Suspension Bridge, heading towards the Avon Gorge and then out towards the sea. Do you recognise the poem? It is the first two lines of ‘Sea Fever’ by John Masefield.

 

Carving of a ship

Hand carved wooden sign

Carved signs for Homes and for Businesses

Whether it’s a new wooden house or business sign or a thank you gift for someone who is retiring, I can make it. I don’t just carve signs though; many businesses have used my services before, as well as other organisations such as community groups and charities, to commission one-off gifts and promotional items.

Signs are usually carved from oak that has come from sustainable forestry and finished with varnish, wax (for indoor use) or finishing oil, depending on which you prefer. I can also carve and paint any design that you would like to accompany the text and am able to carve using a large range of different fonts and styles. If you would like more information about what designs, timbers and finishes are suitable for the project that you have in mind, contact me to have a chat about it.

 

Carved thank you gifts for businesses

 

I can also make carvings from special pieces of timber, such as well-loved trees that have been cut down. The sunflower carving above was made using cedar from a tree that originally grew in the grounds of the headquarters for the cancer charity Penny Brohn UK. It came to me as an unseasoned log that had to be cut up and carefully joined to form the panel. When making it, the design had to account for any movement in the wood during seasoning.

 

Carving for Penny Brohn UK

 

This oak carving was made for a pub in Shropshire. The ‘Jack of Corra’ is a kind of old drinking vessel, and the spelling of ‘immemorial’ is exactly as the client wanted it.

 

Hand carved wooden pub sign

 

The carving was from a design supplied by the customer and was carved in very low relief, as it was to be installed on a bar and so would be vulnerable to potential knocks.

If you have a particular picture that you’d like on your sign, I can carve and paint that too. This house sign includes a portrait of their cat:

 

Carved portrait of a pet cat in wood

 

…and if you are wondering what the writing in Greek on the house sign with the carved and painted hibiscus flower means, it translates as ‘House of flowers’.

teaching woodcarving in Bristol

Teaching woodcarving in Bristol

It’s always interesting to see what different students want from tutored woodcarving sessions and adapting my teaching to them. Some people like to be shown a few particular techniques and then to get on with practising them with some guidance if needed, whereas others want to try as many different things as possible in the day.

Both are fun be a part of, of course. My session of tuition with Katya was definitely the latter and it was the first taught session in my lovely new workshop. I really enjoyed using some tools again that I don’t use that frequently and discussing how to use them too.

One great thing about teaching one-to-one is that learners can use some of the power tools that I’d sometimes be wary of bringing out with a group. When things go wrong with power tools they can go wrong very quickly, so I like to be able to keep a close eye on things.

 


I wouldn’t usually teach people to use certain tools such as chainsaws or Arbortechs in carving as they are potentially so dangerous to inexperienced users (or experienced ones!). Tools such as the scroll saw are a lot less aggressive and so I’m happy to use that occasionally.

 


Katya wanted to make some wooden frames for embroidered pieces that she had produced. First of all, I showed her how to use a panel saw (below) and a coping saw (first photo) properly. Cutting accurately by hand with a saw is a skill that anyone using wood should know. Electric saws are great, but occasionally only a hand saw can be used (when there’s no electricity available, for example).

 

 

Katya was very happy with the piece that she produced using the scroll saw:

 

 

We also tried using a Dremel hand drill, an electric powered wood lathe and an electric drill. It was the first time that Katya had used any of them but I think that by the end of the session, the scroll saw was still the favourite! She also kindly let me use her photos in this blog post.

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

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