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Inspired Ashton Court mansion 2013

‘Inspired’ exhibitions at the Hayloft gallery, Ashton Court, Bristol 2010/2011/2013

The ‘Inspired’ exhibitions are curated by the very talented furniture maker Sue Darlison.


'Inspired' Ashton Court Bristol


The quality of the work by other exhibitors has always been very good indeed, with a particular personal high point being the chance to show in 2013 alongside the renowned furniture maker John Makepeace. He founded Parnham College, which has had a huge effect on contemporary British furniture design.


John Makepeace showing at Ashton Court mansion


I also had the chance to show there alongside David Colwell, whose environmentally-aware approach to design has also had a huge effect on design in this country, both through his own work and with Trannon furniture.





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.

Ancient Egyptian woodworking tools from the British Museum

Ancient Egyptian Woodcarving

Whilst looking around the museum in Bristol, I saw these ancient carving tools on display and thought it might be nice to share them with you.

The tools were bought by the museum in 1919 from a Captain E.A. Mackay. The metal is a copper alloy, which makes the carving achievements of those ancient craftsmen seem all the more amazing as the copper alloy is softer than the steel used in modern tools. Other elements used in ancient copper alloys included antimony and arsenic. Arsenic often occurs naturally in copper ore, so may have been the original alloying material with copper to make bronze. Eventually it was superseded by the use of tin, as tin was easier to add in specific amounts and was non-toxic . It wasn’t until the time of the last pharaohs, long after these objects were used, that Egyptians began to use iron for this purpose.

The chisel with a wooden handle seems very similar in size and shape to a modern palm chisel and was probably used for detailed work without a mallet. It is thought to date to between 3,300 and 3,600 years ago, what was the eighteenth dynasty of the New Kingdom. The awl in front of it (a spike used for making small holes) is thought to date to the same period.

The larger chisel in the holder to the right would have been used with a mallet. It is believed to be older, from the twelfth dynasty of the Middle Kingdom about 3,800 to 4,000 years ago.

Ancient Egyptian images of woodworkers show them using many tools that woodworkers into the medieval ages of Europe were still using variations of. Axes and saws were used to roughly shape the wood into planks and blocks, adzes shaped it further, awls and bow drills were used to make holes and chisels and mallets were used for fine work. Much of the timber used was probably imported from what is now eastern Africa and the Lebanon, as Egypt did not have large forests at that time.


Ancient Egyptian woodcarving

Nearby, there are examples of stone carving tools. The mallets certainly look familiar; I have a couple very like them in my own studio! The caption on the display speculates that the worn one may have been buried with a carver in the belief that, although it was worn out in this world, it would be perfect again in the next. They are thought to date to the third dynasty of the Old Kingdom, between 4,620 and 4,700 years ago according to the museum caption.



The stones on the shelf would be used for grinding down stone sculptures to smooth them. The copper alloy chisel in front of them dates to the eighteenth dynasty of the New Kingdom, between 3,300 and 3,600 years ago. It would have been used to shape stone, with a more rounded, bar-like shape of chisel used afterwards to smooth the sculpture.

The British Museum Collection

There are more tools on display at the British Museum in London. The information used here comes from the labels with each exhibit.
King Djer reigned during the First Dynasty, about 5,100 to 4,900 years ago. His tomb is surrounded by the remains of over 300 people; his wives, guards and servants. They must have committed suicide or been killed at the time of the king’s entombment, to serve him in the afterlife. One retainer was called ‘Hem’, meaning simply ‘servant’. He was a craftsman and was interred with two copper chisels, a copper adze head and the tool on the right, which is thought to have been used to cut leather. The copper axe head on the left was one of several found with other bodies. It was a high-status possession and these people were probably special guards. This axe head is inscribed, including with an elephant design, but no one knows what the inscription means.
King Khasekhemwy ruled during the Second Dynasty, about 4,904 to 4,700 years ago. He was keen on construction and developments in such things as large-scale use of dressed stone during his reign led the way for the later building of the Pyramids. 194 thin copper models of tools were found underneath a collapsed wall in his tomb. They include models of chisels, harpoons, adzes and needles. Many are in  groups of eight, possibly reflecting the Egyptian working week of eight days according to the label. I wonder why they are models and not genuine tools?
The New Kingdom dated from about 3,564 to 3,084 years ago. Below is shown a wooden mallet from this time, found at Thebes. See the similarities between the shape of this one and the much older ones shown in the Bristol Museum display above. The bow-drill found at Deir el-Bahri exhibited next to it uses bronze bits to drill holes. The end of the wooden bit holder would be steadied inside a hollow cut into the conical wooden piece displayed behind the drill. The bow would then be moved back-and-forth to spin the drill bit.
Ancient Egyptian woodcarving tools
The tools shown next come from different periods. The chisel with its wooden handle dates, like the saw immediately below it, to the New Kingdom in Thebes. They use bronze blades, like the pull-saw at the bottom which came from Deir el-Bahri and dates to the 18th Dynasty about 3,600 to 3,300 years ago.
The two bronze-bladed adzes also date to the 18th Dynasty. The one on the left is from Thebes during the reign of Tuthmosis III which was about 3,493 to 3,439 years ago. The one on the right was found at Deir el-Bahri and was used during Hatshepsut’s reign 3,493 to 3,471 years ago. This adze still has the original leather thongs holding the blade on. Its wooden handle is carved with a hieroglyphic inscription. Compare these tools to the image of the workers using an adze and a saw shown above.
A label near these tools also shows some commonly-used ancient Egyptian woodworking joints:
These damaged corners from coffins show how joints would also be strengthened using dowels or cramps, made from a close-grained wood such as sidder.
The sidder wood cramp top right in the photo above dates to the 17th or early 18th Dynasty, 3,600 to 3,500 years ago. It is inscribed with the name ‘Ameny’; maybe the name of the cramp’s maker or its user, in a similar way that modern workers in busy workshops or building sites write their names on their tools to stop them ‘going for a walk’. The coffin boards on the left comes from Asyut during the 12th Dynasty, about 3,950 years ago. They have been joined with such cramps. The dowelled joint on the right is from the same location and period as the cramp-joined boards and has some dowels from the Middle Kingdom (4025-3,630 years ago) displayed below it.

What timbers did ancient Egyptian craftspeople use? 

It can be hard to tell from the names that they gave them, but scientists have analysed woods under the microscope and worked out what many of them are from their cellular structures. They are generally associated with things made for funerals, as these have been preserved in tombs.
The main local timbers used were sycomore fig (Ficus sycomorus), tamarisk (Tamarix sp.) and Nile acacia.  To make coffins and the like, carpenters would need longer, straighter boards and these were obtained by trade, mainly with the area now known as the Levant. Coniferous softwoods such as cedar as well as juniper and cypress were bought and used. Cedar was especially reserved for the coffins of high-ranking people, although different parts of a coffin could use different timbers, depending on their suitability for different purposes. You can find out more, including some ancient Egyptian names for different timbers, at the digitalegypt website.
There are some more images of ancient Egyptian woodworking tools on this post by Marijn, of the St Thomas Guild: follow this link. There is also an illustrated history of the development of the saw online here.

A Personal Favourite

Finally, I had to include my favourite piece of ancient Egyptian woodcarving. It is a statue of a priest who would have said prayers for the dead. His name was Ka’aper.
He lived during the fifth dynasty of the Old Kingdom. Dating this period seems quite difficult, but it is somewhere between 4,686 and 4,520 years ago. The people who excavated the carving, at Saqqara, thought that the statue looked like the chief of their village so they called it ‘Sheikh el-Balad’ which means ‘village chief’.
The statue is 112 cm (about 3′ 8″) tall and is carved from sycamore wood (I’m assuming that this refers to sycomore fig (F. sycomorus)). The eyes were made to look ‘alive’ by using a copper lining with white quartz and a central disc of rock crystal.
People in other parts of the world use similar optical tricks on their carved statues. For example, in New Zealand traditional Maori woodcarvings have inlaid paua (abalone) shell eyes that twinkle in firelight to look like they are watching.
Photograph copyright James Shook from Wikimedia Commons
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

Libby Houston

Libby Houston 2014

This portrait of the well-respected poet and botanist Libby Houston was carved into a large oak bench that I designed and made. which is now sited on the Clifton Downs in Bristol.

The leaves that she is holding are from a Houston’s Whitebeam, a sub-species of Whitebeam tree (Sorbus spp.) which is only known from a single specimen growing in the Avon Gorge near Bristol. Libby discovered the tree and it has been named after her.

When Libby visited, she brought the leaves with her for me to copy in carvings on the bench and also very kindly explained what made them distinct from similar trees. Whitebeams are deciduous, meaning that the leaves are shed by the tree every autumn (fall). Therefore obtaining these leaves hadn’t damaged the tree at all.

After she had left I realised that, since there is only one specimen of this tree known to exist, they must be leaves from the world’s rarest tree.


Libby Houston

Bench on the Clifton Downs 2015

This bench is the largest single project that I have taken on to date, being 2.5 metres (8 feet) long and weighing well over half a ton. It was commissioned by the Clifton and Hotwells Improvement Society in Bristol and was installed in June 2015. The wood is oak that originally grew on a farm outside the village of Backwell, about seven miles from where the playground where the bench has been situated.

The bench is quite unusual, as the site that it has been placed on is part of Clifton Down in Bristol. The Downs Committee, who oversee the running of the area, hardly ever give permission for permanent works of art to be installed there and I feel very privileged to have been given this opportunity.


downs bench


The bench was almost two years in the making and shows notable people, creatures and structures to do with the area. Researching it myself was fascinating. One carving is a portrait of renowned poet and botanist Libby Houston, who visited my studio a couple of times. Showing her the portrait for the first time was a little nervewracking! Fortunately, she liked it.


Libby Houston


Amongst many other subjects, the bench also shows Thecodontosaurus, the ‘Bristol Dinosaur’, which was discovered not far from the playground.


thecodontosaurus carving


The bench rests on three large oak carvings showing creatures that lived in the seas that covered the area millions of years ago; a crinoid, a coral colony and a brachiopod (a shellfish a bit like a modern clam).


carvings of fossils


There is also a ‘treasure trail’ of ten spider carvings hidden all over the bench for visitors to try and find if they can!


spider carving


Leigh Woods Centenary bench 2009

This bench was installed on Stokeleigh Camp Iron Age hill fort, at Leigh Woods near Bristol. It was commissioned by the National Trust to commemorate the centenary of the land being given to the Trust by the Wills family.


leigh woods inscription


The oak used came from trees felled in the same woods and the timber was milled, carved and the bench constructed on site during the summer of 2009.


two man chainsaw mill


The bench is 2.75 metres (9 feet) long. As the site is heavily protected, the design had to be sturdy enough not to require fixing to the ground and it could not be raised up on slabs or similar.


carving leigh woods bench


The carvings show aspects of the natural history and ancient history of the area. Researching them was really enjoyable – including holding locally-found artefacts such as a Celtic bronze torc, which was around two thousand years old, at Bristol Museum.


celtic wood carving


Here are some examples of the carvings on the bench. This dormouse is hibernating with its tail wrapped around it. Dormice live in the surrounding woods and are quite rare.


dormouse on leigh woods bench


This beautiful triskele design came from the end of a Celtic torc that was discovered in the River Avon at nearby Clevedon. The original is gold and can now be seen in the British Museum.


celtic torc design