Home » News

Category: News

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
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.
Reverse side
making my own sgian dubh