Tag Archives: carving

Trinity

12 Nov

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Yggdrasil – the World Tree of Norse Mythology – traditionally a gigantic ash, is the tree upon which Odin hung in his never ending quest for wisdom. He drank from the stream which courses beneath the roots of the great tree and he lost an eye in payment. Mimir is  literally ‘The Rememberer’.

I made this bed as a commission for the generous and thoughtful mother of a beloved daughter and her partner as the seal upon their hard won quest to design and build their own home. The bed frame is made from a very old and spalted Fraxinus excelsior or European Ash, and the posts and book matched laths of the head board are derived from a huge yew tree which had languished in a stack of 4 inch boards in a builder’s garage in Beighton for many years.

When I consulted the family of three, the daughter requested that I carve a celtic knot – also known as a Triquetra – in the foot board.

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The triquetra has a well known modern Christian resonance: Father, Son and Holy Ghost, and in ancient Celtic and neo-pagan traditions representing the Sacred Feminine – the three ages of woman: Maiden, Mother and Crone.

My Mam a single mother in the 1960’s and 70’s used to say that together, she, my brother and I were invincible because we were a ‘three’. She believed that the number 3 had immense power.

Pythagoras taught that 3 is the first true number because it forms the first geometrical figure, a triangle. Odin’s valknut, a symbol of three interlocking triangles is a symbol of great power and significance in Viking Folklore. This one is carved on the Stora Hammars Stone on the Swedish Island of Gotland and it is intimately associated with the All Father.

valknut-stora-hammars-iIn the words of historian H.R. Ellis Davidson, “Odin had the power to lay bonds upon the mind, so that men became helpless in battle, and he could also loosen the tensions of fear and strain by his gifts of battle-madness, intoxication, and inspiration.” She and others interpret the Valknut, with its knot-like appearance, as a symbolic expression of this idea (Ellis Davidson, Hilda Roderick. 1964. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. p. 147.).

To carve a Triquetra, one has to first draw three interlocking circles to form the outline these are also known as ‘Borromean’ rings (after the Italian family Borromeo’s coat of arms)

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And then you can get down to the business of carving…

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…which involves repeatedly stabbing vertically along the outline of the motif and then gouging into the wood toward the stab line. This takes a lot of concentration, especially when one has already made the foot board as a single modular piece.

Carving directly onto a completed piece of furniture requires concentration and what we might call ‘bottle’ or courage. I learned from my client that her daughter and co-owner of the bed is a hand surgeon – I can think of no greater need for bottle than when working to repair that quintessentially primate character, the hand. The hand is my instrument, my means of expression and so I decided to go for broke and carve straight into the finished head board out of respect for my clients.

Speaking of bottle my younger brother Simon who lives in San Francisco and is both a master carpenter, music maker and brewer of fine Pale Ales might approve of this Trinity – it is perhaps quite apposite for us Littlewood brothers.

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It appears on an American IPA, Ballantine and is of 7.2% alcohol by volume – potent!

 

 

 

 

Odysseus

19 Jul

Iliad and Odysey

‘Aphorism’ – a word first coined by the Greek philosopher Hippocrates (he of the medical oath) is by definition a ‘delimitation’ – an astute, often funny and therefore memorable distillation of a general truth.

“A professor is someone who talks in someone else’s sleep” W.H. Auden

“Death is the sound of distant thunder at a picnic” W.H.Auden

“Some of the biggest cases of mistaken identity are among intellectuals who have trouble remembering that they are not God.”  Thomas Sowell

Or on a more practical note:

“Measure twice and cut once”

The mantra of woodworkers and builders everywhere, avoiding waste of costly materials.

 

Our actions and emotions can rarely be elegantly circumscribed in such an aphorism. They are not delimited at all but subject to the temptations of the seven deadly or cardinal sins: Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy and Pride.

“Annabeth: My fatal flaw. That’s what the Sirens showed me. My fatal flaw is hubris.
Percy: the brown stuff they spread on veggie sandwiches?
Annabeth:No, Seaweed Brain. That’s HUMMUS. hubris is worse.
Percy: what could be worse than hummus?
Annabeth: Hubris means deadly pride, Percy. Thinking you can do things better than anyone else… Even the gods.”
Rick Riordan, The Sea of Monsters

As a school boy I was given a fantastic school prize for English – Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, the epic poem about the Greek Heroes of myth, the capricious whims of the Gods and the epic Trojan Wars. I have to admit, in reading these stories I developed a particular soft spot for Odysseus, the cunning sailor, leader and architect of the ‘Horse’ a device built as a gift for the Trojans. As we all know it hid their doom – Odysseus and a strike force of warriors. The wooden horse was taken behind the Fortress walls by the unsuspecting enemy, thinking it a peace offering, whilst the rest of the Greek navy sailed off. Odysseus and his heroes emerged from the horse and slaughtered the Trojans in the night.

It took the Greeks ten years to achieve this victory, after which they all sailed home.

But Odysseus was not so lucky.

On the long return home Odysseus was waylaid by Polyphemus, the Cyclops and son of Poseidon. Odysseus had to use all his cunning to trick the Cyclops in order to escape and then rescue his men. Without wishing to spoil the story for you, I can say that Odysseus’ cleverness succeeded, but, as he sailed away he made the fatal mistake of boasting about his intellectual prowess. He displayed hubris.

Poseidon heard his boasts and cursed him to roam the seas for an agonising length of time never to return home to his beloved wife Penelope. He encountered monsters, sorceresses, strange beings and lost all his beloved friends and companions in this odyssey. A hefty price for over-confidence.

The other day, a lovely Italian couple, Roberta and Lorenzo came to see me to ask me if I could design and make them a bed. As they are both working away from home they wanted a special piece of furniture which they could retreat to at the end of the day and which in the future they could ship back to Italy.

To help me with the design brief I asked them this:

“Can you give me a clue about yourselves so that I can design something special and original for you?”

Roberta said “Do you know the Myth of Odysseus?”

I said “Odysseus was the King of Ithaca, he made his wife Penelope a bed made from a living Olive Tree.” My heart sang with excitement.

Well, to cut a long story short – I got the commission! I was able to come up with a design that they both liked I think, but rather than be over confident I invited them to put their own stamp on their commission. Here is Roberta Pyrographing Etna and Florence (their birth places) on a piece of lace wood (Penelope weaving her tapestry), and Lorenzo (Odysseus) is carving the whorl on his side of the bed.

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The best cure for hubris is humility, because there is no fun in being alone with one’s pride.

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Solo

25 Aug

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There are a crucial moments in life when we have to move from safety into danger in order that we may learn and grow. It was a brave mother (Helen Roach) who not only let her son, Adam, learn how to use a carving knife safely, but also, most generously, she sent me these photographs of the moment I let him take the tool and carve on his own. The intense look of concentration on his face and the way he folds himself around the work when he is flying solo is worth all the trepidation of tutor and parent.

Many years ago I re-trained to teach science at secondary level. It was clear to me that I could no longer rely on temporary contracts as a postdoctoral research fellow in Zoology to pay the mortgage and support my small family. I studied for a year at Durham University to gain a professional teaching qualification and thoroughly enjoyed the transition from laboratory research to classroom. What I loved the most was the way in which my teaching was reflected back to me by my students. In my final dissertation I invented the principle of the “Law of Convergence of Purpose” after a particularly stressful teaching practise field trip with a bunch of 14 year olds.

Their teacher had agreed to my taking them out to a woodland to get some hands on ecology experience: food chains, food webs, habitats – that sort of thing. Unfortunately the school only had a mini-bus capable of transporting 15 students and the class size was 28. This meant that the teacher had to drive me to the site, drop me off with half the class, and whizz back to school for the rest of them. These were the days before risk assessments.

He duly dropped me off with my share of expectant teenagers and drove off. With all the sampling equipment still in the van.

As the dust cloud settled, and realising I had better extemporise, I said the fateful words “Let’s be off then!”

They were. To all points of the compass, at high speed, yelling and whooping with the joy of liberation.

I was left with one student, a girl who looked up at me with one eyebrow raised and said “Will you get the sack then?”

A few seconds later I heard a commotion in the depths of the wood and with a sinking heart approached a group staring down into a deep muddy ditch. At the bottom was a boy stuck up to his knees in mud. “I don’t want to know what happened here” I said fatuously, and hauled the young man out of his predicament. He was missing a trainer, so I took my lunch out of its snappy bag and gave him a cheese flavoured overshoe as I waded in and retrieved his mud caked shoe. I had to write a letter of apology to his mother and reimburse the family for the damaged trainer. Needless to say the field trip was not a success.

Lesson one: language is the key

A few days later whilst on dinner duty in the school yard I witnessed a violent scuffle between two big fifteen year old lads. As I stepped in to separate me I was hauled back by a big meaty hand clamped on my jacket shoulder:

“Leave them to it lad” said the Head of Design Technology with a fag clamped between his teeth

“But fighting is against school policy!” I said indignantly

“They are not fighting lad, they are cuddling. They get very little physical affection in these parts, its their way of expressing affection”

Lesson two: things are rarely as they seem.

A friend of mine said “Ah yes, Anfield Plain – it is twinned with Sodom isn’t it?” Referring to the close proximity of the (by now defunct) steel mills which used to light up the sky above Consett. Anfield Plain school was originally set up for the Bevan Boys, conscripted to work down the local pit – that too defunct since Margaret Thatcher’s intervention in the early 80’s.

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It struck me that all my science training and the success I had enjoyed as a researcher would be of little use if I did not learn to use language more effectively and, more importantly learn to listen to my students and their worries.

A couple of years later I was teaching science in my first job at Prudhoe High School. I had been given yet another bottom science set – a typical tactic of hardened heads of science; “Let’s see what the bastard can handle, I’m teaching the top set, fuck you” – policy. My lab (a shit hole) was open on both sides and used as the access corridor for the top floor of the school – so every Tom Dick or Cheryl could wander through. The class were watching me draw a big chalk diagram on the black board explaining the menstrual cycle (timely as one of them had ‘fallen pregnant’ – presumably by tripping over a sperm). As I was labelling it the Head of Physics wandered in:

“That is not how you spell Oestrus, Mr. Littlewood”

“Well Mr.Hanson, there is no penalty in the science curriculum for using the American spelling of the word as Estrus, which is easier to remember, and that is Dr. Littlewood to you”

Cheers from the class, scuttling away of intruder. We were not interrupted as much after that as word got round of my poisonous tongue.

I chose a single science curriculum for my class and they all passed – some with B’s – much to their great delight.

The Law of Convergence of Purpose states: Purpose will only converge when ideas and understanding become convergent – in other words use the right lingo buster.

Ask yourself this what right have you to teach? What gives you the right to take a child from a position of safety to a position of danger? Answer – the parents.

Never mind the curriculum, the poxy exam board, the idiot vote-catching politicians or your own expensive education, listen to the students and their guardians- they will give you the key.

The Crannog

22 Feb

The Neolithic people of northern Britain used to build artificial islands from coppiced timber in wetland habitats called Crannogs. Estuaries, bogs, lakes and river basins in Scotland and Ireland were exploited by people over thousands of years sourcing protein from fish and shellfish in the waters surrounding their dwellings. They were also able to protect their families and livestock by making it almost impossible for hostile invaders to attack them.

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Terry turned up to my carving class at the Graves Discovery Centre, Ecclesall Woods today with an old knackered house sign and asked if he could make a replacement. I happened to have a nice slice of ash burr in my box and I readily agreed. Normally I get novices to carve a few letters before progressing to relief carving of a natural form. Terry proved to be enthusiastic and focused and in the end rendered this Anglicised version of Crannog – the name of his house.

Terry’s openness and willingness to progress had him embellishing the finished piece with a Pyrograph, sanding and oiling his sign and walking away with a massive grin on his (and my) face.

Terry may live in The Crannoch, but in the words of John Donne –

No Man Is An Island

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

And so it is for us all – we are enabled by opening the way to the island of our selves.

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Rules

27 Jan

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I’m not going to pretend that shifting two solid beech carpenters benches all the way from my studio to the beautifully restored old school that is the Grenoside Reading room was not a complete pain in the lower back.

But it was worth it to provide a decent stable work surface for the students, young and old, who joined my basic letter carving course on Sunday 26th January. The event was part of a Sheffield Wildlife Project in association with the Working Woodland Trust to encourage community understanding of the importance of Grenoside Woods for their own and the landscapes sustainability.

All 18 participants went away with a hard wood plaque with their own, or those of a significant other’s names – carved crisply with the aid of a small sweep chisel and a few gouges.

Max, Merlin, their dad Nigel and Sarah all had a good go with some decent off-cuts of Sapele, ash, sycamore, elm and cherry acting as a substrate. I have developed a method using shadow printed letters (120 pt plus) glued to the wooden plaque with aerosol glue – the students carve straight through the letters; a very simple method yielding a high success rate.

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When I was eleven my old woodwork teacher allowed me to use the very best tools in his collection, knowing that he could trust me to treat them with reverence. I think this can only be instilled if a teacher is generous with knowledge and the tools of knowledge. Novices may damage the edge of  a chisel, but it can always be resharpened. Students will not learn the respect and patience needed to achieve skill unless they are allowed to make their own mistakes.

Having said that when one young student (not pictured) started playing around with a mallet and waving a chisel around – un-chastised by the accompanying parent – I said this:

“I am not a teacher, and I play by very different rules. If you want to discover my rules please carry on messing about”

He stopped and carved his name rather well.

 

Special thanks to Sarah Sidgwick of SWT for organising the day.

Cherry

13 Oct

I found a beautiful piece of American Cherry at John Boddy’s Timber in Boroughbridge Yorkshire. Thanks to the knowledge of Arty, who works there, we winkled out a 21 inch wide, 1.8 inch thick by 14 foot long slab of perfectly straight cherry. I am using part of it to make a dished seat for a shoe cabinet.

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The trick is to scoop out the central area of the board by running it carefully across the face of a bench saw. The circular profile of a 12 inch radius blade is perfect for carving out shallow trenches along the length of the board to rough out a nice hollow for a seat. The idea then is to refine the dished profile by carving with a decent sized gouge, like these lovely Stubai chisels. By working on the raised timber profiles left in the wood you can gradually smooth out a shallow concavity.

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Here the end grain of the board is shown with the dish profile clearly seen in cross section. A soft abrasive pad on a circular sander takes all remaining blemishes from the profile and leaves a lovely smooth seat – perfect for any backside.

This kind of carving also has the effect of enhancing the figuring in the board…

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All I have to do now is wait for the glue to set on the seat racks to complete the piece. The carcass is built from oak and elm wood to resist rotting, and all the laths are made from cedar of Lebanon to counteract the stinky boots, trainers and sports footwear which will be tidied away in it.

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Autumn weather may have descended in dreary grey clouds, but working on this warm, pink slab of american cherry in my workshop has filled my head with colour. I am anticipating the pleasure of a valued client when I deliver his cherry red, burnished seat-cum-shoe store to him.

Barn

23 Sep

Cressing Temple Barns in Essex are a group of stunning 13th century cruck barns originally established by the Knights Templar.

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I had the pleasure of demonstrating here over a busy weekend at the invitation of Joy Allen one of the organisers of the European Woodworking show.
What better place to celebrate the pleasure of working in wood than in this temple to old English craftsmanship.

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All the magnificent oak timbers of these old barns have been felled and hewn by hand using axes. Pegged and braced with hand chiselled oak tenons holding the entire structure aloft nestled in the heart of Essex. I couldn’t find a straight beam in any of the roof spaces, and yet herein lies the medieval carpenter’s true skills. Curved limbs, huge ‘S’ shaped bracers, gigantic supporting columns only a handful of axe strokes from a mature tree stand in asymmetric harmony – for over 700 years – because these people could see the forms they needed to create a 3-dimensional wooden lattice within each living, breathing tree.

Likewise, visitors to the European Woodworking Show, hosted by Classic Hand Tools came with similar intent – either to find a fine new tool, learn a new technique, or just rub shoulders with other modern day carpenters, professional and part-time.
My daughter and I demonstrated letter carving on Saturday to several interested people new to carving. A gentleman called Andrew Turner knocked this out for his daughter

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a rather fine effort.
We humans often forget the principal reason for standing up was to use our hands. The Knights Templar, skilled in battle and construction were limited only by the materials available in their era. Oak and axes, ash and spear, earth and plowshare. Knight or peasant, we all need to be able to carve out a legacy.