Tag Archives: carving


1 May

Manus is the zoological term for the distal portion of the forelimb of an animal. I’m a zoologist, I trained at Manchester University between 1976 and 1979 and stayed on to study centipede leg glands for a further three years. My wife asked me once “What does Ph.D. stand for?” to which I replied “Piled high and Deep”. I continued to pile it high and deep for another twelve years as a postdoctoral researcher, which is a posh word for a ‘drone’ or ‘lab monkey’. Until I finally had had enough and became a school teacher. I had much more fun teaching science to secondary school students and rugby to reprobates.

Until I became ill. Years of very black moods interspersed with periods of intense creativity and manic energy caught up with me and I had a spectacular break down. It has taken me years to calm the Tsunami of emotions and the resulting fall out to regain a confident lucidity I have not felt since I was a boy. Eventually I was diagnosed by a very competent psychiatrist, having seen a rubbish shrink for several years prior who did not help one bit. In fact I suspect the antidepressants that were prescribed for ‘chronic depression’ were partly instrumental in bouncing me in to a full blown psychotic episode.

But this piece is not about manic depression (a much more descriptive and robust term than the trendy BiPolar Type 2 I am labelled with). It’s no longer fashionable anyway, not since Catherine Zeta Jones and Stephen Fry made it cool. It is not cool. In zoological terms it is an annoying trait I may have inherited. This piece is about sanity.



I free carved this bowl from a lump of Australian gum tree using a mallet and a series of chisels. It took me about two days of continuous tapping away at the chisel handle with my mallet to hollow out the bowl. The concentration required and the repetitive nature of the exercise was rather like zen meditation and it left me in a state of bliss. 

I have made plenty of rubbish bowls and lousy carvings in my time, but I still achieved that state of mindful bliss every time I carved. My mind is calmed by this kind of exercise.

I believe that when the connection between the mind and manual work is at its strongest, for example during craft or art work that we move away from mental instability and achieve the centre ground.

The key moment in human evolution was when our ancestors became bipedal freeing not only the forelimbs, but large areas of the cortex for communication. We used to make tools, hunt and gather – now we sit at computer screens and tap keys. We pile it high and deep. Branch out a little and make something, after all a busy manus is the foundation of compos mentis.


Carve My Name

8 Apr

Carve My Name

I took ten young novice woodworkers from stick whittling to letter carving in a day at the Graves Discovery Centre at Ecclesall Woods in Sheffield. Only two minor injuries to this doughty band of 8 to 12 year olds – both small nicks to fingers from sharp chisels – meant that about 0.1 of a mil of blood was shed. A fair investment for ten young people to walk away confident that they can wield a mallet and chisel to good effect. The small Gods of the Wood will approve I am sure if even one of these novices develop an interest in woodwork. The day was made all the more entertaining by the presence of local volunteers, green woodworking at the centre, keeping a weather eye on my charges and making them feel part of an ancient heritage. Young an old working together bound only by the discipline of working the grain of hard wood. They can carve their names with pride.


24 Mar

I thought I would try writing this piece on my iPod – small taps of the finger to achieve a sentence or two feels like trying to whitewash the coal shed with a tooth brush, but it resembles the best approach required to carve hard wood.

Tempting though it is to select the biggest gouge in the drawer to carve a chair seat, belting the tool with a big mallet will only result in pulling out deep scars in the grain, uneven working and the need to keep sharpening your chisels often. It is better to start modestly and build up a rhythm of small even cuts, testing the behaviour of the tool against the wood. In this way, shaving away many fine curls of wood over time ‘reveals’ the shape you desire more surely than heavy handed hacking. There is no way to rush this process, nor should there be.

When we draw something or, write prose, we make constant reference to the subject – a frame work or a theme. Erasing sketch marks and redrawing, editing and re-editing sentences achieves the same refinement as careful carving. Image, meaning and form arise when constant reference to a pattern guides incremental work. Just as drawing is governed by rules of perspective, writing by grammar, style and syntax, woodworking is controlled by the properties of the timber and the behaviour of the tool in our hands.

Think of it as a meditation: many small cuts to remove a large volume of wood, multiple pencil cross hatches to render solidity and depth, words discarded before succinct prose is discovered.

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