The costume isn’t fooling anybody

When I was in military school, we were expected to wear our uniforms at all times when we weren’t in the barracks.  We had the daily uniform, a uniform for working out (PT gear), dress uniforms, etc.  The only time we weren’t in uniform was when taking a shower or sleeping.  We even wore our uniforms when we went into town on the weekends.

As you would expect, cadets from time to time would want to wander around town in “civilian clothes.”  For whatever reason, this was a common desire.  What we didn’t realize back then was that a Marine Military Academy cadet was recognizable even out of uniform.  The first “tell” was the haircut.  In the late ’70s, very few teenagers had military-style haircuts, and you can bet that no kid in Harlingen, Texas had such a haircut because he wouldn’t want to be mistaken for an MMA cadet.

Some kids got the bright idea to wear a wig or hat to hide the haircut and thereby go incognito.  That didn’t work very often, either.  MMA cadets stand straighter than their non-cadet contemporaries, and they march even when they’re just ambling down the road.  It’s trivial for anybody who’s familiar with cadets to spot one in a crowd.  He stands out because he looks, stands, walks, and talks differently from somebody who hasn’t attended the school.

Founded in early 2008, what eventually became the “Tea Party” was a reaction to the excesses of government perpetrated by both major parties.  What started as a popular uprising and was laughed at by members of both major parties soon became a serious force in American politics because Tea Party members were echoing the frustration and disgust felt by many of us.

Following the sweeping rejection of Republicans the 2008 election, many Republicans started looking for a way to re-make the party’s image, and they somehow managed to latch onto the growing popularity of the Tea Party.  At first, it looked encouraging:  Republicans who were interested in fiscal responsibility were embracing what looked to be an up and coming third party.  But somewhere along the way the Tea Party got hijacked by the Republican old guard.

An old school Republican can’t hide in a group of people who are fed up with the excesses of government any more than an MMA cadet can don civilian clothes and disappear among the natives.  Republicans are part of Big Government just as Democrats are.  The only difference between the two is what parts of Big Government they support.

Today’s “Tea Party” is just a bunch of old Republicans who’ve put on wigs and new clothes, trying to fool us into believing that they’re something else while they belt out the same tired old ideas.  As one of the original Tea Party founders said, the movement has been hijacked by the very people it was protesting against and is now obsessed with “God, guns, and gays.”

Don’t be fooled.  There’s nothing different behind the thin Tea Party veil.  It’s the same old crap you’ve been hearing for decades.  The Republicans today are screaming the “I hate Obama” message as loudly as Democrats were screaming “I hate Bush” back in 2004.  And, like the Democrats in 2004, the Tea Party Republicans have nothing else on their agenda.  They’ll have us believe that if we put them in power, they’ll “fix” everything.

That said, I’ll be happy to see Democrats lose control of Congress.  Not because I have any love of the Republican party, but rather because I think it’s dangerous to have any party control both the Legislative and Executive branches of government.  People complain about government gridlock, but I think it’s a good thing.  We’re much better off when Congress has a difficult time passing legislation.

Barney Frank is incompetent

At least, that’s what he wants us to believe.  The Boston Globe reports that Barney Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, finally admitted that he was late in seeing the developing mortgage crisis and that he was wrong about the financial viability of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Now, being late to see something is not a sign of incompetence.  However, when even I saw the crisis coming in 2005 and again in 2007 as did many financial pundits and Congressional leaders, you have to wonder how the head of the Financial Services Committee failed to see it or pay heed to warnings.  In 2003, Frank declared Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to be fiscally strong and also maintained that even if they were to fail, the federal government wouldn’t bail them out.

Frank maintained those positions for the next five years.  Less than three months before those two government sponsored enterprises were declared insolvent, Frank maintained that they were financially sound.

His excuse?  “I was wearing ideological blinders.”  That’s right, he was concerned that Republicans and the Bush administration were going after Freddie and Fannie on ideological grounds, attempting to curtail the lenders’ mission of providing affordable housing.  In other words, he’d have us (his constituents, at any rate) believe that he mistakenly discounted information because it came from a source he didn’t like.  He wants us to infer that, had he obtained information from some other source, he would have seen the problem developing.

I find that exceedingly difficult to believe.  We’re talking about the head of the Financial Services Committee (in 2003, the ranking member of the minority party).  He would have us believe that he didn’t have his own sources of information who were telling him the same things.  If he admitted that, then he’d have to explain why he voted against a bill that would have instituted tighter control of Freddie and Fannie starting in 2004.  A few years later, when Frank became the head of the committee, he helped push through legislation that did institute such controls, but by then it was too late.  The damage was too extensive.

Even in July 2008, Frank insisted that the companies were “fundamentally sound, not in danger of going under.”  A few months later, he was proven wrong.

I’m not trying to lay the blame for the mortgage crisis or the insolvency of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae solely on Barney Frank.  There’s plenty of blame to go around, starting with the Clinton administration’s insistence on easing lending rules, the Bush administration’s continuation of those rules, and the Republican-controlled Congress’ failure to institute controls in order to prevent a crisis that they all saw coming.

My issue is with Frank trying to hoodwink his constituents into believing that his “ideological blinders” prevented him from seeing the real problem.  The way I see it, there are only two possibilities:

  1. Frank flat didn’t see it coming, in which case he’s incompetent.
  2. He saw it coming, but his ideology holds that affordable housing is more important than silly things like economic viability.  In other words, he insisted on maintaining the programs even though he knew what the eventual outcome would be.

If he’s incompetent, he should go.  If he put his ideology ahead of the best interests of his constituents and the rest of the country, he should go.  Either way, the voters in the Fourth Congressional District of Massachusetts should do themselves and the rest of us a favor by kicking the bum out come election day.

Scarecrow ornament

A recent issue of Woodcarving Illustrated magazine had a one-page article showing this miniature scarecrow ornament. It’s about 3.5 inches tall, carved from wood about 3/4 inch thick. I didn’t have any basswood of appropriate thickness, so I grabbed a board from an old pallet that I’d torn apart for scrap lumber.  I have way too much of that scrap lumber (guess I don’t spend enough time in the garage knocking things together), but now I have a use for it.

The pine carved reasonably well.  It’s brittle in a few places, but overall is fun to carve.

I goofed a bit on the first ornament, getting the legs too thin and breaking one that I had to glue back on.  But the second turned out pretty good.  I have one more blank cut out, and lots of wood to cut out more if I want.  Although I’ll fix the bandsaw before I cut out any more.  Doing these with the coping saw is tedious.

Picture quality is pretty poor.  I was in a hurry this morning.  I took the ornaments outside, figuring it’d be nice to get pictures of them hanging from a tree in the back yard.  I obviously have a bit to learn about taking pictures, especially in the early morning light.

The pattern and short description are on Page 86 of Woodcarving Illustrated Issue #52.  I think you should be able to navigate to the article from that Scribd link.

Or maybe this embed will work:
Woodcarving Illustrated magazine – Issue #52 – Fall 2010

C# versus the data structure

Overall, I very much like the C# language, the .NET Framework, and the benefits of having my programs run in a virtual machine. But sometimes, all that gets in the way. I recently ran into an excellent example that illustrates how the execution environment can make things very difficult.

A skip list is a data structure that stores a sorted list of items, using a hierarchy of linked lists. The average search performance of a skip list is roughly the same as a balanced binary tree, but inserting and deleting items is significantly faster because the skip list doesn’t have to spend any time re-balancing the tree. The skip list has theoretical worst-case performance that is truly horrendous, but in practice it’s difficult to construct a severely non-optimal structure, and almost impossible to generate a worst-case arrangement of items. The original paper describing the skip list was written in 1990 by William Pugh. See Skip Lists: A Probabilistic Alternative to Balanced Trees.

Another use for a skip list is a priority queue. The research I’ve seen shows that a skip list based priority queue is significantly faster than a heap-based priority queue. Several of my programs make very heavy use of priority queues, and they could benefit from a more efficient implementation. More importantly, a concurrent skip list priority queue is much more efficient than a concurrent heap-based priority queue. See Skiplist-Based Concurrent Priority Queues.

In ease of implementation, a skiplist is approximately equal to a heap. Both are very simple data structures that require only about 150 lines of C# for everything. The skiplist is slightly more complex because it requires that each item contain an array of link pointers to nodes further in the list. By contrast, I can implement a heap in an array and not require any node pointers.

It’s the implementation of the node structure that causes a problem in C# (.NET in general, I would think). Let me explain why.

If you read the skip list paper, you’ll understand that it implies a node structure similar to this:

class SkiplistNode
    T Value;
    SkiplistNode[] Forward;

That is, the node contains a reference to the value and also an array of references to following nodes. The array is of variable size, depending on the node’s level in the hierarchy. (It really is helpful if you read the skip list paper.)

In a perfectly balanced skip list, one half of the nodes will be at level 1, and will need only one Forward pointer. Of the other half, one half of them will be at level 2 and will need only two Forward pointers. In a skip list of a million items, there will be one node at level 20, two nodes at level 19, four nodes at level 18, etc. This is all probabilistic, of course, so the actual number of nodes at each level will vary by a small amount, but it generally follows the power of 2 structure of a binary tree.

So what’s the problem? After all, it’s trivial to allocate an array with whatever number of elements you want. Here’s a simple constructor for the SkiplistNode class:

public SkiplistNode(T val, int level)
    this.Value = val;
    Forward = new SkiplistNode[level];

But how much memory does that node occupy?  The Value will typically be a reference, which is 8 bytes in the 64 bit runtime.  The Forward references require 8 bytes each, so the minimum size of the node will be 16 bytes.  Okay so far.

In a skip list with N nodes, there will be approximately 2N forward references.  So a skip list with a million nodes would require about 16 megabytes for forward references and another 8 megabytes for the Value references, making up a total of about 24 megabytes.  (Not counting the per-node allocation overhead, which I can eliminate by making these things value types.)

But that’s not the whole story.  It turns out that allocating an array involves 56 bytes of overhead.  All of a sudden, the average per-node size isn’t 24 bytes, but rather 80 bytes.  My million-node list grows from 24 megabytes to 80 megabytes.  I had hoped to build a skip list with 100 million nodes, but I don’t have 8 gigabytes for it.

If I were writing this in C or C++, I could create a variable sized structure, like this:

typedef struct tag_Node
    void * Value;
    tag_Node* Forward[1];
} SkiplistNode;

And, to allocate it, I’d write:

SkiplistNode* newNode = malloc(sizeof(SkiplistNode) + (level-1)*sizeof(SkiplistNode*));

That would allocate exactly the amount of space I need, with no array overhead at all. You can’t do that in C#. Or if you can, I certainly don’t know how it’s done.

(Added later)

The difference between the two is quite striking.  Imagine that you’re allocating a node at level 3.  The C code allocates memory as though the structure were laid out like this:

typedef struct tag_node
    void * Value;
    tag_node* Forward1;
    tag_node* Forward2;
    tag_node* Forward3;
} SkiplistNode;

That structure occupies 32 bytes:  8 bytes for the Value& reference, and 8 bytes for each of the Forward references.

But in C#, an array is an object in its own right. There’s no way to allocate an array of references in-line. The C# code allocates memory as if the structure is defined like this (in C):

typedef struct tag_node
    void * Value;
    tag_node** Forward;
} SkiplistNode;

And the code that allocates it looks like this:

SkiplistNode* Node = malloc(sizeof SkiplistNode);
Node.Forward = malloc((level-1) * sizeof(SkiplistNode*));

The Forward array is allocated separately on the heap. It’s the overhead of that allocation that costs 56 bytes in .NET.  The C# structure occupies 8 bytes for the Value reference, 8 bytes for each of the three members of the Forward array, and 56 bytes of array allocation overhead (which includes the 8 bytes for the Forward reference itself).

(End of addition)

I don’t know of a good solution here. I thought I could do it with fixed-sized buffers and some fancy inheritance, but there are several problems with that solution. First, fixed-sized buffers can only store primitive types (not references), and fixed-sized buffers may only be members of structs, not classes. I could try to simulate a fixed-sized buffer (using a base class that has one Forward reference, and derived classes that implement additional Forward references), but doing so would lead to some very ugly and difficult code.

Other solutions are possible, including explicit linked lists, managing my own heap of Forward reference arrays, and doing everything indirectly, with an array of references and a custom linked list that contains indexes into that array rather than the references themselves. But all of those solutions complicate the data structure and add additional overhead to the skip list algorithm, making it perform slower–perhaps slower than the heap that I want to replace. It’s frustrating.

Again, in the vast majority of cases I’m very happy working with C# in the managed .NET environment. But for some things, this skip list being an excellent example, I chafe at the handcuffs the runtime places on me.  In this case, I’ll have to come up with an innovative way of getting around that per-node cost or just skip the skip list altogether.

Outlaw Trail 100

The 23rd annual Outlaw Trail 100 bicycle tour started at Old Settler’s Park in Round Rock at 8:00 AM yesterday.  The temperature at the start was right at 60 degrees:  a bit on the chilly side to ride without a vest or arm warmers, but I knew that it’d warm up pretty soon.  It got to about 85 in mid afternoon.

The Outlaw Trail ride is much smaller than the Hotter ‘N Hell Hundred that I did in August.  I shared the road with 13,000 riders in Wichita Falls.  There were a total of about 1,000 riders at the start yesterday, many of them doing one of the shorter distances (10, 25, 40, 50, or 63 miles).  Still, there was quite a bit of excitement among the riders lined up there at the start.

The ride started promptly at 8:00 with the 100 milers going first.  My goal for today was to be more consistent than I was in my previous ride.  A secondary goal was to improve my time, but I was more interested in conserving energy so I didn’t suffer the last third of the ride like I did in August.

I kept a good eye on my heart rate monitor for the first 40 miles or so, to ensure that I kept it below 80% of max effort.  Except on the hills, of which there were many more than in Wichita Falls, I largely succeeded.  But even on the hills I kept it below 90%, and usually below 85%.  One of the better pieces of advice I’ve read on the subject says that the secret to completing an endurance event like this is “never go anaerobic.”  85% of max heart rate is generally regarded as the limit of aerobic effort, so it’s critical to know your max heart rate and what values represent 65%, 75%, and 85%.

Besides going out too fast, I made two other mistakes in Wichita Falls:  I failed to eat enough and I didn’t drink enough water.  At my normal pace, I burn from 30 to 40 calories per mile, so I have to consume 450 or more calories per hour while I’m riding.  There’s a certain amount of easily-converted fuel in my blood stream and stored as muscle glycogen, but I’d be surprised if that could take me more than two hours when I’m pushing it.

My plan for the day was to skip every other water stop (placed at approximately 12 mile intervals) along the course.  With the cooler temperatures, my two water bottles were enough to carry me 25 or 30 miles, so there was no danger of running out of water between stops.  I did exactly as planned for the first half of the ride, except I stopped at 30 miles because I had to pee.  That cost me about a minute and a half of waiting for the one porta-potty to become available.

I didn’t consume 450 calories every hour, but I ate a whole lot more on this ride than I did in Wichita Falls, and I was fairly consistent about it.  I did slack off on my eating between 60 and 75 miles, during which I was pushing pretty hard against the wind (it’s surprising how one forgets the important things as they become more important, but there it is), and I ended up paying for that between 80 and 90 miles.

As I mentioned, there were fewer riders on the course here than in Wichita Falls.  There, I could almost always see a dozen or more riders in close proximity.  Although I was rarely completely alone on yesterday’s ride, there were plenty of times when the only rider I could see was hundreds of yards ahead of me.  Although there were always riders within sight, I spent most of the ride alone.  I didn’t join a paceline at any time, although a few impromptu lines formed behind me when I was headed into the wind.

There was one group who played leapfrog with me from 20 miles on.  There were stopping at every water station and spending a lot of time there.  I was making very brief stops at every other station.  So I’d pass them at almost every water station, and they’d pass me between stations.  We arrived at the 90 mile station at about the same time, and they passed me about five miles before the end of the ride.  That discouraged me for a bit and I slowed down.  When another rider caught me, I talked to him for a few minutes and realized that I was feeling pretty darned good.

I kicked up the pace the last four miles, really pushing to see if I could finish strong.  As a result, I passed a half dozen riders in the last couple of miles, including a few who had been in the leapfrog group and, I suspect, had been unable to keep up with the leaders when they kicked up the pace.

All told, I finished the 100 miles in 6 hours and 38 minutes, with an overall average speed of 15.1 MPH.  That’s 0.3 MPH better than my average speed in Wichita Falls.  The interesting thing is that my moving average of 15.9 MPH was almost a full mile per hour slower than in my previous ride.  The difference is that during that ride I spent 50 minutes off the bike.  This time I spent just a little over 20 minutes off the bike.

I didn’t finish the ride as fast as I had hoped, but I made a big improvement over the last ride.  Overall, I’m very satisfied with my performance.

Only 1,100 miles left to meet my goal of 20,000 by the end of the year!

Carving Whimsical Houses, Day 3

Today was the third and final day of the class taught by Rick Jensen.  You might want to view Day 1 and Day 2 before continuing here.

I said yesterday that I had a lot of work left to complete this carving, and that I probably wouldn’t be able to finish it before the end of today.  It was a lot of work and I had very little time today for taking pictures; I was too busy carving.  I’m happy to report, though, that the hard work paid off.  I completed the carving late this afternoon.

I spent the first part of the morning shaping the limbs of the tree.  Although I’d done a lot of work on them yesterday, they were still lacking interesting shape.  I pulled out my trusty knife and slowly whittled them into shape, giving them a much more organic look.  A more experienced carver could have done it much faster, but I was being very careful not to take too much off.  Unfortunately, I don’t have a picture of the carving before I started detailing the limbs.

The picture on the left shows the house after about two hours’ work.  The major changes are the shaping and texturing of the limbs (incomplete), and detailing the roof.  The right side (in this picture) of the roof is very steep and has a concavity that would have made shingles impossible.  Since I had a lot of thickness to work with, Rick suggested using a gouge to add some shadow, and then some shallow lines give it something of a thatch texture.

I took a short break and somebody else grabbed the power carver I was using, so I went to work on the windows and siding.  Here you can see that I’ve relieved the right-hand window frame by outlining with a V-tool and then carving around it.  The left side windows are due for a bit of redesign since the original design would have made the interior frame rather awkward and would have left an odd blank spot below the center window.

You might also notice that I’ve punched another hole through between the house and the tree limb on the right side, just below the roof line.  I started to do that yesterday, but got sidetracked on something else.  This morning I was cleaning up some cuts over there, saw daylight, and took a few minutes to clean up that spot.

After completing the windows and cleaning up a few more cuts, it was time to add the vertical siding.  This was a real surprise to me.  The image below contains before and after shots.

On the left you see the house after I finished relieving the window frames.  On the right is after adding the siding.  All I did was take about two minutes to add some vertical and horizontal lines with a very small V-tool.  I found the difference quite striking.  Those few lines add a completeness to the house without drawing too much attention away from the other features.  I suppose it’s something like a woman’s makeup, properly applied:  hilighting features without drawing undue attention.

The gable texture (click for a larger view) is applied by continually punching very small holes with a triangular bit.  The bit (it looks very much like a finish nail that’s been carefully smoothed at the tip) is inserted into a hand-held reciprocating carver of some sort.  It makes one heck of a racket, but it works very well and very quickly.  Rick has lots of little tricks like this.  Another reciprocating carver is used with a rounded bit to burnish rocks in the carving.

A lot of the value of taking this class is learning such tricks and being able to practice them.  Rick also told us how we could do the same thing at home, without the power carver.  It would take a lot longer to do it by hand, but I could carefully shape a finish nail and punch each of those thousands of holes by hand.

Another good trick is adding color to the hollowed spots in the limbs.  We actually set fire to the wood using a small torch.  After letting it burn for a few seconds, blow it out and use a large toothbrush (a denture brush worked really well) to get rid of the excess soot.  If you do this, do not just blow out the fire and think it’s done.  The cottonwood bark burns quite readily and it’s likely that an ember will continue smoldering.  I looked away for a few seconds while working on one of these spots, and looked back to find that it burned through the limb.  Fortunately, the unplanned fire actually made things look better.

I spent a lot of time wondering how I was going to complete the carving before the end of the class.  I was especially concerned about the roots of the tree because I had already discovered that doing the work with edge tools was quite difficult and time consuming, and my skill with the power carver was limited, at best.  After discussing it with Rick a bit, he set me up with a much less aggressive cutting bit, gave me a few tips on how to use it, and left me to work it out.  I think I managed to do an adequate job although I think the base with the roots and rocks is the least attractive part of the carving.

The finish is, of all things, Meltonian neutral shoe cream, applied with a large paint brush, left to dry for a while, and then buffed off.  As a finish, the shoe cream has a lot to recommend it.  It’s relatively easy to obtain (try a local shoe repair shop), less messy than a lot of finishes, darkens the carving slightly, and adds a nice smooth look.  It’s also easy to re-apply after a few years or if you find yourself having to fix the carving (if somebody drops it, for example).  It does, however, have a few drawbacks, though.  To apply it, you have to rub quite a lot with the brush to work it into the wood.  It doesn’t just flow on like a lot of oil and wax mixtures.  It also smells like shoe polish, although I suppose that’s better than the smell of boiled linseed oil or other traditional wood finishes.  I sure wish there was a better way to apply it, though.

I thoroughly enjoyed my three-day class with Rick Jensen.  I started the class with a glued-up piece of cottonwood bark, relatively little carving experience, and inadequate tools.  Even so, I finished a carving that has more life and detail than anything I’d done previously.  Rick was an excellent instructor.  He explained each step by demonstrating on a carving (either one of his many demo pieces or one of the students’ carvings), then sent us back to work and was available to help out one-on-one as we encountered problems.  Most importantly to me, he encouraged me to try some things that were a little “out there,” rather than trying to dissuade me because I might goof it up.  He’d caution me about the potential pitfalls, let me make my own decision, and then give some advice about how to do it.

I have no qualms about recommending the class to anybody who’s interested in carving whimsical houses.  If you’re interested in attending a class or if you’d like to schedule one for your carving club, you can contact Carvings by Jensen,  If you do email, be sure that the Subject line of your email is relevant (i.e. mentions a carving class).  Otherwise, it’s likely that your mail will end up in the spam bucket.

Take the class.  You’ll undoubtedly learn a lot, and I think you’ll enjoy it.  I certainly did.

View my complete Facebook photo album, Carving Whimsical Houses in the Round.

Carving Whimsical Houses, Day 2

You might want to check out Day 1 if you missed it.

Today was exciting and frustrating in approximately equal amounts.  I’m excited because I can see my house taking shape, but frustrated because my carving skill is not up to the task of realizing my vision.  This is especially true when it comes to adding detail.

Today’s first task was to split the carving so that I could hollow out the inside of the house to let light in.  Splitting the carving was not at all difficult.  The two pieces of bark had been glued on each side of a thin piece of cardboard using trusty old Elmer’s school glue.  A large putty knife and a rubber mallet easily separated the carving into two pieces.

Hollowing out the house turned out to be a much bigger job than I had imagined.  The house is about six inches wide, and I have windows on the extreme ends.  As a result, I had to carve through about two and a half inches of wood on each side.  It took me most of an hour to hollow out one side with my small hand tools, being very careful not to go too far and punch through the bark.  When it came time to do the other side I used the power carver and had it done in about 10 minutes.  I’m not a purist.  As Rick (the instructor) said, “If I could control dynamite to remove waste wood, that’s what I’d be using.”  Some people insist that “hand carved” means that no power was used on the carving.  The way I look at it, if a person controlled the tool by hand (i.e. rather than an automatic duplicator or computer-controlled device of some kind), then it’s hand carved.

I mentioned yesterday that the way I designed my carving made it difficult to separate the limbs underneath the house.  After splitting the piece, I took a few minutes to separate those limbs.  That’s what the holes below the house are.  Those will be enlarged after gluing the piece back together.  I just didn’t want to be in there carving blind and inadvertently punch through something important.

Gluing the pieces back together sounds difficult but is actually incredibly simple.  First, we drill two small holes (3/32 inch, if I recall) in one of the pieces–one near the bottom and one near the top.  A small BB (from a BB gun) is inserted into each hole so that it’s protruding a little bit.  Then, the pieces are lined up and pressed together so that the BBs make indentions on the other piece.  We then remove the BBs, drill deeper holes and insert 1/8″ diameter dowels to keep the pieces from sliding, apply some good wood glue (I think we used Titebond, but any carpenter’s glue will work) to one side, and clamp the pieces together.

That took us almost to lunch time.  I cleaned up my station a bit and enjoyed some good BBQ while the glue was setting.

After lunch, Rick pulled out the power carver to demonstrate some techniques for adding roots and shaping the limbs of the tree.  My carving is one that he selected for demonstration purposes (he eventually did personal demonstrations for most of us, on our carvings), so I got the benefit of some professional quality work.  A power carver wielded by somebody who knows what he’s doing is quite impressive.   With it, one can add a lot of detail very quickly and do some things that are nearly impossible to accomplish with edge tools (knives and gouges) alone.

In the picture at right, you can see the final tree shape beginning to emerge.  He added some roots around the base, and showed how to put rocks between and under the roots.  He also added a few large knot holes in the tree limbs, removed more wood between the limbs to make it look like the house is sitting in the crotch of the tree, and began the shaping of one limb.  He then gave me back the carving and I set to work with my hand tools for a while.  Note that the house itself didn’t get any attention at this point.

I spent the rest of the afternoon shaping the tree and cleaning up the house–mostly with edge tools.  I’m sure that adding roots and rocks is possible with a knife, gouge, and V-tool, but I’m finding it exceedingly difficult.  I got some time and a bit more instruction on the power carver, but the results are less than satisfactory.  I have a feeling that I’ll be spending many an hour on the tree’s base long after this three-day class is over.  A large part of the problem is that I don’t really know what I want it to look like, but mostly I just don’t yet have the skill.  But I do have patience.

I like how the tree limbs are shaping up, though.  I was able to separate them from the house in places, which I think looks much better than having the limbs hugging the house completely.  The top limb has to be attached to the top of the house, though, in order to provide support.  Were I to lift that limb from the peak of the roof, it would become very brittle and likely would break off.

I still have a whole lot of detail to add to the tree and to the house.  The tree limbs need final shaping, and the base needs a bunch of work.  I have to make some sense of all the roots I tried to add.  The house needs window and door frames, siding, and shingles on the roof.  One part of the roof has a very steep concavity that will make it impossible to add shingles.  I need to smooth that and figure out what kind of texture I’ll place there.  There’s also a visible glue line at the peak of the roof–the result of my designing the house with the peak right in the center.  Other than the bottom where it doesn’t matter, that peak is the only place on the entire piece where you can tell that it was glued together.  I’ll have to figure out how I’m going to hide that glue line.

It was a very busy day of carving, and I expect tomorrow to be just as busy.  I doubt very much that I’ll have the carving finished before the class is over tomorrow, but I will have been exposed to techniques for finishing it, and I will have at least done a little bit of everything.  It will be up to me to complete the carving on my own time in the coming weeks.

More tomorrow, after day three is complete.  Updated photos are in my Facebook photo album, Carving Whimsical Houses in the Round.

View Day 3.

Gnome home

I carved this gnome home or whimsical house back in March from a piece of cottonwood bark that I “won” in a club raffle.  I found some brief instructions online and set to work with only a vague idea of what I was doing.  It was an interesting project and although I made quite a few mistakes it has a certain charm.

This house lacks detail:  siding on the walls and shingles on the roof.  I was pressed for time to finish the carving, and I had no idea how to add those features.  I finished it with Howard Feed ‘N Wax, which brought out the grain quite nicely and gave it a more “natural” look.

The piece is a wall hanging about 12 inches tall.  I carved it for Debra to raffle off at her African Violet club’s Spring show and sale.

Carving Whimsical Houses, Day 1

My carving club, the Central Texas Woodcarvers Association, invited Rick Jensen to come teach a couple of classes locally.  After carving my first whimsical house back in March, I jumped at the chance to take a class from one of the best cottonwood bark carvers around.  Today was the first day of a three-day class.

The class title is something like Carving Whimsical Houses in the Round.  You’ve probably seen these things (if you haven’t, try here or check out Rick’s books) and wondered what kind of wood they’re made from.  Typically, it’s cottonwood bark.  That’s right, bark from the cottonwood tree.  The bark is exceptionally thick, and carves very much like a soft wood although it has a character unlike any other wood I’ve ever carved.

The class schedule is 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM (with a break for lunch) for three days in a row.  I thought this would be like other classes I’ve taken and there would be lots of down time.  Boy, was I wrong!  I was busy all day and I expect that’ll be the case for the next two days.

One of the things I find most interesting about carving these whimsical houses is that there’s no set pattern.  Most types of carving classes start with a bandsawn blank and everybody carves the same thing in the same pose.  Some classes let you pick from a small handful of blanks (an elephant, for example, in one of three different poses), but in the end every piece looks very much like the others.  You can see the common starting point.

 Carving whimsical houses is much different.  Each person starts with a blank that is just two pieces of cottonwood bark glued together with a thin piece of cardboard separating them.  I didn’t get to see the blank being made, but I assume it involves cutting and planing the pieces flat before sticking them together.  The glue used is simple Elmer’s white glue.

It’s done this way because we’ll want to take the piece apart to hollow it out after setting the basic shape of the house and drilling holes for the windows.  The final product will be a house “in the round,” with windows that actually let in light.  More advanced carvers even carve features inside the house.  I doubt that this class will involve that level of detail.

The blank I started with is shown on the left.  It’s 12″ tall, almost 9″ wide, and at a little more than four inches thick.

This probably wasn’t the best blank for a beginner to select, but I saw a display house that I wanted to use as inspiration, and this blank looked like it could be molded into shape.

Something else about cottonwood bark:  it’s not consistent.  With most woods, if you pick up a piece that’s 12″ x 9″ x 4″, you can be confident that it will be of consistent texture, hardness, etc. throughout.  Bark is much different.  There are soft spots, rotted sections, cracks in odd places, and irregularities throughout.  As a result, it’s nearly impossible to duplicate in bark another carving of any size.  Much of a bark carving’s design is a result of the material:  working around those irregularities.

The first thing to do when carving a whimsical house is rough out the trunk and leave some space to add features like roots and rocks around the roots.  Then we lay out the branches that surround the house and place the house in the tree.  It sounds easy, but it’s a lot of work.  Especially if you don’t have the proper tools.  The class notes recommended buying some large gouges, but I figured I could do most of the work with a knife.  How wrong I was!  It’s very difficult to take off those large chunks of wood with a knife of any size.  A large (1″ or larger) shallow gouge, on the other hand, works wonders, as does a power carver.

The picture on the left is after about three hours of drawing and erasing lines on the bark to lay out the branches, carving away wood for the trunk, and beginning to define the branches.  I took about half of the trunk wood away with a knife.  The rest went quickly with a power carver and an aggressive bit.  Another option for carving away the large chunk of trunk wood is a bandsaw, which is probably what I’ll use if I buy one of these blanks to bring home after I’m through with the class.

It’s probably hard to believe that what you see here is the product of about three hours’ work.  Understand, I’m new at this.  Also, I spent a whole lot of time trying to figure out how to make what I saw in my mind appear on the wood.  You can’t see it yet, but there are branches wrapping around both sides of the house and curving over the top.

After another few hours’ work, you can definitely see the branches on the sides.  I’ve defined the basic house shape and the roof line, and placed the house on a platform supported by two shorter limbs.

In the picture on the left, you can see that one side of the roof line is pretty strange.  There was some rotton wood there that I had to carve away, and I got a little too close to the join line in the process.  I’ll have to wait until after splitting and re-join before I clean up that part of the roof.  That’s okay, by the way.  The whole idea behind these whimsical houses is that they’re supposed to be irregular and even a little bit wacky.  After all, gnomes live in them.  Gnomes like to be comfortable.  They’re not terribly worried about silly things like straight lines, even floors and perfect symmetry.  To be honest, I think the gnomes who live in these houses revel in their wackiness.

You can see that I’ve also removed more wood from between the limbs near the trunk.  I’ll do more of that tomorrow after hollowing out the piece and putting it back together.  That process involves clamping the piece, and I don’t want the clamps to mar up my nicely finished carving.  So it’s best to leave as much detail work as possible until after the re-joining.

Finally, here’s the house at the end of the first day.  I’ve further defined the shape of the house and the roof line, set it into the branches, and have further defined the branches.  I’ve also drawn in doors and windows, drilled holes, and roughed out the openings. 

We drill holes and rough out the openings so that when we break the piece apart we know how deeply to hollow it.

I’m a little bit disappointed in how I’ve laid out the part with the door.  I have the door there, and one long narrow vertical window, but that side of the house looks a little bare.  Perhaps I’ll try adding a small window or two above the door.

I’m going to have some difficulty separating the two shorter limbs under the house.  That was poor planning on my part.  Although I probably could (and probably should, too) do it before splitting the house apart, Rick said that he’d like to try helping me do it once we’ve split the piece.  The potential pitfall is that I might booger up the nice flat edge and have to re-plane it before gluing the pieces back together.  That’ll cause me to lose a frraction of an inch, but there isn’t any detail there, so it’s worth the risk.

This last picture shows one side of the house where I decided to put two limbs rather close together.  The piece of bark strongly suggested this configuration, but it’s been difficult to work with and I’ll likely need some help before it’s done.  There is very little space between the two limbs, and I need to round them quite a bit more.  Of course, rounding them will remove material, which will give me more space to work.  This is the primary reason I’m having difficuly separating the two shorter limbs under the house; there’s no straight line path to get a tool under there because these two limbs are in the way.  Removing either one would make things much easier.  But then, the piece wouldn’t look near as cool as it’s turning out.

All told, I’m very happy with the way this project is shaping up.  I do need to get some more appropriate tools, though, if I’m going to do more of these houses.  A large shallow gouge is a must, and I need a few V-tools, as well, for outlining and for removing wood in narrow places.  Using one side of a V-tool like a chisel is surprisingly effective.

You can see more pictures of the work in progress on my Facebook photo album: Carving Whimsical Houses in the Round.  And, of course, I’ll update here after tomorrow’s class.

View Day 2.



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