An artist’s inner dialogue

“Let’s carve something new.”
“Okay, I’ve got this cool idea for a new stabby thing.”
“Something new that isn’t a stabby thing.”
“But I like stabby things!”
“Yeah, I know. Let’s do something different.”
“But … stabby things!”
“No!”
“Well, fine. Let’s carve … a finger!”
“A finger? Haven’t we carved enough fingers?”
“We haven’t made a finger since … well, forever! Before Summer Camp, anyway.”
“Well, okay. We could carve the fork in that mesquite branch. Make it look like a pointing finger.”
“Cool. Or even put a magnet on it. A Fridge Finger!”
“Hahahahahaha.”

After carving several fingers

“Okay, done with fingers for a while. We said we’d carve that dog.”
“A dog? You always want to carve a dog! You think I have a problem with stabby things?”
“But we said we were going to carve it and give it to her.”
“We never told her that!”
“Don’t even go there. We’re carving that dog.”
“Well, okay. But I’m not gonna like it.”
“Tough.”

Some time later

“Man, this is boring. I thought the first rule of carving was to have fun.”
“Just shut up and keep working. We’ll be done with this in a couple of hours.”
“A couple of hours? We’ve already been working on it for a couple of hours.”
“Tough. Let’s just get this done.”
“No! I quit! I will not make another cut on this dang dog! Just … think of something else.”
“You’re right. This whole accountability thing is crazy. How about … a wand!”
“A wand? You mean like a Harry Potter wizard wand?”
“Yeah. We could prune a small branch, shave the bark, shape it …”
“Huh … yeah, okay. A wand sounds cool. Let’s do that.”

After stick acquisition

“Man, this is going to be so cool.”
“Shaving the bark is kind of fun, you know?”
“Sometimes. Other times it’s just tedious!”
“Is this one of the fun times, or the tedious times?”
“I’m having a great time. This wand will really be something.”
“I don’t know. Those curves might be a problem.”
“No way! That’s the best part. The wand will be crooked!”
“A crooked wand?”
“What? You wanted a straight wand? Just like all the others? Boring!”
“But who wants a crooked wand?”
“When did we start caring what other people think about our carvings? I want a crooked wand! I think it’ll look cool. Different.”
“You and your ‘different’. You always want ‘different’.”
“Just shut up and keep having fun.”
“Okay, a crooked wand. Whatever … Can we put a finger on the end?”

We’re trying to decide how to finish it.

Oak stump end table

We took down an oak tree in the summer of 2010. The tree was rotting at the base and might have fallen on the house, so we had it taken down. I paid the tree service to fell the tree and cut it up into firewood-length pieces. Except for the trunk, which I had cut into two pieces, one of which was this fork that was about 7 feet off the ground. The other piece was the log I described splitting by hand.

In August of 2014, I thought I’d try my hand at turning that piece of wood into the base for an end table. The descriptions below are taken from my Facebook posts at the time.


August 26, 2013

New project: an oak end table or perhaps the base for a coffee table. The wood is from a tree we had taken down four or five years ago. This piece was about seven feet off the ground–where the tree split into two primary branches. It’s been sitting out in the yard since it was cut. See individual pictures for more information.

Note that this might be a long-term project. The wood is likely still very wet inside.

The piece is about 26 inches tall, and approximately 18 inches wide and 30 inches long at the base. Lots of cracks, but it’s still a very solid piece of wood.

First step is to make a semi-flat top. My little 14″ electric chainsaw had trouble with that. The top isn’t quite as un-level as it looks in this picture, but getting it flat will definitely take some work. The final piece will be 19 or 20 inches tall.

A blurry picture, I know. I’ll get a better one. This is the result of about an hour with chisel and mallet to remove the sapwood, and maybe 15 minutes with an angle grinder to smooth some areas. I still have about 2 hours of mallet work to go on the other side. And flattening is going to be a chore; that oak is hard!

August 28, 2014

Rough flattening the top with mallet and chisel. Slow going, but faster than the angle grinder. Second image is the pile of debris I’ve created up to this point.

August 30, 2014

I spent some more time flattening the top, although you can see that it’s not quite flat yet. I also spent an hour or two shaping and smoothing with a 36-grit sanding disc on the angle grinder. The next job will be to drill a few big holes in the bottom. Hollowing will lighten it (more than 100 lbs right now), and also help it finish drying. Then I’ll flatten the bottom and level the top.

September 14, 2014

I did a little bit more flattening work last weekend, and completed it this weekend. I also completed rough sanding by hand. I bought some long auger bits, 1/2″, 3/4″, and 1″ in diameter and more than a foot long. Unfortunately, my little 3/8″ drill doesn’t have enough torque to drive those through oak end grain. I’ll have to get a 1/2″ drill that has more power.

October 2, 2014

I got the new drill and drilled a bunch of holes in the bottom. I wish I’d gotten a few shots of the pieces the drill was bringing up. The wood was surprisingly wet inside, even after four years lying out in the yard. I knew that it takes time for wood to dry (rule of thumb is one year per inch of radius), but seeing that demonstrated is quite an eye opener.

I dug out the center a bit with the angle grinder and the die grinder, then used a router to straighten the edges of the hole so I could cut a piece of wood, glue it into place, and then plane it flat. But I’ll leave it open for now so the wood can dry some more.

January 5, 2015

I spent more time on hand sanding, finished flattening the bottom and the top, then put a couple coats of wipe-on poly on the wood. The glass I ordered came in, and now part of the oak tree that was out in the back yard sits in our living room.


I had planned to sell this piece, but Debra said she wanted it in the house. I’m kind of happy she wanted it because it’s the first piece of its kind I ever made. I’m kind of attached to it. Nine years later, it still stands in front of the pull-out couch by the window. It’s a great companion piece to the oak coffee table I completed a few years later.

Oak burl bowl

Eight or ten years ago I was at a friend’s ranch to collect some wood from a fallen tree. While he was showing me around the property (about 300 acres), he asked me what those “big warts” were on his oak trees. I explained what burls are and how they form. He wanted to see what they looked like inside. We found a tree that was pretty clearly almost dead, and he went to work with his chainsaw. I ended up with two burls. I carved a bowl from the smaller one and gave it to Todd and his wife as a “Thank you.” I kept the larger one.

That piece of wood was about two feet long, 16 inches wide at its widest point, and five inches deep.

I drilled a bunch of holes in the top with the intention of letting the wood sit in the garage and dry for a while. Then I turned it over and removed the bark with the angle grinder. I also ground down a semi-flat spot for the base and finished it with the belt sander.

Then I got impatient. Why wait for the wood to dry? Why not rough carve it first, I thought, and then put it up in the rafters? A bowl with 1″ thick sides will dry a whole lot faster than a big ol’ oak burl.

So that’s what I did. It took me a couple hours of swinging that angle grinder to get the general shape of the bowl. I went over the whole thing with a 36 grit sanding disc, and then put it up in the rafters to dry for a while. That was June of 2016.

Four years later I was rearranging stuff up there in the rafters and I ran across the unfinished bowl. It was well dried by then. Happily, I had left the sides thick enough that it didn’t warp or twist horribly. I spent an hour or so touching it up with the big angle grinder and re-flattening the bottom (it warped a little bit), detailed it with the smaller (2″) Foredom angle grinder, and started hand sanding.

The hand sanding took several days. One thing I discovered is that sanding oak burl or any other highly figured wood can be incredibly frustrating. It’s often difficult to tell the difference between a tool mark and a natural feature of the wood. Even up close, a whorl can look an awful lot like a tool mark. Or vice-versa. This becomes increasingly frustrating as sanding continues at the higher grits and the surface becomes smoother. I can’t remember how many times I was sanding at 600 grit, for example, and had to step back down to 60 or 100 to sand out a tool mark and then feather around it to smooth the depression. Fortunately, by the time I got to 800 grit I’d found and fixed all the tool marks.

I eventually sanded the entire bowl to 2000 grit, and the wood shone like nothing I’d ever made before. It was beautiful.

The slightly darker areas there are just water. From 600 grit to 2000 grit, I sanded it wet. The dark spots are where the wood hadn’t yet shed the moisture. What astonished me about this was how smooth and shiny the wood was without any kind of finish on it.

I decided that I didn’t want to put any kind of polyurethane or varnish on the bowl, but I wanted something to preserve the wood and prevent it from drying out completely and crumbling. I’d had good luck with mineral oil in the past, so that’s what I used. It took two weeks and something more than a quart of mineral oil. I’d apply a coat of oil, let it soak in for a day, and apply another coat. I kept that up until the wood just wouldn’t absorb any more.

The bowl now sits on the living room coffee table. It is, I think, my personal favorite of all the things I’ve carved. I suspect I could be convinced, over time as I age, to part with most of my other carvings. But this bowl will likely be in my possession until the day I die.

Ask an AI: whittling or wood carving?

A friend of mine asked a generative AI (Nova: Powered by ChatGPT & GPT 3.5 Turbo) about the difference between whittling and wood carving. This is the response she got:

Wood carving and whittling have been practised for thousands of years, dating back to ancient civilizations such as the Egyptians and Greeks. The early humans used wood carving to make various objects like weapons, tools, utensils, and figurines.

It is believed that the practice of carving wood began as an extension of the use of stone tools, as people realized that wood was a more versatile material than stone. Over time, wood carving became a widely practiced art form, with artisans developing diverse styles and techniques.

Whittling, on the other hand, is a type of wood carving that involves using a knife to remove a small amount of wood from a larger piece. It is believed to have originated in Europe during the Middle Ages, where it was primarily used to make simple household objects like wooden spoons, bowls, and cups.

Whittling gained popularity in the United States during the 18th and 19th centuries, when it became a popular hobby for colonists and pioneers. Today, wood carving and whittling remain popular artistic expressions, and practitioners continue to develop new styles, techniques, and forms.

This reminds me of something a not-very-bright fourth grader would turn in after consulting the encyclopedia and visiting the local branch library. Bad paraphrasing of randomly selected factual (or maybe not) statements strung together into paragraphs that are tenuously cohesive and sometimes self-contradictory. With a little fluff thrown in to show that it really was the student’s work. The student would receive a “C” for such work if the teacher were especially kind and impressed with the diligent research, good spelling (although there’s that curious use of “practised” rather than “practiced”), and penmanship.

That said, the article does answer the question: whittling is a type of wood carving. The rest of the article is mostly gibberish, sprinkled as it is with unsupported factual statements, uninformed speculation, and known falsehoods. But whittling really is a type of wood carving.

Exactly what constitutes whittling is an open question. Merriam-Webster defines “whittle” as a transitive verb:

1a. to pare or cut off chips from the surface of (wood) with a knife
1b. to shape or form by so paring or cutting
2.  to reduce, remove, or destroy gradually as if by cutting off bits with a knife

By that definition, whittling is wood carving done with a knife. If you are carving wood with a knife, you are whittling. According to the dictionary. But that definition is not universally accepted. If you ask five wood carvers the difference, you’re going to get at least five answers. In my experience, most of those answers are of the “I know it when I see it” variety. Some say that it has to do with the level of planning involved. But everybody’s line is set differently. To some, anything more complex than a sharpened stick is “carving.” To others, anything carved from a stick found on the ground is “whittling.” Some put a time limit on it. Others base their judgement on the quality or purpose of the final product. My primitive carved knives and forks might be “whittling,” for example, but my friend’s beautifully carved and decorated (all using just a knife) replica dagger is a “carving.”

I like the dictionary definition. All the other definitions implicitly and sometimes not so implicitly make value judgements that amount to “whittling is just passing time, whereas carving is creating something of value.”

In any case, I’d be interested to know if anybody would find the AI-generated response to be anything other than gibberish. Elementary and secondary educators should be exposing students to this type of answer and pointing out the obvious flaws (unsupported and contradictory statements, wandering paragraphs, etc.) so that students can learn to spot them. It’ll be a while (decades, at least) before these generative AIs can write a freshman term paper that would get past an instructor who’s paying attention. It’s probably a good idea to be able to spot AI-generated content so you don’t make the mistake of depending on it.

Unloading

Upon return from the sawmill I was faced with the daunting task of unloading those big pieces of wood from the trailer. The smaller piece, of course, was no problem. At less that 200 pounds, getting it off the trailer and onto the garden cart was trivial. I was a little intimidated by the larger pieces, though, and decided to wait ’til the weekend when I could get a few friends to help. But then I saw the weather forecast and realized that I wouldn’t be able to get the truck and trailer into the back yard if I waited. Rain always turns the back yard into a very soggy mess.

I thought about it overnight and decided that if I could load the big log all by myself, then I should be able to unload the two smaller pieces by myself, as well. The next morning I backed the trailer up to the slab behind the garage and started working. My idea for the smaller piece (approximate weight 800 lbs.) was to lever it up and get some rollers under it. Roll it off the trailer and onto the slab, and then use the same technique to position it on the slab. I enlisted Debra’s assistance in moving the rollers.

Trailer positioned for unloading
I drove a wedge under the log to simplify getting a lever under it.

Unloading the smaller piece went almost exactly according to plan. I just had to get the bottom of the log high enough off the trailer deck to put a couple of rollers under it. The rollers are 1-1/4″ plywood dowels that were formally jousting lances at Sherwood Forest Faire. When they break they’re thrown into a big pile. We go by periodically to scavenge a few to keep for various projects. Truth to tell, rollers wasn’t a use I had envisioned when I gathered them.

Rollers in place

With two rollers under it and the 2×4 supports removed, a medium-hard push at the back was all it took to start moving. Every foot or so, Debra would put another roller under the front and I’d remove one from the back. There was no worry about the trailer tipping because the larger log (1,200 lbs.) was forward of the wheels. We quickly got to the end of the trailer.

Preparing to come off the trailer

The idea here was to roll the piece off the trailer onto the first log, then forward onto the second and transition back down to the dowels. I didn’t plan this well. I made two errors. You can see in the first below picture that the first log rolled forward, as expected, but it’s still forward of the piece’s center. There’s no support at the back. When I rolled it forward a little bit more, off the trailer, two things happened. First, the log tilted back. It also pushed the trailer forward because I had forgotten to chock the wheels.

Coming off the trailer
Oops! The log fell back, off the rollers.

This was just a minor problem. It took a few minutes for me to lever the back end up and get another log under it. Then we rolled it forward onto the smaller log and back onto the dowels. After that it was a simple matter of pushing and moving rollers. This goes a lot faster with two people: one to remove rollers from the back and another to replace them at the front.

Back on the dowels
In place, sitting on bricks.

My original plan for the larger piece was to tip it sideways and roll it off the trailer onto the slab, then wrap a chain around it and pull it up on end with the truck. I have no idea why I thought that would be a good idea, but by the time we got the smaller piece in place I realized that I could use the rollers with the larger one, as well.

We used the same technique to get rollers under the big piece: a wedge to make a space for the lever, then put it on blocks, slipped the rollers under it, and removed the blocks. It rolled with surprisingly little effort.

Moving on the rollers

I could have planned this one a little better. I knew that the trailer would tilt when the log moved rear of the wheels, and the log would roll off the end. In fact I was counting on it because I didn’t want to deal with trying to step it down off the back of the trailer. But I should have placed some blocks at the back to provide a primitive ramp. In retrospect, I’m lucky that the thing didn’t have enough momentum to tip over.

This didn’t really pose a problem. The lever is a wonderful invention. I lifted the front with a lever, which allowed the back to roll almost completely off the trailer.

After that it was pretty easy to put a block under the back and a roller under the front to get it going again.

At this point it was just replacing rollers again as we moved forward. Something to note if we ever do this again: be careful with alignment of the rollers. We had a little trouble with it rolling in the wrong direction because we had placed the rollers at weird angles. They don’t have to be exactly parallel with each other, but should be within 10 or 15 degrees of perpendicular with the intended direction of travel.

These two will sit here on the slab until I’m ready to work on them. I’m not going to wait for them to dry, as that would take too long. Air drying time is approximately one year for every inch of radius. I’m not going to wait 15 or 20 years before carving. Not that I could: powder post beetles would have them falling apart long before that.

I’ll of course have to move these again when it’s time to work on them, but that doesn’t worry me. We got them off the trailer with little effort. Moving them on a flat slab shouldn’t pose a problem.

Again, don’t underestimate the power of simple machines. Debra and I unloaded these two pieces (approximately 800 lbs. and 1,200 lbs.) by ourselves using a wedge, a lever, and some rollers. And without expending a lot of physical effort. Had it not been hot and humid, I probably wouldn’t have broke a sweat. It really was that easy. Took a little brain power to figure out how to do things, but we didn’t have to exert ourselves.

Sawmill Day

Unloading the ash trunk

The nice thing about the sawmill is that they have tools to handle these big logs. Bill’s truck with the boom on it easily picked the Ash trunk off my trailer. We also used it to move the log into the sawpit, and to load the larger piece onto the trailer when finished.

The first task was getting a smooth cut on the bottom. We laid the log on its side and Bill got out his trusty little 72″ chainsaw. The thing’s a monster but it made quick work of sawing through the bottom of the log.

Making the first cut with the 72″ chainsaw

Then we picked it up and put it in the sawpit to make two cuts: one at the top to give a flat surface for the coffee table, and then one about 18″ from the top to separate the coffee table base from the rest of the log.

We ran into a couple of problems. I thought I’d gotten all of the screws out of the log, but I missed two of them. The first one destroyed the sawblade. While digging out the first one we discovered another. I’ll do a better job of checking for metal in the log next time.

The second problem was an oversight. When we placed the log for the second cut, we didn’t see that a bulge in the log would impede the blade. Well, not actually the blade but rather the mechanism that the blade rides on. We got about 3/4 through the log and couldn’t go any further. So we lifted the thing out of the pit and Bill finished the cut with that monster chainsaw.

In addition to the big log, I brought a smaller piece of Ash that I’d collected during the Great Icepocalypse of 2021. Ha! When I collected that piece, I thought it was large and heavy. It’s about 4 feet long, two feet wide, and a little over a foot thick. I just had Bill make two cuts to flatten the top and bottom. It’ll be a coffee table when I’m done with it.

And there’s my three pieces, nicely strapped down on the trailer, waiting for me to unload them. That should be an interesting job.

Loading the Ash trunk

I’ve been trying to obtain a very large piece of wood for a project. It turns out that getting a piece of wood that’s 36 inches in diameter and three or four feet long isn’t all that easy if you don’t know an arborist. I got a call from a friend of a friend, somebody who had cut a tree down for a customer and wondered if I was interested in it.

I arranged to go get the trailer that the trunk was on and bring it home to dump the log on my driveway. This is Ash, about 4-1/2 feet long and between 36 and 40 inches in diameter. I estimated the weight at 2,000 lbs. I unloaded it by wrapping a chain around the log and then pulling the trailer out from under it.

My plan for the log is a big carved chair, and the base for a large coffee table. But the first thing was to get it cut into two pieces. My chainsaw is only 16″, so there’s no way I can get even close to a reasonable cut. So I had to get the log onto my trailer and up to the sawmill. Trouble is, I don’t have anything that can lift that kind of weight.

But I do have some simple machines and a little ingenuity.

I positioned my hydraulic jack under the front of the log and jacked it up in small increments, bracing it as I went along.

The trailer is 18″ off the ground. Only 14″ to go!
Gettin’ there.

When I got it high enough, I replaced the hydraulic jack with a farm jack. That solved most of the lifting problem, but I had to be careful to brace the back so the log didn’t roll to one side or the other. It wasn’t difficult to get the log up to the required height and braced securely.

The next morning I hand-positioned the trailer under the log and stated loading. The idea here was to wrap a chain around it and pull it onto the trailer with a hand winch (what we call a “come along”). The only twist was that I didn’t have enough chain. Turns out that a 38-inch diameter log is just short of 10 feet in circumference. I had a 12-foot chain and the cable on the come along isn’t long enough to reach from the front of the trailer to the back. So I had to re-purpose my bicycle lock cable. Plenty strong enough: braided steel cable 3/8″ in diameter.

The 2×12 planks serve as sleds. Friction between the log and the sled is higher than between the sled and the trailer deck, so the boards slide on the deck.
The log under the back rolls as the trunk is pulled over it.

I made a few mistakes here that I will correct if I ever have to do something like this again. In particular, I should have put jack stands under the back of the trailer. I did eventually, but before I did the weight of the log put a lot of stress on the trailer hitch ball and receiver up front. Had that failed, the back of the trailer would have come down, potentially crushing my foot or anything else that was under it.

After getting the trunk onto the sleds, it was easier than expected to winch it up onto the trailer. I had to disconnect and re-position the winch at one point, and jack up the back so I could get another sled in position, but there weren’t any real surprises.

Putting a sled under the back.
On the trailer. Time to reposition the winch.
Loaded!

At this point all I had to do was tie it down for the trip to the sawmill. I suppose I could have done a better job of centering the log over the wheels. The log weighs 2,000 lbs., and the trailer is only rated at 3,500. But it towed okay.

All told, loading this log onto my trailer took about four hours of work, most of which was spent figuring out what to do next. Having never done anything like this, I was extra careful about making sure everything was secure. I didn’t want a ton of wood to come crashing down on me.

Don’t underestimate the power of simple machines. The most complicated piece of equipment I used here was that hydraulic jack, and I could have done without it, substituting a lever and fulcrum. Replacing the farm jack would have been more difficult, but again possible with levers. Nothing I did required a lot of physical effort. The most taxing part of the whole thing was operating the winch. Even so, somebody half my size likely could have done it.

Carving a whimsical house, Part 3

This is the third in a series of posts about carving a little whimsical house from an old cedar fence post. See Carving a whimsical house, Part 1 for the introduction.

In Part 2, I finished carving the roof. The next thing to do is establish the roof line and gables, and carve the sides down in preparation for the doors and windows. To that end, the first order of business is to draw the roof line similar to this:

I use a Typhoon “bud” burr, shown on the right, to cut the roof line in the wood. If you
don’t have that particular burr, a flame shape or a taper would probably do just as well. This line doesn’t have to be terribly precise; just be careful not to carve away the roof.

The picture on the left shows the house after I’ve cut the roof line. You probably noticed that the bottom line looks like I cut it with the same burr. I might have. That bottom line, by the way, is where I’ll carve the rocks that the house sits on.

The next thing to do is carve the space between the roof and the base relatively flat so that the roof overhangs the house. I’ve used several different burrs for this and still haven’t decided which one I like the best. The 9/16″ Typhoon that I used for rough shaping the roof works okay, although it’s kind of hard to get the middle portion. However you do it, be careful not to go too deep. Also don’t worry about getting it perfectly flat. At this point, the most important part is to carve down the triangle that makes the gable on each end.

Above you can see that I’ve carved the gables, and then drawn lines to outline the trim board that serves to separate the wall from the gable. The next step is to relieve that board by carving down the wood above and below it.

Carving away the wood below is easy enough: just outline with the “bud” burr and then carve the rest of the wall. Carving the gable is a bit of a pain. I’m still experimenting with the best way to do that. If the area is large enough, I’ll use the bud or a flame shaped Typhoon burr. If it’s smaller, then the ruby carver seems to work pretty well. However I’ve done it, though, I’ve not been able to get a good sharp line. I keep trying.

Here’s what my house looks like after carving both gables and the walls on all four sides.

Again using the Typhoon bud burr, I roughed out the rocks that make up the base of the carving. I probably made a mistake using that large burr for this, because the resulting rocks have too much space between them. I had to do a lot of smoothing and shaping work to get it to look even halfway decent in the end. Live and learn, I guess. I would suggest taking your time with a ruby carver or perhaps a long taper Typhoon if you have one. In any case, something smaller and less aggressive than what I used.

After I finished roughing out the rocks, I spent a little time with the flap sander to smooth the walls a bit so that I had a reasonably flat surface on which to carve the doors and windows. If you don’t have a flap sander, a sanding drum will work as will any other burr that leaves a relatively smooth surface. The surface doesn’t have to be completely free from scratches, as you’ll be cleaning it up later. But you probably want something pretty flat for the door and window frames.

Next time: doors and windows.

Carving a whimsical house, Part 2

This is the second in a series of posts about carving a little whimsical house from an old cedar fence post. See Carving a whimsical house, Part 1 for the introduction.

In the first part, I cut a piece of fence post into four blocks, each 2″ x 2″ x 3″ high, and drilled a 3/8″ hole in the center. The result is shown on the left.

I should note here that all of the carving on this piece is done with the Foredom power carver using various bits and burrs. It’s important when using these tools to wear eye protection, have some type of dust collection apparatus, and wear a respirator or some other way to protect your lungs. Power carving produces a lot of dust, and you do not want that stuff in your lungs. You might also want to wear ear plugs if your dust collection system is especially noisy.

I also want to point out that this series of posts shows how I carved one house. This isn’t the only way to do it. In fact my method is constantly changing as I become more familiar with using the tools. This is only the fifth one of these houses I’ve made, so I’m still just a beginner.

With that out of the way, let’s get started.

Oh, by the way, you can click on any of these pictures to get a larger view. Although the “larger” view might not be a whole lot larger. I seem to be having trouble currently uploading larger pictures.

I find it best to start with the roof. Establishing the roof line sets the stage for the rest of the house. Also, if you carve the rest of the house and leave the roof for last, it’s very possible that you’ll run out of wood to complete the roof you want. The style of roof I’m creating here can eat up quite a bit of wood. I had to throw a Cottonwood bark house away once because I didn’t leave enough space for the roof. I was carving that one with knives and gouges.

In the picture above, you can see that I’ve drawn a rough profile for the roof and chimney. Using a 1/2″ coarse Typhoon burr, I first outline the chimney.

The picture at the right shows how I begin to rough out the roof. The Typhoon burr is pretty aggressive, so I’m careful around the chimney, and I leave a lot of extra wood. I’ll come back later with a less aggressive burr and shape it.

Although the burr is aggressive, the cedar is a medium-hard wood and it takes some time to remove all that wood. Be patient and check your outline from time to time so that you don’t take off too much.

It took me about 20 minutes to finish roughing out the roof to this point. That’s okay. I’m not in a race to see how quickly I can carve one of these little houses. I’d rather take a little extra time than get in a hurry and either destroy the carving or, worse, lose control of the tool and injure myself. Running that Typhoon burr over a thumb hurts. Trust me.

Remember, too, that making a mistake isn’t fatal. These houses are supposed to be whimsical. They’re certainly not architecturally correct. If you inadvertently carve through the chimney, for example, don’t worry too much about it. You can always carve it to look like the chimney is falling apart. Carvers don’t make mistakes; we make adjustments.

Next, I shape the chimney using a smaller and less aggressive Typhoon burr. I also put a few dips and humps in the roof surface in order to make it a little less uniformly flat, although that turns out not to be necessary for the roof style I chose; the process of adding the roof tiles makes for an irregular surface.

The last thing I did before beginning to carve the roof tiles is go over the roof with a 120 grit flap sander to remove most of the scratches left by the Typhoon burrs. Again, that’s not strictly necessary because the next step has me going over the roof with a finer ruby carver, but it’s part of the process for me–something I do regardless of the roof style I choose.

I do all of the tiling with the flame-shaped ruby carver shown on the right. I’ve tried other bits, particularly for carving the lines between roof tiles, but they end up making deep narrow lines that I then have to spend time removing. I like the flame shape, but the ruby carver is a bit less aggressive than I’d like. It also tends to clog up on cedar, and I have to clean it now and then with a brass brush. Don’t use a steel brush.

I chose to do a tile roof on this house. This is something I’ve tried once before with a Cottonwood bark house, and also on an earlier Cedar house. Those two didn’t turn out so well. I experimented with one side of this roof to refine my technique. The photos and description I show here are from the second side. I think I almost have this roof style figured out.

Here you can see that I’ve outlined the first tile. The next step is to remove wood to the right and below so that the tile stands out from the roof. Then, draw lines for the next two tiles.

When I started, I found it helpful to draw lines for the tiles before outlining each one. I got the hang of it after a while and began just carving the next tile without first drawing a line. Do what you feel comfortable with.

Next, outline those two tiles, carve away wood to the right and below, and outline the next tile. Note that you don’t have to carve the whole rest of the roof down after outlining each tile. Instead, just carve down enough for the next tile. What you’re going for is a gentle slope from the top left to the center bottom.

Work your way down and to the right, outlining and carving away wood for each tile until you get approximately to the center of the roof. When you’ve completed the left side, it should look something like the large photo on the right.

The general flow of the roof should be towards the right and down. That is, tiles on the left should appear “above” tiles on the right. It’s okay if some tiles appear to stick up above where they “should” be; that’s part of the house’s whimsical nature. But do try to keep the general flow to the right and down.

Next, start at the top right corner and do the same thing, but work down and to the left. Again, take your time. When you get close to the center, where the tiles from the left meet the tiles to the right, you’ll probably have to make some adjustments. If there’s a trick to making that come out just right, I don’t yet know what it is. I will say, however, that this is the best I’ve done so far.

And that’s one side of the roof tiles, almost completed. You can see that I made a few mistakes, the biggest one being there on the far right where I have one tile sitting completely on top of another. It looks a bit strange, and is not what I had planned. Don’t know how I managed that.

If you have a smaller ruby or diamond carver, you might want to sharpen the edges between tiles. I suspect that with a bit more practice I’ll be able to get sharp edges between all the tiles. I did a passable job here, but some of the lines aren’t as clean as I’d like them.

That’s it for the roof tiles. Next time I’ll rough out the roof line and carve the gables.

Carving a whimsical house, Part 1

An online carving group with which I’m involved is doing a “friendship stick” project. Each of 10 carvers makes 10 carvings from a 2″ x 2″ x 3″ block of wood, and sends one carving to each of the other carvers. Every carving has a 3/8″ diameter hole drilled through it from top to bottom. When we receive the carvings, we display them stacked on a 3/8″ dowel.

The only rules are that the carving cannot be larger than 2″ x 2″ x 3″, and it has to have that hole in the middle. Beyond that, anything goes. I decided that I’d make little houses from a cedar fence post. The picture above is one of the houses I’ve carved for the project. This blog post is the first of several parts showing how I go from fence post to finished house.

Above is a 13 inch long piece of cedar fence post. We’re replacing the 30-year-old fence around our property, and I pulled this post from the ground a month or two ago. The wood isn’t really cedar, but rather Ashe Juniper, Juniperus ashei. The stuff grows like weeds all over Central Texas, and the wood is commonly used for fence posts. That it’s held the fence up for 30 years is good testament to its suitability for that purpose.

The first step in making a little house is turning this post fragment into blocks. And the first step of that process is making one side reasonably flat. After carefully checking for and removing any nails and fence staples, I took the piece over to the bandsaw. I set my fence about 1/2″ away from the blade, adjusted the height, and made the cut.

(Yes, the picture is a little blurry.)

You can see a few ripples in the cut.  Normally I would have done with a resaw blade (a 1/2″ blade with four teeth per inch), but I had the 3/16″ blade on the saw and didn’t want to mess with changing it. The resaw blade would have made for a straighter cut, but this was good enough for my purposes.

With one flat side, I could then take the piece of wood over to the table saw to finish squaring it up. I used to do this on the bandsaw, but it’s easier to get square sides with the table saw.

The picture above shows the piece with three sides squared up. After cutting the second side, I set the fence for 2″ and cut the other two sides. Then I set it for 3″ to cut the blocks to the right length.

The resulting blocks aren’t quite square because my initial cut with the bandsaw wasn’t perfect. I could have made allowances for that and squared things up on the table saw, but it just wasn’t that important to me. As long as the blocks are approximately square and don’t exceed the size limitation, it’s good enough for making these houses.

The next step is drilling a 3/8″ hole through the center of the block. Again, perfect placement isn’t terribly important, although I don’t want to be too far off. I used to do this with a hand drill, but I recently got a drill press, which makes things a bit easier. I just mark the center by drawing lines from corner to corner, and then clamp it in my drill press.

Unfortunately, my drill press’s range is about two and a half inches. So in order to drill through a 3″ block of wood I had to clamp the block in my bench vise and use a hand drill to finish the job.

With the block cut and a hole in the middle, it’s time to start carving. Stay tuned.

Part 2, in which we carve the roof.