Sunday, January 5, 2014
Upwards of forty years ago, my mother gave me a bundle of tools, an old roll of moth-eaten green baize, holding a selection of ten woodcarving gouges and chisels, made by Wm. Marples & Sons of Sheffield. William Marples established his company around about 1830.
My great-great-grandfather, James Clement, born in 1823, was variously described in censuses and directories of the day as a ‘Coachbuilder’ (1860), ‘Coach-maker’s Sumner’ (1871) and ‘Coach Trimmer’ (1881). At the same time, the occupation of his son, my great-grandfather James Morton Clement is listed on the 1881 Census as ‘Coach Smith’. It could be that, much as in this sort of manufacturing today, those involved learned to handle all the different jobs required, although ‘Coach-maker’s Sumner’ is a bit of a puzzle.
Anyway, this information led me to believe that the tools I had inherited had a longer history than that encompassed by my grandfather’s long life. My belief was confirmed when, a few years ago, I first went to see a long-lost cousin in Yorkshire. During the course of that first of many visits, the conversation naturally turned to what we each knew of the lives of our common ancestors. My cousin already knew a huge amount more than I did, since she had much earlier begun her own research into the family tree. A great deal of what we have learned comes from her, my now close cousin. Wendy showed me a tool which had come down to her from our grandfather: it was an old style wooden spokeshave and crucially, upon it was stamped ‘J.M.Clement’, the initials and surname of our great-grandfather. It was usual in those days for carpenters to stamp their name or initials upon their tools. The initials in this case being ‘J.M’ showed that that particular tool had belonged to my great-grandfather, and not to his father, James. That the tool was a spokeshave clearly shows that he was not always or only a smith, who would have no use for such a tool. He was a carpenter. But as I speculate further, I am thinking that perhaps the gouges had indeed belonged to James Clement in the first place, and had perhaps been passed on to his son, or may very well have been lent to him as their respective occupations altered.
To this day these ten gouges and chisels are in perfect condition. The steel of which they were made is absolutely first class. They hold a keen edge for a long time, and the polished surfaces show very little tendency to rust. With these I began to learn woodcarving, and they formed the priceless nucleus around which I slowly built the full range of tools that I needed for the type of carving that I chose to do. I am not finished with them yet, but when that day comes, (hopefully still a decent way off), then I hope that I shall be able to find one amongst my own descendants who will want to use and cherish these tools into the future. They have already spanned four or five generations. Shall we make that seven, perhaps eight, before I have to depart?
Friday, January 3, 2014
Bas-relief carving consists of three processes – chopping in, grounding out and modelling. Firstly, chopping in consists of making vertical cuts to outline the edges of the motif, in this case an acanthus leaf, using carving gouges of appropriate width and curvature (called ‘sweep’) to match the penciled guidelines drawn on the wood. Ideally, this does take a large number of different gouges. When you’re starting out and haven’t yet built up a collection, you will have to modify the drawn outline to accommodate the tools you have. Grounding out is cutting out the wood outside the chopping-in cuts so that the shape to be modelled stands above a floor, or ground. I have shown this stage in the top photo above.The last stage, modelling, is the detailing by shaping the petals, leaves, ribbons or whatever to render the work into three dimensions in a lifelike way. Frequently, that will involve further chopping-in between parts of the design as you go along to separate the various components. When carving, pay close attention to the way the grain of the wood runs, because it is very easy for splitting to occur in all stages of the process. Some species of wood are more prone to this than others. This brings me to an important point. When working in any medium, sharpness of tools is key, but when woodcarving it is absolutely paramount; the gouges should be kept razor sharp all the time.
I make it a habit at the beginning of each carving session to check each tool for sharpness as its turn comes to be used. In almost all cases I’ll give that gouge a few licks on the whetstone before putting it into use. Getting back to the modelling: after shaping the work as finely as possible with the gouges there is still work to be done, now by rifflers, possibly sandpaper,and finally perhaps by burnishing.I don’t like using sandpaper when carving, it’s just too easy to wear away detail and lose the crispness that marks a good work; but there will usually be a need for it somewhere.