Sunday, January 5, 2014

Great-Grandfather's Carving Tools

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.
It grew steadily and for several generations Wm. Marples & Sons was one of the largest and most highly respected edge-tool manufacturers in the world. These carving tools had belonged to my grandfather, who passed away in 1963 at the age of eighty-six.  I have a vague memory of seeing in his house a plaque which he had made, of polished dark wood, carved in bas-relief with grapes and vine leaves,.  But I always thought this rather an odd hobby for my grandfather, who, though a keen and knowledgeable gardener, was not, as I remember, a man who otherwise worked with his hands. He was more bookish; in old age a quiet, religious and thoughtful person living more a life of the mind. This minor mystery was resolved for me when, more than a decade ago, my daughter and I began to research our family history.  Our efforts revealed that my grandfather’s father and his father before him had been in the coach-building trade. Furthermore, we found from the 1901 Census that my grandfather had chosen a different career for himself. His occupation was then, (at the age of 24) ‘Solicitor’s conveyancing clerk’.
                 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.
 ‘Sumner’ is still found nowadays as an English surname, but the word itself is archaic; it is not defined in any of the dictionaries that I have.  However, a little research turned up some etymology.  ‘Sumner’ is supposedly a contraction of ‘summoner’, in mediaeval times a minor official who called people to come before the court. A process server, you might say.  Does this mean that my ancestor was trying to collect money owing to his employer?  We may never know, but people do sometimes fall behind in their car payments.
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.
In any event, all evidence points to the certainty that the tools I have enjoyed for four decades and am still using today to make a reproduction Georgian bed were being used in the hands of my direct ancestors perhaps as early as a  hundred and fifty years ago.

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

The Georgian Bed, Part Five ~ Carving Bedposts

      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.
For burnishing I have made a handful of small sticks, about pencil size, out of both hardwood and bone. I like using ash wood for this, and leg bones left over from a roast of lamb.  The business ends of these handy little tools may be shaped to be pointed or rounded, flat or curved, concave or convex. When rubbed over the carving it comes up to a high polish which sets the whole thing off beautifully.Lastly, the matter of tidying up the ground must be considered. By nature of it being recessed, it is sometimes difficult to attain a perfectly flat and smooth surface into every little crevice. For this reason the ground is sometimes treated with punches.  Commonly, these punches have waffle-patterned ends. They are not as easy to find as in the past, but you can make them yourself by filing or grinding a pattern into the end of a short length of tool steel or an old punch.