The Life of an Artisan
A new year is dawning and with it comes uncertainty. What will the new U.S. administration bring? What will happen with the economy? Are we steering our families along the right course?
Believe it or not, these are not unprecedented times or unprecedented situations. Challenges far greater have faced our ancestors throughout the course of our history.
As I look ahead at the uncertain times awaiting me, I take some solace in my approach to my craft. Like you, I’ve taken a “skills first” approach to woodworking (and indeed to life itself), arming myself against future challenges with the skills and abilities to conquer anything life can throw at me.
The figures above are characters from the book “The Borrowers” by Mary Norton. My son Adam asked me to make him some figurines after we had read several of the books in the series to him at bedtime. Unfortunately for Adam, shop backorders apply to him as well and he had to wait, not always patiently, for close to 9 months.
I began making these figures as I would any other project. By researching the objects. This involved familiarizing myself with the characters, the illustrations in the book, and doll making in general. Then I made a series of sketches, noting of paint colors.
The wood work began at the lathe. I wasn’t looking to fully develop the figures at the lathe, just certain portions of each. The tallest figure (Pod) is just under 6″ tall. The lathe tools had to be razor sharp. I actually plugged the lathe in for this job
I used scraps of hard wood. Homily, the Mother figure, was Beech stock originally set aside for a planing stop on a new work bench. It was a beautifully quartered block perfect for the task. But it was also perfect for Homily and I don’t short change one customer for another.
With the lathe work done, I set to work with my carving chisels. I’ve been practicing my carving often as I attempt to do more rococo work. While this isn’t exactly acanthus leaves, it uses some of the same skills. Unlike mahogany, the hard maple beech and cherry I used wasn’t easy to carve.
It would have been easy for me to get carried away with this sort of project, as is my general proclivity. I think I could have spent all day carving one figure. But I had to balance my sense of craftsmanship with the needs of my customer. In this case, I kept the carving loose and free to make it clear that these were hand made wooden items, not injection molded plastic things to which children are accustomed. I added details to some areas but left the faces simple, bright, and open. I used glossy enamel for a Santa’s workshop feel. (These weren’t Christmas presents). I wasn’t trying to make tiny sculptures of real people. I was making toys for a child.
This was a simple project, made rewarding by the joy of the recipient. But to me it really speaks to the great diversity of products that we as artisans can make. With simple sharp tools, our design skills, our careful approach of understanding what we are making, and the skills we have in our hands, we are well equipped to handle anything life can throw at us.