Tuesday, December 31, 2013


My daughter recently suggested I post a blog on favourite tools.  It got me thinking and I've concluded that all my favourites have one thing in common; they feel right.

As age creeps up on me, I appreciate more and more how repetitive movements wear on the body, and the importance of properly designed tools.  Nowadays we call it ergonomics, but I prefer the old fashioned "it feels right".

Mallets were the first tools that came to mind when I started thinking about my favourites.  I own several but these two are special for different reasons.

I like the feel of either mallet; the balance is good and the weight is right for me.  But each conjures up different emotions when they come to hand.
The uppermost one in the photo, I made myself, mostly to see if I could do it.  Turning a scrap piece of hard maple burl and attaching a peeled hickory stick, the result was a handsome looking mallet.  Imagine my delight when it turned out to be wonderful to use!  Because the handle isn't symmetrical, I can tell without looking which face I'm using.  Every time I use it, I'm thankful that scrap wood didn't end up in the stove.
The second mallet was turned by my father out of a single piece of hard maple that his father in law had given him many years before.  He turned it on a crappy little Canadian Tire lathe that my mother and I gave him for Christmas before I was married.
Both Dad and his father in law were farmers and woodworkers.  I never knew my grandfather as he died by the time I was two, so to receive in the mail a mallet made from wood that had been in the hands of my woodworking grandfather was a gift above all others.
Every time I pick up that mallet, I think of my father, my grandfather and the little house in Yellowknife, 3000 miles away, where my adult woodworking life began.

Willow Adventures, part two

Now that winter has firmly established itself, and Christmas is past, time allows me to write again.

The pieces of willow have been drying in my shop for several months now, waiting to be picked up again and reshaped into something new.

Some small bits, however, were selected from the moment they came home.  They were destined to be the first willow burls I'd ever carved and, hopefully, be ready for my two Christmas shows.

I was surprised how wet the wood was, considering it was harvested in the fall.  There was so much sap that the fresh cut wood attracted large black wasps, crawling all over it as I removed the bark.

The next surprise was how quickly the willow lost its moisture. Once the rough carving was done, a warm, dry breeze meant I could do the final finishing within a couple weeks.

My main concern was the look of the final product; would it have an interesting grain or a pleasing colour?  The initial appearance wasn't encouraging; it was bland and pale in tone, but after the carving was done, the willow finished drying with a very mellow patina that I quite like.

I completed a few pieces in time for my shows and several of them sold; an encouraging beginning.


The remaining forty pieces wait impatiently in the back of the shop with a dozen or more other burls .  Hope springs eternal for a productive new year.
Here's wishing you health and happiness in 2014.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Willow Adventure

My neighbour had a willow tree he wanted removed.

The base was badly rotted and it was losing branches with each storm.

It also had burls of all sizes on the trunk and branches.

 I offered to take the tree down in exchange for the burls.

Felling the tree was the easy part...

With three men, two chainsaws, one tractor, two trucks, two trailers and seven hours, the cleanup was complete.

The pieces I kept made a substantial pile behind my shop.

The next day, I started debarking.

The burls turned out to be remarkably irregular under the bark.

As I debarked, I set the pieces in the shade to dry slowly.

I have another show in a bit more than a month's time and I hope I'll have some of these ready.

I've never carved willow before, so I'm not sure what I'm getting into.

Stay tuned....the adventure is just beginning.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Massey Harris Memories

I came across an old photo I'd forgotten existed, showing me on the tractor with Dad and two sisters in the trailer.

It's remarkable how simple things will trigger the most intense memories.  As soon as I saw the picture, I remembered the feeling of driving the tractor at that age (probably 10 or 11); sitting on the edge of the seat,   pushing the clutch and brake pedals with my bare feet.

The Massey Harris Colt was the second of three tractors my dad owned in his lifetime.  It was the only one he bought new (in fact, it was one of the few things he ever bought new), and it was the one on which I grew up.

I learned how to drive on that tractor; first, how to steer, then, as time went on, how to start and stop, shift gears, back up and, eventually, feather the throttle coming up over the hill with a full load of hay.  Even today, when I use a tractor, I can still hear Dad's voice coaching me.

I've always had a soft spot for the Massey Harris brand as it played such a large role in my growing up. Just recently, I found a Colt in Quebec and have added it to the collection.

 The rest of my family roll their collective eyes a bit when the topic comes up in conversation but, the grandchildren hold out great promise.  The two oldest can now steer (sitting on Poppa's lap) and they know how to turn off the engine.  Whenever they visit, driving the tractor is high on their list of things to do.

With four grandchildren, my hope is to have each one on a Massey Harris for a Canada Day parade.  2020 should be the right date; they'll be seven years older and I'll need that much time to get them restored.

Glengarry Wood Fair 2013

For the third consecutive year, I attended the Glengarry Wood Fair in Dunvegan, Ontario.  The weather was perfect and, once again, I was in the main pavilion.

With a three hour drive, there wasn't much time to get set up and, as usual, I was less than organized.  Fortunately, my cousin, Gaye, was with me and we were ready in short order.  Gaye also was the official photographer and helped out with customer relations.

The great thing about this show is that everyone who attends is into wood.  You can always count on interesting conversations and lots of compliments, especially for the large burl bowls.

Business was steady and several of my favourite pieces went to new homes.  Two cedar bowls from my own woods went quickly, as I expected.

In the end, a successful day, with plans to be back again next year.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

A Boy and His Tools

Growing up on the farm, I learned about work from my father.  There's hardly a day goes by that I don't think of him as I carry out everyday activities on our own property.

Part of that education was learning about tools.  Starting with a hammer and working up through the range of hand tools we had on the farm, laid the foundation for a life of building, design and creativity.

Our first grandchild, at an early age, showed interest in whatever his dad was doing.  I started looking for real tools sized to a child's hand.  The first was a hammer, which he used with enthusiasm.

As time went on, he showed real aptitude for building, watching intently as the construction crew built the addition on his parents' home, and helping his dad or me whenever the opportunity arose.  Now, almost nine, he looks forward to visiting the farm to drive tractor and work with his poppa.

During the last visit, I was building a long promised deck.  This time, I showed him how to hold the cordless drill to get the maximum power from it; easing the trigger until the screw began to catch and pushing with his free hand.

I would leave every other screw up for him to finish and he would follow behind with the second drill.  It was a multi-day job and he would wander off to do other things at times, but always came back to his "work".

Grandchildren have a wonderful way of helping you remember your own youth; the mastering of a new skill, the pride of accomplishment. 

 Being part of their growth is the greatest joy of all.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Office Table

One of the most satisfying aspects of my woodworkng is that I'm involved in every step of the process, from the tree standing in the woods, to the delivery of the finished piece.

The downside is that my production rate is low, due to the time taken in the other steps; logging, sawing, drying, sorting and dressing.  It would be so much easier to just buy my wood at the local store.

However, once in a while, a project comes along that reminds me why I do this.

This spring, in between raccoon-proofing my shop and working on a deck (I promised my wife a year ago), I received a commission.

The client was familiar with my work and is a woodworker himself so, when he asked me to build a table for his office, I was a bit apprehensive, especially when he was not very specific.

He gave me the overall dimensions, said that he preferred maple and cherry, and wanted two drawers.

I found a pair of bookmatched, quarter sawn boards I had sawn from a large sugar maple several years before.  The two boards were wide enough to make the top, and we agreed on a harvest table style with wane edges.

Using wane edge lumber ensures the finished piece has a unique personality; no two boards are ever the same.  This also applies to "imperfections" such as spaulting, bark inclusions and spile holes.  In this case, the spike knot in the front apron meant that there was considerable curl which really popped when the finish was applied.

The cherry for the drawer fronts came from a local tree which had yielded a small amount of material with amazing curl.  I had been saving it for a special occasion, and decided to use some of it on this project.

All in all, a very satisfying result; now I have a deck to build.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Tree House

When I was not yet in high school, my dad built a tree fort in an elm beside the barn.  I remember coming home on the school bus each day, eager to see his progress.  He did not usually take on such a frivolous project, but this would have been in the spring between the planting and the haying, when he had a bit of spare time.

My sisters used it as a play house; for me, of course, it was a fort.  Whenever a friend was over, we would use it as our base of operations. 

Summer 2012, a get-together was planned for my wife's family.  There would be a dozen or more grandchildren about and I decided to build a tree house.

A cherry tree near the barn had three branches which showed potential as the main supports and I began with some red cedar posts for joists, trimming them with a chainsaw.  A white cedar deck followed, with a railing made from western red cedar recycled from a neighbour's deck.  A ridge pole and blue tarp made the roof.

The weekend of the reunion, the structure was a great hit and everyone, even the youngest wanted to come aboard.  The older children were very careful to keep the little ones safe and, eventually, mothers and grandmothers relaxed.
I was curious to see if it would be a house or a fort, but it actually became a science lab as the children collected bugs and assorted things and took them up for further study.
A highlight of a wonderful weekend!  Hopefully, in the years ahead, it will be the centre of many adventures.