In my last post here, a commenter asked about my workspace, particularly if I work at a bench, or table, or what, and also about the green mat that you often see in the pictures under my work piece. I actually took a picture of my workspace a couple years ago...
While I was answering that comment on the last post, I realized that I actually get a lot of questions about my workspace, and there are really a lot of considerations, so thought that might be a good topic for a new post here, especially if any newer carvers who may wonder about these things (like I did/do) happen to be reading this.
A couple mornings each week, I do sit at a regular table to carve, either at a rec center or park shelter next to the river...
Really, most of the time, though, I do most of my carving holding the spoon in my left hand (wearing a kevlar carving glove!!!), in my armchair. That used to be the Lazyboy shown above, but that's in another room now, awaiting re-upholstering because the fabric is too worn, so now my chair is a hand-me-down cushiony leather recliner. Leather is great - especially for sweeping off chips and dust, but I'm starting to think that maybe the sitting position is not quite as supportive as the lazyboy was. All that said, I do prefer to work at a table as much as I can, especially in certain scenarios. For a little more than 3 years when I started carving, I never even considered carving at a table (it just didn't cross my mind). (Most of that time, I was working way more than full time, so except for the last 7 or 8 months, the carving was pretty infrequent, and not usually more than a few hours at a time) So without giving it much thought, I just sat in my favorite chair, and started carving, holding my work piece in my left hand.
First, a little digression, though - On July 1st, 2009, I went to Washington, DC to see Mike Davies at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which was featuring Wales that year. Mike has played a critical role in elevating the Welsh Lovespoon to the fine art it can often be today, and has made lovespoons for people such as the Queen of England. When I first did a quick search to learn about the tradition, I wasn't as interested (though I did think it was a lovely sentiment), until I came upon Mike Davies' website. After a quick look at his site, I decided that there ARE at least SOME people who make an art of it (which made it much more interesting to me), so I ended my search, having been convinced that this WAS a tradition I'd like to try, and wanting to avoid being too influenced by the carvings of others. It wasn't until a year or so later that I took a closer look at Mike's site, and realized just what a rock-star Mike actually is (at least, in the world of lovespoons). Completely star-struck, I chattered at him all day about who knows what, but also, I just watched him carve. I do remember asking him if he had any advice, and he said to explore and study as many types of carving as I could, because I would learn from them all. But I digress - I gained a WEALTH of information from watching him that day, but probably the biggest revelation for me was that he mostly worked on a table.
So simple, right? But it honestly had never crossed my mind until I saw him. He sometimes used a mallet, too - well - a log, but still - if you can secure the piece on your table, you get the option to use a mallet, too. But, the main advantage I noticed about using a table was the enormous amount of leverage gained, and sparing your left hand. That is why I do PREFER a table, when possible. Still, it doesn't always work for me.
A table provides leverage, but is also in a fixed position. So, if the work can't rest on a table (or be propped into the position I need with a supportive cushion or something under it), then I can't use it. For a lot of my spoons, I have a lot of open space or fretwork, and I like to carve as much "in the round" as I can, which often means constantly turning the piece in every direction while I carve around any given feature. Also, since on my spoons, everything is usually so small, I am not often carving in one position for very long. So, even when I am carving at a perfect table setup, I still find myself picking up the spoon and working with it in my hand. On that Four Seasons spoon I featured in my last post, however, it was much larger than usual, and also had some large, and relatively flat elements. That allowed a lot more work on a table than usual. Maybe 50%? I usually set spoons on the table when I'm carving the interiors of bowls, carving details in relief, or for scooping away a large amounts of wood (this usually involves a little more pressure than the details, so I also make very sure no other part of the spoon is at risk from being pressed against the table, or the pressure from my tools). Sometimes (even using something extremely flexible like a folded up dish towel), I can't safely and equally support all the areas that would get pressure from either me or the table while I'm carving, so you're carving, so I just hold it in my hand, anyway.
Tables are not that portable. First of all, there isn't a table in the room where I usually carve. You'd think I work in a regular woodworking shop in the basement or something, right? Nope. Carving takes a long time, and I don't like being away from my dogs for a long time if I don't have to be, so I really only use my basement shop (where I don't bring the dogs) for work that would be too loud or messy, or requires large tools that I want to keep down there. So, I'd already decided that the room with my armchair was better. But what to do about a table... Well, the first thing I tried was a wooden serving tray. I could put that on my lap, and still get the leverage of a table, but it was very portable, and even had edges to help contain the chips. This was a nice idea, but I quickly found that even if the spoon was small, the tray still was pretty limited in how I could move it around, so I'd not only have to move my spoon, but also the tray, which is, well, less than ideal. I needed a bigger surface, or at least one without an edge on every side. I also considered a folding card-table, and a folding TV table. Both of these worked well enough, and were an ok height when I sat on the edge of the armchair. The portability is great, at least for that room, and they are stable enough for carving. If I think I'll need a table when I carve elsewhere, I can always bring the tray, or, a friend made me a lap table that is a little bigger than the tray, has sides I can hold with the outsides of my legs, and even has a handle, so it's also a great option. Even when I hold my carving in my hand, though, a surface comes in handy for holding tools, etc.
Tables are smooth and slippery, and made of WOOD. Next to consider was that, even if I held down my work with my left hand (which I pretty much always do), the work likes to move around on the table. Also, I didn't really want to destroy whatever table or tray I was carving on, and likewise, didn't want the hard wooden surface to mar or break some detail on the side of my work piece that may have already been carved, and was resting against the table. So, I got a side of medium/heavy leather on clearance from a leather supplier (I don't know - maybe $30?), and I cut a rectangle (near the size of the surface of a TV table), and use it like a bench hook. I also made some sheaths for some of my tools (like my bent knife), and some multi-tool pouches that hold my favorite tools. I've given away a couple other rectangles to some friends to use as carving mats, too, and I still have about half of the leather left, so when I wear out this rectangle, I can just cut another. You can also get sample leather (usually about 8x10) from leather suppliers really really cheap. This one probably has a couple years left, at least. The leather happens to have a nu-buck finish, which I think is especially good, though I think most other finishes would also be fine. A lot of people I know use that rubberized foam mesh/web shelf liner in the same way. It works well as a bench hook, but doesn't protect things as well as the leather does. Also, when I'm done carving, I roll up my spoon(s) in the leather, and it fits nicely in my little carving tote, and it's firm enough to protect delicate spoons and pointy edges from the other perils or pressure from other things in transit. So that's all good. Maybe one of these days I'll glue a bit of leather to my TV table to have a built-in strop, too, so I quit knocking it off the edge of the table like I do now.
Chips? They are easy enough to sweep up, but then, I'm not a neat freak, and my husband seems to love me anyway. I know - it's a mystery to me, too. But, in all seriousness, when I carve on a table, most chips stay there, and the table is out in the middle of the room enough so it's even easy to sweep up most of the flyers. And, the ones that land on me (most of them, when I'm carving in my hand), fall or get brushed off when I stand up, and again, are in the middle of the room and easy enough to sweep up. Admittedly, though, there are probably a few chips under every piece of furniture in this room, and probably in other rooms, too. But, even if I carved in the basement, I would probably leave a trail of chips around the house.
No matter how perfect my setup is, I have to always try to remember my posture, and remember to frequently stop to look across the room so I don't strain my eyes, and stretch my hands and rest my wrists, and get up and stretch my legs.... and I keep finding myself with my legs crossed and my head tilted, which seems to be creating some nerve issues - your spine is very important. I have to keep thinking "ballerina/carver! ballerina/carver!" and maybe take up archery again, too.
Anyway, I think I'm procrastinating. I've got several spoons and about a zillion pens I'm turning that I should get back to working on now. Maybe next time I'll have something to talk about that I won't drone on and on and on about.... until then, have fun carving, or doing whatever you do!