Split wood and splinters

Dig out your tools, sling on your overalls and discover why sometimes rules aren't there to be broken at all.

By: Amie Knights,   3 minutes

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I live in a caravan. My neighbours, besides temperamental geese and a hissing landlord, include artists, boat builders, sculptors and foragers. Kneeling in my tin can chopping wood and cursing unwelcome knots, I thought it was about time I soaked up some of the abundant wood-smithing talent around me. So, with a Feed on the horizon, I sourced a table top, set myself up with a toolbox and pulled on the overalls ready for a day of skill-sponging.

Phoebe Oakenfold, resident whittling whiz, was my official tutor. Seeping enthusiasm, she fed me the name of Grinling Gibbons. The Dutch master woodcarver– who lived most of his adult life in England – was a pioneer and inspiration for many wood craftsmen to come. Born in 1648, this guy was a maverick. Blessed with a natural talent of giving wood the loose and airy lightness of flowers, he was commissioned by kings to decorate their houses and his work still survives today.  Gibbons also designed his own chisels which allowed him to perfect his own distinct style. These designs led the way for future woodcarvers.

I was inspired. I was glad to have Phoebe around, although I was sure I was channeling Grinling Gibbons, so was certain I’d be fine.  However, as the sky flickered from grey to rainbow throughout the day, my relationship with my varnished and laminated hardwood was destined to be just as temperamental. Anyone who knows anything about wood carving will have picked up my first two failings:

Mistakes numbers 1 through 2. Choosing to chisel a piece of wood which is not only hardwood, but also laminated.

‘Oh’, says Pheobe. ‘Interesting choice of material. It’ll be pretty challenging.’

So it was a less than brilliant start. Luckily, before she left me standing in the sawdust of my own mistakes, Phoebe wrote a few tips on a scrap piece of paper, which came in handy on more than one occasion.

Phoebe’s wood carving commandments:

  • Always chisel away from you
  • Stamp into the wood as guidelines and for effect
  • It’s all about levels and shadows

Being a maverick myself, I decided I’d work organically, let creativity flow through fingertips to chisel, chisel to wood. Having just learned the name of my tools I gradually started to doubt the justification for my earlier self-assurance. Never-the-less I threw plans to the wind and dug my metal in.

A circle I thought, a lovely centrepiece, perhaps a floral arrangement and a border. Gibbons-esque.

A circle. Hardwood. Laminated.  I’m freeze-framed. Chisel-wielding hand hovering above its prey. And future me is thinking, ‘Not so smart now, eh?’

Mistake number three. Attempting to carve against the grain on a laminated piece of hardwood.  

Battling against the grain leaves my well intentioned centrepiece splintered and split, a thatched mess of varnished sinew. Through a haze of profane exclamations I continued to chip, hack and sand away at my previous mistakes. Hours later I’ve produced something in a style which Phoebe described as ‘crude’. I’ll let you decide the intention of this comment.

This is where I should have stopped.

But wouldn’t a border be lovely? How hard can that be? Just a straight groove along the edges. This is where that scrap bit of paper from Phoebe should have come in handy once more. But no. I broke Phoebe’s first commandment.

Mistake number 4. Chiselling towards my hand.

Wrapped round the tip of my thumb, blood ran into Phoebe’s pencilled notes.

So at the end of my Feed I had a crescent shaped scar, a sun motif etched into my table top, an unfinished border, an increased appreciation for woodcarvers and an itch to do it all again.

I felt a kinship with Gibbons. I too had my own style, all be it ‘crude’. Perhaps I’ll be commissioned by royalty too. Perhaps not.


What have I learnt? Sometimes rules are there for a reason and knowing which tools to use when can be invaluable. That said, a hefty dose of can-do and a creative spirit is a great start.

Here’s to digging the metal in.

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