Friday, September 23, 2016

Making mine smaller

Here's the reground tip with the piece I broke off.

The shortened tool, ready to go to work.
As I learned from David Sander's book on engraving, and as I've heard from a couple of full-time engravers, the tools I got from Lyons (via McClain's) as well many of the tools that came from my recent  Ebay purchase are too long.
For proper engraving the "mushroom" handle fits in the palm of the hand (and is the driving force) and the point of the tool should be at or just beyond the ball of the thumb for control and leverage.
Many tools were sold much too long and had to be shortened.  That was left to the engraver, but usually the tool would be put in a vise, and a sharp rap with a hammer would break off the tip, and a new point had to be sharpened (or the shank end was reground to fit in the handle).

It's hard to get up the courage to break off 1/3 of the working edge of the tool you just bought.
It feels wasteful and I wasn't sure I was up to proper sharpening.
BUT, I want tools I can use, and several of these; a couple of angle tints and scorpers are missing from my tool kit and needed on the block I'm currently carving.

So I've been doing 1-2 at a time, snapping them off, and then grinding them down with water stones to 30-40degree bevels and taking the time to get them really sharp.

I'm cutting the legs of a mosquito, so I need very sharp tools that I can control (and decent magnification).
More soon. 

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Mosquito paralysis

My first clumsy engravings were really carved almost without thinking.  I didn't really consider what I was doing. I had a block, and a couple of tools so I just cut them and printed the resulting image without giving any thought to how I was working or the still unknown ways of working in wood engraving.

After finishing my last simple Puppet engraving, I finally picked up a copy of Simon Brett's book,"Wood Engraving How to do it",  that I had purchased some time ago.   I must admit that going through it has sort of stopped me in my tracks.
There is a great deal of useful information and illustrations: this section on how to make a "sampler" of the tools and the different ways to consider letters is really helpful.
Illustration from Brett's book on engraving showing lettering styles.
But further on,  he discusses and illustrates the varying ways one can approach an image and this other series, illustrated to show multiple examples of the same image, engraved in differing ways has stopped me completely.  There are just too many choices--

Illustrations from S. Brett's Book on Engraving.

There are more examples--many more as this image gets resolved in many different ways and styles.
Many aren't suited to my work or habit but in theory, I should be pulling from these as needed when solving issues of tone and depth require differing techniques.

So I'm back to the block thinking: now what?
I've done enough trials on scrap wood that I'd like to try a piece of real boxwood and see what the smoother cutting and fine grain will allow.  I have a small off-cut of European Boxwood that I've been saving for a small work and I have an on-again, off-again series of parasites and small insects that I wanted to add to and I have many small mosquito thumbnails that I've drawn over the last weeks and from which I managed to cobble together an image I'm happy with.
The above photo shows my prepared drawing applied to the surface of my block. The block is just 2.5" in diameter so the image is pretty small.  So now I'm ready to go but I've been hesitating. Thinking for example of how to resolve the "tiger" aspect of the alternating black and white bands of the insect legs.
 And in this case, my small frail insect on a round of box can be resolved in lots of ways.....most of which I had never even considered until now.  The biggest decisions--whether to carve the insect as a white drawing lifted out of the black ground or to engrave around my drawing--preserving the drawing itself by cutting everything else away which is a bit more natural for me coming from my moku hanga experience.

The good news however is that while I've been procrastinating, mulling over in my mind what I think I'd like to do, I've been sharpening my tools. Slowly I've been selecting the gravers I'm likely to use, and they've been cleaned and sharpened and honed and then honed again and so are actually ready to cut.

Meanwhile, as I stare at the block, I have to keep the fan on as the mosquitoes are honing in on my exhaled CO2 and my bare ankles and calves under the table while I sit, inactive, thinking about the first cut.

Sunday, August 28, 2016


Letterpress 1: Andrew 0
Three words, 13 Letters, 2 spaces. What could possibly go wrong?
You can't imagine how many times I set up and then broke down the chase with my simple title.
Sure it  has to be upside down, and backwards and so I made it so. And yet somehow it was the wrong upside down, or the wrong backwards. I got the words backwards, but not the word order, or they were backwards but not upside down.....The chase will only go into the press one way, and I set the type wrong several times because I didn't take that into consideration. And in the final setup I missed the obvious (clearly visible if I hadn't already redone it 4-5 times....). I probably had it right a few of those times.....and then last night, when I was pretty sure I had it finally right:
I don't think that's a word.
Not even for scrabble.
But I'm not easily, or at least permanently, discouraged.
Today, with a fresh start, I sort of got it together......but not without a few hiccups.

But at last, I think I started using the tool closer to the way it's meant to be used.....

And so it begins.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

WoodLust: Part 2

Things happen sometimes seemingly by chance.

It was actually a fair amount of work to get the stumps to this point.

During a brief visit  to California about 4 years ago, I noticed, almost too late, that a neighbor was ripping out a boxwood hedge.  I drove by, then went around the block, parked the car and asked if I could have a few of the stumps...and as they were all destined for the landfill, they said, "less for us to haul away".  So I ran home, grabbed a wheelbarrow and threw 4-5 of the best-looking ones in the barrow and hurried home. As I was leaving for Italy the next day I just threw them under cover in the garage.

I knew boxwood was ideal for really fine detail in the Japanese woodblock prints I was making and I also knew that it was the traditional wood used in end-grain woodblock illustrations from about 1500 until the early 1900's.

And that's how I started engraving.
One of the first rounds off the stump, cut and polished by hand.

"Cardinal Climber", 2014. My very first wood engraving carved from the block above.
Encouraged by my first attempt and with the stumps still slowly seasoning,  I started reading about engraving, looking at the works of engravers and illustrators, and once back in Italy, I tried engraving small pieces of a few of the woods I had available locally; olive branches and the odd round of pear or apple from the pruning we do several times a year.   Jump ahead to this year,  and now after completing a few more engravings,  I decided that the wood was probably seasoned enough to try cutting.  Since my "test" blocks have always been hand-cut, the two surfaces were never perfectly parallel, and needed to be printed by hand with a baren or a spoon. But since I'm thinking of adding text and printing with a letterpress machine.....I needed to find someone with the right tools.

Fortunately I found a local furniture maker and craftsman who was able to cut down two of the better log/stumps into flat rounds. I had him cut them 240mm high, just a tad higher than French/German lead sanding and polishing should fix that.

So now I have a few years' worth of boxwood and it's time to get to work.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

The Puppet King

I  uncovered the pizza oven a few weeks ago and I noticed a strange log underneath that I didn't remember throwing under the tarp when I closed up the oven last summer. But it's been there, protected and drying for at least a year, and as I pulled it out I was struck by how heavy it felt....It clearly wasn't oak or madrone or a fruitwood, but it wasn't any of the exotics I cut down either--the tea tree or bottle brush or laurel that got heavily pruned last summer.
So I got a saw and cut off the stump end and then a round. And out of curiosity I started to sand it. 100-120-180-220-300-400-600-1200 and 1500 grits and about an hour or two later, I had a glass-smooth round of wood about 4" in diameter. The fact that it would polish to such a smooth finish suggested it might engrave well and so I went through a few sketchbooks and pulled out an idea I'd been thinking about since last year. I transferred the drawing to the block and started cutting.

This wood proved to be not suited to engraving after all and in my hands the end result is crude and rough.  The wood cut cleanly enough for simple lines but clearing or re-cutting tore and shredded the wood and real detail was impossible so I'm glad I purposely chose a simple, childlike image to engrave.

 My mask-like face turned into a puppet as I was carving and last-year's doodle became unexpectedly topical with the election circus going on in the news and the no-longer-hidden way that big business, oil and the pharmaceutical and agribusiness giants (and now the Russian government) seem to be controlling the people we elect to represent and protect the people.   I added the sets of eyes the background and the "King Puppet" became "The Puppet King".

"The Puppet King", wood engraving. 
I'm happy with how this came out. It's been almost a year since my last engraving and I needed the practice. Plus after meeting with a local engraver and making a few new acquisitions that I'll reveal shortly,  I'm really excited about my next one-- and this time on REAL wood and proper tools.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Summer Smile

Summer Smile, moku hanga-watercolor woodblock print. 5"x7" 2016.
It's here already.
There is so much that I meant to do before it got hot. And so much to do before I leave again.
I can't even begin to make a list.
But it's already too hot.
I sit in front of a table fan and wait for the sweat to evaporate and my head to clear.
Maybe some ice tea.
Or a slice of melon.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

A Day Late. A shell pea saga and metaphor for life.

A day late.....
As they used to say in New England. "old peas are bad business".
The harvest window for fresh shell peas is very short. Too soon and they're really tiny (but very sweet). Later, as the peas start to fill the pod, the pod is still shiny and green and the peas are tender and sugary. Too old and they get hard and starchy. There's a brief period (1-2 days) when they're perfect. Plump but not crowded and still round(ish) and tender and sweet and full of the flavor that is totally "Spring". But if you procrastinate even 1 day to pick them you can taste the difference. More than that and there's the internal debate as to whether you should pick them at all.  It's a dilemma for the farmer as the yield when they're small is really, really low, but if you wait just a couple more days, they're big and fat and (when you sell by the pound) almost profitable (but much less tasty).  But here they sell for 6-7€/kg (about $3.50/lb.) and if they're picked when they're small, you need a really long row have enough to harvest. Add to that the fact that peas needed to be sold the day they are picked or the sugars in the pea turn to starch--in the same way that the old-time corn varieties need to be cooked and eaten right away and it's the rare farmer than makes a profit selling shell peas.     These are Progress No. 9 Dwarf Shell peas. Planted in early Spring (rather than the Fall as is the usual custom here) AND Picked a few days AFTER that fleeting, perfect moment.

Many market growers now grow only Sugar Snap or similar Snap Peas.
They stay sweet longer and as the whole pea is edible it's a much better deal for the farmer and the consumer. (easier to pick, much longer harvest window and better value to both). 
The really hard ones, already a pale yellow and corrugated I left in the field.

Since I grew these we eat them. Cooked with some fresh garlic, some salt, and a pinch of sugar (to make up for what isn't in the peas any longer) they were still pretty decent.  Or braised with the last baby artichokes, a little wild fennel frond, some lettuce leaves and a few stray asparagus spears and they still vanish from the table in a flash, even if they're not so pretty.

P.S.S. This is why frozen, baby peas are probably a good value.  They're picked all at once by a combine and immediately blanched and frozen and at the scale they're grown commercially, much less costly to buy for a product that is usually of high quality (baby peas) and better than you can find  in the market unless you have a farmer that's better organized and attentive than I am.