Magic: chops

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Owl chop

I recently read Benebell Wen’s brilliant book The Tao of Craft after hearing her on Gordon’s show.

One of the things that really caught my attention in the book was the idea that a Fu sigil or talisman should really be signed and sealed — that is, in the same way that a decree from the emperor would be signed and sealed, a Fu sigil carries the authority and mark of the creator. I explained this idea to my partner, who thought it was equally interesting. And so I decided to make a chop — a seal stick — for her, in part as practice for making my own. Which is part of the reason I made that captive ball a few days ago: I want to get better at wood carving, because it’s a useful skill to pair with woodworking generally, and because it will be a nice fit with the automata work I intend to do when the woodworking shop is up and functional again.

My partner frequently uses an owl as her emblem, so I went online and searched for how to carve an owl. This isn’t the one that I used, but it’s close enough — a series of photos of an owl carving.  I used basswood, because I don’t carve jade or soapstone (slightly different and sharper tools, more patience and care required); and I had the tools for this already. It’s a fairly simple procedure to carve an owl. It was also fairly simple to reverse and cut the runic-style emblem my partner uses for her magical sign, into the base of the chop. Except, I still screwed it up — and I’m going to have plane the bottom of her chop flat, and then cut it again.  I don’t have the tools out to do that yet, butI can certainly do something else while I wait to make that set of tools available.

img_3232From there, it was fairly simple to find a procedure for carving a bear. His advice about frequent sharpening is good — I sharpened my cutting tools about six times in the course of carving the bear, and I still wound up using too much force and chipping his right arm off.   I chose to do a statue against a pillar for my bear, because I want to have a place to practice chip carving, on the back of his pedestal; I already completed the small chip-carvings around the base, and I cut my own version of an emblem into the bottom of this seal.  I still think this won’t be my final seal, for me — the missing arm is a bummer.

So here we have an object that shares kinship with a magical-scribal-calligraphic tool from Chinese Taoist magic: a seal. But it’s carved in a Western style, with a Western character sign that indicates a person. And it could be used in western magic to do the same thing it does in Taoist magic: sign and authenticate and command the results in the name of the practitioner.

Is it cultural appropriation — Or cultural inspiration— to draw on the techniques and tools of other traditions to add to and build to the existing Western tradition? Ironically, I think this is part of the reason why I broke my bear at the last possible moment… because the character on the base of my chop is one I chose for myself from Chinese characters a decade or more ago.  But it’s not my emblem to use, nor my tradition. And so, this one is broken, and I’ll have to make it again.

But I still think it showcases what’s possible, what’s within the realm of workability.  The folk tradition of carving already exists in the West; the tradition of ‘enlivening’ statues and statuettes has been part of Western magic since Egypt; the idea of a personal seal to accompany a signature has fallen out of favor in the last two hundred years, but there are still signet rings in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and early Enlightenment periods… and we have evidence of signets or seals all the way back into Babylon and Sumer, at least.

Maybe it’s time to re-awaken the idea of a personal seal.

Wood: captive ball

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Stage two unlocked!

One of the basic exercises for woodcarvers is the creation of the Captive Ball, or Ball in a Cage.  Usually carved of a relatively soft wood like this basswood at first, then moving up to more complicated materials, the idea is to improve both knife and safety skills.

I only managed to get one small cut on the tip of my index finger while making this.  No bleeding — just a nip of the blade and a small pain.  When woodcarving, it’s difficult to aim the blade away from oneself the whole time; therefore the blade needs to be extra sharp so that you avoid trying to force it.  Chip Barton, the master woodcarver, explains in his book that you should sharpen your woodcarving tools at a fairly steep angle, first of all; and second that you should use a coarse stone, a fine stone, and then sandpaper mounted to paint stirrer-sticks at 800 grit, 1500 grit, 2000 grit, and 2500 grit if you can find it.  I made a set of sticks like that, and it was awe-inspiring how sharp I could get my blades; with practice, I’m sure I can get them even sharper.

Sharp tools are scary to some people, and I suppose with good reason. The assumption is that you’re at greater risk from a sharp tool, because it will cut deeper into the person holding it during an accident. But dull tools put one in the mindset that more force needs to be applied… and so there’s this Catch-22 (as in the novel by Joseph Heller) — a dull tool inspires its user to apply more force, which increases the likelihood that the tool will break or slip, and cause an injury; a sharp tool cuts more cleanly and carefully, and so less force needs to be applied… BUT, of course, the act of using a very sharp tool gradually dulls it. Which means that as the user gets tired, the tool is also getting ‘tired’, and the chances of an accident rises with the length of time one works with hand tools.

Spoons

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I carved two spoons today. The first had a long and spindly handle and I accidentally punched through the bowl of the spoon as I neared completion of it.

The second I was much more conservative with, and decided to leave off when it reached a state of “rustic but pleasing.”  The top spoon of course is the spindly one. The bottom one in the photo is the more conservative one.

Spoons are easier to carve than chip-carved panels. But they’re more of a high-wire act. The closer you get to “done” the more careful you must be. The closer you are to being “done”, though, the more risk you must take to get the curves smoothed out.

Chip carving 

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Chip carving is done with a pair of specialty carving knives  and a lot of patience. I did my first piece today.

It’s not just a piece of chip carving though. It’s also a stamp, I think. A woodcut. It will print a pattern — possibly on fabric or paper.

Most chip carving is done with three styles of carving — three basic types of cuts. The first and second types are three-sided carvings and straight lines. This design is mostly these two types of cuts. The third kind, largely not shown here, is the two-sided cut. These are all done with the same knife, a so-called chip-carver knife. 

There’s also a decorative element done with a different knife, called a stab-cut. 
The three elements of this kind of carving that I can see, right now, is that the quality of the work is dependent on the sharpness of the knife.

On the whole, my work isn’t bad. It’s the quality I’ve come to expect from myself as a beginner. But learning this work is part of my overall goals of furniture making, because I want to be able to include decorative elements like these in my design work.