Monday 9 July 2018
When did you first get a taste for woodcarving?
I carved my first dagger with a penknife at the age of four and proudly took it to school to show my teacher. Needless to say she confiscated it, much to the fury of my Dad who gave her an earbending on the value of 'encouragement'. My Dad bought me the penknife, and I remember his words: “Before I give it to you I'll have to sharpen it because blunt knives are dangerous.” He was my inspiration in those days. Today, I am inspired by Grinling Gibbons, Ian Norbury, Jonathan Fearnhead and Judith Nicoll.
What motivates you?
I have always liked making things and wood is a particularly nice medium to work with. I can easily spend 4-6 hours a day absorbed in carving. There isn't much that can't be made from wood – most shapes are possible.
What would you say is unique about your carving style that's instantly recognisable?
People say they know my style for its intricate detail with surfaces that are so smooth. I spend a fair amount of time on finishing using needle files and abrasives, checking work through magnifying glasses. Look out for my signature on my work – JK – I'm also known as Jim!
Where would we have seen your carvings exhibited?
I've displayed my work at quite a few places such as Alexandra Palace; Westonbirt Arboretum's 'Festival of the Tree'; Wembley Exhibition Centre; Sandown Park; Cressing Temple Barns Woodworking Exhibition in Essex and at the Hatfield House 'Living Crafts Show'. In competition I've been fortunate to win 11 gold medals at some of these events.
What have been your greatest challenges?
Well, as you know, 'Impossibilities are quite difficult, but miracles are even worse!' Definitely the 'Chinese Dragon' has been the most difficult project I've tackled. The refinement was very tricky. Another challenge was 'Tripitaka' (Tang Seng), completed in June 2012, carved in lime (Tilia vulgaris) in 250 hours, inspired by Chinese mythology of the 'Tales of Monkey'. Tripitaka was a monk whose disciples protected him from the enemies he encountered along his journey to retrieve the sacred scrolls. The reins and harness, which are integral, were extremely delicate.
This series also includes my carving of the main character, the mischievous 'Monkey King' who broke into the Palace to steal the golden peach, which made him immortal. He was jailed for 1,000 years, but released by Buddha to escort and protect Tripitaka. 'Sandman the Priest' and 'Pigman' complete the four main characters in the tale. Each posed challenges!
What advice and technical tips can you share with us?
Being an engineer, I always begin my carvings with drawings, referring to many books and other sources to get the details accurate. Spoon designs come from 'doodlings' and reflect the life of the person for whom the spoon is intended. Scale is so important. For example, when preparing drawings, I always draw a figure with one arm outstretched and the other bent at the elbow.
I cannot stress highly enough the need to use very sharp chisels. After the roughing out, I pare down with scalpels. I finish most carvings with Abranet abrasive mesh through grades up to 600 grit. Finally, pieces are coated with satin varnish. The first coat brings the grain up, so the wood must be smoothed off with abrasive and recoated with varnish a couple more times. I finish off with a final flash coat of varnish.
You've been busy with commissions – can you tell us about them?
Commissions come from word of mouth – I never advertise. My first carving commission was for people I met in the Lake District who saw me carving a spoon. They asked for a tiger, which I carved in zebrano (Microberlinia brazzavillensis). Then came a springer spaniel for a breeder in Chester. My carvings can be found in Australia, and interestingly, there is one now owned by the only policeman in the Pitcairn Islands! More recently, I've completed a triple panel to display the names of church wardens of St Mary's Church, Kenton, London. It has a 100mm frame all covered with foliage. Stanton Church in Suffolk has hymn and psalm number boards framed with oak leaves and acorns.
One gentleman took delight in one of my gold-medal winning pair of carvings at an exhibition at Alexandra Palace, which were not for sale. After three years of him pestering me to sell it, we came to a compromise in that I would carve him another pair. Frustratingly, having spent hours doing this, he refused to buy it because it was the 'original' one he wanted! My daughter-in-law was over the moon with the saga because they became a gift for her. Every cloud has a silver lining!
What are your dreams for the future?
To have the names of our national woodcarvers, amateur and professional, recognised internationally. They have talent, focus, patience, so much creativity and are a dab hand at research too – role models to be in awe of!