Carving Snowflakes

I’d been looking for a simple theme for a group of chip carvings that I planned for use on bellows and possibly other items. Though I have always liked the rosette pattern on my current chip carved bellows, I wanted some fresh designs to work on, and snowflakes seemed like an ideal subject. Part of the appeal for me is the combination of tremendous variability within a very structured setting; also that the angular cuts made by the carving knife seem to naturally compliment a crystalline structure like a snowflake.

What I’m looking for, in part, in this exercise, is release from the need to come up with a subject. I find it is all too easy for me to get tangled up in a variety of ideas and end up in the “paralysis of analysis” trap. I’ve never tried to make a series of items based on the same theme before; I’m hoping that imposing the framework of the snowflakes on my design will be in some sense liberating, by freeing me from the trap of forever debating the merits of different subjects.

I don’t have a set number of these I plan to make or a set schedule for making them. I want to do at least a dozen and don’t want to spend much more than a year getting them done, but I’m not holding myself to a strict one-per-month schedule, and I’m not setting the final number in stone either. Most of that will be determined by how this experiment goes. My main aims are to sharpen my design and chip carving skills, and in the best of worlds, sell a few of them.

Like snowflakes themselves, each of these bellows will be unique. The process by which I make them assures that. Instead of drafting them in advance and using a master pattern, I compose each one on the bellows blank with a compass and straightedge. I actually do the rosettes this way, too, but with them, I at least look at a picture when I’m doing it and try to make a good copy. With the snowflakes I’m starting from scratch each time, knowing only that I am sticking with a six-sided, symmetrical figure.

Still, if there was ever an iconic symbol of the infinite possibilities that reside within a rigid framework, then the snowflake is it, so I can’t complain that the form is too restrictive to allow any imagination. My first two snowflake designs are somewhat timid in the sense that they are pretty “realistic” snowflakes (not that I have any idea if snow crystals such as these could ever really form) in that they are six sided, with six identical arms each made up mostly of six-sided segments. All the lines are straight, etc. I think I may stick with that style for a bit before possibly branching off into a more abstract style, but I’ll take that as it goes. I’m trying to cultivate a certain attitude of being an observer as much as the director of this undertaking.

Thankfully six-sided figures are easily laid out. If you draw a circle and (without changing the setting) walk the compass around the perimeter, it will neatly divide the circle into six segments for you. Drawing diameter lines through these points gives me a pie-shaped framework to start with, after which it is mostly a matter of laying out a single arm of the flake and then repeating it around the pattern. I tend to build them up one element at a time, adding a feature to all six arms, and seeing if I like the overall effect. Eventually, when I feel I’ve got a full design that looks pleasing to my eye, I stop and start carving next. I also tend to carve one part of the pattern all the way around, to see what it looks like in 3D, before finishing the rest of the design. I always do the large single flake on the front first, usually carving quite a bit of it before even starting to lay out the side with the air hole.

Chip carving is a pretty quiet and peaceful activity. In essence you keep doing the same thing over and over again, making cuts along the layout lines at the same consistent angle, and popping out nice neat triangular chips along the way. At least, that’s how it goes in the instruction books, and occasionally even in real life. Of course sometimes, when I’m cutting a little tiny chip out, it doesn’t take much of a slip to cut too far and take out part of the chip next to the one I wanted. This requires keeping track of the tiny chip I just cut out by accident and immediately gluing it back in where it belongs, assuming I didn’t lose it among all the many other tiny chips of wood all around, or send it flying with an ill-directed breath. Sometimes the wood tears or breaks, and sometimes the knife slips. I work carefully, try to keep the mistakes to a minimum, fix the ones I make the best I can, and eventually finish the pattern.

After that, I sand off all of the pencil lines used to lay the pattern out, and when both paddles of the bellows are sanded smooth and clean, they get several coats of orange shellac applied with a brush and a rag. Then the leather is added, and they’re done.

I don’t really know exactly what to expect from this. Certainly one tangible result would be working faster while making fewer mistakes, but I think I’ll be disappointed if that’s all that comes from it. Hopefully I can clear open some clogged creative arteries with this regimen as well. Time will tell, I guess.

I currently have the two bellows you see in this article, but I will continue to add the photos of new ones as they come along. Thanks for reading this far and let me know your thoughts.
Take care.

snowflake fireplace bellowsSnowflake fireplace bellows
snowflake fireplace bellowssnowflake fireplace bellows

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  • paperkingdoms

    Beautiful! I think it’s excellent to find a not-too-structured structure to play with. I hope it continues to go well.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks! I’ve enjoyed doing the first two. I think my next one is going to be more plate-like than star-like.

  • dovetail jig

    How long this woodwork did
    took you to finish it? It looks so special.

    • Roy

      Each of the bellows so far, has taken about 5 or 6 hours to carve, and another hour or so to draw.