Sunday, October 17, 2010

Taking Al Breed's Ball And Claw Carving Class


A gorgeous fall weekend in South Berwick, ME, and Rollinsford, NH.

This weekend I got to take Al Breed's Ball and Claw Carving class at The Breed School in Rollinsford, NH, just across the Salmon Falls River from South Berwick, Me. The class was fantastic. Al has spent over 30 years doing high end furniture reproduction. If you ever get a chance to spend some time with a museum-quality woodworker like Al, take it!

I found out about the class on the SAPFM forum. I hadn't been planning on doing anything like it, but the opportunity was there, and I've always had an interest in trying carving. After a brief e-mail exchange during which Al assured me that it was suitable for a complete novice, I signed up. This was actually my first woodworking class, and my first attempt at carving; I couldn't have asked for a better start.

He turned out to be an excellent teacher, patient, full of experience, and generous with his knowledge. His school is located in an old mill. It's jammed full of hand tools, patterns, and examples. There are 5 student workbenches and a sharpening area. Portable point-source lighting is available at each bench. Students can bring their own tools or use his. He graciously gave me permission to photograph anything I wanted to.


The mill in Rollinsford.


The falls above the mill.


My workstation. Note the stackable risers under the legs. These can be added or subtracted to adjust bench height for each student.


My workpiece and carving vise. The practice blanks are pine.

Remember I said Al is generous with his knowledge? He also gave me permission to do a blog post on building his carving vise, so I took plenty of detailed pictures. It's a simple, practical design that can be clamped or screwed to the bench. He said he designed it based on an old iron carving vise someone showed him.


Four of the student benches.


Opposite view.


Another view showing some of the many carving examples.


The sharpening station. Al does most of his sharpening on waterstones and leather-covered strop paddle.


Patterns for various legs.


A selection of planes and gauges, including a number of planes Al has made for reproducing period moldings.

Time to get to work. Al took us step-by-step through the operations. Throughout the two days, he constantly moved from bench to bench, checking on progress, helping us work through problems, and demonstrating cuts.

We each had a casting of the ball and claw version we were making. When I had first seen these castings online, I didn't appreciate them. However, I quickly learned to! Having a three dimensional object to turn and hold up to the work was much better than photos. Plus, you can hold carving chisels up to the casting to pick the right size for a particular cut.


Initial V-tool work.


Making good progress.

What happens when you take a class at a museum-quality studio? Your lunch table is insanely gorgeous!


For lunch, Al pulled out this magnificent reproduction of a Newport tea table he keeps at home. The original sold for eight million dollars; Sotheby's commissioned him to build copies for the family. However, he said the leg carving detail on this one wasn't good enough, though it's still worth ten thousand dollars. No one wanted to put their food down on it! After lunch we flipped it over on a blanket for closer examination.

Al compared learning to carve to an artist's gesture drawings, in which the artist tries to capture a subject with a quick 30-second sketch. Bold shapes define it, the details can come later. Repeated practice is what builds improvement. So once I had the first carving done, rather than spend time cleaning up tool marks, I started another on the other end of the blank.


Roughing in initial reference cuts with a saw. I was just able to finish this one yesterday.


I managed to complete two more carvings today. They're full of little gouges and tool marks, but I got the general process down. The rest is just refining.

I bought three castings from Al, one foot and two sequential fan carvings. That means they show the order of operations in sequence.

One of the other students, Rob Champagne, brought some cherry legs to carve. They're for a highboy he's building from one of Al's plans. He's already built a beautiful lowboy. Photos are here on The Breed School website.


Al, left, with Rob Champagne.

Remember I said Al was generous with his knowledge? Here's a final bonus. During lunch, he had mentioned that the new PBS show Rough Cut had filmed a segment with him, where he demonstrated cutting dovetails. So just before I left, I asked him about how he cuts them for fit. He said, "Here, I'll show you!"


No layout, just gauge the ends, mark indentations with chisel sides for width, and go, pins first. A unique way of holding the saw like a plumb bob that guarantees the tails will be cut square to the edge. Fast, and a nice snug fit that he called too loose!

During the hour-and-a-half drive home, I kept looking at the sweep of the roadway and visualizing cutting it with a carving gouge. I'll probably dream about it.

Al teaches several other carving and furniture-building classes. Some of the them are quite intensive, lasting a week or more. He said he plans to do more weekend classes. I hope to be able to take them!

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