Sunday, November 6, 2011

Taking Al Breed's Shell Carving Class

Al Breed showing how to handle the grain when carving the various angled lobes of the shell. Some cuts you have to push the gouge, some you have to pull it. He said 99% of carving is following the grain and knowing how the tools respond to it.

This weekend, Al Breed offered a shell carving class for the Guild of New Hampshire Woodworkers members participating in the Townsend document chest project. He had a full house of 12 students. Lunches were provided, excellent wraps and cookies from the Black Bean Cafe.

The chest has three shell carvings, two convex and one concave. The convex shells are carved out of blanks, then glued to the chest doors. That gives you a chance to try again if you make a mistake. The concave shell is carved in the solid out of a door panel, so a mistake can be more costly.

The pattern Al used for the class is a classic Newport shell. The shells on the chest are an earlier, smaller version. Al gave everyone a mahogany blank glued to a backer, a copy of the pattern, a sheet of carbon paper, and a reprint of his Master Class article from Fine Woodworking. He also set out castings of the pattern to follow (he sells the castings on his website; in addition to being a 3-D model, they show the step-by-step sequence of cuts, so they're like a self-contained class). The carbon paper is used to transfer the pattern to the blank.

Al demonstrates the initial rounding of the shell's top edge in a mahogany blank. It's glued to a backing board with hide glue and brown paper. The backing board provides a solid support that's secured to the bench. The paper makes it easy to release the carving once it's finished.

My blank after rounding, setting out of the lobes with a V-tool, and initial shaping of some of the concave lobes. The lobes are alternately convex and concave.

The class hard at work.

John Short working on his portable bench raiser. Oh yeah, I built a bench-on-bench for this kind of work...and didn't bring it!

Continued progress shaping the concave lobes to establish the fillet angles on the their sides. From here I scooped the lobes out.

By the end of the day, we all had creaking backs from concentrated stooping over the work. For the second day, I brought my bench-on-bench so I could work at a more comfortable height.

I also brought my Queen Anne foot stool to ask Al about some fine shaping details (getting the most out of my time with a museum-quality expert). The transitions from the curved tops of the knees to the straight sides of the post blocks weren't as fine as I'd like. He recommended using the square edges of metal-working files to get a crisp inside corner and smooth surface, as well as using them on the straight grain in the rabbet at the top of the post blocks. He also said I should bevel back the undersides of the knee blocks. That maximizes the visibility of their curves.

My workpiece secured to the bench-on-bench. I've completed rounding over the convex lobes.

Al demonstrates a pull stroke with a broad gouge to excavate the ellipse at the center of the shell.

Outlining the petals with a V-tool.

Scooping out the petals.

Emulating Al's technique on my ellipse.

My final piece. The lighting and stray guide lines make it a little hard to see. I did have to "erase" the ellipse and petals with a broad gouge and re-do them. Al said you can use custom scrapers and square-edge and round files to smooth everything down once the piece has been removed from the backer.

Al ended the class with a demonstration of carving a concave shell. The ellipse and petals are the same, but all the lobes are reversed, and the rounded field is sunken in.

Al roughly excavating the field.

Carving out the reversed lobes.

The other unique detail on this shell is a fine scrolling outline that follows the lobe ends. Controlling this requires a specific technique: steering with the handle, the thumb is rolled against the small back-bent gouge to advance it through the cut. This allows tracing out any curve in a continuous line.

I'll practice this a few times before it's time to make the shells for the chest. In some ways it's surprisingly easy, though it does take a lot of patience and concentration. It's also good to be bold. That gives the work a dynamic flow. Timid work looks flat. With over 30 years of practice, Al was able to do in minutes what took the rest of us all morning.


  1. That was a nice tour. I've been considering taking a carving class from Al and this pushes me a little further in that direction. Thanks!

  2. Thanks, Tico! I highly recommend it. Al has a wealth of knowledge, skill, and experience, and he's generous about sharing it. For a given class, he's obviously focused on that topic, but you can ask him about anything, and he'll be pulling out photos, museum books, auction catalogs, sample parts, and tools and explaining them.

  3. Looks great Steve. The ability to carve like that kicks your game up to a new level.

  4. The next class I want to take from Al is leaf carving. Leaf motifs are used in a number of places as applied carvings and on finished parts, ranging from simple to ornate. I love the graceful adornment on the knees of Newport table legs, understated and elegant.

  5. I had the privilege of spending a week with Al last year. He is great! Your work looks super.


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