Green woodworker Jon Mac

Hi Jon, can you tell me a bit about who you are and what you do?

Well, that’s a very good question which deserves a long answer. However, I’ll keep it short. I live with my wonderful wife, Sarah, in the relatively quiet and peaceful county of Devon down in the West Country. I’ve been here for 30 years or so, and I’m still not considered a local. I guess my number one passion is hill walking and camping. As a self taught navigator, I’ve passed all the tests in getting cold and wet on our local plateau, Dartmoor. Back in my thirties, I bravely contacted our local Mountain Rescue team and was accepted as a trainee. I honed my skills during my seven years with the team. Most of our work was conducted at night in appalling conditions. I still made time for camping and wondered about a pastime whilst being out in the wilds. I always carried a knife, so I started small time stick whittling. At the turn of the century I spent some years working on the continent, living from my old sidecar and learning about self sufficiency on the road – cooking French style meals from a Trangia and making wooden things to poke at my cooking. Eventually the travelling came to an end, and I started carving for real. I still walk the local hills and coast paths and we camp whenever we can. I’m an avid photographer who is overly critical of my own work, but I have sold prints to the discerning. I design carving and camp/bushcraft knives. And of course, I still carve, and I’m still learning as I go as one always does.

walking sticks in front of Dartmoor

I’ve long admired the design of your kuksas. Can you tell me what a kuksa is?

From the very start of my carving journey, I made the conscious decision to go my own way and devise my own carving style without outside influence. The very first kuksa I carved was from the wrong wood type, and I used only a knife and axe. I still have it and I learned a lot from the time taken with it. It’s ugly, but it’d hold a drink. I quickly learned that green wood was the way forward.

Now, what is a kuksa? The English speakers of the world have borrowed the word kuksa from our Scandinavian neighbours. A kuksa, guksi or kasa is a noggin, a wooden drinking vessel used by folk through the ages. The word kuksa has become associated with wooden, bushcraft drinking vessels and stories of voyagers plying their trade in the northern territories. Back in the day, I shouldn’t wonder if it was important for a person to be able to carve a cup with their knife, wherever you are, especially if you’re down to your last quid. Self reliance and ability to repair your equipment would have been everyday in most parts of the world.

a fish-shaped kuksa

The kuksa is normally carved from a bur, quite often a birch bur. Birch bur is uncommon down here in the west country, so I carve my kuksa from straight grain birch. I still use axe and knife. I’ve added the spoon knife to my tool kit though. I use no vice, bench dogs or bench fast for kuksa carving. Everything is done from the hand, on a stump. It’s a slow process that takes energy, confidence and determination.

Also, ale hens: what’s an ale hen?

What is an ale hen? Well it’s a fancy kuksa that has an avian like quality or perhaps it’s dragon like. These are my favourites to carve. I have sold a few to folk worldwide including a good friend up in Nunavut, Canada. I have a few here at home, one of which I carved for Sarah and my wedding. It’s more elaborate than a kuksa in that it possesses a shape usually including head and tail. These are more of a challenge to carve and decorate. One day I might be quite good at it, but there’s still a way to go. I’m lead to believe they were used ceremonially in group gatherings. Imagine a number of elaborately carved ale hens floating in a large vat of mead at the entrance to the long house where you’ve been invited to a gathering. You enter and scoop up a hen along with some mead and join the other guests. Perhaps it’s imagination, but isn’t that what folk art is all about?

ale hen on a rock
An ale hen is a fancy kuksa that has an avian like quality.

Where do you get your inspiration from when you sit down to carve them?

Well I think it’s mainly the place where I live. My home is hilly, the hills are caused by a 300 million year old up-pouring of granite which destroyed the overlying sediments. Those millions of years has eroded the sediment, leaving beautiful round, feminine hills. Wonderful curves from which an artist can gain inspiration. I also study wildlife, in particular our avian friends. I also learned a lot from the chickens that lived with us a few homes ago.

I don’t tend to look at other peoples work to gain inspiration. If I did I would find it difficult to separate my imaginings from whatever it was I was studying. I’m hopeful that my designs are original. My first kuksa design was what I call a beaver tail. Before I carved it I scoured the internet to see if the design stood alone, it did, so I continued. It’s been a much copied design which is possibly why I prefer to carve Ale hens.

You’ve said you enjoy using few tools, which do you use and why do you choose them?

I decided right from the start that I would limit myself to carving with tools that I might naturally take with me on camp. A knife for food prep and a spot of wood work, an axe for firewood and the spoon knife or hook knife which is probably a luxury addition, but it weighs next to nothing and is extremely useful. I’ve subsequently learned a couple of techniques to carve a spoon without the need of a hook knife, but I’d recommend having one in a kit. Something that is often overlooked and often goes unmentioned is the service equipment that goes with these tools. Equally important are the sharpening stones and strop.

I started off using Frost/Mora knives and was quite content to do so, although the handle design leaves something to be desired. I moved over to a carpenters knife made by H. Roselli which I found to be a lovely little knife. I subsequently designed my own straight carving knives and bushcraft knives with ergonomics to the fore and including the advice of C.Grant on the use of superior steel types: the MaChris range of knives.

MaChris bushcraft knife
The new MaChris bushcraft knife Sandvik 14C28N

I’ve had a lifetime of working with my hands, and fully understand how most tools are designed with the copy machine in mind – and not the human hand it will ultimately be held by. I hope I have overcome this design discrepancy, and at the moment I am moving forward to make my designs readily available to the public.

Have you got any advice about choosing wood for carving bowls and cups?

Discussing which wood type is suitable for carving is a subject that I have learned to be a tricky one. It is easy for me to tell people of the benefits of using birch, my personal favourite. However, having that question posed by folk who live worldwide and not local to me throws up many questions. Often folk who live further south on the planet ask the question and don’t have access to my common local arboreal trees. I always try and help folk in their choice if I can. I’ve carved many tree species, but I often rely on the experience of the members of my FaceBook group (Spoon Carving First Steps) who obviously have relevant experience.

My own preference is birch or sycamore. I prefer my wood to be plain and not too fancy, although I probably miss sales as collectors often look for the more unusual wood types. I quite enjoy the challenge of carving fruit woods, and am lucky enough to live in an area that abounds with apple trees.

I look for straight or curved clean green wood. Three inches (7.6cm) dia is about the minimum for spoons, and you’ll need something six inches (15cm) dia and up for kuksas, realistically. Look for curved wood that might follow the lines – grain wise – of your spoon or kuksa/ ale hen. This results in a slightly stronger form without any short grain on the crank of the spoon.

In short, have a go. I’ve carved spoons from bits of H.M.S Victory and Cutty Sark. Just have fun and see what you can accomplish.

Have you got anything you’d say to someone who’s never carved before, but wants to have a go at kuksas?

Sharpen your tools, razor sharp. Find a good heavy stump. I carve sitting but you may wish to stand. Cut stump to suit. Start small and start with an idea of what you want design wise. Be realistic. Split and remove heart wood. Shape outer as quickly as possible within reason, then hollow.

If using bur, the job is harder physically, but you can take your time. Bur isn’t known for splitting. I leave all of my kuksas/hens and spoons with a good knife finish, but you’ll probably want to sand a bur kuksa. I would recommend using Abranet.

Don’t carve in direct sunlight and when you have to leave your carving overnight, try burying it in the days chippings and shavings.

Follow Jon’s journey.

I have an ongoing blog which I add to when I have the inclination. It’s full of pictorial tutorials which may help aspiring freehand carvers. I don’t use shave horses or anything fancy, so if you’re looking for help carving in the woods, it’s the place to go.

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