Green woodworker Amy Umbel

These question-and-answer profiles seem quite popular, and it’s a joy to get to know folks by compiling them. So, I get to introduce you to the excellent Amy Umbel, of Fiddlehead Woodworking.

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Hi, can you tell me who you are and what you do?

Hi, Zach! Wow, you want me to tell you who I am? That’s a question that could be answered in so many ways. I am many things: a daughter, sister, aunt, friend, rabble rouser, general bad-ass, and a blue pants wearer. I love all those titles, but my heart and soul belongs to green woodworking. I live in an area that has been blessed with many different eastern hardwoods – black walnut, wild cherry, sassafras, poplar, sycamore, basswood – you name it. I currently live on our generational family farm, a stone’s throw from the house I grew up in, in Maryland and a mile from West Virginia (as the crow flies). It’s a beautiful area and I receive inspiration from the animals and woodlands here as well as from my cultural heritage. I was blessed to have grown up in an area where I could run off to the woods on an adventure, make hay-bale castles in the barn, and roll around in the mud when it was needed.

I was introduced to woodworking by my father who was a woodshop teacher and a cabinet maker. He bought me my first Eric Frost knife and Harley Refsal book on Swedish plane carving when I was about 10 years old. I’ve always loved carving. There is something beautiful about being close to the risk involved in hand carving that conventional woodworking does not present to me. It’s really meditative; a great way to get in touch with my creative energies and zone out in a way that I don’t encounter in other aspects of my daily life.

I know that you’re passionate about bowls, can you tell me what’s so great about wooden bowls?

Who knows where this mania comes from? All I know is I have to make bowls right now, so that’s what I’m doing. How can I explain something that is felt on such an intuitive level? There was a turning point for me in carving, though. I got to this point where I thought I had the basics down about bowl carving. Then I thought: how do I make this relevant to me and my culture? I kept seeing all this work that was very Scandinavian, but it didn’t feel right to try to make Scandinavian work, because I’m from the U.S.! I then tried to think about my context: the U.S., the east coast, the mountains, and my family. When I saw myself from that perspective, it became clear that I didn’t need to look further than myself and my upbringing for inspiration. We’re all surrounded by culture! I just try to be authentic, and make the things that I like and have meaning to me.

star-patterned, decorated bowl
Ohio Star bowl

I’ll use the example of a quilt to further illustrate my point. What does a handmade quilt represent? It’s not just about staying physically warm. If it were, folks wouldn’t cherish “Great Grandma’s Quilt” because it surely wouldn’t be warm after 100 years of use. Quilts are symbols. They represent familial ties, work ethic, larger cultural mores, and warmth on a symbolic level. In the same way, a bowl is a symbol. A handmade bowl represents more than the money you paid for it. It is a symbol of culture and community. Bowls are functional objects that are made to be used in daily life, in meals shared with family and friends. And, I want my work to be a celebration of these connections.

Also, as a side note, I was falling asleep one night and I thought, “Oh man! I want to make a bowl so big that I can sit in it!” Then I thought, “That’s a tub, Amy. You want to make a tub.” Then I laughed, and I laughed…

What particularly appeals about hand-hewing (instead of turning, for example)?

I want to make really large bowls, and I like the simplicity of non-electric woodworking. I know you can make beautiful bowls on a spring-pole lathe, but it doesn’t feel right to me. You still need a big heavy “set-up” and have a bunch of hooks, and know how to forge them and all that stuff. It’s just not for me. With hand-hewn bowls, I can take a few tools anywhere, chop out a bowl, and voila!, it’s finished. The same principle can be applied to power-lathe bowls. I could get into them (and I have made some on one). But I’m slightly terrified of the lathe, and you need all this extra stuff – a power plant, electric lines, a big machine, a face mask, a dust mask, the courage of the Spartan Army, etc. I don’t judge anyone doing this work, either. Don’t get me wrong! I love creativity, and if it’s your passion you should do it! It’s just not mine. For some reason, I’m obsessed with doing things as simply as possible.

What tools do you use?

I try not to get too carried away with tools, but I do have some favorites that stay in the lineup. I use a Gransfors-Bruks carving hatchet, Svante Djarv adze, 7/30 Pfeil Gouge, and a Mora 106 more than anything else. I also have a chainsaw, which I love. But in truth, my absolute favorite tool is my brain; and I try to use it as often as possible.

Amy carving a spoon

Which woods to you prefer to select?

For bowls, I’ve been using Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) because it is easy to acquire, grows quickly, and can become fairly large in circumference. On the flip side, it has a tendency to dull my tools, so I’m open to new species. But it’s just what I have at the moment. I’ve mostly been sticking to trees I can readily find on the farm and that need to come down or that have suffered storm damage, etc. I try not to cut something down that doesn’t need to come down. I want to practice responsible woodland stewardship.

What’s the biggest challenge in carving big bowls?

Right now I have so many ideas that I want to see in bowl form that I feel rushed and a bit impatient. Usually, when I have one bowl in the works, there are about 4 others being worked on in my mind. I also have some physical issues with my elbow, so many times it comes down to trying to get the piece as thin as possible as quickly as possible, and my arm isn’t always happy with that scenario.

On a non-personal level, I’d say the most difficult thing to master is getting the bowl thickness even, and knowing when to stop. When I first started making bowls a few years ago, I made a big beautiful walnut bowl and just when I was finishing it (and not paying attention) I carved right through it! I’ll never make that mistake again. I think if I ever start teaching, I’ll show my students my “bowl of shame” and the terrible spoons that live with it just so everyone sees that it’s a process of learning and forgiving mistakes.

What would you say to a new carver who wants to make a big bowl by hand?

On a concrete level, make sure your tools are sharp, rest your arm when you need to, use really green wood, keep thicknesses even and when you are drying out your bowl, use several bath towels wrapped around the bowl and check on it every day instead of using a plastic bag. That plastic bag idea is no good. It just creates a big soggy mess and the wood can end up sitting in condensation. Towels are much better.

On a personal level, I’d ask if they like to practice. When you decide to take up carving, the things you make during the first two years or so will not be very good. But if you stick with it over time, you will develop your techniques, your muscle memory, and a strong eye for design. Liking the process of practising and learning is what will make you successful. Don’t become stuck in strict dogma, be flexible, learn from your mistakes, and laugh a lot.

Really, all of this is about making things that feel authentic and relevant to us! Learn the basics, and then give yourself permission to be creative. You don’t need to impress anyone but yourself, so keep your nose to grindstone, tools sharp, and mind open. We’re all in this together.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Glenn Koenig says:

    I’m curious why you need to check the bowl everyday when it’s drying. What are you checking for? And what do you do if you find it?

    1. Hi Glenn,

      I don’t want to speak for Amy – but I’m not sure she has access to these comments at the moment (I’m still getting all the settings on the site working). But, when checking bowls and other treen while drying, you’re mainly looking for cracks forming. You might also be checking for warping and shrinkage, and (in my case) mould growing :). If you dry too quickly, quite often you increase your risk of cracks forming. If you dry to slowly (especially in moist climates), you can get mould starting to form spots on your goods.

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