Sciath Fia Bairr: Stag Shield

In 2017 I spent several months working on a carving of a stag wreathed in runes. It was inspired in part by a painting I did several years ago called Crainn na hÉireann: The Trees of Ireland  which can be seen on the Paintings gallery page. That painting itself was inspired by a poem from the medieval Irish saga Buile Suibhne – The Frenzy of Suibhne. Within this ancient tale there is a poem that sings the praises of the trees of Ireland, and another that celebrates the stags of the glens. The painting I did focused primarily on the trees, so for this carving I took one of the small stag elements from that painting and expanded upon it to develop the design for this shield.

The poem about the stags begins: “O little stag, thou little bleating one, O melodious little clamourer, sweet to us is the music thou makest in the glen.”* To the left is shown the central medalion of the original painting that became the basis of the shield design – you can see the similarity of the details and posture of the stag, which measures only 2” across.

The design features a rearing stag with a border that features carved runes from my invented runic alphabet. I wanted the texture of language surrounding the shield, without it being something that would be readable – the words formed by the runes have meaning, but that meaning is concealed. The border features oak leaf and acorn medallions, a visual reference to a part of the poem: “Thou oak, bushy, leafy, thou art high beyond trees.”*

The shield is carved from a single piece of Honduran mahogany, and measures 22″ in diameter and is 1” thick overall. True mahogany wood is a joy to carve and holds the carving details very well. The oil and wax finish brings out the warm reddish brown glow of the mahogany wood.

Below is a gallery of images taken throughout the process of creating this carving. Each image includes a description – click on the first image to launch the slideshow and use the arrows to navigate through all the images.



*Poem quoted from: Buile Suibne (The Frenzy of Suibhne) being  The Adventures of Suibhne Geilt  by J. G. O’Keeffe, published by the Irish Texts Society in 1996.

Acanthish Column

One of my favorite projects that I had the opportunity to work on in 2017 was a carved walnut column for a friend’s house in Canterbury, NH. He provided me with a turned column of black walnut that was made from a tree he had salvaged many years ago, so by the time it came to me to carve it was dry and stable. The size and shape of the column was determined by the niche on the exterior of his home, and I designed something to wrap fully around the column. The design inspiration started from plant forms in Norwegian Stave Church portal carvings, and I adapted them into an original design loosely based on acanthus leaf patterns – thus the title Acanthish. The pattern repeats, flipped, and it fully connected around the diameter of the column.

Once the pattern was transferred and drawn onto the column I used a Dremel router bit with a depth attachment that I glued 1/4″ wooden strips onto, like a sled, to help keep the depth even on the curved surface. The column was mounted to the bench using two Veritas carving vises, attached to the center of each end, which allowed the column to spin, but also allowed for it to lock firmly in place while carving. Once all the little recesses were routered to the same depth I move the column from the workshop onto the carving bench, where I would carve the remainder of the project using only hand tools.

The pattern consists of three spiraling motifs along the length, for a total of twelve motifs around the full column. I worked on each section at a time and slowly worked my way up and down the column, turning it as I made progress. The video at the bottom of the page shows the finished column turning around, and gives a better visual on how the pattern flows around the column.

The Acanthish Column is now at home atop a custom built granite wall at the top of a hill in Canterbury, with an expansive view of the lovely New Hampshire landscape that surrounds it. The combination of the dark wood and the deeply cut pattern makes for a dramatic affect as the light moves across the carving from morning to evening, that subtlly changes as the seasons pass.

I documented the carving process extensively on the Ninth Wave Designs Instagram account, and I have put together a gallery of those images here to show the details of that process.

Tower and Stars: Carving A Family Shield

I recently completed a commissioned carving of a large shield with a family emblem consisting of a tower with three stars. It is one of the larger sized commissions I have done, measuring 19″ wide by 25″ high and 2″ inches thick – carved from a single piece of old growth Honduran mahogany. I purchased the board from someone who had stored it in an old warehouse since the 1980s, and it was difficult to tell at first what it would look like – rough sawn and covered by decades of dust. I hand planed the board, as it was too wide for my planer, and the glow of the warm grain that emerged from the dingy exterior was a very welcome sight. This turned out to be one of the more beautiful pieces of mahogany I have carved, and I feel honored to have been able to create something from such a magnificent old tree.

The shield is more of what I would call heraldish than heraldic – I started by looking at traditional depictions of heraldic castles and towers but did not adhere to the strict rules of heraldry when creating the design. I incorporated a high level of detail in the stonework of the castle – something I knew the mahogany wood would be particularly suited to. The beveled edge of the shield features a dovetailed meander, another design detail borrowed from traditional heraldry, but adapted to add movement and interest to the border of the carving. Additionally I carved a fine rippled texture into the background, to catch the changing light and to compliment the texture of the tower stones.

The oil and wax finish on this piece brought the mahogany wood to life – it is always a magical transformation that brings out the deeply hidden beauty of the wood grain. Now it is in its new home, and I am happy to have had the opportunity to create this celebration of family history.

Alchemical Aviary Oracle Cards

I recently completed the Alchemical Aviary oracle deck and made the short video below showing the cards in their box. The deck consists of 13 hand painted cards in a repurposed copper and brass box. I painted the cards from my own designs using watercolor pencils and acrylic inks on Bristol board, cut to reflect the shape of the box. I discovered the box in an antique shop nine years ago and I found it very compelling, and I started working on this deck then, completing two of the cards that I wrote about previously HERE and HERE. Early this spring I decided it was time to work on this project again, painting the 11 remaining cards and completing the card sleeve and box decorations.

The Alchemical Aviary oracle cards represent the 12 stages of the alchemical process, using bird imagery to symbolize the journey from base matter to gold. The title “Aviary” is used in the archaic sense, referring to a bestiary book or manuscript containing images of birds only. I created this set of cards to explore the alchemical process as it applies to the psychological aspects of the symbols – as visual focal points to use as tools for understanding. Several of the bird symbols are traditionally used to represent the aspects of the process, and others I chose to replace more traditional representations of the stages of the work.

Below is the video of the completed project and a gallery of images taken during the process of creating the cards. I am currently exploring the possibility of reproducing these and offering a limited number of sets of cards, once I work through the logistics. I am also working on writing the descriptions that go with each card, to make a small booklet to accompany the printed cards.

I have thoroughly enjoyed working on these, and have ideas for more projects like this!


For in That Book Is Your Soul

The first post I wrote when I restarted the Ninth Wave Designs blog nine years ago included this quote from Carl Gustav Jung:

“I should advise you to put it all down as beautifully as you can — in some beautifully bound book. It will seem as if you were making the visions banal — but then you need to do that — then you are freed from the power of them. . . . Then when these things are in some precious book you can go to the book & turn over the pages & for you it will be your church — your cathedral — the silent places of your spirit where you will find renewal. If anyone tells you that it is morbid or neurotic and you listen to them — then you will lose your soul — for in that book is your soul.”

I read it again recently and it surprised me – in a splash-of-cold-water-in-the-face kind of way. I was looking back on the blog to see when it was exactly that I started working on the alchemy-themed oracle cards that I am finishing up now, and came across the quote. Sometimes it takes the perspective of time, of looking back through the filter of the collection of events that have passed over months and years, to see things more clearly – only then can you see the way forward. Through that filter it was like reading Jung’s quote fresh for the first time, and the meaning was clear and complete.

The background noise of life has reached a level of distraction that has been hard to manage lately, for all of us I’m sure, and it has been interfering with my ability to hold the focus of clarity that creative work requires. These words from Jung snapped my mind back into sharp focus, and I see now what I have been doing all along, and what I must continue to do. Reading it brought a cascade of images to mind of all the drawings and paintings that I have committed to paper between the pages of my sketchbooks and watercolor notebooks through these unsettled times, created with a sense of urgency and necessity about them – and now I see why. These creations have been the silent places of my spirit, and it has given me a sense of renewal, just as Jung promised. I feel fortunate that I have so many blank pages in these creative books that are yet to be filled, they represent an investment in the continuation of an essential creative process that involves nothing less than saving my soul.

If you keep this same kind of creative practice between the pages of your notebooks and sketchbooks, take a moment to pause and honor that process, and recognize it for what it is:

your church;

your cathedral;

your place of renewal;

because in that book is your soul.

Here is a glimpse into mine:




Icon of the Great Bear

This original wood carving is inspired by the constellation Ursa Major, the Great Bear. I designed this piece to reflect a feeling of reverence for the sacredness of nature, a religious icon if you will, to the vast beauty of the night sky, and a celebration of the patterns that we find there. In star lore the Great Bear is a fearless mother to Ursa Minor, and her familiar ladle-shaped pattern is among the first constellations that we learn to recognize as children. She watches over us from the heavens, just as she does her own Little Bear.

In designing this carving I started with a traditional Gothic arched frame to evoke a feeling of spiritual art from an earlier time. The border features stars interspersed with runes that spell out a secret prayer to the stars above. The runes I use are not historic runes, but ones I invented to use in my artwork, as a way to invoke the feeling of an ancient and forgotten language. They have true meaning, but it remains hidden, to allow the viewer to ascribe their own experience and meaning to the work.

The photos in the gallery below document the process of creating this carving. I started with a 1″ thick piece of butternut wood sourced locally, and used a band saw to cut out the Gothic arched shape of the outline, which measures 9″ wide by 15.75″ high. I used a router to take down the background levels, and the roughed out carving at this stage is shown in the first photo. From this stage forward, all the carving work is done using hand tools – files, various gouges and carving knives. This carving is finished from the tool, without using sandpaper, so the individual cuts from the sharp carving tools leave a subtly rippled texture to the wood. I sealed the wood with linseed oil and then painted it using oil paints, using glazes to allow the wood grain to show through the colors around the frame. Gold and silver metallic effects were painted on and then it was given a coating of beeswax to finish the piece.

I feel that as humans we need to be constantly reminded of the sacredness of nature, and reawakened to the spiritual mysteries that can be found there. We are not meant to be spiritually separate from these experiences, but our culture and civilization have divided us from this essential aspect of our humanity. I created this piece to remind myself and others that the stars can be our church and all of nature our religion if we let ourselves remember how we felt as children when we gazed at the night sky.

The Icon of the Great Bear wood carving is available for purchase in the Ninth Wave Designs Etsy store – click HERE to see more information.





Going WABAC to Being a Notebook Fanatic

I began blogging in 2005, when blogging was a newly popular thing, before social media shortened our attention spans to 140 characters. I wrote about notebooks, mostly about Moleskine notebooks, and also about pencils, and pens and notebook related musings. I regularly featured some of my own notebook related artwork – that was when the Alchemy Notebook project began – and also the notebook art of others. I also sold notebooks, first through eBay and then through my own online store, before you could easily find quality notebooks everywhere. All of this was generated by the fact that I was a notebook fanatic, and I figured out that if I found like-minded souls, I could sell them notebooks to support my own habit. Over the course of two years I made a lot of online friends and I sold a lot of notebooks, and ended up keeping more notebooks than your average person would find to be reasonable. My online store is a thing of the past, but my obsession has not subsided in the least. If anything, it is even stronger because of these experiences.

The photos accompanying this blog post are of my notebook nook, an antique Table Talk pie crate turned into a desk organizer, crowned with a wonderful Eberhard Faber vintage rubber band box that is just the right size to hold pocket sized Moleskine notebooks. This represents my current assortment of notebooks in use. This does not include the Stash – the uncounted number of notebooks still in their shrink wrap awaiting future use. They are legion. You might also notice that there are a few pencils to be seen in these photos, but I think it best if we avoid talking about those for now.

I have been wanting to document this history in some way on my current blog, since it has so much to do with how I got to this current place in my life, and I wanted some kind of record of those posts that have disappeared into the void of the internet. Rather than reprinting them here into the current timeline, I like seeing them in their original archival state via the time travelling marvels of the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. I have added a link in the sidebar under the heading WABAC, in reference to the original WAYBAC Machine of Rocky & Bullwinkle  cartoon fame, which was a childhood favorite of mine. If anyone is curious at all to see them, or if by chance there are some of you who actually remember those days, now there is a way to do that.

So, Sherman, set the WABAC Machine to 2005, and visit the original Ninth Wave Designs blog HERE!


Form Plaque Project Update

The beginning of June each year brings about the deadline for completing my ongoing commission carving form plaques, and this year I completed plaque number 22 in this series. It seems funny to think there are so many plaques that I have done, but time has flown by and the completed carvings have added up. There are now just 5 empty spaces to fill for missing plaques where there were 20 when I first took this project on in 2010. This project is a N + 1 equation, as each year adds a new plaque that is needed to the total, but I am making progress! I have designs for 3 additional plaques in the works now for a slated completion date of next June 1st.

More detail on this and the other 21 completed carvings can be found on the project website, The Form Plaque Project Blog.

Of Sketchbooks and Runes

For Christmas my sister gave me a Hand*Book Journal Co. Travelogue sketchbook, and on New Year’s Day I decided to test the old superstition – that whatever you do on the first day of the year you will continue to do all year long – as a way to bring this creative part of my life back into practice. I began working on a painted collage page, using the tools I worked with while creating the Alchemy Notebook over a decade ago.

In the past I exclusively worked with Moleskine heavyweight sketchbooks, and I still enjoy working on that paper, which is similar to a hot pressed watercolor paper. The Hand*Book sketchbook paper is lighter in weight, but it has a nice tooth, and holds up very well to the light application of watercolor that my technique involves. They also make a watercolor sketchbook with heavier pages that I am looking forward to trying out at some point.


It has been very enjoyable doing this kind of creative work again, and the result has been that I have pulled out all of my old paints and pens and ephemera and have continued creating more of these painted pages in my sketchbooks. I am enjoying the change of pace, working on these pages between stages in the wood carving process. It has me thinking of ways to incorporate this kind of creative work directly with my wood carving process at some point down the road, which I find a very compelling prospect.

This first completed page has led to a two-page spread in my Moleskine large sketchbook, shown below.  This one incorporates more collage than the first, and so the heavier paper is helpful to support the additional paper elements. The colors in this painting are a little bolder than the first, and the overall feeling is a bit more complex, due, I expect, to my getting comfortable with this old medium anew. And since I am talking about comfort, I have also noticed the return of the experience of ‘flow’ that this artistic process provides, and it feels like an old friend that I haven’t visited in too long a time.


One difference between these paintings and the pages I created in my Alchemy Notebook in years past is the incorporation of the invented rune alphabet from my carvings into this written form. Because runes were designed to be carved and inscribed, incorporating clear straight lines to facilitate that process, I expect as I continue to work with this runic alphabet that it will undergo some adaptation from carving tool to pen. These runes are not historic runes, they are something I invented to incorporate into my artwork, to give an ancient feel to my work, and as a way to incorporate hidden messages.

All of these things feel wonderful – the familiar mixing with the feeling of newness, the discovery that is actually rediscovery, and the comfortable sense of homeyness I find in the tension these juxtapositions reveal. I read a wonderful article on Brain Pickings the other day about Eudora Welty that included this quote that gets at the heart of this process for me:

The events in our lives happen in a sequence in time, but in their significance to ourselves they find their own order, a timetable not necessarily — perhaps not possibly — chronological. The time as we know it subjectively is often the chronology that stories and novels follow: it is the continuous thread of revelation.

As I pick up where I left off, maybe a dozen years later, I am glad to read this – that the creative thread is continuous even when the timeline itself is not. I see this creative process as being like a gloriously painted deck of tarot cards, shuffled, whose order only makes sense when it is disrupted. As the cards are laid out over time the pattern is constellated, and only then is the thread of meaning revealed.


Woodcarving and Pencils

Not everyone likes to use pencils on woodcarvings, but I think they just haven’t been using the best ones for the job. Not all pencils are created equal, and since I am a pencil fanatic from way back, I thought I would share some of my thoughts and experiences about integrating pencils into my woodcarving work flow.

While learning to carve I encountered several suggested methods for transferring design patterns to wood, and in most cases these were developed specifically as an alternative to the use of pencils. The most commonly employed method involves attaching a photocopy of the design to the wooden surface using spray adhesive. I rejected this method for two reasons: to avoid exposure to the fumes from the spray adhesive, and because having the paper pattern adhered to the surface of the wood blocks any visual clues from the wood itself as you make the important first cuts of a carving. Even though the paper does eventually get carved away as you progress, I feel that drawing directly on the wood itself is a more intuitive method for transferring design to wood.

The main reason given for avoiding using pencils on wood is the tendency for them to smudge, and the possibility for the smudging to give your carving an overall grubby appearance as you move your hands over the wood. This is why the choice of pencils is important, because it is possible to have the direct connection of drawing on the wood without the mess, but only if you use the right pencils.

I use three basic types of pencils in my woodcarving process:

  •  Something in a 2B to 4B range for initial transferring of design to wood
  •  A 2H  pencil for drawing through the paper template
  • A high quality HB pencil for drawing reference lines directly on the carving as you work – erasability is key

For the first type of pencil I have found that nothing works better than an Ebony pencil. I use the Eberhard Faber Design Ebony 6325, which is a vintage version of the ones currently being made under the Prismacolor Ebony name. Vintage or new, the graphite core of these pencils are the perfect match for drawing on wood, leaving a dark clear line on all but the darkest of wood tones. Ebony pencils are wonderful for drawing around the outside of a template for a cut line, and I find these are a great all-around shop pencil as well. The graphite does have a tendency to smudge, so I only use it early on in the carving process on wood that I know will be eventually removed because these lines don’t erase easily from wood.


The Ebony is also very effective for transferring a design using a photocopy. To do this I color the back of the paper with the Ebony pencil, and then use the second type of pencil in my list, a 2H pencil to draw over the design to transfer it to the wood. The paper template becomes its own graphite paper, and the transfer leaves just enough of a line that I can draw over the design again directly on the wood using the Ebony pencil. The choice of 2H pencil is less important than the other two types covered here, since the pencil itself is being used more as a stylus and the graphite doesn’t come into contact with the wood. One caution is to avoid using too much pressure when using the 2H pencil since it can leave a dent in softer wood – test it out on a scrap to see how much pressure is enough to transfer the design without denting.



The third type of pencil is a HB grade – not as soft as the Ebony, but much softer than the 2H – to draw directly on the wood to make reference lines during the carving process. My favorite pencil for this job is the vintage Eagle Draughting 314. You can still find the Eagle brand on eBay from time-to-time, as well as the equally good Berol version of this pencil, but the current General brand of the Draughting 314 does not have the same quality as its predecessors. If you can’t track down any of these wonderful all-around drawing pencils, choose a good quality HB grade pencil like the Hi-Uni or Tombow Mono brands. Whatever pencil you end up using, the primary concern is how well it erases from wood. Draw on your carving with a light hand so as not to leave any indentations, and test your pencil out on a piece of scrap wood first. I use this pencil to make reference marks on the carving as I am working, to transfer designs for lettering or chip carving, so it isn’t always something that will be carved away. I also use this pencil in the transfer process described above when I am working on very light wood, like basswood or Alaskan yellow cedar, to avoid the chance of errant smudges on the high points. For all of these uses you will need a good eraser – but not any eraser will do.


After trying many brands and types of erasers on wood, the only one that I have found that works well is the Tombow Mono smart plastic eraser. Other erasers can leave a terrible smudge, or a residue, or work small bits of themselves permanently into the wood grain. The Mono erases cleanly and leaves no trace. The Mono eraser is the essential tool in this process, and is likely the missing piece that leads others to avoid pencils altogether when carving. You may find other pencils that work just as well for you from the ones I mention here, but that probably won’t be the case for the Tombow Mono smart plastic eraser.

Since you have followed along this far I will assume you have a fascination for the subtler aspects of pencils, and so I will provide you with the following additional information:

  • I’ve suggested all the best pencils for working on wood, without mentioning the BEST pencil ever – the Blackwing 602 made by Eberhard Faber and Faber Castell. If you are wondering if the Blackwing 602 works well on wood, the answer is a definite yes, but I save them for drawing, since I have so few, and they are so precious to me. The original Blackwing 602, which ceased being made in the late 1990s, is the best drawing pencil I have ever found, and I have spent quite a bit of time over the decades since they stopped producing them looking to find something that compares. Please do not let yourself be confused by the relatively new Palomino brand version of this pencil, as the only thing they share in common is the name. For a brief time I thought the Palomino brand HB and 2B drawing pencils offered a good alternative to the Blackwing 602, but I have since found a number of pencils that I consider to be far superior to the Palomino brand. Which leads me to the next point . . .
  • If you are curious to know some the worst pencils for drawing on wood,  they are the Palomino Blackwing line, as they are near impossible to erase. They don’t erase well on paper either, but that is another story for another day.
  • If you would like to use some drawing and writing pencils of upstanding quality that are currently being produced, give yourself a treat and get a set of mixed grade Mitsu-Bishi Hi-Uni drawing pencils. These are top quality pencils, and a pleasure to use. Equally lovely are the Tombow Mono Professionals, get the ones made in Japan if you can find them.
  • I have not received any compensation for recommending these items, these are products that I use myself with every carving I make. You can see these and other wood carving resources I have recommended HERE.