By Drew Langsner

I’m one of those people who have been making things all my life. (Born L.A. 1942) As a kid I often prefer to make things, rather than earn money in order to buy something. Sometimes this was artwork. My parents always had art supplies available for my use. I enjoyed weekly art lessons with Adalaide Fogg and Mary Gordon for a year or so before my 13th birthday, instead of studying for a bar mitzvah. In college I majored in anthropology but gravitated to painting and sculpture for graduate school. After the M.A., my friend Jay Beckwith and I invented and improvised a 3-year partnership building children’s “adventure playgrounds.” We utilized salvaged wooden beams, tree trunks, recycled conventional playground equipment that was cut up and re-assembled, exhaust pipe seconds, fero-cement, segments of stone columns from a Spanish monestary. I was pretty good at working all these materials – welding, using concrete, fiberglass, spray paints, etc.

One approach to making art that was bypassed in art school was carving wood (or stone for that matter) with a mallet, gouges and chisels. Among my friends, no one ever thought about those old ways of making art. But somehow my background in anthropology also kept me interested vernacular crafts. I always liked things that are handmade, using natural materials and relatively simple hand tools.

Jump 10 years. I began carving bowls (and spoons) in 1977, when Swedish woodworker and teacher Wille Sundqvist visited our farmstead in the mountains of western North Carolina. Wille is a master of the traditional Scandinavian forms, which he has personalized in a very refined way during a lifetime of carving. I really like the fact that these bowls are started by felling a tree, followed by cross-cutting a log section which is then split into halves. All done with simple tools – a chainsaw (although a 2-man cross cut saw works fine), steel wedges, an iron maul and an axe. The bowl is initially hollowed with an adze, an ancient tool shaped something like a large very large gouge mounted crosswise on an axe handle. The adze work is refined with gouges. Traditionally, bowl carvers worked for a smooth surface. They didn’t want to leave tool marks (tracks). The outside is shaped with an axe (quite unbelievable, until you learn how) and then smoothed with a type of hand plane called a spokeshave. All this is often done with freshly cut, green wood.

I made more-or-less Scandinavian type carved bowls until 2007 – 30 years worth. Most of these were carved using the conventional, intuitive orientation. A log section split in half, with the rounded surface facing downwards, and the split surface upwards. The hollow is then carved from the split (pith) surface. We sometimes call this orientation bark down/pith up.

In 1992 I made my first bowls using the very un-intuitive orientation with the bark up and pith down. The split surface becomes the base and the hollow is carved into the curved half-cylinder. This idea was pioneered in the 1960’s by the great Swedish bowl carver Bengt Lidström. When this is done the potential size is reduced and the range of shapes becomes more limited. The attraction is that this orientation lends itself to carving bowls that are very wide and low in the mid-section and quite tall and narrow at each end. An attractive (Viking inspired) boat-like form emerges. The pattern of the growth rings also changes. On the exterior growth rings take long semi-parallel curves, not unlike lapstrake ship siding. On the interior, the growth rings have an attractive concentric pattern.

The down-side of working “up-side-down” (bark up/pithdown) has to do with how wood shrinks as it dries, and the fact that the orientation is much more challenging to work with successfully. Never-the-less, I very much enjoyed working this way. And I believe that I created a number of very beautiful and unique serving bowls. These are mostly used for salads at our home. I carved these up-side-down bowls mainly from tulip poplar, but also did several using walnut, butternut and ash. Some of these can be seen at Work From the Archives.

By 2000 or so my bowl carving production had greatly slowed down. I was very busy creating new chair designs, most particularly my Hearth Chair Project, where each pieces represented a new re-design on a similar theme. I also felt that I had taken the “up-side-down” bowl work as far as I cared to take it. (At least for the time being.) In addition, I was doing far more teaching (and sailing).

To be continued …

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