Carved from Nature

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From picking up sticks to works of art, we speak with Carol Russell about her love for woodwork and what inspires her craft.

How did your affinity for working with wood begin?

As a child, I spent a lot of time just walking in the bush near our house, picking up sticks and bark. I’ve always loved trees; they are the most beautiful calming things – almost the opposite of humans. They appear still on the surface, but so much is going on with them. They clean our air and keep us cool. 

The wood that comes from them is so exquisite to look at and feel. Each timber has a nature of its own; it’s a living, breathing material that isn’t at all inert when you work with it. 

You’ve had quite a unique career path; where did you learn your craft?

I was originally a furniture maker. When I started in the early 1980s, it was difficult to find people who would take me on as an apprentice, and I only wanted to work with solid timber.  I’ve learned my craft through working with traditional cabinet makers, antique restorers and woodcrafters. Most of these people were “old school” and were really kind to take me under their wing and teach me. 

I’ve spent time in all sorts of factories and workshops and made a lot of production  furniture. The discipline of this has taught me a lot about construction, tools and timber as a material. 

I also worked for a tool company called Carbatec. At this stage, I’d been making furniture for about twenty years. I had the opportunity to learn a lot about tools and was asked to create a woodworking school to teach people different aspects of the craft. We had lots of people teaching, and I developed wonderful associations with some very fine craftspeople during this time.   

I fell out of love with making furniture and handling large quantities of timber and machinery. I still love timber, but wanted to work in a more natural, organic way. I became fascinated with making small objects and using only hand tools – no noise or dust really appealed to me. My friend Gary Field, a wood sculptor, got me interested in carving spoons. I thought it would just be a passing thing, but I was totally hooked.

You’re originally from Tasmania, known for its breathtaking natural landscape. Do you draw much of your inspiration from nature?

Absolutely. Tasmania is never far from my thoughts; I go back often, as my mum is still there. I hope to be living there again. Everything about the landscape inspires me – the colours, textures, the light, and even the weather. 

Nature in general is the most inspiring thing I can think of.

There are many varieties of wood you can work with; is there a particular one you prefer?

I love Eucalypts, although they are very hard to carve when they’re dry. They can surprise you too; I recently carved forest Redgum, and it was superb to work with. 

I use a lot of Tasmanian timber, Huon Pine, Blackwood, Myrtle and Sassafras. I also adore Queensland Rose Mahogany and White Beech. They are all so individual, and each one is an old friend that brings with it a lifetime of memories. 

I generally stick to Australian species, though occasionally someone will give me a piece of something exotic from a far off land, but I like to use wood that comes from familiar landscape. 

Also, I worry about how it was sourced; even with the Tasmanian species it’s an issue for me. Ethical timber use is important to consider, and there’s still so much wastage of lesser known species that are great to use. 

Introduced species that have become weeds such as Privet and Camphor Laurel are also great to carve and are fairly guilt free, as they are often cleared to make way for native species to grow. 

Where do you source your timber?

Most of the timber I use is waste from furniture makers I know. I use a lot of smaller pieces, so I have people who save all their wonderful offcuts for me. I also have a collection of timber from my furniture making days. 

Wood is everywhere, and a walk in the forest or by the sea can yield amazing possibilities. Our Brisbane thunderstorms are also a great source of material. I run around the neighbourhood with my trusty Japanese, saw cutting up fallen limbs. These I will carve green, and then dry the spoons when they’re carved. 

Tell us a bit about the products you craft?

I make treen, small functional household objects crafted from wood. Spoons are my special love, but also bowls, platters, salad servers, forks and other utensils. I don’t make them on a production basis, so no two are ever the same. I really like to use the natural features of the wood, as long as it still enables the piece to be used. My work can range from quite formal and detailed, to rustic and organic. It depends on the wood and my mood. I tend to design to fit the wood, rather than the other way round. 

You specialise in making wooden utensils and small vessels for serving food; do you produce larger items as well?

I used to, but now I’m only making these pieces. It’s what I’m happiest doing, and I think it’s really important to the end result to love what you make. I like having a boundary; if someone wants a piece of furniture, I send them on to one of the wonderful furniture makers I know. 
Can someone commission you?

Yes, absolutely; I love making special orders. I often make wedding presents, birthday presents and baby spoons. I like to know a bit about the person and try to tailor the piece for them. Because the pieces are one-offs, no one else will ever have the same thing. 

Can you tell us a bit about your workshops; what can one expect?

My workshops are about learning to design and carve spoons, but in particular developing an understanding of timber and the tools, how to sharpen them and use them safely.  

In the class we use seasoned timber and start with a rough sawn blank. The spoon is carved using a chisel, drawknife, whittling knife and spokeshave. You’ll end up with at least one finished spoon and a good understanding of the process.

Meaghan and Paul at Creek Cottage Farm are wonderful hosts. Their property is really lovely; it’s a beautiful, inspiring place to carve. 

One of the highlights is Meaghan’s delicious home cooked food, which is plentiful and made from ingredients sourced from their organic farm. 

Everything is supplied; all you need to do is turn up with a solid pair of shoes and a smile.  

We’re looking at holding another workshop later in the year, probably August. Anyone interested can contact Meaghan at Creek Cottage Farm.
Where can we find out more information about you and your work?

My website is: www.carolrussellwoodwork.com.au

Instagram is one of my favourite ways to show people what I’m up to:
@carol.a.russell

You can call me on 0403 887 715 or contact Meaghan at Creek Cottage Farm: 

meaghanlewers@gmail.com / Ph. 6550 5088.

Thanks Carol.

Interview: Bronwyn Davis.

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