A SIMPLE BOWL by David Barrow


Through the millennia wooden bowls have served humanity in many practical and decorative ways. Wood was the obvious material of choice, being plentiful and easy to carve with simple tools made from flint and later metal or glass. The appeal of creating bowls was further enhanced by the low level of skills required to create an object in the most basic form. Practically anyone can create a worthy object.

The finished bowl

With history as my guide and befitting the profile of a lowly skilled woodworker, I set about the task of creating a rustic bowl from the trunk of a fallen, long dead tree. Quickly to the rescue came a friend who looked the part of an ancient woodsman with his long grey straggly beard and grey unkempt locks restrained beneath a decrepit and holed felt hat.  This framed a face adorned with a wry, knowing smile which was bedecked with spectacles accreted with the remnants of dust and toil accumulated over years.  A charming northern English brogue completed the picture. Contrary to appearances however, this woodsman swung not an axe but a chainsaw and so hard was the chosen timber that the  blade needed to be changed three times before the task was done; a process that allowed that northern brogue ample opportunity for some expressive frustration laced with clever wit. The so called ‘simple bowl’ was beginning to take on new meaning and the first lesson was becoming obvious. Hard well aged timber requires hard graft.

Close up of the fine detail of the timber

The starting point was a wooden burl weighing approximately twenty five kilograms. The burl could easily have been one hundred or more years old and had many deep cracks. One injudicious blow could result in the block splitting, thereby destroying the project. I chose not to turn the bowl on a lathe, but rather to sculpt with chisels in the old-fashioned way. Given the fragile state of the timber, removing some twenty kilograms of timber to shape the bowl required a deft hand; a process that opened a multitude of choices with regards to the tools I would use. First I used a speed bore, a flat drill-like tool that swiftly removed the bulk of the material.

Some of the techniques used to achieved the aged look of the bowl include the use of wood carving chisels (gouges) to remove any trace of the machined surfaces resulting from the speed-bore and later a router.  The chiselled finish gives the impression of an entirely hand carved work. To further soften the chisel cuts and add to the patina, I used a flail sander; a device that attaches to an electric drill which abrades gently with a series of sandpaper covered flaps.  The patina was then enhanced by rubbing those surfaces that would normally be touched most often with fine steel wool. And the final trick to achieve a satin finish was the use of a liquid floor wax applied by brush. This dries hard and provides a durable finish that will last for many years.

After ten hours of chipping, sanding and waxing, I was starting to see some pleasing results. I wanted a bowl that retained the external character of the old tree and for the internal area to have a warm, rustic patina that gave the impression of daily use for hundreds of years and I think that has been achieved.

The ‘simple bowl’ is completed and my wife has given it pride of place in our kitchen. It was not difficult and it was immensely satisfying.  I would recommend anyone with some idle time and basic tools to give it a try.  Next time I will start with a smaller piece of wood and this will overcome the need for a chain saw and speed bore.  I believe it is possible to make a beautiful bowl using chisels only.