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Bird Bowl Bonanza

Mike Loeffler carves a boatload of bird bowls

Posted on May 10, 2018
by Mike Loeffler

I want to take this opportunity to tell you all about a project I've been working on.  I recently received an Artist Initiative grant through the Minnesota State Arts Board to fund the creation of a series of bird bowls. The prompt for this particular grant program is to identify where you are in your career, identify where you'd like to be heading, and propose a project that will help you take that step. I have been carving bird shaped bowls for the last 3 or 4 years and though they are well received they were production items that I needed to make as quickly as possible in order to sell them at price that seemed to fit the market.  The goal of this project is to slow things down in order to make some more detailed work and to take more risks.

As a part of this intentional slowing down, I've been doing some relief carving test boards to develop patterns, color studies to create color palettes for the new bowls, and more involved drawings on the front end to work out ideas.

Exploring this craft in more detail is exciting. There is a critical moment in making these bowls when the form is complete, the detail carving is finished, and it's time to paint.  This is where it can all spiral out of control. In the past, after reaching this point I would be thinking about the next project and hastily paint. Unfortunately, I've had a few emotional moments when after spending the time creating a nice form and thoughtfully detailing it, I throw on the paint and essentially ruin the piece by being somewhat thoughtless about that final step. To try and resolve that problem I'm making a large stash of painted tiles that can be sorted into groups and laid out with the piece before hand. Hopefully this new process will help me to avoid those disappointing moments of paint regret.

In this process I wanted to develop some modified shop furniture and clamping devices to make working on these oddly shaped bowls a little easier.

The picture above is of a modified bowl horse that  makes the initial roughing out phase much more ergonomic. This design is a mash-up of shaving-horse- type designs from talented crafts people: David Fisher, Tim Manney, and Dawson Moore. In the photo you can see this bowl horse is a bench that a person can sit on. By applying pressure on the swing arm the arm acts like a lever pushing and securing the piece against a notched wooden block close to the seat. Holding a bowl in this way allows me to free up both hands and utilize a draw knife to do some rough shaping.

Another piece of this puzzle is figuring out a good way to hold the pieces while doing the detail carving. At the point of detail carving, the bowls are already shaped so you have to be gentle as well as giving yourself clear access to large portion of the bowl's surface. I started modifying some clamps to suit my needs. Being excited about clamps is pretty nerdy so be forewarned that this is for the clamping enthusiasts out there. And I know you're out there.


Exhibit A: This is an F-clamp with a turned wooden extension that is capped with a leather puck to prevent marring the inside of the bowl. The clamped bowl can then be put in a vice so I can carve on the surface.


Exhibit B: This is a wooden clamp that has an expansion chuck with leather lined jaws. What does that mean? Essentially there is wooden half circle that can be expanded inside of a bowl in order to secure it. The toggles for these types of clamps are available so that a person could make the wooden components in a way that suits their needs. This is a prototype, but its certainly working well so far.


If you are curious to see more check out my Instagram account: @m.j.loeffler   Though there isn't much there currently I will be posting the series of bird bowls as they develop.