So often we have empty wood thread spools and not the slightest idea of what to do with them. Some [like me] throw them in a storage container and watch them accumulate over the years; some sell them on online auctions or others at their stores often with a birthday candle inserted as a way to decorate them.
But here is one clever person whose artist’s eye recognized the potential for ornamentals. And what decorations they are! Introducing the carving artistry of Barbara Ziolkowski, this month’s guest columnist. A spool is a spool is a spool, or so I thought for the last 35-45 years. Just as we might not notice the special nuances in the barks of trees when we pass them in a park or on the street, so too it was for me about my spools of threads whenever I sewed.
Only within the last few years have I come to appreciate the beauty of old wooden spools, their labels, and their alternative value for me as a woodcarver. About four years ago, a client who has regularly bought my carved wooden spoons, asked me if I had ever carved on wooden spools. I had not; however, I’d seen one other carver’s handiwork. How difficult could it be? Also at that time, I didn’t have a good supply of empty old spools.
My client, and another woman who had been listening to our conversation at my club’s woodcarving show, brought spools of their own for me to carve, left me with extras, and I have been hooked ever since! Presently, several of my carving friends are working on their own creations and I have found a few people online who are working with spools.
Some of the many types of spools waiting to be carved. Even though I had been carving the spools in the relief technique for about two years, it wasn’t until someone shared a fat, keg-shaped spool (American Thread SILKATEEN) that got me looking at them more closely. I am certain that I have sold a few carved oldies without realizing what I had had in my possession.
Since then, I have obtained other special ones and appreciate their labels and shapes. I now check to see if I already have any of them. Because of this hobby, my friends, relatives and art show visitors and carvers are sharing their leftover or inherited spools with me. I don’t even have to go antiquing or “garage saling”! The spools show up in the mail or on my doorstep. In the short time from being invited to try carving in spools, I have become a spool collector as well as a spool carver! Just guessing, I may have more than 750 spools although not all of them will be carved into, so I can display them at my shows for their labels (# 28).
More recently, I had the opportunity to share a series of the unusuals with Joan Kiplinger for her vintage spool chart. For the most part, I have not identified the type of wood of which each spool is made. The best guesses that our club members have suggested are maple (Acer) and birch (Betula). Some research has led me to believe they are correct. One carver suggested I keep an eye open for those made of bright yellow wood, which is Osage orange (Maclura pomifera) and is one of the hardest woods on which to work in any type of woodworking.
I received a handmade Osage orange spool (# 12) from the husband of one of my sewing friends!
Before I received the first batch of spools from the client who got me started on this venture, I purchased a few newly turned basswood (Tilia) spools from a carving supplier. I tried using these, but I am not happy with the way they take a cut or gouge. They will splinter more often and leave fuzzes; the REAL spools are the best for carving! They hold a very crisp line and clean up nicely even though they are a harder wood and I must focus more closely while “carving in the round” and holding them in a bare hand.
In the next part of this discussion are several photos that show the sequence of development of the carved spools. The sizes of spools I carve vary from the Belding Corticelli silk bobbin size to the larger units that carry 250 – 800 yards of thread. The five I am displaying in the photos 1 through 5 are Coats & Clark’s 1″ diameter by 1 3/16″ long. I have other examples (13 through 16, 21) of some themes I like to do, but Santa faces are the most popular (25 and 26).
ABOVE: Various themes for spools other than Santa faces.
FAR RIGHT: Endearing Santa faces, front and back views
In the photo with all five spools, # 1 is the pencil line layout. I sketch a very Rough Outline of what I’m thinking of “letting loose” from the wood. It’s what we carvers like to say you take away what you don’t want there and let the carving out! Item # 2 represents the Stop Cuts that define the pencil line layout. As I continue to carve away the wood, I will make these cuts deeper until the preliminary forms of the pattern show.
# 3 shows much of the wood removed from the column of the spool.
The basic portions of the face–brow, nose, cheeks, beard, hair waves, and a hat brim, crown, wreath, or other special feature–are now defined and ready to be softened. The edges are rounded to make a more realistic feeling of a face, a draping or floppy hat, and a pom-pom, tassel, or bell at the end of the hat, and more of the flowing hair.
On spool # 4, more details have been added including the finer hair waves, eyebrows, crow’s feet, moustache, and textures in the hatband (for fur). The brown color present in these examples is burned wood from a Detail Master wood burning tool done with different styles of nibs. Gouge lines have been added to the taper of the hat near the pom-pom to give the illusion of gathers at the base where the hat joins the pom-pom (photo # 7).
Also, this spool has been treated with linseed oil to seal the raw wood after carving away the top layers of wood. Usually, I will let the spool sit for a couple of hours while working on several others. This allows the oil to sink into the wood and gives me a drier base on which to paint. Tung oil is another choice sealer and it doesn’t “yellow” the wood as much as the linseed oil.
# 5 has the face and the cheeks painted.
I use craft acrylics such as Duncan, Delta CERAMCOAT, Accent COUNTRY COLORS, and the like. For the silver, gold, copper and brass touches, I have used these acrylic brands as well as model car and airplane paints, and metallic marking pens. Depending on the type of wood or the actual pattern, I sometimes leave the faces unpainted keeping the natural wood color. In painting the spools, I try to keep the solution a bit thin so I can “wash” the colors over the wood in layers rather than cover it opaquely.
My technique will change depending on the type of wood or how the oiled wood accepts the paints. Photo #6 has all the painting done as well as an application of staining gel for antiquing, usually Duncan Natural Translucent. It is not an acrylic and has a hint of sparkle. This stain is found at a local ceramics class and is my favorite stain that is applied with a brush and wiped off with old socks or other soft cloths. I prefer the dark brown to a black stain because it leaves a warmer and less cyanotic finish.
Many times there are no eyes carved into the face. If the piece warrants it, I will paint eyes on the upper cheek cut just below the brows. I do this AFTER the stain is applied. It gives the eyes a brighter, more realistic look. After the layers of the white, the iris color, and the pupil are added, a tiny dot of white is applied in each pupil in the same spot on both eyes. This is the reflection that is found in real eyes.
(And remember to make the pupils rather large to give a warm, inviting look to the face, otherwise the eyes look scared or sneaky.) Then next step is an application or two of a clear satin spray sealer (Deft or Krylon) to the spool surfaces. When this is thoroughly dry, I add a small drop of clear acrylic varnish or clear nail polish directly onto the eyes. This makes them dance and reflect even more. If the end labels are especially different or are intact (no hole broken on either end of the spool), I will omit the next step, which is shown in # 8.
I am a pack rat with craft beads, ribbons, buttons, jingle bells and other odds and ends for decorating the spools, which turn them into holiday ornaments. By threading a shanked button or a jingle bell and pulling the ribbon through the hole, through another button, through a bead, and then tying a bow, I have the finished spool ready for a sale or gift giving. I do not glue the buttons to the label just in case someone might want to take the decorations off.
Also the glue is only applied to the inside of the top bead and between the bead and button. If there is no label on the spool, I do glue the decorations onto the ends of the spool.
The next photos are some of the tools I use in my carving.
# 9 is my very first carving knife and was made by one of our club members.
#10 is a very fine V-gouge and #11 is a set of fine gouges including three U-shaped, one V and one flat. I use an olio of other tools to finish the projects, but these are my favorites. Other design plans for my carved spools include a complete chess set (# 22), different holiday applications such as ghosts and jack-o-lanterns, more angels, Thanksgiving themes, Easter themes (# ‘s 17 – 20), more Advent wreaths, snow faces (#23), shamrocks, July 4 firecrackers just about anything that might be ordered or personalized (#’s 24 and 27).
Notes from Barbara: My Relief Carvings in wooden spools have introduced me to many new friends and clients, and have inspired creative ideas in my co-carvers. Just as in any art medium, there is a vast spectrum of fun and ideas waiting to be set free! I attended Purdue University and graduated with a Landscape Architecture background. For 25 years, I practiced landscape architecture and did consulting and continue to do limited work in both as well as teach part time. My husband and I own 2.5 acres on which I grow, sell, and teach about daylilies and other perennials in our display gardens.
For more than 10 years, I have been a member of Duneland Woodcarvers, a club of 100-plus members, many who meet once a week in Chesterton IN. We share coffee, donuts, carving ideas and gossip! Each spring our club hosts a large woodcarving show for two days in Valparaiso IN, featuring some of the Midwest’s finest woodcarvers in competition, demonstration, displays and sales of our carvings. Please visit our website at www.dunelandwoodcarvers.com.
I also design and sell a series of greeting cards at art/craft shows along with my carvings and will do custom orders of painted shirts and furniture as well as carvings. Spoons, small ornaments and spool relief carvings are my favorites. I can be reached at Touch-Of-Color KNOWtes, Box 505, South Bend IN 46624-0505 until my son and I create my website this summer. Until then, please contact me at email@example.com .
The arbitrary cut-off date for this Vintage Fabric column is 1960. To stay within the scope of this timeframe, reference materials published up to that date are the prime source of information to more accurately capture actual thoughts of the time. Joan Kiplinger is an antique doll costumer and vintage fabric addict who learned to sew on her grandmother’s treadle and has been peddling fabrications ever since.