Creating anything with an organic material such as wood is both challenging and hugely rewarding, particularly if your aim is to work with and show off wood as a medium rather than hide it. Woodblocks have been used in printmaking for millennia, with the earliest surviving example originating from China and dating back to 220AD. Ordinarily a carved wooden block is used to repeatedly print onto paper or cloth, with the woodblock itself seldom celebrated, and in modern printmaking wood has long-since been replaced by more easily worked materials such as lino. We recently discovered a Cornish artist though whose one-off pieces are the woodblocks themselves, and who turns to the sea for much of his inspiration. We were full of questions, so caught up with him to find out more about how he makes his wooden works of art. Meet woodcut artist Robbie Jones:
A question that people often ask of us regarding our surfboards is, ‘Why Wood?” and I guess that you must also get asked the same thing. What led you to creating your art on the medium of wood, and why do you continue to use it?
Before I was making woodcuts I was drawing in a way that resembled traditional woodcuts, and after some research I decided to try it out for myself. I love seeing other printmaker’s wood blocks after they’ve printed with them and see them as the artwork instead of the print. All the work that went into that woodblock is sometimes cast aside in favour of the prints, whereas I prefer it in its original natural form. I’ve always loved the organic properties of wood and transforming something from nature into a piece of art.
How does the organic nature of the wood that you use, the patterns of grain and knots, affect your work?
Working with a medium like wood that can have a lot of imperfections does make it more of challenge, but I love all the characteristics that the different grains and knots add. Sometimes I’ll have to change the designs slightly to work around and incorporate the knots into the artwork. I try to utilise the grain of the wood as a textured background pattern to add depth to my woodcuts.
What timbers do you use, and do you have to be selective in what you use so as to avoid features such as knots?
I first started using pine as it was easy to come by and it was good for practicing whilst I was getting used to working with wood. Later on I found an old book filled with woodcutting methods. It suggested using birch plywood as it carves smoothly and wasn’t full of knots. Also a huge factor in using birch plywood is that I’m able to cut it into any shape or size so almost any idea is possible.
What is the process behind one of your works?
I always start with a rough sketch in my notebook and then develop the design further until I’m happy. After that I’ll re-draw it to a scale and apply the stencil onto a sheet of birch plywood. Then I’ll cut out the shape with a jigsaw, sand it all down and apply a layer of paint. Once all that’s dry, I’ll re apply the stencil and begin to carve out all the lines. Finally I’ll tidy everything up and apply a layer of varnish to protect the wood. It's a fairly lengthy process, but it’s always a satisfying feeling seeing the final product.
How did you learn and develop these techniques?
Using pen and ink drawings I had, it was mainly trial and error to transform them into woodcuts, playing around with different styles and methods. Finding out which gouges worked the best with different types of woods until I found a style that suited me the most.
What tools do you use?
I use a hand jigsaw and mini palm gouges for carving, much like the ones you’d use for lino cutting.
So they’re part sculpture, part print? In that you use print-making techniques, but that the printing block is the final artwork, and therefore each one is a true one-off?
Yeah that’s pretty spot on, I use print making methods to create the woodcut but never actually print with it. I love making each piece unique. Sometimes I get people asking me to make the same piece again but that gives me some freedom to make something similar but with lots of little changes to keep each piece unique.
Much of your work looks to be inspired by traditional tattoo art and Americana. It was your nautical themed work for the Cruel and Curious Sea exhibition here in Cornwall that caught our eye, though. From where did you draw your inspiration for those pieces?
For the various Cruel and Curious exhibitions that I’ve been a part of I took a lot of inspiration from old photographs of sailors, focusing on their traditional tattoos and the meanings behind them, and brought it together with sea stories and folk tales such as ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ and ‘Moby Dick’ which were huge inspirations for some of my woodcuts.
How does living and working in Cornwall influence your work?
Growing up and living in Cornwall has always been a massive influence on my work. Creating different landscapes inspired by the rugged coastline and stormy seas. It’s always nice when you’re feeling a lack of inspiration to just be able to go to the coast or into the woods and come back full of ideas.
When making surfboards, accuracy, symmetry and attention to detail are essential considerations. Our wooden surfboards use a skin-on-frame construction method, and in the pursuit of the above James designs each of the Otter Surfboards models using specialist design software and then cuts the parts of the framework (the interconnecting stringer and ribs) around which our surfboards are built using a CNC router (CNC stands for ‘Computer Numerically Controlled’). This process allows us to consistently reproduce the hollow wooden ‘blank’ of each of our models, within which there is a tolerance for the finer points of the surfboard’s outline and rail profiles to be adjusted by the shaper – be that James or somebody attending a workshop course. It’s a great example of how a maker can use digital technology to create the best possible product, time and time again. If we cut each part of our internal frames by hand it would take an enormous amount of time and would be far harder to replicate components consistently and, most importantly, to the micro-millimeter degree of accuracy that our surfboards demand.
Aaron Moore is a maker who saw the benefits that digital technology could bring to his work very early on. Having worked in East Africa teaching rural artisans how to make their own tools (because the tools that they needed either weren’t available where they lived, or were too expensive), he returned to the UK a decade ago to set up his own furniture making business and saw the huge potential in integrating CAD/CAM (Computer-Aided-Design and Computer-Aided-Manufacture) into his working practices. Luckily for us, Aaron lives and works just a few miles away from the Otter Surfboards workshop, and it is at his workshop where James cuts out the frames of our surfboards. Aaron made his CNC router himself (no small feat!) and it has gone through various iterations and upgrades over the years. He has also built himself a large 3-D printer and has a laser-cutter, and integrates digitally constructed elements into much of his furniture as well as making these fantastic facilities available to the general public through his regular Makerspace days.
On the second Saturday of each month, Aaron opens up his workshop, facilities and expertise to anybody who wants to come along to make something or learn more about CNC making. He’s had local business owners spend a day with him making signage for their premises, helped crafters and hobbyist-makers solve problems and make items or components for their projects, and facilitated school children’s imaginative ideas. Developing out of the Makerspace Saturdays, Aaaron’s will soon be offering longer multi-day courses so that people can delve deeper into the world of digital designing and making, and allowing them to take on larger and more time consuming jobs, such as a Makerspace attendee who returned to make a 3-D bust of his nephew as a gift. Another fascinating example is a pattern matrix made by Amber from [foam]kernow, which uses magnetized pieces on a wooden matrix frame to explore the connections between code and weave, and illustrate the complex mathematics developed by weavers that are now utilised in computer science.
The possibilities that CAD/CAM technologies such as CNC routers, laser cutters and 3D printers open up to makers are enormous and exciting. Whilst we are proud of the handcrafted nature of our surfboards, the use of computer design software and Aaron’s CNC router during the early construction stages of the surfboard blank allows us to produce the best wooden surfboards possible, without taking anything away from the handcrafted nature and ethos of Otter Surfboards. We are very lucky to have Aaron and his machines so close by, and the fact that he is sharing his machines and knowledge with the general public is fantastic for creativity in Cornwall.
When James and Mat created 'The Storyboard', a one-tree wooden surfboard exhibition, a line of a sonnet was etched onto each of the surfboard's internal ribs using the CNC 3D router.
Aaron’s Makerspace is currently Cornwall’s only open-access digital workshop. It is a not-for-profit community resource where anybody can learn how to use digital tools, collaborate on projects, or create their own designs. The aim of Makerspaces is to make communities more self-sustainable, develop and improve skills and employment prospects, and give people the opportunity to be more creative. Aaron’s Makerspace Saturday sessions run from 10am-1pm and 2-5pm, with space for three participants. There is a nominal charge of £5 per person to help cover insurance and consumables. You can find out more on CNCCraft’s Makerspace page.
A sheet of plywood that has had closely-nested stringer and rib pieces cut from it being put to good secondary use as a doggy-gate, to prevent Buddy from escaping from the workshop when the sun's out and we have the doors open!
"The summers passed with each year. I don't seem to remember them anymore. I remember the fall and the coming of winter.
The water got cold. It was a time of the West swell."
Jack Barlow, Big Wednesday (1978)
September is a special time of year for surfers in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s a time of colder sand and a warmer ocean, of long-range ground swells, and of dawn surfs that aren’t so early that they don’t count as still being ‘last night’. September by the sea has a distinct fragrance too; a cool and calming smell from the spray of breaking waves being carried on the wind. Line-ups get quieter here in Cornwall, and noticeably busier in southwest France, northern Spain and Portugal, with surfers who are able to follow the sun south through the autumn. All of us at home though, get to reap the rewards of a summer’s worth of sand bar build-up and hurricane swells.
Wherever you’re surfing this September, enjoy. Even if it does feel as though autumn’s barely letting summer put its coat on before being ushered out the door, it’ll be back again at about the same time next year. We’re looking forward to sharing the last of the September waves with our community of wooden surfboard workshoppers in a few weeks time for our Annual Gathering of Makers event, but until then we wish you all clean swells and favourable winds, whichever coast you’re chasing waves on.