Just Don’t Eat It…

This is Taxus brevifolia, the American or Pacific or Western yew, allegedly one of the most toxic plants in North America. But only if you eat it. There’s some concern that it can cause heart attacks in those who work with it, or handle it, or look at it disrespectfully. The biggest danger is to livestock and dogs. Dogs will try to eat anything. Mike helped me out by cutting this one to the ground. Poison or not, I’ve had it with the scrappy-looking thing.

I’ve worked with yew, and did not experience shortness of breath, irritation, staggering, weakness, coldness – well, I frequently experience coldness – or collapse. I experienced annoyance because it’s stringy and sappy. But that yew was brown and yellow, and this is a startling red! It’s too small to allow me to do much with it, but maybe I’ll let it sit around being poisonous in the basement, and make something out of it someday. I’m betting that the red fades to brown.

Ouroboros eating it’s own toxic tail.

My parents had two upright yews growing by their house and cut them down to keep the cat from getting herself stuck on the roof. Here’s what I did to one of them. That’s a staff about 6 feet tall. The difference between mature and new wood is clear, and there’s a nice streak of blue running up one side. I guess each one is toxic in its own special way.

This blog made me think of something else I made: a spatula. I’ve been stirring my food with North America’s most toxic wood for 20 years. Hmm.

††There is debate in the botanical community; is Taxus brevifolia getting a bad rap? European and Japanese yews are full of a cardiotoxic alkaloidal fraction called ‘taxine’, but here in the U.S., moose and deer eat the native yew, and they don’t stagger and faint. Brevifolia is different than baccata and cuspidata.

The whole east coast is landscaped in this stuff and everyone says, anecdotally, that children die when they eat the berries. But when’s the last time you heard of a child dying of berries? This sounds like the story of how your uncle knows a man who’s wife has a cousin who ate poisoned Hallowe’en candy.

Taxol, the drug made from brevifolia, is another story. It’s alleged to be toxic because the yew element is carried by polyethoxylated castor oil, and everyone knows that castor bean plants are toxic. Everyone except my parent’s landscaper who says they grew near his house when he was a kid and he and his friends all played with the leaves, and didn’t stagger and wheeze.

So for now, I’ll keep the yew. I just won’t eat it. I’ll use the spatula to stir the nightshade salad.

Will That Hold Water?

I’m not sure how long this vase will remain waterproof, but it’s covered with enough product to last a while.

I told my neighbor that it was time to prune her lilacs. This really meant ‘it is time for me to prune your lilacs.’ I hate to see a neglected lilac. So I chopped down a few main stems, and squared one up. You can see the purple streaks in the wood, and the contrast of the hardwood and softwood. They won’t last; wood always yellows with age, and the purple fades, but when it’s first cut, it’s the color of lilac blossoms. I hollowed the block with a brace and bit. I had to drill from both ends, so I stuffed one end with a plug of wood, and covered it with glue, spar varnish, basically anything gooey.

All the cracks are filled, and we’ll see how it holds up.

A Welcome for a Baby

Where’s Tabitha?

Kim’s expecting Baby Tabitha, and her friend commissioned me to write her name in wire, to hang over the crib. The letters are entwined with vines and leaves to go with flowers that Kim will hang around the name. The white wire will show up against the light blue walls, which will also form the sky color for a flowery mural across the room.

By the time Tabitha is 5 years old, she may decide that her favorite color is pink and that she wants dinosaurs, not flowers. Then at 12 she may want purple and dragons. Then at 15, perhaps she’ll paint the room black and hang skulls on the wall. But for now, Kim gets to enjoy some pure baby design for her blossoming baby girl.

New Installation

Saint Luke’s Church, Metuchen, NJ

This is my first public sign since the old Raconteur sign, and I thank St. Luke’s for considering my proposal. It may be hard to tell, but this is about four feet long. I like working at this scale, and don’t usually have the opportunity.

The body is cut from basswood, which may weather to a pale gray, and the applied nails are cut in the round from padauk, Pterocarpus soyauxii, which, like many species, will darken to brown. The natural colors give good contrast, and padauk is a little stringy but cuts well to show a shiny surface. The sign is sealed with many coats of spar varnish, which gives a little golden tone.

Cut in two directions.

The three crossed nails were cut on the band saw as one piece, in two directions before being cut with a hand saw, then filed and carved by hand. The body surface and letters are hand-cut.

Roughing out the nails.

I’m looking forward to the gallery’s opening this weekend. It’s a small space that shows artwork well, and a great addition to the exhibit spaces in town.


Holly boxes cut from a holly tree killed in Mount Holly in 1996

Back in 1996, as I was enjoying the Olympics in Atlanta, tornadoes ripped through Mount Holly, NJ. That’s right – tornadoes. Imagine my surprise when I saw that on the Weather Channel. I had parked my car there before traveling to Atlanta with a friend in an admittedly better car, and when I got back I discovered that the sudden pressure change had blown out my air conditioner. The tornado also snapped off many of the town’s eponymous holly trees, and blew them around the neighborhood.

The boxes you see are made from that wood. I think it’s fun to use the tree itself as a guide to design, since so many leaves are attractive and distinct. Holly’s tough to work. It’s hard and stringy, and it can heat up and burn when it’s cut with power tools, but the tight grain is very pretty and polishes well. The wood won’t stay this white forever – exposure to air and light will turn it butter yellow someday, but for now, it’s almost as pale as when I cut it open.

I’ll show these at the upcoming event in Metuchen, ‘Eat, Drink, and Buy Art’, this weekend. Here’s the link: The Borough Improvement League always runs a great event, so if you’re thinking of picking up some holiday gifts, stop by and see these very boxes and lots of other good stuff.

Fine Time for a Fairy Garden


It’s hard to get motivated about even the cutest fairy garden in the world when snow is falling on the leaves you didn’t rake up, but it’s not really my problem. This is a commission piece for a neighbor, and her yard is tidy. She’ll put it out in spring for her new grandchild. It’s about 18 inches wide, carved from a solid block of 2″ mahogany. Mahogany is not only water-resistant (the Coast Guard built cutters out of it for years), it’s also very pretty. It carves well. It’s not the smoothest wood, and most is too coarse for fine detail, but this is a big piece and tiny details wouldn’t read clearly from a distance, no matter what wood I used.

I wanted to show the grain and color of the wood, yet also incorporate color, since it’s a whimsical piece for a child. The pigment is good old Crayola watercolor paint. The top coat is also water based; I think that oil based spar varnish is tougher, but the waterbased finishes are crystal-clear, and all the oil finishes are yellow. They make the wood look richer, and they’d be fine over the leaves, but they’d make the violets brown and the border salmon. Audrey’s fairies do not like salmon.

This is intended for a little girl, of course. Do little boys like fairy gardens? Sure they do, until some bigger boy tells them they shouldn’t. So someday, if baby Audrey has a little brother who scorns violets, Grandma can add the Fairy Motocross, the Fairy Rock Climbing Wall, and the Fairy Skate Park.

All Over Town

I’m home from vacation again. August flew by, and now I’m back in the Tomb Room, and all over town. A piece of my work has been accepted by Transformations Gallery for their current show, Doors, at the Old Franklin Schoolhouse. I made this piece for the show, out of found and new materials, and you can see it for yourself any time you stop by the Schoolhouse for a cultural event, or on Gallery Walk day, October 21st, from 1:00-5:00. I’ll be there.

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I will also have two pieces in Nails in the Wall Gallery, at St. Luke’s  Episcopal Church. One is very old; I was learning about the properties and possibilities of different wood, and I was also trying to create pieces that tell a story. So I used bubinga, rosewood, and cedar to show Jonah in the Belly of the Whale. I also carved a new piece that I had wanted to do for a long time; it’s a box in the shape of the scarab, which the Egyptians took as a symbol of eternity and resurrection. It’s cut from one block of mahogany. The show will open September 11, from 2:00-5:00.

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Over the years, I’ve become more interested in locally sourced wood. It’s hard to know whether bubinga or mahogany is being sustainably harvested (probably but not always), and rosewood is almost gone. My little piece was salvaged from a broken piece of furniture. So my sloths, still in progress, are cut from basswood, a farmed lumber. The sloths are coming along slowly…


I have also been accidentally displayed at Metuchen Library, because the main case in the lobby was empty. Every piece there is carved from species that grow in Metuchen, and harvested most of the wood myself. So drop by and see my work while you’re around town.