Sloths: From Sin to Superstar

Back from vacation, and I’m figuring out what’s next in the Tomb Room. I’ve finished three projects: two pieces submitted to local juried shows, and one commission. Commission work is the most fun because I get to tell a story. In this case, it’s more of an idea, just one word, 5 feet long: ‘Disbelief’. We should all suspend disbelief now and then.

Wire Wall Art 1

So what’s next? I’m starting fresh on two series of work. These aren’t custom works that tell a story; they’re forms that interest me and might interest other people. A colleague suggested sloths. I hadn’t realized that sloths are having a moment – sure, everyone likes whales and owls and elephants, but sloths? Suddenly they’re the most popular Deadly Sin ever. Perhaps the sloth is your spirit animal! I like the upside-down-ness of the composition.

The challenge here is to plan efficient production of the rough form. I’m drilling holes first, then I’ll cut the shape out. The drill press has a drop of only 2 1/2 inches so I drilled the longitudinal holes by hand with a power drill.


The wood is a Tilia subspecies, what Americans call basswood when it’s lumber and linden when it’s a tree. Basswood is the best wood for hand carving, hands down. It’s soft, it’s consistent, it doesn’t split, it takes color. This wood is farmed and kiln-dried, but Tilia americana seeds itself in Metuchen, often growing with multiple trunks. Hybrids are planted as street trees and bear the sad name of Tilia x vulgaris.


Compare the commercial wood to Tilia from down the block, on Hillside Avenue. A tree is aging, and huge pieces broke off a few years ago. You can see the ‘spalting’ where fungi have stained the wood. I use a dust collector so I don’t inhale fungal spores. I’ve rough-cut a big branch into two chunks that could be customized walking sticks, and I’ll be telling someone’s story again. But for now… sloths.

A Basket of Scraps


When I lived along the Lehigh Valley spur which is now the Greenway, the property edge was overrun with choke cherry, Prunus virginiana. It’s one of the trees that make up the natural forest here, insofar as forest is allowed to grow. It’s not fussy about soil. It likes some sun but sprouts as an understory tree. It has no commercial value, but the fruit can be used to make wine or jelly. The wood is very pretty, but it’s small. For years, I helped prune or cut down these volunteers. One sunny day my mother put me on the garage roof and handed me a chain saw and asked me to take down a few big limbs. Sure, why not! It builds confidence, standing on a roof with a power tool. I kept the wood because you never know – it could be handy later. I’ve made a walking stick and a few other things from it. This year I found a stack of it that I had sliced on a band saw, about 30 years ago. That’s long enough; it had to get useful right now.

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I chose some black cherry (Prunus serotina) that I salvaged from a tree I lost recently. It may also have been a volunteer, since black cherry seeds itself here too. Black cherry is a much bigger tree; I sawed a slab into supportive ends for a basket. It has good color, but not as much figure as the choke cherry; each of the chokecherries had speckles or stripes or blotches of red or brown.


I found white pine root that my father gave me because he thought it might be useful later. I sawed it into slats which had pretty swirly grain. I found a choke cherry branch with the bark still on. I bought brass screws. The old chokecherry slats were warped and twisted, so I had to notch the end boards to accept them. This is why the colonists held onto their furniture; it’s hard to make anything with straight lines! I managed to get the end boards vertical although the footprint of the box isn’t exactly square. But overall, the plain ends serve to show off the busy pattern of the smaller cherry.


This is a basket with provenance. We’re on a first name basis; I know where it all came from. I cut some of it down. But lumber is not a pet, so it’s time for it to move on.


The Sarcophagus

May 22, 2018

This is my Moravian work bench. It’s splendid. All I know about it’s prior history is that my father obtained it when his father’s friend Emil died, and Emil’s friends lived in apartments and couldn’t take it. Emil was a metalworker, and how he came to possess this splendid product of Moravian workmanship in Queens, I don’t know.

I call it the Sarcophagus because its about as big as tomb furniture; visit U Penn’s online catalogue and see what I mean.

It’s made of maple, and it breaks down for portability. Hah! It takes two men to lift the top off. But then the legs can be detached from the braces with a tap of a mallet. It’s the kind of thing you hope to do only every 30 years or so. The work surface is held in place by gravity; slots in its belly fit over the legs. Most benches have round holes to accommodate traditional blacksmithed or modern spring clamps, but the Moravians had their own ideas, and their peg holes are square. The original pegs are long gone, and I’ve made my own. I don’t use them much but they make a nice wood library; the wenge and imbuye are imports, and the white thing is Corian, but the rest are local wood, in some cases very, very local. The lilac is from Spring Street. The choke cherry is from Graham Avenue. The black walnut may be from Highland Avenue. The holly is from… Mount Holly.


This is the heart of the operations at Sondra Flite Artworks, and when the day comes to hang up my chisels, It will become the world’s biggest end table.