Author Archive for Dan Blair

Playing With Fire

Playing With Fire

By Dan Blair

(Editor’s Note — A ver­sion of this arti­cle orig­i­nal­ly appeared on the FC2 List.)

Ever since man’s first begin­ning, he has been total­ly depen­dent on fire.  He has died with­out it and, when care­less, has died with or because of it.  He loves it and fears it almost in equal pro­por­tions.  If you have ever sat in a star-stud­ded and moon-filled night in the woods star­ing into a cheer­ing camp­fire, you know why.  If you have ever wit­nessed the wrath of a for­est fire, you also know why.  Fire can be your best friend.  Or it can be your worst ene­my.  We don’t always get to choose which one it will be.  But in spite of that, I still like to play with fire.

The first time I got caught play­ing with fire was when I was about 5 or 6 years old.  My over-active imag­i­na­tion had me play­ing cow­boys (or moun­tain men) and Indi­ans.  I had my lit­tle plas­tic and lead fig­ures gath­ered around the log cab­in and cor­rals I had made with twigs and sticks.  Indi­ans had attacked and the cab­in was on fire.  Grand­ma smelled my smoke.  The result­ing rep­ri­mand taught me nev­er to play with fire ever.…especially there in the shade beneath the two 50 gal­lon fuel oil bar­rels that kept our fur­nace fired up.  You would think I should have learned my les­son, but.….  Well?  What can I say?  I guess I’m just a slow learn­er.

As a pro­fes­sion­al out­doors­man with a life-long con­nec­tion to wilder­ness and wild things, I have always con­sid­ered fire to be one of my most wel­comed part­ners.  Off and on, I’ve been a guide/outfitter, a game war­den, hunt club owner/operator, a some­time min­ing camp cook.  I’ve been a ded­i­cat­ed hunter and fish­er­man for all of the adult years of my life and most of the years of my youth.  Need­less to say, I’ve seen a lot of fire.  I’ve kept it close at hand at most times and can read­i­ly recall times when I was most grate­ful for its avail­abil­i­ty.  I can still remem­ber shiv­er­ing through wet and sleep­less nights in the out­doors with­out it.  I know first­hand what hypother­mia feels like and how impor­tant fire is to make it go away.  I guess you could say that Fire and I are just nat­u­ral­ly on a first name basis.  And in some respects, I guess you could even say we have been play­mates.

I am a carv­er.  I have been for 47+ years.  A lot of wood has found its way to my work bench.  Sur­pris­ing­ly, very lit­tle of that wood ever found its way to my fire.  On the oth­er hand, fire has often found its way to my wood.  Let me explain.

I tru­ly love the smell of wood smoke.  Espe­cial­ly when I’m cook­ing up fresh fish for shore lunch.  Even more when I have fin­ished a hard day of hunt­ing or fish­ing.  Sup­per is over and done, and the qui­et time around the camp­fire has put every­one in a place of pon­der­ing.  Remem­ber­ing ear­li­er hunt­ing or fish­ing trips  Ear­li­er camps.  Ear­li­er camp­fires.  But I have lived among civ­i­liza­tion and wood-burn­ing stoves and fire­places were not com­mon in my homes or work shops.  I made up for that absence by always hav­ing a camp­fire.  Camp­ing wasn’t com­plete with­out the light and fra­grant incense pro­vid­ed by a camp­fire.

Some­where along the way of study­ing the Indi­ans and moun­tain men and fur trap­pers of our Amer­i­can West, I learned and was often remind­ed of the val­ue of fire.  I knew the trap­pers could not have guns and traps and knives with­out fire to hard­en the met­al to just the right tem­per.  What sur­prised and impressed me as much was that the Indi­ans also used fire to tem­per the wood of their arrows, bows, and lances and oth­er impor­tant wood­en tools and equip­ment.

I don’t recall just when it was when I first brought fire to my work bench and applied it to the vari­ety of wildlife carv­ings I was cre­at­ing.  It was prob­a­bly some­where as long ago as the 60’s.  I remem­ber one bass carv­ing that was dark­ened only with fire since I had no wood stain on hand.  It worked.  I remem­ber too, a decoy I had carved to repli­cate an antique pin­tail duck.  I took it in to a local sport shop that kept and sold a large num­ber of col­lectible water­fowl decoys.  When the own­er saw me car­ry­ing my deke into the shop, he said to his cus­tomers some­thing to the effect of “Wow!  There’s an old one!” as he turned to me and added, “How old is that one?”  I unin­ten­tion­al­ly put a dent in his integri­ty as a decoy col­lec­tor by look­ing at my watch and replied, “Oh, a cou­ple of hours or so.

Fire had been a great tool in the pro­duc­tion of that faux fowl.  It dis­tressed the wood, mak­ing it appear worn away in places where it real­ly wasn’t.  It dis­tressed the paint job as well and made it look like time had tak­en it away rather than heat or a steel-wool pad and a wire brush.  And I can’t even count the num­ber of fake shore­bird decoys I repli­cat­ed for dec­o­ra­tors that became instant antiques using fire to dis­tress the wood and to heat the ice-picks I used to poke fake bird­shot holes into the wood­en bod­ies.  (I referred to them as col­lectibles with a head start on antiq­ui­ty!)

Some­where along the way, I found that I could use fire on Dou­glas Fir to empha­size the dif­fer­ences in the hard and soft grain of the wood.  The soft wood would burn and brush away a lot quick­er and eas­i­er than the hard wood that was the growth rings of the wood.  I could dis­tress the wood with fire like that to cre­ate the impres­sion of waves on water, or the wind-blown or water washed look of drift­ed sand.  With wood­en bases, I could burn the edges before tak­ing a wire wheel to them before stain­ing the edges with dark stain, giv­ing the edge the appear­ance and tex­ture of black wal­nut shells.

Many times I’ve had to agree with some carvers who com­plain that cer­tain woods are not com­pat­i­ble with pow­er carv­ing tools because the bits and burrs and drum sanders tend to leave the wood “fuzzy”.  I nev­er found that to be a prob­lem because a few quick pass­es with my propane torch took care of the fuzzies as quick­ly as Grand­ma singed away the hair or down off chick­ens, ducks, and more than a few of my pheas­ants over the flames from a burn­er on her cook stove.  (My wood fires always smelled bet­ter than Grandma’s feath­ers!)

Last year, as one of the art judges for the Alas­ka State Fair, I saw two pieces of absolute­ly beau­ti­ful wood turnings.…bowls that gave one the impres­sion of com­ing from old Japan.  What impressed me more than any­thing about the bowls was the han­dles on their lids.  I had nev­er seen any­thing quite like it.  BOTH han­dles had been burned, obvi­ous­ly with a torch because the area of the burn had been very lim­it­ed and care­ful­ly con­trolled.  The wood was clear­ly charred and cracked.  What hap­pened next is what impressed me.  The charred por­tion of the wood had been repeat­ed­ly sat­u­rat­ed with super­glue to the point that the char­coal was now plas­ti­cized and com­plete­ly sta­bi­lized.  Total­ly!  (I can’t wait to apply that tech­nique to a project of my own.  My imag­i­na­tion keeps that thought on the back burn­er for future ref­er­ence.)

One thing I noticed with some woods was that the heat of the flame expand­ed resins in the wood or forced them to the sur­face.  A clear-coat­ing high­light­ed the minis­cule beads of resin and in so doing, made them look like tiny beads of light glow­ing from with­in the wood.  On cer­tain projects, that affect can be tru­ly spec­tac­u­lar.

It goes with­out say­ing that I still like to play with fire to this day.  Like I said, fire is more than a tool, or a play­mate.  It’s a part­ner.  When used prop­er­ly and safe­ly, it has a very impor­tant role in my efforts as a pro­fes­sion­al wood­carv­er.  I don’t play with it under the fuel bar­rels, so I think even Grand­ma would approve of what I do with it now.  I wish I could show her.  I think she would be proud!

Give fire a chance.  It works for me.  I think you may be total­ly sur­prised by what can hap­pen when you are “Play­ing With Fire!”

Good luck and good carvin’.…

Dan Blair ~ FishCarving2 founder/modera


Dan Blair Rockfish

Dan Blair with a 33″ Yel­low­eye Rock­fish Carved From Wood

Dan Blair is founder and a mod­er­a­tor of the Fish Carv­ing 2 (FC2) Yahoo group.  See more of Dan’s instruc­tion, tips and pho­tos at Fish Carv­ing A2Z, and Fish Alas­ka, oth­er Yahoo groups

36 Things I Learned As A Full-time Carver Of Fish

36 Important Things I Learned As A Full-time Carver Of Fish

By Dan Blair

(Editor’s Note — A ver­sion of this arti­cle orig­i­nal­ly appeared on the FC2 List.)

  • Carv­ing fish is a good way to keep your­self in the chips.  Unfor­tu­nate­ly, almost all of them are on the shop floor and mixed in with a bushel bas­ket (or two) of saw­dust.
  • What start­ed as a plea­sur­able hob­by can and will be con­sid­ered a career move if you haven’t giv­en it up after 46 years and the city insists that you must have a busi­ness license to con­tin­ue your efforts in that direc­tion.
  • Your sig­nif­i­cant oth­er will not think you are fun­ny when you announce you’ve nick­named your saw­dust-filled lungs “Hoover” and “Kir­by”.
  • The depth of a cut will be direct­ly deter­mined by how sharp your carv­ing tools are.  The sharp­er they are, the bet­ter and deep­er they will cut into a wood carv­ing.  The same point is true when talk­ing about dull tools and body parts.
  • You will not be reim­bursed by Medicare for emer­gency treat­ment to a severe lac­er­a­tion that you dis­in­fect­ed with an alco­holic bev­er­age and ban­daged with paper tow­els and duct tape.
  • Will I go to Hell for judg­ing oth­er fish carvers in com­pe­ti­tion since the Bible says, “Judge not that ye shall not be judged.”  Should I be wor­ry­ing about that more than I already do?
  • Repairs to an acci­den­tal­ly bro­ken fish carv­ing will take at least 20 min­utes longer to fix and con­ceal than it will take the cus­tomer to show up who decid­ed to sur­prise you by stop­ping by to pick it up ear­ly.
  • Sand­ing off the top of your thumb knuck­le on your disc or belt sander does not look seri­ous as long as you keep your thumb tight­ly bent.  It is only when you straight­en it out that it becomes a 1/4″ deep hole that can eas­i­ly cra­dle a lima bean and then begins to bleed pro­fuse­ly.
  • Dog hair does not make good home­made paint brush­es.  (Cat hair, on the oth­er hand …)
  • Nev­er Super Glue a project while wear­ing shorts, and if you do, be cer­tain that your bare legs are not crossed!  It is very dif­fi­cult to go to the bath­room when your legs are crossed and glued togeth­er.
  • Being able to carve a rea­son­ably real­is­tic fish does not mean you can also carve the replace­ment leg to an antique French love seat.  And no mat­ter how many times you try, you will not be able to stain free cot­ton­wood to make it look like expen­sive, import­ed French wal­nut.
  • Your chil­dren will car­ry a grudge into their adult years if you ever used their stuffed-ani­mal toys as an emer­gency source for eye­balls for your fish carv­ings.
  • House paints and deck stains make poor sub­sti­tutes for paint­ing fish carv­ings, and left over auto­mo­tive lac­quer paint from the local auto body shop is not air­brush ready.  (Strain it two or three times through nylon panty­hose.)
  • Emory boards used by the Ladies for sand­ing and pol­ish­ing their nails work great for touch­ing up some of those hard to reach areas on a fish carv­ing; how­ev­er, in the long run, they will cost you a whole lot less if you go to the store and buy your own.  The same rule applies to those soft facial cos­met­ic brush­es, rub­ber gloves, Q-tips, rub­ber gloves, pearles­cent fin­ger­nail pol­ish, steel wool, Scotch Brite, sharp scis­sors, and espe­cial­ly… panty-hose.
  • Insert­ing the bar­rel and action of a rifle into a hand carved gun stock is far more chal­leng­ing than insert­ing carved fins into a wood­en fish carv­ing.  And scal­ing a fish carv­ing is far less chal­leng­ing than check­er­ing a gun­stock and fore­arm
  • Nev­er hold a board on your lap when drilling holes into or through it!  And do not drill it on the din­ing table, the fend­er of your truck, the kitchen counter top, or linoleum floor.  Also do noth­ing on these same sur­faces that requires using screws and elec­tric screw­drivers.  Pow­er tools will always dri­ve a screw at least a 1/4″ deep­er than the screw is long and the board is thick.
  • Nev­er assume you can suc­cess­ful­ly put lac­quer-based clear coat over acrylic enam­el paint if you just apply it in a built-up series of very thin coats until it looks as wet and shiny as you’d like.
  • Why is it that when you tell peo­ple that you carve fish for a liv­ing they auto­mat­i­cal­ly assume you do that only with a chain­saw?
  • And why is it that when you explain that you pre­fer to carve fish in bass­wood or tupe­lo that they ask, “Is that soft like bal­sa wood?
  • My stom­ach can eas­i­ly hold those 44 ounce sodas I buy from the gas sta­tion next door.  My blad­der can­not
  • Mak­ing a good impres­sion is most impor­tant.  The first per­son you should impress is your­self.  It is a mis­take to carve a fish and only then com­pare it to the real thing.  It makes much more sense to look at the real fish first and most, and only then to make the carv­ing look like the fish.  The lat­ter method will help to show you how close you can get where­as the pre­vi­ous method only serves to show you how far off you missed.  If your fin­ished fish carv­ing doesn’t look like the real fish, you did some­thing seri­ous­ly wrong.  Not using good ref­er­ences to impress your­self is most like­ly where your prob­lems first start­ed.
  • Carv­ing stu­dents will remem­ber every­thing I tell them about using my pow­er tools except the rule about not kink­ing the cable on my Fore­dom flex shaft.
  • Apply­ing hun­dreds of spots with an air­brush on a high­ly spot­ted trout or oth­er fish always works well.  It is only one of the very last spots that blows out into a spi­der shape that ruins the entire paint­ing process.  So play it safe and do not add the last three or so spots.
  • Carve more lit­tle fish.  That way, when they don’t come out quite right, you can always add fish hooks to them and tell spec­ta­tors you spe­cial­ize in carv­ing home­made fish­ing lures because that’s where the REEL mon­ey is at.
  • Con­sid­er find­ing a bet­ter source for carv­ing woods than from that stack of pal­lets behind the gro­cery store.
  • Do not shake a glass air­brush bot­tle if you have added a steel ball-bear­ing to help stir up the paint inside.
  • Carv­ing while sit­ting on the toi­let is not a good idea.  The accu­mu­la­tion of chips floats and has a ten­den­cy to clog the toi­let, sew­er line, and sep­tic tank.
  • As a rule… yard sticks are usu­al­ly very inex­pen­sive, fre­quent­ly made from bass­wood, and thin enough to use as a source for fish fins and oth­er thin-wood carv­ing projects like plant leaves, etc
  • Using real rocks on a carved fish habi­tat base will not impress a cus­tomer near­ly as much as carv­ing and paint­ing even poor sub­sti­tutes.  Even a very small child can glue rocks on a board.  Right?  And who would ever believe you could carve a fish, but you couldn’t carve a rock?  Nev­er give them that impres­sion.
  • Deal­ing with the demands of an over-pow­er­ing inspi­ra­tion is like throw­ing up.  You nev­er feel real­ly good again until you get it all out of your sys­tem.
  • There are a lot of ways for an artist to be tak­en, but I think one of the very worst is to be tak­en for grant­ed.
  • No mat­ter what I’ve done, there is no doubt in my mind that I could have done it bet­ter.  I still have to fig­ure out why I didn’t.
  • Buy­ing less expen­sive tools costs more in the long run because they even­tu­al­ly end up in the junk draw­er after I replace them with what I should have bought in the first place.  I keep my first air­brush (a Paasche’ H sin­gle action) to remind me that I real­ly should have bought my Paasche’ VL dou­ble action air­brush instead
  • Wood chips and shag car­pet make a very poor com­bi­na­tion and a gar­den rake will not be part of the solu­tion.  Pic­ture your­self on your knees with a pock­et comb and a tweez­ers
  • Some say rules should not be bro­ken.  I say because some have dared to break rules, the rules have been made bet­ter and stronger.  As a result, so have we.
  • Ralph Wal­do Emer­son once said, “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is not path and leave a trail.”  I have tried to leave a trail for sev­er­al years now and I sin­cere­ly hope some­one is fol­low­ing because it must be very obvi­ous that I have been thor­ough­ly and com­plete­ly lost now for quite some time.


Good luck and good carvin’.…

Dan Blair


Dan Blair is founder and a mod­er­a­tor of the Fish Carv­ing 2 (FC2) Yahoo group.  See more of Dan’s instruc­tion, tips and pho­tos at Fish Carv­ing A2Z, and Fish Alas­ka, oth­er Yahoo groups

The One Tree Project

The One Tree Project

By Dan Blair

(Editor’s Note — A ver­sion of this arti­cle orig­i­nal­ly appeared on the FC2 List.)

Ever heard of the One Tree project?  If you do an inter­net search on it, you will prob­a­bly be as amazed as I was to see that it is much more than just a local activ­i­ty.  In fact, it has grown to become almost a world-wide endeav­or.  I was impressed to see how many places around the globe have been (or are cur­rent­ly) part of the pro­gram.  There is a lot to read about it online, and I admit I haven’t tak­en much time to enlight­en myself with all there is to know about it.

Winter Phase Rainbow:Steelhead Trout03

Win­ter Phase Rain­bow Pat­tern

I first became curi­ous about the One Tree project when I was invit­ed to take part in a com­pa­ra­ble project here in south-cen­tral Alas­ka.  The gist of the idea is to take just one tree and see how many dif­fer­ent items can be craft­ed from it.  In the case of the One Tree  project I joined, the tree was a tall birch tree that had to be removed to make way for the widen­ing and recon­struc­tion of a road.  I signed up and asked for a two foot + sec­tion of the trunk that is rough­ly 12 inch­es in diam­e­ter.  From the 30″ log they gave me, I split off most of one side to make myself a flat sur­face onto which I could trace the pat­tern for a 24″ win­ter phase rainbow/steelhead trout.  I intend­ed to cut out the trac­ing on my band­saw and then rough out the rest of the fish with the Lancelot Carv­er in my Maki­ta 4″ grinder.  OOPS!  Bum­mer!

Wet wood does not band­saw well.  Even though I had been dry­ing this piece for five months or more, it was still quite wet inside.  Long sto­ry short, the blade bound up in the soft build-up of wet saw dust and.…  “WHAM!!!!”  Bro­ken blade.  I could have shut down and head­ed for Sears for a new blade, but that was a 10 mile round trip tak­ing more time than I thought I had to spare.  Instead, I just attacked what was left with my Maki­ta and that rotary chain­saw carv­ing tool.

After rough­ing out the shape and basic fea­tures of the fish, I began the sand­ing process by using disc sanders in my Fore­dom tool.  Much of the sand­ing gets done that way when I am work­ing on the big­ger pieces.  And after that, I refine the sand­ing by switch­ing to my soft-sander, the drum with “soft” foam rub­ber back­ing which can accept flat sand­pa­per in just about any grit you choose, oth­er than the very coars­est sort.  (I most com­mon­ly use 80 and 120 grit.)

Winter Phase Rainbow:Steelhead Trout02

Win­ter Phase Rain­bow

To give you a bet­ter pic­ture of just what it is that I was carv­ing, imag­ine the log stand­ing upright on its widest end.   Con­sid­er that as a stump that a beaver, a log­ger, or the wind took down, and on which there is still a large spear of wood pro­trud­ing sky­ward.  Then pre­tend you have caught a BIG tro­phy trout and are look­ing for the ide­al way to dis­play it for pic­tures before tak­ing it home.  *!!!!*  Why not hang it, head up, from the top end of that snag?  Hey!  That works for me.  And so I did.

The next process was to make the birch stump look weath­ered.  For that, I went back to the Maki­ta with the chain­saw and shaped the spear to a point and roughed in the creas­es and cracks that one would expect to see on weath­ered wood.  Before I fin­ished the look of old wood on the upright por­tion, I primed and air­brushed the fish the way I nor­mal would have except that I had to mask off the area that was not fish before the paint­ing began.  Once the fish itself was paint­ed, I could use a con­ven­tion­al brush to add the col­ors com­mon to old and weath­ered drift­wood, etc.  It worked!

Winter Phase Rainbow:Steelhead Trout01

Win­ter Phase Rain­bow Fin­ished!

Here is the fin­ished carv­ing.  I hope the results will encour­age a lot more foks to get active­ly involved in their own One Tree project.  I high­ly rec­om­mend it to all of you in hopes that you will encour­age your own carv­ing clubs and orga­ni­za­tions to look into hav­ing a One Tree project of your own at your next big get togeth­er.  I think it is a great idea and numer­ous One Tree projects around the world seem to agree.  Check it out and see if you do too.

Good luck and good carvin’.…

Dan B ~ FC2 founder/moderator


Dan Blair is founder and a mod­er­a­tor of the Fish Carv­ing 2 (FC2) Yahoo group.  See more of Dan’s instruc­tion, tips and pho­tos at Fish Carv­ing A2Z, and Fish Alas­ka, oth­er Yahoo groups