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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Just Whittlin’ the Time Away…

potential monkeys


Isn’t life wonderful

Isn’t life gay

Isn’t life the perfect thing

To pass the time away

     Mason Williams

I’m not a project man. Let that be known from the start. I’m envious of those who are. An acquaintance of mine reroofed an entire barn over the course of a summer. A former Valley neighbor built a gazebo one summer, an outdoor brick barbeque the next. Jim Cabe built an impressive two story shop and went on to construct a quaint garden shed for Alice. My brother singled handedly built a pole shed on his forty acres down in Orting, then a work shed, and is now remodeling a house on the property. Six years total it took me to build a grape arbor, woodshed, and simple carport—approximately two years per project. Thirty-eight years on the place and yet no garden shed. A dollhouse I started when my daughter was eight or nine (she’s now thirty-four) still sits unfinished in the shed, a tenement for mice, and now a longstanding family joke. The fact I have a grandson relieves what little pressure I ever felt to complete the project. No, I guess I’m what you’d call a putterer; in fact, my brothers have fashioned the word into a nickname for me.

Years ago I was thumbing through a book on American folk art. Among the photos of cornhusk dolls, hand woven baskets, willow whistles, wooden bowls, quilts and other backwoods objects d’art I discovered a small, but fascinating piece of whittling: a monkey carved from the pit of a peach. From time to time I thought about that peach pit monkey, especially during canning season when I’d remove the skins and pits from the boxful of peaches I was preparing to preserve and told myself, “One day I’m going to whittle me a peach pit monkey.” So I started saving peach pits, the large ones from late season peaches, ran them through the dishwasher, and stored them on the mantel behind the woodstove to dry.

Those were the days before there was a computer in our household; I couldn’t remember where I’d seen the picture of the carved pit. Al Gore had yet to invent the internet; You Tube did not exist: I had no access to instructional videos on peach pit carving. monkey backsideBut I did know what a monkey looked like…and I had plenty of raw material from which to draw. My Old Timer jackknife, the only thing I’ve ever won in my life--a punchboard prize from my tavern days of long ago—had been around many a block of wood. I honed it razor sharp, selected a promising pit from my inventory, and began my monkey business.

Aside from the fact you’re carving away with a very sharp tool in and around your fingertips (as a precaution I carried a band-aid in my wallet) on a small object, a peach pit isn’t a bad carving medium. The pit has no grain, so you don’t have to worry about gouging or splintering your project. If you are so inclined to monkey around a bit, here are some tips for the wannabe pit carver: choose a nice, plump pit, one that’s not too deeply scoured. If the pit is too  deeply“pitted,” the wood  may not be thick enough to fashion the legs without their splitting. ppm schematicI first use a red pencil to sketch out the head and legs. Once the limbs are roughed out, it’s a matter of whittling through to the center of the pit. Then flip the pit over and repeat the procedure on the reverse side. The most challenging steps in the process are cutting away the wood between the arms and head and between the hind legs and the tail. Take care to leave just enough tail material for a stub between the monkey’s front paws.

The nice thing about peach pit art is it’s conveniently portable: pit, jackknife, and whetstone take up little space in your pocket. portable projectThen in those unproductive idle moments…when the wife is shopping for shoes or purses…when you’re sitting in a “much ado about nothing” faculty meeting, slip the project out of your pocket and begin whittling discretely away. A peach pit carving session produces little “sawdust”; that which is generated is easily brushed away. No piles of shavings with this project.

To date I have notched seven pit monkeys. My first attempt bears a striking resemblance to E.T., the Extraterrestrial, but now that I think about it, E.T. did have a certain simian look about him. ppm front viewFor weeks I carried the finished product  in my pocket, occasionally pressing it between fingers and palm to finish the wood with the oil from my hand. After browsing through several antique stores, I finally found a suitable bell jar to display my “first born.”


1st ppm

As I mentioned earlier, I’m not a project man. But I am a putterer,  and so in peach pit art I decided to render the classic monkey trio: “Hear no evil; speak no evil; see no evil” at the rate of one per year. Each of the three senses had its special challenges, but now all three rest tail first on a miniature log in a bell jar built for three.hear, speak, see no evil

If you yearn to be a true peach pit artist, here’s a word to the wise: serious whittlers of folk art shun power tools; Dremel power units are off limits. If  the project’s not whittled with a jackknife (won or purchased…makes no difference), it hardly qualifies as “folk art,” in my opinion. Peach pit carving, I admit, is intricate work, an exercise in patience and digital dexterity (not to mention potential bloodshed), but turning the center of a peach into a tail-grasping monkey isn’t really all that difficult. All you have to do is carve away the part of the pit that doesn’t look like a monkey.

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