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Medieval Cast Chip Carving


#1

It is my hope that there may be other Orchadians interested in
trying to reproduce the early medieval cast chip carving, or
kerbschnitt, as it is sometimes called. This style of working seems
to be originally a late Roman technique, which caught on in Germanic,
Nordic and Celtic cultures but then died out by the 10th century or
so. I have been making some progress with this technique and some
recent projects have me very excited about the possibilities.

I was comissioned to make a prize for a bagpipe compitition and have
used this oportunity to try a more ambitious chip carving piece than
I have previously attempted. Several things have been learned from
this experience. One is that the modern ceramic moldmaking material
"Ceramical" works very well for carving. The second point really
made clear from working on this piece is that the relationship
between the positive and negative spaces needs to be very carefully
balanced in order to have an even depth in the spaces between the
ridges and keep the foreground even.

You can see the project, finished and in several stages of carving
at http://celtarts.com/donald_macleod_memorial.htm

Stephen Walker


#2

Hello Stephen;

I went to your URL and looked at the MacLeod page. I’m confused
though. I have several books on “chip carving”. From what I know of
it, it consists of geometric patterns carved by means of removing
triangles of wood, sort of like little inverse pyramids. The stuff
I’ve seen has a sort of Pennsyvania Dutch style to it. The layout is
often done with protractors, which will divide a circle into 6, so
there’s a lot of hex patterns or mandalas. I love the stuff and have
long planned to do something interesting with it. I won’t explain my
plan here on Orchid, I got scooped on one very good idea that way,
right down to the title. If you’re interested in what I’ve seen,
write me off forum and I’ll send you a scan or two.

David L. Huffman


#3

Hi Stephen,

I was very interested in your paper on medieval chip carving, and
have had similar thoughts myself.

I have done some casting for a local medallist and he showed me the
technique for developing the plaster carving of the medal side. This
is done in much the same way, working from positive to negative, so
that a protruberance such as a nose can be increased by carving away
in the negative. All errors can be corrected to make the relief
either deeper or prouder in maybe eight or ten reverses.

This technique is described in Lanteri, Modelling and Sculpting the
Human Figure, in a section at the end. I also have a book on
Anglo-Saxon Square headed Brooches which show a great similarity of
size and general design but with different superficial pattern , I
have wondered if coarse templates were passed around and the fine
detail altered at the modellers discretion

A few years ago I did a small piece for ‘Time Team’ reproducing one
of the Pictish plaques that is in the museum of Scotland and was
privileged to have them taken out of the case and put under the
microscope, along with a couple of hand brooches.

You could see what shaped gravers had been used to engrave the
patterns, and in the hand brooches, small pieces of baked clay in
crevces that were too difficult at the time to clean out.

They did not seem to do this research on exhibits much, and I said
it would explain perhaps how items were made, or exclude how they
could not have been made, but they did not seem to have an avenue to
follow up on their finds.

The Curator I dealt with might remember me, I do not know if she is
still there, but having a close look at the original pieces under
magnification could tell you a lot.

I am a great believer in trying to reproduce ancient work with just
the tools and equipment available at the time, you can never prove
how something was made, but you can often eliminate ways it could not
have been done. For example I was amazed how easy it is to melt a
couple of ounces of silver with a pair of bellows and a charcoal
fire.

sorry to go on, I do not know many people interested in this sort of
stuff, I am assuming you are up in Scotland from the Pictish link.

Kind Regards,
Tim Blades.


#4
I have done some casting for a local medallist and he showed me
the technique for developing the plaster carving of the medal side.
This is done in much the same way, working from positive to
negative, so that a protruberance such as a nose can be increased
by carving away in the negative. All errors can be corrected to
make the relief either deeper or prouder in maybe eight or ten
reverses. 

A lot of my understanding of this comes from watching my brother
work. He was a ceramic mold maker and worked back and forth between
positive and negative plasters constantly. Medals bring to mind
coins, struck in dies which are similarly carved in reverse.

A few years ago I did a small piece for 'Time Team' reproducing
one of the Pictish plaques that is in the museum of Scotland and
was privileged to have them taken out of the case and put under the
microscope, along with a couple of hand brooches. 

The people at the Museum of Scotland are very interested in some of
this. I had a long chat with one of the curators who did his PhD
dissertation on clay mold for casting metal. He has offered to get
some of the fragments in their collection out for me to have a look
at one my next trip to Edinburgh.

You could see what shaped gravers had been used to engrave the
patterns, and in the hand brooches, small pieces of baked clay in
crevices that were too difficult at the time to clean out. 

I did get a chance to look at a collection of chip carved bits and
pieces at the Ulster Museum 2 years ago. I didn’t see any clay
fragments, but I did see some interesting tool marks. I wish I had
had a better camera at the time. I think you can learn a lot from
looking at sloppy work and bad pieces because often the mistakes give
some clues about what happened in the workshop. The good pieces on
display might as well have been made by angels. The book “Work of
Angels” by Susan Youngs of the British Museum is an excellent
reference for anyone interested in the subject.

sorry to go on, I do not know many people interested in this sort
of stuff, I am assuming you are up in Scotland from the Pictish
link.

I am in the US, but I travel to Scotland and Ireland every January
for trade shows. My business is Celtic design jewelry, which I make
but also import. I have looked at chip carved pieces for over 30
years. The shapes of the details always looked impossible to me. I
just could not figure out what moves or tools would accomplish the
style. For a long time I tried carving or chasing similar designs,
but when I figured out that it was done in reverse it all came into
focus rather quickly.

I am very glad that others are interested in the subject.

Stephen Walker


#5

I think this type of mold making was also practiced here on the North
American continent probably brought to the new land by the Spaniards,
Who stole it from the Moors, who borrowed it from some one who stole
it from the Mesopotamians or the Egyptians only Pharaoh knows where
they got it. Several Native American civilizations The Hopi Nation
and the Navajo Nation did a similar type casting using a material
TUFFA Stone, I’m not certain of the make up of this material although
I have made some crude molds simply using broken three corner files
and crudely made chisels, The material is quite soft, easily
transfigured, and when properly oxidized produces as good opr better
of mold as traditional Sand casting it can be used many times. I
believe Tuffa Stone is readily available from Indian Jewelers Supply
or Thunderbird Jewelers supply, both located in Gallup New Mexico.

I’ve never tried soapstone so I can’t speak of the finish quality,
Tuffa stone though is rather grainy, I even made some Ingot molds and
a few Naja’s from it since I had a 10 Lb. block of it.

Also couldn’t catlanite (pipestone) be used as a repetitive mold as
well?, I certainly think for coinage and other semi thick pieces that
might work.

I’ve only seen images of the Sutton Hoo treasure although they were
high quality images and I have seen some of the Pictish / Celtic
work also in good quality images, and considering what small amount
of knowledge I’ve come by in the past 30 odd years, I keep wondering
HOW THE H&$$ did they do it, They had to have burnished everything
with fire hardened sticks and polished with fire pit ash.

I know that there has been casting for over 6000 years, and I have
seen the King Tutankhamen, IN person many years ago when it toured
the U.S. Much of that work to me seemed to be Reppouse, but things
like the knife handles looked to be cast, I doubt if they were of
thin cross section. I’ve been watching this discussion on several
forums and it’s been a most refreshing discussion and quite
informative. Great to sort of get back in circulation, and Thanks to
Stephen Walker for the enlightenment, Prior to this I’d never heard
of Cast Chip Carving, this puts another link in the chain for me

Regards
Kenneth Ferrell