Handcrafted Wood: Contemporary Art and Historical Objects

Handcrafted Wood: Contemporary Art and Historical Objects
12/10/2017 Rachel
Wood feature on Artizan Made
Harvey Biel Minnesota farmer and wood worker

Harvey Biel, my grandfather who could restore antiques to their former glory.

When I was in High School, I was the only girl to take the woodshop class.  We had several family members who worked with wood and I wanted to see what I could do with it, handle the tools and take a test drive. My grandfather, Harvey Biel, restored antique furniture on the side. He could bend and match broken legs, cane weave seats and backings that had gone to pieces (he is sitting on one of his restored rocking chairs in the photo. You can barely see the weave…) and he knew how to turn wood and carve, finishing with a variety of methods.

One of his sons went into construction, with an eventual focus on building ornate staircases, fireplaces and other ornamental woodwork for big houses. My Dad, another son, had a ten-year carving stint where he made Biblical stories come to life. Two cousins turn wood as hobbies on both sides of the family. The love of wood has been with us for a long time… I ended up making a few things, but although I liked it, pursued other art interests, settling on textiles and clay.

The connection between living on the land and developing craft skills has accompanied human history in its development as a civilization. Especially in cold climates where the land dictates an enforced period of rest, farmers around the world have developed other areas of expertise and production, working on projects that can be done inside, including wood working. From functional needs, high craft and artistic expression pushed simple objects into creative interpretations of beauty and identity. Wood speaks profoundly to us as a connection to the tree, to its roots in the soil, to that which sustains the spirit and to the years of growth needed for maturity. We see our selves in it.

Carving of Jesus with Mary and Martha by Clifford Biel

Carving of Jesus with Mary and Martha by Clifford Biel

We have three very different kinds of wood products represented in our Artizan Made shops. We have the artists who actually shape the raw material into an object, the recyclers who use found discarded wooden products and used them to create something new and then the vintage wooden carvings and other works that were created long ago, showing the wear and tear of time and provenance. Let’s take a look at a few of them! Click on the images to visit their shops.



Nelsonwood, Australian Corrugata Burl Wood Bowl

Nelsonwood, Australian Corrugata Burl Wood Bowl

Bryan Nelson cutting a Texas Burl down

Bryan Nelson cutting a Texas Burl down

Bryan currently has 300 items in his Etsy shop, mostly bowls made from both local woods salvaged in Texas, where he lives, and exotic woods that he has purchased. My favorites are the burl wood bowls which show great textures, coloration and patterns. Burls are big bumps that grow on some trees, most likely from an injury that the tree tried to overcompensate with extra growth, or like a tumor. The wood can often be hard to work as each color variation can also mean a difference in texture, density and strength.

Bryan also makes high end salt and pepper shakers, decorative bird houses, lidded bowls, ring bearing bowls (have a wedding coming up?) and other work. One of his latest offerings will thrill knitters: smooth yarn bowls that are just super special!



Woodissimo marquetry cutting

Woodissimo marquetry cutting

Woodissimo and Picandle

Spin the globe and head on over to Hungary where Kata Asmany uses an ancient technique called marquetry to create designs within a thin sheet of wood. This is quickly being replaced by laser cutting, a faster way of cutting into anything, but we like it that Kata sticks to the old school method, don’t you?

In Kata’s Woodissimo shop, you will find enchanting little music boxes, perfect for carrying in your pocket on a walk to the park. They make great conversation pieces and ice breakers!





Woodissimo Beethhoven Wood Music Box

Woodissimo Beethhoven Wood Music Box


One version has a paper melody strip! This one plays music from Harry Potter:



Picandle Aztec Monkey Candle

Picandle Aztec Monkey Candle

Something Else Studio

Fly back to the East Coast in the US (New York) and you will bump into some renaissance flaire! Master woodworker, Joe Guarnere, collaborates with his wife, Jannelle Olmstead, makind small mirrors and ornaments for Jannelle’s bags and these wonderful treasure boxes, where you can store special mementos. Joe does the woodwork and Jannelle paints.

Something Else Studio Tudor Wood Treasure Chest

Something Else Studio Tudor Wood Treasure Chest


Janelle also makes jewelry using the painted wood:


Woodland Necklace by Something Else Studio

Woodland Necklace by Something Else Studio

Oshiwa Designs

Oshiwa Designs, carving a printing block

Oshiwa Designs, carving a printing block

Head on over to Namibia, Africa, for the delightful textile stamps made by the fair trade artisans of Oshiwa Designs. These printing blocks are extremely versatile! Intended for printing on fabric or paper, you can also use them to press into clay, soap and cookie dough! The carvers insist on making each stamp and individual expression of what is in their heads, so no two are alike, although there may be similar themes. Lots of elephants!

The wood comes from a sustainable forestry project in Ghana, so when you buy Oshiwa, you are also helping prevent deforestation, a serious problem which has deep repercussions for all of us! Trees keep our air clean and serve as the lungs of the earth. Be sure to look into sources when you buy new wooden products.

You can buy single stamps in the Oshiwa shop on Etsy or sets, which are priced at 15% below the square inch pricing of the individual ones. And, if you add a picture hanger on the back of the stamps, they look great as wall art when not in use!

Oshiwa Printing Block Set

Oshiwa Designs Printing Block Set


Well, these are artists, too, but they are not working the wood like the ones above. Instead, they take what is found and embellish and transform. These artists perform a huge service to society, often without recognition, as they salvage our waste, keeping it from landfills and making it precious and valuable. Kudos to them!




 Jess Wrobel and her husband Dave love to find old, worn furniture, carpets, and metalwork and then rework them into something new. Dave enjoys refinishing or transforming the wood while Jess knits, hooks, sews and will complement a piece with a textile. Here is one of her hooked rugs mounted on weathered fencing:

Jwrobel floral hooked rug on salvaged fencing

Jwrobel floral hooked rug on salvaged fencing

Vintage Wood

We have some world travelers in our Artizan Made shops! I have always felt strongly that the vintage handmade can co-exist happily with the contemporary work. There are so many reasons to include them, but the main ones for me have to do with the preservation of a history along with the documentation of techniques. It’s ironic, I think, that as third world countries industrialize, they often throw away their culture by getting rid of their handmade traditions, both as objects and as appreciated skills, as quickly as possible. This was especially true in the 1970’s and 80’s, as we have seen many indigenous and cultural groups begin to honor their legacy by creating cultural museums, enacting laws that prohibit the export of artifacts and by casting the lime light on the masters of their various craft traditions.

In choosing who to invite to join our Artizan Made family, I have looked for shops that show genuine connections with the cultures and histories that they represent. If you are also a lover of vintage, you, too, should look at the spirit behind these offerings and try to get a sense about whether these stories are being told and sold in a sensitive and honorable manner.

Afghan Tribal Arts

Afghan Tribal Arts, Abdul Wardak at a rug shop in Afghanistan

Afghan Tribal Arts, Abdul Wardak (on the right) at a rug shop in Afghanistan

Abdul Wardak loves two countries passionately: Afghanistan, where he was born, and the United States, where he has lived since the early 1980’s. Importing from Afghanistan has allowed him to keep a foot in both countries. The core of his business lies in hand carved beads made from semi-precious stones, but he also has a huge inventory of wood, metal, carpets, and other tribal textiles and clothing. The Etsy shop doesn’t have much wood, as the larger pieces (furniture, mirrors, carvings, etc) are hard to ship. But, it does carry textile stamps which can be used like the Oshiwa ones on fabric, paper, clay, and other surfaces. Distressed, they are the discarded blocks used by textile workshops. I have them around my house as decorative objects.

Abdul also has a brick and mortar shop in South Carolina, Sturee Tribal Village.  There, you will find some of the furniture and larger wood objects that he has collected over the years, including a nice selection of African masks. Visit Sturee Tribal Village.

Afghan Tribal Arts Vintage Pear Wood Textile Stamp

Afghan Tribal Arts Vintage Pear Wood Textile Stamp


Sir Raffles

Charles Mandel has traveled extensively in Europe and Asia (he lives in Michigan, USA). Those travels led to an interest in sculptures and wooden carvings, something he has enjoyed since childhood. His collection includes tribal art from a number of countries, but he has a specific focus on old, weathered santos, especially from the Philippines. The Spanish colonies all flourished with Roman Catholic iconic art and the Philippines is no exception. Charles especially likes devotional work that shows wear and tear, objects that carry the memory of prayers and history, embedded into the wood by candle smoke and handling.

Named after an interesting persona of the Colonial days, Sir Raffles was an Englishman who served in several posts, always seeking ways to abolish slavery, protect the environment and document the historical importance of what he saw around him.

This is my all-time favorite Sir Raffles Santo:

Sir Raffles- Spanish Colonial Santo Tableau St. Roque

Sir Raffles- Spanish Colonial Santo Tableau St. Roque, Philippines


St. Roque is the patron saint of the plague and infectious diseases. Both the angel and dog helped him out. 🙂


Hot Moon Collection

Another world traveler, Gabrielle Ruvolo has quite the eclectic selection on her website. In the wood arena, you will find Buddhas, furniture, Tibetan chests, and other antiques. She also carries amazing textiles from all over the world, making many of them into pillows, ready for use. I especially like this Ashanti stool, carved from one piece of wood, thought to be from the early 1900’s:

Hot Moon Collection - African Ashanti Stool

Hot Moon Collection – African Ashanti Stool

Such a stool would be used by a chief or someone with status in the village. You will become a VIP if it is yours!



Well, you have an overview of some examples of how wood has been used by artists, past and present. Most people who appreciate handcrafted wood objects would probably agree that there is a feeling of warmth in the wood. Even if it has been painted, there is a vulnerability and softness that contrasts starkly with metal, glass, or minerals. Once alive and rooted to the earth, the fallen tree lives on, sharing it’s time and place in a new way.

Love your trees!


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Wood from our Artizan Market

Here are some beauties from our Woodwork Category!  These are pulled in randomly. To see more, go here.

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