Working with Wood – A Never-Dying Art
by Michell Spoden
The historical practice of wood carving has been used on trees, doors, walking canes, smoking pipes, nativity sets and even Egyptian tomb ruminants. Rome, China, Syria, Greece, Portugal, Sweden, Native America and many more nations have practiced this historical art form. In every culture there is a touch of wood art somewhere. We’ll discuss more of this art with Pedro Santos, an artist from Portugal.
Pedro Santos: I was born in Portugal where I live, around the beautiful Sintra area. I am 42 years old and I have been a professional firefighter for 20 years. Currently I’m working as a Specialized Airport Firefighter in Lisbon’s International Airport. In my free time I like working with wood, either carving it, creating scroll saw artworks, making band saw boxes, or having fun with some wood turning.
Michell: What is a scroll saw artist and how did you start in this type of art?
Pedro Santos: A scroll saw artist is someone that uses the scroll saw to create pieces of art. With a scroll saw you can use the wood as canvas to create beautiful pictures or portraits; you can cut the wood in puzzle-like pieces to make functional items, like lamps and clocks and other small sculptural ornaments; or you can cut the wood in layers and create tridimensional scenes.
I first started working with the scroll saw back in 2009. I bought my first scroll saw because I was dabbling in making furniture pieces and it looked like it would make it easier to cut small rounded shapes. I had no idea back then what real scroll saw art was! I found out about scroll saw art through a video on You Tube and it was inspiring! I started making small pieces from patterns by other artists, and slowly I started creating my own patterns. Nowadays, I get requests from all over the world to create patterns for other artists.
Michell: What inspires you as an artist?
Pedro Santos: I love wood. I love the smell of wood, its texture, shape and the way it feels in my hands. It’s a great pleasure to work with wood, an amazing feeling of freedom that comes from creating something, with something else that was also created by nature, which simultaneously gives me an immense inner peace and makes the world disappear. It’s just me, the wood and act of creation. This is what drives me and what made me want to broaden my expertise into other wood art forms.
I always loved boxes, especially band saw boxes. In mid 2010, I bought a band saw and started undertaking pieces based on the book “Build Beautiful Boxes with Your Band Saw”. As soon as I became more experienced, once again I began designing my own patterns, having created dozens of boxes.
Passionately pursuing more wood art forms, I evolved into wood carving. It happened because the Celtic culture fascinated me ever since I was very young, the design, the shapes, the intricacy. And that’s how I discovered the tradition and the meaning behind the Love Spoons and fell in love with them. I carved the first Love Spoon in early 2011 and I created my first original Love Spoon in the beginning of 2012.
My art brought me together with other artists and that’s when I met Cris. She fell in love with my art and we fell in love with each other, which led to a new project where we work together to create wearable wood art.
Michell: Can you share with our viewers some historical influences from Portugal on wood art?
Pedro Santos: Portugal’s main historic accomplishment was the Portuguese Discoveries, which consisted in an intensive maritime exploration during the 15th and 16 centuries. Portuguese sailors were at the vanguard of European overseas exploration, discovering and mapping the coasts of Africa, Asia and Brazil. This means woodworking was highly developed in the technical nautical sense, since the vessels used back them, like the Caravels and Naus, were made of wood.
By exploring new worlds, people, and cultures, the Portuguese not only disseminated our language and culture but also our art, however we also absorbed the native art of the people we met and we brought it back to Europe, where is spiked the nobles interest as a curiosity and the craftsman interest as a way of studying different art forms.
Portuguese art received influences from many different people, from the Pre-Celts and Celts, Phoenicians and Carthaginians, the Romans, the Visigoths and the Moors, which can still be discovered throughout the country. Also, being a highly religious country, the sacred art works were the vast majority of artworks. Therefore, saints, crosses and crucifixes sculpted in wood were present in every church or cathedral.
Michell: What do you create the most and why?
Pedro Santos: I am a recognized scroll saw artist that gets requests from all over the world to create personalized portraits and patterns for other artists. My patterns and works have a distinct particularity that separates them from the rest: my unique style is my attention to detail and my perfectionism. This makes my patterns suitable only to expert scrollers who like a good challenge!
I jump from one technique to another, according to my disposition and to the demands on my shops. Currently I have several scroll saw pieces in my shop, Pabreu Woodworking, and while I create personalized portraits on demand, I’m dedicating myself a bit more to wood carving, in particular those wearable pieces I was talking about earlier. After many brainstorming sessions with Cris and following up on our great desire to work together, we started a new project called ArtisIgnis, where we create small hand carved and wood burned pieces and women’s accessories, like hair sticks and forks.
Michell: Were you always an artistic person or did you just find yourself through this medium?
Pedro Santos: I’m a “hands on” kind of guy and I always enjoyed working with m y hands. To the great desperation of my father, I used to steal his tools and make something up to play with. I grew up in a farm, so plenty of wood was ready available, either I hit the firewood pile or went in the wood to get it, I used to play a lot with it and build the most unbelievable things to play with! Back then, we used to walk for 3 km to get to school and on the way to my school there was a carpenter’s shop. Needless to say I spent several hours there, learning by observation and daydreaming, often getting in trouble for arriving home late!
After growing up and when I developed my economic independence I begun buying my own tools and developing my not-so-unbelievable pieces of furniture for my home. Somehow, although uneducated, I always created unique pieces and developed a style of my own from the beginning. Creating as been an escape from everyday routine and a way of living for many years now, and it’s as much a part of who I am as being a firefighter.
Michell: Did you have a mentor or teacher or did you teach yourself?
Pedro Santos: My mentors are from all over the world, since I’m a self taught craftsman and I use the internet to search for inspiration and knowledge. I spent many hours online to learn by reading or watching videos and then go to my workshop and use the “trial and error technique” to develop my skills. I also like to add to my library by buying books on wood art, usually from the UK or USA. However, the best way to exchange information and expertise is by active participation in online forums, where you can always find usable information and a helping friendly artist to give you expert advice. It’s not often that I do, but I like to hang out at the forums whenever I get some free time.
Michell: Do you teach this art?
Pedro Santos: The way I share my expertise and my skills is the same way I absorbed it: online, through forum and Facebook.
Unfortunately, in Portugal there is no tradition of teaching specialized crafts in schools and doing workshops isn’t easy because of all the bureaucracy involved. Self-learned skills are not valid to get a permission to teach them, you need an official diploma.
I do have some friends here in Portugal with whom I share information and advice, which is something I deeply enjoy. It’s not often that I get to talk about my art and my passion in my own language! It’s quite incredible, but I only know of three other artists that make scroll saw art in Portugal.
Michell: Can you please share with our viewers what the most important aspect of art is important to you?
Pedro Santos: Art is a form of expression, a creative outlet for my own self, though which I convey my inner thoughts and feelings. The fact that I work with a tangible medium, a natural raw material that has a life and a will of its own and presents me with a different challenge every time I pick up a new piece of wood is the most important aspect of art. That, and the fact that usually my work is very well accepted and praised throughout gives me a great sense of accomplishment and pleasure. What I feel when I sell one of my pieces is that indefinable sense of satisfaction to know that someone will be happy to have it and that it will be enjoyed for many years. After all, it’s all about the people, isn’t it?
Michell: Are you involved with any humanitarian or environmental efforts?
Pedro Santos: Being a Firefighter I’m never too far away from humanitarian causes and as an artist I often contribute with a piece or two for auctions in favor of different causes and deserving people.
I do have a life guideline regarding the environment. Besides the three R – Reducing, Recycling, and Reusing – separating the trash and all those little things we can all do, I do have a policy in both my shops that states as follows:
“Our wood always comes from sustainable sources. No tree has ever been cut down to supply our needs. We source the wood from local gardeners and lumbermen, so it comes from pruned trees or from trees that died standing. This accounts for some natural variations in the wood color or grain. Also, our friends all know what we do, so once in a while, when they tend to their gardens and trees, we get some wood as a present!”
Of course this isn’t always possible, especially when it comes to scroll saw portraits, but it is our point of honor to implement it in any way and every piece possible.
Michell: What are some of your future goals?
Pedro Santos: I hope to keep on creating, most of all, and creating with the same pleasure and sense of accomplishment as I do now.
I would like to introduce scroll saw art and all the different woodcarving traditions to the Portuguese people, since I feel there’s no recognition of this art form in my country. Even my work is most appreciated out of borders and the Portuguese have no idea what it takes to create such a piece.
I fight to have handmade valued and appreciated, because machine made work is more and more available and at a fraction of the cost, like CNC cut portraits and 3D printed sculptures. For me this is soulless, artless work, no man’s hand touched it with care and attention, no fingers caressed the wood until it told its story and what it would like to be, and no human heart went it to it like it does with what I do.
I intend to keep on creating handmade artworks, showing them online, putting it up on my shops to be bought by someone who appreciates real handmade. Also, I’ll keep on giving advice to those in need of it, sharing my knowledge and spreading the word about handmade wood art.
Michell: Thank you so much for the interview; you are a very talented artist.
About the Interviewer
Michell Spoden is the author of Stricken Yet Crowned and is also pursuing a transitional housing project for woman with an agricultural aspect. She has a degree in Business Science Administration and is finishing her bachelor’s in Project Management.