Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Me...and a bunch of little wooden monster heads

I don't tend to share a lot of what I (Dug North) do in my own workshop on this blog. When I started The Automaton / Automaton Blog in 2006, I just posted about things that fascinated me: antique automata, contemporary automata, mechanical toys, kinetic sculpture, books, and tools. After a while, it felt strange to post about my own projects.

I guess the time has come to start to include more of my own work on the blog now and then. Writing about yourself and what you are up to is sort of what blogs are all about. That's what I've been told, anyway. And so, this is my first tentative step in that direction. Here we go...

While working on a new automaton this year, I got stuck. Very badly stuck. This was a new and frustrating experience for me. When it comes to creative projects, I generally know what I want to do and then do it. Sure, I make changes along the way, but I've never really hit a dead end. This project was different. The situation became so bad that I found myself avoiding the workshop more and more. Not good.

I struggled to think of a way to break out of the vicious cycle I found myself in. But, the more I thought, the worse things became. Thinking hard about something -- historically something I've used to my advantage -- became a big part of the problem. I needed to use my hands again. Get out of my own head. Make something.

I once heard that writers with writer's block should just sit down and force themselves to write. Write anything at all. Just keep writing. No editing, no planning, no rereading what was written, just write until the block is cleared. This process may take minutes, hours, days, or weeks. Maybe even longer.

I wondered if I could apply a similar technique. Making a stream-of-consciousness automaton (while perhaps possible for some) seemed far too daunting. So, I resolved to make little wooden monster heads. Does that sound odd? Well, I like monsters -- at least small wooden ones. I figured that the task would get me to use my hands and tools again. I chose carving because, for me, it is the most right-brained aspect of making an automaton. I can lose all track of time while doing it. Perhaps I would come up with a few characters that I could use in a future automaton.

I chose as my starting point either a 1 inch wooden sphere or a 1 inch wooden cube. The idea was to go into the workshop and just start carving until something happened. No sketches, no pictures, no modeling clay. Gluing things on, I decided, was permissible. My task was to add and remove wood until a little monster head was formed. I'd come out of the workshop when it was done.

So, how did it go? While it certainly wasn't the answer to all of life's problems, the technique worked to a large extent. Over the course of a few weeks, I started to enjoy the process. I never knew exactly what would come of each session. I like some of the monsters better others, but I've come to appreciate them all for helping me to get unstuck. Without further ado, let me introduce you to Monster Head Study No. 1:

Dug North's wooden monster head study number 1
Dug North's Monster Head Study No. 1, 2011

The head is basswood, carved with hand tools and a Dremel. The horns are made of 1/8 inch thick Baltic birch plywood that I stained with a wood-stain marker. I drilled holes for the eyes and did a tiny bit of wood-burning to define the eyebrows and nostrils. I don't recall how long this took me to make, but it was less than an hour. This creature doesn't have a name (in fact, none of them do), but I am open to suggestions! I'll share more of these in the weeks to come.


UPDATE: April 27, 2011 - Reader Les submitted this digitally enhanced version of Monster Head Study No. 1 (below). Check out the red cat eyes! Thanks Les!

Dug North's wooden monster head study number 1
Dug North's Monster Head Study No. 1 with red cat eyes

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good for You! This post was helpful for me who loves to look at the workings of automata, but have just not sat down to do it for myself. Feeling follows action as the psychologists say. Another way to break a block is to try doing something creative that you are not used to. Give the creativity a release that "primes the pump" of the intended creative outlet.

April 26, 2011 at 12:34 PM  
Blogger Dug North said...

Thanks! I'm glad you found the post helpful. Thanks also for the other idea on how to break a block. Sounds like great advice!


April 26, 2011 at 12:57 PM  
Blogger Andrés said...

Hi Dug:
I have been following your blog since I found it, a year or so, but I never sent a comment before. I have made a lot of things, steam ships, steam engines, a live steam loco, RC cars, pottery, photography, etc. and I have suffered this blocking lots of time, and the best thing to do, for me, is stop the work for a while. Sometimes when I go to sleep a new aproach comes to my mind, sometimes when I'm taking a shower. When I'm blocked in a specific part I put it apart and work in another pieces then I take it back. When the problem seems not to have a solution I start all over again from scratch. I have been studying the automata since a long time however I have been blocked to start my first automata just because a lot of thinking and the idea to make a perfect automata from the begining. It was the crankahead contest what put me on track, when I decided to make some sort of uselees machine in just one day before the contest close the entries. Now I found that for automata the best, for me at least, is to start with an idea, a simple sketch then going on like you did with this head of yours. Now I have almost finished my first proper automata and the second one ready to begin. Thank you very much for this blog, it is very inspirational. I'm looking forward to see more monster heads, it would be great to see some sort of house with all these monster heads coming out of the windows.

April 26, 2011 at 8:32 PM  
Anonymous Fred said...

I'm very happy to hear we'll be getting a bit more news of what's going on in your shop, Dug.

For some reason, your Monster Head Study No. 1 reminds me of "Crazy" Guggenheim - a character from the Jackie Gleason television show back in the early 1960's. I can almost hear him saying, "Hey, Joe..."

April 26, 2011 at 8:51 PM  
Blogger Dug North said...

Hi Andrés,

Thanks for following my blog and for your comment!

I received similar advice: stop working on the project for a while. I did this, but the time became went on and on. It stretch out to longer than I care to admit here. Still, it is good advice and has worked for me in the past.

I like your suggestion to work on another part if one part is causing a block.

It can certainly be a dangerous trap to think you have to have an automaton all worked out from the beginning. I've fallen into that one too!

Good for you for getting into the Crankahead contest, finishing a piece, and starting a second one! Sometimes deadlines force me to push through a problem and stop looking for the "perfect" solution.

I am glad you find this blog inspirational. That's very good to hear.

More monster heads are on their way! A house with them looking out would be fun to see.



April 26, 2011 at 9:27 PM  
Blogger Dug North said...


Glad you like the idea!

Crazy Guggenheim, eh? Perhaps it's the giant under-bite?



April 26, 2011 at 9:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

With the horns and the underbite, reminds me a little of Ludo from the movie "Labyrinth."

Just messing around, I quickly drew in some monstrous eyes, but perhaps smaller, beady eyes would work better, or just carved features -- maybe will prompt some nominal inspiration: http://brickmoon.com/dugmonstereyes.jpg


April 27, 2011 at 3:41 PM  
Blogger Andrés said...

Hi Dug:
I didn't start all the work on the automata, it is only the unsolved part. I learned that perfection is the worst trail to walk, you can't get to any place on such road. One can always do improvements later. Thanks for your answer, I'm looking forward for what you will do with these heads.

April 27, 2011 at 8:28 PM  
Blogger Dug North said...


Ludo. Yeah, I see it. I've got other monsters with those to upward pointing canines. I love that look.

Great work with the photo! I have tried some simple glass beads for eyes, but nothing like what you've done. I think I should look into getting some of those glass eyes for wildlife carving. Thanks for the inspiration!


April 27, 2011 at 9:52 PM  
Blogger Dug North said...


"Perfection is the worst trail to walk; you can't get anywhere on such a road."

I've never heard that before. Those are words of wisdom.


April 27, 2011 at 9:55 PM  
Blogger deanS said...

I like it. It has a Orky quality to it.

"The journey is the reward."
Chinese Proverb

"If you can dream it, you can do it."
Walt Disney

April 28, 2011 at 8:02 AM  
Blogger Dug North said...

Thanks Deans!

Very orc-like, though I don't usually associate them with longhorns. Perhaps you mean "Orky" in the Warhammer sense or some other?

More words of wisdom. Thanks!


April 28, 2011 at 9:15 AM  
Blogger deanS said...

Lately for me its the Warhammer 40k sense Orky. Horns usually on helmets granted and it is minus tusks, but still a nice head.

Btw it's starting to really remind me of a toy from my childhood.It was like a toy piano with round pacman like heads that popped up when the keys were pressed.

Looking forward to more headshots.

April 29, 2011 at 7:30 AM  
Blogger Dug North said...


Thanks again. Hmmm...that toy is vaguely familiar to me. I may have had it myself.

More heads in the weeks to come!


April 29, 2011 at 11:25 AM  

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