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Murray McBride - using moose antler as a carving material

May 18, 2020

 

I live in an old wooden house in a small remote community in Swedish Lapland, the homeland of my wife, Karin. The winter temperature drops to minus 30C, the snow is deep and lasts for 6 months. We are surrounded by an unending forest with huge lakes where reindeer and wolves roam the forest along with the “King of the forest”, the huge Moose. We even have a local bear that occasionally surprises people while they pick berries in the forest.

Many years ago, I met Randolf, a Swedish master carver in antler, who over time encouraged me to find the tools and develop the skills to carve this amazing material. The indigenous people, the Sami, have a style of their own, so out of respect for their culture I have tried to discover and develop my own style. Moose drop their antlers every year, they can be found on the forest floor, but mostly people come to me and trade antler for antler jewellery I make.

Moose antlers comes in several different shades of cream, grey, brown, rose and even green. They can be very large and heavy, and even after years of experience I cannot tell from the outside how much of the horn will be workable. Most of the horn is not useful for making jewellery because the natural blood veins create a honeycomb of soft core material that is unworkable, so I have adapted my designs to use the organic shapes of the horn. I have found Moose antler is very difficult to carve with chisels; however, a sharp knife is useful for shaping. I use three different sizes of Dremel power tools, with a wide selection of specialised tool heads. However, because some of my jewellery is very delicate I use a goldsmith’s saw with very fine blades for cutting shapes. Even though the power tools are useful I prefer to complete the shaping process, using tiny clockmakers hand files, which offers me the precision of eye to hand control that gives the clean cut edges I like in my designs.

 It is possible with the fine-grained antler to get a deep polished finish, however it takes a lot of time to work the antler with different grades of abrasive paper and finally polish the antler to remove matt-sanded surface using jewellery polishing compound on a buffing wheel. Working Moose antler is not healthy; the worked horn fills the air with a fine cloud of dust, bad for your eyes and breathing. To create a safe working environment I have built three Perspex fronted work cabinets, like hospital incubators, which take time to adapt to, but they contain the dangerous dust which is drawn away by a vacuum system. Added to this I have also built and installed an air extraction system for the workshop itself. Each Saturday I vacuum clean, wash and mop the whole workshop, which has made the area I spend 5 days a week working in a healthy and pleasant room to enjoy rather than endure. 

I keep my jewellery mistakes in an exhibition cabinet, this saves me from repeating mistakes and reminds me not to waste time by using bad quality antler. No matter how proficient I become with my tools spending time creating a good design is at the heart of making something that will bring pleasure and delight. Some of the classic shapes and symbols I use are imbued with profound meaning, but I also like to use playful and quirky ideas that bring joy to people. I enjoy making specially commissioned jewellery; it gives me great satisfaction to work with a client creating a good design that is strong, elegant and unique. It is a wonderful feeling to take something from the Swedish wilderness and fashion something that expresses love from one person to another. I find working in antler deeply therapeutic at a mental, emotional and spiritual level, learning a craft that connects me to work in harmony with wood or antler, becoming conscious of our partnership with the natural world of forests and animals. I feel privileged that I am learning how fashion something of the wild natural world, which will be worn in urban life, a tactile spiritual connection with our roots in the natural world.

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