Did you ever carry an object around with you as a child or even as an adult, that reminded you of something or someone special? I’m thinking that perhaps most of us did at one point or another. I use to carry around a beach stone. It was smooth and golden chocolate brown that was cool to the touch and fit perfectly in the palm of my hand. I handpicked it from Highlands beach near where I lived on the very day that my grandmother passed away. Whenever I wanted to connect with her or feel her presence I simply rummaged around my pocket until I felt the cool stone on my fingertips. There was something soothing about the weight of it as it rested in the palm of my hand and it brought with it a sense of security and grounding that left me feeling connected to her in many ways.
I imagine that Jamie Fraser must have had this very same feeling when he slipped his hand into his sporran. As most Outlander fans are aware, Jamie had an older brother, William (Willie) who died of smallpox when Jamie was just a wee lad. On Jamie’s fifth birthday, Willie gave him a hand carved cherry wood snake with the word Sawny scratched into the backside of it. Sawny, of course, was the pet name that Willie affectionately called Jamie. After Willie’s death a few short years later, Sawny became a talisman of sorts to Jamie. He carried this chiselled wooden snake in his sporran as a reminder of his brother for many years to come.
We did some research and once the dust and wood chips settled, we reached out to a local carver and friend, Gary Taylor, who was more than willing to join us in the undertaking of this project. We asked Gary a few questions on the process of his technique in hand-carving and he gave us an insight into the trials and tribulations that he met along his journey.
Tell us a little about yourself, where you’re from and your background.
I was born in London, England and moved to Canada when I was 5. My father was a Radiological Physicist and I grew up being surrounded with Geiger Counters, machinery and x-ray equipment. Technical stuff always intrigued me and I would tinker around in my father's workshop making and fixing stuff and taking things apart and putting them back together and was always amazed that they worked!
I had a talent for drawing and I liked comics and my parents encouraged me to explore that, which resulted in me attending an arts program in high school and then going on to study arts at the Ontario College of Art and Design in Toronto. While at OCAD I studied sculpture and jewelry and found that I enjoyed making 3D objects as well as my painting. Straight out of OCAD I was an exhibiting artist for 5 years and apprenticed with well-known sculptors until the art market dropped off in the late '80s and so I turned to graphic design as a living.
Along the way, I got involved in prop making and was called on to recreate some of my carvings for film and television work in Toronto. Prop masters would call me when they needed something……unique.
I have since rekindled my passion for painting and making things and won the Arts and Letters Award in Newfoundland recently. I have also had shows at the Canada National Parks Gallery with painted and carved pieces.
Did I mention that I like making stuff?....
When did you first learn to carve and who was your teacher?
I started carving around the age of 5 or 6 when our family would go on camping trips across Canada. I would take a piece of wood and "whittle" away until I came up with something. The best thing about traveling was that as we were sitting around the campfire as a family, my father would hand me his hunting knife and I got to use it to whittle and make things. Later on, when I was doing more art stuff, I had ideas and used those skills to bring my ideas to fruition. I never really had a carving teacher, but my sculpting experience taught me how to visualize ideas and figure out a way to make them happen. There is something Zen-like about carving where you just go with the flow and see what happens...usually it is a slip and a gash...and all you can think about is..."DON'T BLEED ON THE PIECE!"
Do you have a personal connection to Outlander?
My connection to Outlander is through my partner who was an avid reader and T.V. queen. She would watch many different shows and I once came in when she was watching "Outlander" and she was trying to explain the books and the concept and I didn't get it and I went...whatever...and went back to what I was doing. Tragically, she recently passed away and when AbbyShot approached me to work on this project I knew that she would have wanted me to carry on and be a part of this. While I was working on the first Sawny prototype and I remembered those days of her watching Outlander and I said to her memory, "Hey, you saw the Sawny episode and you would get this." So, the first carving I did that was cool, I put into her medicine bag as a tribute to her and that is my connection to Outlander now...she would have liked it.
Please explain about the process and challenges of carving with cherry wood.
With limited reference I watched some scenes over and over again and took screen shots and figured out the correct size and shape from them comparing them to real people's hands and how Sawny would fit into them. The first Sawny I carved was in pine which is a softwood. It took a while and when I felt I had it right I took it down to AbbyShot and they all were amazed at how authentic and great it was and we started talking about the material and all agreed that pine may be a bit fragile and didn't have the weight and the tail might break off because I replicated the orientation of the grain of the wood from my research...then someone said, "Hey, the Sawny in the books was made of cherry wood." And I said, "Really? Where are we going to get cherry wood?"
So...Bonnie, Founder, and CEO of AbbyShot and I went on a hunt for cherry wood and we found a small piece at a private cabinet maker's who specializes in exotic woods. We told him what we were doing and he coughed up a piece about 8" x 12" and an 1" thick...when I held it in my hands I knew I was in trouble...it weighed a ton and was as hard as steel. Well yeah...it is authentic but how the hell am I gonna carve this?
In the meantime, with cherry wood being not native to Newfoundland, we knew we had to dig a little deeper into sourcing and we located a family owned company in Quebec, Bois Expansion, who were able to supply us with both the lumber and the certificate of origin. Although the cherry tree has many healing and medicinal purposes, it’s a good thing that we are not living in the north east of Scotland in 1889 as recorded folklore suggests that they were referred to as bird cherry trees or hackberry and that people were warned against using the tree’s wood for ANY purpose, as it was considered a witch’s tree! Geillis!!!!!
The tools I was using to carve the pine were old style whittling and carving tools and they worked well on pine but the cherry wood just killed them. I was stuck! Until I had a friend who is a traditional woodworker, come to visit me here in Newfoundland. He told me I needed more traditional carving tools like his father had to do this kinda stuff. I said, "Dude. I live in Newfoundland, remember? Where am I gonna get those kinda tools?" He directed me to some websites and made a few suggestions.
About two weeks later I get a package. Inside was an assortment of his father's carving tools...he kept some but gave me what I needed to make Sawny. I was explaining to another friend about the project and he informs me that he has just cleared out his 93 year old mother’s house (she is sharp as a tack and very funny BTW…) of his great grandfather’s carving tools and I could have use of them if I needed to. Then…here is the thing…my mother gave me a letter opener that was her great grandfather’s. It sat in drawer of a beautiful handmade writing desk from the 18th century. It has a bone handle and is very solid and I sharpened it up as a carving tool and it is my main implement for detailing. Who knew? That is what I use now. Old traditional tools...authenticated cherry wood with a certificate of origin and imported Indian ink for stain and my own homemade beeswax polish for a finish.
That is how they would have carved it then and that is how I carve it now...Ooooh!!!!! and I acquired some very solid leather gloves for carving so...less cuts on me...
It was so much fun gathering the Intel for this project! A huge thank you to my friend, Gary Taylor for creating these beautiful pieces with love and a notably meticulous eye for detail. Each piece, one of a kind and unique, is made by Gary's loving hands. They hold such a special place in my heart! I have been a huge fan of Diana Gabaldon and Outlander since 1991. To know that we are contributors to preserving a piece of Outlander history is just a little surreal.
We would also like to say a special thank you to Stephane Bergevin, Vice President External Sales of Bois Expansion Inc. and his team for supplying AbbyShot with the cherry wood for Sawny. Go check their family owned business out!
Peace and prosperity,
To learn more about Bois Expansion in Montreal, Canada, and their family business, click here!
We know how passionate the actor who plays Jamie Fraser is about supporting Bloodwise and we thought it only fitting that with this special project we donate a portion of the proceeds to this amazing cause. For each Sawny sold, AbbyShot will donate $25.00 to Bloodwise. With your support, Bloodwise will continue to fund research into cures, develop better tests for a more accurate diagnosis, raise awareness more quickly, and provide expert information & practical support for every person affected by blood cancer.
Thank you for your support and donation to Bloodwise!