It’s hard to define Jeff Soan’s work. His fascinating, tactile, animated wooden creatures owe a lot to toymaking, but playfulness is only part of their character; they are also pieces of art, made possible by Jeff’s immense craftsmanship and skill with wood. He is a toymaker, artist, craftsman, artisan and modern-day Geppetto who “breathes life into pieces of wood”. We asked him to tell us more about himself, his influences and his awe-inspring work…
Sculpture, toys or wobbly wood? How would you describe your work?
You have it there… articulated playful sculpture. I have become a sculptor via toymaking and my creatures incorporate articulation. Often a toy will reduce an animal to its simplest profile with the edges rounded off. I always work with a strong simple profile and look for the essence of the creature.
You originally studied art and design – what prompted the move into toymaking?
I like the practical and useful, and after art school I became a builder for many years. I missed the artistic life though, and one evening a friend showed me an articulating folk toy from Chile. I was amazed by the way it moved. My friend was at the London School of Furniture and told me about the toymaking course there. I joined the course the next day and under the excellent tutorship of John Gould eventually gained a City and Guilds in toymaking. I started a business selling my toys and then decided I should try to make the articulating creatures that had first inspired me.
Sea Star, £50 by Jeff Soan
Your animals are almost lifelike in their movements. How do you achieve that?
It is a simple folk toy technique that is quite difficult to describe in words but is basically cutting wood into narrow pieces and attaching to a canvas “spine”. In a fish, for example, the cut pieces mimic the muscularity of a fish. Where the wood is thinner near the tail, the fish will bend more so it behaves in a manner very like a real fish.
Articulating Fish, £48
Who or what inspires you?
All creatures great and small.
How do your designs develop? Can you talk us through your making process?
I have recently been commissioned to make an American alligator. Ideally I would view one in the flesh but that wasn’t possible, so I downloaded many images. Fortunately one of these was a profile, which is always helpful. I enlarged this, squared it up to get the proportions right and transferred the outline to a large piece of Douglas fir. The timber is then cut down the middle to create the two halves of the creature. These are taped together and the profile cut.
Once the position of the legs is established (this area must be kept solid) the cuts are made with the bandsaw cutting through almost to the near edge. The two halves are then cleaned up with a wire brush and glued to 12oz canvas with contact adhesive. I keep this in clamps for a couple of days. The top profile can now be cut and the form gradually shaped with the bandsaw. The form is further refined with various carving tools. I then torch the surface and wire brush. On Douglas fir this brings out a nice reptilian texture in the wood. I complete as much detail as possible before releasing the alligator by cutting off the remaining solid part. The really difficult part is shaping and fixing the legs. I am on my third attempt at the legs! Applying the colour and details like the eyes, teeth and claws come next, before a final polish with beeswax.
What do you consider when making a piece?
So many things! The essence of the creature and whether it can be achieved by simplifying or by paying attention to detail. I’m making very small creatures large, like a woodlouse, and very large creatures small, like whales, and this requires much thought and compromise. Whales and dolphins articulate in a vertical plane and this means they need to be placed in a particular position to look right, so I compromise with side-to-side movement along most of the body and an upturned rear end that allows the fluke to flop correctly. I also consider the qualities of the wood and whether it enhances the nature of the creature. Woodlice and trilobites seem to work best in oak, large fish in ash, and crocodiles in Douglas fir. Inevitably, the final price has to be considered, so millipedes’ little legs are out! I would really love to make a pangolin (a sort of tiled armadillo) – I can imagine it would make a lovely noise – but it would be weeks of work.
What does craftsmanship mean to you?
Although I have this brilliant quote from the Duke of Edinbugh, “a craftsman at the top of his game”, I feel I am more of an artist than a craftsman. I met Robert Ingham, a fine designer, furniture and box maker at a show some years ago. We got on well because we both recognised the excellence in each other’s work but at completely different ends of the scale. This man is an engineer in wood and I would call that real craftsmanship. Mine is wood butchery by comparison, but I do breathe life into lumps of wood.
Rocking Chicken, £25 by Jeff Soan
Can you describe your workspace?
Garden shed No.1 burnt down in 1996. I work in Garden Shed No.2. It is 20ft x 10ft with lean-to additions. Until this year it was disappearing under the Virginia creeper. Unfortunately I had to cut it all back to repaint and maintain.
It’s dusty, crammed with woodly stuff, cosy with a woodburning stove on which I throw failed alligator legs and waste and sawdust. As my work has got larger it has become too small, so I am planning another move soon. In the afternoons my assistant Julia Darke comes in. She has been working with me for many years and is very skilled. It would be a very different business without her. It’s really nice to take a break from the workshop and do a bit of weeding and pruning in the garden or look at the frogs in the pond. There are lots of birds, foxes and squirrels here too in Brockley. It is a fine place to live and work.
What has been your greatest achievement?
In life, my children – all grown up now and just delightful people. In work, surviving, thriving and doing things I love for a living.
Articulating Seal, £300 by Jeff Soan
Finally, do you have a favourite piece?
It has to be the seal. It is my signature piece. It has a sort of magic that captivates people and still intrigues me even though I have been making them since 1990.
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Watch the Articulating Seal move as it is stroked
You can watch more of Jeff’s wooden creatures in action on his website.