Work in Progress–the Slow Version

Michaelangelo never worked in the middle of so much clutter
Michaelangelo never worked in the middle of so much clutter

The carving of the Tibetan dining table is proceeding with the usual issues: right shoulder pain, left elbow pain, lower back pain. Seriously, how did they not mention that during the Renaissance, when they were working with marble, a much harder medium? Mind you, those old folks didn’t try to watch cricket on their laptops at the same time they were carving.

As you can see, (a) I’m more than halfway done, and (b) it’s going to look stunning. What is not clear from this shot is that all the carved sections need to be cleaned up and sanded to smooth out all the gouge marks. Wait for the actual video of that, coming soon……

Events in Nepal

As you may know, some of my Tibetan carvings are based on the calligraphy of Tashi Mannox, and whenever one of them is bought I contribute 20% of the profits to Rokpa International, an NGO that cares for sick, homeless and orphaned children in the Himalayas. Here’s the latest bulletin from Rokpa on the earthquake and its effects. Please consider supporting them: the bulletin contains a link to their donation page.




News from Kathmandu

Direct Link to our Donation page > 

Dear Mr Brookes
As you know from our Facebook-Site we have been extremely lucky – all our children and staff have survived this terrible earthquake. We have been truly protected by Rinpoche and the Stupa.

However, the children have been sleeping outside all this time – some of them in the rain. There have been loads of aftershocks – the last one happen today. Everybody is traumatized and still scared. Our land is shared with neighbors, tourists and random people who need help – it’s a real camping site. Our bigger children cook meals in big pots over open fires. So far drinking water has been available and people are being cared for. All kids and the staff are great and work very hard to protect the smaller children and whoever has become part of our extended family.  They look after a lady in a wheelchair who has been coming to visit for years and is stuck there now.  They help her with everything and are – as a volunteer told me today – real angels. Patient and always ready to help her and anyone there. I was told that I can be proud of my kids. But I knew that already …

On first sight, the ROKPA Children’s Home looks okay. There are some deep cracks in the walls – but we are not sure if there has been structural damage to the building. Until an specialist has checked the house thoroughly for damage, (I have asked the Swiss Ambassador today to help with this) the kids and staff will mostly be sleeping outside. It’s cold at night and it rains a lot, which makes things even more difficult.

The ROKPA Guest House is full and we just heard that the Guest are deeply grateful to be able to stay there as they feel the house is solidly built and several of them said that they feel so lucky and safe there. At the moment six doctors from Australia, USA and India are staying with us and use the garden as the control center for their activities. There is a scarcity of certain foods but during the last two days they had access to some fruit and even fresh milk. They only get fresh carrots and cauliflowers, so the restaurant has been serving simple meals. But nobody is complaining.

What’s the most urgent need at the moment?
Most importantly we need money!!! Please undertake fundraising activities to raise as much money as you can now! I think that in a short time people will not have the same wish to help as now. Carpe diem! Collecting clothes, etc. is fine for later, so feel free to do that. If you know of people traveling to Nepal, they would probably be happy to take them there for us.

What are the needs on-site?

Food, water and tents are important but epidemics could also break out. Alistar and Nerea from ROKPA in Euskadi have been truly amazing in their immediate support – they have found tents not only for us but also for others and large medical kits, some of which will already arrive this week. This has not been an easy task because infrastructure has been extensively damaged and only a few planes have been flying into Kathmandu.

What are our activities on-site?

We are in the process of putting together emergency volunteer groups who will go to areas where help is so urgently needed. Some older children from our Children’s Home who have been impatient to find out what happened to their families in the hills and remote regions will be part of these groups and lead them there. The local and the foreign volunteers will take food, water and medicine and hopefully alleviate some of the shocking suffering. The emergency groups will be taught – if they aren’t already trained – in first aid assistance. This will be done in parts by Tal, my nephew who has been trained in this by the Israeli army and is flying out as we are writing this.

Today, our kids have started a mobile soup kitchen. They went to a village 2.5 hours from Kathmandu in the early morning, taking 100 kilos of rice, lentils, sugar, salt and tea and distributing this amongst the people that have lost their homes (see the small film on Facebook). Furthermore, we also try to organize school activities on our land. Most schools in the area are damaged and will be closed for weeks if not months. Teachers from these schools are asked right now to come and continue their classes here.

View ahead
Last but not least: Emergency relief is not ROKPA’s core area of expertise – but we try to organize what we can and help those who have not been as lucky as we and our ROKPA children. Our core work will be even more powerful in a few weeks when the big aid organizations will be gone. We expect hundreds of people to come to us then and a very large amount of money will be needed to help them all!

Dear friends, to sum things up: We need money urgently!!!! With cash we can buy all the things that are needed – either in Kathmandu itself or our people will go to India to bring things across.

Thank you for all your past and future help – together we can move mountains!!!

We will keep you posted….

It would be nice to get your feedback to this Update and send us any questions you might have.

Best wishes and warm greetings to all of you,

Lea Wyler
Vice President and Co Founder
Project Manager Nepal

Competed design: The Movie

It’s time for the Endangered Alphabets to get on with the most ambitious carving project yet: the Tibetan dining table. As you may recall, our plan is to auction it as we go, to offer you the chance to bid on what will be not only unique but quite astonishing item before it goes into a gallery and the price moves into the realm of the GNP of many small nations. The reserve price is $2,500. Now read on…

If all has gone according to plan, you can seeing my laughable efforts at cinematography by clicking here: IMG_3364

Also up on the Endangered Alphabets Facebook page, or at


Your Artistic Advice: The Results

A sweep of the arc
A sweep of the arc

It’s time for the Endangered Alphabets to get on with the most ambitious carving project yet: the Tibetan dining table. As you may recall, our plan is to auction it as we go, to offer you the chance to bid on what will be not only unique but quite astonishing item before it goes into a gallery and the price moves into the realm of the GNP of many small nations. The reserve price is $2,500. Now read on…

What a wonderful exercise this has been, asking you for your suggestions as to which design I should use for the table. Check out the Comments section to see the insights on offer, as a result of which I have made two decisions.

One is simple: I need to make another table. Possibly two. Some of your design ideas were great but simply wouldn’t work on a table this big–I’d be carving until December. So expect another table project in the near future, more modest in size but more elaborate in design.

The second decision is that for this table, I’m modifying the design I did for the smaller “Graceful kindness” table I showed in the last post. It’s just too beautiful and even lyrical in its flowing lines not to be used. And that’s where the interesting mathematical challenge comes in.

Fig. 3
Fig. 3

Just to remind you, here’s the smaller table with the Tashi Mannox design:

That table was about 26″ across. The one currently in progress is nearly five feet across. So I couldn’t just go down to Kinko’s and enlarge Tashi’s design, as instead of a nice band around the tabletop I’d get a huge piece of text that covered almost the entire table. I had to think of it in sections.
If you look at the “Graceful kindness” design closely, it consists of two iterations of the same phrase. For the larger table, I had to make the phrase repeat more times.

But until Tim P delivered the tabletop I couldn’t even figure out how to create the band I wanted to design and carve, let alone figure out how many times the pattern needed to repeat, how to create the repeating pattern, and so on.

But when Tim heaved the top out of the back of his pickup, looking very much like the flying saucer in Men In Black, I saw that he had inserted a radial ruler, set into a small dowel, which in turn fitted into a hole in the center of the tabletop. That helped him cut the wood in a perfect circle, a surprisingly hard thing to do. But it also made my job a whole lot easier.

The scene of the crime
The scene of the crime

If you look at the photo to the left, entitled “Scene of the crime,” you will see–well, the scene of the crime, or at least of my living-room. Rulers, glasses, two different sizings of Tashi’s “Graceful kindness” calligraphy, pencil, and there, running from the center of the tabletop out to about nine o’clock, is that wooden radius, free to turn around the centerpoint like a clock hand or those wonderful devices they used to put in pie/cake pans to help you separate the pie/cake from the bottom of the pan.

My first step was purely guesswork and eyework: I decided that the undecorated outer band, the one on which my diners-to-be would set their plates and silverware, would be ten inches wide, and the decorated band would be exactly the same width as it was on my smaller table in Fig. 3. If I could make this work, it would mean none of the text would have to be resized larger or smaller.

Art or science?
Art or science?

And thanks to Tim P’s design, I could simply cut two tiny notches in his rotating wooden radius at ten inches and sixteen inches, sharpen a pencil, hold the pencil in the notch, and rotate the arm, to create the boundaries of my design area, two concentric circles waiting to be filled.

The next step relied on that wonderful property of circles–namely, that the radius of a circle is the same length as the sides of the six equilateral triangles that make up the hexagon that fits perfectly inside the circle. The easiest thing in the world (well, if you’re not terrified of basic geometry) was to divide my band into six equal sections. The question was, was a sixth of the big table anything like the size of a half of the smaller table?

Answer: they were almost identical. In other words, if I could simply flatten out the curvature of the text, I could repeat the phrase six times and it would fit my bigger table perfectly.

Radius of curvature
Radius of curvature

So that was my next task: to reproduce Tashi’s Tibetan calligraphy freehand, fitting it into the dimensions of a one-sixth section of the larger table.

Here’s what the result looked like, in these photos to the left and right of this text.

So here’s where things stand. I now have a template for my design, and as soon as I get a minute (or, more likely, two hours), I need to tape it onto the tabletop exactly over a section of my band, insert carbon paper under it, and transfer the repeating design section by section around the tabletop. Wish me luck.


P.S. I love your feedback. Keep it coming!

Wanted: Your Artistic Advice

IMG_1900It’s time for the Endangered Alphabets to get on with the most ambitious carving project yet: the Tibetan dining table. As you may recall, our plan is to auction it as we go, to offer you the chance to bid on what will be not only unique but quite astonishing item before it goes into a gallery and the price moves into the realm of the GNP of many small nations. The reserve price is $2,500. Now read on…

My partner-in-wooden-crime Tim Peters has done the first part of his job magnificently, and the round cherry tabletop, with a nicely beveled edge, is now in my living-room. Next it’s my job to carve it, but first I have to plan the design I want to carve–and that’s where I could use your advice.

Here’s the situation. I was going to carve a repeated Tibetan phrase, probably a mantra or a blessing, around the outer rim of the tabletop. (See Fig. 1, though the band of carving would not be that broad. It’s just a poorly-executed diagram, I’m afraid.)

) 2015-04-28 20.37.02 HDR

Then it struck me that as soon as the table is set with pates, silverware, and so on, the carving would be hidden! Hardly a great idea. So now I’m think of a band that starts perhaps ten inches in from the edge. (See Fig. 2, which is just as out-of-proportion, alas.)

2015-04-28 20.37.09 HDR

But which blessing or mantra to carve?

I’m 90 percent sure I want to use the wonderful calligraphy of Tashi Mannox, a trained Buddhist monk living on the borders of England and Wales. (His work is stunning–I highly encourage you to visit it, look through his pages, order a few pieces, and so on. Tashi and I have an agreement that if I sell a carving based on his calligraphy, 20 percent of the profits go to Rokpa International, a charity assisting sick and homeless children in the Himalayan region.) But which design to use?

My first thought was that I’d adapt the Tashi Mannox design I used for a much smaller table (Fig.3).


Fig. 3
Fig. 3

I especially like the flowing circular feel to the text, making it almost like a mandala. But I’m always looking to try something new, so I went back to Tashi’s site and particularly liked this and this and this.

Normally I get my artistic advice from my amazingly talented artist daughters, Zoe and Maddy, but for once they completely disagreed with each other. So I’m inviting you, as a friend of the Endangered Alphabets, to offer your suggestions. The person who gives the most convincing argument why I should pick one of these–or a completely different Tibetan design–will win a copy of my book Endangered Alphabets.

But I need to start pencilling the design on the table SOON, so send me your ideas and suggestions by NOON on THURSDAY EST in the Comments box or at And invite friends to send me their thoughts, too!



Auction As You Carve: Milling the Tabletop

Tim Peters' workspace
Tim Peters’ workspace

After the hectic, nail-chewing excitement of our recent Kickstarter campaign, it’s time for the Endangered Alphabets to get back to the most ambitious carving project yet: the Tibetan dining table. As you may recall, our plan is to auction it as we go, to offer you the chance to bid on what will be not only unique but quite astonishing item before it goes into a gallery and the price moves into the realm of the GNP of many small nations. The reserve price is $2,500.

The first steps in the saga have already appeared in this blog, as my partner-in-wooden-crime Tim Peters and I braved sub-zero cold to buy cherry boards for the tabletop. But how do rough, flawed (and very cold) boards become a thing of finished beauty? Read on, as Tim P takes up the story…

After I left you, I brought the wood up to the shop in Fairfax, Vermont, unloaded it, and set it up on racks so it could dry and acclimate correctly.

I usually do this in a couple of steps, because as you as you start to cut pieces of wood off, it changes the tension in the wood, and the wood will start to bend. You’ve got to let that happen, then cut it down a bit more, so eventually you arrive at the specific dimension of wood you want and it won’t move any more. It’ll shrink and swell with the seasons, but it won’t bend.

It’s a humidity thing more than a temperature thing. The more humid the air is, the more water is in the cell structure of the wood. It’s something you can’t see or feel, but it makes a difference in the size of the wood.

I left it there for a week or two, and then I began the milling process.

The wood we got was rough-sawn, so it was kind of furry and fuzzy. Milling it is the process of cutting it down to the shape and the dimensions you want it to be.

The milling process is mostly about power tools: joiner, planer, table saw.

The pieces of wood always come cupped a little bit, he said, making a bowl with his hands. I determine which will be the best side for the tabletop and I start with the joiner, which is kind of a plane. I run all the pieces through at the same time, so I’m not going back and forth all the time. I get one side nice and perfectly flat. I then tip it up on its side and join the edge, so I’ve got two really nice, straight, flat, clean sides, he said, holding his hands to show a right angle.

(Click HERE IMG_1788 to watch the video.)

Then I take it over to the planer, which will clean up one more side and dimension the lumber so it’s all perfectly the same thickness.

We started with six-quarters roughcut, so I think I probably took between a quarter and three-sixteenths off on the first run-through.

After all the boards have gone through the planer, you’re left with a board that is clean on three sides—it’s still got one rough edge. From there, I take it over to the table saw and rip it to dimension. Then I take the wood back over to the joiner and joint that one last edge, so you’ve got a piece of wood that’s clean on all four sides.

From there I put them back on the rack and space them evenly, so air can flow around each piece of wood. You don’t want them stacked on top of each other, because then you’ve got a face of each board that’s not getting air to it. It’s going to dry differently, and it’s going to cause tension, and the board’s going to bend and warp.

After a week of that wood sitting there, I did the whole thing over again. It goes a lot quicker because there’s less movement, and it’s a lot cleaner. And that’s the stage where I bring the wood down to the thickness we’re looking for. It ended up being pretty close to an inch—maybe fifteen-sixteenths.

The next stage is to lay them out and try to figure out grain patterns and how they’re going to fit together so they look the best way possible. The wood we got—some of the boards are a little different color from the others, and a little bit different grain. It’s a little hard to control, when you buy just enough wood—especially when it’s roughcut—you can’t see that stuff. It all kind of looks the same until you can plane it down and see the intricacies of the wood grain.

So at this stage I have eight or nine, I think nine planks, and I’m trying to match them up and get the best overall look. It’s very much the beginning of the artistic process.

First of all I picked all the best top sides. Some of the boards had knots or holes or cracks or resin pits. Then I’m looking at grain orientation, and how the grain looks. Also, color. It’s a subjective thing. Someone else could look at them and say, “I don’t like the way this looks. I’d rather have done it this way.” Personally, I set the top up as symmetrical as possible, and it worked out nicely because there’s a little bit of symmetry to the color and the grain.

Lumber consists of two parts, sapwood and heartwood. When cherry starts to tan, the sapwood doesn’t change that much. The heartwood gets really dark, and you can really didn’t see a contrast between the two. I didn’t want that. When we chose the boards I deliberately didn’t pick boards that have sapwood, because it’s lighter. A little bit got cut out, but it’s pretty much all heartwood on this table.

Sometimes the contrast between sapwood and heartwood is a desirable part of the design process. One of the guys who shares my shop space right now is making a standup desk. The four legs are straight, but they’ve got a really cool play between the sapwood and the heartwood so they look like they’re shaped. They look wavy.

When we were originally talking we thought of a five-foot radius, but it has worked out a little less—which is totally fine, because five feet is a big tabletop! And because it was that big, I wanted to have a stronger joint than just a piece of wood glued to a piece of wood.

So what I did (you can see this on the video HERE Gluing and splining) was I took a router and routed a groove out of the edge of every board, and I made a big, long custom-made cherry spline for each join. What that does is it allows a lot more glue surface area, and a much stronger glue joint. It’s like a tongue-and-groove, except that instead of one board having a tongue and the next a groove, both boards have a groove and there’s a spline in the middle. It also saved me wood, because if I’d made a tongue and groove I’d have had to remove some wood to make the tongue. The spline ended up being a quarter of an inch thick and about an inch and a half wide, so it’s three-quarters of an inch into each groove. The more surface area of glue you have, the more stable and stronger it’s going to be. This is going to be a strong table. You’re never going to break those glue-joints.

Next comes the gluing, and this is a tricky process in itself. You don’t have time to put glue on every board and every spline and glue it all together at once. The glue dries too quick. So I started with the two sets of outside pieces and glued them together, then put a third one on them. Then I did the same with the three middle pieces. So I was eventually left with three wider planks. Then I glued two of them together, so I was left with six pieces together in one unit and three together in the other. So it was a multiple-stage process. It took the best part of a day just to glue the tabletop together. (Video HERE Glued)

So that’s where this episode ends. Over the next 48 hours Tim will deliver the now-round tabletop to me, where I’ll lay it on a comforter on top of my Balinese dining table and then work out how the heck to carve a Tibetan blessing that runs in a band around the table, repeating like a chant, a mandala. Needless to say, there will be narrative and many photos of that process coming shortly–along with instructions on how to bid on the finished product. Later!

Thank you!

A huge thanks to everyone who helped us reach our Kickstarter goal, whether by making a contribution or by helping to get the word out. Of course, we could still use a few more dollars in the remaining three days, but at least the worry and the frantic scrabbling is over, and my students are I are no longer up emailing people all hours of the night. And this means the anthologies will be printed, both in an English edition to sell in the US as a fundraiser for the schools in the Hill Tracts, and in a Marma edition to be used as readers in the schools. Thank you all again so much.


PS So now I can get back to….

photo (2)

Gathering momentum!

My students’ Kickstarter campaign has finally leaped into life: donations have topped $1,000 in the past 48 hours. But they still need $300 a day to reach their goal. Can you help? Do you know anyone who will?

Thanks so much.


URGENT! We need your help!

Remember my students’ campaign to raise funds so we can print the first-ever anthology of proverbs and oral histories from the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh? It urgently needs your help. We need to raise another $3,000 in the next nine days or else, by Kickstarter’s rules, we get nothing. Zero.
This is a ground-breaking effort in indigenous language education. Without exaggeration, I can say that we’re helping to save the education of thousands of children who would otherwise sit uncomprehending in classes taught in a language they don’t understand. Please check it out at and do your best to help us–and please forward this appeal to anyone you think might be interested.
Thanks so much.

New Carvings Offer!

I’ve already posted that my wonderful students at Champlain College and I are deep into yet another important and urgent endangered alphabets/languages project. We are working to publish the first-ever collection of oral-tradition stories and proverbs from the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh.
In thanks for your donations, I am offering to carve “Thanks!” in the glorious fluid Balinese script at one level and one of the proverbs in the beautiful bubbly Marma script at another. Both these carvings were among the most popular items when the Endangered Alphabets were displayed at the Smithsonian.
For full details, please go to THIS LINK.
As always, if you can’t afford to support our campaign—which we totally understand!—please pass the link on to friends and colleagues.

"Thank you" in Balinese
“Thank you” in Balinese
The Marma alphabet
The Marma alphabet
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