Toothpick art may float your boat, but is it woodworking?

comments (10) August 11th, 2009 in blogs, videos

Tom Tom McKenna, Managing Editor
thumbs up 31 users recommend

When I was a kid, my friends and I collected popsicle sticks from the ice-cream man and made all sorts of boats and rafts from them. We used Elmer's glue and the occasional rubber band to assemble these lightships, then we raced our contraptions down a creek a few blocks from our neighborhood.

This video reminds me of those days, except the boat has a motor with a remote control, is made from toothpicks (10,000 of 'em), and is sealed with a fiberglass resin to keep it afloat (the only sealant on our stick boats was the sugary resin of a Bomb Pop or some other cold treat).

The maker, Steven J. Backman, is perhaps the preeminent toothpick sculptor in the country, and he's been making cool things out of toothpicks for more than 30 years. (His work will be on display at Mountainsong Galleries in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, in December.) 

There obviously is some talent, vision, and imagination going on here, but is it woodworking? I'd have to say no; however, his work is fun to look at. What do you think?

posted in: blogs, videos, sculpture, boats, toothpicks, Steven J. Backman

Comments (10)

wp668 wp668 writes: Good question. As I pondered it, I recalled some of the incredible work I've seen in the pages of FWW which would also beg the question: is intarsia and stringing with veneer woodworking? Lutherie? How about intricate hand carving or turning? What about those back page spreads a while back that featured a secretary with incredible inlay work and hidden compartments or the one with the miniature toolbox, complete with tools?

Is someone who steam bends a kayak a woodworker or a maritime craftsperson? Or, in this case, only a modelmaker?

How many of us would be comfortable giving ourselves only one such label? Are you a woodworker or a furniture builder or a cabinet maker or a wood turner or a toymaker or simply a sawdust producer? If you are like me, you wear several hats - and are always interested in trying on new ones :-)

As someone who subscribes to FWW, FHB and Model Railroader, I have some (modest...) experience with woodworking at different scales; the only real difference I see is the size of the tools one uses and the tolerances one must adhere to. The woodworking skills are exactly the same: Think first, then do, Measure twice, cut once, Do your best and take pride in what you do. My conclusion - yes it is woodworking - and quite a fine example of it to boot!
Posted: 2:24 pm on September 2nd

Conroy Conroy writes: really cool boat but man, could he drive it in some other pattern than a circle?....felt seasick after watiching 1:34 of going in circles!
Posted: 12:45 am on August 16th

Blackwill Blackwill writes: BenchForm, you bring up a good point. I believe the intent behind the question was merely to get some form of dialogue rolling, which I am all for. I like to toss ideas and opinions around with people who share my hobbies/interests, even if they are not of earth-shattering importance. Even if they are lighthearted or whimsical in nature, they help me to get to know my "neighbors".

The actual answer to the question may not, ultimately, take us anywhere at all, but the journey may be entertaining none the less.
Posted: 3:22 am on August 14th

BenchForm BenchForm writes: Where does this conversation take us as woodworkers? I can see why a Librarian, needing to sort information into discrete categories, would need to break the amorphous blob of woodworking into its component parts, but as woodworkers, why do we need to try to draw lines in the sand to make “Us. Vs. Them” comparisons.

Where do these conversations lead too?

Toothpicks aren’t woodworking but Model Furniture is!
House Framing isn’t “Fine Woodworking” but finish carpentry is!
Furniture isn’t art, furniture is craft!

Where do these comparisons take us, other then to a school yard argument, which goes no where? Instead of wondering what linguistic category this toothpick boat fits in, we should just appreciate the reality before us. And it appears to me as if there is a man in the world with a little too much free time ;)

Posted: 10:53 am on August 13th

Blackwill Blackwill writes: I don't think anyone is disparaging the workmanship, or trying to make this accomplishment seem less extraordinary than it is..we're merely answering the question posed in the form of opinions.

Is it "woodworking" as defined in the common vernacular? No.

It's model making.

Is it an incredible piece of work, worthy of high praise? Yes.

It's an awesome model.
Posted: 3:10 am on August 13th

SRogers93 SRogers93 writes: I would say it is woodworking if he made all 10k toothpicks himself. All kidding aside it is a very cool creation considering all that I am sure went into it.
Posted: 1:37 am on August 13th

BillFrederick BillFrederick writes: Do you ask the same question about segmented bowls in woodturning? This boat is the same creative re-interpretation of the organic medium.

If the woodworker used 2"x4"s, it's value as woodworking would be clear and no one would dare question the credentials of the maker. Scale the same lumber down to toothpick scale and now doubt appears? What if the toothpicks were bubinga or wenge?

How many woodworkers could dance on the end of a toothpick?

Give the craftsman his due. He deserves the accolade.
Posted: 11:14 pm on August 12th

RalphBarker RalphBarker writes: Do the toothpicks have T&G joints routed along each edge? Or, did he use nano-biscuits? ;-)
Posted: 7:25 pm on August 12th

Ed_Pirnik Ed_Pirnik writes: I wouldn't consider it an example of woodworking. While there's a heck of a lot of glue-work and perhaps some sanding and cutting involved, there's no real shaping at work here.

That said, I don't mean to sound disparaging. This work is incredible and a joy to see!



Posted: 9:20 am on August 12th

Blackwill Blackwill writes: No, I don't think it's woodworking in the sense that most members/readers of FWW would consider woodworking. It's made from wood, sure...but that's about it. It's actually, in my opinion, modeling. I have made radio controlled airplanes and model rockets out of balsa wood before, but I wouldn't consider that woodworking. It's modeling.

And, I'd like to see that yacht make a right turn once in a while...what is this? NASCAR??


Nice boat, though.
Posted: 1:34 am on August 12th

You must be logged in to post comments. Log in.

Save up to 51% on Fine Woodworking


Become a Better Woodworker


GlueTube is's video blog that features self-produced videos about woodworking submitted by woodworkers around the globe. The videos featured here stream direct from video file-sharing Web sites including YouTube, Howcast, Vimeo,, and Google Video.

Learn about our new format!

Archive: Temporarily unavailable. Stay tuned and sorry for the inconvenience.