Do you do small woodworking projects around the house?
Have you used chisels, sand paper, wood finishes, and glue in these projects?
Do you enjoy looking at artistic work?
Do you like learning about new subjects?
Do you enjoy discussing your endeavors in a group environment?
If you said yes to any of the above questions, you would more than likely to be interested in the hobby of WOODCARVING.
I joined the Outaouais Wood Carvers (http://www.owcarvers.com) 10 years ago and have found this hobby to be immensely gratifying. Through this column I hope to share with you this very enjoyable hobby. I know there are many men and women in our area and wherever the Internet reaches who would enjoy this hobby very much. It is very gratifying to carve a piece of wood into a recognizable shape. The process is very rewarding in that it gives you a sense of accomplishment while at the same time making you feel relaxed. Of course, if you love the thrill of competition, this hobby can give you that also.
Woodcarving takes on many faces. You may like to carve birds, animals or fish. Maybe it would be a figure, very accurately detailed or just a caricature. Maybe you would like to carve a scene in low or high relief. Or would you enjoy making a jewelry box, intricately decorated with chip carving and finished with satin or glossy finishes.
Woodcarving is also a wonderful hobby for couples. In many cases one spouse may be great at carving, the other a wonderful painter. By combining their talents they can do great pieces of art together. Couples can attend shows and club meetings together; spend wonderful adventures looking for the right wood or finishes for projects. It is also nice to have a partner to bounce ideas off.
The topics we will cover in this forum are the following: Getting Started, Carving Tools, A Place to Carve, What Wood to Carve, Sharpening Your Tools, Woodburning, Finishing, Competitions, and Selling Your Work .
I have indicated in the heading that this column is not intended to be one sided, besides my views on the weekly topic, it is also to be a forum where you, the reader can participate.
Please send me your questions or ideas on any aspect of woodcarving and I will get your good
ideas out to interested carvers and obtain the answers to your questions. Please e-mail your ideas
or questions to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Of course the best way to get started is to talk to an interested wood carver. Besides talking your head off about his favourite project, he will probably lend you a few tools, show you how to sharpen those tools, give you a few pieces of wood to get started on, and invite you to his carving club where another 50 or so people will do the same thing (Your Welcome anytime at the Outaouais Wood Carvers Club - see our address and meeting time on our web site given in introduction).
This will definitely get you enthusiastic and ready to see if you can really do a carving. But you probably should take a short course sometime in your first year of carving. There are usually courses offered in your area at the high schools or community college. These courses usually run for 8-10 weeks with 3-4 hours of instruction per lesson. They cost about $70 - $100 and are well worth the money. There are also private individuals who teach Carving Courses. (Please check out our Courses Page).
As with most hobbies you will be adding to your supplies indefinitely - but this is half the fun. And, of course, your family will never be at a loss for ideas for presents at your birthday or Christmas!
Let's go over the type of carving you might like to do. There are basically four types of carving: whittling, carving in the round, relief carving, and chip carving.
Whittling is the most basic and in some ways the most natural wood carving technique. It can be done with a simple pocket knife. Together with the knife all you need is a piece of wood and an imagination! This is a good type of carving to do when you won't have access to a work bench, i.e. when your on a trip or just relaxing sitting in the back yard.
"In the round" means that the carved object looks realistic to the viewer from all direction or
angles. Tools for carving in the round are U and V shaped gouges, straight and skew chisels, and
straight knives, #80, 120, and 240 grit sandpaper, dividers, ruler, tracing paper, coping saw (or
band saw), hand drills, mallet and vice. Basswood, Butternut, Tupelo, or Pine would be good
woods to use.
Relief carving can be of two types, low and high. Low relief is where the design is inscribed on a flat board surface and the ground around the figure is removed to make the figure stand out. In high relief the figures are carved so that they have depth and perspective. In both types of relief the picture is viewed only from the front. Tools and wood needed are similar to those for carving in the round, although another smaller set of V and U gouges is usually necessary.
Chip carving is the art of laying out a pattern on the surface of the wood and then by means of chipping out triangular pieces the designs are made to stand out. These designs can be worked on all sides of the object, such as a jewelry box. Chip carving can be done on smooth, knot free wood such as Basswood.
To get you started you can rent carving books from the libraries or buy books from hobby stores or bookstores.
You can also subscribe to the National Woodcarvers Association which puts out a magazine called Chip Chats (http://www.chipchats.org).
There are also excellent tapes on the market by expert carvers such as Ed Sprangler, Pat Godin, and Mike Kent, which are available for rent from the Outaouais Wood Carvers. Please go to Video and Book Rental and Membership (http://www.owcarvers.com).
You should pay particular attention to your shop or working area. It should be well ventilated
with a good light source. You should wear a dust mask for dusty parts of the work and protective
glasses for sawing or chisel work. Protective thumb guards are also available.
You're started, but which direction should you head off in? How many and what carving tools will you need? You can't afford that large set of tools! You're confused with the large variety of hand and power tools available! You are not alone. It's common to feel a little let down after the initial wonder of any hobby you take up. Actually, as I said in a previous column you need very few tools to begin carving. You should only buy what you need as you go along. Too many people buy large sets of tools and end up only using a couple of the tools. Please see our Suppliers Page to find out where these tools and supplies can be located at a reasonable price
I think it is important to go over the basic steps in the carving process. Out of this will come the list of tools you need.
Cutting out the basic design of the object. To do this you will need to draw or trace the design onto the piece of wood. Draw both the top view and the side views if it is a carving in the round. To actually cut out the basic shape of a carving in the round, i.e. a duck or bird, you will need a bandsaw, scroll saw or coping saw. If it is a deep relief you will need a router or large gauges. If it is a chip carving you will only require a flat surface using a hand plane or a power planer. If it's a large figure, you will possibly need a chain saw to start. Of course, you may not have one or any of these tools. By joining a club you can usually find a club member who would be glad to cut out the initial design for you and your away after that.
Taking off major amounts of wood to get close to the actual shape. This will require larger gouges, chisels and mallets. Now you are getting at the carving itself, so you should buy a few tools at the right size for the project. The sizes of the carving tools are usually mentioned in the plans for carvings.
Refining the shape more. This requires smaller U shaped gouges, V shaped gouges, small straight chisels, small straight and curved knives, or a power dremel, and usually w specialized tools.
Obtaining the final shape and smoothness. This requires some very small gouges, picks, files, sanding tools and finishing sprays or paints.
Of course, you will always say to yourself that you wished you had a particular tool for a tricky or difficult situation, but most of the time you can make do, it just may take a little longer.
Actually, if your anything like me, you will end up using about 5 or 6 tools for all your work!
Fairly important in this mental process is to ask yourself what type of carving you want to do.
Eliminate the things that don't interest you first. You probably decided to do wood carving
because you saw something that you really liked the look of. Try one of those to start. Also, try
not to start on something very large or difficult. Keep it fairly simple!
Yes, it's time to find a permanent spot for all of your hobby supplies. Buy a set of shelves just for the carving materials. This will keep everything together and hopefully you can tell the rest of the family to lay off your good tools for opening those paint cans. As for a place to do your carving, a "workroom" can be a specific room dedicated for woodcarving or in the case of one club member, a board on her lap to whittle her caricatures while watching TV.
If you are carving larger work in the round you should have a vice to hold your work. There are suction vices with swivel clamps to hold your work at a particular angle. For chip carving need to hold your work solid on the table with good lighting. For relief carving you should have a slightly angled surface with a good light source so that you can see "depth" in your work. Excellent for this is a "Workmate" from Black and Decker or equivalent clamping device.
As you can see, you will need and want to absorb a lot of interesting material doing this hobby. Therefore, you should keep a diary from the beginning. Put all your purchases, time spent on projects, methods you have employed, comments on what worked and didn't, what you enjoyed about the project, what really worked for you, results of competitions you have entered, etc.. Yes, you will want to see how your work stacks up against the other members of your club!
Progressive Competitions at clubs are great for getting your feet wet in the competitive world. Novice sections of these events are excellent for the beginner to enter carvings and get some feedback from club members. Sometimes your initial efforts are very, very good. I don't know what it is about these initial carvings but they are truly amazing in their artistic and carving content! So carry on- finish that duck and get it entered!
Also, Show and Tell Tables at clubs let you tell others of your accomplishments and failures. You
will get excellent critical and complimentary feedback when you show your work. Don't be shy. It
is more fun if all the members participate.
There are numerous kinds of good wood for beginners to carve, but a nice softwood with no
noticeable grain such as Basswood is a good starter. If you plan not to paint your work and want
to show the grain, you may like to choose Butternut. Another nice carving wood, but one that is a
little more expensive, is Tupelo.
If you have a cottage or wood lot and can cut your own wood, remember that wood takes approximately 2-3 years to dry properly. Never leave the wood in the sun to dry. It should be dried slowly in the garage or covered outside in the shade. Be especially aware of worms, beetles, or other bugs that may be eating the wood. This occurs a lot in wood piles. Wood that has been cut in 16 inch lengths for the fireplace is usually not very useful for carving, as it has splits or cracks in both ends. The amount of wood left after cutting this part away is less than half the original length. Specialty wood such as cherry and large laminated pieces suitable for relief carving are available at wood shows, specialty stores and wood suppliers.
Laminating wood requires a special skill, because the lamination should be done at a slight angle
so the piece stays flat as it dries; otherwise you will have a bow in the piece.
Wood is not very expensive. Therefore I would suggest you buy some nice dry small pieces to get started. It will help your temperament and the carving will look nice. Almost all beginners use an old scrap, but they always wish they had used a nice piece to start!
Some Technical Terms used in Wood Carving:
Blocking in - drawing the lines of the design on the wood and establish the main pattern.
Checks - a board which is cracked or split.
Close-grained - wood with narrow annual rings - carves well.
End-grain - cross section grain at the end of a log.
Found wood - wood that can be collected on a walk in the bush or on the beach.
Green wood- unseasoned wood that hasn't dried - may still contain sap.
Ground wood - wood in and around the design which is lowered in the act of carving.
Hardwood - comes from broad leafed deciduous trees - usually, but not always harder to carve than a softwood.
Knot - spots where branching occurred in the tree - usually hard to carve.
Roughing out - meaning to use a saw or chisel to roughly cut away unwanted wood.
Seasoned wood - wood that has a low and workable moisture content.
Shakes and splits - separations that occur throughout log lengths - star shakes show as edge
splits on log end-sections, and heart shakes show as open cavities.
You can make a great power grinder for sharpening tools by buying or taking from an old furnace, a 1700 or less rpm motor. To the shaft you add a particular grit wheel (see below) or a felt buffing wheel (from your wood carving supply store). You can apply various s compounds to the felt wheel to get the tool very sharp. The "green" honing compound is excellent.
Let it adhere to the wheel as it rotates and then sharpen your tool. For most sharpening once you have the tool sharpened with all the nicks out, you will use the buffing wheel 99% of the time.
100 - 200 grit - coarse
200 - 400 grit - medium - whetting
400 - 800 grit - fine - honing
800 - 4000 grit - very fine polishing & buffing
Be careful about the rotation of the wheel - it should always rotate away from the tool, not into it. Also, always wear protective glasses!
Of course you can sharpen tools on stones of the various grits as well. Pocket knives and other knives are sharpened well using the stones. Put oil on hard stones and draw the blade across the stone. Use water on soft stone. After using the stones, use a leather strop to get the finest edge. V-tools and U-gouges are the hardest to sharpen. Ensure that there are no protruding hooked edges and that the angle to the sharpened edge is only 15-20 degrees.
Sharpening is not a difficult art but it is usually not done enough throughout the carving process
because we are basically lazy and don't keep it up. Also be very kind to your stones; as they can
get damaged also!
Also, woodburning by itself is one of the most relaxful and rewarding pastimes. It seems to be the ideal blend of the carving and drawing worlds. On the one hand you are working with wood; and on the other you are drawing a scene or portrait. At a recent club meeting, a sugarbush scene woodburned on a cross cut, two inch thick piece of maple with bark still attached won out over much more complicated and time consuming relief and chip carvings.
You do not need very many supplies. A woodburning tool has an adjustable transformer to give the tip of the burning pen just the right amount of heat to burn the wood you are using to get the degree of darkness you want. This is where the artistry comes in. There are different pens to give you different cuts in the wood; pens to give you different textures, and pens to give you different effects. You must use these burning pens to see what they can do for you. You should start with the transformer, a pen holder, and two or three different tips. As you go along you will see which tip is best for burning your picture.
You can also buy a transformer that gives output to 2 or 3 pens all of which can be individually temperature controlled. This gives you the added advantage of switching tips quickly and knowing the degree of heat being applied to the tips. If you are burning in feathers or fins you would use a straight pen, whereas if you are doing a background on a picture or relief carving, you would use a flat pen.
You should always test your pen on another piece of wood before doing your carving or picture.
Also, experiment with the different strokes and se how the heat affects the wood you are using.
The tip tends to burn darker at the beginning of the stroke, tending to lighten as you continue the
stroke and the heat dissipates away from the tip. Of course this difference in darkness adds to the
carving in many instances.
For woodburning scenes, lighter woods are preferred. Pieces of quarter inch thick birch plywood are excellent. They can be bought in 2' x 2' x 4' pieces which can then be cut into smaller picture sizes if required. Sue Waters has several woodburning books on the market. Pictures of barns, fence posts with squirrels, old stone walls, etc., make beautiful gifts for your
friends. Cheryl Dow has a woodburning column in Chip Chats magazine put out by the National wood Carvers Association. Their web site is http://www.chipchats.org You must be a member to receive the magazine, but it is very reasonable to get it and a membership in the association at the same time. Cheryl always has a pattern and some excellent tips on how to woodburn the bird, animal or scene she is doing that particular month.
One drawback to woodburning is the fumes and smoke produced. Make sure you work in a well ventilated room or in a fume hood with a good fan. These fumes are very dangerous.
Since you are usually so absorbed in your burning you tend not to take enough notice of these
effects until you are feeling slightly nauseous. Take care and have fun!
Many, many carvers just leave their work natural. They have found in the past that any attempt at finishing the work has ruined it for them. And at times I agree with this attitude.
You have spent so much time on carving and woodburning those feathers on your duck and you START TO PAINT! You swallow hard and take the plunge only to see all that work covered up; and looking very UGLY!! Yes, I said it - UGLY!!
Of course, I've exaggerated the truth to a non-carver looking at the work, but not to the carver. He or she is usually absolutely heart broken at this stage if it is one of their first few carvings.
So is there a solution? Yes there is because you are not alone in trying to find out how to properly
finish your carvings. The reason is simple. Carving and painting are two completely different art
As you carve the work you should ask yourself a few questions:
1. Does the work look as good as it could by leaving it natural?
2. Would the work benefit if it looked shinier or the grain was brought out?
3. Have you taken any painting courses - lately?
4. Would the work gain by being painted in different colours?
5. Does the work need to be protected from the elements?
6. Are you steady with your hands?
In answer to some of these questions a few points should be noted.
1. Most relief, human busts, and stylized carvings look much better if left natural, especially if the wood colour and grain is consistent and without a lot of knots or defects. In these cases the wood can be sealed with a wood sealer and lightly sanded afterwards with a very fine, 400 grit paper to remove any wood fibers which have expanded on application of the sealer. Another way to finish is with a wax, such as Min Wax, or even a clear floor wax. After application the wax is buffed into the wood to give it a smooth satin effect. That is all that is necessary. If the wood dries out after a few years, reapply the wax and rebuff. Thee part about finishing in this way is that you do not need to be an artist (painter).
2. Sometimes you would like to make the wood look shiny or dull. There are numerous products on the market to do this. They come in sprays or brush on materials. See your local hardware store or artist supply store. In most cases the hardware store will be cheaper, but you will probably get a superior product and more help at the artist's supply store.
3. Now we come to question 3 and we realize that in the case of birds in the round, fish, caricatures, and most animal carvings; the carving would gain immensely if painted properly.
To start you should take a course on bird carving from one of your club members or from a recognized instructor in painting wood carvings. And there are a good number around. The important thing to remember is you need to have a small class where you can get some personalized instruction. Recently there was a course where the class size was so large that it was like viewing the process on a small TV screen with hardly any hands on painting. This type of course should be avoided at all costs.
4. In doing your bird painting you will need supplies. Buying supplies such as paints and brushes should be looked on as a long time commitment. Only buy the colours you will need for the particular project you are working on. You will get a feel for the paints and the brushes one at a time. Besides these items are very expensive. But always buy a good brand of paint and brushes - it is worth it in the long run. Acrylic paints are used a lot for wood carvings. They go on the wood very well after you have initially sealed the wood with Gesso. They also have a short drying period. A fairly large brush (half inch) can be used for applying the sealing gesso which is white. A very good hint is to mix the colour you would use for that part of the bird in with the gesso. This will give you a hint of how the bird will look and make for easier blending of the colours later on. REMEMBER -
put on very diluted layers of the colours. Keep it thin. This will do two things. It will keep all that
feathering work you did, showing; and it will help you blend the colours into one another. Once
you have got the colour to your liking, which of course never happens, spray it with an acrylic
sealer which has a satin, gloss, or semi-gloss finish.
5. Now, what about the weather, outdoors and indoors. Yours carvings if painted and hung outdoors will have to be protected with a UV resistant varnish. This will protect them from discolouring or cracking from the sun. If you have carved a large sign you should think about protecting the whole wood surface, front, back and sides with a plastic polymer which will keep the wood safe from moisture and rot for many years. Indoors, you have to mainly protect them from drying out and splitting. By sealing the wood well before painting or waxing, the wood should not dry out as much and 'check' or crack (split). We spoke in an earlier chapter on properly preparing your wood.
6. My last question was about how steady you were with your hands. You must be very
precise with colouring of the feathers and certain features on the bird. But if you find you are
unsteady, think of aids you can use to firm up your hand while you are painting. What can you
rest your hand on - how does it feel the most comfortable? What is the best way to hold the brush
so your arm will not get too tired?
For many carvings, the painting is not so difficult. Caricature painting has more defined lines
between colours. There is usually not so much blending required and the painting goes easier and
looks pretty good in the end. So give it a whirl and see how you are at it. Sometimes the person
has creative talents in both the carving and painting fields - and you may just be one of them!
Actually if you take your time and are careful in researching the proper finish and colours, you will do just fine. Good Luck.
But in this article, I would like to look closer at larger competitions. We have one in our area,
which is run by our Club, called the Canada's Capital Carving Competition. Of course every
competition has it rules and regulations, but they should not intimidate you or pose a problem.
First off , ensure that you enter at the right level; Junior, Novice, Intermediate or Open. Also
remember that you must enter each carving at that level. You may think that since you just took
up relief carving after carving 'in the round' for years that you should be able to enter the relief in
Novice and the 'in the round' at a higher level. This is not the case - you must stay at the higher
level for everything you enter.
A little guidance might be in order here, so I will define generally what the difference in levels are:
NOVICE: A carver at the beginner level who has not won a first prize in Category in a
INTERMEDIATE: A carver who has won first prize in Category at the novice
level in a previous competition or who feels that he/she has progressed beyond the
ADVANCED/OPEN: A carver who has won first prize in Category at the intermediate level in a
previous competition or who feels that he/she has progressed beyond the
Second, ensure that you enter your carving in the right division and class. If you are not sure,
consult the registration people. They will find an expert to ensure you are in the correct position.
In some cases you may be able to enter in one of two divisions but you can stay pretty straight by
looking at the main element of the entry. Say you enter a stylized song bird on a branch sticking
out of a tree round which has been woodburned in a branch and leaf pattern and painted. Where
does it go? It could go as a songbird in decorative wildfowl, or as a songbird in decorative
miniature wildfowl, or as pyrography with color added or stylized-in-the-round wood sculpture.
It would not fit in the first two choices as these are meant for realistic carvings (completed as an
accurate representation of the subject matter). It would not go in the pyrography as the
woodburning and painting is just a background or habitat setting for the bird. It would go in the
'wood sculpture' division, 'stylized-in-the-round' class.
Thirdly, ensure that your carving, if it is meant to be realistic, really is realistic. In other words, it
should be as accurate as you can carve it. And of course if you carve it really well and very
realistic at the same time, you probably will win. If you are not very accurate, you will probably
lose, regardless of how nicely you have carved it.
Fourthly, add as few habitat or accessory items which are not carved of wood. Rules may state
the following: 'materials other than wood may be used in the carving, provided such materials, in
the judges opinion, is appropriate and are used in a subsidiary manner.' Bird's eyes are usually
allowed to be made of glass and inserted. Legs made of metal may be allowed but more points
would be gained if they are of wood. One major fault of carvers is to add far too much habitat
and of a variety of materials, which are not wood.
Fifthly, and of utmost importance is that to enter in the Advanced or Open division, the work
should be original. It should not be a copy of another person's work. It should not be copied
from a book or made from a cutout from a carving machine.
Also in submitting your work, ensure that it will be presented properly. You should supply hooks
and hangers for all relief work and pyrography. You should find out before hand if vertical
backboards will be available for this type of work. Most competitions do not supply lighting for
relief carvings, but always check to see if this is possible. High relief looks so much better when
lit from the top. Carvings 'in-the-round' also should be shown with their best view to the judges
and audience. If you get a chance to see where your carving is before the judging and do not look
the way it is presented see an official of the competition and get it changed. It helps a great deal
in the judging.
You should also note if the carving has been the work of two people, i.e. you carved it, but your
partner painted it. It should be registered in both names.
Of course you should be aware of the judges at a competition. Some older established
competitions are known for their particular style of judging and this should be taken into account
when deciding if to enter and what to enter.
Once you have entered your carving, all you have to do is relax at the show. You can look at all
the entries in the division and class when the show opens. You can compare your carving to
others. See where certain carvings stand out. Ask yourself why they look better than the others.
Write down in your carving book all these ideas you have gleaned from the competition and use
them to your advantage next time.
And you WON! How WONDERFUL!! And you can't wait to carve that next piece and enter it.
The last act of the competition after you have picked up your prize money, is to pick up your pieces and sign them out. There is usually very strict control on how long the carvings are to remain at the site and the hours of pick-up, so ensure that you or a friend can get the carvings within an hour of the close of competition.
You really did amazingly well at the Capital Carving Competition you entered last week!
And did you hear those people talking about how much it would cost to have your Santa in their
home! They were overheard to say they would be willing to pay $300 to $400 for it! Maybe you
could carve for a living and quit your day job.
Hold on! Lots of beginner carvers have this thought. But it is usually a long way from the hobby
hut to the fancy store or even the craft fair at the arena or the local mall.
But let's look at the reality of this thought process. You need to look at the reasons you would
like to sell your work and what would be the rewards involved. These rewards may be one or all
of the following: 1) You may get a big high just from the fact that someone liked your work and
wanted it in their home. 2) You may think that the price garnered for the work would let you
carve for a living. 3) You may think that the more you sell and are known , the more people
would conclude you are a great artist. 4) You may just like exhibiting your work and talking to
the potential buyers. 5) You may think that now that you have done one good carving, others can
be done more quickly and better.
These are all reasonable thoughts, but again let's go over the carving process and see if selling is
the way to go for you.
Since only a few carvers can carve and talk to clients at the same time, you must factor in the
selling time as well as the carving time. Regardless, unless you can carve the same animal or scene
over and over again, you probably won't do well on the craft scene where articles are fairly low
priced and you need to sell 20 to 50 of a certain item in a couple of days. Would you be able to
keep up the pace and the enthusiasm for carving the same item many times?
On the other hand if you think you are planning to make better quality carvings, and sell only two
to three a month, you will still probably have to follow the drawings and plans fairly closely -
doing something a little different takes lots of extra time and effort. Also, the idea of carving
faster and better is a myth. You will start to see areas you would like to improve upon and
actually take longer on each carving as you get better at your art. Also trying to increase your
speed will probably result in lots of spoiled or poor carvings, turning off the buyers.
Above all else you must make good use of your day to making a living at carving. You should
keep very accurate track of the time it takes you to do a carving, ensuring you take into account
all the time consuming factors, such as deciding what to carve, what kind of wood to use, what
type of finish to put on the carving, and what sort of mount you will be using on the finished
carving. Say you spend 70 - 100 hours on a piece, and you sell it for $400. That will pay you less
than $4 an hour after you add in your supplies, and other overhead costs! Oh yes, remember you
will also probably have to pay tax on that money.
Yet, money aside, I do like the first thought process we reflected on - that of carving because
people like your work and it gives them and you a lot of pleasure. I think this is the main reason
99% of us carve.
This is the concluding article in the "Beginners Series' of articles on carving by Brian Graham. Please e-mail Brian below if you have questions or other subject matter you would like Brian to write about.
Have a great time with this wonderful hobby. Good luck with all your endeavours!