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Woodcarvings by Maura
So, You really want to be a woodcarver?
The State of Woodcarving in America Today
The wonderful world of the workshop
I have vivid memories of two different workshops from my childhood. One was my grandfathers and one was my Uncle Roy’s. I’ll start with the little one first. My grandfathers’ shed was probably no bigger than 8 x 8 feet although it seemed huge to me as a child. In the center it had a round potbelly wood burning stove which vented out through the peaked roof. One side of the shed contained all of the maintenance items, shovels, rakes, a lawn mower and other gardening items. The other half of the shed contained a workbench with hand tools in drawers and hanging on pegboards and a stacked pile of dry wood. I remember it being cramped but cozy. The wonderful smell of burning wood and the memory of tossing wood into the little hatch on the stove have stayed with me all these years. The smell can instantly take me back there. As I was very young at the time, I don’t have a clear perception of what my grandfather did at his workbench but was told a few years ago that he was a whittler and a handyman. He had all your basic hand tools and a bench mounted vise. Perhaps there were even some chisels and gouges but I am only guessing.
My uncle Roy, who was actually my dads’ uncle, had a much larger setup. I only visited his shop once or twice but it made a big impression on the young me. His workshop was an entire two car garage or slightly larger building with glass paned barn doors. There were many large windows and skylights which filled his shop with natural light. His garage was about 100 feet behind his house and was fully equipped with large power machinery and smaller tools of all types. He was some type of engineer and built airplane models in his spare time. He didn’t work from kits but from raw wood. Some of his planes were sizable. I remember a bi-plane hanging in his rafters with a wingspan of at least 5 feet. The rafters were the place that I found most interesting. There were lots of finished planes and parts hanging, painted all different colors. There were things lying across on top of the rafters and things hanging from nails all over the place. That was a workshop that I would die for today.
My next door neighbor, Joe, is 93 years old and he still goes out to his workshop everyday. The people who know him speculate that that is what keeps him going each day. He works for 4 hours in the morning, takes an hour break for lunch and then gets right back to it. He is a decent motivated woodworker and also has a passion for whirly gigs. He has put them up all along our shared property line.
What a delightful sound to hear roughly 50 of them clack-clacking in the wind at the same time. He actually has 2 workshops, one in his basement and one in a 10 x 10 foot add-on he attached to his garage. He is one of those guys who technology has passed by and he still swears by an old brand-name who have now lost their status as a reliable brand. But I give him credit for his brand loyalty. The man has amassed quite a collection of tools in his lifetime and everyone in the neighborhood knows that if you want something fixed or fabricated, you just take it to Joes’ shop.
The most impressive workshop that I’ve ever had the pleasure to stand in belonged to a man named Lenny who lives in Brooklyn. He was one of the first carvers I ever met in person. He was a computer consultant who ran his own data storage business. I don’t know his income level but it must have been sizable as he had the best of everything. He lived in an unassuming row house with a backyard the size of a postage stamp. The first time I visited his shop at his invite I was in awe. He took me into a large basement area. He told me that originally he had a standard low ceiling in an unfinished basement for the era in which his house was built. First thing he did was break up the concrete and dig down 2 feet through the basement floor and poured a new foundation. Then he put in walls and doors, which were all gleaming white. His workshop was filled with all the machinery that you would expect to find in a modern well-equipped workshop, a big band saw, radial arm saw, table saw, full sized lathe, drill press, router table, planer, jointer, big dust collection system in its own closet, scroll saws, expensive power sharpening system and lots and lots of smaller power tools. All were of the best qualities available and had all the bells and whistles one could possibly imagine. He had complete sets of top name accessories, bits and hand tools. There was enough space for roughing out and finishing areas. He had a separate room off the workshop which served as his office. He had tons of books, patterns and videos and was so well equipped, that anytime I told him I was going out to buy such and such, He would say, “oh I have lots of them, come pick some out”.
Every new carver needs to meet one of these great types of guys early in his carving career. I am one who never feels right about taking more than I can reciprocate and I owe him many thanks, not just for the smaller things I allowed him to part with, but for giving me the initial push out into the carving world. We have lost touch over the years but his workshop is now what I think about when thinking about my fantasy workshop. All the workshops I have been in combine in my head. I want the expensive full line of machinery, tools and supplies of Lenny’s workshop, the natural light and interesting rafters of my Uncle Roy's shop, the friendliness and versatility of Joe’s workshop, and the warmth and comfort of my grandfather’s small shop.
What I want and what I have are two different things. I do have a basement workshop like Lenny but it is economically equipped. It is cramped, yet warm and cozy like my grandfathers shed. There are plenty of interesting things hanging from my rafters but I have no natural light. I am pretty versatile with the tools I have and can do most any type of home repair. The original intention of my first workbench was just to help maintain the older house I live in. I purchased my tools one at a time, as needed for particular projects. Each time I make a new purchase for something in my shop, it becomes a little bit closer to my ideal workshop but it may never be the space I dream of working in. Sometimes we just have to make due and just be thankful that I at least have a space to dedicate to my woodcarving. Lots of carvers don’t.
It is not necessary to have a workshop if you wish to carve. Some people have a small setup in their living areas, for some carvers the kitchen table doubles as a carving bench, others simply whittle, sitting on their porches or in their yards or in front of their TVs. The more that you become involved in woodcarving, the more tools and supplies you can amass. You will need somewhere to store all of those items. If you are carving for profit or have become a serious hobby carver, you will want to become much more efficient and that will require the proper space to work in.
Workshops can come in any size or shape and really depends on the space available to you. Some carvers have separate buildings, sheds or garages where they set up shop. Some commercial carvers have actual storefronts or industrial buildings. Some have added on to their houses in order to have the room for a workshop or studio. I have even heard of some apartment dwellers that have a dedicated carving room. Other carvers use their basements or a portion of it.
If I had my way, my whole house would be dedicated to carving with the exception of the kitchen, bathroom and a small area for me to sleep in. I don’t really understand why but my family will not go along with this idea. After all, I’m not really that mean, I would find a place to put their beds too. I have managed through much cajoling, butt- kissing and blackmail to secure myself a small area in my basement which I call a workshop.
Sometimes there is no place in the world that I would rather be than in my small cluttered workshop. It is there, in the wee hours of the night, that I truly become ‘the woodcarver’. The rest of the world just melts away as I sit in meditation over my latest work. I don’t know if it truly can be classified as a workshop as it is a very cramped space but it is my corner of the universe and all of the planets align directly to it. It is the sanctuary in which I do most of my carving and is set up the way I need it to be set up. Santa Artist Teri Embrey says that she carves in her ‘cave’ in Seattle, Washington. That about sums my shop up also. My space is about a quarter of the space in my basement. It is about 7 ft wide by 12 ft long. It is situated between the washer and dryer and furnace. There is less than 7’ of head room and the ceiling is the bare joists of the house. The only clear space is a walkway through the middle. As you enter into the small shop, first you come across my clamp storage area and my stereo. As a kid who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, my music is very important to me. I often play loud rock and roll while working but have been known to switch to classical or easy listening as my mood changes.
Next you come across my wood storage area which is actually the empty space below the basement stairs. Though it is a small space it holds some wonderful pieces of wood. Long, narrow boards and dowels are stored overhead in the rafters. I have now started to store some wood outside as I am at maximum wood storage in the basement. I have some great chunks of wood which will come to life one day, basswood, tupelo, butternut, poplar, walnut, mahogany, cherry, paduak, pine and cedar. I am always on the lookout for new woods. With all of this wood to choose from, and all different sizes and shapes, about half the time I don’t have the right piece for my next project. I probably collect wood faster than I use it, as most carvers do. I am always hearing of a carver who has passed away and left a huge quantity of wonderful woods. It is a shame that sometimes this great wood goes to the trash pile or to someone who does not truly appreciate it. Do your family a favor and let them know who you wish your tools and woods to go to in the event of your demise. Put it down in writing somewhere. It also helps if you take stock of and write down all your tools and the values of each. Your family will appreciate it one day.
Above the wood is a cork bulletin board where I keep track of my current and pending jobs. There is a calendar and many, many business cards. Directly across from my wood collection, I have a small bookcase with a small two door cabinet on top of it.
The book case is full of quality carving and woodcraft books. The cabinet holds my specialty items, such as bees wax, finishing waxes, shoe polish, tung oil, shellac, glues, wood putties and fillers. On top of that sits my power water stones and sharpening stones. Hanging above that is a large compartmented storage box full of nails, screws, picture hanging supplies and other small items.
Take a step further and on your left is an industrial shelf unit. The very top shelf holds all my different stains and poly urethanes, small enamel paint cans and some wood glues. The next shelf holds all types of miscellaneous items, carving gloves, a small TV/ radio combo, glitters, gold and silver finishes and a collection of unfinished smaller carvings. The third shelf holds 2 16” scroll saws. The 4th shelf is home to my 10” compound miter power saw. The bottom shelf holds my stock of Christmas ornaments and plenty of small boxes to pack the ornaments in as they are sold.
Across from the shelves lies the heart of my small shop. There is a 4 ½’ long work bench. As I climb up into my swivel high chair I am in command. My chair is very comfortable with a back and a footrest and I can sit for hours, designing, pattern transferring, relief carving and painting. Over the bench is a pegboard with plenty of hooks and is filled with carving odds and ends, calipers, files, rifflers, coping saws, and some very large sculptors chisels. Off to the right side is a small shelf which holds a glass engraver and 5 carvers mallets. Along the right and back walls are holders for all of my chisels and gouges. I now have close to 100 palm and full sized tools. They hang straight down in their holders where and I have full view of both the handles and the cutting edges. I try to keep the same chisels in the same slots all of the time and can generally reach for the tool I need without really looking anymore. On the right side under the chisel holder is my scroll saw blade holder which I designed simply by drilling holes into a 2 x 4. It holds approximately 20 different sized blades and there is still room to drill more holes to hold more sizes. Along the back of the bench is a very old wooden box which houses a complete set of Exacto knives and blades and linoleum cutters. The left back wall of my bench has a small set of shelves built into the studs of the house. The top shelf holds a few different power staplers and brad shooters with storage for the staples and brads. The next shelf holds small boxes and cases filled with small bits for my power drills, screwdrivers and hundreds of rotary tool bits and accessories. The next shelf holds my wood burner and pens. The final shelf is filled to overflowing with all different types of sandpaper and sanding sponges.
Speaking of sanding supplies, it is one of my carving ambitions to carve so well that sanding is not needed. I am slowly moving away from power sanding and have amassed a collection of rifflers and files of all different shapes and sizes. With enough practice, eventually I will learn to use my tools with the greatest of efficiency and hopefully will hardly ever need to sand. Sanding is messy and the dust gets into and onto everything in the workshop. It is important to have some method of removing this dust from the air and to have your shop well-ventilated. Wood dust can combust if there is a spark or flame present, it is also suspected of causing respiratory diseases and cancer.
My bench top is constructed of 2 x 8s which had been planed and sanded to perfection. The entire top is covered with rubber matting to give me some traction when I am relief carving. There is a two-tiered lazy Susan which holds measuring tapes, glues, pencils, pens and other marking devices which I like to have at easy reach. Attached to the left side of this bench is my carvers arm with three different sized carvers screws. It can stick straight out into the walkway and can be accessed fully from 3 sides when I am mallet carving. It is hinged in the middle and can fold up and out of the way easily. Below the work bench are a couple of large shelves which hold all my different sanding machines, a biscuit jointer, my table saw, some more wood storage for smaller pieces and my shop vac. I also have a collection of various sized homemade bench hooks. Across from the end of this bench is the chimney and my trash pail. Next to this is our furnace. We recently replaced our older furnace and was told that the new one could be repositioned to give me more room in the shop but sadly, this was not to be as there were too many pipes that would have had to be redesigned and rerouted and would have wound up costing us thousands of more dollars. I have put the top of the furnace to use and it is now where my power honing system sits. It is also where my family members deposit all of the broken things that they come across, so that this jack-of-all trades can fix them.
Across from the furnace is a larger, longer and higher workbench. This one is meant to stand at. The bench top just below elbow level and I have also constructed a sturdy platform which I can stand on if I want the bench at a lower height. The bench is about 6 feet long and allows for plenty of space for larger projects. For the most part it is uncluttered but a table top drill press and band saw sit on opposite ends of the bench. There is an engineers swivel vise and an 8” carpenters vise attached to the bench. There is a large pegboard over this bench which holds all my screwdrivers and hammers, my bigger t-squares, metal rulers, levels and triangles. There are plenty of drill accessories hanging behind the drill press. Grinding stones, sanding drums in various sizes and different jigs that I have made for use with the drill press. This bench is very versatile and all of the larger power tools, table saw, compound miter saw, scroll saws and router table, are placed on this table when I use them. I do the majority of my heavy work on this bench, also my glue up and clamping work.
Under this bench is a small shelf which holds all of my artists’ paints, oils, waters and acrylics. Larger storage areas hold my routers and router table, skill saws and my dust removal system, which in reality is a box fan with filters attached to it. There are large suit cases filled with mechanics tools, electrical tools and a small welding setup. There is a sign makers jig and dovetail templates.
Across from the end of this bench sits my 6 “ joiner. At the end of the bench is the washer and dryer area. I don’t know why my family needs to wash their clothes. It would certainly give me much more room if I could get rid of these two large appliances.
The rafters are full of many, many useful things. I have made many nooks where all my smaller power tools, corded drills, jig saws, sanders and lots of miscellaneous items such as scrapers and a hair dryer. Hanging from hooks on the rafters are dust masks, respirators, safety shields, magnifiers and glasses. I have collected all of the different types of tapes and they are hanging on nails over the workbench.
While my workshop is small and cramped, it sometimes seems the perfect space. Everything is pretty much within arms reach or just a step or two away. If I keep it in a semi-workable condition and try to put things away once in a while, I have little trouble finding the things I need. It is my own little space and I have made some wonderful things in it. It becomes a very inefficient place to work when the larger power tools get involved as they must be pulled out and set up on top of the work bench, have cords run to power and when finished I have to unhook them and put them back where they go to get my bench top space back. Some of these tools are heavy and are getting heavier as I get older. While I do manage to get done what I want to in this cramped space, I waste a lot of time setting up and putting away things.
It is my intention in the coming year to reconfigure my unfinished basement. I will go from using ¼ of it to little over half. That will double my shop size and not only give me more room to maneuver when doing larger projects but also room where I can set up a table and some chairs for giving lessons in the future. There is a lot of work to be done, some demolition, some building of walls, moving and adding electrical outlets, and figuring out what to finish the floor with. Of course there is little manpower and even less cash to devote to this project, but I feel my carving efficiency can take a big step up with the remodeling job. Somehow, little by little, I will tackle this job.
This is my favorite shop chair, a sturdy high swivel with back and footrest
It is important for the carver to take a few things into consideration when setting up his work space. There must be comfortable areas to do the types of carvings that you wish to do. If you find yourself sitting down a lot, it is important to find a good chair in which you can carve for hours. Your tools should be within arms reach. The floor of your shop is very important if you will be standing a lot or doing mallet work. The harder a flooring surface is, the more stress it will place on your body. You want a floor that is easy to clean and hard enough to support any heavy machinery you might have in your shop. My idea of a perfect carvers floor would be industrial linoleum over a wood base with padding and a moisture barrier between the cement foundation and floor.
I have seen many wonderful works of art completed by people who have little or no work space available to them and others who work in unconventional spaces but on the whole, I think that a person must give themselves the proper room to work. It is important for any serious carver to have a dedicated carving space. I believe that efficiency requires that things be set up correctly. Most areas in a house serve a specific purpose. The kitchen is for cooking and eating, the bathroom is for bathing, bedrooms are for sleeping and desks are for homework and paperwork. When I walk into my workshop, it puts me in the mood to work. Sometimes I will spend 20 straight hours working, sometimes only 20 minutes. When I am tired or busy, it is hard to make myself go downstairs. But once I set foot into the shop, I soon find myself at work.
All artists have experienced a creative block at one time or another. Sometimes we burn out a bit and just can’t seem to get back on track. I deal with this by spending a few hours cleaning up my shop. I don’t know about you but I like my semi-organized shop to be in a bit of disarray. There is just something about a clean workshop that begs to be messed up. While I am straightening up I never fail to come across some cool tool or carving accessory that I forgot I had. Before you know it inspiration hits and I am right back at it.
The tools that you will choose to fill your workshop or work area will depend a great deal on what types of things that you carve. They will also depend on your carving philosophy. Although I tend to be a bit of a purist and am most proud of my carvings which are completely hand tooled, I am a carver who often subscribes to the “anything that works” method. I will use any hand or power tool, as long as it brings me my desired effect. There are those carvers who look down upon any carver who uses power.
To power carve, or not to power carve,
that is the question!
When Maura asked me to write something about tools or the workshop, I thought I’d use this opportunity to dispel a myth that frequently rears its’ ugly head when a bunch of carvers get together. Very simply put: “Power carving is not cheating!”
We were supplying a show years ago when I ran into one of them myth-mongers. I was demonstrating a Foredom rotary tool at the time when this good ol’ boy bellied up to our display and loudly declared, if front of 20+ people, That ain’t woodcarving … that’s cheating!
Why do you say that, sir? I asked. Real woodcarvers don’t use power, they carve in the traditional way using carving tools and a mallet. I don’t use anything but the set of tools my grandfather brought over from Germany. And me and my buddies even harvest our own wood off my land.
So you are a traditional woodcarver, eh? Yup, I sure am! So when you go out to cut the trees, you ride out on a wagon pulled by a team of oxen or horses and you bring along your two-blade ax to fell the trees. Right?
What are you talking about? he sputtered. We take my 4 x 4 Dodge pickup and our Stihl chainsaws so we can get the work done and get back home.
But that’s CHEATING, I said, a real traditional woodcarver would not use any power to get his wood, would he? At that point, he turned and walked away in a huff while trying not to hear the chuckles and snickers from the crowd.
The whole point of the story is to emphasis the fact that if great-granddad had power tools available to him at the time, he probably would have used them. There will always be “traditionalist” who argue their side, which is just fine. But don’t ever be hesitant to use whatever means available to achieve your end results. Whether you use a Foredom, a chainsaw, an Arbortech grinder, a hatchet or a sharp rock, it doesn’t matter. Just enjoy what you are doing and be safe in doing so.
Larry Yudis, Owner
The Woodcraft Shop
My hat is off to those carvers of yesteryear who had no real choice but to spend hours using hand tools and techniques to achieve something which would take minutes using the tools available today. Most carvers doing realistic wildlife pieces make great use of modern inventions, such as rotary tools and wood burning pens. Even those carvers who believe that a “real” carver uses only hand tools, must realize that all of the tools he uses were invented in the last 200 years and they were mass produced using industrial machinery.
It is my opinion, that a carver is a carver is a carver, regardless of the tools in his personal arsenal. I personally draw the line at computer generated carvings. During the course of writing this book I had a man send me samples of his precision engraved relief carvings. He asked me for my opinion as to their quality and how they compared to traditional carvings. I tried to be very diplomatic in my response to him but no matter how I phrased it, my opinion was that although the relief carvings were precise and crisp and could be mass produced and sold at marketable prices, they lacked any life to them. They just didn’t evoke the feelings of a hand carving. As I knew he would be, he was insulted and became defensive and sent me other photos of perfect relief carvings and signs. He tried to convince me that they were top-notch, techniquely perfect carvings and that they were better than any carvings which could be created by hand. Again I told him that they were nice, given what they were but they were not hand carved and could never command the prices that some accomplished carvings do. I never heard from him again.
I tried to picture what his workshop looked like in my head. I imagined a large sterile area full of cold shiny machines with computers running them. Nothing warm, nothing cozy, nothing to hold a visitors interest and get them personally involved in the carvers world.
That in my opinion kind of sums it all up. There are those people who appreciate the artistry that a carver can produce and then there are others who only want a decorative piece of wood to hang on their walls and don’t care how it was fashioned. There are also those carvers who are only concerned with the speed and technical accuracy of their carvings, while other carvers truly enjoy each step and mess of the of the creation process. I like to pick up a hunk of wood and slowly transform it into something unique, something that no one else has ever made before, to stand before it with pride and know that I made that with my hands. To me, there is nothing else that has ever given me greater satisfaction. That is why I am a wood carver.
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©2005 Carvin' in NYC
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