SOWC Chapter 1

A Brief History of Woodcarving

      Woodcarving has been a part of mans evolutionary history.  One can only imagine the result of primitive tools being used to shape wood. Wood does not have the permanence of stone or some of the man made materials of today. If left lying on the forest floor, moisture, weathering and insects will take their toll and the wood will eventually rot away.  Not many examples of ancient woodcarvings survive today. We can not truly appreciate the amount and the scope of the treasures that have been lost forever.

3000 year old wood carving from china

Image courtesy of Beijing,china

Wood itself existed before man ever stepped foot on this earth. Primitive cavemen are sometimes depicted with a wooden club and wandering tribes probably used branches as walking sticks.  It is known that stones were affixed to wooden handles and used as hammers and axes. Smaller, sharper stones were affixed to thinner, longer pieces of wood to create arrows which were used for hunting and eventually for protection from other humans.  At some point, longer and sharper pieces of stone were attached to shorter wooden handles, thereby creating a knife-like instrument. Wood was probably one of the most abundant resources early man made use of.  It must be assumed that even though early mans time was primarily taken up with survival related activities, there also must have been moments when he was left to his own devices.  I would guess that the origins of art must have developed from the cavemen’s boredom. Imagine the wonder of man as he touched his flint knife to a soft wood and realized that he could remove some of that wood, leave other parts and wind up with something completely of his own creation.   Now imagine that caveman bringing his object back to his clan and being greeted with grunts of awe and admiration.  I think that alone would spur him on to carve again and again until he was producing usable items for his tribe, eating implements, personal items and perhaps hunter gatherer tools.   His skill at producing necessary items most likely elevated him above the non carving males of the tribe.  Imagine also, at the dawn of primitive religions, the skill to carve Idols and other religious items elevated the status of woodcarver even higher.

            The ancient cradle of civilization was in the hotter drier climates of the Middle East and northern Africa.  It is the friendliest environment for wood and yet, wood was scarce in this water starved region.  It was a prized and sacred commodity.   It was the carpenter and woodcarver who were deemed worthy enough to use the scarce resources.

The Tomb of Hesy-Ra

            In 1860, the tomb of Hesy-Ra, the royal physician of ancient Egypt, was opened.   Eleven wooden relief carved panels were discovered to have stood the test of time. Each of these panels measured two feet by one and one half feet. It is estimated that theses carvings date back to 2600 B.C.  The majority of these panels were in well preserved condition.  It is thought that the wood used is either Acacia or Sycamore as these were the only carving friendly woods known to be growing in Egypt at the time.

Images: QUIBELL, J. Excavations at Saqqara, 1911-12: the tomb of Hesy. 1913

The earliest three dimensional figures yet found is thought to have been carved around 2500 B.C. The carving is three feet high and is in the usual Egyptian pose, walking forward with both feet flat on the ground and holding a staff in one hand.

            There is even mention of woodcarving in the ancient texts of the Bible, in the book of Exodus, Chapter 35

30-35:And Moses said unto the children of Israel, See, the Lord hath called by name Be-zal’e-el the son of U’ri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah;  And he hath filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship; And to devise curious works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass,   And in the cutting of stones, to set them, and in carving of wood, to make any manner of cunning work.

            It is thought that woodcarving was practiced in all parts of the ancient world, very rarely have any examples survived for thousands of years as in Egypt.

            In Medieval Europe, Woodcarving had ,along with the other arts, became subject to mans inhumanities .Particularly in the Dark Ages, the art of woodcarving was pretty much confined to Monasteries as that was the only place that was safe enough practice it. Most parts of the world experienced long periods of war and the horrors that accompany war, looting, burning and the attempts to eradicate treasures of those foreign cultures. From approximately 700 A.D. to about 900 A.D. the practice of idol worshipping was strictly forbidden in some parts of Europe.  Death was the punishment for the carver or possessor of an idolic symbol.  This did not only relate to religious images but to any depiction of a human or animal form.  This is still practiced today in some parts of the world.  I had a friend, Wendy, who moved to Saudi Arabia in the early 1980’s to take a lucrative position in an oil company.  She had a vast collection of Hummel porcelain figurines that she had shipped ahead of her in anticipation of her arrival.  Imagine her shock and dismay, upon retrieving her Hummel’s from Saudi Arabian customs officials, finding that each and every Hummel had had their heads and faces smashed by the authorities.  Photographs which depicted people were also subjected to this form of eradication and the heads and faces were torn off.

Winged Altarpiece, 1523, Wood, Cathedral, Bamberg

photo courtesy of Web Gallery of Art,

                  Woodcarving was not the only art form affected by these barbarian times.  All forms of arts and artists were forced underground and much of the art work was searched out and destroyed.  It is only natural that Woodcarvers fled to the safety of Monasteries as Monasteries and Churches had been the main employers of woodcarvers in Medieval Europe.   The woodcarving that was done in these monasteries was mostly elaborate relief carvings done on doors and wooden panels. Carvings done in each country in Europe were remarkably similar which can be attributed to the   carvers traveling from monastery to monastery practicing their trade.

                  After the year 1000 A.D. the arts experienced a revival in Europe known as the Renaissance period. All of the arts came out of the darkness and oppression of the past years, with a renewed vigor and flourished.  Woodcarvers were influenced by stone carvings and based some of their work on artifacts uncovered in parts of Europe. In England carvings were also based on stone carvings. These carvings were not usually statues but decorative carvings. Some of these seem to be based on carvings done in Denmark and Norway. Century’s later Scandinavian woodcarvers would seem to have been influenced by early stone carvings found in England. Some works carved between 1000 A.D. and 1200 A.D. can still be found in old Churches in England. Unfortunately during this time, many new carvings were made to replace old carvings which were by then, showing their age.  Almost all of these old carvings were destroyed.

Early American figurehead carving

Photo courtesy of Treasury of American Design and Antiques by Clarence P. Hornung

Carving in America began with the Native American cultures.  Jewelry, totems, pipes and household items were regularly carved.  Traditional woodcarving in America evolved from the building and furnishing of timber frame ships and buildings. Ship carvers were our first traditional sculptors of wood as exhibited on the mastheads of the wooden ships. Other early American carvers produced wagon wheel spokes and highly decorated stagecoaches.

A shell carving for a highboy

Image courtesy of

                  As the next waves of Europeans landed on these shores, they brought with them a wealth of traditional carving knowledge.  This was employed mainly on the east coast as the fine furniture industry flourished.   In Philadelphia, the Chippendale-style furniture made reached the climax of mahogany carving in America. There seemed to be a very competitive spirit among these furniture makers and they continually tried to outdo each other, their fine designs and execution of such shows in the elaborateness of the pieces.  Philadelphia highboys and lowboys were unmatched in beauty of workmanship either here or in England. Richly carved feet, knees, skirts, central drawers of highboys and lowboys, quarter columns, frets, finials and cartouches were done in shells, scrolls, flowers, and other beautiful carvings which sometimes was merely lines of beauty, not necessarily modeled on any realistic forms, and usually surrounded the shell like carvings on the center of the piece. Although mahogany was the favorite wood of the period, there was furniture made of other woods. Some fine specimens are to be found in maple, cherry, and curly maple.  As factories began using modern wood shaping equipment, there was less and less demand for quality woodcarving. Subsequently, less and less young adults choose to pursue carving as a career. Quietly, behind the scenes, in almost every town and city, folk carvers took over where the traditional carvers left off.  Craft woodcarving came to the forefront in the late 1800’s and did well right until the mid 20th century.  Almost every house was adorned with some type of carving, from weather vanes, decorative and functional kitchen items, picture frames and architectural moldings and details.  The skilled carver could usually find employment.  Wooden sign makers were in huge demand as cities grew and more businesses were established.

                  But then something happened in America, Factories were starting to churn out plastics and other moldable synthetics which in turn other factories used to mass produce items that had traditionally been made out of wood.  Mass producing meant better prices for the general public, and there were less and less people paying for a woodcarvers skills.  As the older generations of carvers began dying off all over America, middle aged men and women started inheriting their father’s tools.  Most were discarded or left to rust, but here and there, as their own retirements approached, people started playing with wood again for their own enjoyment.  As Americans began living longer due to advances in medicine, they had the time in retirement to perfect their carving skills. The hobbyist carving business took off in full flight.  Clubs were formed and businesses were started to cater to these new woodcarvers

Early American Folk Carving, The Newsboy, 1888

Image courtesy of. Milwaukee Art Museum, The Michael and Julie Hall Collection of American Folk Art.

                  Today carving in America is about to be tested.  The vast majority of hobbyist carvers are the retired who soon will be passing the tools on yet again.  There seems to be little interest in carving among the young.  The baby boomers that grew up with technology rapidly evolving around them are getting set to retire.  Will they pick up their fathers tools? Or will they look for more high tech amusements to occupy their time with?  And what will the state of woodcarving in America be in another 20 years?

Chapter 2


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