An Intoduction to Classical Carving

Carving Safely 

Be Alert!!!   Keep a well stocked first aid kit nearby as eventually you will cut yourself.   Keep you’re your tools sharp and in good condition.    Remove unnecessary items from your workspace.  Use carving gloves and tape to protect hands and fingers until you have the experience to go without them.  Pay attention to the direction your tool will take if it slips.  Protect your fellow carver when carving in close quarters.  Do not carve on your lap.  Keep all body parts out of a tools path.  Try not to carve towards yourself and if you must, use part of your arm/hand as an anchor to prevent the tool from injuring you.  Use hold-down devices such as clamps, vices, carving hooks/sleds, rubber mats or carving arms and carver’s screws. Remember that most carving injuries happen when reaching for and putting away tools.  If you don’t know how to do something safely, ask someone who does!!!  Listen to the little warning voice in your head. 
I choose to teach classical woodcarving because it is important to me that this knowledge not be lost and it seems almost no one is teaching it today. After doing much research, I understand my place as it relates to the tradition of historical woodcarving.  There is a reason that this knowledge has been passed down through time, simply put, it works!
Classical Carving
     Classical carving is not a new way of carving; it is the oldest recognized form of carving.  Classical carving does not refer to any style of finished carving but involves the method used to carve something.  It is a system of techniques which stresses safety, efficiency, speed, ergonomics and tool specific knowledge.  Classical, or traditional woodcarving, traces its beginnings back through time although no one is really sure when it came into use.  It is a method which has been handed down through the generations, from master to apprentice, from father to son and in the modern age, from teacher to student.  It began sometime before 1000 a.d in Europe.  Classical carving relies heavily on the use of a v-tool or veiner with stop- stop cut only being used when absolutely necessary.  It should be accomplished on a proper work bench, the height of which should be one palm-width below the point of your elbow.  It is important the carver stand in order to get the maximum benefit of leverage.      Classical carving may or may not involve the use of a mallet to maximize the strength of a stroke of a carver’s tool.  Woodcarvings should be securely fastened to the workbench in any manner available and suitable for the carving being produced.  You may use vices, clamps, smaller carvings being glued onto larger surfaces or in the case of in-the-round carvings, a “carver’s screw”.  Instead of moving the carving, the carver moves around the carving and learns to use both hands to add great efficiency to his method.  It is to the advantage to the carver to learn to become ambidextrous while carving and also to learn the proper way of holding their tools while carving. The coordinated use of both hands can not be understated as it will bring the greatest efficiency to any technique. You have to be able to work with your left as well as your right hand. If you can’t, there will be certain cuts you cannot do. Both hands should always be kept behind the cutting edge.  Speed  will come from  the repetition of using these techniques over time.  It is very important for a carver to get to know their tools and what they can do.  For the most part, a single chisel or gouge is capable of making 4 different cuts.#1 almost horizontal to the wood with the bevel facing down#2 almost horizontal to the wood with the bevel facing up (upside down)#3 with the shaft vertical to the wood (stop cut)#4 with the shaft held angled and vertical to the wood (slicing cut)In order to carve efficiently, you must get familiar with the tools you have at hand and pick the proper tool for the cut you want to make.  A carver who practices classical carving will accumulate a wide variety of tools in his lifetime.  It is important that these tools are kept in good working condition and be kept cleaned and sharp.  We do not whittle in classical carving but make clean precise cuts which for the most part, will eliminate the need for any sanding. This alone is a  great timesaver .
Carving History
Woodcarving in general traces its beginnings much further back in history to at least the Paleolithic (Stone-age) era. Due to the fact that wood is an organic material, there are no known examples of woodcarvings which have survived from before 4000 b.c.   However, when we look for stone carvings created by Neanderthal man, there are findings nearly 300,000 years old.  The theory of intelligence strongly suggests that woodcarving was a highly developed skill long before stone carving was attempted.  And that any tool that a prehistoric man would have used to produce a stone carving, would have been perfected as a woodcarving tool beforehand.  It is debatable which came first, woodcarving or painting, but it is generally accepted that that the first art was drawing, using charcoal from fires to make marks on rock faces and it now is thought that woodcarving or wood etching was the second art form in wide usage.  A sharp rock scrapped across a soft piece of wood could be used to remove some of the wood, leaving other parts behind.
     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 men 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 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 earliest known woodcarvings have been found in the hottest driest regions of the world.  It is ironic but the climate in which the scarce trees grow is exactly the climate needed to preserve wood.
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.
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 3530-35: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 and China.            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.                  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 Scandinavia. 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 inEngland. 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.
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.                  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.  Philadelphiahighboys 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 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.

The Guild System.. Many European carvers believe that one of the weaknesses of carving in America is that so many carvers are self taught.  Europe used the guild system in which carving was approached much the way that a college degree is today.    The history of the European guild system stretches back to at least the 12th century.  The members of the guild were divided into masters, apprentices, and journeymen. The masters were the proprietors of the businesses and were required to take on apprentices. The apprentices were bound to the masters; they were accepted to the apprenticeship for a agreed upon sum paid to the masters for training. The masters paid the apprentice just enough money to live on.  Often the apprentices slept in the workshops. The amount paid and the length of time varied from one craft to another and from one city to another. The masters had complete control over the work and education of an apprentice but the conditions of control were set by guild regulations. The journeymen were men who had finished their training as apprentices and were no longer bound to the masters but could not yet attain the status of masters. The number of masters was limited to a certain quota. A master craftsman was a member of a guild. In the European guild system, only master craftsmen were allowed to actually be member of the guild. To become a master, a carver had to first become an apprentice and then in turn a journeyman.  He then had to wait until a master died or retired, sometimes replacing his own master in the guild.  He would often times have to pay a hefty sum as his guild entrance fee and also had to produce a masterpiece before he was even considered for election to the guild. Becoming a master was often no easy task. In many guilds the master craftsman was regulated and had strict obligations, one of which was to take on an apprentice (or several depending on the craft) to help ensure the survival of the guildOver the centuries in Europe groups of woodcarvers worked together.  Technical knowledge was passed down from one generation to another. In Europe, woodcarvers were only paid a little more than furniture makers and were by no means rich.  If they made a mistake they would have to re-do it and if a piece broke off, they would have to glue it back on. They couldn’t lose any time with bad habits so they had to develop the most efficient way of carving. Carvers had to learn to work with both hands.  Being ambidextrous has great advantages.  You can make the same cut on the right and left side of your carving without repositioning the carving, or yourself, which leads to much greater efficiency.  When just starting they were taught to carve with small cuts so that they always had complete control. Like the old masters, you must have control of the tool so that it does not run away from you and take things off that you don’t want it to.  Speed will come with time and practice
On Purchasing Carving toolsUnfortunately, buying carving tools is an area where it pays to buy the best. Buy one or two at a time when you can afford to. Buy quality tools by from reputable manufacturers.  A cheap tool is simply that: a cheap tool and it will frustrate you and not get used. Buy the best you can afford. If, as a new carver, you feel you must buy a set, do not buy larger than a 6 tool set.  When buying larger sets you will find that there will be a few tools you will never use.  Learn what the different profiles can do and buy tools for specific purposes. Keep track of which profiles you already own so you don’t duplicate them when buying new tools. The easiest way to do this is to take a piece of cardboard and make marks in the surface with all of your chisels, keeping like sweeps together.  Take this cardboard with you wherever you think you may purchase new chisels. There are differences in handles and metal weights from different makers, ask other carvers if you may try their tools before deciding which to buy.  While it may take time and be expensive, one day you will have a set of quality tools which will suits you well in whatever type of carving you choose to do.Your carving Tools
There were once approx. 2400 carving tool profiles available to the carver.  Almost half have been lost to time.  How do we know this?, from old shipping manifests which have been uncovered during archeological digs.   There are almost 1200 profiles still being manufactured today.  Before the industrial age, highly skilled metalsmiths and blacksmiths were relied upon to make a carvers chisels.
The SteelThe Rockwell C scale is a way of measuring metals hardness and its ability to indent into a softer surface. The higher the # the harder the steel. Soft steel will not hold an edge for very long.  Harder steel will tend to be brittle and will chip and perhaps crack. A good carving tool will have hardness 56-62 with most top quality tools at approx 59Sheffield (English) and soligen (German) steel is the best steel available today
The Sheffield List

Carving Knife
     Probably the first tool any carver starts with is a knife. Its primary use is for whittling and chip carving. The blade is about 1 1/2″ long, and has a handle designed to fit the hand. Like gouges, it should be made of high carbon steel that will hold an edge for a long time.Carpenter’s Chisels
     These chisels have a flat edge (#1 Sweep). They are not usually used for sculpture, because the edge of a flat chisel tends to dig into the wood, twisting and plunging the tool deeper on one side than the carver may have desired. They can give a crude, unschooled look that may be desirable on some types of sculptureU-Gouges     Gouges are the work horses of carving. U-gouges are designated by the width of the cutting edge (in inches or millimeters), the sweep, or amount of curvature of the edge (an arbitrarily assigned number), and the shape of the shaft (straight, bent, spoon, and back bent).
     Gouges can be purchased:
  – in widths from 2mm (1/16″) to 60 mm (2 3/8″)
  – in sweeps from #2 (a barely perceptible curve) to #11 (a very deep, half round curve)
  – in straight, bent, spoon, and back-bent shapesV-Gouges 
     V-gouges are designated by the width between the top edge tips and the angle of the vee bottom edge.
     Gouges can be purchased:
  – in widths from 2mm to 30mm
  – in 60˚ (#12 sweep) and 90˚ (#13 sweep)
Bent and Spoon Gouges
     These specialty gouges are used to get into inaccessible spots on a carving that a straight gouge can’t reach.
     Bent gouge: the entire length of the shaft is curved.
     Spoon gouge: the final 1 1/2″ of the shaft is deeply bent in a spoon shape.
     Back bent gouges: a spoon gouge with the curve reversed so the cutting edge is convex instead of concave.

 Skewed Chisel
     A skewed chisel’s cutting is angled back from the leading edge at a 45 degree angle.
     They come in straight, bent, and spoon shapes and in varying widths.
     These are specialized tools and are seldom, if ever, usedPalm Tools
     Most of the above tool shapes can be purchased as smaller palm tools. A chip-carving knife and an assortment of palm gouges are all that is needed for creating small carvings in basswood or other soft woods.Mallet
     The traditional mallet for carving is cylindrically shaped and made from a heavy, dense hardwood.
     I prefer using a rubber mallet. While it doesn’t have the driving power of a wood mallet, it is less noisy, easier on the chisel handles, and has some spring that brings the head back up for the next swing.Basic Carving Strokes
Tool Patterns
As a beginning carver, the choice of carving tools available can be overwhelming. Which tools you really need to learn this craft and which tools you really will use can be a hard decision. There are several basic tool shapes that are standard to this hobby. The primary carving blade is the carving knife.
 KNIFEThe knife has a thin blade that will be about 1 3/4 inches to 3 inches long, and tapers to a point at the tip of the blade. The entire straight faced edge of the blade is sharpened to provide you with an ability to cut lines into the wood and to whittle away long slivers of excess material. Short blades are usually referred to as bench knifes where a longer style blade will be called a Sloyd knife. Carving knife styles are also marketed under the names of ‘detail knives’,  ‘whittling knifes’, and ‘straight knives’. Of all the tools that you will purchase, this one is the main stay of your kit and it is worth the investment for any beginner to begin with an excellent quality of blade. There are many fine examples of detailed carving that are done using only the knife.


The second style of tool that you will be using is the gouge. Where the bench knife tapers to a point, the gouges end with a blunt cut. The full length of the blade is either rounded for c-curve gouges, tightly rounded for u-curved gouges also called veining tools or parting tools. The final edge of the blade is sharpened to slice out the wood. Gouges remove great quantities of wood at a time and so are used to do the rough cutting in carving.
V tool This tool comes to a sharp “v” point at the tip creating a deeply scored line in the wood.  “V” gouges are available in a variety of angles from very tight “v”s to widely open “v”s. Use this one to carve along joint lines in the design and for detailing as the beard and hair in a North Wind pattern.
Chisels also have only the final edge of the tool sharpened, however the end will be cut in a flat end or angled end. These flat blades are used for the stop cut in relief carving, for removing large areas, and for crisping corners. They are also excellent for scraping the final surface of your work to leave a clean smooth finish. Chisels cut at an angel are called “Skews”There are many specialty carving tools that have been developed over the years. For undercuts and removing the background areas in tight corners you might want a dog-leg skew. There are also bent gouges, backbend gouges, spoonbit, and fishtails available for your use. As your craft is developed, like most carvers, you tool kit will increase with a variety or knife shapes. Tools also come in a variety of widths from the micro carvers that are used for very fine detail and miniature works to the large fish tail gouges and awls that remove great quantities of wood with one stroke.Each tool creates it’s own pattern of stroke in the wood. Use a scrap of softwood to practice and explore each of your new tools. Remember also that each individual blade style can create a variety of strokes depending on the depth of the cut and the angle of the blade entry into the wood. A c-curve gouge will make a beautiful tear dropped shape stroke that both tapers into the cut and then back to the surface of the wood. Yet if you hold it upright at a very slight angle and push into the carving you can make fish and dragon scales with the blades imprint.

Odds and EndsMost carvers are self-taught or taught by someone who was self-taught.  The problem with this is that bad habits are learned and taught.There is no “magic” tool which will make you a good carver, only knowledge, quality tools and practice will accomplish that.Long standing techniques have come down to us through the centuries.  The reason why they are still being taught is because they are reliable methods that work.A good tool is an extension of a carvers arm.  Tools by themselves do nothing but look pretty.  It is the carver who makes them work.Modern carving tools have only been around since the Victorian era, before that Blacksmiths individually fashioned tools. Before the iron age, bones, obsidian and rocks were used to fashion carving tools.  Carving is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, craft.  The possessor of carving tools and skills assured himself a valued place in the harsh primitive times. A 6000 year old carver would recognize most of the modern profiles and would understand their purpose.Carving tools are not disposable and are manufactured to last several lifetimes.  Pass them on!
Now get carving!!!