SOWC Chapter 3

So, You really want to be a woodcarver?

The State of Woodcarving in America Today

Chapter 3

     A Word to the Novice

                  Wood carving can be a very relaxing past time.  It seems as if everyone is always so busy these days, rushing here and there, learning how to multitask in order to try to fit everything you need to fit into a day.  It is important that we find ways to lower stress levels and do something we actually enjoy every now and then.  It is mentally and physically good for us to slow down.  Initially I was attracted to wood carving as a way of keeping my self busy at a time when I really wasn’t capable of too much.  I had a large heavy cast on my leg and found it difficult to stand for any length of time.  I needed to try something I could do with my hands, while I sat down.  I needed in some way to be productive.  There are only so many TV shows you can watch; only so many books you can read; only so many hours you can sleep in a day.

Very blocky early carving, carved with a utility knife

                  I began carving with a utility knife.  I didn’t know that there were special carvers’ knives.  I didn’t know how many specialized tools there were.  My knife served me well for my first couple of carvings which were basically just figures rounded off at the corners.  I had no teacher to tell me differently.  I was very proud of my first couple of carvings and every now and then I still pick one of them up to look at.  Yes they are pretty rough, but they are special because they were the first ones.  I would advise the new carver to begin with a good basic carving knife. I have seen some pretty fancy knives being used for whittling and carving. While there are many great knives produced by individuals and carving tool companies, the best value for the beginner I have found is the Swedish sloyd knife.  If you look around on the internet you can find one for around $10.  The steel used in these knives is excellent and will hold a great strong edge for a long time. They come in various sizes of blade, 5” down to 1”.  It is advisable that you also get yourself a decent bench (utility-all purpose) knife so that you do not resort to using your carving knife for anything but carving.

 Swedish sloyd knife

                  I have seen people get too gung-ho too fast and spend hundreds of dollars on tools that they are really not ready to use yet. With one knife you can learn a lot.  You can learn about grain and basic cuts.  You can learn about steels and sharpening.  You can learn about safety and, more importantly you can learn if you have a feel for woodcarving before making a heavy investment in tools.  When I began carving, I made the mistake that most beginners do.  I placed quantity above quality.  I now have a world class collection of tools, cluttering up my workshop that I will never use again. Bad tools will only serve to frustrate and perhaps, injure the beginning carver and may be the reason why some give up carving before they’ve really even started.

 Palm chisels and their Profiles

                  After you have mastered carving with a knife I would suggest moving on to a basic set of decent quality palm tools.  These need not be very expensive tools. A starter set should contain at least a straight chisel, a veiner, a gouge, a skew chisel and a v-tool. With this set you can learn all the basic cuts, how to hold the tools and what type of tool to use, when. You can also learn how to sharpen all the different profiles.  Your skills will improve as your tools improve.  When you have decided that carving is for you, it is time to look into the higher quality end of carving tools.  These can range in price from $20-$100 or more, for a single tool.  The progression in the quality of my carvings has equaled the quality of the tools I have amassed.  As this can be a huge financial commitment over time, it is not recommended that you go out and spend your nest egg just to have a set of pretty tools. You can buy a tool a month or every 2 months depending on what it is you can afford.  Over time you can build a wonderful set of tools that other carvers will envy. There can be a great investment in quality tools and the beginning carver is encouraged to take care of his/her tools by using them properly and keeping them safe, clean and dry.  A cap on the blade end of the tool protects it nicely while in your toolbox.  You can make these from rubber tubing, cork or Styrofoam.

 Professional carving tools w/ mallet

                  One of the most important skills you can learn as a woodcarver is how to sharpen and hone your own blades.   As a novice, this is extremely important.  You can only carve as well as your tools carve.  A good tool becomes an extension of yourself.  As a woodcarver, sharpening is the one thing that you are guaranteed to repeat time and time again.  Most of the carvers that I personally know have between fifty and one hundred different chisels, micro chisels, palm chisels and full sized chisels.  They all have a few knives.  Some use reciprocating power chisels.  And guess what.  They all need to be sharpened every now and then and need to be honed constantly. Do yourself a favor and take the time to learn to sharpen correctly.  I even know a few carvers who make some extra money offering their sharpening services to others.

                  I didn’t know much about the different styles of carving until I looked at a carving magazine. I learned that the little figures I was making were called in-the-round carvings.  Today I know that what I was doing is referred to as whittling. For the most part, whittling is a carving done using only a knife.  Looking at the pictures in the magazine I saw beautiful relief carvings.  I wanted to try my hand at this.  It was, at the time, my idea that this is the type of work a real woodcarver would do.  I found a picture of a bear and then went in search of a piece of wood that it would fit on.  I took a piece of carbon paper, taped the carbon paper to the wood, laid a picture on top of it and with a pencil traced out the main lines of the bear.  I carefully scraped down the background with my knife and then put main details in and then sliced my knife over and over again in tiny strokes trying to make the texture of hair. It came out okay.  It did look like a bear but now after three years of carving I look back at my bear and see that it really wasn’t very good.  Yet it is one of my proudest achievements as it was my first relief carving.

 My first relief carving

                  Some inexperienced carvers have a sense of dread and a fear of cutting themselves to the extent that it limits their potential carving ability and enjoyment. Accidents can and do happen but there are things to be aware of that will lessen the chance of serious injury.  I advise the beginner to learn how to carve safely from the start, bad habits are harder to break once they are ingrained.  There are a few tips that stand out among the others, the first being, never carve when you cannot give it your full attention.  That means being well rested and alert before you pick up any tool.  Never carve when you are impaired in any way. Be aware of the path a tool can take if it slips and make sure that there are no body parts in the path of that tool.  Always carve away from your self. Purchase and use a good quality Kevlar or chain mesh carving glove to protect the hand which is not holding the tools.  Make sure to wear a decent quality leather shoe.  Eventually you will drop a tool and as the steel is heavier than the wooden handle, a tool will almost always fall blade first. Get in the habit of jumping back a bit if you drop a tool.  A chipped tool is always preferable to an unplanned amputation.  One safety tip which seems contradictory is to keep your tools as sharp as possible.  A sharp tool will work better in the manner it was intended to, and if you do cut yourself, the cut will be cleaner, hurt less and leave less of a scar.  No matter how many safety tips you put into practice, make sure to have a good first-aid kit handy.  Eventually you will cut yourself.  As your carving continues to progress you may wind up using power equipment, which will considerably improve the dangers in carving.  A paid up health plan and a nearby telephone can not be underestimated.  You should have a plan of what to do if you have a catastrophic injury occur.  A cell phone can be a real life saver.  I would like to tell you that it is safer if you never carve alone at home, but let’s face it, a quiet house is an invitation to carve. I hear it is said that a carving does not have a soul until it is christened with blood.  Accidents will happen, stay alert and try to prepare for them. 

 First aid Kit

                  Wood itself, has inherent dangers to be aware of. Good ventilation and the use of a respirator is of high importance when creating any fine dust, whether by power carving or sanding.  Sawdust in the lungs can lead to many life threatening conditions.  There are also many woods capable of causing severe allergies and some that are suspected of causing cancer.  Learn about using carving vices and hold down devices as it is easier control your tools when you are holding them with two hands.  Have an emergency plan and a backup plan.  Educate yourself to all the safety aspects of carving.  Develop good working habits and prepare for all possibilities.  Your life could depend on it. 

                  I have always been confident in the work my hands were able to do.  As a child I took apart clocks and mechanical toys.  I wanted to know what made things work.  I wasn’t so interested in putting them back together again, I just wanted to understand what caused things to do things that they did.  That little habit got me into a lot of trouble the day I tried to take the refrigerator apart.

                 In 1980, I got my very first car, a 1974 maroon with blag ragtop Chevy Impala. We all have to start somewhere. It was boat. It was my learning car. I learned to drive. I learned how cars and engines worked. I learned to do minor repairs. Then I moved on to my dream car, a 1966 Mustang.  It was beautiful car to look at.  It was 7 layers of black and clear lacquer with brilliant chrome.  The interior of the car needed some work.  It didn’t matter to my brother-in-law that I was a girl; he went out and purchased me a starter mechanics tool set.  Every spare moment I could find, I was out in the garage taking the car apart until it was just a beautiful shell.  There were pieces of the car everywhere.  Every time I would get paid I would go pick up one of those parts and take it down to my friend at the local auto shop and he would order a brand part for me. It took months but soon the car had a brand new dashboard, new black rug, new seat covers, new radio and speakers and all-new interior chrome.  I will never forget how it felt to ride in that car.  It was an attention-getter and attracted a lot of stares.  I loved talking about the car to people and I was very proud that I had done all the work myself. It was the same feeling I got when I looked at my first carvings.  It wasn’t about how good they were or how anybody else would look at them, it was the fact that I had made them myself with my own two hands.  I think most of us experienced that feeling when we carved our first carving.  But wood carving is about more than just using your hands.  We have to use our eyes and our minds.  The one thing that I truly love about wood carving besides the feel and smell of the wood itself is the contemplation that is part of each carving.  Most of us carve alone with no audience.  I personally prefer carving in the small hours of the night.  It is quiet enough to hear myself think.  There is no one needing anything from me and there are no distractions.   I think for me, carving is a private meditation.

                  I like the fact that I was self-taught but if I had any advice to give to a new carver I think the first thing I would tell you is to take a beginner carving class.  There are so many things that I did not know when I attempted my first carvings.   The months it took me, in the beginning, to learn the basics of carving could have been learned in one lesson.  If I were to teach a class my first lesson would start with a safety talk.  Perhaps I wouldn’t have put a chisel through my palm had I had someone to show me the proper way to hold my tools.  I would tell you to pay attention to where your body is  when you were carving, pay attention to the direction the tool is being pushed in and to make sure that no part of you is in the path of that tool,  particularly the hand that is not holding the tool.  I would tell you to keep some Band-Aids nearby because no matter how careful you are, you will eventually cut yourself.  I would tell you to clamp your work to your worktable so that you could hold your tool with two hands, one to push and one to guide and pull back a bit, so that your tool never slips.  I would tell you to keep super glue nearby because it is useful to glue cuts closed.  I would teach you about your tools. I would teach you how to tell a good tool from a bad tool. I would go over basic sharpening techniques and I would teach you the cuts each tool is capable of making.  I would also make sure that the first class would include doing a beginner carving that would be able to be finished by the end of the class, likely a simple relief carving.  I think it is important to that an aspiring artist goes away with a sense of pride and accomplishment.

Wood Carvers of Queens Carving Club

                I would encourage you to find a local carving club.  Most meet weekly or monthly and if they charge any type of dues, it is usually a nominal cost. Besides looking good on your woodcarving resume, carving clubs offer camaraderie and an access to what other carvers are doing.   Aside from carving tips, help on where to find carving tools and woods, carving clubs can also serve as a source of inspiration and a continuing force behind a carvers motivation to improve himself.      

                    The importance of rubbing elbows with other carvers cannot be underestimated.  The first benefit you gain from them is that you will have someone that you can observe.  You can watch how they use their tools, which tools they choose, and the effects that those tools create.  They have knowledge to share with you that would take you years to gain on your own. 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 guild.

Apprentices in workshop

                   Over 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 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. 

                  As in every craft, there are those who raise it to an art form, but I would estimate that over 90% of woodcarvers are hobbyist carvers, most are retired, some travel in RVs and meet other carvers at campgrounds around the country.  Ten to twenty percent are women and that number is steadily rising.  Carving instructor George Chau of New York City estimates that 60% of his new students are women.  In talking with many professional carvers, most feel that hobby carving is thriving in America.  It seems that only when one tries to sell their carvings are they confronted with problems.  In my own personal dealings with other carvers I was dismayed that most have no interest in attempting to sell to the general public.  Some even tried to discourage me from thinking that I would ever be successful at it.  While at first angered by their attempts to throw water on my fire, I soon came to respect their opinions but only as it related to their carving experiences.  I understood that this did not mean I would not do well. 

                  I came to understand that each individual must decide what is right for them.  Some are quite content to have a nice little hobby in which they can share their creations with family and friends.  Many people find carving to be very peaceful, and only carve when they have free time on their hands. They give their carving creations as gifts to friends and family for birthdays or holidays. But there are many others who feel driven to invest the time and effort into learning how to carve well. And eventually they raise the level of their carving to the point where they start receiving inquiries as to the price of their carvings.  A well carved or unique item will draw an audience on its own.  It is up to the carver to step up to the next level, the business of selling carvings. You, first and foremost, need to decide what type of carver you’re going to be. This is an important point in aspiring woodcarvers’ career.  It is now that you must make the choice on whether you will continue to be a hobby carver or whether you will attempt to sell your carvings.  And if you’re going to attempt to sell your carvings, in what direction is your marketing going to be targeted?  It is a decision that involves many choices, all which must be considered before settling off on your journey.  You may sell a few carvings to, or be commissioned by family and friends.  Those people know you and have known you. These are the people who want to support you. There is no need to try to impress these people as your carvings alone can do that. 

                  Selling to the public, to people who have never seen your work and are unfamiliar with your name is a whole different ballgame.  A lot of research needs to be done.  A well-developed ego is an important thing to have if you are going to try to market your carvings.  Knowledge is also crucial.  Where does a novice go to get that knowledge?  Experience will bring you all the answers that you need.  We all learn by doing.  I remember that when I first began painting, I would use colors directly out of the tubes.  This produced a garish result.  I soon learned that I had to blend different colors together to get friendlier colors.  I also learned that if you use bases of the same colors in different parts of your paintings, you can bring it all into harmony. You bring the blue of the sky down into the blue of the water and you put a bit of the blue into the highlights of your trees.  Observers will not even notice the bit of blue among the green of the trees but it will all work together to unify the painting. The same is true when painting carvings.  How did I learn the importance of mixing colors?  I took a painting class.  There is only so much we can learn on our own.

Mixing paint and a paint mixing chart

                   There is so much available to the beginning carver now.  There is no reason to go it alone.  There are wonderful internet resources, which offer free tutorials and other carving knowledge.  There are carving magazines, which do instructional articles and if you look in the back of the carving magazines, most list events that are going on and club announcements.  There are even ads for woodcarving classes and seminars, given by respected carvers.  Once there were only a few books available, written by woodcarvers for woodcarvers, but now there are beautiful books being published, some giving step by step pictorial instructions on particular carving projects. You need only to do an internet search or pop into your local bookstore and you will find hundreds of good quality books, tapes and DVDs. 

                  There is a wonderful thing in the woodcarving world, known as the roundup.  I have heard it referred to as other things such as get-togethers, jamborees, gatherings, rendezvous’ and the congress.  I feel that this is an important thing for any new carver.  A roundup is basically a bunch of woodcarvers who get together once a year for anywhere from 3 days to a week.  These can be rather large gatherings; a recent roundup boosted an attendance of approximately 600 carvers.  Roundups are great for the novice to get involved in. 

 Carving instruction at a roundup

                  What exactly is a carving roundup?  The woodcarving community at large comes together for a moment in time.  Those who are instructors or wish to gain instructing experience offer classes.  These classes are free, at least at the roundups that I have attended.  You will be asked to pay for the supplies that you use.  This is mostly a nominal cost for the wood that you will use in a particular class.  You will have to supply your own tools, lodgings and food. Roundups are usually held at larger campgrounds and the cost of lodgings can be defrayed by camping.  If you are lucky enough to have a Recreational Vehicle, then you only pay the price of the hookups and space for your time there.  Most campsites also offer lodging in the form of small cabins and rooms for rent.  Carvers who live in the area of a roundup sometimes offer rooms in their own homes and there are generally motel and hotel rooms available. 

                  I read about my first roundup in the back of one of the carving magazines, my internet carving lists also provided me with more details.  At first I was a bit hesitant, but now, having a few roundups under my belt, I will never miss the opportunity to attend another.  The free classes offered are of a good quality. And there are enough different topics offered to appeal to every carver.  Some of the instructors command high fees for their normal classes and a roundup is a chance to learn from them very inexpensively.  There are classes on almost every subject, caricatures, realistic faces, wood spirits, sharpening, wood burning and chip carving just to name a few.  There are also mini seminars in the evenings on interesting carving topics.  My biggest problem was figuring out which classes to attend on which day to fully take advantage of those classes I really felt I would learn the most from.

                  A roundup usually starts with registration day.  You register and mingle around with other carvers.  You can set your carvings up either at your campsite or in a gathering area for a little show and tell.  Classes are not the only things that go on during a roundup.  There are usually tool vendors and wood suppliers present.  There is normally a swap meet scheduled at some time during the round up so you can trade things you no longer use for things that you need.  There are sing alongs, music jams and pot luck dinners.  There are even craft classes for those who don’t carve, knitting, tin punching, embossing, stitching and painting classes are some that come to mind.  There are also community carving events that go on.  There are groups of carvers who spend the entire time carving one large carving, which is then donated to either the hosts or some other worthy organization.  There are round robin types of things, where you start carving on a block of wood and then you pass it on to other carvers sitting in a circle. When it returns to you it is finished.  There are timed whittling contests. 

                  The carvers that attend these roundups come from all over the country.  They have varied skill levels and range from the mildly interested hobby carver to the consumed professional carver.  There are housewives, engineers, doctors, the rich and poor, big city folks and country folks, people from all walks of life and in all age ranges.  The phenomenal thing that I have discovered about woodcarvers is that they freely and eagerly share their knowledge and experiences. They are also generally some of the nicest people you will ever come across.

                  One of the biggest benefits of attending a roundup is that you suddenly realize that there is a hidden subculture of woodcarvers in the United States and the rest of the world.  It’s not something you see in the movies or on television.  No book on Woodcarving has ever made the New York Times best seller list.  You will probably never see a carver interviewed by Oprah, Geraldo or Barbara Walters.  And no Ivy League school has ever offered a degree in woodcarving.  It is something that goes on quietly behind the scenes in America.

                   It reminds me of a book I once read.  A terrible disease had wiped out all but a handful of people in America.  One by one, survivors are forced to leave their shelters in search of food and water.  They are all drawn by a supernatural force, to walk across America and to meet in the southwestern desert.  The roads are clogged with abandoned vehicles, dead bodies and many other obstacles. Most have not seen another human soul for months and the psychological implications of the isolation begin showing in their thought patterns. They question their own sanity. The journey is long and hard for most, but eventually each survivor makes it to the desert, only to be met by the hoards of other survivors.   Can’t you just imagine their feeling of joy to know that they are not alone.  That is sort of how I felt after 10 minutes at my first carving roundup.  I was a woodcarver among woodcarvers, I was where I belonged.  I wasn’t crazy.  Some of these people walked, talked and slept woodcarving just as I did.  They spoke my language and didn’t mind if I spoke endlessly of woodcarving.  I was home and they were my family.  And I was thrilled that I’d found them.

                  I also recommend that the novice carver pick up a few carving magazines, perhaps even subscribe to a few.  It is wonderful to feel part of something.  You can see that woodcarving is really not an isolated activity but that it thrives in certain areas.  You will see pictures of carvings that are at some of the bigger shows and trust me, when you look at those beautiful glossy photos, something or someone will inspire you.

                   One of my personal pet peeves is that a lot of carvers rely heavily on other peoples’ patterns.  Now I will admit to having used a few patterns in my time but they were only to learn techniques in the beginning.  It is ironic to me that the first few carvings I did were completely from my head.  I didn’t even draw on the wood.  I just carved.  Then, as I gained a little experience I started using patterns from the magazines for a few carvings.  But in a short while I went back to carving  things that I wanted to carve and of course, I couldn’t find patterns that were exactly as I wanted them so again I started doing my own thing.  I would estimate that 98% of my carvings are of my own design with 2% borrowed from patterns.  But as luck would have it, while I was displaying some of my work, someone noticed the one carving that was made from a pattern and asked me where I found all the other patterns for my stuff.  While I immediately felt a bit insulted, I understood why she felt that all my stuff had been made from patterns and vowed from that day on to never display anything that was not an original design.

                   If a beginner carver would just understand how easy it is to make an original pattern, we would put all the pattern makers out of business.  Of course that is not my intention; there are a lot of fine patterns that are produced these days.  There are a few carvers who have made a profitable living from the selling of patterns.  There are those people, who no matter what they are shown, or how much encouragement they receive, they are either content to just use patterns or they will never gain the confidence to create their own original patterns. The arts and crafts argument comes into play here.  If you are copying someone else’s work, I would call that craft.  Art, in my humble opinion should be unique and original.

                   Let’s take a look at how a carving begins.  For the sake of this discussion, let’s assume that you have the perfect sized piece of wood for a relief panel carving sitting right in front of you on your workbench. You can just pick up a chisel and dig right into the wood and make magic happen. But let’s face it, not many of us have that skill or confidence level.  So here, we sit looking at our piece of wood.  For those of you who have drawing skills, it’s not hard for you to pick up a pencil and put an image directly onto your panel.  When you have completed your drawing, take a digital photo of it, put it into a photo program, sharpen it and resize it if necessary, and print it out.  You now have a hard copy of that pattern.

drawing directly onto the wood

                   For those of you who don’t draw, that is not the end of it.  This is where pictures come into play.  What pictures? Any pictures!  Pictures can be found almost anywhere, on your walls, in books and magazines, and downloaded and printed out from your computer.  Let’s, for example, say that you’d like to carve the image of the White House.  It is a very easy picture to find. There are probably thousands of images taken from all different angles.  A little bit of looking and you should be able to find a view you are happy with.  Let’s use something a bit more complicated, you now want to do a rural relief carving.  Suppose you want a barn, a tree, a post fence and perhaps a horse in your carving.  If, you’re lucky, with a bit of searching you can find the perfect picture in exactly the right size, with all the desired elements in it.  You look at the picture for a few moments and realize that you would like it much better if it just had two horses and a rusty pitchfork in it.  The chances of you finding all those elements in the same picture are pretty slim.  Go find another picture of a horse and a picture of a pitchfork, resize them to the right size and lay them on top of your picture.  When you have things generally placed where you want them, tape the loose pieces to the original picture.  Place carbon or graphite paper on your wood and tape your new picture on top of that.  Trace the outlines of all the major elements. When you are finished remove the picture and you will have a pattern on your wood.  Photograph that with your digital camera; transfer it to your pc and save it to your hard drive.  You now have a pattern that you can use again and again.   If you’d like to carve a floral relief, again look for pictures. You find a vase that you love, but don’t like the flowers. Just go find the flowers that you like, cut them out and put them on top of the vase and then copy that to your wood.  This method works for almost any subject matter.  Cutting and pasting and photo manipulation are techniques classically employed in the advertising and graphic arts fields. They may seem high tech at first but can be as simple as making a collage in a first grade class.  You don’t really need any special talents to do this.  Yes, you may have to search a while to find the right pose for the added horse or the right shaped flowers and you may have to resize something to make it fit correctly with the other elements, but generally speaking you can make a usable pattern using this method. 

                     Making a pattern for an in-the-round carving can be a bit more involved. If you can only find a frontal view of a cowboy that you’d like to carve, you are going to have to work out the sides and back relying on other methods.  Either by using a series of different photos to work with or just slowly shaping those areas until they look as you want them to look.  You can also go and find a statuette of a cowboy and photograph it from the front, top and sides.  Re-size them so that they are all of the correct proportions, cut them out and trace the different profiles directly on to the wood.  You now have a pattern to work with.

 Pattern for in-the round carving

                   Another method that a lot of carvers use is to model their carvings in clay first.  You want to use the type of clay that does not dry out.  It is usually made of a plastic clay type material. This will allow you all the time you need to play with the clay until you like what you have in front of you. When you are finished with your model you can scrunch it back up into a ball and make something completely different. There are some who even use large chunks of raw wax to make models from.  These models can be works of art on their own merits.  Models have a few different purposes.  A full sized model can be copied into wood by constantly measuring and comparing.  Those with good trained eyes can simply keep looking at the model for reference until their carving begins to resemble it.  You can also take front, side and top view photos of your model, size them correctly, and trace them onto your wood.  Take them over to your band saw, or find someone who will do the cutting for you.  Cut around your outline on all three sides and you will have what’s known as a cut-out.  A cut out is a very rough version of something to be carved, with most of the waste having been removed.  You will still need to remove some of the excess wood before you can begin the fun stuff, the detail carving.

Tracing a pattern

                  Carving techniques can be taught, as can pattern making.  Creativity, however, can’t. But it can be developed. I believe that creativity lies dormant in with all of us.  Not everyone has developed our drawing, painting or other artistic abilities to the fullest but creativity may show itself in our lives in many different ways.  Some have a knack for interior decorating or flower gardening.  Some customize their cars.  Others create wonderful presentations for work.  Some plan and decorate for elaborate parties and others can choose to create new dishes in the kitchen.  Some even find clever ways to express themselves through their mix and match of clothing.  I don’t believe I’ve ever met a person who has had no imagination or creativity.  There are certain things about how we present ourselves to others which make us different from everyone else.  Those are the things that make us who we are. 

                  The word “Can’t” should be replaced with the word “Fear”.  I can’t draw.  I can’t imagine. I can’t paint. I can’t carve.  How many times have you heard these words from other carvers?  Those words come from a lack of confidence, which in turn comes from fear.  The things we fear are different for everyone.  Are you afraid of ridicule, of not measuring up?  Are you afraid of spending a month on a carving and throwing it in the fireplace as a failed attempt. Are you afraid that your carved dog will turn out to look like a cat? What is it that you fear? And more importantly, why?  What is it that is holding you back from being the best woodcarver that you can be?  Your fears can be overcome with knowledge and practice.  As a craft, woodcarving is just technique, tools and materials which can all be taught and learned.  But your woodcarvings only become art when you release your creativity on them.  Up until that time, you are simply making reproductions of other people’s art. 

                  Someone made those patterns that you use now.  They are no different than you.  Somewhere, at sometime, they were taught the things that they know how to do.   If you feel that you absolutely must use a pattern, at least make them your own in some way.  Don’t just copy something.  Leave something out or add something different.  Make something bigger or smaller, wider or thinner.  Make it unique in some way.  It is only one little step forward in your confidence.  When you understand that you changed something and it didn’t stop the world, perhaps next time you will want to change something more.  And on and on, until you can truly say that you designed your own carving.

                  My very last word on patterns is that if you don’t choose to create your own and do rely on other people to make your patterns for you, please go about it in the right way.  There are a lot of people looking to get something for nothing, but woodcarvers as a whole are a wonderful bunch of people who don’t deserve to have their hard work undervalued.  It is easy, especially with computer technology, to take other peoples patterns without compensating them.  Please buy the book. Purchase the pattern.  Ask permission to copy. It is the only way to support the future of the patternmakers.   There are also plenty of free patterns available out there so there is no reason to steal someone else’s hard work.

                  Lastly, as one woodcarver to another, be proud to belong to a wonderful sub-culture of people.  Woodcarving brings many great things into all of our lives.  Please remember to give back to this community in some way.  As a novice you may feel that you have nothing to contribute, but even you know more than the person who is just picking up his or her knife for the first time.  Share your knowledge and encourage them.  Make it a point throughout your entire career, whether as a hobby carver or as a professional carver, to promote woodcarving to those with little exposure to it.  Pass your unused tools to someone who can use them.  Help another carver with something he is struggling with.  Explain and show an easier way to do something.  Encourage, encourage, encourage!

Chapter 4


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