So, You really want to be a woodcarver?
It’s a beautiful day, a day just like any other, with a world of possibilities in front of you and somehow it happens. You find yourself with a knife in one hand and a stick in the other. At first you just mindlessly start whittling away, stripping the bark off. There is no thought involved as the sharpened knife slips a little way in to the wood. A small little movement of the wrist and a wood chip falls to the ground. Who knows how it happens but somewhere on its descent, that one little woodchip changes the world as you know it. Had you understood this then, you would have picked the woodchip up and gently placed it in a protected spot until you had time to run out to the store, get a frame and mount it properly with a small sign underneath it stating the importance of this little slice of wood. A half hour goes by, the little woodchip is now lost among hundreds of other woodchips, covering your lap, your shoes and the ground around you. Perhaps by now you have a slightly recognizable figure. A few more minutes, and you stick the blade straight in at the tip, twirl it around and you have just made an eye. It is that moment when your first eye looks back at you that you think, hey, this is pretty cool! Look what I made. And you take your little creation into the house, put it on a shelf and forget about it.
Eventually your husband, wife or kids come home, or perhaps a friend drops over and they see your little creation. “Oh, what’s this? Did you make this? I didn’t know you knew how to do that. That is so cool!” Somewhere, mixed between your pride and humility, a little embarrassment pops its head up. You see your crude attempt as a bunch of mistakes all jumbled together. You see how you could have done the head better or how the body proportions are totally off or how your cat looks more like a dog. As you are soaking up their praise your mind starts to thinking about fixing it or starting all over and making a better one.
Perhaps you are dragged against your will, by your significant other to a craft fair or county fair and you come upon a woodcarving exhibit. After asking permission and picking up one of the items, you see the simplicity of its design and think, hey I can do that! And then a week later you find yourself out in your garage trying to duplicate what you saw.
Or perhaps you are recently retired and spending most of your time just puttering around the house. A friend asks you to pick them up at the local senior center. You arrive early and wander around the senior center until you come upon a room where everyone is quietly working. You are drawn into the room by its peacefulness and by the wonderful smell of the wood. You inquire into the class’s weekly schedule and with your friends encouragement you make a plan to attend at least one class.
No matter how your initial introduction to woodcarving happens, you soon realize that you have been bitten. Even if only in your mind, you start thinking about woodcarving. You think about getting a better knife or going to find a nice piece of wood somewhere. Everything you look at, even everyday objects becomes inspiration for possible future carvings.
The origins of woodcarving are lost to history. It is one of the oldest, if not, the oldest art form. It is debatable whether painting or woodcarving came first, but it is fairly understood, that for as long as man has been using tools, he has been woodcarving. Most likely the first forms of woodcarving were utilitarian in design. We know that sticks were whittled down for use as spears and arrows. Primitive utensils and vessels have also been found. Under the right conditions some ancient woodcarvings have stood the test of time.
The oldest known decorative wood carvings come from ancient Egypt, India and China. Through the centuries, Wood carving has been used for architectural detailing, religious items, furniture and personal objects. Wood carving, as with other arts, has been vulnerable to mans whims. At times the wood carver has been raised to the status of protected and highly sought after artisan. At other times in history, particularly in Europe, there have been attempts to eradicate the art form. Carvers secretly toiled away in hidden chambers of monasteries, practicing, protecting and handing down the ancient techniques. With such an old and rich imagined history, I must scratch my head at today’s notion that wood carving is primarily a craft. It is understandable that woodcarvings utilitarian uses put it in the realm of a craft and the woodcarver as a craftsman, but woodcarving has also been utilized for purely decorative reasons.
This project started out as a small idea, that as a novice carver with a few years under my belt, I would try to pass on my woodcarving knowledge and experience to other novice carvers. In an effort to legitimize my attempt, I sent out emails to the professionals in the field, be they carvers or business people. I simply asked what they thought the state of woodcarving in America today was. The responses were quite varied. I then thought I would throw the question out to those who carved simply for the love of it. I received a wealth of answers back and have learned more than I had ever hoped for from the act of writing this. I hope the reader will find the information contained herein to be at least interesting, and perhaps helpful to the fledging professional carver or anyone thinking of throwing their hat into the business end of woodcarving.
From the moment I put the first words on paper, this project began evolving and turned in to a monster. I would try to put a paragraph at a time together. Some days I wrote for 10 minutes, other days I sat for a few hours. Soon the paragraphs grew into chapters and it took on a life of its own. As I was and am still learning, I will never feel like I have done enough with it. My better half told me that while I was busy researching and writing this, what I wasn’t doing was what I was supposed to be doing, carving. But as in carving, one of the hardest things to learn is when to stop.
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.
Image courtesy of qianlong.com Beijing,china
3000 year old wood carving from 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.
photo courtesy of Web Gallery of Art, www.wga.hu
Winged Altarpiece, 1523, Wood, Cathedral, Bamberg
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.
Photo courtesy of Treasury of American Design and Antiques by Clarence P. Hornung
Early American figurehead carving
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.
Image courtesy of Kinlochwoodcarving.com
A shell carving for a highboy
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.
Image courtesy of. Milwaukee Art Museum, The Michael and Julie Hall Collection of American Folk Art.
Early American Folk Carving, The Newsboy, 1888
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?
The Baby Steps
My own personal journey with woodcarving took wings in 2002. After sustaining an injury, and being forced to endure long endless hours of boredom, I found myself with a piece of wood in one hand and a knife in the other. Little did I know then that I was embarking on the journey of my lifetime. As the monks in their monasteries, I worked in silent determination down in my small basement workshop and produced a few rudimentary carvings. I will even give myself credit, saying that they were recognizable figures.
My first carving pine 2”
But I wasn’t happy, and the artist in me knew that I could do better, that I could create something which would match my minds vision. And I set about to do just that. I didn’t know that this would entail selling my soul. Sell my soul; I did, instantly, completely and blindly. I immersed myself in this endeavor. I spent my every spare cent on the next must-have tool or accessory. My family balked at the amount of time that they perceived I preferred to spend without them. I became addicted to the computer, doing endless searches on carving topics, scouring the net for inspiration for my next carving. I even humbled myself to clandestinely drive around on trash day, looking for usable wood. One can assume that there was something missing inside of me, a void that carving came into and filled, and a true passion that overshadowed everything else that I had attempted to do in my life.
My early carvings were all done with a single knife
Being out of work brings with it an immense amount of time with no structure to it. My father, who had recently retired, and I had many conversations about how the excess of time actually caused one to become less productive with their time. When I used to get up at 5:45 to be at work at 7am, it was a routine to instantly get up when the alarm clock rang, to shower, dress and attend to other household chores and then to finally head out the door, usually carrying the garbage with me. In the fifteen minutes of puttering around the house, before I left, I could get an enormous amount of little things done, rushing around, taking care of this or that. Once at work, thoughts sometimes turned to the things I needed to do when I arrived home for the day and as soon as I got home I would set about doing all the things I had scheduled for myself. Days off and vacations were spent shopping or doing larger chores around the house. Somehow, with little free time on my hands, everything found a way to get done. Yet it was a stressful life, something always needing attention. Never enough time or money, but yet somehow keeping one’s head above the water. I always felt that procrastination was one of the biggest problems in my life, the theory of time management was just a creative ideal but not applicable in the real world. The purpose of deadlines is to let you know its time to do whatever it is that you’ve been putting off. And that is how I lived, doing just what needed to be done, when it needed to get done.
Early example of design, form follows function.
And then, with the wave of a magic wand, for no apparent reason, I trip on a set of stairs one day. My foot gets caught up under me and next thing I know I’m in the hospital being prepped for surgery. I have shattered one bone and fractured the other, in my lower leg and had a total dislocation of my ankle, just to further complicate things. After 3 days spent in a morphine haze, I finally got to go home and lay in bed. So I laid in bed, watching TV until I was just about in a coma. Trying to read all those books I said that I would read one day. My only consolation in this miserable time was that I didn’t have to get up for work. I didn’t have to do much of anything.
Days started melting into each other and I was starting to feel a bit cut off from the world. Then I get a phone call on an ordinary evening. You know, “the phone call”. The world turned upside down, changing life as we know it forever phone call. It started with the normal ring of the receiver; I unsuspectingly reach for the phone. It is my dad and for one split second every thing is great, I’m talking to my Dad, who lives 2000 miles away, who I’ve been meaning to call. But then, slowly my brain starts to process what he is actually saying, my mom had a heart attack. Stop! Everything just stops, comes to a huge screeching skid and smacks right into the brick wall. Switch on the auto pilot, make reservations. Wheelchair, cast, walker and me jumping on a plane and flying off to Florida. It was no small feat as it came on the heels of the 911 attacks. An airplane was the last place this New Yorker wanted to be. I had watched with my own eyes, from the north shore of Staten Island as those majestic towers fell, instantly knowing that thousands of people were being crushed in the rubble. But family is family and love would overcome fear. I would fly down to Florida a month later again to arrange my mother’s funeral and spend some time with my dad. My mother was only 59 when she died. This hit home and hit hard. I thought it terrible that she never got to grow old, never got to retire and spend the money that she had been saving all her life. She never got to have the time to do the things that she enjoyed doing. It made me appreciate that each day that we get is a gift to be cherished.
Woodburning of my Mom
Life became a little clearer to me after my mothers passing. It made all the days that I will be granted on this earth just a little more precious. Where before I was just living each day trying to get by, trying to pay bills and see that those around me were taken care of, I understood that there was more to living than just day to day existence. There needed to be meaning. There needed to be passion.
Passion is a funny thing, what stirs our interest and fuels our fires is different for each individual. As in the affairs of the heart, I do believe there is love at first sight. Why is it that in one instant we can feel closer to someone we’ve recently met, than to people we’ve been around all our lives. What is the magnetism which attracts two souls to each other? Fate? Kismet? I can honestly tell you that I don’t understand why woodcarving became the focus of my life. Who knows why some like NASCAR and others prefer ballet? Why did I pick up a piece of wood and a knife that spring day and instantly feel a connection. How did I know that my life had changed at that moment? And why did such an off-the-beaten-path-type of thing as woodcarving, grab me the way it did?
I found myself totally consumed by carving. Obsessed. When I wasn’t actually carving, I was designing, or reading or thinking about my next carving. I was searching the internet for information and ordering carving woods from internet suppliers. I spent every free moment over the next two years carving, by myself, mostly late at night.
This Greenman was my first carving using specialized carving tools. It is a joy to work with quality tools.
I finally reached a point in this process where I could say that I had learned the craft of woodcarving. I had learned about wood, its structure, its properties, and its beauty. I had learned how to choose wood, how to cut wood, how to join wood. I learned about grain direction and how to get wood to do what I wanted it to. I learned about tools and the hardness and strength of different steels. I learned how to sharpen and hone my tools. And I learned which tool to use, when and how. I learned about sanding and finishing and presentation. I emerged from my basement workshop a capable carver, secure that my new found knowledge would serve to produce better and better carvings. It seemed the more time and energy I granted to this obsession, it rewarded me with ever increasing admiration from those closest to me. For a moment in time I was happy just being the resident artist in the house, but soon the big world outside began whispering my name. I was restless and needed to take the next step on my woodcarving journey. Due to my injury, I knew that I would never be able to return to my previous physically active job and realized I would spend the rest of my life sitting at a desk in some dingy office somewhere unless I did something about it. I began thinking about a career change, knowing that people who did things that they loved for a living were for the most part, happier and more successful than the nine to fivers that worked to enhance someone else’s wallet. I was going to be a woodcarver. I was excited about the coming days and years.
My little Scotty was the first carving that I thought good enough to be given away. I sent him unannounced to my aunt Kathy because she had encouraged my artistic side as a child.
Before I began carving, I considered it to be a quaint art which belonged to a time long ago and far away. My research had told me about the great periods in history when woodcarvers were sought after by kings and nobilities, when carvers were acclaimed as one the highest form of artists. There were woodcarvers that sacrificed their entire lives to dedicate themselves to one or two majestic royal carvings. They survived on their patron’s generous support. In pre-modern times it was the craftsmen who were held in the highest esteem in a village. They commanded a hefty price for their work. There were no plastics being molded then, nor were there any slap together pre-fab manufacturers. If something needed to be created, people turned to the blacksmith and woodcarver to design and make the item. It was an art passed down from generation to generation, from father to son, keeping alive a tradition of carving techniques. The more I learned of the importance of woodcarving to the development of man, the prouder I was to be considering myself a woodcarver. I began calling myself a woodcarver despite the occasional quizzical looks I received. In some strange way I was lonely, and stunted in my carving development. Where were all the other woodcarvers, I wondered. I imagined that just by sheer percentages there had to be other people in this world, as I, sitting in the solitude of their homes, carving wonderful items. I needed to find those people. I needed to learn from them, I needed to talk to them. I needed to watch them work.
In all my life, I had never met a woodcarver. I had only heard of them through children’s stories and fairy tales. I looked in the yellow pages and found there was no one listed as Woodcarver. I went to my local, worldly acclaimed cultural art center and picked up all of their pamphlets and course offering literature. There was no mention of woodcarving. Why was there no mention of carving anywhere? I lived in New York City, the Rome of its time, the art and business capital of the modern world. Where would one go if they needed the services of a woodcarver? Did anyone still need the service of a woodcarver? Was it really a dead art? It was alive and well in my life and I just had to believe that it was out there somewhere.
My first venture into carving beyond the walls of my house was through the internet. I found a few email posting sites that were strictly carving related and as much as I was concerned about personal security, my need to connect was stronger. I joined a few different lists and a new world opened up for me. I found American and International carvers. Quite a few were professional carvers. I found spirited discussions about various aspects of woodcarving and its applications. I burst onto the internet list scene with all my enthusiasm and was welcomed by other carvers. Finally I had someone who would be happy to listen to my ramblings, who could relate to my feelings and who could discuss woodcarving on my own level. I asked for advice and was given more than I could have hoped for. I was receiving the best free on-line educational experience that I never imagined and it was right there at my finger tips.
While I thought it was an end to itself, the internet lists were just the first stepping stone. I learned about The National Association of Wood Carvers, and now, considering I called myself a woodcarver, I felt it vital that I join and become a card carrying member. It was a nominal fee with the added bonus of a carving magazine subscription. When I received my first issue, I was in heaven. I gingerly leafed through the pages, drooling over magnificent carvings on every page. I also stopped in at my local national chain bookstore and imagine my surprise to find other carving magazines on display. I slowly gave up most forms of entertainment to devote to reading carving books and magazines. I was also having great luck on eBay finding interesting used carving books at greatly reduced prices. My library began overflowing the space I had set aside for it and I actually had to clean out part of the basement to make more room for it. My next discovery was free on-line photo posting sites. I began an album and directed the carvers on the lists to take a look and most took the time to do just that.
It was wonderful to be able to share my photos with other carver’s. They heaped praise and encouragement on me but the critiques were what I really paid attention to. Here I was, an unknown novice carver receiving advice from professional carvers. My work took another step up in quality. But, there is only so much detail which could be viewed in the pictures, especially since I was not a very good photographer. Pictures cannot convey the feeling of a carving. It will never be the same as holding something in your hand. Other internet list members directed me to check their sites out and I did. I tried to encourage other new carvers and was inspired by those who had been carving for years.
There were marvelous carvings being produced, quietly in basements and workshops all over America. A lot of the carvings were what I would consider folk arts. There were bottle stoppers and bolo ties, chainsaw carvings, walking sticks, gourd carvings, chip carving and caricatures. But there was also a lot of high quality art, beautiful reliefs, Native American busts and sculptures, museum quality fish and bird carvings. In my own carvings, I tried to do a little bit of everything, whatever struck my fancy at the time. I started to wonder if there was any money to be made from carving. There was one constant piece of advice that I was given quite often by other carvers. In order to be financially successful, a carver had to find his or her own niche. Just how does one go about that, I wondered. How do you disregard other styles of carving and settle on only one? I started taking notes on the different styles of carvings that were out there. And I came to the conclusion that there were all different types of woodcarvers. There were bird carvers, fish carvers and wildlife carvers. There were those who only carved western items and Native American busts. There were carvers who focused on caricatures and there were stick carvers. There were carousel cavers. There were stylized carvers and fine art sculptors. There were religious carvings and fireplace mantle carvings. There was architectural carving and fine restorative carvings.
Where exactly would my carvings fit into the larger carving world? I had been doing an extensive and varied amount of carving. I had carved reliefs on all different subjects, low reliefs and high reliefs. I had carved decorative moldings and wall hangings for my home. I had carved fruits and floral designs. I had done a few religious carvings as commission work. I had carved Indian busts and green men, wood spirits and gnomes. I had carved fantasy carvings and humorous in the round carvings. And I had carved more than a few signs and plaques. In between all this carving, I was doing scroll saw fret work and pyrographic woodburnings. And I was beginning to incorporate them into my carvings. It seemed I was all over the place with my carving in the first few years. This actually was to my advantage as it gave me the skills to produce competent carvings of any sort, for my own purposes or for items that others requested. But what kind of carver was I? Where was my niche?
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.
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 1983, I got my very first car, a 1966 Mustang. It was beautiful car to look at. It was black lacquer coupe 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!
Planning for the future
Every worthwhile endeavor in life, whether it be raising a family, buying a home, attending college, climbing Mount Everest or starting up a business, needs to begin with a plan. Yes, there are those that wing it and yes, there are some who are successful due to no fault of their own. There are even some with no desire for fame and fortune and yet it finds them. Perhaps it is because of divine intervention or the planets having come into perfect alignment or just plain old being in the right place at the right time. We all know one or two of these people who just seem to have the golden touch.
Grinling Gibbons, reputed to have been one of the greatest woodcarvers in history, was toiling away, unknown, in a small shop in the backstreets of London. He was newly married and was struggling to make a living. There was no sign hanging in front of the shop to announce the woodcarver. A friend of the Kings was walking thru that part of town and happened to glance in the window and was most amazed by what he saw. He begged to be let in and after being granted entrance, the stranger inquired as to the piece that the carver was working on. Gibbons quoted him an exorbitant price, equal to 2 years the average salary. The stranger did not buy the piece but the next week, Grinling Gibbons and his carving were summoned to appear before the King. The King was most impressed but left the purchasing decision up to his wife. Gibbons did not make a sale that day but over the course of his reign the King commissioned many trophies and fine decorative carvings for his palaces. It was this royal relationship which cemented Gibbons reputation as a master carver. He soon had many apprentices working under him and an endless backlog of orders to fill.
I don’t know about you but I have never been one of the lucky people. I have always had to work for what little I’ve gotten. It is a nice dream to play the lottery and win just enough to cover my bills and keep me home carving. But as with all dreams, reality hits when I open my eyes in the morning. If you want to eat, you’ve have to work. If you want nice things, you’ve have to pay for them. That means that we must have a job, a career, or a livelihood. We have families to raise, mortgages to pay, standards to keep, and retirements to save for. Being stranded on a desert Island, living off the land and never having to work again probably isn’t as glamorous and romantic as most of us think. There is a basic part of my psychological makeup that rebels against having to go to work everyday. But I understand basic economy. I understand the value of a paycheck.
A deserted Island
The mere twinkle of an idea began forming in my head, the idea that perhaps, I could finally do something that I wanted to do, something that I loved to do and perhaps find a way to support myself while doing it. It was an exciting thought but so inviting that it became scary. What about medical benefits and pensions? There would be no paid vacations, no holidays. What would happen if I got hurt or sick and couldn’t carve? What if I couldn’t find customers? What if I couldn’t deal with customers? How and where would I set up a studio? Where would the money for start up costs come from? What if I wasn’t good at marketing and networking? What if I couldn’t manage my time well enough to be cost-productive? What if my attempt ended in financial ruin?
There were so many weighty unanswered questions. But there were so many reasons to pursue the idea. First and foremost, was that I could control my own destiny. I would for once stand on my own two feet and hold my head high. I could set my own schedule. If I wanted to work till 3 in the morning I would. I could create with my hands. It would give an outlet to my creative side, to my need to do something to make life more meaningful. Carving is peaceful and contemplative. Never mind the prestige of just being able to say that you are a woodcarver. Think of the conversations that it would start. And it certainly would be an interesting intellectual pursuit. After 25 years of holding conventional jobs, of working for other people, in inefficient, uncreative atmospheres, I needed some kind of change. But was I confident that I could produce results. Would I be happy to carve when I had to carve? Was being a woodcarver an unrealistic dream?
How did a person decide where they would fit in best in the carving world? And how did one go about making a living as a professional woodcarver? Could one become a profitable professional artist in the 21st century? I didn’t know. But my future as an artist/carver would depend on the answers to those questions. I began to formulate a business plan; I called it my five year plan. I set goals for myself for each year of the plan. At the end of the 5 years I wanted to at least be producing some sort of income from carving.
My five year plan
My first year was to learn about the world of carving, about tools and woods, techniques and styles. My second year would focus on actual carving. My third year would concentrate on the inner world of carving, learning the ins and outs of carving shows, getting my name known among other carvers, perhaps winning a ribbon or two along the way, and on getting my carving resume beefed up. The plan for the forth year was marketing, to try and understand why some carvers sold well and why other carvers barely made enough money to cover the costs of their materials. I wanted to learn about locations and why certain carvings sold well in some areas and wouldn’t sell in other areas. The plan for the 5th year was to bring the other 4 years worth of knowledge together and to do something with it. I would be successful in my carving plan if, at the end of the five years I was viewed as a serious carver by other woodcarvers and if I was making some type of income from carving or carving related activities.
There are many different ways of making money as a woodcarver. I don’t believe that I’ve ever heard of a professional woodcarver who actually makes his living just carving. It would be nice to think that you could get up in the morning, go to your studio or workshop, and carve until the sun went down. It would be nice to be able to create such unique works of art, which would sell themselves. And it would be nice if woodcarving was more accepted in the mainstream and customers were lining up outside your door.
It’s time to wake up from your dream now. Perhaps out in middle America, carving is more out in the open than it is here in New York City. After 3 years of carving, in a city of six or seven million people, I personally know of less than 30 carvers. I know of a few businesses that employ carvers and even if I wildly exaggerate how many carvers are connected to these businesses, I would still come up with a number of less than 100 carvers in NYC. Divide that into 6 million people. It is a staggeringly small percentage which in wildlife terms would put woodcarvers in New York City, on the verge of absolute extinction. I wish that I could give you some exact figures on the number of woodcarvers in New York City and elsewhere in the country but there is no where to get those numbers from. Just on general principles, there have got to be more than 100 woodcarvers in this city of 6 million, but if there are, they must be quietly carving in their homes or only doing low level fairs which never get any publicity. Even if I could come up with an exact number of carvers in New York City, it would still equal only a small percentage of 1 percent of the total population. In relation to my desire to make a living from woodcarving, this could be a huge detriment or a huge benefit. If there are so few carvers here, perhaps there is enough demand to go around. Or it could be the other way around. There is no real demand for carving, therefore only a handful of woodcarvers can be supported by it.
Part of me wants to disregard both of those equations and say that anyone can succeed at anything, at any place or anytime. We all see examples of this principle played out in our culture at large. Someone invented the Barbie Doll™ and made millions from it. Some one else made the first Frisbee™. And someone in Japan, produced playing cards with made up monsters on them which soon had our children shelling out every dollar they could beg or borrow. What do all of these items have in common? First of all they are all absolutely frivolous items. Unnecessary by anyone’s definition. But yet they were all overnight sensations and they all made their creators quite wealthy. None of them have anything to do with the basics of life, food, shelter or clothing. All of them are impulse purchases. They were all comparatively cheap to produce. And all of them were widely and competently marketed. I remember in high school being very interested in subliminal messages that were sent through advertising. Advertisers knew that if you could connect with a person emotionally or psychologically, you could sell them anything. Especially if they didn’t need it.
With woodcarving as an art, I definitely think that this is true. We have all heard about those woodcarvings that command prices over 100,000 dollars but they are few and far between. Most exceptional carvings can command prices between 1,000 and 50,000, again these are rare carvings created by a handful of highly skilled artists. You can take those very same carvings and present them to the public in an inadequate way and they won’t sell at all.
Most of us do not have a workshop or a studio on 5th avenue in New York City. We don’t have thousands of people a day streaming by our places of business.
New York City
We have to spend the time, getting people to even know that we exist. Word of mouth only goes so far. If you want to just make a few dollars on the side and you already work a full time job or have a pension coming in, word of mouth may give you just enough exposure to keep you busy.
My first couple of years, a lot of time was spent making gifts, Christmas gifts, birthday gifts, shower gifts and love tokens. Yes it took up a lot of time but if it was all added up, I’m sure the total money that I had saved would be impressive and well worth the time that would have otherwise been wasted. What it also allowed, was time for me to gain experience. With paying customers you must live up to exacting standards but when making things that you are to give away, the standards relax a bit. You can experiment with new techniques and try unfamiliar subjects and styles of carvings. Giving small things away, not only brings you free advertising on a smaller scope but also allows you more room in your display area for those pieces that should bring attention. Eventually you will build up a nice inventory of items that you can think about selling to the public.
How do Professional Carvers make a decent living? Besides selling carvings from their studios and doing commission work, a good percentage choose to teach. Some cast copies of their own carvings or sell the rights to a certain piece to other companies to mass produce. Others do mill and restoration work. Some write books and produce cd-roms, videos and DVDs on carving related subjects. Some enter shows where there are cash awards. Some carvers get into the merchandise arena where they may sell carving tools and supplies, books and videos, blanks and cut-outs. Some deal with galleries, consignment shops and gift shops. And some work large and/or small craft shows. The most financially successful artists do all or most of the above, in some combination. It is rare that you just get to sit quietly and carve. This is one reason why some carvers choose not to chase the dollar. If you are going to be financially successful, you must learn the importance of budgeting your time, because you will have a lot of irons in the fire. The business of selling your carvings may become so burdensome that you find yourself fighting to try to find time to carve. You have to strive to find a balance between the two worlds. You must create, first and foremost, or you will not have any product to sell.
Vincent van Gogh
There are those to who artistic expression is a real passion, true artists, who only have it in their blood to create. Vincent van Gogh was one of those artists. He never tried to understand and deal with the business of selling his paintings. His brother Theo would take his paintings and sell them for whatever he could get for them. Theo saw to it that van Gogh had a modest roof over his head and food to eat but not much else. Vincent died penniless and who’s to say if he had only learned to sell his own work, things might have turned out differently.
We have all become accustomed to living our lives in a certain manner, to a certain standard whatever that may be. We have been taught from a young age the importance of earning a living. We need a way to pay for basic things, a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs and food in our bellies. Beyond that there are many other possible expenses of supporting our selves and our families. We need to pay utility bills and medical insurance. Car payments and car insurance. We need to pay taxes and college tuitions and for all the non essential niceties of life. We need to put money away for emergencies and retirements.
The Thinker by Rodin
Thinking of becoming a full time woodcarver is to be taken very seriously. Are you the kind of person who can make it work? Can you budget your time in order to be profitable enough? Are you willing to struggle for years until you learn the ropes? Can you learn to deal with galleries and shops; can you perfect your carving skills enough or get your name out to enough people? Can you deal with the public and keep your own books, do your own advertisements, network with in the art world, figure out your own taxes, deal with the legalities of owning your own business? Can you do a million things at once and have them all successfully converge to produce a decent income? Do you have the drive and determination to be a woodcarver? Can you sustain yourself over the next 30 or 40 years? Do you have the passion?
It is a nice dream to think of yourself in a wonderful modern studio with a receptionist, assistants to deal with clients, apprentices doing all your grunt work, accountants to file your taxes, lawyers to handle all legalities, agents to handle publicity and advertising and someone who sweeps up and organizes your shop at the end of each day. Make sure you get a lot of rest because all those people will be you, at least in the beginning, and most likely for your entire career. So do you still want to be a professional woodcarver? Did you think it was going to be easy? Do you have what it takes?
You must make a plan and try to stick with it. When I look at my five year plan, I see that I am way past where I had hoped to be in some areas and lagging behind in other areas. It is a constant endeavor on my part to plan to do at least something each day which will further me along on my journey. Nothing can happen over night. And each accomplishment is comprised of a thousand smaller steps. What did you do today that will be of value to your woodcarving future? Did you carve? Did you try out a new tool? Did you introduce somebody new to your carvings?
I liked the idea of being able to carve what I want, when I want. That is very important to me as an artist. As a commercial success, the ability to carve anything that a customer is willing to pay for is also important. One needs to be versatile but also needs to specialize in some area. You need to be known for something that stands out from the rest. Don’t kid yourself into thinking that people will remember your name. They will remember you for what you carve, if it is worth remembering.
You also must consider the type of things that you are carving and put them into an economic equation. How many $50 carvings do you have to sell too make a decent living? How many $10 carvings? The problem with making items that will sell cheaply is that you have to sell an awful lot of them and if you put it all into perspective you would probably not be able to produce enough smaller carvings in a given time frame to produce enough income on a continuing basis. How many $5, 000 or $10,000 dollar carvings would you have to produce to make the same amount of income in the same given time frame? Here in New York City, the standards of living cost more than in most parts of the country. For arguments sake, let’s take $40,000 as an income that most could live on. In some parts of the country $40,000 would be a generous income. In New York City, it could border on only a subsistence wage. It will take 4,000 $10 dollar carvings, 800 $50 carvings, 40 $1000 carvings or 8 $5,000 carvings to reach that $40,000 mark. 99.99% of us would not have the time or skill level to produce what is required to give you a $40,000 income. We have not even considered any of the overhead involved in selling your carvings, whether it is wood, tools and supplies, income and sales taxes, show and traveling costs, or the costs of running your own business establishment. You would have to raise your prices or your production from between 25 to 100% and ever be on the lookout for ways to decrease your costs. Are you ready to give up the thought of being a woodcarver yet?
For those of you, who have just answered no to that question, read on. To become a profitable woodcarver, you must open yourself up to the idea that you will not only be carving. You must pull in income from other sources. You must become proficient in all areas of marketing and networking. You must get your work out in front of the public, not in one or two shows a year but in a continuing and constant effort, in large and small venues in an ever widening circle from your home base. You may want to seriously consider teaching carving as it can bring a fairly steady income. Writing, producing and selling books, cds and DVDs can also bring financial gain.
You must have the determination, motivation and conviction to keep going, to keep carving, to keep presenting, to keep selling. Ask yourself if you are only carving for fun or if you truly have a passion for what you are doing. Sorry to say but only those who can say that they are consumed by carving have any real chance of succeeding financially. Right now, most of us only carve when we want to. Would carving be as satisfying if you had to do it, day in and day out? Are you willing to work long hours, around the clock if a deadline demands it? Are you willing to sacrifice social activities and free time? Will your family put up with your draining schedule? I have no official statistics but I have heard that divorce is not an uncommon thing among professional woodworkers of all types. It is hard to sustain a relationship when you are rarely available to your family. It is hard for others to buy into your dream when it means years of struggling financially. The majority of your time will be spent working in your shop or out on the road as a professional instructor. You will be traveling to shops and galleries, perhaps attending the larger woodcarving shows in various locations around the country. Is your family excited about your carving? Are they willing to invest themselves into making you a success? Can they assist you with some of the grunt work or help with the business side of it. Are they willing to travel with you and help at shows. Are the people in your life supportive, resentful or indifferent to what you are trying to accomplish?
There are some who seem born into woodcarving. Those rare carvers who start as children and from very early on, know in which direction that they will be heading. But for most of us, we find woodcarving in our middle age or retirement years. Some of us come to it after having experienced some traumatic physical or psychological event in our lives. The great majority of carvers are already headed on a different path in life and well established in their careers when they discover carving. You’ve all heard about those miraculous change of life scenarios, where someone throws away most of what they have accomplished and risks everything in order to pursue a dream, but for most of us that is not a real option. We have children and families, houses and other possessions, pensions and other financial considerations that we are not willing to part with. For most of us carving will never fit into our lives as anything more than a hobby.
If we could only start over and go back to those early years when all avenues were open to us, before we, ourselves, slammed shut those other doors in pursuit of what it was that we thought we wanted. I wish that in those early years someone had presented the option of being a professional woodcarver to me, I believe I would have ran with it as I do now.
Most of you who are reading this are either content or resigned to be a hobby carver. And there is nothing wrong with that. It is a personal decision. There are those among you who are happy to sell a carving from time to time for a little extra income and those who are quite satisfied if they can make their hobby pay for itself. But there are those among you who hunger for something more, those who are willing to make whatever sacrifice it will take, in order to pursue full-time carving. There will always be hobby carvers as it is a most relaxing pastime but it is those who seek to reach to a higher level who will guide and shape the future of woodcarving and propel it into the next century. You will only get out of woodcarving, the energy that you are willing to invest in it. Think carefully and plan for tomorrow.
I Call Myself a Woodcarver
Lately I have started calling myself a woodcarver and in calling myself that, I have changed. I am becoming more who I was supposed to be. I walk a little taller and prouder even if my clothing is covered with woodchips from time to time. I consider the woodchips to be a conversation starter. It does not matter that most people have no interest in what I am doing and that some would even seem to think I am just wasting my time. Every now and then I meet someone who is fascinated by the fact that I have chosen to dive into a woodcarving career. These are the people that I love talking to. My enthusiasm translates itself to them and I can see in their eyes when I have sparked their curiosity.
I believe that the future of woodcarving is directly proportionate to the amount of people that each carver can introduce to woodcarving. Whether as a carving instructor, a talkative salesman or just a helpful soul, it is imperative that we as woodcarvers and sculptors attempt to reach out to the public. From a historical perspective we should willingly seek to pass our woodcarving knowledge and techniques to the next generation. It is a continuing tradition since the dawn of man. There is much knowledge which has been lost over the ages. There are ancient metal forgings that we still don’t understand, weaving techniques that are mysteries. There are obsolete languages that we can’t decipher. There is ancient glassware that we can not reproduce. Just as certain as there are species of endangered animals disappearing everyday, there is specialized knowledge also falling into oblivion.
I cannot call myself a woodcarver if I don’t carve, so that is my foremost mission. Just why I started to carve is a mystery even to me. My closest family and friends have approached me with the question of why I choose woodcarving. The honest answer is simple, I really don’t know. I look back on the first time I held a knife next to a piece of wood. It was at a time when I knew no other carvers and don’t even believe that I had ever seen a woodcarving demonstration. But there I was, whittling away. It was in those first few moments that my life changed forever. A passion was born and a fire developed.
You must understand me to understand the enormous effect woodcarving had on my life. I have been a lazy individual for the most part. I have never had any real drive or ambition. My first jobs were basically doing anything that would make me some pocket money. I helped a neighbor stuff envelopes, I helped friends with their paper routes, I made signs for local neighborhood businesses and I restored a few pieces of furniture for friends. I graduated high school and started college with idea of becoming an architect.
I loved the art history and drafting classes but I quickly gave up the idea when confronted with the math and physics that was involved with becoming an architect. I got my first real job because my mother decided it was time for me to pay my fair share in the house. She called me up one morning and told me where and when to show up. I did. I was trained to be a darkroom technician in an x-ray dept at the local hospital. Hospital salaries were generous in those days and with overtime I was making more money than any of my friends. However as automation began taking over the x-ray industry, I knew that my job would not last forever. A friend then suggested that we both go and receive EMT training. We did and I received my license a few months later. After doing a month long internship in the emergency room of a hospital, I decided that the job was not for me.
I learned that I really didn’t care for blood and other body fluids that much. Someone suggested that I go and take the test for a job in the post office. I did. And I did particularly well. I never seemed to have a problem taking those tests that you didn’t have to study for. Most civil service tests are like that, some general math and English questions. The post office test also had a lot of memorization. I don’t know why my brain worked so well that morning but it did and I scored in the top 1%. A few months later I received a notice telling me that I was being hired as a letter carrier in Manhattan. Off I went, delivering mail in the canyons of skyscrapers in the big city. For a young person, it was a good job, even exciting. I loved the hustle and bustle of the city swirling all around me. The post office offered a generous starting salary with a full compliment of benefits. It was a great job for someone as unambitious as me. All I had to do was show up each day. Well I did have to work, but it didn’t seem so bad.
Eventually I got married and a few years later learned that I was pregnant and would have to go on light-duty at work. The light duty shift at the post office was mid-night to eight in the morning. I couldn’t picture myself, eight or nine months pregnant traveling to the big city each night, so I handed in my resignation and took a job for less money, as a medical assistant much closer to home. After my son was born, I stayed home to raise him until he started school. But the plan did not go smoothly and a few years later I found myself on my own, with a child to support, without a decent job. Again I took the post office test. Again I did well and was told I was being hired on Staten Island. Staten Island, though a suburb of the city, was a whole different world from Manhattan. Where Manhattan was full of level streets and elevators, Staten Island was full of hills and steps. Knowing I needed a way to support myself and my son, I forced myself to go into work each day. My now 30 year old body balked at this endeavor and I somehow stuck it out but as year after year came and went, my body protested more and more. I hated going to work after a while. The physical challenge was wearing me down, but the mental challenge was even worse. I had always been a creative soul of sorts. Delivering mail was as far from creative as anything could get. Mailmen are almost robots, with our entire day prescribed for us. We have no input and carry out the same ritual, sorting mail for endless hours, loading our trucks and then delivering the same route in the same manner and order, day after day. With a shortage in staff, overtime was usually mandatory and on days when the post office didn’t deliver, Sundays and holidays, we were rewarded with double the mail and double the work waiting for us when we returned.
It is strange that I would look upon a catastrophe as a blessing, but tripping on the stairs and breaking my ankle was a defining moment in my life. It gave me time to think. All those hours lying in bed after the surgery were full of contemplation. I was tired of drifting in my life, of having no sure direction to go in. My mothers’ early passing brought life into even a sharper focus. Complications developed with my injury and I knew that I would never go back to delivering mail. Now over 40, the months of inactivity took a toll on my physical strength. But mentally, a whole new world was about to open up.
Let’s go back to that first moment when I held a knife in one hand and a piece of wood in the other. I wish I could remember what thoughts immediately proceeded that moment, but there I was, making that first cut. Quiet determination came out of somewhere and I completed my little carving. I can not tell you the feelings that came over me then. Of course there were the feelings of pride and accomplishment as I showed off my first creation. I had been painting and drawing off and on over the years. I had done murals, I had made clay figures but never before had I encountered the feelings I was having. Never had anything changed me the way woodcarving did. I was instantly a woodcarver. I had the strangest feeling that carving was what I was supposed to have been doing my whole life. Was it the peacefulness it brought to my soul? Was it the solitude of carving that settled me? Was it the mode of artistic expression that I had been seeking all my life? Was it that I finally felt useful again? Whatever it was, it just was. I was a woodcarver.
Me and my grandfather 1968
In truth, I had actually made my first carving many, many years ago, in my grandfathers’ shed. I was about 8 or 9 years old. I carved a small bust of my grandfather. I must have done a decent job because people knew who it was when they looked at it. If I had only had a little direction and guidance then, who knows where I would have been today. Perhaps I wouldn’t have had to go through all those years of real working. Then again, if it didn’t happen exactly the way it did, perhaps it wouldn’t have happened at all. Age and experience bring with them perspective. Had I at anytime consciously thought about being a woodcarver, I would have immediately discarded the idea. Who ever heard of someone growing up to become a woodcarver? Who even thought about it being a viable career path? Maybe out in some little rural town, but certainly not in New York City, and definitely not in the 21st century. And to top it off I was a woman. When I thought about woodcarving, the only person who came to mind was Geppetto from Pinocchio. But there was nothing and no one who could dissuade me from the idea of being a woodcarver.
I thought for the first time in my life about such things as destiny and fate. I also finally understood what people meant when they talked about drive, purpose and passion. All I knew was that something happened that had never happened before and I became a whole different person over night. I couldn’t wait to wake up each day. From the moment I began, I lived, ate and slept carving. It became a part of me and it began consuming more and more of my life, until there was no doubt about it, I was now a woodcarver. But what kind of woodcarver would I be? I was definitely out of the mainstream, where carving is concerned. I think that there are three types of clearly defined carvers. The first is the educated artist, who has degrees in art and perhaps marketing. I include in this category carvers who have been trained in the European guild system, those who have served an apprentice program under a Master Carver, and those for whom professional carving is a family tradition. There are the hobbyist carvers who generally take-up carving in their retirement years. These carvers make up the overwhelming majority of the carvers who attend weekly and monthly carving club meetings. The third category of carvers is those who carve only with financial motives in mind. They can carve full-time or part-time but see carving as a means to an end. They carve strictly what is marketable. They do not generally connect themselves to the greater community of woodcarvers and only seek to perfect their carving in order to be efficient enough to return a decent profit for their time. There are many different combinations of these basic types of carvers.
I have no formal training, although I have taken many art and art history courses. I am not at retirement age yet but at 44 my gray hair is competing for dominance over my brown hair and is likely winning. I’m not looking for any huge financial gain at this time though may in the future. At present, I am more concerned with gaining the knowledge and experience that is necessary to become a respected carver among the carving community itself. I do consider myself an artist first and foremost. I have always needed an outlet for my creativity. I have been a painter, an almost architect, a poet and a writer and a restorer of furniture. I have created art for money but have given away the vast majority to family and friends. I have never relied on art for my income, and have always held down a full-time job. I can’t tell you what is different about woodcarving. I can’t tell you why it ignited such a passion in me. Why for the first time in my life do I actually feel motivated? In three short years, I have produced more than all of my working years combined.
I am a woodcarver. And it has changed me. My confidence level has soared. I now believe in myself and believe that I have something valuable worth sharing with others, something worth teaching to the next generations. I cherish the tradition that I am helping to keep alive. I also like knowing that I am doing something that most people aren’t doing and probably never will do. The things that make us different are the things that make us interesting. In most of my social groups and gatherings I can be fairly sure that I am the only woodcarver in the room. I am never at a loss for something to talk about, not only about woodcarving itself but about the endless subjects I have researched for my various projects. I like that producing items in wood is an ancient and honored craft and that in some primal way, it connects me to mans evolution and to the earth itself. I like that I am finally living as the artist that I always dreamed I would be. And no matter where my journey ends up at least I feel I am doing what I was meant to do.
Certain aspects of my personality are called into play in woodcarving. I have for the most part, always been a quiet contemplative soul which suits me well in the small hours of the evening alone down in my shop. I have always had a thirst for knowledge and love doing the research required for my commission carvings. There is no way to anticipate what the next commission carving subject will be so it is a constant quest for knowledge. I have put this hunger to work for me and in 3 short years of carving, I have listened, watched and learned more than most people learn in their lifetimes. I have a natural drawing ability, not good enough to be a sketch artist but I am not afraid to take pencil to wood to layout guidelines. I have also had drafting training which works well when laying out lettering and chip carving patterns. I have always loved getting dirty and working with my hands. I am also a non-traditional woman and feel suited to this type of work as a way to express who I am.
My greatest personal attribute which has contributed the most to my becoming a woodcarver is that I have no fear (alright, I’m afraid of slimy things and my son getting hurt playing football but not much else). I have no fear of rejection and can readily and proudly show my work. I am not afraid to try a new technique and am not afraid to push myself to my limits. I am not afraid to approach a more talented carver and ask them what I wish to know. I am not afraid to whack off huge chunks of wood using chisels and mallets. I am also not afraid to carve in unconventional manners and at times I prescribe to the “anything that works” method. I am not afraid to dive into things that may be beyond my scope of knowledge. When those things work out they are often considered my latest masterpieces. I love when someone tells me that I won’t be capable of doing something, it then becomes my life’s work until I have completed it. Having no fear is of greatest benefit to a commission carver. Most of the subjects of my commissions have been subjects I have never dealt with before. I feel that if you present yourself as a commission carver, you need to be able to produce anything that a paying customer wishes. And you need the confidence to be able to do it well. Your reputation is extremely important if you wish to get other commissions from the same source again.
I definitely feel that fear holds a lot of carvers back. I have watched people whittle away at something for hours when they could have removed the same amount of wood with a few decisive, well placed cuts. I also feel that the longer a carving takes to complete, the more chance that you will lose your enthusiasm for it and it will become real work. When it is no longer fun and interesting, it becomes more of a struggle to complete a carving and the longer it takes, the less of yourself you can afford to put into it. Speed of carving can be any carvers’ greatest asset. Proper tools and proper techniques are all important here. Time and practice will bring about the required results. I consider each and every carving I do, practice for other carvings that I will do in the years to come. I try new techniques directly on carvings all the time and have not messed one up yet. I feel that mistakes can always be new opportunities and have never trashed a carving yet. Not even my early carvings. I have loved them for what they were, first attempts. I look back upon them now as a way to gauge just how far I have come. I look at other artists fine carvings as an example of where I would like to go with my carving.
My biggest detriment to being a woodcarver is that I wasn’t born knowing that this is what I would be doing for the rest of my life. I would have guided my life is such a way as to be welcoming to woodcarving. But as it is I’ve had to try to fit carving into my life, though it is hard. My house is ill-suited for carving and the only space I have at present is a third of my basement which I share with the furnace and washer and dryer. It is hot in the summer, sometimes so hot that I lose my enthusiasm for a few weeks, while praying for fall. My car is older now and I’m not relying on it as much as I once did, although I wish I had a nice truck or RV to travel around the country to different woodcarving venues. For now I must stick a bit closer to home, knowing that I am missing out on meeting a lot of fabulous carvers and other resources.