The nature of the wood being carved limits the scope of the carver in that wood is anisotropic and not equally strong in all directions. The direction in which wood is strongest is called the “Grain” (wood grain may be straight, interlocked, wavy, fiddleback, etc.). For strength purposes it is always wise to arrange the more delicate parts of the figure along the grain direction instead of across it. Often, however, a “line of best fit” is instead employed, since a figure’s design may have multiple weak points in different directions, or the orientation of these along the grain would necessitate carving detail on end grain. Carving on the end grain is considerably more difficult than carving with the grain. Carving blanks are also sometimes assembled out of many smaller blocks of wood or boards, and in this way, one can orient different areas of a carving in the most advantageous way, both for the carving process and for durability. Carousel horses are a good example of this practice. Less commonly, this same principle is used in solid pieces of wood, where the fork of two branches is utilized for its divergent grain, or a branch off of a larger log is carved into a beak (this was the technique employed for traditional Welsh shepherd’s crooks, and some Native American adze handles). The failure to appreciate these primary rules may constantly be seen in damaged work, when it will be noticed that, whereas tendrils, tips of birds beaks, etc., arranged across the grain have been broken away.
Probably the two most common woods used for carvingin North America are basswood (aka tilia or lime) and tupelo; both are hardwoods that are relatively easy to work with. Chestnut, butternut, oak, American walnut, mahogany and teak are also very good woods; while for fine work Italian walnut, maple, apple, pear, box or plum, are usually chosen. Decoration that is to be painted and of not too delicate a nature is often carved in pine, basswood or tupelo which are relatively soft and inexpensive.
A wood carver begins the carving process by selecting a block of wood the approximate size and shape of the figure he or she wishes to create, or if the carving is to be large, several pieces of wood may be glue together to create the required size. The type of wood is important. Hardwoods are more difficult to shape but have greater strength and luster. Soft woods are easier to carve but are more prone to damage. Any wood can be carved but they all have different characteristics. The choice of wood will often depend on the requirements of the carving being done.
Once the block of wood has been selected the wood carver then cuts out the general shape of the figure he or she wants to carve. Generally, a pattern is drawn onto the block before cutting. The pattern can traced on from and paper pattern or cut out cardboard pattern, or it is sometimes just roughly drawn on with a pencil. Most times a front and side view pattern are drawn onto the block. Following the shape of the patterns the general figure is cut out using s band saw, scroll saw or coping saw. This process removes a great deal of the ‘waste’ wood which saves the carver a lot of time.
When the carver has the figure shape cut out he or she begins a general shaping process, known as blocking out. Carving knives and gouges of various sizes and shapes are used. A gouge has a curved blade that can remove large amount of wood at one time. For harder woods, the wood carver may use gouges sharpened with stronger bevels, about 35o, and a mallet similar to that of a stone carver’s. When carving softer woods the bevel will usually be about 20o. The terms gouge and chisel are open to confusion. Correctly, a gouge is a tool with a curved cross-section and a chisel is a tool with a flat cross-section. However, many professional carvers tend to refer to them all as ‘chisels’. Very large carvings require the use of a mallet and large gouges whereas smaller carvings usually require the woodcarver to use only a knife and small palm gouges. No matter what wood is selected or tools used, the wood carver must always remember to carve either across or with the grain of the wood and never against the grain.
Once the general shape is made or blocked out, the carver may use a variety of tools for creating details. For example, a “veiner” (also called a “fluter”) can be used to make deep cuts into the surface, or a “v-tool” for making fine lines or decorative cuts. Once the finer details have been added, the wood carver finishes the surface. The method chosen depends on the desired quality of the finish. The texture left by shallow gouges gives ‘life’ to the carving’s surface and many carvers prefer this ‘tooled’ finish. If a completely smooth surface is required the carver may use “Rifflers”. Rifflers are similar to fine rasps, usually double-ended, and of various shapes for working in hard to reach folds or crevasses. The finer ‘polishing’ is done with abrasive paper usually referred to as sandpaper. Large grained sandpaper with a rougher surface (higher grit) is used first, with the carver then using finer and finer grit sandpapers that can make the surface of the carving smooth to the touch.
After the carving is completed, the wood carver may seal & color the wood with a variety of paints or natural oils, such as acrylic or oil paint, or walnut or linseed oil which seals and protects the wood from dirt and moisture. Often a coat of polyurethane or lacquer is added as a final sealant. Carvers seldom use gloss finishes as they create too shiny a surface, which reflects so much light that it can confuse the form. Objects made of wood are frequently finished with a layer of wax, which protects the wood and gives a soft lustrous sheen. A wax finish (e.g. bees wax or carnuba wax), however, is only suitable for indoor carvings.
A NOTE ABOUT WOOD CHIP CHATTER
My ‘Wood Chip Chatter’ blog is now one month old. I have immensely enjoyed writing it and I hope those who read it enjoy its contents whenever it is published. I work hard and spend a great deal of time putting the blog together, and have tried to publish something worthwhile every day.
After one month, however, I am disappointed in the response I’ve gotten to ‘Wood Chip Chatter’. I’m seeing that the number of folks actually reading the blog is but a fraction of those who are subscribed to it. Participation, in terms of questions, comments and photos (photos of your carvings are especially appreciated) has also been minimal. When I created ‘Wood Chip Chatter’ I envisioned a platform for whittlers and wood carvers to generate discussions through those questions and comments. The overall success of ‘Wood Chip Chatter’ depends to some degree on those discussions.
With readership and participation being as low as they are I have decided to publish fewer blogs per week, perhaps just two or three. Maybe it will help, maybe it won’t. Maybe it will make the blog better and more interesting to read, but it will definitely give me more time to gather information and content for future blogs, though.
Thank you to those of you who read ‘Wood Chip Chatter’.
Let the chips fly! Tell your friends and spread the word about Wood Chip Chatter, and don’t forget to send in your questions and comments so we can keep Wood Chip Chatter Active and keep the conversations going!
And remember to email your photos to firstname.lastname@example.org
Keep a sharp edge and keep on carvin’!