How I Became A Wood Carver
(My Woodcarving Journey)
By Bob Kozakiewicz
As kids we were always told never to play with knives, and if you’re like me you didn’t own your first pocket knife until you were old enough to buy one yourself. I couldn’t wait to own one! Then the day finally came. Ahh, my first pocket knife! It was a beauty…a three blade Old Timer that I kept in my pocket everywhere I went, and after more than 55 years I still have that Old Timer pocket knife today. As a young boy I must have shaved a forest’s worth of sticks with it! There was just a special pleasure I got from the feel of that knife blade cutting through a piece of wood.
That desire to cut wood with a knife never left me, but as I grew older I needed to do more than just shave sticks. Like most beginners, though I didn’t have any idea where to start. Fifty five years ago there was no YouTube or videos you could learn from. I didn’t know anything about the existence of local carving clubs, if there even were any at all back then. The Caricature Carvers of America (CCA) hadn’t even been formed yet!
Then I caught my big break! At 15 years old I was taking a school shop class (God, how I wish they still taught things like shop in the schools today) making the standard shop projects like gun racks and book shelves along with the other boys, The shop had a small bookcase with some books one woodworking from which some students would get project ideas. One day I had been looking through the books on the shelves and suddenly, like it was sent from heaven out popped a book on whittling animal caricatures!
The book was titled “Carving Animal Caricatures” by Elma Waltner. It was filled from cover to cover with cool projects on carving cute caricature animals like goats, giraffes, pigs and hippos. I was in love! So with hope in my heart I asked my shop teacher, Mr. Schulman, if I could carve some of the projects from the book rather than make the standard shop projects all the other guys were making. To my amazement he said “yes.” I almost passed out! It was one of the happiest days of my life!
I picked out my first animal project from the book, a camel, cut it out on the shop bandsaw and got started whittling right away. The next part is a little fuzzy because I wasn’t using my trusty pocket knife, but for some reason chose to use a thin X-acto knife with a tiny #11 blade. Many of you probably know the knife I’m talking about. The handle is not much thicker than the diameter of a pencil. Why I chose that knife I’ll never know but I whittled just about every single animal in that book (and still have them all in my collection today) with that little X-acto knife. It took me days, probably a week or more to carve each animal but boy I loved every minute of it. I couldn’t put it down…the wood carving bug had bitten me!
Shop class was a four year course so I whittled on right through high school, and meanwhile found a few other books by Ben Hunt and E.J. Tangerman which had more challenging projects. And so my carving skills began to progress.
A few years later, maybe in an adult school class (I don’t remember) I came across a carving instructor, Henry Imp, who was interested in forming a whittling club. We gathered up about a dozen interested people and formed the “Whittle Ones”, of which after a few short years I became the President.
It was during this time that I finally was introduced to “real” wood carving knives. My first one was a Murphy knife which I used for a number of years. I owned several of them. The “Whittle Ones” remained as a small club and never did much more than conduct monthly meetings. During that time, however, I found the North Jersey Wood Carvers (NJWC), a larger, much more active club that met once a month and also (to this day) holds an annual Woodcarving Show. With the “NJWC” I was also eventually made Vice-president and President. The “Whittle Ones” were short lived and eventually dissolved.
During the late 1970’s I used X-acto, Murphy, Warren, and one or two other knife brands as I continued to improve my wood carving skills. I collected wood carving books and also learned from watching and talking to other wood carvers. Joining a good woodcarving club is one of the best ways to hone your carving skills and so my carving abilities improved rapidly. Soon I began to enter carving competitions in the “NJWC” shows as well as other club’s shows such as the “Delaware Valley Wood Carvers” shows. I was fortunate enough to win blue ribbons in every competition I entered.
Then in 1987 my daughter, Christina was born and I put my wood carving aside to raise her, I spent many of the next several years training her to become a lacrosse goalie. She became an all-county and all-state goalie and set several high school records! Then between 2006 and 2009 when she was in college my hard work really paid off. She became a two time NCAA National Champion playing women’s lacrosse for Adelphi University! So for about 20 years I didn’t even pick up a carving knife. It was around 2007 when training my daughter was finished that my passion for slicing wood with a sharp steel blade returned and I began carving again. When I got back to it, it was just like riding a bike…something you never forget. I picked up right where I left off. That was when my interest in caricature carving began.
It was also around that time that I discovered the Mike Shipley knife, which is what it was originally called back when Mike Shipley was making knives under his own name. I own several of them and they are excellent carving knives. Today, Mike makes carving knives under his new company name, “OCCT”. I think they are still among the best wood carving knives on the market and are widely available from almost any woodcarving supplier.
It was around 2014 when I discovered Helvie knives (back then you could still get them) and today I have a box full of them. Helvies have become so popular that they are close to impossible to get nowadays. In my opinion, though they’re the best wood carving knives on the market, and today I use them exclusively.
My interest in carving caricatures flourished and I spent most of my time carving small caricatures, Santas, Elves, ornaments, bottle stoppers and fridge magnets…anything that was of caricature nature. I began entering woodcarving shows and competitions again, and continued to win awards for much of my work.
I still enter the “North Jersey” and “Delaware Valley” shows and competitions as well as others such as the “Conewago Carvers” and the “Lancaster County Wood Carvers” shows and competitions, and am fortunate to still win top awards. I have even placed First in the prestigious Caricature Carvers of America (CCA) Annual Caricature Carving Competition.
I’m 70 years old now and my eyesight is failing, so my carving is slowing down. I find that I can’t seem to carve detail as well as I used to, and I can only carve for about half an hour before fatigue causes everything to become a blur, and my left eye goes completely blind. Although I still enjoy exhibiting in woodcarving shows I have recently stopped competing. Whether you’re an exhibitor or an attendee, woodcarving shows are a great way to get out and meet your friends and make new ones.
I now enjoy instructing other wood carvers, especially beginners, and much of that instruction is done through the articles I write for Woodcarving Illustrated and through my blog, Wood Chip Chatter which I publish by email every other Friday.
I used to sell my work but gave that up about a few years ago because I found that all the money I was making still wasn’t worth the time and effort I was putting into it. Now I just give my carvings away. There’s just a certain warm feeling you get when you give a carving you put your heart and soul into to someone who really appreciates it. It truly is better to give than to receive!
“Carver’s Corner” is the section where you can send in photos of your carvings to have them critiqued by me and get my truthful opinions on what you did right and where you might improve next time. It’s an excellent opportunity to improve your carving skills! Send your photos to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our first entry to the “Carver’s Corner” this week comes from my friend, Vern Freer of Ontario, Canada who sent in some photos of “Gerry”, his hipster caricature he carved. Vern wrote:
Thanks for the great articles and helpful tips that you have taken the time to write for the benefit of carvers (regardless of where they’re at in their journey). I have switched from boiled linseed oil to walnut oil and have been pleased with the results. It really seemed to me to be an all round win to switch.
I just thought I would try to send in a few photos before I forget. His name is Gerry, kind of an old hipster (he still knows all the moves – even if he can’t execute them the way he used to). I would be happy to have you critique Gerry.
I have been using Pete LeClair’s books for the last six or seven months to try and get a handle on caricature carvings. I have both Carving Heads and Faces as well as his book Carving Caricature Figures from Scratch and have found them to be great resources.
I have also included a photo of some of the heads which came out of using Pete’s book which could just be for show. They are some of the earlier carvings I’ve done this year.
Thanks again for all you do for the carving community.
Thank you so much for your kind words, Vern! Comments like that are greatly appreciated and let me know I’m on the right track with Wood Chip Chatter.
You did a terrific job on Gerry and I can see you are really benefiting from your two Pete LeClair books, which I highly recommend to any wood carver interested in caricature carving. I like everything about your carving from top to bottom. The face, including the eyes, nose and mouth is very well carved, and you’ve given it a good expression. The ears and hair are also done well. I especially like the way you carved the hands, which many wood carvers struggle with. Both hands show good proportion and detail.
There is always room for improvement, though, and what I mostly see is to concentrate more on adding detail. Things like shirt collars, buttons and pockets will dress up your carvings nicely. Also, concentrate more on the clothing wrinkles. Wrinkles are large and small, and go in different directions depending on where the are located. Lastly, I noticed, and this may just be an oversight, that you carved a belt in the back of the carving but did not continue it around to the front.
I enjoy seeing the carvings you do, especially your series of carved vegetable caricatures which you post on Instagram. Keep up the great work you’re doing.
This week’s second entry to the “Carver’s Corner” comes from Wade Buie who would like a critique on the fabulous Santa he carved. Wade writes:
I would like you to let me know what I can do to improve my carving and what I might have done well
That’s an overall excellent job you did on that Santa, Wade! I like your choice of colors and especially like that you mounted it on a base. All the trim looks good as does the beard. You used nice “S” curve cuts on the beard which make a big difference, and I like how you have the boots showing from beneath the robe.
I would have placed the belt a little higher up on the waist, and although the overall face looks fine more practice on carving eyes and noses will help on future carvings. Also, study some of the videos that are available out there on carving faces.
Just let me know and I’ll be happy to go into more specifics next time.
“Photo Shop” is the section of Wood Chip Chatter where carvers can send in photos of their wood carvings for display. It’s your chance to show off your work…sort of a show and tell. The photos will only be displayed and no comments or critiques will be made. For critiques on your carvings send them in to the “Carver’s Corner.” Send your photos to email@example.com.
Our frequent contributor, Heath Paull made some good use of his time while on a recent camping trip. Heath said:
“Camping and carving, doesn’t get much better. Thanks to James Miller for sharing his skills in his recent publication.”
There certainly is nothing much better than camping and carving and those are two really nice carvings you did there, Heath! Thanks so much for sending them in!
Our second photo comes from, Jack Proseilo from British Columbia, Canada who carved his version of a patriotic Canadian Santa from my Simple Santa pattern. Jack writes:
Just finished your latest blog and thought why not? I’ve been sharing your blog with our carving group here ,hopefully when we get going again I will find some of your Santas kicking around? Of course I had to do one but tried to give it a Canadian slant, too bad we only have two colors as a third would have helped??
Thanks for your effort trying to keep us carvers interested.
Jack Proseilo West Kelowna , B.C. Canada”
I love it, Jack! Thanks for sharing my blog with your carving group. Maybe you can talk them into subscribing!
I think just the two colors look good. Sometimes less is more but if you want to add a little more color try painting the gloves black or green. You might also try painting some holly leaves on the hat for more color.
Have a great summer and thanks so much for sending in your Santa. I really appreciate it.
Our final entries to the “Photo Shop” this week come from Vern Freer of Ontario, Canada. Vern carved three caricature heads with the aid of Pete LeClair’s two books, “Carving Caricature Heads and Faces” and “Carving Caricature Figures from Scratch.”
Terrific job on your three guys, Vern! Are you going to make them into bottle stoppers?
News & Announcements
This message goes out particularly to Jim Shay who asked the following question back on February 18, 2022:
” I stumbled onto a YouTube video named “ Caricature Heads Day 1 and has a follow up named Caricature Heads Day 2. The instructors name is Bryan Middleton and was from Canada. He has passed away since these videos were made. My question is, do you happen to know of these videos and where a copy of the instructional hand out he used when he did the classes he taught ? His methods are so simple and informative. Even my old tired brain understands what he is teaching. I’d love to get my hands on one of his handouts. Thanks for reading my request, Jim Shay.”
I just got a message from, Derek Grieve about locating the manual you are looking for so you may be in luck! Derek Said:
“In reading this blog, a reader was asking where he could find an instruction manual from a deceased carver, Bryan Middleton. I may be able to get my hands on this but time is of the essence. If the enquirer wants to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, its an outside shot but I may be able to locate the manual.”
Jim, please contact Derek Grieve as soon as possible and he may be able to help you out.
New Wood Chip Chatter Search Feature
I‘m pleased to announce that I have just added a new Search feature to my Wood Chip Chatter Home Page, located at the lower right hand corner of the page. A Search box. Now if you want to refer back to an old blog post for something you just have to type what you are looking for into the Search box and it will bring up the blog post you want. The feature works best if you know the title of the post you want to find, but it will also work with key words that are buried within the post. For example, if you are looking for the post titled “Cleaning Paint Brushes”, you would type that into the Search box and it will bring up that post. On the other hand, if you wanted to find that post but didn’t know the exact title, you could just type “paint brushes” into the Search box and it will bring up the post plus a couple others containing the words “paint brushes” in them.
The International Association of Woodcarvers has upcoming Zoom meetings on the following Saturdays at 3PM EST with special guest presenters. Check them out…
8/20 – Malcom Sharp – Twisted Sticks
9/3 – Daniel Clay
9/10 – Jack Loring
9/24 – Carvin’ in the Rockies (Live broadcast)
10/15 – Nikki Reece
10/22 – Bob Hershey
10/29 – Rod Gatlin
INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF WOODCARVERS
COME JOIN US!!!
Keep a sharp edge, and keep on carvin’!