Practical Woodcarving: Elementary and Advanced

Practical Woodcarving: Elementary and Advanced

by Eleanor Rowe

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This practical guide to woodcarving by an accomplished designer and carver not only provides expert tips on such basics as woods and tools, but also explains how to succeed in completing projects in low and high relief.
More than 200 diagrams and photographs accompany clear, concise instructions, enabling novices and veteran woodworkers alike to recreate


This practical guide to woodcarving by an accomplished designer and carver not only provides expert tips on such basics as woods and tools, but also explains how to succeed in completing projects in low and high relief.
More than 200 diagrams and photographs accompany clear, concise instructions, enabling novices and veteran woodworkers alike to recreate everything from Gothic tracery to sixteenth-century moldings and lettering. Part One deals with simple carving, gradually advances to slightly modelled detail, and offers expert advice on how to construct rails, chests, a stool, and cradle. Part Two provides examples of more advanced work, with descriptions of Renaissance designs and pierced carvings.
Profusely illustrated with photographs and drawings, this volume will serve as a valuable resource for artists and craftspeople, inspiring creative efforts while offering a wealth of helpful hints and practical information.

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Dover Publications
Publication date:
Dover Woodworking Series
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5.52(w) x 8.56(h) x 0.46(d)

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Practical Wood Carving

Elementary and Advanced

By Eleanor Rowe

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1930 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-15419-0



AT first the beginner had better procure only what is absolutely necessary. As he proceeds, and finds out what he wants, he can add to his stock.

As no satisfactory work can be done on a table, it is wiser to start with a good strong bench (see figure).

This bench should be from 3 ft. 2 in. to 3 ft. 5 in. high, and its top or table should be, where space permits, at least 3 ft. 9 in. by 2 ft. 9 in. wide. It should be made of deal, the two front planks each 3 ft. 6 in. by 11 in. wide and 3 in. thick, with a board at the back of the same length and breadth, but not necessarily of the same thickness, as 1 in. for this would be sufficient. The planks and the board must be secured at the ends with clamps or cleats made of beech, 1 1/2 in. wide by 3 in. thick.

The top should be supported on four legs 3 in. square in section. These must be fixed into the planks so as to secure a strong joint, and the back legs should slope outwards. Into these legs four rails should be strongly morticed, placing the front rail low enough to be a convenient rest for the feet.

If the exigencies of space compel it, the width of the table may be reduced by decreasing the width of the thin board, or this might be omitted altogether. If large work is executed, a good-sized bench is indispensable. The student is advised to try and obtain a secondhand bench, as the price of timber is now so high.

A stool varying in height from 2 ft. 4 in. to 2 ft. 6 in. may be used as an occasional rest; but it is more workmanlike to stand, and, in the majority of cases, the carver will find that he is obliged to do so. The stools can be procured square or circular, and with cane or wooden seats.

There are various ways of fixing the wood to the bench, but the most popular and by far the most satisfactory is the bench screw (see figure).

Owing to the various positions in which the bench screw is used, one about 8 in. long is found to be the most generally useful. With it is always used a beech block washer about in. square (see figures 1 and 2), the use of which is to save time in screwing up the nut, as well as to protect the bench from its friction.

C (p. 2) is a butterfly nut, working on the screw AB. Detach it. The rectangular holes on C fit on the projecting point B, whereby C becomes a handle to drive the screw B. Insert the screw at A into the underside of the board to which your wood is fixed, then pass the point B downwards through a hole provided in the bench, slip on from underneath the beech block, replace C at B and screw up tight and firm (see figure 1, c). If the carver wants to raise his work, a second block may be placed underneath the carving, in the position of the octagon in figure 1, b.

For carving in the round, it is necessary to work on all sides of the wood. Procure an octagonal beech block in. thick by 6 in. wide, and pierce a hole through the centre. Slip this over the screw after it has been inserted in the wood which has to be carved (a) and secure it to the bench (p. 3.1). In this vertical position the wood can be carved on all sides but the base. It is sometimes necessary to place it horizontally (p. 3.2), when the second bench screw is required (p. 3.2), and then we see why the beech block must be octagonal. It provides eight different flat faces, into each of which the bench screw can be inserted, each face varying the position of the work.

The bench screw can only be used with a bench or with a table in which holes can be made, but when this is impossible, the student must procure two iron cramps in. long, the cost of which is is. 9d. each. For flat low relief work the cramps answer very well, but for deep or modelled carving, they are most unsatisfactory.

The "Amateur Portable Bench," which can be fixed to any table by means of cramps, is convenient for those who have not a proper bench to work on.

A hold-fast for large work is useful and costs about 7s. 6d. It consists of an iron bar, with a movable arm hinged on at the top and regulated by a screw. At the other end of the arm a small iron block with teeth is hinged on, and this grips the wood. The iron bar is slipped through a hole in the bench, and the arm is adjusted to the top of the wood and then screwed down

A vice may sometimes be required, and the most inexpensive is the ordinary wooden one with a screw about one and three-quarter inches in diameter. The wood to be carved is fixed in this, and then the vice is secured to the bench, either with a bench screw or an iron cramp.

To keep the tools in good order it is necessary to have a grindstone. If not used too hard, a hand grindstone with a wheel about eight inches in diameter, costing 8s. 6d., will suffice, but it requires a second person to turn the wheel. When in use it should be fastened to the bench by a cramp. A treadle grindstone is better and quicker although more expensive, and being worked by the foot no assistance is needed. The prices now cannot be guaranteed.

In addition to the grindstone, the following list of things will be necessary :—

A Washita stone for the big tools.

Two or three Arkansas and Turkey stones for the smaller ones.

A small flat oil-can, filled with the best machine oil, or with salad oil and a few drops of paraffin.

A strop prepared with emery paste.

A square or round-headed mallet, the latter being generally preferred (p. 13).

The selection of the tools will depend on the work to be done and the predilection of the carver, but the following set of eighteen tools (p. 6) will be found useful to begin with.

If expense has to be considered, Nos. 1, 12, 15, 16 could be dispensed with at first.

No. 1, the skew or slanting chisel, is used for bevelling or cutting straight lines, also for smoothing the background of such panels as are free at the edges. A straight chisel is also handy, but if only one is procured, the skew chisel is the most useful. These tools are also known by the name of firmers or corner firmers.

Nos. 2-5, extra flat gouges. These may be procured in any size from an inch and a half to one-sixteenth of an inch. They are invaluable for cleaning off the tool marks, and are much better for this purpose than the chisel, which is often used, and which produces a far more mechanical surface. In sending impressions of these to a tool maker, specify "extra flats," not "chisels," otherwise the latter are sure to be sent.

Nos. 6-11, a variety of gouges used for modelling, fluting, outlining, balls, &c.

Nos. 12, 13, fluters. A technical name given by carvers to very quick gouges; if much bigger than No. 12, they are liable to break. The sizes given are useful for modelling all kinds of foliage, and for bosting in work that is varied in its planes.

No. 14, a veiner, for veined lines, stems, &c., when it would probably be used with the fluters, of which it is a smaller variety.

No. 15, the V-tool. This is a most serviceable and effective tool, but it requires considerable experience to handle properly, is very difficult to sharpen, and soon gets blunt. The same effect can be produced with other tools, and therefore until some dexterity has been obtained, the beginner need not purchase one.

Nos. 16-18, bent background tools. These may be procured from one-sixteenth of an inch and upwards; one larger than three-eighths of an inch is rarely necessary.

Bent gouges or flats are also obtainable, but the student will require some practice before he purchases these.

Fish-tail or spade tools are very useful for finishing, but they should never be used for bosting in. The blade of these tools tapers towards the handle, and consequently it has not the same resisting power as the ordinary tool. For chip-carving, a spade chisel is more handy than the ordinary chisel.

The router, very similar to the tool called by the joiner an "old woman's tooth," may occasionally be used. It consists of a small chisel, inserted into a piece of wood, and the chisel is fixed by means of a wedge, to the depth of the relief required. An opening is made with a tool in the middle of one of the ground spaces of the panel to be carved, and the router is then inserted and worked backwards and forwards until the required depth is reached. Students, however, should be able to make a clean level ground before attempting to use the router. It should never be relied on for finishing the ground, but as a gauge to test the depth is useful. A match inserted in a card or thin piece of wood will answer the purpose of a measure. The student, however, should bear in mind that a perfectly level smooth ground, which gives the appearance of the carved detail being applied, is not to be desired. A judicious variation in the level of the ground is a very great advantage. Various fancy tools are made, in which the Macaroni tool would be included. Very few practical woodcarvers ever use them.

A list of the various makers, with the prices of the tools, is given at the end of the book.

New tools, as a rule, take longer to sharpen than those which have been used. After a little practice, the student will soon see, according to the work that he undertakes, what tools he requires, therefore it is better to buy only a few at first, and add to them as experience dictates. Never buy a tool maker's assorted set, as the experience of a carver is needed to know what tools will be the most useful. Also beware of "Ladies' Sets!" If women are to do good work, they should use the same tools as a man.

Students who sharpen their own tools will soon see the necessity of careful handling, and will not knock them about or dig them into the bench, as the novice invariably does. It is not a good plan to put the points of the tools in cork, as it is often damp and rusts the steel.

Tools easily get damaged, and are best kept in a green baize case when not in use.

Glass-paper must on no account be used on the carving. The student should from the first aim at a sharp steady cut, and should never have recourse to glass-paper or a file to make good a bad cut. Glass-paper not only spoils the texture of the wood, but it destroys the delicate details of the carving, by which the carver expresses his feeling in his work.

Without sharp tools good work is impossible. To keep the tools sharp, and in good order, is economy of time.

No tool maker can be depended upon to send tools out sharpened to the nicety that is required. Nor is it wise to entrust them to a carpenter, as they are sharpened quite differently to a carpenter's tools, and require a delicate and special handling. So the sooner a student learns how to sharpen his tools for himself, the better for him.

The implements are—the grindstone, which is a revolving stone; the Washita, the Turkey, and the Arkansas stones; some slips with curved edges for the inner side of curved tools; and the leather strop.

The first step is to adjust the convex edges of the slips to fit the concave inner edge of the curved tools. For this purpose get three sheets of glass-paper, Nos. o, 1, and middle 2. The coarse paper, No. 2, removes more of the stone than the fine paper, but, if the slips are very thick, it is better to use the grindstone. Take a small block of wood and stretch a piece of glass-paper over it. Hold this in your left hand and the slip in your right, and rub the slip first on the one side and then on the other till you have ground it down into the required curve.

Always finish off with the fine paper, No. o, as you must have the edges delicately smooth. Be careful to remove all the grit before using the stones for the tools.

The grindstone is used for the rougher and heavier work.

Tools should always be purchased ground and ready for use, although even under these conditions each carver has to adjust them to his own requirements.

If the cutting edge of a tool shows any irregularities, such as a white line or a speck, or an unequal or angular surface where the tool has been ground, it will generally be necessary to use the grindstone, although if the inequalities are very slight, the Washita stone, wetted with oil, may be sufficient. The white line or speck shows that the steel has been left too thick. In getting rid of this thickness the grindstone must be used with plenty of water to prevent the steel from becoming hot enough to interfere with the tempering. The illustration (p. 9) shows how the tool should be held: the right hand grasps the handle, holding the tool sloping slightly upwards at an angle of about 30º to the stone, while the forefinger of the left hand presses the edge, and keeps it down in even and firm contact. The stone is revolved away from the tool and as rapidly as possible. The tool, meanwhile, is steadily moved from margin to margin, right across the stone, thus shifting its position in order to prevent forming grooves in it. Tools that have not previously been ground are done in the same way, but they take a much longer time.

The grindstone is necessary when tools are broken or jagged. In this case the end of the tool must be held against the grindstone in the manner shown in the illustration (p. 10), and ground until the line of the tool is restored. After that it must be held against the grindstone and worked from side to side as has previously been described (p. 10).

Never use a tool straight from the grindstone. The grindstone must always be followed by the use of the slip and the strop in the manner hereafter described.

In the case of the curved edged tools the stones and slips are held in the right hand, and are rubbed briskly against the tools, which are held in the left hand. The proper way of holding them is shown in the illustration (p. 11). The stone or slip is held with the fingers of the right hand at the back of it, and the thumb in front, but as near the edge as possible to avoid danger from a slip of the tool. The left arm and elbow should rest firmly against the body, while the hand holds the tool as shown in the illustrations, accordingly as the flat or the convex edge of the stone is being made use of. The stone and tool must be held slanting upwards, so that the cutting edge can easily be seen. The tool must press against the stone firmly, and the stone must be moved briskly.

The sharpening process begins with the convex back of the curved tools (p. 11, B). This is first laid against the stone, and gently and evenly turned on its axis from side to side, so that the whole sweep of the curve is brought evenly in contact with the stone. The pressure should be even, but a little more may be put on parts that appear thicker; but too much pressure will produce angles at the back, and these should be carefully avoided. When the back appears satisfactory, take a slip that exactly fits the concavity of the tool and rub it smartly up and down, using the lower part of the slip, and keeping it as flat as possible, so as not to turn the edge (p. 11, A).

Great care must be taken to make the back of the tool take the same sweep of curve as the front. It should be quite smooth and free from angles, and no bevel of any sort, however slight, should be perceptible on either back or front.

Having finished with the slip, wipe the tool with a rag, and then strop it on the leather (see figure B opposite). Hold the tool firmly in the right hand, with the forefinger on the blade, keeping it just sufficiently flat to catch the edge without turning it, and draw the back of the tool quickly and firmly down the leather—the quicker and the firmer the better. Lastly the inside must be stropped. When the tool is curved the leather should be bent over the finger. For this reason it is better not to have the leather glued to a board, which is sometimes recommended.

The tool should be tested by cutting a piece of pinewood across the grain, and should be considered satisfactory only if it cuts as sharply as a razor. If one side cuts better than the other, the stone must be used again, more pressure being applied to the faulty side. Care must be taken to keep the corners of the tool square. The cutting edge must be straight and not curved—this [??], not that [??].

The straight edged tools—the chisel and skew chisel —are sharpened somewhat differently (see figure A). The Washita oil-stone rests on the bench without moving, and the tool, with its handle kept very low, is rubbed up and down it, first on one side and then on the other till the edge is sufficiently thin. The tool must be kept rigidly and evenly flat against the stone. The process is completed by the use of the strop. Some carvers like one side of the chisel with a longer bevel than the other, but this is a point each must decide for himself.


Excerpted from Practical Wood Carving by Eleanor Rowe. Copyright © 1930 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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