Read an Excerpt
The beginner's Handbook of Woodcarving
By Charles Beiderman, William Johnston
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1993 Charles Beiderman and William Johnston
All rights reserved.
The fact that you have picked up this book indicates your interest in woodcarving. Who knows what sparked this interest? Perhaps you have read a newspaper or magazine article about a carver, or maybe you have seen a display of carvings that caught your fancy. Perhaps you attended a woodcarving show and the desire to try your hand at woodcarving was born. No matter, the important thing is you want to carve!
Your first efforts will be crude, but that is to be expected, so don't be discouraged. Remember, the most skillful of carvers had to start out just like you. They, too, experienced the day when they made their first cut into wood. With patience, your skill will improve with each carving. Start with a simple project, learn how to work with the grain of the wood, get the feel of your tools, and you will be well on your way.
A professional carver tells of his apprenticeship in Germany. For the first three months he wasn't allowed to touch a piece of wood but had to devote himself to the care and sharpening of tools. The following three months were spent in making practice cuts in scrap wood to get the feel of the tools that are so much a part of woodcarving. We don't expect you to follow such a rigid regimen, but mention it only to stress the importance of the elementary steps—one must crawl before one can walk.
Of course, we are not discussing woodcarving on a professional level but rather as a hobby that will bring forth a lifetime of pleasure. There is no better way to relax after the rigors of the working day than to sit at your workbench with a carving in hand. With each cut of the knife the cares and worries of the world seem to lift from your shoulders. Soon you will find you are whistling or humming a tune as the chips fall from your workbench.
Carving is a craft of inspiration and talking to other carvers, so the things to do to get started are subscribe to a woodcarving publication and join a club. One of the first things you should do is join the National Wood Carvers Association. This organization, started in the early 1950s with just a handful of members, has grown to a membership of many thousands. (Write to National Wood Carvers Association, 7424 Miami Avenue, Cincinnati, Ohio 45243, for the location of chapters in your area.)
The primary benefit of membership in this informally organized association is that every two months you will receive Chip Chats, a journal offering information on recent carving techniques and tools, patterns, articles on carving, reviews of carving shows, and a calendar of events of interest to carvers. The annual March/April issue lists a comprehensive review of sources of carving-related items such as wood, tools, books, carving kits, patterns, carving schools, and possible sales outlets for your completed carvings. This issue alone is worth the cost of membership. At present the N.W.C.A. has no provisions governing the establishment and functioning of local clubs. Each carving club is an independent unit free to govern itself.
If you live on the West Coast, you may want to consider a membership in the California Carvers Guild (P.O. Box 1195, Cambria, California 93428), another very fine organization with much to offer; its publication is entitled The CCG Log.
Another fine publication, well worth the price of subscription, is The Mallet, published monthly by The National Carvers Museum, 14960 Woodcarvers Road, Monument, Colorado 80132. This magazine also offers similar information and both are excellent means of communication and a sharing of knowledge from carvers throughout the world.
Becoming a member of a carving club will bring you many advantages, the most important of which will be the sharing of knowledge. You will be able to talk with other carvers whom otherwise you would not have the opportunity to meet. The kinds of problems you run into can be discussed and solved. (Specific procedures for forming your own carving club are discussed in Chapter 11.)
An active woodcarving club offers much to its members. The authors have been affiliated with the Pennyslvania Delaware Valley Wood Carvers for many years, and it provides an excellent example. Organized to further the warm fellowship, interests, and skills of woodcarvers and whittlers, the club serves the beginner as well as the advanced carver. It meets once a month, and its programs include a show-and-tell period at each meeting, in which members bring in a carving and discuss it. The following activities are offered: spring and fall courses for both the beginner and the more advanced carver, an annual wood auction, a library of woodcarving books, and field trips to places of interest to carvers.
The club sets up a monthly display of members' carvings in banks, libraries, and schools. Members also give talks and demonstrations to schoolchildren and Scout troops on the subject of woodcarving. The resource chairman maintains a file that helps members obtain information on where to purchase tools, wood, patterns, books, and other carving-related items. Free lessons are offered in the care and sharpening of tools. Meetings often include instruction periods in tool technique, the use of the burning pen, the fine points of face carving, the making of birds' feet, and the painting of birds. An informative newsletter is published monthly, and, of course, the highlight of the year is the annual woodcarvers' show, in which each member is encouraged to exhibit his or her work.
As a measure of its success, this club, which started with just 5 people interested in working with wood, has grown to a membership of over 175 men and women from all walks of life. We may be clerks, tradespeople, truck drivers, sales representatives, clergy, executives, retired folk, or workers in the home, but when we come through the door of our meeting room, we are just one thing—woodcarvers!CHAPTER 2
Wood: the living medium
Various carving woods
If there were only one piece of advice we could give you, it would be, Don't stint on wood. Remember, you are going to invest a goodly number of hours in your carving, so even if you must spend a few dollars more, begin with a good piece of wood. We learned this lesson with one of our first attempts at figure carving. A piece of scrap fir was used, and things seemed to go fairly well until it was time to carve the facial details, which had been saved until last. The wide grain of the fir just wouldn't support fine carving, so the many hours put into the carving were wasted. Had basswood or sugar pine been used, that little figure would be sitting on the living room bookshelf today.
Most woods can be carved, but some are much better than others. Willow, yew, and Phillippine mahogany (Luan), for example, tend to be stringy, and redwood and some cedars are prone to splitting. Most of the woods found at local lumberyards are fine for building projects but leave too much to be desired when it comes to woodcarving. Balsa wood is great for model gliders, but for woodcarving ... forget it!
On the other hand, basswood, American cousin to European linden, is excellent as a carving wood. White pine and sugar pine also have fine carving properties. These woods are close-grained and will permit the fine carving of detailwork. They do not possess the beautiful grains found in the harder woods, but if you are going to paint your carving, basswood or sugar pine would be your best bet.
If your carving is to have a natural finish, walnut is a top carving wood with a warm, appealing grain, as are apple, cherry, plum, and any of the fruitwoods. Honduras mahogany is close-grained with a reddish hue; oak and elm have their own pleasing grain characteristics; butternut, as its name denotes, is a light-colored wood with excellent carving qualities; and we are all familiar with the red and white grain of cedar. Poplar is also an easily carved wood but often has a greenish cast throughout the grain.
One word of caution: Some of the exotic woods, such as rosewood and cocobolo contain toxic substances that could result in skin rashes and respiratory problems. In working with these woods it is advisable to wear long sleeves and to use a dust mask as a precautionary measure.
The following chart lists the more readily available woods. In addition, there are many imported exotic woods that can be purchased from wood specialty houses. Some fine carving woods may be native to your section of the country—try them!
Inexpensive ways to obtain wood for carving
Wood is all around us, and much of it is excellent for carving. Old barn timbers were often made of white pine or chestnut. A barn or house that is in the process of being demolished will yield untold quantities of good seasoned wood. (Just make a careful check for nails or the sharp edges of your tools will suffer.)
Many of the old-timers down in the Chesapeake Bay area carve their famed decoys from discarded telephone poles. Old cedar lantern posts and wooden rain gutters that have been replaced with modern-day aluminum can be made into objects of beauty for years to come. If there are boat-building or cabinetmaking shops in your area, you can usually have cutoffs and scraps of mahogany for the taking. And most sawmills will let you have slabs of bark for mounting your carved birds at no cost.
Once it is known to your friends that you are a wood-carver, you will have many offers of wood. For instance, when someone is about to have a fruit tree cut down, he or she will probably be glad to let you take your pick of the wood. Recently a neighbor cut down a holly tree that had grown too large for a foundation planting and presented us with the trunk. Holly, being a close-grain wood, is much prized for its fine carving quality. When freshly cut, it is pure white and, much like old ivory, mellows to a cream color with the passing of years.
You will find yourself collecting all sorts of interesting pieces of wood for mounts. Roots of bushes and trees and gnarled branches make excellent mountings for birds. Sections of old grapevines are perfect for this purpose, and driftwood is just the thing for carved waterfowl and gulls. You won't find much driftwood along ocean beaches, though, the shores of bays, lakes, rivers, and streams are the places to look. Take along a small pruning saw when you go on your driftwood safari; many times a piece too large to bring home will have some interesting-looking branches.
Old furniture will often provide wood for carving. Beautiful plaques have been carved from the leaves and tops of old mahogany tables and chests that have been bought for a few dollars at sales and auctions. Crating wood, especially from items that have been imported, may—when planed, sanded, and stained—reveal hidden beauty. Tongue depressors, available from your druggist, are usually made of birch and carve well. They are useful for tail feathers for small birds that require wood stronger than sugar pine or basswood. Slats from a discarded basswood Venetian blind can also be utilized in a similar manner.
Many carving clubs hold annual wood auctions where members donate their surplus wood to be auctioned off for the benefit of the club treasury. Often choice pieces of wood can be picked up at a fraction of their commerical prices in this manner.
Finally, if you have a particular project in mind, such as the carving of a family crest or coat of arms, that calls for a specific kind or thickness of wood, don't hesitate to purchase wood from a wood specialty house. (Several good outlets are listed in the appendix of this book. In addition, each year the March April issue of Chip Chats lists about fifteen pages of suppliers of wood, books, and carving-related items; other carving magazines carry similar advertisements.) You will never regret your investment of time or money if it results in an object of beauty of which you can be proud.
How to season wood
Although it is possible to carve green wood, your chances of success will be much greater if you use cured wood. Due to the fact that the heartwood (core) dries at a different rate from the sapwood (outer wood), stresses and strains take place as the green wood dries out. These stresses cause logs to split and the ends to check (crack from the center of the log to the bark).
Air-drying is therefore advised in order to slow the drying process down to a more even rate. This is accomplished by painting or waxing the cut ends and openings in the bark wherever side branches have been lopped off. A good method is to take an old candle and coat the exposed wood with melted wax. With a pencil, mark the date you are starting the seasoning process.
The wood should then be stored in a dry, airy place, away from sun and rain, with pieces of scrap wood positioned between the logs or timber to promote air circulation. Every six months turn the wood, inspecting the ends to see if checking has opened the sealant; if it has, apply more wax. After eighteen months your wood should have cured and will be ready for carving.
Some carvers claim that logs season better if they are stripped of their bark. If you are seasoning your logs in your garage or dry cellar, this might be advantageous, because the bark usually plays host to many undesirable insects.
You will find home-curing more successful if you first trim out the green log into beams and planks, since logs are more susceptible to checking and splitting and also take longer to cure. Again, liberally coat the ends of each piece with a sealant.
Most commercial woods are kiln-dried, a process whereby timber is placed in large ovens and dried slowly with controlled heat. Smaller pieces of wood may be cured chemically by immersion in PEG 1000 for twenty-four hours, which prevents checking and shrinkage. This water-soluble wood stabilizer is available from Craftsman Wood Service Co., 1735 West Cortland Court, Addison, Illinois 60101; Constantines, 2050 Eastchester Road, Bronx, New York 10461; or H. E. Wheeler, 2230 E 49th Street, Tulsa, Oklahoma 74105. This process, however, cannot be used on woods you wish to stain, because the wood cells are sealed in such a manner as to prevent absorption of stains and penetrating finishes.
If you do wish to work with green wood, the secret of carving it is to drill a hole completely through it from top to bottom. This allows for expansion and contraction of the wood as it dries out. Once drying has occurred, you can fit a wood plug into the uppermost hole and carve it to conform with the design. European carvers have often carved masks and plaques of green wood, hollowing out the reverse side to prevent cracks and splitting.CHAPTER 3
Tools for carving
One of the great things about wood carving is that you don't have to buy expensive equipment to get started. Unlike in photography, boating, restoring antique cars, and so on, a few basic tools and a block of wood can see you off to a good start. Of course, as you progress, you may wish to add to your basic tools, primarily because of timesaving factors. For centuries craftspeople and artisans have created works of art with just the simplest of hand tools, so don't feel you cannot create credible work unless you have a workshop full of sophisticated power tools. Andy Anderson, famed carver of Western caricatures, whose whittled cowpokes are today much-sought-after collector's items, used little more than a homemade knife ground down from an old straight razor. So you see, it is the skill in the heart and in the hands that counts, not the expensive tool.
In addition to the basic household tools found in every home, there are a few simple tools that will fill a beginner's requirements. We recommend that you try to have on hand the following:
Several carving knives
Sharpening stones, light oil
Surform half-round and round rasps
Coping saw with a variety of blades
C clamps (6-inch or more)
Workbench with good light
Drill and assorted bits
Glue (Titebond, Elmer's)
No-load aluminum oxide sandpaper (coarse, medium, and fine)
Acrylic paints, brushes
As your carving skills improve, you will probably want to pick up additional tools to fill specific needs. This can be done gradually over a period of years, so that a huge initial cash outlay is not required. We purposely did not include chisels, firmers, and gouges in the list of basic tools. Try several projects using just your knives so that you can get the feel of a wood-cutting tool and the characteristics of various kinds of wood. After you have gained this experience, buy other edged tools as you find it necessary.
Don't make the mistake of rushing out and buying a complete set of carving tools. "Quality instead of quantity" should be your watchword. Often a well-meaning wife will buy her husband an expensive set of tools for Christmas or his birthday only to find that just a few will actually be used. Perhaps the best path to follow would be to sign up for a carving course and buy only the few tools your instructor recommends.
Excerpted from The beginner's Handbook of Woodcarving by Charles Beiderman, William Johnston. Copyright © 1993 Charles Beiderman and William Johnston. 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.