My Take on Starting to Carve Part One

I think I might have said this before, but it bears repeating. One of the coolest things about writing this blog is the interaction it allows me with other woodworkers and like minded folks. Sometimes that interaction takes place in the comments area, sometimes on other social media sites, and sometimes via email.

Typically the emails are the most interesting because someone has a private comment or question about what I've done or what I think. The most intimidating emails come from woodworkers who are either beginning completely or are working to add a new skill to their bag of tricks.

Since I started my foray into carving around two years ago I would say I have fielded more questions on that subject than any other. Often the question is akin to "Where do I start?" I should add that I don't consider myself an expert, a master, or any other assumed title which should give me authority to answer any questions. I'm not published or recognized by anybody or entity which would provide me with any credibility, nor have I sought any of these things. I am mostly happy to be a man on my own island here.

So I try not to offer advice or instruction. Instead I try to relate my own experiences and path and offer that it has seemed to work for me. I try to first point out the resources that helped get me off the ground and then the places I stepped to go further. Over my next few posts I'm going to discuss the adventure of beginning carving from my perspective starting with getting your hands on some of the tools, followed by the instruction aids and teachers that helped, and continue to help me, and finally talking about how I go about finding and capturing inspiration for making my carvings.

The first step is simply starting. As a young man I aspired to write the great american novel, this lead to me reading many books on writing and the advice I remember best is that you have to remember books don't write themselves. There are a thousand people out there with a million great ideas for the next Great Gatsby, but only a small percentage of them will ever apply their posterior to a chair and their fingers to a keyboard and bang out even a crappy first draft.

Starting a new adventure like carving can be the same issue. I remember standing before the wall of Pfiel carving tools at the Woodcraft store in Madison and struggling to not give up in dismay over the multitude of choices. For my two cents you should start small, a V tools and a couple gouges of different depths of sweep. I started with two tools, a V and a shallowish gouge.

On his blog, Peter Follansbee offers a more specific suggestion of 5 good tools to start with. That advice is found HERE. (disclaimer: PF is a woodworking superhero IMHO, I drew, and continue to draw a ton of inspiration from him in terms of carving and woodworking, your individual mileage may vary, but you will hear me refer to him a lot as I write on this subject)

The important thing here is don't cheep out on the tools. At your nearest home center you will find a vacuum sealed package of plastic handled crap masquerading as carving tools shaped objects. Do not get fooled. The items contained in that package are barely fit to open paint can lids with. Do yourself a huge favor and spend a little extra time and money getting a small selection of quality tools from quality makers. Pfiel, Ashely Iles, Two Cherries are just a couple names that scratch the surface of good modern makers.

Living miles and miles away from a Woodcraft or other woodworking specialty store? Too far to make the drive? You won't go wrong online if you visit the Tools for Working Wood website ( The page for the carving tools they offer is HERE and if you need help getting the sizes to match something like Peter's suggestions I'm positive if you drop them a line you'll get the help you need.

You may also want to consider adding a round mallet if you don't have one already. Buy one or turn one yourself it doesn't matter, but this style mallet is perfect for the light percussion that sometimes accompanies carving.

Once you have your first few carving chisels take a little time to get to know them. Learn to sharpen them, I've always found Leonard Lee's book "The Complete Guide to Sharpening" to be a bible in these matters, but there is an equally good book written by sharpness guru Ron Hock called "The Perfect Edge" available on his site HERE.

Your collection will grow organically after you start. You can go one of two routes for this. You can carefully buy one gouge at a time based on experience and need or you can spend a little time searching eBay, antique stores, auctions, or estate sales and pick up a decent sized lot of tools collected together by someone previously. I chose to buy the slug of tools, twelve in a hinged box from the shelves of an area antique store. I appreciated this route because it gave me several tool options I might not have considered buying at first and now I find myself looking for different widths and sweeps of something I may never have bought alone.

Grab some scrap cut offs and go about making a few cuts. Trace a curvy line with a pencil and follow it with the V tool. As adults we often forget the importance of "play" give yourself an afternoon to rediscover the meaning of that word. Carving is like most other hand tool skills, it's a complementary relationship between the hands and the eyes. It takes some time and play to develop that relationship. like splitting the line to hand cut a dovetail, what starts as concentrated effort results in practiced confidence.

Next time I will talk about the sources I used to start "learning" to carve

Ratione et Passionis


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