My Take on Starting to Carve Part Two

This is my pair of pennies on starting to carve. In the first installment HERE I wrote about acquiring the chisels. Once you have a few chisels to work with and you've spent a little time playing with them you start to develop an appetite to carve something.

There is a lot of wood carving instruction out there, both online and in print form. If I peruse the magazine racks of my local Barnes & Noble at the right day of the month I can even find a couple different magazines dedicated to carving. The pages are filled with carving this garden gnome or that type of green man face and I, personally, could not be less interested. Three dimensional carving or carving in the round or whatever you want to call it, just was never the kind of thing I was after.

Back when I was young and eating art classes with a ravenous appetite, I always disliked when we the class would head into mixed media sculpture land. Making three dimensional representations of this weeks existential dilemma wasn't exciting (I know, I know, how ever did I end up with an avocation towards woodworking? I can sum that up in a word, UTILITY) My love was drawing, painting to some extent, but mostly drawing. Taking a flat space and making the thoughts and ideas spring off the page into the air was much more satisfying than creating something that was already toddling around it's emotional baggage in real space and time.

So when I was starting to be drawn towards carving, I was not tempted to turn a chunk of bass wood into a pink elephant with polka dot pants and sad looking eyes. I sought to recreate that drawing experience on the flat surfaces of my work. Only instead of a pencil or charcoal stub, I would use sharp chisels to draw with shadow and light.

The carved elephants and garden gnomes of the world look the same all throughout the day. put them in direct light, put them in shadow, it makes little difference. But have a piece of chip carving or the like in your room and it will look different through out the day. Whether it's the morning light striking it face through the window or the dim shadowed photons of your bedside reading lamp in the evening. The carvings have a different personality depending on where the light is. They tell a different story in different apertures. It makes them challenging to photograph too.

So if you are attracted by carving styles other than mine, my advice is to find an experienced instructor whose work speaks to you and flatter them through mimicry. But don't just recreate their finished work. That will teach you something, but not everything. Try and recreate their methods of work. Find some video of them working and study their posture, their hand holds, their rhythm. Stalk them like you're an F.B.I. profiler and they're the next Son of Sam. As your body and muscles learn you will begin to adapt what you see into your own style of work. When you find yourself naturally moving off the script, then you are headed into your own creative space, and that should be where you want to be.

I have stolen bits and pieces from a lot of different collaborators this far down my path but I can boil down the major influences into three people.

The first is pretty obvious. Peter Follansbee. When I first found his blog and saw his carvings I thought to myself, Now there's a guy who is carving exactly the things I want to carve and doing it the way I imagined it could be done. I started on my own with my first two chisels and following both Peter's words from his blog and some video people had shot of him demonstrating. I have to say in most things I find woodworking videos to be lacking but I cannot think of a different media that would translate the process of carving better than video. My first suggestion is you go out and buy Peter's video "17th Century New England Carving" This video solidified the basics that I was trying to learn. It taught me how to look at a pattern and break it up into the moves I needed to reproduce the work.

This video was very important to my initial development. After getting it the next steps were to start carving like a mad man. Practice Practice Practice so they say. Peter has a second video on "S" curves in work, I don't have that one - yet - so I can't speak to it per say, I'm positive it's just as excellent as his first, so if you want order both, but for sure order the first one.

Then after a while I was forced from my 17th century comfort zone. A client wanted something representing the ocean carved on the inside of a box. I struggled to find a solution until inspiration made me think of a shell. I had never carved a shell before but I knew where to go to get the help I needed. I went right to the teachings of Mary May. A fantastic woodcarver who has a lot of experience working and teaching. I first became aware of her watching an episode of The Woodwright's Shop where she carved an acanthus leaf for St. Roy. Since then I have found her blog and even more of her work. She is an inspiration for me at every turn.

She has DVD's for sale on her site, and even better, she's opened an online woodcarving school that you can attend anytime. She also has an article in the most recent Popular Woodworking Magazine on carving acanthus leaves on a bedpost. Even before this article conquering the acanthus was starting to become an obsessive thought for me. Now I'm going to have to stop studying and start cutting wood.

My last person is a carving hero to me because she is the master of a style I haven't managed to dive into yet, but do desperately long to. Kari Hultman writes her blog over at The Village Carpenter and besides being just a sweetheart of a person in general, she is an excellent chip carver. I haven't picked up a set of knives and tried it yet, (though I have been drooling over the ones Ron Hock has for sale) I've seen Kari do a great intro to chip carving video and I always like seeing her work. I have to admit, I'm not sure I would have considered chip carving if it wasn't for her.

So there are my inspirations and foundations - now go out and discover your own, they may surprise you. Next time we'll talk about inspiration and how I move through the carving process.

Ratione et Passionis


  1. Derek, thank you for including me in your post. It's been great reading about your journey into carving. Your work is impressive! I have Peter's first video, too, and it is awesome. I haven't tried his style of carving yet, but I love it. I have a long way to go on my woodcarving journey, but it's a fun trip. :o)

    1. Kari,

      How could I not include you. When I see examples of chip carving the techniques I've see you demo flash through my mind.

      I'm loving this trip.



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