Articles and Publications

I could never carve like that; could I?

December 3rd, 2010

I went through this web site and saw all the beautiful pictures of such prize woodcarvings and thought to myself, “I will never be able to carve like this”. Woodcarving just may be an unattainable dream. First I had to learn all about the tools and how to make and keep them sharp. Okay I had that part down. But now look at all of these beautiful carvings, some on priceless pieces of furniture. Could I carve like this?

First there were the magazine articles by other artists who were carving this shell or that leaf. “Now set your caliper to 3/16 of an inch and then…”. The there were the books, “The scroll unwinds using the mathematical equation of y as a function of…” or “The magic art of proportion relies on the use of pi and divisions or multiples there of…”. And then there were the architectural styles one had to adhere to like Rocco, Art Deco, and Neapolitan or is that last one an ice cream favor? Oh no I am so confused and ice cream sounds good. I needed a compass, a caliper, a ruler, and a protractor, oh my. How did I ever expect to become a carver of any worth? No one seems to want an apprentice with 2 children, a need for benefits and a high wage. For that matter nobody seems to want an apprentice anymore.

Then I saw a magazine article that showed a woman turn a empty coffee cup upside down and put it on a piece of wood and “whoa la” she made a perfect circle by tracing that coffee cup with a pencil. Then in the middle of the circle she drew another circle about the size of a nickle. She just drew it in by eye and it looked good. Then she roughly divided the space between the inner and the outer circle into five pedals. And that was that, she had a pretty flower all laid out and she didn’t even look at a protractor. Could this really work? The flower sure looked good.

Next she held her V-tool in her left hand and rested her forearm and wrist on the wood so the tool couldn’t go out of control, what a great idea! Then she quickly tap, tap, tapped the tool around those lines, not taking the V-tool off the line until she had to switch hands to keep working with the proper direction of the wood grain. In no time at all she had the entire flower outlined by V cuts. Then she started to model the pedals with a 7 sweep and within some 5 pictures she had transformed a piece of wood into a beautiful round flower that looked alive and she only used a coffee cup and a pencil to do all the layout work. She also used very few tools. Up until that article I saw woodcarvers with walls covered with tools behind them. I only had eleven tools so of course I could never carve like a pro; could I?

She could really carve and who was she, a Dutch master carver by the name of Nora Hall. She convinced me that even a new carver like me, could lay out and carve beautiful things in wood with ease and confidence. I didn’t need a lot of layout mathematics to get going and I didn’t need a lot of tools. So I started to carve in this easier, common sense way of carving. No I did not have layout tools and for that matter I didn’t have enough carving tools to fill a tool roll. But I carved and I kept on carving. Now, some 20+ yrs. later, I still am carving; yes I have a protractor, ruler and compass, they have their place, but I still don’t have a lot of tools. (Ask any woodcarver how many tools he has and he’ll say, “not enough”.)

Yes I have more tools now. I had a 6 pc. starter set and a few more I added to make 11 tools back then and they still serve me well. I have added more tools over time. Some I bought because I needed them, others I got from friends or family nice enough to give them to me, and still more I bought because I thought I needed them but I used them once or twice and now here they sit.

If you ask a woodcarver today, he or she will probably tell you not to buy a beginner’s set of tools because the set will have tools you will never use. I didn’t find that to be true. When I got started I couldn’t afford a lot of tools. So I bought 1 tool per month using the starter set as my guide. I bought a V-tool, then a small deep gouge, a larger shallow gouge, a similar size medium-deep gouge, then a chisel and a skew. I still use all of those tools today. If I was going to start now, and wanted to carve like Nora Hall, then I would buy her starter set. They definitely get used as I follow her DVDs or magazine articles.

I did end up buying Nora Hall’s suggested tool set. I had originally bought a 6mm V-tool (which is the V-tool in about every starter set) and Nora uses a 10mm V-tool. The two tools work good together so I still use them both. The rest of my smaller beginner tools worked in well with the tools she suggested.

I was so happy to find that article about Nora Hall and her method of carving. Back then there weren’t all of the woodcarving magazines out like now. There weren’t Video tapes and castings of the finished work, to tell how to get there and show you where you were going. There wasn’t a single Blog or Tip section to tell you that you didn’t need a wall full of tools or that a set of Stanley work chisels could carve wood too. I learned by what I could read and what I could find in wood working magazines. So a big thanks to Tang who was way ahead of his time and to Chip Chats. A big thanks to Nora for putting an article in a magazine for wood workers that ended up becoming a beacon of light to those of us still in the dark about how easy and down to earth woodcarving could be and would be.

So you don’t need a lot of math. You don’t need a lot of tools. All you need is the desire to become a woodcarver and a few tools; oh a pencil and wood wouldn’t hurt either. Carvers often lament that the younger generation isn’t picking up woodcarving. Have you seen the price of tools lately? So my son is thrilled with the few tools I was able to give him. He knows those are all he needs to pull off the woodcarving tricks taught to me, and now him, through Nora Hall. Look at how that ribbon unfurls! Thank you Nora.

The other day I was looking for a particular board. Digging through the pile I finally found my prize piece of Oak, planned and ready to be transformed into my next masterpiece of wood working. But as I looked over the length of wood what did I find carved right in the center of the board? A Newport Shell learned from video #6 “Carving the Newport Shell” with Nora Hall. If I wanted to carve it in oak I should have carved it at the very end, or found a piece of scrap right? No, I carved it right in the center to show off my new found talent. I only wish that my coffee mug from back then wasn’t so darn large.