Articles and Publications

On the philosophical side of woodcarving

Originally published in Chip Chats, September/October, 2000 — By Nora Hall

There is always a tendency of becoming philosophical when writing about one's hobby, craft or artistic attempts, especially for me in the art of wood sculpting or carving because it is so much a part of my life. It entwines many of my thoughts and influences big decisions. A person is bound to get good at something that he or she feels passionate about. While I teach and observe my students, I often wonder if carving means the same to them as it does to me. When I was 18, my father first invited me to carve. After the first day I knew that I would never stop and made it a life-long learning experience.

Some years ago a professional woodcarver called me and asked if I was interested in buying his tools (I paid $200 for his whole collection). He was 80 years old and ready to retire. It puzzled me how he could make that decision and stop carving forever. My dad was 96 when he passed away in Holland: he never wanted to part with his tools, in case a job would come up.

This 80-year-old woodcarver, Peter Bolhuis (a Dutch master) sold me some beautiful fishtails, quite short from use and sharpening over the years. My students love to work with them and always end up buying a few fishtails soon after. They are wonderful to work with; there is less steel to hold and thus much lighter, especially the larger sizes such as the 20-25-30-mm widths. You can reach in corners better as well.

About eight years ago a New Jersey family sent me an old antique suitcase filled with hundreds of carving tools, scrapers, rifflers, etc., from their great-grandfather. Who knows how old this suitcase was? Inside, these tools were wrapped in oilcloth with not a speck of rust on any of them and still very sharp. They dated back to the 1800s. When they were delivered and I spread the rolls out, I didn't even want to touch them, afraid I would disturb the fingerprints of the old master, Adolf Honigman, who had emigrated from Hungary. Inside the suitcase was also a small box, originally made for toothbrush, soap, etc. He kept his sharpening stones in there.

How easy we have it now with our sharpening wheels. My poor dad spent hours upon hours honing and buffing our tools. I can still see him patiently bent over a stone. For shaping and correcting my bevels I still use the coarse Arkansas stone, but some of the buffing wheels I see today are unbelievable. High-tech stuff!

With some sweeps I like to have two tools each, for both a long and short bevel, the latter one is to be able to reach and cut deeper into your project while you can come out of that depth with a clean cut. So just buy a few extra tools. You deserve it. They will last three generations anyway, so it is a good investment. Tell your spouse that!

I am very lucky that one of my sons, Wendell, is a full-time wood sculptor like me, and a musician. The woodcarvers I knew in Holland were always playing music. I used to sing Italian arias with my father (father and daughter duets) and people would stop and listen to us when we had the windows of our studio open. It helped us forget the war for a few hours. At night we listened to the radio for news from England. It was illegal to own a radio, but we hid it underneath the floor. If caught, we would have been sent to a concentration camp in Germany. But because of the radio, we knew what was really going on in the world and not the propaganda the Germans proclaimed. Danger was around us everywhere but we kept on carving through those long dark days. It took the mind off our struggles and gave us a natural relief from stress.

My observation is that woodcarvers live longer, even when they pick it up later in life. Especially relief carvers, because they stand up at a workbench and move around a lot in front of the carving while working. They have a tendency to have a lighter body weight. Also there is something about being immersed in your project, forgetting your daily life problems and struggles. Stress, that kills many people nowadays, seems to just melt away from your system.

Let me now pass you a few pointers that will save you an incredible amount of time and much frustration. Remember, my methods are the methods passed down to me from many generations of master woodcarvers; they have been perfected over the centuries. First of all, never use stop-cuts. In fact, erase the word from your vocabulary. Stop-cuts weaken and break the wood along the grain and it will slow you down. Not only is this process slower initially, but you'll be spending extra time gluing the broken pieces later. Use the V-tool and outline the design. The #4 video in my European Woodcarving video series demonstrates this clearly so buy it now and call me at my studio, at (303) 271-3859, to thank me. In fact, feel free to call me if you have any questions about my techniques or brands of tools. Just remember, no stop-cuts! For larger designs, I'll first use veiners to remove the wood and then finish it off with a V-tool to clean it up.

And do everyone a favor (especially your family), carve in a direction opposite all body parts —- don't be lazy! Switch position so you're always carving left to right, or unclamp your work and re-position it. Be sure to anchor your wrist and move only your hand. Keep your cuts controlled and don't make long, loose sloppy sweeps (as I've seen one British instructor, who should know better, do in a video not too long ago).