Articles and Publications

Thoughts from a professional woodcarver

Originally published in Chip Chats, May/June, 2000 — By Nora Hall and Charles Rogers

I was blessed in my early years of woodcarving. I worked side-by-side with my father for almost six years. We lived in Nazi-occupied Holland, and became well known as the father-daughter woodcarving team. (Luckily we were not known by them for helping Jews, and others, get out of occupied Europe.)

Under the German influence, the Gothic style of furniture became popular. The furniture makers made chairs, dressers, and such and sent them to us. We received beautiful dry oak furniture to carve linenfold panels and ornate chair backs, legs, and arms. The designs to be carved were left to us. Most of the furniture would leave our shop for Germany.

We worked for private homes, furniture makers, and factories. The factory orders became enormous. We did hundreds of dining room tables and that meant six chairs per table! My father gave me a lot of freedom to shape and decorate the crests on the back of the chairs as long as I stayed in the flowing lines and rhythmic patterns of the Gothic style.

Working beside my father, learning the art of European fine woodcarving on beautiful dry oak, I was in heaven. We worked eight hours a day, seven days a week although my mother often had to call us at 10 p.m. to get us out of our workshop. My tools were always razor sharp and my wood was always ready to carve.

I don't think a beginner in this country could get that much practice in such a little amount of time. Today, I have my students do certain cuts, many times over, just to get the hang of one movement with the tools. Many continue practicing cuts when they get home. Learning to carve right handed and left handed is also very important.

People should get their spouses involved in this carving adventure — especially the art of relief carving. There is a whole new world out there when you put down your knives and pick up a V-tool, gouges, and veiners. The tools seem expensive, but they re really not. They will last your lifetime, and three to four generations more, if you buy good quality tools. Today I even teach furniture makers so they can carve their own furniture.

By the fourth year of the war, all that beautiful oak the furniture makers had been using was gone. Occupied Holland was running out of dry wood, period. All that was left was standing poplar trees. They were cut down and used for furniture while still quite wet. The wood we had was so wet that water seeped out of the wood as we worked it. What an experience working wood so wet! That furniture was sent to Germany like the rest, but I can't imagine that any of that furniture stayed together long.

During that time, we still sculpted the religious statues that we were famous for. To make them look antique, we applied streaks of gold, red, blue, and green paint here and there on the sculptures and then we buried them in our wet Dutch soil. After three weeks we dug up the carvings and the results were amazing! They aged four hundred years in three weeks. We sold them to a dealer who exported them to Germany as true antiques.

All these practices stopped with the end of the war. Hopefully, the German customers will not ask for restitution for the "antiques" and the furniture that had to have fallen apart (just kidding).

The Gothic style also faded after the war. I hope we see it catch on in this country. It is such a dramatic style of carving. However, it will never disappear. Think of all the old churches throughout Europe and Great Britain, and some even here in America. Carvers will always be influenced by the rhythm and flow of the Gothic style.

When I moved to the U.S.A., and away from my father, I was a very experienced carver. But I never had to pick up a stone and oil. I didn't know how to sharpen woodcarving tools! My father always kept our tools razor sharp. I was on my own now and had to learn sharpening fast. I went to woodcarving club meetings and over the years I picked up a lot of sharpening knowledge. First came stones and oil, and then motor and felt wheels to greatly increase the speed of sharpening. I still keep an open mind and hope to continue to learn more about sharpening every day.

My father would come over from Holland to visit. He was amazed at all the carvers he met. He thought that they carved very well and yet they only called themselves "hobby carvers." I was teaching classical styles of carving, and my father would help out. Not speaking any English, he would make gestures and the students could understand him. Then my father would sharpen any tools that needed to be sharpened. The students remarked that the tools he sharpened for them stayed sharper longer.

Over the years of sharpening my own tools on the power buffer, I noticed that the cutting edge became rounded back as I put too much pressure on the outside edges as I sharpened them. These tools actually cut better because there was no corner to get in the way. You could maneuver them better when you made your final outline cuts around your design. Sweeps 1, 3, and 4 should be kept square at the cutting edge. I have seen some excellent old carvers with some very strange shaped tools. A sculptor's tools are so personal that they must look strange sometimes to other carving artists.

When you talk about bevels to woodcarvers you will get as many different opinions as there are carvers! When you make the bevels very long, the cutting edge becomes very thin and weak. It can bend over or chip. For relief carving you want long bevels. Done right, the tool grasps the wood instantly and is such a pleasure to work. To solve the problem of the weak cutting edges on long beveled tools I just put a short bevel on the inside. Besides, you can also use the tool the other way around (upside down). This is how we use our tools from sweep one through sweep six.

For deep carving you need short bevels. Professional carvers often have a double set of gouges for the long bevels and their uses and short bevels and their uses. My son and I use spoons quite frequently to reach deep. We have an excellent collection of tools, some generations old, acquired from different master carvers over our lifetime. Perhaps more on these soon.