Woodcarving: Falling for the Craft
I was never a carver, but the thought of being one has always appealed to me. I liked the idea of using your hands and a knife and letting them work the wood until a form appeared, slowly followed by details and character. I sat at a long table with a handful of other, more experienced woodcarvers in a week-long class led by Tom Wolfe, a well-known man in his realm. I’d never heard of him, but the class sounded fun and it was something I’d wanted to learn for a long time.
I used knives that I’d found in my parents’ basement. A flimsy box tucked away in the musty darkness yielded a jumble of wood blocks, a variety of knives and sharpening tools and several formed pieces, halted somewhere in their progression toward complete. I filled a canvas bag with the items I found might be of use and drove south, to the John C. Campbell Folk School.
We were given pieces of basswood, which is a soft wood and easy to carve. The wood was precut into long, rectangular blocks. Then we were shown an array of carvings, each done by Mr. Wolfe. These we would use as guides to form our own works. His characters were very whimsical, with big round noses and expressive faces. While it was daunting to be expected to simulate the work of a professional, I was ready to begin.
I picked up my knife, a very basic carving knife that, though it did the job, looked meager compared to the leather satchels and miniature lazy susans filled with all variety of tools: v-gouge, spoon gouge, wide gouge, scrapers, and chisels. Nonetheless, I persevered. I learned to use a pencil to sketch out areas so the proportions were accurate and the sides even. I chose to carve a little gnome and, as I worked, I watched his face emerge from the corner of the block: first his nose, then his chubby cheeks, a brow line, his lips and forehead, all the way back to his ears. It was enchanting to watch.
While the other carvers would often use different tools, based on what detail they were working on, I found that I was fairly able to achieve all of the features I wanted, as long as I kept my knife sharpened. A sharp knife is key in carving. You are better able to make clean cuts and avoid slips that could lead to a bloody finger. I learned that the hard way, as evidenced by my bandaged fingers. Some carvers wear gloves to protect their hands, but I found them too cumbersome and thus suffered the consequences.
Through the week, I became more confident and decided to use some artistic license in copying Mr. Wolfe’s pieces. In the process of forming the head of a Santa Clause, I turned the formation of my piece in a different direction. What was most exciting about simply letting my hands guide me was that I had no idea of the outcome. As I worked on one feature at a time, I wouldn’t know how they would come together until the very end. What resulted was a very charming mountain man with a long beard and a wizened face. This beautiful form of making art was becoming my passion.
Carving is such an experience, what first is a block of wood becomes something totally transformed in your hand. The only evidence of the change is a pile of shavings on your lap and under the chair. While it is not an easy craft, it is one you can let yourself ease into and let your hands be your guide. It is inevitable that what you create isn’t what you first had in mind, but that is why you must simply be open for whatever may be the outcome, and treasure it- for it is your own.