Learning practical wood carving
Carving in the Round
In learning to carve wood it is a very good plan to start with a few basic shapes, if you have been inspired to start carving by seeing some elaborate piece of ornament, put this out of your mind for the time being. As a first exercise in the round attempt an egg as illustrated, or perhaps a cylinder, or cone. The actual carving of such shapes need not be a lengthy process, but in the course of making them, you will learn some fundamental truths about wood and tools. You may prefer to carve an asymmetrical shape such as the lamp base (Fig. 1).
This was a student’s wood carving in ash and made from a block measuring 12 1/2 in. x 4 in. x 4 in. Choose any shape that will enable you to carve broad surfaces. Do not start with a very small block of wood.
The egg form—large end uppermost—is recognized by the sculptor as a basis for the design of the human head, and if you manage to carve it you will be well on the way to carving ahead in the round.
Whatever shape you choose, draw it clearly on the block of wood. Then saw off the unwanted corners, or roughly around the shape. The bow saw can be used for sewing curves. Secure the block to the bench by one of the methods described earlier. Commence cutting with a gouge of medium sweep or curve 1/2in. to 3/4 in. in size. Think of the sections of the form as you carve, working all over the shape; avoid making arbitrary holes in the surface. Keep to one gouge for some time. This will help you to carve consistently.
The spiral (see Fig. 2) is rather more difficult to carve but is good practice in carving concave forms. For this exercise, you should buy a 2 in. or 3 in. dowel from your local timber merchant. The drawing can be assisted by pinning a piece of string at the top of the dowel and winding it round spiral fashion. Draw a line along the string. Using a near flat gouge makes a sharp cut on each side of the line at approximately 50 degrees and J in. deep.
Now cut a groove with a fluter or deep gouge in a central position between the lines. Work down from the first cuts to the center groove by means of a shallow gouge. Spiral forms are fascinating to carve. The curves can be various or graduated, and the wood could be of asymmetrical shape. It is not always easy to visualize a form such as a spiral in the round and a model can be quickly made in plasticine and would be a useful guide (Fig. 2B).
I have advised a broad treatment for the beginner but you may be forced by circumstances to work small, or, on the other hand, it may be your natural inclination. In this case, toy-like carvings can be made from odd pieces of wood, dowels, old tool-handles, etc. The Knight’s Head was carved from the end of a hammer-handle, the legs and arms of the other figures are carved from dowels. The general pattern of the mobile will work well but you must adjust the design and balance to suit the weight of your carvings.
You should start making the mobile from the light end, that is where the fish appears in the diagram. If you use strong silk thread for the strings the objects will move freely. With wire, the movement is more restricted and double rings at the junction with the cane will help. Some patients must be exercised but experimenting mobile is a fascinating occupation.
Carving a Bird
A bird has a fairly simple general shape and would be a good choice for your first carving in the round. The legs are the only part that presents any practical difficulty. In the demonstration drawings, the pigeon is in a roosting position so that this problem does not arise. Remember that the strength of the wood lies along the fibers of the grain. In our example the grain should go the length of the bird, which is from head to tail. You could try out a number of sketches yourself based on this idea. It will be comparatively easy for you to invent your own design.
You probably see pigeons every day, or you may have a caged bird to study. Remember when planning your design, that the carving must stand firmly on its base when finished. A base can be added or incorporated in the block. In the demonstration diagrams of the carving in progress, you will see that the base is incorporated. Draw a side view of the actual size of the carving (Fig. 3). With tracing paper make a second drawing of the same design.
Now make another drawing of the bird as seen from above. This will give you an idea of the thickness of wood required. Allow one inch to spare in thickness if you can, and a little extra length at the head and tail. This will leave room for modifications. Now cut out one of the side-view silhouettes, making it slightly larger all round. Lay this template or pattern on the block and draw round with chalk. Now screw the base of the block to a stout board, and cramp it to the bench. Alternatively, use the wood-carvers vise.
Before you start carving with the gouge, a saw may be useful in two ways. First the obvious: by sawing off the comers (Figs. 4, 5), or round the shape, with a bow saw or bandsaw a certain amount of labor may be saved.
The saw can also be used for cutting in toward the design and then splitting down in line with the grain. This latter method must be used with great care so as not to saw too deeply and is not suitable for woods with a twisting or interlocking grain. Do not try to split the wood in lengths more than 3 in. at a time, as the grain may change direction. Never try to split the wood without the saw-cut ‘stop’ which keeps the splitting under control.
These stop-cuts can also be made with a sharp chisel when removing small pieces of wood. Wood such as mahogany can split very easily at times and too much wood can be lost by a careless blow.
When you have removed the corners and spare wood with the saw, put the saw away as you will not need it again during carving. Now draw on the block again, making sure that you have planned the shape from the front and top (Fig. 1). If the block is wide enough you can give the head some movement.
When you start with the mallet and gouge choose the latter in a medium-size, | in. to I in., and with a medium sweep. You must always be prepared to change the direction of your cut at the first sign of ragging or splitting, especially when faced by twisting grain or in the neighborhood of knots. In larger carvings, it may be impossible to avoid all knots but by planning you can arrange that they are cut away, or in any case that they do not come in the center of a piece of detail.
The very nature of carving in the round in wood will compel you to change cutting direction. This is quickly learned with practice and you will at the end cut in the right direction by instinct. It is quite safe to cut across the fibers of the grain, but you will notice that when cutting with the grain the wood has a polished appearance and if you are leaving a tool-cut finish it is best to complete the carving in this way. If the cut looks dull or ragged whichever way you cut, it is a sure indication that your tools are blunt.
Carving in Relief
As in carving in the round, a simple abstract form could be the first exercise.
You will see that a pear-form is suggested, the various stages being shown on one diagram. First, draw the shape clearly on the wood. The next process is known as ‘setting in’: in the diagram, A marks the first groove cut around the drawing with a veiner, fluter or pointing tool. A B a cut is made with a deep gouge. C marks the cutting down around the shape with a near flat gouge. D shows the background cutaway with a gouge of the medium sweep. E is the full depth of the relief. F shows carving commencing with a shallow gouge. At G some undercutting will give the illusion of depth.
All these processes should each be completed in turn round the whole pear form. The undercutting should be left till the last as you may wish to cut the form still deeper.
Potentialities of relief-carving
Even if you are a beginner, it is as well to be clear about the potential and the limiting factors in the carving of a relief. Relief is closer to the painted picture than work in three dimensions. The conception, at the outset, depends on drawing and although the depth of carving can enrich and give the work a third dimension, a flat picture or pattern can be translated into a carving in relief.
Thus the field of design for relief is very wide indeed. You have only to look at Indian relief carving in wood to realize that a lace-like delicacy can be achieved, or at the late German Gothic carvings in most museum collections in order to see that it is possible to carve a relief which is also three dimensional. The figures in these carvings are almost free from the background and attached to it so cunningly that they look as though they could step out of their frames.
They may be joined to the background by the feet only, or at the back in one or two places. This type of ‘tour de force’ carving is not to all tastes. In the example (plate vi) of an Indian nineteenth-century carving you will notice that one of the elephant’s legs and the trunk are completely free. The grain is running down the length of these parts, making them strong. From time to time stone has also been carved in this way, but stone does not have the fibrous strength of wood and these free parts are often damaged or completely knocked away.
You will see that it is possible to be really adventurous when carving relief in the wood. You can also get this ‘free’ look in the design by deeply undercutting the figures or shapes yet leaving them attached to the background. It is not easy to do this in high relief without the help of the bent gouge. In high relief, there is a greater play of light and shade and therefore greater legibility. This is obvious when you consider that a hole drilled in wood can appear black in contrast to the surface of the block. The drill is often used in carvings of both wood and stone.
If you examine Indian, Greek or Roman carvings, the evidence of the drill is plain to see. It is often apparent in the curls of the hair, the eyes or in detail of the drapery. The background of relief can be in flat areas that form part of the whole design, or the relief can be so enriched or crowded with figures that the background is not much in evidence. It is a mistake to think that the background must always be of uniform depth from the face of the panel.
Concentrate on the subject matter and let the background look after itself. I would suggest that the beginner should not attempt a crowded design. Also, it is best to choose a single subject for the first carving: ahead, an animal, or any shape that interests you. Cut the design fairly deeply. This will give you more scope. There are, however, plenty of fine examples of eighteenth-century English wood carving in very shallow relief.
This is usually applied to carve such as described later in this chapter, when in places the relief may not be more than 1/8 in. thick. Such carving is difficult for an amateur with little experience in drawing. In a shallow carving, the drawing is all-important. In a relief, there is less margin for change and modification. Therefore it is as well to spend time and thought on the design and to take care of the drawing.
If drawing is poor, a very flat carving on a flat background can give the effect of cut-outs in pastry. Such carving has a ‘stuck on’ appearance and may well be very dull and uninteresting. The suggested design for a cockerel in relief is simple but will also give scope for the use of pattern and texture. It is intended as an example and even if you decide to use the idea I would say that you should make some changes and experiment. Do not be afraid to spoil a few pieces of wood.
Today for the most part furniture is plain and undecorated. In modern furniture carved decoration is out of fashion. To stick pieces of carved design arbitrarily on modern furniture is unthinkable for it has already been designed as a whole. A wide revival of carving on mass-produced furniture is unlikely. However, if you have designed a piece of furniture there is no reason why a certain amount of carving should not be incorporated. I would again stress that the piece should be conceived as a whole and the carving appropriate to the object.
Architectural carvers, such as Mr. H. Board (plate II), use applied to carve in the reproduction of period decoration of all kinds, in restoration work, mantelpieces, mirrors, and furniture. An example is shown (plate XVIII) is being carved in 1 in. pine. The first requirement is a long back-board at least 1 in. thick. One or two layers of paper are then stuck to the board with thin glue. After the design has been made on paper, it is marked out on the piece of wood to be carved either by the use of carbon-paper or a template. Sometimes the design is made on thin detail-paper and stuck to the wood. The general shape is then cut out by the fretsaw and glued to the paper on the back-board.
By this method, all the delicate parts of the design are supported and will not break during the carving process. After the carving is finished, it is separated from the back-board with the aid of a long knife. This is slipped under the paper so cutting the carving free. The ornament is now ready to be applied to its assigned place. plate xxi shows ornament applied to a copy of an eighteenth-century fireplace. The carved ornament is glued and pinned (Fig. 12). The pins used are the ordinary type used in sewing. The heads of the pins are sunk and the holes filled. By using this method the finest decoration, only perhaps 1/4 in. thick can be carved by a skilled man without difficulty.
Letter Cutting in Wood
I must first stress that if you wish to cut letters in wood, some study of letters themselves is essential. The Roman letter holds a supreme place as a basis for the study of carved letters and you must spend time drawing these before you start. When you have been carving letters for some time you need not slavishly follow the Roman forms. You will be able to make your own deviations, in fact, design your own letters.
It is only after a period of time that you will do this with success when you have come to appreciate the form and balance of the letters. All the problems of spacing and making satisfactory layouts of given inscriptions demand some experience. If you decide to carve the name of your house on the front gate with no previous study of the subject, the enlightened passer-by may well shudder at the sight. For anyone who has studied the subject, the ill-shaped letter is painful to see.
Excellent sheets of Roman lettering can be bought cheaply. There are also many books on the subject. Students and many young people think of letter cutting as boring. It is, in fact, an acquired taste. I know from experience that it can be enjoyable and very satisfying. In cutting letters you are dealing with form, proportion and abstract shapes. The fine laws evolved in Roman lettering are flexible and can be adapted to any given inscription.
Wood for letter cutting
It is wise to choose a close, even, and straight-grained wood. Oak, quarter cut, is often used and is suitable for indoor and outdoor work. Limewood is excellent but needs protection from the weather. The inscription should be worked out carefully on paper. When working on stone I usually draw on the tablet itself. With wood, this is not advisable because the graphite of the pencil will get into the grain and the surface of the panel marked and damaged. It is best therefore either to use carbon-paper or to draw the letters on thin detail-paper and paste it on as seen in plate m was the late Mr. A. G. Cole is carving an inscription in oak on a remembrance stand. Either of these two methods is sometimes used for stone also.
For letter cutting you need very sharp fine beveled chisels, gouges for curves, corner chisels for the serifs; parting chisels can also be used if the grain is very close or, as in wood engraving, on the end grain. The letters can be carved in a number of ways. I personally prefer the incised V cut of approximately 60 degrees. A curved concave section can be used, or the letters can be raised. The latter method involves some labor in cutting down the back-ground. It is better, in this case, to cut the letters with the edges very slightly sloping out, otherwise, they will tend to look stuck on. The recessed curved letter looks well gilded and takes the light better than a V cut. If the inscription is in a poor light, gilding or painting will increase legibility.