Woodcarving for Artists

A tutorial...Caril Chasens

I choose wood. The grain, fiber and natural colors give it a surface texture in a class with the most painterly of paint. The tracks of tools are as varied and expressive as marks on paper. Wood yields useful associations in the mind. Wood can take paint or stain well, and the colored surface is a valuable contrast. Many other materials synergise well with wood. Working with sharp tools gives me a feel of decision, of the moment in time.

To begin, it would help to have some basic idea of the nature of wood, and of the form and function of the tools.

It helps to consider the nature of wood when designing a piece. Wood splits between the fibers, which are vertical, more or less, in the trunk of a growing tree. If you make a carving delicate where it is liable to split, be aware of the risk of breakage. Note that the visible grain produced by growth rings does not necessarily indicate the direction of the fibers. You can pay attention to the way these growth ring lines will curve as you cut down into the wood, whether inward,


or holding the straight line.

It can be a mistake to keep splintered or otherwise unsound wood present while one is working, because it tends to find its way into the sense of composition, so that it is disappointing to remove it.

There is no absolute rule that one can't keep a splintered surface, but the finished carving could be very hard to clean. I have thought of embedding splinters and shavings of wood in clear plastic, but have yet to use the technique.

Different species of wood vary. Carvability is influenced by both the hardness of the wood fibers and the strength and flexibility of the adhesion between fibers. Basswood is often sold for carving because the fibers are easily cut with sharp tools, and the strong flexible adhesion between fibers resists splitting. However, the color and grain of basswood are bland for my taste; for some purposes it might be ideal. North American red oak is a beautiful wood with hard fibers that split apart easily, a difficult if rewarding wood. Black walnut is beautiful, quite hard, with great resistance to splitting. I use birch a lot, because it is available locally. The hardness and adhesion between fibers are both moderate. The texture is smooth and fine, the colors often striking. Birch burl wood is interesting and challenging, beautiful, the grain direction quite complex. Butternut wood has pronounced growth rings, warm dark color, medium hardness, and excellent resistance to splitting. Some carvers like green wood because it may be easy to cut, but be aware of possible cracking and warping as the wood dries.

Wood cuts most cleanly down into the grain,the fibers of wood, thus:

Across the fibers and across end grain give mixed results depending on the tools and the wood. It is better to avoid the following, unless one wants to split out the wood, although occasionally one can get away with it, at the cost of a less clean-looking cut.

It can be a graceful action, to cut with a sharp tool, and a well-sharpened tool can make a beautiful cut. Scratchy lines in the cut indicate a flaw in the tool edge. For general purposes, the angle at the tip should be perhaps between 15 and 25.

Hard woods require a relatively wide angle; scrapers may require a wide angle. Experiment.

There are many sharpening systems. With any power system, consider hazards to the tool and to yourself. Overheating will take the temper out of the steel, losing its hardness. You can do a good job of sharpening cheaply with abrasive paper. Perhaps 150 to 300 grit wet-dry paper will shape the edge. The tool will make a nicer looking cut and hold up better if it is polished mirror bright. A 15 micron, followed by perhaps 5 and then .5 micron abrasive sheet could do a good job efficiently. Be careful to maintain a proper angle in grinding and polishing. It is practical to use a slightly narrower angle on the coarser abrasives.

In general, when sharpening tools, think about which surface or surfaces you should grind, and why. If you decide to bevel both surfaces, be aware of the total angle.

Good quality tools will take a good edge. When buying chisels and gouges, be aware whether or not they are intended for use with a mallet.

This tool is not sharpened all the way to the edge:

This was rocked or ground at an excessive angle:

This has what is called a wire edge:

A wire edge can be broken off by cutting scrap wood or stropping on leather. Then, sharpen up and polish the edge.

If a tool doesn't cut well, consider the shape. For instance, a gouge that is shaped like this may bind in deep cuts:

A square end is a good all-purpose shape for a gouge.

You don't necessarily need to sand; sandpaper is a shaping tool.

Some styles of work are cut-only, with no sanding. Light sanding accentuates the web of lines formed by the ridges of the cuts. Sanding with subtle shaping can yield a grown-in-the-wood look. To create a smooth area, it is efficient to sand or rasp, scrape, and sand again.

Sanded wood is very hard on tool edges.

Be aware of safety precautions for tools, materials and techniques.

Power tools have their own hazards. Find out. Hand tools are not necessarily harmless. Wood dust can be a health hazard. Dust from fungus-stained wood is said to be particularly dangerous.

There is a lot of information on wood carving available out there, much of it directed toward hobbyists. You can use the information creatively if you can use the information creatively.

Woodcarving and sculpture tutorials

Sculpture in Wood, Caril Chasens