Advice for new Carvers

by: Richard Absher
Christiansburg, VA

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Advice to New Carvers

Marcel Larmarche posed the following question on the Woodcarver's Listserver "If you had one thing to pass along to your fellow woodcarvers which you felt was the most important piece of advice you could give, what would it be?..."
Following are excerpts from the some of the answers posted to this question. The advice given here represents hundreds or perhaps thousands of years of carving experience. It knows no age groups, political or geographical boundaries, or amount of experience. Take it for what you feel it is worth.

Richard Absher:

As a novice carver who always thought he had no artistic ability, I tell myself and others; you can if you think you can and don't give up because the first one isn't exactly what you want it to be.

"Gale B."

I had carved for many years, my apprenticeship coming from my great grandfather who did his apprenticeship in Germany. When he agreed to teach me, he did so in the same manner that he was trained, my first summer with him was spent sharpening, nothing else. Year after year it progressed from there. Technically I was very proficient, I could carve just about anything I could see faithfully onto the wood, but all of my carvings were "flat" in the sense that they had no life in my opinion. Everybody but me thought they were great.
I continued on in this manner for many years, doing a lot of work, and actually making some money, but I considered myself a craftsman rather than an artist.(nothing wrong with craftsmen, it just wasn't enough for me) Then I got a commission a number of years back to fashion a replacement for a ceremonial carving in a native longhouse.
In the course of my research, I was talking to an 8th generation Haida (coastal tribe, Queen Charlotte Island, off the coast of British Columbia) carver about what the piece was supposed to look like. He asked if I had ever heard the legend of the creature I was trying to represent, I said no, so he proceeded to tell me the verbal legend (not written anywhere, all passed down verbally through the generations).
After he finished a beautiful story, I said. "That's a great story, but what is he supposed to look like?" He told me, "Take the legend into your belly, whatever comes out is right." This was probably the most pivotal moment in my artistic life, this is where I crossed the line from craftsman to artist.
A thousand hours or so later, I took the completed piece to show him (no small feat, it almost wouldn't fit into my truck). He took one quick look at it and said; "You have it!" This was probably the greatest compliment I could have gotten. Since then, my work has been fulfilling to me personally.(and it still sells) So I would have to agree ..., the most important factor in carving is to carve from the heart, whatever the subject, the skills can always be perfected.

Bonnie Graser: try more than once.... I tried Chip carving in a class from one teacher and put my hand to sleep for 3 days! I tried again later with a different teacher and found out how to hold a knife (different knife too) and didn't have any problem at all and love chip carving ... I also had a student who insisted on starting ...with a little man [caricature] and was getting discouraged ... he couldn't seem to visualize how it should be and [I] think he'd have done well with relief or some other easier ...first project. But he just wouldn't go for anything else... Sooooo, don't be stubborn...try something different if you don't succeed the first stab (oooops a pun!) at it!
I'd like to add to take a class and join a group, it sure helps you keep in touch and keep enthused as well as helps when you have a problem as others are always helpful in one way or another!

W.F.(Bill) Judt:

I agree that none of us will ever be totally pleased with any one piece we produce. It's in our nature to see the faults in our work and to focus on our shortcomings as artists/craftpersons. But if we can at least be "content" with our work, we will find what you call "replete compensation for our efforts".
Perfection is impossible. Contentment is that special gift which allows us to enjoy and be thankful for the abilities we have. I like to finish a relief carving, hang it on the wall and reserve judgment on it for about a month. It seems that after a month goes by, I cannot, for the life of me, remember what it was that I didn't like about the carving on the day it was completed. Then that carving becomes a friend.

Mike Lawrence:

Try several different types of carving. Don't get hung up on one type
carving and think it's all you can do. It's okay to specialize but at least give some other type carvings a chance. After you do a little of that carving that you didn't think you'd like, you might change your mind and love it. You might decide to settle down to one or two types, but doing a variety will keep you interested. Always be willing to try something new and different.

Larry Jaques:

...Just grab a knife and start cutting something. You'll see how the wood takes the cut and go from there. You'll soon find that you need to sharpen the knife. You'll figure out how to sharpen it. Then you can get tips on how to carve specifics from your instructor.
Bottom line: Nike! (Just Do It)

Jean Lotz:

I'm a real stickler for record keeping, so right off the bat when I decided to be a doll sculptor, I started giving all of my dolls a cryptic serial number/name and I created a computer database to store miscellaneous information and pictures about it by name.
The best part of record keeping is adding another photograph to my growing artist portfolio. My customers always want to see it, so I make sure it is kept as professional looking as possible (in a formal black artist portfolio) showing my best & most recent work, and I have it (or a pocket-sized version) for viewing at all my shows and sales. ...The larger portfolio containing pictures of all your work is where you can see YOUR GROWTH as an artist ...
My Grandpa's and my favorite quote, "DO THE BEST YOU CAN DO EACH DAY -- AND TRY TO DO BETTER THAN YOU DID YESTERDAY". These efforts show up in the pictures.

Michael D. Parker:

How about: know where your knife go if you slip! mine went into my
palm this morning. Ouch!!
One question raised is how do you know if the knife is sharp? I like to sharpen mine to the point that I can shave the hair on the back of my hand.
Additionally, do not wait to long before stropping on a piece of leather. Keep it sharp and that way you should [not] have to return to a stone to sharpen.

Michael Sadkin:

Don't throw it away.... put it aside and look at it again in 2 months.

Ainslie Pyne:

I guess the most important advice I would hand over to would-be carvers would be not to rush out and buy a whole set of carving tools to begin with and to practice getting them really sharp. Keep their carving projects simple to start with and within the range of the carving tools they possess. Once you have finished a nice couple of pieces then it is time to branch out into something new - and buy the additional tools if necessary.

Robin Edward Trudel:

...I would ask: "Who's the audience?" If you are carving for your
own pleasure, then please yourself.
1. Learn to carve so that if the tool slips you do not cut yourself. There are ways to do paring cuts, etc. in such a way that you are very safe if the knife slips.
2. Learn to carve left handed and right handed with mallet and gouge. You'll always favor one, but learning both will help you with my first tip and save lots of time in repositioning a piece.

Clifton Sears:

Beginner: little cuts with the knife, or little taps with the mallet, get you where you want to go and with a lot more control.
Intermediate: do what you want to do, not what you, or others, think you should do.
Advanced: don't give up what you love in favor of what can be easily sold, what you love to do is what makes you unique.

Daniel Starbuck:

Three P's. Practice. Practice. Practice.

Tony Wispinski:

There are no such things as mistakes, only learning situations.