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  How to Carve Characters in Wood

By H. S. "Andy" Anderson

Reviewed by Mike Bloomquist


 Do you know what someone called me the other day?  They said I was a "book horse".  That's woodcarving book horse to you buddy.  There was no use denying it, and it explains a lot about how I acquired this copy of How to Carve Characters in Wood by Andy Anderson.  It would be impossible for a woodcarver, especially one of largely Swedish ancestry who started figure carving in the "flat plane" style, to progress very far and not hear of Andy Anderson.  For me, his name really came to the forefront when I read an article on the cowboy woodcarver written by Harley Refsal in Woodcarving Illustrated (Spring/Summer '99).  The article painted a wonderful portrait of Andy, quoted several times from his book, and made a strong case for his original influence being the Swedish figure carver Axel Peterson Doderhultarn.  Mr.  Refsal had obviously done some careful research.  Careful research which included a tidbit of how Andy's book, How to Carve Characters in Wood, was checked out of a U.S. military library based in the Phillipines by a young soldier named Harold Enlow.  Now this was a book with influence.  The final straw was a cross reference to his biography in the Scandinavian flat-plane style section of Wikipedia... gotta have a copy of that book.

After a little web research amongst the used book sources I learned the original hardcover was published in 1953 and there was a softcopy reprint in 1972. I found copies for sale, but...YIPES! $80 dollars in good condition?!  My woodcarving addiction is financially self sustaining, but not that self sustaining.  I took a chance on a $37 "hardback" with a worn dust jacket.  While I was waiting for delivery I found myself in Colorado Springs thanks to that pesky 8-5 "thang" that pays the mortgage.  Got a chance to check out "Hooked on Books" on Academy Blvd. where there was a wonderful selection of woodworking and woodcraft books (and SciFi, and Native American reference, and...).  I had several out-of-print woodcarving books to choose from, but only come away with John Rood's Sculpture in Wood with a dust jacket (my copy had none).  While I searched I tried to nail down why some books, while outdated in several aspects, were still worthwhile while others were just "old".  You'll no doubt read about it here when I figure it out, but at that time I was hoping  Characters in Wood had "the" quality.  It was waiting for me when I got home, and I was not disappointed.

The Highlights:

The book is surprisingly small physically (8" x 5 1/4") and and a quick read (82 pages).  Despite it's diminutive size the book was a wonderful, picture window view into the history of figure carving in the United States and one of it's largest contributors.  The author describes himself very modestly and in a easily read style.  The writing style could, in part, be thanks to Al Paul Theil who Anderson collaborated with for this book.  The book's instructional value has faded somewhat, but there are some gems still in those sections as well.  For example, in the "Poor Colors" chapter I had to translate "colors ground in oil" to "artist oil colors" (correctly, I hope), but his message that staining your carving with colors was preferable to painting them came through five by five.  "Your colors will be soft, yet penetrating, and you won't have a cheap gaudy look on your figures." ...And where in the world would I find a hollow ground, straight razor to make the knife described in the "Need Tools" chapter?  At almost any flea market or lesser antique shop, that's where.  Look for ones with broken handles or broken blades since you won't use the handle and will be grinding down the blade anyway.  They will be worth less to collectors, and cheaper that way. 

The caption to his picture reads, "I just like to whittle"


A brief tour:


Andy the Woodcarver

Wood Carving, an Old Art

"How Does One Start?"

You Can't Whittle and Carve Without Tools

You'll Need a Place to Whittle

Patience Plus Practice

Don't Ruin a Good Job With Poor Colors

The Wood Chain

You'll Need Pattern

A Roundup

Nit Picks:

Unfortunately, most of the photography is terrible.  The photographer, Bettie Theil, was the wife of the collaborator, Al Paul Theil, and a member of the New York Institute of Photography.  Initially, I was going to give her the benefit of the doubt and blame it on the publisher and the technology of the day. Then I noticed there are a couple photographs credited to others, and they were consistently better.  A good example of this is the portrait shot by Martha Burleigh (opposite the title page above).  A wonderful set of contemporary color shots of Anderson's works can be found in the Harley Refsal article I cited above.  Then, at Wikipedia, there is a picture of my favorite (so far)... a cowboy on a horse with Hitler, lassoed and in tow.

In his chapter "Wood Carving, an Old Art", Mr. Anderson does a pretty complete job of presenting a woodcarving history in a small space. My complaint is that his timeline stops short of the Scandinavian figure carver(s), and they were obviously a large influence on his style. Yes, I'm repeating Harley Refsal here, but even I recognized the Doderhultarn connection before reading Harley Refsal's article. Maybe it was never obvious to Andy himself, or something about the association was seen as undesirable. That's the problem with good historical images... sometimes they answer some questions and then turn around and raise more.

Anderson refers to himself as a "whittler" instead of a carver way too often.  By his own definition of both terms, I would consider him a carver.  As noted before, he seems
genuinely modest.


Despite what you might have to pay for it, this is absolutely a "must have" woodcarving book, BUT.... only if you really enjoy reading about the roots of your hobby/craft/art and/or you're a bonafide woodcarving book horse.  Hmmmm... there's a caricature... a "book horse". Let's see... an Anderson style horse and... hmmm <wheels turning>.

"Mike!  Do you smell something burning?"

"It's OK Yvonne... I'm just thinkin' up a new carving.  I'll stop when it starts to hurt."

"Well, OK... Then I guess it shouldn't be too long."

"Thank you for that Dear."

Well Gang, 'till the smoke clears, keep them edges keen, the chips piled high, and while you're carving, remember your roots <G>.

Keep on Carvin'
-Mike Bloomquist->

Mike's mugMike Bloomquist is a carver and carving teacher, and a regular contributor to WOM.

You may visit Mike's web site, Wooden Dreams Woodcarving HERE or email him at m.bloomquistATverizonDOTnet.