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  The Art and Technique of Scandinavian Style Woodcarving

By Harley Refsal

Reviewed by Mike Bloomquist


  This book review is long, long overdue.  It isn’t late because Matt assigned it to me and I’ve been procrastinating.  Although not an unusual reason (just ask Matt), that isn’t the case this time.  With regard to this book, I’ve just been hesitant because it would mean yet another biased book review. So this will be biased!  So be it!  It's not the first time, and you have been forewarned.  Speaking of warnings... anyone not interested in my personal background with this book and Harley Refsal can simply skip the next two paragraphs... but then most of you know that already.

Why is it biased (this time)?  For me, carving wood started around 1985 when I began hacking fishing lures out of shelving lumber with an X-acto knife.  Real woodcarving didn’t start until the early 90’s when two lucky things occurred almost simultaneously.  First, a friend clued me into a video series on PBS called “Woodcarving with Rick Butz”.  On only the second episode I viewed, he showed us how to “really sharpen” a carving knife.  Stone sharp is not sharp enough?  You should sharpen the knife frequently with a strop?  Heck!  You mean woodcarving isn't a cardiovascular event where you break a sweat while removing wood? 

The second lucky thing that occurred was my first woodcarving book.  When I wouldn't charge a friend for transplanting a new motherboard into her PC, she gifted me with a copy of this book, “Woodcarving in the Scandinavian Style” by Harley Refsal.  I had seen Harley Refsal patterns before in Better Homes & Garden’s “Wood” magazine.  One was a Scandinavian horse similar to that famous Swedish export, the Dalecarlian horse. Harley's version is different (better I think) because the mane and tail are carved details, not painted.  The second was Father Christmas, which I realized later, was the perfect Santa for a beginner like me. Both his hands are folded up in the opposite sleeve and Santa’s boots were covered by a long robe.  The only daunting part of this carving was the face.  It took me a week to carve the figure… then a month to get up the nerve to attempt Santa’s face. 

For me, the big draw of Refsal’s carvings was always the Scandinavian origin of the style.  Like a lot of 3rd/5th generation Americans I’m a mongrel.  A little Irish,  a little German, a couple dashes of Native American, and, thanks to my Dad, one heaping scoop of Swedish.  The Irish side of my Mother would call it a “barn shovel full of Swedish“, but that would ruin the cooking analogy.  The point of all this?… yes, there IS a point… a couple sharp-for-the-first-time carving knives together with the “Scandinavian Style” inspiration of this book really launched me from wood hacking to wood carving... from woodcarving as a side interest to woodcarving as an addiction.

The copy of this book that I was given was published by Sterling Publishing.  Since this is one of a trio of books I consider my woodcarving Bibles, I was very nervous about Fox/Chapel Publishing buying the rights and "messing with it".  I'm very happy to report that they didn't mess with it.  They actually improved it.  The re-issue is a slightly larger format, slightly better layout, has more color, more patterns, an extra step-by-step, and better painting sections (because of the color no doubt).  All in all, plenty of values added with this re-issue. What I'm reviewing here is the newer version.  In the "About the Author" section and several other sources I have read, Harley Refsal gets credit for reviving this Scandinavian flat plan style of carving.  His research into it seems to be based on the work of carvers that have not been with us for a while, and the few that were still practicing it during his early visits to
Norway and Sweden.  No contemporaries were discovered in the United States and even in the Norway and Sweden he noticed it fading away by the early 80s.  My poor, abbreviated description of this woodcarving style is: carving the figure so that you tell the story with a few simple and well placed knife cuts.  I leave the better, longer description to Mr. Refsal when you read this book.  I fell in love with the simplicity early, but found out something else as well.  You can learn it quickly with a single knife and produce some fine pieces as a beginner, but mastering it is the longer journey.

What's inside:


Chapter 1, the historic background part of this book is very much worth the read and half of the reason this is one of my favorite books.  I don't think having a large Scandinavian ancestry is a prerequisite to enjoying this book, but you would probably need at least an appreciation of woodcarving traditions and origins.  In this chapter are photographs and galleries of past Scandinavian woodcarvers as well as a good collection of Mr. Refsal's works.  My favorite of the work of others would have to be "Three Women Having Coffee" by Herman Rosell (p. 35).  My favorite of Harley's gallery is "The Knife Makers"(p. 48).  My favorite project from his gallery would have to be the tomte (p. 49), a type of Swedish gnome which, in
Norway, is known as a nisse.  I have carved at least thirty versions of it including the juletomte (Christmas gnome).  Of the two projects in the step-by-step chapter, the Dalecarlian horse is new with this re-print.  It's slightly easier than the figure carving of Oskar and a welcome addition for beginner carvers using this book.  My only complaint... nit-pick, is the absence of a carved tail, but that can be easily remedied.  You can modify it using the fjord horse on pages 52 & 53 as a guide.  Finally, in the pattern chapter there is a wealth of projects.  In addition to the tomte and four versions of the horse, there's the wood carrier, the ice fisherman, a troll, a gardener, another version of nisse, and several Christmas ornaments.

Well fellow woodcarvers, 'till next time keep them edges keen, the chips piled high, and always treat your tomte with respect.

Keep on Carvin'
-Mike Bloomquist->

Mike 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.