Carvers' Companion
WOM Home
Back Issues


Woodcarving Magic: How To Transform A Single Block of Wood Into Impossible Shapes
By Bjarne Jespersen

The Art of Carving Netsuke
By Peter Benson

Reviewed by Matt Kelley

In the January/February 2012 issue of WOM, Mike Bloomquist reviewed two books that I would call aspirational books for the beginning carver.  In this issue, I’ll review two books that I consider aspirational for the intermediate to advanced carver.   Why do I say that?  While several of the projects could be tackled by a persistent newbie, the more advanced are sufficiently daunting as to give even a much more experienced carver pause. 

That is not to suggest that a less experienced carver should not pore over these two volumes – they are both well-written and laid-out, and offer a good look at two remarkably different but equally intriguing areas of our craft and art.


Woodcarving Magic: How To Transform A Single Block of Wood Into Impossible Shapes

By Bjarne Jespersen

MagicWe have all seen carved chains, ball-in-cage, and other similar carvings with interlocked loops – that particular style of whittling or carving has been around in some form or other of hundreds of years.  Bjarne Jespersen takes that old handicraft, injects it with science, and turns it into art.

Although not yet that well known in the United States, Jespersen is internationally known as a woodcarver with a passion for mathematics and geometry.  He uses that background to create what he calls “magic woodcarvings” - highly complex carvings of interlaced rings and loops, all from a single block of material.

Inspired by his interest in solid geometry, “recreational mathematics” and the work of M.C. Escher, Jespersen has spent a good portion of his life designing and carving a collection of interlocking rings and cages, a body of work that George W. Hart, Chief of Content, The Museum of Mathematics, describes as ‘beautiful and intellectually rich.”

This book is a singular volume – while other books may touch upon simple chains and interlocking carvings, I know of no other that starts with two interlocking rings (the Hopf Link), three rings (the Borromean rings) – and then goes on through increasing complex designs, some of which, like the hosohedral hexalink, may seem uncarvable.  For those willing to undertake the work, however, Jespersen offers advice and council.

The Contents:

About the Book; About the Author; Foreword, Introduction
Chapter 1: Traditions
Chapter 2:  Wood
Chapter 3:  Tools and Methods
Chapter 4:  Mock-ups and Prototypes
Chapter 5:  Preparing Blanks to Carve
Chapter 6:  Getting Started
Chapter 7:  Flat Rings
Chapter 8:  Cages
Chapter 9:  Twisted Rings
Chapter 10:  Knotted Rings
Chapter 11:  Creative Geometry
For Further Information:  Index

In all, the book contains 29 projects, along with much other material, including a good selection of photographs.  Some of the projects are quite do-able even for a moderately experienced newbie.  A few others only an obsessed, geometry-loving carver with lots of time would even attempt.   The majority of the carvings are quite elegant and many beautiful.  Some, however, are so complex your first response will be; “No way that can be done,” closely followed by “How the heck did he do that?”

Would I recommend this book?  Well, certainly – it’s one I think many carvers will want in their collection.  It’s a great book for those “I need a new challenge” days.   It’s also a great “amaze your friends with what can be carved” book.  Next time one of your buds proclaims loudly, “I can carve anything,” – stick this book under his or her nose – after you place your bets!


The Art of Carving Netsuke
By Peter Benson

NetsukeNetsuke, (pronounced “net-skee” ), were developed in 17th century Japan for a practical purpose – to serve as a toggle to help support containers (sagemono) that were hung by cords from the sash, or obi, that were part of traditional Japanese garments.  These garments, called kosode and kimono, had no pockets, and the sagemono were used to carry a variety of personal effects, such as tobacco, pipes, money or medicines. 

Netsuke have evolved over time from utilitarian objects into objects of great beauty and artistic merit.  Most popular during the Edo period, around 1615 to 1868, the art of carving netsuke continues today.

Peter Benson notes the following in the Introduction: 
Although there are many books on netsuke, they are primarily aimed at collectors and admirers; there is very little on offer for carvers.  The main reason I wrote this book was to redress this issue and to encourage more carvers to experiment with what netsuke carving has to offer.

He also goes on to say: 

This book is not intended to be an informed instructional manual for aspiring professional netsuke carvers.  My aim is simply to provide enough information and encouragement to get you started on a new way of carving and to help you gain experience in carving miniature pieces.  With luck, some of you will go on to produce your own exquisite work, typical of the traditional netsuke carvers, the netsuke-shi's.

The Contents:

Introduction; The History of Netsuke

Getting Started

  • Planning
  • Marquettes and patterns
  • Materials
  • Tools and equipment
  • Making and modifying tools
  • Maintaining your tools
  • Safety
  • Avoiding and rectifying mistakes


  • Eyes
  • Scales
  • Feathers
  • Fur and hair
  • Ukibori
  • Adding colour
  • Himotoshi


  • Dormouse
  • Turtle Dove
  • Rabbit
  • Toad
  • Monkey
  • Apple
  • Snake
  • Mask

About the author


Benson spends the first fifty-seven of 168 pages on the Introduction, History, Getting Started and Techniques sections.  Although not, as he notes, an exhaustive study, these sections still contain a significant amount of useful information.  If you have not tackled very small carving or used materials other than wood, you will find the information particularly useful.  Some of the techniques will likely be totally new to you, such as ukibori and himotoshi.

Benson next turns to the project section, which includes eight wonderful projects.  Each projects has similar information:

  • Several photos of the finished carving
  • The Toolbox, a list of suggested tools
  • A bill of materials
  • Creating the Marquette
  • Producing the basic shape
  • A series of steps that vary depending upon the carving, with topics such as laying out the piece, roughing out, adding detail, adding the himotoshi, finishing

Each project ranges from 8 to 12 pages.  These are not exact, detailed, step-by-step instructions, but more of an over-view, but certainly with sufficient detail for an intermediate or advance carver to proceed nicely.  You will find more then enough information about each project to gain a good understanding of the tools and techniques used.

Finally, the book closes with an excellent photo gallery, including pieces by Benson, a selection from the Peabody Essex Museum, and a nice collection from some of the top netsuke carvers in the world.  The gallery alone is worth a lot of your time and a fair portion of the cost of the book. 

Like Woodcarving Magic, this is a volume that I think belongs in the collection of any serious carver, particularly if you have an interest in netsuke or miniature carvings.  For the moderately to highly experienced carver, some of these projects would be a good, solid challenge. 

As I suggested at the start of this article, Woodcarving Magic, and The Art of Carving Netsuke are aspirational books for the moderate to advanced carver.  Most of the projects in the books are ones I would hesitate to recommend to a newbie carver, but certainly would recommend both to a more experienced carver willing to undertake the work.  Both books are nicely laid out, with good photography, particularly in the case of Netsuke.  The carvings in both are fine examples of the carver’s art, eye-catching and at times dramatic.   These were not intended as coffee table books, but the subject matter is certainly interesting enough to share with your non-carving friends over a cuppa.


Copyright 2012, All rights reserved. May not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.