Volume3 Issue1, January, 1999

Woodcarver Ezine
Back Issues
Carvers' Companion Gateway


by GraemeVaughn


We all have them,

...even the best of woodcarvers (or so I hear). Being an old neophyte, I've majored in Failures. Indeed, I think I could write a book on it (well, an article, maybe). First, (in the best academic traditionsee, Ma, all that eddikayshun wasn't wasted) some definitions.


A woodcarving FAILURE is any carving:

1. at which your significant other wrinkles up his or her nose and says, "Very nice, dear, but what is it?"

2. from which the crucial bit cracks off just as you are applying the final perfecting touch of the chisel; whose nose, head, hand, wing or whatever is on the workshop floor;

3. which instantly depresses you the moment you walk into the workshop;

4. which you shove down behind the workbench, hoping no-one will find it (Of course, all visitors will immediately ferret it out to great shrieks of amusement and guffaws);

5. about which people enthuse "What a fantastic turkey!" (It's meant to be an eagle)

6. which wins first prize in the abstract section (and you still think its the spitting image of Uncle Bob).

Fear not! Help is at hand with Graeme's ten handy tips for


First of all we need to reprogram your brain and get rid of those lazy, good-for-nothing, failure-creating beliefs and hopefully still leave enough brain cells for you to continue carving. Now for some rah-rah motivation. Instructions: Stand up and yell out the bits in capitals below. It's important to anchor these new thoughts, so, as Benny Hill once put it "Stick your finger in your ear". It's also important to squash the cynic (you know, that little bit of your mind up in the top left-hand corner that goes "nyah nyah nun nyah nyah"). To help you do this, I've identified typical cynic thoughts in parentheses. These thoughts are to be placed in a small, brown paper bag and squished.

Success-affirming beliefs

1: FAILURE IS JUST OPPORTUNITY IN DISGUISE. (hey, Opportunity, good disguise. You nearly fooled me with that turn-everything-into-sawdust routine).

2: YOU LEARN MORE FROM FAILURE THAN SUCCESS (That's right, after you learn 101 ways NOT to carve a duck, you can learn the 102nd way. If you could carve the darn duck, you'd never learn those 102 ways.)

3: YOUR WORST ENEMY IS YOUR FEAR OF FAILURE (and not the power tool from hell, oh yeah)

4: YOU HAVE NOTHING TO FEAR EXCEPT FEAR ITSELF (ignore the maniac with the chainsaw-woops that's me in the mirror).

For those of you who have survived with enough brain cells left for reading, here are the tips. For the less fortunate, click here and Uncle Bill will gently waft you into the ether of cyberspace.

Tip Number 1: Turning Eagles into Turkeys
This is the easiest of all. All it requires is massive restraint. When admirers excitedly enthuse that your eagle is the most wonderful turkey they have ever seen. "So lifelike. It looks just like that one we had for last Thanksgiving (USA)/Christmas (rest of world)", swallow your initial impulse to brain them and drop that mallet. Look humble (shuffling feet is a nice touch) and say "Aw shucks. "Twarn't easy to get that turkey look." Bask in praise.

An interesting variation on this theme is the "Blind 'em with Science" routine. To the "Very nice dear, but what is it?" reaction, say the following: "A primordial scream of existentialist protest against the inanity of post-modernist discourse" (translation: I'm really angry that you are so stupid you can't see what it is). This will have one of two effects: either puzzled silence (excellent, walk away quickly before they get it) or "Huh?" (also excellent, walk away slowly they'll never get it).

Tip Number 2: Chain Saw Massacre
This was a favourite technique of the Australian pioneers who decided that the Australian bush was one of God's failures. Using this powerful technique they were able to turn 70 per cent of failure into the glorious success of bare sheep paddocks and desert in less than 200 years of white settlement. (And you thought that the Texas Chain Saw Massacre was big!).
To employ the methods of my noble forebears, take your biggest, most destructive carving tool (chain saw, rotary chisel, or, if you are a real neanderthal, axe er, for you dwellers in the US, that's an ax.) and rip into the carving. Get some of that frustration out. As well as being therapeutic, this will change the carving forever. You'll either end up with something you can work with or you'll end up with a massive failure as opposed to a normal size one (hey, if you're gonna fail, let's fail big). Quotaholics will recognise this as a variant of Anthony's Law of Force: Don't force it; get a larger hammer.

Tip Number 3: Burn, Baby, Burn
Another great Australian pioneer technique adapted to our needs. Take one failure and toss it on the fire. Let it burn. Ooops, sorry, I forgot to mention don't let it burn completely. Never mind, you can always try again. The idea is not to keep you warm, but to alter the shape in an unpredictable way, so that you then have an interesting shape to work with. Oh well, onto tip number 4.

Tip Number 4: If thy eye offends thee
The master teacher, who grew up in a carpenter's shop and therefore should know a thing or two about woodworking, said it best, "If thy eye offends thee, pluck it out". Don't act on this, until you read this warning and disclaimer: this is not to be taken literally and I will not be responsible for any one-eyed carvers out there. Perhaps, I'd better rephrase it: "If there's a bit of the carving that doesn't work, chop it off". For me, it's usually the bit that I'm most attached to in the entire carving. I spend a lot of time fighting this wisdom until finally I'm forced to admit that the whole carving is going one way and this lovely bit is going somewhere else (into the discard bin).

Tip Number 5: The Uncarved Block
The Chinese master teacher, Lao Tzu, who knew a lot about non-carving, put it best in the Tao Te Ching when he said: The block of wood is carved into utensils by carving void into the wood. The Master uses the utensils, yet prefers to keep to the block because of its limitless possibilities. To find the serenity of the uncarved block, remove all traces of the carving. Create a cube, pyramid, cone or cylinder. Start again.

Tip Number 6: Random Rambo
Oh, you know the sort of thing from action films. The hero, naked to the waist, except for cartridge belts criss-crossed against his sweat glistening pectorals and washerboard stomach, bursts into the room, machine gun in hand and sprays bullets mercilessly at the crockery, glassware, furniture, radio and television set. Now, I'm not suggesting you go quite so far (Disclaimer: Pistol-packing persons please note: I bear no responsibility for how any of my readers might use any firearm.)

Personally, I'm sure I could do the Rambo thing. I could have the double-D pecks, rippled tummy and psychopathic mind if I really wanted to. I just don't want to and fortunately for all of us, you don't have to. To play Rambo woodcarver, reach for your trusty electric drill and the largest twist bit you have and make Swiss cheese out of that carving. After you've had your fun, try to make something sensible out of it.

Tip Number 7: Simplificate, and add more lightness
Now, I've forgotten where I got this story (which probably means I read it when I was under ten in a dog-eared Reader's Digest found squashed behind the sofa) &, to make matters worse, I've forgotten who the hero of the story is. If anyone can enlighten me on either point, I'd be grateful. Anyhow, the hero is a straight-talking, not formally educated, about-to-become a multi-millionaire in the aviation industry. His University-educated and loquacious designers have produced the design of a plane that may make or break his fledgling business. It's a mass of super-features, state-of-the art, superplane. He takes one quick look at the plans and the accompanying ten pages of well-written, tightly-argued justification for the design, and, with a red pencil and in a hand barely legible, scrawls the word, "simplificate", then pauses for a moment chewing the end of the pencil and adds "and add more lightness". The plane, thus re-designed simpler and lighter goes on to become an industry leader and the business booms, making his fortune. Over to you: simplificate that carving and add more lightness.

Tip Number 8: Go for broke
This is one for the timid souls amongst us (viz: all of us at some time or another). When I was learning to drawlet me re-phrase that (I'm still learning, aren't we all?)when I was being taught to draw, I was really timid. I'd put down these little marks, really faintly so you could barely see them. I was terrified of making a mistake, so I'd make nothing at all. The teacher grabbed my hand and pushed it so hard that the pencil tore through the paper. "See", she said, "It's only paper. It's only a drawing. It's not the end of the world if it doesn't work. You can do it over. Now 20 bold drawings in 20 minutes. Go!" At the end of 20 minutes, my hand ached, I was surrounded by 20 sheets of paper on the floor with 20 bloody awful, but bold, drawings on them, and I never cared again whether I got a drawing "right" or not.
So, it's only wood. It's only a carving. It's not the end of the world if it doesn't work. You can always do another one. In the meantime, be bold. Cut deeper than you think you should. Emphasize the curve, deepen the hollows, sharpen the edges. Forget about making it "right" and go for broke.

Tip Number 9: Divide and conquer
I've been busy trying to trace the origins of this tactic, without much success. I suspect it was probably Nicolo Macchiavelli (or maybe it was his older brother Angelo or his other older brother Luciano). Anyway, as every youngest child knows, the best way to get to play with your bigger siblings' toys and get them into trouble at the same time is to make them fight with each other. Well that just may be the problem with that carving over there behind the workbench. Maybe you've got two parts of the carving that are fighting each other (or maybe, even worse, you've got a carving with a multiple personality disorder). The solution is simple and surgical: take one saw and divide the carving into two.

Tip Number 10: The First Rule of Failure
Which is: If at first you don't succeed, destroy all evidence that you have tried.
For woodcarvers, "If at last you can't succeed, firewood".

And in parting until we meet again by the glowing embers of our would-have-beens, could-have-beens, if-onlys and nearly-made-its, having turned our failure into a roaring success, let me leave you with the words of someone who ought to have known (Winston Churchill):

"Success is never final."