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Notes From the Net

by Loren K. Woodard

"Notes from the Net" is simply a compilation of a select few of the many fine tips and hints that are shared on the Woodcarver Mailing List. Tips and hints are shared by the master carver and novice alike. I would extend an invitation to all who are not already a part of the list to come on board and share in the delightful and enriching experience. Following is a small sampling of the data that is available to us all on the Woodcarver's Mailing List.


There was an excellent discussion concerning face carving on the Woodcarver's List. Anthony J.Last noted that one of the problems with beginning carvers is that they carve the face too flat. He stated that said that there is a 90 degree angle between the tip of the nose and both cheeks. Ivan Whillock bolstered this statement with other excellent observations and advice. Ivan indicated that most beginning carvers worry about the eyes but fail to see their bigger problem with the angle of the face. He advises carvers to put a carpenter's square across the face at the nose to cheek angle. Ivan also stated that another problem many carvers face is the placement of the eyes. Many carvers place the eyes about 1/3 of the way down on the head. For a realistic carving, the eyes should be placed in the center of the head. With that, Mr. Whillock offered the following tutorial on learning to carve faces:


1. Learn to see. Even though we look at people virtually every day of our lives, we don't automatically see them in terms of proportion of features and other things useful to the artist. Collect pictures not of other carvings but of people. Front views, side views, three-quarter views. Get out your dividers and compare one feature to the other. Take the length of the ear, for example, and compare that to the length of the nose, the distance between the centers of the eyes, from the bottom of the nose to
the chin. Yours truly has put the comparative measurements in his best selling book, "Head Proportion Made Simple" (Sold at fine carving shops and some art supply stores everywhere--or email me off list with your address).

2. Practice. Free throw shooters practice, guitar players practice, opera singers practice; carvers seldom do. Have trouble with eyes? Carve a million eyes in the corners of scrap wood. Make them the size you generally carve in your faces. Work on slanting the tool into the wood you want to remove so that the eyelids don't chip out. Practice knowing exactly where the tip of the knife--or the cutting edge of the tool is at all times. Become an expert at tool control (and, of course, sharpening).

3. Work from the general to the specific. New carvers are preoccupied with detail. They are often impatient with the blocking out process that precedes the detail. Study the masses of the face--where are the "corners," where one plane meets another? Work the eyes out of two equal eye masses, the nose out of a pyramidal nose mass, the mouth and chin out of a dental mass.

4. Carve both eyes at the same time. Do not finish one eye and try to copy it on the other side of the face. First make sure the masses are the same. Then make the same cuts for both upper eye lids. Then make the cuts for both lower eye lids, etc. Having practiced the million eyes, you will have knife control so now you can concentrate on getting the shapes you want, rather than worrying about chipping out the wood!

5. Keep your dividers handy so that you can apply the comparative measurements you taught yourself (and learned from my book) to the carving at hand. Work from a specific photograph. Don't copy it slavishly but look at it to first get the measurements, then to do the blocking and then the detail. Again, work from nature (photos) rather than other people's carvings. You will develop your own style that way, and will not be perpetuating the "errors" or "interpretations" of other artists.

6. Consult carving books but look to them as offering alternative techniques that you can choose to apply to your carvings or not. Try Pete LeClair's way of making eyes, but also try John Burke's, Ivan Whillock's, or any other carver, not to copy their style but to use their experience to develop alternative techniques. Maybe you will like Burke's way of making the nose wings, but prefer LeClair's manner of blocking out the ears and reject all of the impostor Whillock's techniques out of hand.

7. If you want to do caricatures, check out a few cartoon drawing books to see how cartoonists vary standard proportions to get the effects they want; experiment a bit yourself. Try making the nose longer, shorter, the eyes far apart, close together, etc. Keep a collection of head blocks that you
have practiced on and use them for guidance on a carving you are doing for real.

8. Trust yourself and be yourself. Don't assume that to be "good" your carving has to be a clone of one of the well-known carvers. Let your own style develop through experimentation and practice and most of all, by having fun with the medium.

Another interest thread had Joe Dillett sharing his secretes for carving bark, leaf and grass texturing. He stated that he carves bark by rocking his V tool from side to side while pushing it gently up the tree trunk. For leaves Joe indicated that he creates layers in the overall shape of the tree. Then he outlines the leaves in an oval shape. Then he uses a small V tool, pushing it straight in the create the jagged edge shape of the leaf.

Another method that Joe uses to carve leaves is to create the basic shape of the leaves and then texture the leaves by gently rocking his V tool from side to side while moving it slowly forward in random directions. For a pine tree Joe uses this same technique but in a more uniform direction.

For grass texturing Joe indicated that he creates the texture for small blades of grass by using a small number 5 sweep gouge and rocking it side to side and advancing it slowly (like walking it through the wood).

Joe emphasized that when texturing by rocking your tool, don't push very hard in the forward direction. Let the cutting take place by the rocking motion of the tool. By experimenting with various texturing techniques, your carving tools become like paint brushes, bringing excitement and life to your carvings.


There has been several threads concerning spoon carving on the list over the last couple of months. With the number of discussions concerning spoon carving that have taken place I felt like the following information shared by John White, that he had seen on a linen towel by Brian Williams, would be of interest to carvers.

Although other kinds of tokens of esteem for their loved one were carved by love-swains in the 1700s, articles such a bobbins for pillow lace, wooden thimbles, sheaths for knitting needles, busks for corsets, etc., love spoons were by far the most popular, probably because of the simplicity of hollowing out a spoon. The term "spooning" is said to be derived from these gifts. The makers of love spoons were not craftsmen, but untutored amateurs. Most love spoons are of Welsh origin, but influences from other countries can be seen. Rope and cable designs show the influence of seamen.

Almost always the design consists of symbolic shapes such as a diamond, a ring, a keyhole, a leaf, or a heart. Most love spoons were intended for display, and the local beauty might have many hung on her dresser.

Decoration was symbolic, a single or entwined figure as the central theme or as a means of hanging the spoon. Some spoons were double and a few had a small third spoon. The better examples were often quite elaborate, a favorite being a captive ball, within a cage in the handle, all carved from the solid. Others had elaborate linked chains, again carved from solid wood. In some cases, two spoons were linked by a long chain, all carved from one piece of wood and these were hung round the necks of both bride and groom during the wedding ceremony, symbolizing the linking of the couple.

When the pace of living changed in the Victorian era, with the Industrial Revolution and the development of transport, this charming custom died out, but is currently being revised. Many excellent examples of love spoons may be seen in Welsh museums and bought at Welsh craft shops.


There was an interesting thread concerning relief carving that I felt was well worth sharing. The carving in question was a relief carving of a wolf pup. The carver indicated that he was having trouble keeping his prospective angles while rounding the nose and jaw line. Ivan Whillock, author of a couple of different books on relief carving offered the following comments:

Don't lose the geometric forms that compose the features. For example, the snout is composed of a top plane, two side planes and a front plane. Look at your model for the "corners" of these planes -- where the top plane transists into a side plane, where the side snout plane changes into the cheek plane, where the top snout plane moves into the forehead plane, etc. Try to capture those planes--their angles--and really emphasize the corners - even to the point of temporarily keeping them too sharp. Ignore the detail and really work on getting the basic planes worked out. After the head is blocked out and you've got the geometry worked out, then soften the corners and add the detail.

An additional hint by Ivan: When you put the sketch on the wood, there is not need to draw all the detail. Try drawing the geometric form onto the wood rather than the detail. Draw the outlines of the forms of course, but then draw in lines to show the points of transition - the "corner" where the top of the snout and the side of the snout meet, where the plane of the top of the snout meets the front plane of the nose . . . Teach yourself to see the basic geometric shapes that form the head.

A few simple lines will help you block out the planes of the head, and will not distract you into thinking "detail" too soon. As Zorach puts it, "The A B C's of the sculptor's language are very simple. All sculpture is composed of variations of a few basic forms; the cube, the sphere, the cone, the pyramid, and the cylinder. It is important for the student to understand these forms and their relationships to each other."

David Lavoie added that he would put a straight edge across the top to check the depth of the relief to make sure that the eyes, forehead and ears are deep enough, then go ahead and follow Ivan's advice on establishing the geometric planes.


Susan Irish, of Carving Patterns Online, http://www.carvingpatterns.com offered the following painting techniques for painting your carvings.

There are two approaches to sealing a carving for painting with oil paints and which you use, of course, depends on the final effect that you desire. If you want to paint a sculpture in full detail, such as a Pennsylvania Dutch Carving or a brightly colored Santa Clause might be done, then what you are looking for is to not only seal the wood to receive the paints but also to hide the wood and any grain that might show. In this case she uses gesso, an acrylic flat finished sealer that is used to size canvases for painting. Gesso is very thick straight from the jar, so she thins it down with water by at least one fourth (four parts gesso to one part water).

This should create a wash coat that is transparent and very easy to work into the detail of the work. Brush one coat on, and REALLY work out the brush stroke marks. This wash will penetrate deeply into the grain of the wood. Since gesso is acrylic it is not self smoothing. Let that coat dry for several hours. When the wood carving no longer feels cold to the touch it's dry. This is an excellent time to do a little bit of extra sanding as the gesso will have raised any lose fibers.

For the second coat she usually thickens the gesso wash slightly. She reapplies the Gesso and again allows it to dry. She will put three or four thin coats on this way to create a totally white base on which to paint without losing any of the detail in your carving. Allow this to dry thoroughly (wet gesso and fresh oil paint = a terrible mess).

Now the surface is ready for your paints whether it is acrylic or oils. You may either work directly from the white background or you can antique the carving by applying a wash of burnt umber or raw umber oil paint thinned with linseed oil. (Note: I took a class with Al Longo one time and Al paints his carvings in this manner. It is really a unique technique and looks very good on Santas, angels, etc.)

Thin the oil paint just enough so that you can see through it, Susan checks it by putting a few drops on a piece of newspaper. If she can read the words through the color it's ready. She then brushes one coat over the entire carving and immediately wipes off the umber wash with a clean lint free cloth. After it is well rubbed you can remove even more of the antique from the highlights with a cloth dampened with turpentine. Let this dry several days. When you go to paint the carving with the oil colors the antiquing will show through the color application. Your high areas will have color that blends down into the dark umber recesses of the carving. Waw - La!, instant blending and shading for your carving.

Susan emphasized that It is her preference to apply light coats of clear matte acrylic spray sealer over the entire carving between coats of oil paint. However, she stated that many artists build up the coats without the extra sealer.

The second approach is one that Susan uses on definitely grained wood carvings, such as butternut or sassafras (basswood shows little or no grain and she does not use it here). When the carving is completed she applies a thin mixture of linseed oil and turpentine, mixed about half and half. She brushes this coat out very well and lets sit for about fifteen minutes. Now briskly rub the sculpture down to pick up any extra oil finish. Again LET DRY! The next day repeat the oil coating and rubbing and now let dry for several days. At this point your carving looks very finished with the linseed oil shine.

Now for the fun part. Put your oil paints out on a tile and with a very soft brush (sable flat or filbert) pick up just a little color on the tip. Work the color into the brush on the corner of the tile. Then brush on this very light coat to the different areas of your carving. You will barely be able to see the coating. When every area has one coat of color lightly spray the work with clear matte spray sealer. Let dry just for a few moments.

Repeat this process until you slowly built up the color depth that you want, finishing with the sealer. Some carving areas may taken six or seven layers for a good color development, especially the yellows and light greens. What happens here is that you create layers of work. And the viewer of the work can see the color but also sees through the color to the beautiful grain of the wood below. It is almost like applying a transparent lacquer look to the image.

As a departing comment I would like to urge all carvers to follow Robin Edward Trudel's Mantra: Where is the knife going to go when it slips?

I recently had a conversation with a novice woodcarver that hat put a 1/2 inch carpenter's chisel nearly through the palm of his had the day before of conversation. He told me that he was roughing out a bandsawed blank and was removing a heavy amount of wood on his bear's front leg. He was holding the bear in one hand and pushing down hard with the chisel. When it slipped his hand stopped the chisel's forward movement. In my opinion, the carver made several mistakes:

First and obviously the worst for him, he didn't think about where that chisel was going when it slipped, not if it slipped but when it slipped!

Second, he didn't realize that if he had a sharp carving tool he wouldn't have to be bearing down that hard. He could have simply guided the carving tool through the carving with a limited amount of pressure and removed wood, probably quicker than he was doing by hogging the wood off.

Third, he still didn't have a clue that he had made a mistake. His comment to me was that he had nailed himself like all carvers do when they start carving. He was still holding his bear in his hand and carving toward his hand. I gently urged him to carve away from his body parts and to learn to control the flow of his carving tool.

I urge you to take precautions in your carving. As Robin says, it is WHEN not IF you slip. Remember to keep your carving hand upstream of the sharp edge.

I certainly hope that you have found something in this article that will be of use to you in your carving endeavors. Take time to drop me a note and let me know what you would like to see in future articles. Remember, my article consists of threads that are sent in to the different carving lists. Therefore, if you want an early preview of an upcoming article consider joining the Woodcarver's List, the Woodcarver's Porch, the Stickmaker's list and the Fishcarver's list. Until the next issue, take care and enjoy your carving. -Loren Woodard


For information regarding the various email lists for woodcarvers, visit The Carvers' Companion Links Page, or click the links below.

Woodcarver's List - Woodcarvers' Porch - American Stickmaker's - Fishcarver's List