Woodcarver Ezine
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or "Portraits by the Inch"

by Steve Schoolar
(See biographical notes below)

Editor's note: Though this article is mostly "text", I found it unusually descriptive and clear. What Steve is describing here is a fascinating variation of the methods I found to work in my relief carvings. Thanks, Steve, for your valuable insights :-)



At one time or another, everyone gets the desire or the request to carve a portrait. This first happened to me a number of years ago when a customer called and wanted to know if I could carve a portrait in relief of a member of his company. He wanted it done in a month, he wanted it large, and he wanted it delivered in person to Las Vegas. I told him a price that I thought he would run from but then he said yes! I was delighted but I had never done a portrait.

They say that even a blind hog finds an acorn once in a while. I found several at the local library in some turn of the century books. I took what they said and added what little I knew plus what was currently written about portrait carving and came up with a method that has worked for many successful commissions over the years. It has built me a reputation and clientele that has been very profitable. The process is simple and I want to share it with you.

If you can measure,
you can carve a relief portrait

Even if you have limited skill with the use of the tools, you can still be successful. I have seen it done time and again in my seminars by less than average carvers. Like I said, you must measure and never trust your eyesight. It will be wrong every time.

The first thing you do is find or take a photograph of the subject. Then you decide on the size of the finished work. Next, you take the photo to the local copy store and have a color copy made of the it that is the size of the planned finished work. You have it copied in color even if the original photo is in black and white. The color copy gives you much more detail that you will need later.

Hidden Dots???

At this point, I take a Sharpie (brand) marker and hide (see below) 3 or 4 black dots on the picture. I place them in the hair, around the ear, on the collar line or necklace, on the clothing, and if the mouth is to be open, in the corner of the mouth where the outside bottom of the teeth meet the edge of the mouth. (Usually in a portrait the person will be smiling and this area ends up being very dark in the finished carving.)

From the color copy, make about ten black and white copies on a regular copy machine. These copies must also be the size of the final carving. The cost of this should be about $5-$7. Do not skimp on the number of copies. If you do, you will be returning to the copy store before the project is finished.

When I get back to the studio, I hang the copies all over the studio. I want to see it everywhere I look at all times. Take that wide clear tape used for mailing and place it over each one of the hidden dots on a couple of the black and white copies--not on the color copy. You will be punching holes in the dots over and over and the tape will help keep the holes from growing into rips.

Transfering the Photo

Now you are ready to transfer your photo onto your wood surface that is sanded smooth. (I always use Basswood for portraits and glue it up to the size needed.)

Tape one end of one of your correct size black and white copies to your wood. This way, you can lift it up and place carbon paper or graphite paper under the copy. Now, you trace the major elements of the photo onto the wood and make sure that you trace each of the hidden dots onto the wood. You will need to check from time to time that all is going well with the tracing paper. I have had the thrill of tracing a photo for over an hour only to find that I had the carbon paper facing the wrong way. I ended up with a great tracing on the back of the paper. (editor's note: Sounds familiar :-)

Next, you remove the paper and check that all the major lines and the hidden dots transferred to the wood. At this point, I take a small drill and drill completely through the board on each hidden dot. That is why they are hidden in the picture. You will patch them with glue and small slivers of scrap wood at the end of the project.

Next I do what I call Carve by Number

I decide which are the highest points of the carving and put a #1 on each of them. Then move on to the next level and give it a #2, the #3, and so on until I get to the lowest level which is the background. It gets the largest number.

Contour Plowing and Carving

If you liked Carve by Number, you are going to love Contour Plowing and Carving. To do this, you start with the largest number which is the lowest area of the relief carving. This will be the background. Take out all the wood until you get down to the level that the background will remain. This is usually about half way through the thickness of the board.

Next you move on to the next highest number and take out all the wood marked with that number until it is just a small amount above the background. Do not try to do any rounding or shaping at this point. Continue this until you get to #1. Now, your carving should look like levels of a contoured plowed field at the end of this step.

Locating the Features

The next few hours is when you are going to appreciate that geometry class back in school. Since you have carved off all the lines except the #1 area, it is now time to start locating the features on your carving, drawing them in place, and carving them. This is done with a pair of dividers. I always find the corners of the eyes, tip of the nose, bottom of the septum, corners of the mouth, and center of the mouth first.

This is done by measuring with the dividers from one of the holes or hidden dots on the copy to a corner of the eye. This measurement is transferred to the wood and a small arc is scratched on the wood with the tip of the divider. Next you measure from another dot on the copy to that same eye corner and transfer that measurement onto the wood by making a small arc again.

Where the two arcs form an "X" is the true location of the eye corner. (It will not look correct but it is.) After finding and redrawing major features, you begin to carve. But remember, you must do this process with every detail you place on the carving. If you give in to the temptation to trust your eyes, most often you can be assured of a face with and odd looking angle to it.

I have found that I can not carve on a portrait for more than 2 hours. I get blind to the details and begin to make dumb mistakes that have to be corrected later. After a couple of hours, I go do something else or take a break. After about an hour away, I can go back to working on the portrait.

One of the most helpful things I have found in portrait carving is that the light must be coming at an angle down the face of the carving. I carve on an easel set up at about 45 degrees and have lights shining down the easel from the top. Also, in order to check my progress and make sure that the portrait is looking like the subject, I use a mirror. I turn my back to the carving about every fifteen minuets, hold up a hand mirror, and view the carving from that direction. Any mistakes will just jump out at you. If anyone sees you doing it they will say you are nuts but love the portraits you produce.

The background for the portrait is never finished smooth. I can hide a lot of "sins" in what I call a "busted up" background. I will do this with a gouge or wood punch to create a broken pattern behind the subject. If you go for a smooth background, you will spend more time on it than on the face and it will detract from the subject.

After all the carving, hidden hole patching, and sanding is done, I cover the entire work with sanding sealer (editor's note: Sound familiar?) and let it dry. I then go over it with the finest sanding material possible--a wadded up brown grocery paper bag. I give it a very good scrubbing with the bag. Do not have any printing showing on the bag or it will rub off on the carving.

I always stain the figure with a fruitwood stain. It does not matter if it gets on the background also. After this is done, I go over the entire work with walnut stain. I wipe it off the face leaving it in the cracks and creases. I will work with the walnut stain on the background to where the farther you move away from the face toward edge of the work, the darker it gets.

After all this, I seal it with a clear sealer to protect it from smudges and stains. I will put a couple of coats on it allowing drying time between each coat. When each clear coat is absolutely dry, it gets a brisk rub down with the good old brown paper bag.

Now we have a portrait carved in wood that is encased in a clear synthetic coating. The last thing I do is take Johnson's Paste Floor Wax, rub it all over my hands, and then rub it all over the carving. I do this several times then take a shoe brush and bring the carving to a great shine. Not only does it produce a shine but the customer always picks up the wooden portrait encased in a synthetic coating, looks at it, feels of it, smells of it and says, "I just love the natural smell and feel of wood!"


Steve Schoolar, Ph.D. is a professional woodcarver living in Fort Worth, Tx.

His doctorate is left over from when he walked away from the education world about ten years ago to be a full time woodcarver. Looking for a hobby over fifteen years ago, he chose woodcarving.

His first formal study was with Claude Bolton and Claude pointed him into the correct directions for further study which has included Ian Norbury, Georg Keilhofer, Rex and Vicki Bransom, Harold Enlow and numerous others. One of the guiding forces in Steveís success and career has been Charlie Boren, famous wood sculptor.

According to Steve, "About twice a month I go out to Charlie's studios to just sit, watch, and talk. I have learned more in those sessions than I will ever read in books or take in formal classes."

All the work Steve carves is for sale purposes. According to him, "I do not carve, I create souvenirs of the joy of my creative process and journey with each work I do." He claims he is the luckiest man alive. He gets to do for money what he formerly did out of love of the art. According to Steve, "Woodcarving is not my job. It is my passion and I get paid for it."

To contact Steve
E-mail: ssorss@aol.com

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