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The Perils of Packing.
A Basic Woodcarving Library

by Jim Studebaker

Only able to carve as a part time hobby and not as a vocation, I sometimes have to travel as part of my job. And if gone very long I like to carve in the hotel, usually small Christmas ornaments or chip carved plates. It's much cheaper and more productive than the in-room movies and also contributes toward the family Christmas gift pile. There are certain oddities of behavior that you develop, though, as a woodcarver-on-the-go. For instance, you learn to give bigger tips to the nice housekeepers who vacuum up after you, and that big hotel bath towels are almost as good at absorbing wood chips as they are sopping up bath water.

But the biggest thing you learn is to keep any tools you have near the top of your carryon luggage so that the nice people in security can get to them easily, to keep a small close-to-finished carving near the tools, and to liberally sprinkle wood chips onto your clothing. Wearing a "Glen Rose, Texas Woodcarving Rally" T-shirt, a big smile, and bandaids on your thumb is also a good idea. These tactics help keep you from getting used to having to 'step over here, please' and answer the other polite but tense questions that the nice security people ask. You also learn to get to the airport early to go through this friendly ritual. And never, ever, ever do impromptu carving demonstrations at the gate or on the plane unless you want to get a LOT of attention.

Packing for a trip recently, I found myself squashing far too much stuff into far too small a carryon bag and trying to once again figure out what would have to stay and what could come along. Remembering the last time I had ever checked in a bag reminded me that I couldn't take everything. THAT was a memorable baggage rescue. Being midwinter, planes everywhere were grounded. The helpful gate agent said that my luggage would be perfectly fine sitting by the luggage counter at a terminal in Chicago O'Hare while I tried to negotiate a different flight. What a wicked sense of humor he had. Anyway, vowing to never again have to launder underwear and shirts in a hotel bathroom sink, I have managed since then to travel solely with carryon luggage.

I got to thinking more about lightening the load. You get to do that a lot while waiting for buses, trains, trams, shuttles, planes, and connecting flights. OK, if you can only take a few things with you, the tools that you can take are pretty much defined by whatever project you are going to work on. But what if you have to be gone a LOOOONNNNGGGG time? Or what if you had to pare your woodcarving book selection down just as much? You know, one of those 'marooned on a desert island' type of deals.

Also working on the syllabus to teach introductory woodcarving at the local junior college, I got to thinking about the benefit of coming up with a possible 'starter library' to recommend to new carvers. There are an awful lot of excellent books put out by Fox Chapel, Schiffer, and others. And there are an awful lot of excellent carvers writing, too, like Tom Wolfe and Ian Norbury. And for the price, you just can't beat a membership in NWCA and it's subscription to Chip Chats, a subscription to Woodcarving Illustrated, or a membership in your local carving club.

Limited to just a very few books, they would have to be good overall references and fundamental texts. Books that could stand by themselves, cover their subject from start to finish, and provide room to grow as skills expanded. Certainly not intending to slight any author or publisher, and just looking at my own shelves at the moment, what if I could only ever have three of them? Here is what I would take, or recommend to friend just starting out, if I could only pick three.

If there was only one book allowed on this hypothetical long journey, my choice would be E.J. Tangermann's "The Complete Guide to Woodcarving" available for around $18.00. Amazon.com price in May 2000 was $14.36. Although "Complete Guide" is not rated by Amazon.com as yet, reviewers gave his "Whittling and Woodcarving" classic five out of five stars! Published in 1984, "Complete Guide" is a compilation of selected excerpts from nine of E.J. Tangermann's books published from 1980 to 1983. An excellent value for the price.

Photographs that range from 'the Little Mermaid' in Copenhagen to Peruvian llamas and Sri Lankan caricatures showcase Tange's extensive wood carving collection and world travels in pursuit of his passion for carving. Former vice-president of the National Wood Carvers Association and an active carver for over a half century, 'Tange' was a frequent contributor to Chip Chats, Popular Mechanics and Popular Science. He is arguably the father of North American woodcarving as a hobby. "The Complete Guide" is easy to read, is well illustrated, and has about 700 black and white photographs that do a great job of visualizing the text. You do have to sometimes flip pages back and forth to match up text and accompanying illustrations, though.

"Complete Guide" has inspiration and projects easily achievable by new carvers as well as challenging more experienced ones. There are step by step projects like the above mentioned Little Mermaid and an oriental gnome. Mack Sutton's basic (10 lessons of 2 hours each) relief panel carving 'course', advanced relief carving and other projects and fundamentals are included. There are sections on carving insects, animals, flowers, fabulous creatures and buildings, as well as masks and lettering. Proportions and sizes of human figures and faces is also addressed.

Tool selection, care and use includes plans for making a carving bench, making, using, and sharpening knives, power sharpening, and the use of carver's screws and 'D' adzes. Tange provides some excellent information on carving media, including the selection and use of various kinds of wood, bark, gourds, nuts, ivory, and even how to work with flawed wood. Finishing topics include texturing, modeling bases, and use of natural finishes as well as antiquing and gold leafing.

Tange's book is a "must have" for every beginning woodcarvers' library and a welcome addition for more experienced carvers. If your local bookstore chain does not have or can't order it for you, internet resources like Amazon.com are a sure bet. If you don't mind waiting to see when it will come around, this classic is often available for much less than retail from eBay. You can almost always find copies of "Whittling and Woodcarving" on eBay for under ten dollar and often under five.

You may find the Sterling Publications at

Bill Judt's "Relief Carving: Patterns, Tips, Techniques" is available from mail order and local woodcarving shops for around $20 and is a fantastic fundamental reference. The Amazon.com price in May 2000 was $12.95. Your hands are almost guaranteed to be itching to grab a mallet and gouges within a few pages. This is a slick, well executed publication by Fox Chapel, folks well known for high quality wood carving books. In addition to the well done photography, the many illustrations greatly complement the very readable, very understandable text of this stand-alone guide to relief carving.

A full-time carving professional, Bill generously shares his story to help the reader get a good feel for what it takes to be a woodcarving pro ranging from why people carve to how to handle commissions. Getting into actual carving, Bill starts with tool selection, use and sharpening, including well explained and illustrated directions to make stamping tools and mallets. The next chapter covers shop tools, raw lumber and processing, plans for and use of a light table for drawing, plans and use of a buffing and grinding center, and workbench plans, both wall mounted and stand alone.

Bill then goes into handling and selecting various wood types, preparing panels for carving, and a ten page photo gallery sure to inspire several projects. There is a good treatment of drawing pattern techniques including the use of a pantograph, drawing ellipses, and achieving perspective in the relatively flat medium of relief carving. Other techniques covered include handling grain direction, wood removal, undercutting, bends, stop cuts and background. Bill also covers the practical as well as aesthetic aspects of displaying, finishing (including a good rating of various types of finishes), and has an excellent step by step example of a relief carving, from concept to completion.

Appendices include a thorough, topical index, 7 easily photocopied patterns, 11 type fonts, and tool profiles for sweeps and sizes. An excellent reference work from an excellent carver, this one will keep you busy and learning for a long time.

You may visit Schiffer Books at

If your only use of a woodburner so far has been to sign your carvings and mark your tools, Al Chapman's "Learning the Art of Pyrography: Burning Images on Wood, Paper, and Leather" is a must addition to your library. It, too, is copiously and well illustrated. Amazon,com reviewers give this book three and a half stars out of five, and it is available from Amazon for $12.95 as of May 2000.

In addition to a good starting section on burner and tip selection and use, Al includes practice exercises, patterns and strokes to help develop burning skills. The use and effects of different tips is covered, as are advanced techniques for rendering hair, fur, feathers, trees, and landscapes on media as varied as leather, paper, and gourds, as well as wood. The photo gallery of Al's and other's work is well photographed. There is a step by step feather project that provides great practice. The quantity of material on pattern making and on project ideas is not overly large, but does provide more than ample coverage. Finishing techniques include staining, sealing, highlighting and coloring, with a step by step project of a doe and fawn.

You may visit Schiffer Books at

By the way, an excellent webpage for pyrographic resources is at http://www.geocities.com/Paris/Rue/4029/pyrobook.html.

So there it is, safely buttoned into the outside pocket of my carryon, a minimalists' woodcarving library. Maroon me with tools, and I'm all set for that long hypothetical stay on a desert island or in a hotel room. And like I said, there are an awful lot of excellent books out there that I haven't had a chance to read yet. Maybe if I take a few more flights?

Keep those chips flying!


President of the FloraBama Cutups woodcarving club in Pensacola, Florida, Jim Studebaker also teaches basic woodcarving at Pensacola Junior College. You can see some of his work in the American Stickmaker's Association gallery at http://home.att.net/~amstickmakersassoc/gallery20.html. As a member of the 'old goat patrol', Jim also teaches woodcarving as a Boy Scout merit badge counselor and summer camp instructor, and has left quite a few piles of wood chips at various camporees, campouts, and crackerbarrels.