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An Evening With Ian Norbury

By Robert Mace



Noted British carver Ian Norbury is visiting the United States this fall, giving a series of classes at Woodcraft stores and the occasional slide show at local carving clubs along the way.

Robert Mace, owner of the Knotholes carver list, was present when Norbury spoke October 4th, 2000 at the Mahoning Valley Wood Carvers Club in Warren, Ohio. At that meeting Norbury presented a two hours slide show on his works and carving methods. Here is Mace's report:

What Can I Learn?

I was thinking about this while driving to the meeting site. Just how much can you learn about carving from a slide show anyway? Well let me tell you, Norbury's presentation was no ordinary slide show.

Throughout the presentation Norbury showed many slides of his awesome work and discussed the challenges and problems each presented, as well as his solutions for the problems encountered.




Autumn Leaves

Limewood & Mixed Media

24" x 24" x 6"

All photographs copyright Ian Norbury 2000; used with permission


Against The Mainstream?

Norbury noted that in the carving world as a whole, some carvers don't like the way he works; most people think that a "true blue" wood carver should carve every thing out of one block of wood, no matter what.

Norbury, however, does not always do this with his works. As an example he showed a slide of a "Slave" carved in dark walnut. It is an African man bound in chains and shackles. This, Ian said, was his first slave carving and the small chain and slave were carved from one block of wood; the chain was the hardest thing he has ever had to carve.

On the next slide Norbury presented his second "Slave" carving. On this piece he carved the male slave then made the chains and shackles out of silver and added them to the carving.

Many of Norbury's carvings are done in many small sections and use different kinds of wood to help stress a point. In some of his work the torso is carved first, with the arms and legs carved later and added on (using two-part epoxy) to make a complete figure


The Jester Carvings

Norbury went into great detail describing the work involved in his "Jester" carvings.

As you may know, jesters dress in a costume that has many diamond shapes. Norbury spent long hours of research on jesters at his college and at museums. For the jester carvings Norbury rented a costume and hired someone to wear it and then shot many rolls of film, having the model performing a variety of movements. He also shot close-ups in order to study the lines and wrinkles in the cloth as his model made these movements.

Harlequin The Politician

Various Woods


(The figure, 36" high, is carved from solid limewood, then inlaid with blocks of over 120 different species of wood from all over the world.)


Using the photos for reference Norbury designed and drew the figure as he wanted it to look for the carving. He then carved the whole thing to completion but would make it a bit larger then the desired final carving. He did this so the diamond shapes of colored wood could be added to the carving. He said he actually carved the jester and did all the sanding on the figure and had it ready for the poly varnish, but at that point began the second process of carving and adding the diamonds.

The first jester had 100 to 150 diamonds and he learned a lot from the initial carving; for instance the initial step in adding a diamond is to carve a recessed hole the shape of the diamond on the finished figure. If the diamond is at a difficult location such as an elbow, not only is it hard to carve but the colored diamond shape has to be bent to fit the diamond shaped hole on the figure.

After all the diamonds were set in place he started the sanding all over again, in the process setting the wrinkles in place on the costume. This is a long, long process.

On the second jester Norbury made the diamond shapes smaller so there were more of them to do, around 200 in all; so even though he had to do more in number, by making them smaller they were easier to place, especially in areas like elbows. Even with the smaller diamonds Norbury still had to do many hours of sanding to get the figures to the desired result.


Carving To A Different Drummer

As noted previously, Norbury feels some other carvers do not like the way he does his work. Ian makes use of all types and kinds of wood on the same carving to help get his point across, to help express or set the mood of the carving and to help in showing off the contrast of each carving. He also uses brass, copper, silver, gold, and precious and semiprecious stones and crystal. On many of his carvings Norbury has a mask on the face of the carving and this mask may be made out of copper, silver or gold.


Harlequin Abandoned


(English limewood, inlaid with blocks of 50 different woods in the shape of diamonds. The cushion is English walnut and the box of American walnut on a verdé marble turntable.
Harlequin's hat is purpleheart decorated with a poppy made from coral and olivine, a form of chrysolite.
The figure is also inlaid with copper and lead.
The buttons on the cuffs are gold; the buttons down the chest are carnelian and lapis lazuli.
The needle and thread are copper and silver.)




A Life in Art

During the course of the slide presentation Norbury also talked about his life. He went to college and majored in art. Part of the art room included a carving area. After school he would go there and start working with all the different tools and machines and liked the feel he was getting in doing his early works. Later he changed over to carving more or less as the art part of his studies.

He also said that he has spent a major part of his art career doing a study of the human body and he knows the bone structure and muscle structure inside and out - and can draw it with his eyes shut. His works show that he has a great command of this aspect of carving.


Walnut Torso

English Walnut



Which Comes First?

Norbury showed a slide of a large tree root that looked like a whole jagged stump or drift wood chunk. He carved a female face with a serpent coiled around about with some serpent eggs stuffed in a small hole. The serpent was of basswood, the eggs were walnut and the face was ebony. In the head were some real red stones for the serpents eyes. Norbury showed close-up slides of this and many of his other works as well.

I asked Norbury how he decided what that chunk of tree root should become; that is, which came first, the chicken or the egg? Does he get an idea then look for wood to fit it, or does he have the wood and finds something to fit the wood?

Norbury's reply was very interesting. In the case of the root carving, he found the piece in a bog near his home while he and his wife were walking one evening. It was stuck in the mud; they pulled it out and took it home where he cleaned it, and the piece then sat for two years before he did anything with it.

Norbury remarked that this root or stump had such an interesting shape that he did not want to cut into it and change it in any way, did not want to lose the beauty of the root. So he decided to make something to wrap around the root, like the serpent.

On other projects Norbury starts with an idea. Many of his works are based on Shakespeare or old Greek mythology themes, about which he appears quite knowledgeable.

When starting a new project, he draws up many views of the carving, decides on a final pose, transfers the design over to the wood, cuts out the blank and starts to carve the project.

Some projects take two or three weeks from start to finish; others take up to a year to complete.


Tools and Techniques

Norbury went on to note that he uses many hand tools as well as power tools such as a Foredom tool and very fine diamond bits.

He said that the fingers on many of his pieces are done with a small knife and then rounded over with a gouge, rather than a V-tool; he does not like the cut left by a V-tool. The V-tool cut must be sanded smooth and round to make the line between the fingers end up looking like real fingers.

Norbury also noted that he spends many hours sanding each one of his carving, using all the fine grits of sand papers. When asked about his gloss finish he said that in the past he used a wax but now uses a different process. The piece is hand sanded and then a quick coat of poly varnish brushed on and wiped off with a paper towel. Sometimes Ian uses two coats of finish, but before the second coat will pour boiling hot water over the whole carving to raise the grain. Then it's back to sanding and the final coat of poly varnish.


The WCI Article

The current issue of Wood Carving Illustrated magazine has a good article featuring Norbury and his work. The magazine article includes photos of a man on a tricycle; Norbury said some of the work on the tricycle was done on his lathe, then the man was made to ride the tricycle. On completion he found the figure was too heavy for the tricycle and the tricycle broke. As a result Norbury cut the man in half to hollow him out to make the figure lighter.

The carving featured on the front page of the current issue of Wood Carving Illustrated magazine is a bright white dove with wings spread open. Norbury commented that to get basswood to look that white he used hair dressing bleach from a beauty salon and soaked the basswood over night. The next day he rinsed off the wood and the bright white is the result.

Also included in the Wood Carving Illustrated article is a photo of Norbury's "Death of Pierrot." All of the very fine threads on this caving are actually very fine copper wire. Norbury told us he had a drill bit that was ever so small and drilled holes in the figure's fingers and then laced the wire in and out to make this web-like strands going all over the carving. The tangle of lace at the neck was made with a power tool.

So bottom line is this: if you get a chance to see Ian Norbury in person don't pass it up. Even his slide show is like a class from which you can gain much. I know learned a lot and have discussed here only a small part of what makes Norbury as great as he is. He is without any doubt one of the most creative and gifted and talented men I have ever met.

--- Robert Mace <AgentID4@aol.com>

Ian Norbury has published a number of excellent books, which are available from your local or internet carving supply house. For more information about Norbury's books click here

Visit Ian Norbury's web site at www.iannorbury.com to see more of his work and preview his books.

For the Woodcraft tour schedule and information about classes, visit the Woodcraft web site at www.woodcraft.com.

WCI Cover copyright 2000 by Fox Chapel Publishing and used with their kind permission.

All other photographs copyright 2000 by Ian Norbury; used with the kind permission of the artist.