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Confessions of a Woodcarving Teacher

By Mike Bloomquist

On Teaching Woodcarving:

If I had known how much fun this was going to be it would have happened a lot sooner. Having put in 5+ years of teaching high school Physics at one point ('79-'85) you would have thought that teaching woodcarving would have seemed like a good idea much sooner. I really enjoyed teaching Physics. (Those of you who suspected I was a little 'weird' now realize how truly disturbed I am.)

As much fun as it was, nothing compares to teaching something you are obsessed with. Coming home from the first night of my latest woodcarving class, with the usually idiot's grin on my face, My wife, Yvonne, asked me how many classes this made. I had to think for a minute, but after the smoke cleared the number was '11'. After more recollection (and still more smoke), we pegged the first class I taught as Fall '95, ten years after I carved my first fishing lure. Why so long? I guess I really didn't feel 'qualified' to teach carving, even then. Hindsight being "20/20", teaching woodcarving should have started much sooner.


The First Teaching Experience:

In a way, it did occur a little sooner then the Fall of '95. That summer, at a show in Morrisville, VT, my daughter Melissa started dragging me around the show by the hand, and spending a lot of time at the supplier's booths asking questions about the different knives. Something was 'afoot'. She bought her first woodcarving knife that day and asked me to show her how to carve wood. Her first project was a "mouse-over-the-shelf-edge" blank, which she purchased from an older couple in another booth. These folks had a wonderful selection of blanks sprawled all over their table, each in a zip lock sandwich bag with a little Xeroxed page of the original pattern. All were very good beginner projects at $1-$2 each. Being my first student doesn't seem to have left lasting scars, but if Melissa ever undergoes hypnotherapy later in life, I could be in trouble. There are a lot of good memories about that particular show, but teaching my daughter how to carve ranks number one.

So, Melissa has been carving for over five years now. The fact really hit home recently as I watched her buy two new knives for herself and a 'friend'. The knives were identical to her first, but the blade on her original was only half the width, and is now retired to being a detail knife. Knife and owner are both woodcarving veterans.


My First Class:

My first formal carving class was at Sweetheart Stamps here in Rome, NY. The project was a very simple 'Santa' pattern by Harley Refsal. How did this class happen, you ask? I was in the stamp shop, with my daughters, just standing there minding my own business, and started teasing Theresa, the owner, about having stamping classes, and paper making classes, and card making classes, but no woodcarving classes. Her comeback: "When do you want to start?" Well, faster than I could back pedal, there was a woodcarving class in the next Sweetheart Stamps newsletter.

Harold Kaltenbach was an unwitting victim of that first class. Like my daughter, he too seems to have survived the experience with no visible scaring. I would point out that he attended my second 'Santa' class the following year, but someone might suggest therapy and then there's that hypnosis threat again. Ah well, we did many classes at the stamp store... relief carvings, tomten (a scandinavian
version of the leprechan), love spoons... nothing was sacred. Then there was that class we held in the biker bar, where I taught them how to carve Teddy Bears. Honest!


Being a Teacher: Lessons Learned

Recommendations, lessons learned, and how I would do it different if given the chance.

First... just do it! Don't wait until someone asks you to teach a formal class. Don't wait until you think you're 'qualified'. Don't wait until you've written that book. If you know something that someone else doesn't, and you share that knowledge with them... congratulations! You just became a teacher. You are qualified. Teaching can be as simple as that.

Start small. Maybe the club member next to you wants to know how you got that basket texture. Sure, give proper credit to the book or video where you saw it, but better still, show them. Share the knowledge. Teach! I see a lot of great teaching at the Mohawk Valley Art & Woodcarving Association 'carve-a-longs', and it repeats itself at the really successful woodcarving clubs everywhere.

Class wise, the first level you'll probably teach will be beginners' level. Be honest! This is the first group of people that's going to meet the first criteria... 'You know something that they don't, but want to'. A little trade secret - I think they're also the most fun. Their enthusiasm and rate of improvement are probably the highest when they are just beginning the journey. Heck, sometimes I don't think I 'taught' my beginners anything, just kind of opened the gate and tried hard to keep from being trampled as they screamed down the road. While we're close to the subject here's a gem: "It's a poor teacher who isn't surpassed by one of their students". Yeah, yeah, it's corny and Kung Fu'ish... something like "When you can snatch the pebble from my hand, Grasshopper..." but be prepared, for it will happen. If you have difficulty with someone you taught carving things that exceed your skill, teaching will become an ugly experience. Jealousy pangs are permitted, but they pass. Have joy in the fact you helped that person get 'there' in at least a small way.

This brings up another thought (sorry, these occur seldomly and I've learned to just run with them); be prepared to learn from your students. Don't be so arrogant that you force 'your way' on them as the 'only way'. One of the big teacher benefits is learning new ways of doing things from your student. That too will eventually happen.


What works for me...

First class: The students get a 'throw away project' and a single knife. In my case, the throwaway project is a fish shape cut from 1" shelving lumber. Tell them it's meant to be practiced on, tell them it's nasty wood, and tell them if they lop off a fin, big deal, there's two or three more blanks in the ol' carving bag ready to go. Tell them it's only meant to teach them about cutting 'with the grain' and 'against the grain', and isn't really a serious project. In reality, this normally turns into a very fine weathervane style carving, but I'm trying to get them past that feeling of "Oh my God! What if I screw up this carving?!" I use this 'throw away' to teach them the basic cuts, the basic stop cuts, the safe way to make those cuts, and sharpening on the strop. After that class, it's each student at their own pace. For an eight-week class (16 hr total) I try to get them through 'the fish' and one other project. The second project I let them pick from a collection of beginner projects I pull from my library. Hopefully, they get a project that appeals to their interests. Double bonus that way!



Class Schedule:

I was never comfortable with three day weekend seminars, especially for beginners. They always seemed rushed, and not everyone completed a project. I believe successfully completing a project is crucial for someone new to the art of woodcarving. Sessions of 3-4hrs for 3-4 alternating Saturdays or Sundays worked pretty well. The two week period between classes gave enough time for carving homework during a real world schedule. Another schedule that has worked was a 2hr weeknight class for 8 consecutive weeks.


Class Rule:

Oh yeah! Class Rule #1: "You will have fun!" The last thing I want is a classroom full of disgruntled woodcarving students with sharp instruments... or dull instruments for that matter! I have this re-occurring vision of a ER doctor leaning over me, saying in a grave voice, "I'm sorry Mr. Bloomquist, the wounds were made with amazingly keen instruments and would have healed cleanly, but there are just too many of them and we can't stop the bleeding in time." As the light fades I reply, "Thanks anyway Doc. Guess they really took that sharpening lesson to heart."

Seriously, for the first class... take lots of breaks. Watch their face and body language for signs of frustration. Depending on the class situation, don't suggest that the one student take a break, call a class break and make them all put the tools down. Distract them with a catalogue, a book, tell them a funny carving story, sing, dance... whatever it takes to step away from the carving for a bit and rest. These beginners don't have the carving stamina you do. Beginners also tend to be pre-occupied with being cut. It's good to have a healthy respect for what a good woodcarving tool can do to flesh, but I hate to see it become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In addition to the safe cutting techniques and all the other safety tips you already taught them, remind them that one of the best ways not to get cut is not to carve tired or distracted. This is where I show them the nasty white scar on my left index finger. "See this beauty... got 'er in the basement at about 11:30pm, using a 3", #4 fishtale." You know, a little "do as I say, not as I do". Remind them of that "carving tired" point again just before they leave, for when they're carving at home, practicing for the next class.

A Parting Thought:

Something really caught me by surprise at a club get together the other day. I was watching Harold Kaltenbach at another table with about four or five members of the Erie Canal Woodcarvers gathered around him. I discovered he was walking them through the steps for a miniature Santa, and, for as many students as he had there, there were that many well-done carvings coming out of the session. It really should not have surprised me, but tell you what... I may have to expand on that "It's a poor teacher..." proverb I cited above.

Well, guess that's all for this time. Keep the chips piled high, the edges sharp, and maybe I'll tell you about that 'Teddy Bear Class' in another article.

Mike Bloomquist is a carver and carving teacher, and edits the on-line newletter for the Mohawk Valley Art & Woodcarving Association . You may visit Mike's web site, Wooden Dreams Woodcarving at http://www.borg.com/~bloomqum/index.htm or email him at bloomqum@borg.com.