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Keep on Carvin'

by Mike Bloomquist

Have you noticed yet that woodcarvers are, on the whole, a friendly and open group?  In general, we're a pretty sociable bunch, willing to share our woodcarving experiences and knowledge with anyone who asks... sometimes even if they don't ask... sometimes whether they are interested in woodcarving or not... sometimes to the point that co-workers find alternate routes so they don't pass by your cubicle... but I digress.  This ready sharing of knowledge was drastically contrasted when I researched violin making a couple years back.  There are some good sources out there for making violins, but it's still a dark and secret society compared to what I'm used to in woodcarving circles.  I have been fortunate in my woodcarving travels to have been exposed to a large number of  wonderful and talented woodcarvers.  Some of these folks are well known... some should be.  Almost without exception, they are willing to share with you what they know, sometimes just for the asking.  Their work keeps me humble at the same time that their teachings give me hope to carve better. 

One common denominator that I have noticed with the woodcarvers who have the most original, "gee whiz" carvings is that they use modeling of some kind in the creation process.  This modeling can be a series of drawings using pencil and paper or computer drawing programs.  It can be paper dolls or pipe cleaner figures.  Or it can full, in-the-round clay sculptures built on wire skeletons called armatures.  Personally, my more successful carvings have usually been the result of the last form.  What follows is not a really a good step-by-step, but more like a story board of the modeling I did for a recent project.

For quite a while I've signed my woodcarving e-mails with "Keep on Carvin'".  It's a spin off of the "Keep on Truckin'" motto from the 60's.  A motto which came with a fairly infamous character of the late 60's by cartoonist  Robert Crumb who also drew Mr. Natural and Fritz the Cat.  It's been a project banging around in the back of my head to carve a woodcarver version of him.  So, a little Google Images research and I found useful versions of Crumb's Truckin' Guy: HERE and HERE. (New window will open; close 'em to come back here.)

Carving a cartoon in three dimensions is sometimes a challenge because the cartoon is uniquely distorted and normally drawn in a limited range of angles.  My sketches for imagining what a side view and top view of this dude did not help my confidence level, so I resorted to the "big guns" and did a clay model.  Notice that I assemble the skeleton (armature) in what I call a "dead man" pose, making sure both arms and leg lengths are equal, right to left.  The bending points (shoulders, elbows, knees, etc.) are marked with a permanent markers.  Notice their locations are distorted based on the original drawings, but still equal right to left.  During the posing of this figure all bending occurs at these points, never between.  They keep you honest.

Truckin Pattern 0.5

Here the figure is posed and anchored to a based with screws.  Sometimes I purposely leave extra wire on the feet to create loops for these screws to pass through.

Truckin Pattern 1

Now we start to flesh out the model with clay.  I use a petroleum based, non hardening clay called plastelina.  There are other brands, but this is the one that I have access to at my local art supply.  Clays that you can harden in the oven, such as Fimo, work as well, but aren't as reusable.  Plastelina has the disadvantage of not being as workable at lower temperatures, like my basement shop in January.  That's why you see a pile of slabs (cut with a wire cheese cutter) under my 40 watt magnifier lamp.  Obviously 100 watts works much better.

Truckin Pattern 2

Truckin Pattern 3

Hmmm... still a little on the thin side.

Truckin Pattern 4

Truckin Pattern 5


Now for a jacket and tie.

Truckin Pattern 6

And I think we're finished.

Truckin Pattern 7

Now for pictures to use for our cutting pattern.  I set up my digital camara on a tripod and shot from as far back as I can with zoom.  This removes the distortion that a close, wide angle shot produces.  Don't worry about high resolution here, this isn't a "wall hanger".  We just want enough quality to get an accurate outline for cutting on the band saw.

Truckin Pattern 7.1

Truckin Pattern 7.2

Scale the pictures up or down (the same amount) to suite the size of your block of wood.  In the picture mine are taped to the wood with a sheet of graphite paper under each side.  You could print this to card stock or acetate and cut out a pattern profile with an x-acto knife.  Then trace the pattern on the wood with a Sharpie type permanent marker.

Truckin Pattern 7.3

And here's the cut out blank.  This still didn't look like much to me, and I was glad to have the clay model for reference during the early stages of the carving work.  Remember the sculptor's story about?   "You carve an elephant by cutting away everything that doesn't look like an elephant"?  This is most true at this stage, and the clay model helps a great deal.  For instance, that lump that resulted from cutting around the left hand... everything to the right of the hand and above his chest  can go.  If I can clamp him down, a mallet and large chisel will make quick work of that.

Truckin Pattern 7.4

Truckin Pattern 7.5

.. . . and after elves have carved it for me <G>.  Not too bad, but they dropped that back elbow.  Noticed I left extra wood on the left hand and exaggerated the glove.  The original model is in clay, but it's not "in stone".  Alterations are always permitted as long as there's wood left.

Truckin Pattern 8

With a coat of boiled linseed oil and raw sienna artist oil for color.

Truckin Pattern 12

Painted with tints made from boiled linseed oil and artist's oils.  MinWax Natural (clear) stain can be used in place of the boiled linseed oil.  It will dry faster, but sometimes dries to glossy for my taste.

Truckin Pattern 13

Not too shabby for an amateur, I guess.

Truckin Pattern 14

Well that's a relief!  One less project banging' around in the back of my head.  Great, there's more room for the other couple hundred.  Hope this inspired you to try something original that's been bagging around in your head.  Try starting with a clay model.  I'm pretty sure it will increase your chances for success.

Keep on Carvin'
-Mike Bloomquist->

Mike's mugMike Bloomquist is a carver and carving teacher, and a regular contributor to WOM.

You may visit Mike's web site, Wooden Dreams Woodcarving HERE or email him at m.bloomquistATverizonDOTnet.