Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Wood Carving: Where Do You Start?

A Variety of Carving Tools
Disclaimer: I am not an expert carver. I don't even play one on TV.  Feel free to challenge, contest, throw tomatoes at, or add your thoughts to any of the following.

There are several types of wood carving: chip, letter, and relief carving; and carving in the round.

Chip Carved Box
Carving tools include knives, chisels, gouges, and mallets. For carving in the round, rasps and files are helpful.

Gouges come in many shapes and are gauged by their width and sweep (the amount of curve on the cutting edge). Included in the mix are straight, bent, fishtail, in-cannel (the bevel is on the inside rather than the outside), spoonbit, and V-gouges.  Many are also available with short or long handles.
Chip Carved HandPlane

Like any new woodworking venture, it can be a little daunting to know where to start.

Several woodworkers have emailed me with questions about which tools they need to carve wood. They ask if it’s best to invest in a set of carving tools.

My response is always the same: find a project you like—from a book or magazine—and purchase the tools you need to carve it. Publications will often provide you with a checklist of tools for the project. Chances are you’ll use those tools again because you used them to carve a project you like.  Whereas, when you buy a set, there will be one or more tools you will never use.
Letter Carved Symbol

Now, what type of carving would you like to try?

Chip carving is the easiest. You need only two tools—a primary knife and a stab knife. Chip carving consists of three basic, rather shallow cuts. Once you master them, you need only arrange them to create your own designs.

Letter Carved Sign
Lettercarving can be complex or easy. You can use a large variety of chisels and gouges which match every conceivable shape you need.  Or, you can simply use a chip carving knife. With chip carving, however, you will be limited by the type of wood (certain hardwoods can very difficult) and the size of the letters. I use a different technique which requires only one chisel and one shallow-sweep gouge.  The size of the tools depends on the size of the letters. With this technique I can carve just about any type of wood and any size or shape letter.

Relief Carved Box
Relief carving is where you start getting into some money. I do not have a huge variety of gouges, and try to make do with what I have. As you begin to carve, you will realize what you’re missing from your collection. Keep in mind, just as you don’t need to have chisels ranging from 1/16” to 2 1/2” and everything in between, you can often get by with less.

Relief Carved Cross
Carving in the round is like relief carving only the project is carved on all sides, as with a ball-and-claw foot. Rasps can remove lots of wood in short order, and files refine the shape. There is nothing quite as luminous as the smooth facets left by a chisel or gouge however, so I remove all rasp and file marks with them.

I do not use sandpaper to smooth portions of carved pieces—the abraded areas have a different appearance than and don’t blend in with the sheared surfaces created by cutting tools. Plus, sandpaper rounds over crisp edges.

With any carving, you must have sharp tools. I can’t stress this enough. Dull or semi-sharp tools will only frustrate you and you’ll never produce the results you want. I use ceramic-, water-, and slipstones, and strops charged with honing compound. It’s much easier to maintain an edge by frequent honing than it is to completely resharpen a tool.

You must also learn to read the grain. The “petting-the-hair-on-a-cat” analogy never resonated with me. Maybe I’ve been petting cats the wrong way all these years (which might explain the scars), but I came up with a different image—that of a skier.  Always carve downhill—with the grain—and the trail you leave behind will be smooth. If you carve against the grain, the direction of the cut will leave the fibers that are ahead of your chisel or gouge unsupported, resulting in tearout. And you'll fall off a cliff. And die.

If that visual isn’t working for you, think of grain as walking up or down steps—it’s much easier to walk down a flight of stairs. 

If you'd like to read more of my blog entries about carving, key in phrases such as these in the search box: “chip carving,” “lettercarving,” “relief carving,” and “sharpening gouges.”

If you’re looking for good books, I recommend Wayne Barton’s book “The Complete Guide to Chip Carving”and Richard Butz’s book “How to Carve Wood.”  I have not found any reference that shows the exact lettercarving technique I use (which was taught to me by a sign carver), but I plan to make more videos on the subject in the future.


I wrote the above entry for Marc Spagnuolo, The Wood Whisperer, who invited me to be a guest blogger on his website. Thanks, Marc!


Anonymous said...

Wonderful Kari, thanks for your lessons, they are pretty appreciated
I have seen it yet through Marc

Vic Hubbard said...

You do a great job of impersonating an expert carver!! I still want to learn a little of this.

Anonymous said...

Very nice summary...I was really curious what method you use for carving letters (since you do such nice work)...read your 2 posts on letter carving from a couple of years back...pretty much answered all of my questions. Thanks...when I try it out and the results are respectable, I'll throw all the credit your way. Until then, I'll take full responsibility for my shoddy workmanship.

Kari Hultman said...

Thanks guys.

I think that Chris Pye might use a similar lettercarving technique but I've never seen him in action.

Ian, feel free to shoot me an email if you have any questions. If I don't know the answer at least I can make something up that sounds believable. heh.

Ian W said...

May I link this entry to my blog,
blogthetoolstore.blogspot.com ?

You seem to have covered everything very nicely and I'd like to share it with my followers.
Ian W

Kari Hultman said...

Certainly, Ian. Thanks!

will said...

But what about chain saws, dentist drills and sand blasters? They're hand tools too, sort of.

Kari Hultman said...

Bill, do you mean to say that my dentist is actually a carver? And all this time I thought she was just someone who liked to inflict pain on me. heh.

Dink said...

First...GREAT BLOG!! I'm so happy I found this blog. I am a beginner and I've learned the hard way about the importance of having sharp tools. Being new to this awesome art, I attempted to sharpen my own tools using a dremel. My tools are now duller then when I started. Can you recommend a site, book, video or anything so I can learn to sharpen my tools. I really need a way to inexpensively sharpen my tools. I was told about something called a "Lansky Sharpener" which is said to be best for the less experienced. I guess that's a nice way of saying idiot proof which in all honesty is what I need. So, any advice, suggestions, HELP, you could offer would be most greatfully appreciated!!

Kari Hultman said...

Dink, if you can take a class to learn how to sharpen or have a woodworking buddy or club nearby, I believe it's best to learn in person. Everyone has their personal preference for sharpening, so you might start with one method and wind up switching to another at some point. For the least expensive, but still effective method, google "scary sharp." It uses sandpaper. Also, there are lots of videos on youtube that show you how to sharpen. Most books on carving have an intro section that talks about sharpening tools. And, feel free to shoot me an email anytime: goodwoodworkshop@comcast.net

Ramón Vidal said...

I have liked very much his article, if I encourage I will do something of carving . The woodplane is an exceptional piece. I had never seen one equal, it is precious!

I'm sorry for my english

Ramón Vidal

Ramón Vidal said...

I have liked very much his article, if I encourage I will do something of carving . The woodplane is an exceptional piece. I had never seen one equal, it is precious!

I'm sorry for my english

Ramón Vidal

Michael Short said...

Thanks for posting this article on chip carving. I like the plane that you carved. It looks spectacular.

Michael Short

Michael Short said...

Thanks for posting this article on chip carving. I really like the plane that you carved.

Michael Short

Wood carver said...

Really a good article on chip carving. Thanks to you for your wonderful post.