Friday, June 12, 2009

Wood Carving for Beginners

Dedication: Carving is not like collecting stamps, its more like golf or tennis or flying radio control airplanes. To be successful, it takes a bit of determination and dedication and commitment.

Clubs: You don’t have to join a club to be successful, but it surely helps. Club members are always willing to teach a newcomer the ropes and you can make great friends. The Colewood site lists clubs all over the USA:

What do I carve? Where do I find plans? There are hundreds of plan books available. They come in a soft cover 81/2 by 11 format. Most of these books will give detailed instructions, plans and step by step photos, painting instructions for a subject such as carving clowns or Santas or bears, etc. For sources, see supplier paragraph. Some suppliers sell 3 view blue prints for a whole range of subjects. Another good source is wood carving magazines. See the magazine paragraph. If you are in a hurry to get started, you can try the local library which might have a small selection of carving books.

Magazines: Wood Carving Illustrated: (order on line) or 800-457-9112. A very good magazine, has plans with complete instructions, articles on techniques like sharpening, painting, wood types.

Chip Chats: National Woodcarvers association: (register on line) Mostly information on wood carving shows, some plans, membership includes the magazine.

Enlarging plans: Most plans will be less than full size. No problem. The copying machines at Kinkos or Staples enlarge up to 400% and have 11 by 14 paper. Sometimes you will need to make a few shots and then piece the sheets together for a big enlargement. That’s probably not news to you, but it always amazes me, since when I started, you had to manually enlarge the plans with graph paper and a pencil. You don’t have to enlarge to the size the author specifies. If you can’t get a block of wood that big or the piece is to big for your mantel, make it a bit smaller.

Suppliers: There are dozens of companies with catalogues that you can order from by mail or telephone. The larger ones also have a web site. A few of the larger suppliers also have a limited number of retail outlets. You might want to deal with two or three, since each one has strengths and weaknesses. I’ve listed some of the suppliers I have dealt with below:

Woodcraft is my main supplier, good with blocks of wood, carving tools, sharpening equipment and equipment for woodworkers like router bits and table saws: 800-225-1153,

Wood Carvers Supply, Inc. 800-284-6229 strictly for carvers, tools, books, wood, plans, eyes, feet

CraftWoods, 800-468-7070 another strictly for carvers, plans, cutouts or blanks, books, tools, eyes, feet, painting supplies

What kind of wood to use: Basswood, a white fairly soft wood is the best for carvings you are going to paint. It is not expensive compared to other carving woods and readily available from carving suppliers. It doesn’t pay to use lumber yard wood considering the time and effort you are putting in. Tupulo is similar to bass, about the same price but not as readily available. If you want a beautiful piece of wood for a natural finish, Honduras mahagony or butternut are good.

Making blanks (also called cutouts): Chain saw carvers and whittlers take a block of wood and chop away until they release the animal in the wood. For us amateurs, starting with a blank is a lot easier. A blank is a piece of wood cut to the profile of the piece you are carving. Typically for a person, it will be the front profile and for and animal, the side profile. An even better blank will be cut to two profiles.

Use carbon paper or transfer paper to draw the plan on the blank You could also glue the pattern to the blank with spray contact cement. Give some thought to the grain. For a deer, you’d want the grain to run the length of the legs.

You can cut out the blank with a coping saw or a saber saw or a scroll saw, but it is not easy. If you are a serious carver, eventually you will want to get a band saw. It makes cutting blanks a pleasure. Band saws range in price from $150 on up. The main variables in bandsaws are the capacity and the quality. The most important capacity measure is the thickness of wood the band saw can cut. The quality relates to how easily you can adjust the saw, how well it holds its adjustments, how straight and true it cuts and how long it lasts. Get the best band saw you can afford, it is a lifetime investment.

If you want to cut both profiles, first cut one profile, then tack the scrap pieces back on with a few drops of glue, trace the other profile on, cut out and then knock off the glued on pieces.

You can buy ready cut blanks. The suppliers that deal strictly with wood carving supplies carry them. There are kits available for ducks and birds that include the blank, glass eyes, cast feet, instructions and even paint. Sometimes authors will offer blanks for their plans.

Holding Carving: You can hold a small carving in your hand while you work with your carving knife. It’s a good idea to wear a kelvar glove on the holding hand. See supplier’s catalogs. For larger carvings, where you want to use chisels and gouges, some sort of holding device promotes safety and ease of work. If you have extra money, the supplier’s catalogs have all sorts of patent holding devices. I’ll screw a block of wood onto the base of my carving and hold the block in a bench vise while I wield my chisels. A bench vise is an essential investment for any shop. Get a nice size vise (a 4 inch jaw is good) and bolt it securely to your workbench. Another trick I use is to get a ¾ or 1 inch dowel about two feet long, bore about a 1 inch deep hole in the base of the carving and glue the dowel in place. You can now clamp the dowel in the vise at any angel or height you want for easy carving. When you are finished, simply cut the dowel off flush with the base of the carving.

Tools: You’re not going to find good wood carving tools in a hardware store. The easiest way is to buy them from the catalogs. You can power carve using a flexible shaft tool with grinding bits or you can use hand tools. Hand tools would be best for beginners. That doesn’t mean that experts don’t use them. It’s a personal decision.

Hand Tools: Hand tools break down into knives and chisels. You can do a lot of carving with a simple knife. A good penknife will do, but you are better off with a carving knife with a fixed blade and a comfortable wooden handle. They run from $20 to $40 apiece.

Chisels can be variations on flat, skew, gouges, or vee. Prices are all over the map. You can spend $30 for a set of 5 chisels or a single Swiss made chisel. Buy the best you can afford. The better chisels come in an infinite number of variations. Take a gouge for example. There can be 8 sweeps ( amount of curvature) and a dozen widths from .5 mm to 30 mm. Some people are happy with one or two gouges and others have to have them all.

Sharpening: It’s a pain, but even the best Swiss made chisel will soon become an expensive paperweight if you don’t keep it sharp. A beginner doesn’t need heavy duty power grinding tools. With good tools, its just a question of maintaining the edge. Get a fine diamond stone. It lasts forever, cuts like the devil and doesn’t need messy lubricant. In addition you want a good leather strop and some honing compound to get that perfect edge. Woodcraft has a 2 inch by 6 inch fine diamond stone.They have a real nice Rick Butz strop with two sides, an angle and a round edge. Compound tube needed as well.

Power Carving: One bit of wisdom: If you can’t carve with hand tools, power tools aren’t going to make you any better. I never owned a Dremel tool, but I don’t think they are much use for power carving. The basic tool is a flexible shaft tool like the Foredom. Its consists of a motor that you hang up like a plasma bottle with a flexible shaft 2 or 3 feet long with a small hand piece/chuck at the end. You also have a variable speed control/on off switch. There are many types of cutting bits, stones, carbide, diamond, ruby, high speed steel, etc. Each type comes in a variety of shapes, sizes and degrees of coarseness. It’s been my experience that even the coarsest of these bits, a large structured carbide bit doesn’t remove wood very fast. The diamond and ruby bits are for microscopic detailing on bird carvings.

For faster wood removal, use the Arbortech. It is a wheel with chainsaw like teeth that mounts on a angle grinder. There are standard Arbortech of 4 inch diameter and a “mini” Arbortech of 2 inch diameter. A skilled user can do fast wood removal or fairly fine detail with an Arbortech.

Just for completeness, I’ll mention the chainsaw. A beginner is just as likely to cut off his leg as the wood he is working on, but there are chainsaw artists who make beautiful large carvings from logs.

Finishing: Natural: If your carving is made of a nice piece of walnut or cherry or butternut, a natural finish is the best bet. Linseed oil or a clear Danish oil finish is very easy to apply. Even white woods like basswood or pine can be given a “natural” finish using stains like Minwax. Staining carvings can be tricky. Unlike furniture, carvings have a lot of end grain which soaks up more stain than the side grain giving a very uneven finish.

Acrylics: Most beginners will want to paint their carvings. Some carvers use oil paints, but acrylics which can be thinned with water are far easier to use. Leave the acrylics in tubes for artists, the paint in bottles are fine. You can get the traditional artist’s colors like cadmium red medium or burnt umber in bottles from Liquitex. Craft colors from companies like Delta Ceramcoat are less expensive and come in colors like Christmas Green, Pinecone Brown, etc. Some carvers like to use the acrylics very thin to achieve an “antique” effect.

Brushes: Maybe it’s just me, but the only decent brush I’ve ever had was a sable brush. Sable brushes are VERY expensive, but they last forever and the round ones hold a beautiful point.

Classes:The best way to get a lot of knowledge in a short time is to take a class. A three day class given by an expert might run $150. Usually, the entire class will be devoted to carving one project and the teacher will provide the blanks and the drawings. You bring the tools. The best way to find out about classes is to belong to a club, since the classes are usually sponsored by a club.

by Jerry Silverbus