Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | April 13, 2009

Thoughts on Woodcarving Fundamentals

It is not always easy for me to define a subject for an article.  Actually, I find it difficult to write a couple of pages on a single subject.  After all, I am more of a woodcarver than a writer.  So, in this article you are going to get some rambling thoughts on a few fundamentals of wood carving.

I want to begin with the subject of envisioning your carving project.  Carvers approach their projects in different ways but one thing that all successful carvers have in common is the ability to see their project inside the block of wood.  I have always said that the more you cut away, the easier it is to see what is inside.

Perhaps more than any other craft, the ability to visualize is what we need in wood carving.  Visualization can be practiced and one can become quite good at it.  People do it in meditation all the time.  In fact, I have meditated with pretty good success on specific carving projects before I start them and I have little doubt that it has helped greatly.  With experience and practice one can continually improve with visualization skills – so the more one does, the better you will become at doing it.  You can also improve your sense of the project by simply giving it some thought.  I mean concentrated thought, not just passing thought.  Make some sketches.  Collect pictures that reflect your subject.  All of this will help with the success of your carving.  To the extent that you can see what you want to carve, the easier and the more successful you carving project will be.

I have been in many carving groups where someone mistakenly does something really silly with their carving… including yours truly.  One of the funniest examples was a fellow that yelled for help in carving a hand on a caricature carving.  He explained that there was something wrong with his (carved) hand but he just could see what it was.  One look at the hand by anyone else and the carver’s problem was obvious.  He had carved the thumb coming right out of the back of the hand.  We all got a good laugh about that but doing such things is really quite easy.

The point to understand is that each part of a carving is relative to the other.  Here are a few tips on maintaining relativity:

  • Work on all portions of your carving project.  Don’t complete or finish one part while other parts remain roughly formed;
  • In the beginning stages, don’t fix the positions of elements within your carving.  The roughing in should remain quite loose.  In other words, leave yourself some play room.  As the carving progresses, you can firm up the form and placement of the elements of your project;
  • Leave undercutting until last.  Undercutting fixes positions and drastically limits future cuts.
  • Go ahead and measure things but use your eye to balance and lay out proportion.

Clean Cuts
I want to write an entire column on “clean cuts” as it is a huge issue to me.  A sure sign of a novice carver are choppy cuts.  Choppy cuts are often caused by one of several things.  The first and most common is that the carver is afraid to move a lot of wood so they make lots of small cuts.  Lots of small cuts is okay as long as your last cut over-strokes all previous short cuts and leaves a smooth and continuous clean surface.

Another cause of choppy cuts is a dull tool.  Tools must be sharp.  Use sharp tools.  Avoid dull tools.  Keep your edges shape.  Get the picture?

It is a lot more difficult to push or pull a dull tool than it is a sharp tool.  And, a sharp tool will cut clean.  A dull tool will drag or rasp through the wood rather than cut it.

One method in getting a nice clean cut is by slicing the wood rather than pushing or pulling in a forward motion.  Slicing is accomplished by rocking a gouge as you push it.  If it is a straight (No.1) gouge or a flat chisel, you will not be able to rock it as the corners will dig in so rather than rock a flat edge, push it on an angle.  Work it like you would work a knife.  Slicing is also a great benefit when cutting across grain.

I have never met anyone that was new to caving that instantly or easily produced masterpiece carvings from the first time they pick up a gouge or knife.  Carving takes practice – lots of it.  I have been carving for nearly 50 years and I still need practice.  Practice does not mean that you sit down as a beginner and try to replicate the Statue of David.  One can simply use a practice stick and make random cuts.  Try a practice stick incorporating a ball, a cube, and a spiral, etc.  Try to use as many varied cuts as possible.

One good way to track your progress, and you will make progress, is to pre-cut 25-30 practice sticks, each the same size.  Pick a nice carving project to fit the size and shape of the stick.  For the next 25-30 days, spend 30 minutes each day carving the project on each stick.  At the end of your 30 minutes, date the stick and throw it in a box.  Tomorrow begin again and continue each day until you are through the 25-30 sticks.  At the end of the 30 days, line up all of your carving sticks beginning with the oldest date and ending with the most recent.  It will be easy to see that with each piece you got further with the project and the quality will have improved.

Hang around with accomplished carvers.  We all learn much quicker by watching someone that knows what they are doing.  I have learned more in two minutes watching a good carver than I ever learned through reading a “how to” book.

Stay sharp, practice lots and happy carving!

Please visit my web site at: www.


%d bloggers like this: