Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | February 12, 2010

Woodcarving Influences

We are each influenced in many ways as we pass through life.  Clearly, I have enjoyed many wonderful influences in my life and in my time as a woodcarver.

At a very young age, I looked in awe at a beautiful Chinese emperor figuring that my grandmother had carved from a pine 2X4 with a kitchen paring knife.  Years later, my mother told me that it had been stained with food coloring.  I recall, thinking, if my grandmother could do that, perhaps I could.  Thus, my interest in carving was born.

I spent the first 17 years of my life in Salt Lake City and moved to Seattle with my parents in 1962.  Upon arriving in Seattle, my high school credits were such that I was able take several electives… and I chose art classes.  Enter John Polakoski (I am not positive of the spelling), an art teacher at Ingraham High School in 1962 and 63.  Mr. Polakowski was a fine teacher who supported his students creative ambitions without attempting to influence their mediums or styles.  He taught technique and offered suggestions but never attempted to direct a students natural talents.  In my year and a half at Ingraham High School I went from dabbling in art, primarily sculpture, to winning two Gold Key National Scholastic Art Awards, one for a silver belt buckle depicting a locomotive and the other for a standing bear.  Both were displayed at the Seattle Art Museum and none of that would have happened if not for Mr. Polakowski.  I only wish that I had stayed in touch with him

Then, after marriage, I focused on woodcarving and the rest is, as one says, history.  Having been carving for 50 plus years, I have a few observations that I would like to share.  A few quick bullets are:

>    Like everything in life, do (carve) what interests you.  Carving what is of natural interest will be so much more rewarding than carving in any other manner;

>    Study the work of master carvers and if you can, hang out with them;

>    Spend time with skilled carvers that know what they are doing.  Watch them, copy them, and don’t be afraid to ask for suggestions when you want them.  Taking classes or participating in clubs are each great formats for rubbing shoulders with other carvers.;

>    Notwithstanding what I say in the first bullet, above, carve varied subject matter.  Avoid getting stuck carving a single subject;

>    Buy good tools that will last you a life time.  Buying cheap tools will only result in your buying at least two sets and experiencing frustration with the initial cheap set(s);

>    Keep your tools sharp and don’t lend them to anyone that does not prize good tools;

When I began carving, there were few carving books on the market.  There were books by the late great Ben Hunt and EJ Tangerman but the books containing high quality carvings came from Europe.  A book I still have that I purchased in the mid-1960’s was a Swiss book written in German published by the canton woodcarving school in Brienz, Switzerland.  I could not understand a word but as Confucius say “picture worth 10,000 words.”  That book was probably my greatest source of motivation in my early years of wood carving.  I also found an excellent British book featuring a number of carvers from the UK and their fine works.  Over time, many books have been published in the US.  Still, in looking at my book shelf the greatest books still come from European master carvers.

Some time in the 1960’s I was introduced to Chip Chats magazine, published by the National Woodcarver’s Association.  Initially, Chip Chats was just a few pages of rather poor quality print and photos but it contained many good articles.  It often featured stories of master carvers and their work.  In those early days a year’s subscription was just a couple of dollars.  I gobbled up everything I could read about wood carving in those days and I considered Chip Chats to be a gift from the gods.  Regrettably, over the years, the magazine has gone form being highly informative to being simply a photo journal of wood carving shows.  It may well be that Chip Chats is unable to get quality articles in these later years due to competition from commercial woodcarving magazines that will pay for such things.

It must have been roughly 10-12 years ago that a few woodcarving magazines were born.  Some are good and a couple seem to struggle.  My personal favorites are Wood Carving Magazine published bi-monthly in the UK and Woodcarving Illustrated published quarterly in the US.  Each of these magazines also have great web sites available to everyone… even those who do not subscribe to the magazine.  Funny as it may sound, one thing I enjoy about woodcarving magazines are the advertisements.  I find it a great resource.  Woodcarving Illustrated has a carvers forum that is a must read for anyone wishing to learn from others.  Carvers far and wide willingly share their experience with novices.  One criticism that I have for woodcarving magazines is that they tend to feature tools that advertise in them.  They generally do not acknowledge non-advertisers.  When assessments are made for tools, they are afraid to point out weaknesses in their advertisers tools.  In that regard, if you want input on tools, ask other carvers or log-in to the Woodcarving illustrated forum and pose your question.

Speaking of forums and web sites, perhaps the greatest resource to wood carvers in modern times is the Internet.  If you are looking for images of a particular subject that you wish to carve, give Google Images a try.  It’s amazing.  Additionally, many carvers maintain web sites and blogs with an abundance of information.  An example of such a site is Don Mertz’  It, too, is amazing.  Don is a skilled and prolific carver and writer and by default is a heck of a educator.  You may have seen Don’s name in Chip Chats or Wood Carving Illustrated.  He is often featured in both.  There are lots of guys like Don Mertz out there and like Don, most are not only willing to share but are eager to help anyone who desires direction.  Visiting Don’s web site is an absolute must and it will keep you occupied for a very long time.

I was blessed with two opportunities that I will never forget.  The first was a banker friend of mine was a personal friend of a Swiss master Carver who had graduated from the woodcarving school in Brienz, Switzerland named Walter Shafer.  My friend arranged for us to spend one night a week in Walter’s shop working on our own projects.  The real benefit is that we could watch Walter work on his master pieces.  The arrangement only lasted a few months but it was incredibly rewarding.  Oh, the fee for this was a six pack of Walter’s favorite beer.  Then in the early 80’s, I was introduced to Dudley Carter a famous woodcarver from BC, later living in Redmond, Washington.  Dudley carved monumental carvings using only axes and adzes.  When I met him he was in his late 80’s but boy could he handle an axe.  Elsewhere on my site I feature Dudley Carter and I urge you to read about him.  What a guy!

Then in 1992, my wife and I visited Brienz, Switzerland, Elbignalp, Austria and Oberammergau, Germany.  It was a mind blowing experience to see the work of so many masters all in just a few areas.  Business signs were hand carved, street signs were hand carved, and wood carving shops were everywhere.  If you can ever make such a trip, a guarantee you that it will change your thinking about woodcarving forever.  In fact, such a trip may well be the greatest influence you can ever experience with respect to woodcarving.

Keep Sharp and be carveful!

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