Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | September 12, 2010

Emil Janel – Master American Woodcarver

Emil Janel is a familiar name to most wood carvers, the world around.  Mr. Janel was not what is currently billed as a typical caricature carver however; I suspect that he has served as an inspiration to thousands of carvers.  Mr. Janel referred to his brand of carving as “exaggerated realism.”  Most often, the subjects of Mr. Janel’s carvings were men who exuded the personalities of their professions or interests.  They were the sort of fellows that you might expect to find in the pool rooms of the 1940’s or sitting on a park bench feeding pigeons.  Mr. Janel referred to his subjects as “kindly mature people.”  One only need to look a Janel carving to agree with that statement.

Emil Janel entertaining at one of his San Francisco showings

Emil Janel was born in Orsa, Sweden in 1896 (some references state 1897) and immigrated to Canada in 1923.  In the late 1920s Janel moved to San Francisco (with a brief stay in Seattle on the way) where he could make a better living from his carving utilizing San Francisco’s famous galleries.  Janel carved mostly alder wood from the Pacific Northwest and he often fell his own trees. He is said to have favored alder for their natural flesh tones.  And, I am not sure it’s true but I was told that he liked to fell his own trees because most sawyers were not careful enough to ensuring a soft fall of a tree.  Alder is a wet wood and is prone to split vitually the minute it hits the ground.

Emil Janel carved all of his life, beginning in Sweden when his father gave him a basic knife at age six.  Emil became quite famous for his carvings as a youth and at age 14 won a national woodcarving competition.  He was asked by more than one famous artist of the time to work with them as they saw a rather incredible and unusual talent in this very young man.

His carvings were, for the most part, about 18 inches high if the figure was standing and about a foot high if sitting.  His carvings in process were kept submerged in water to keep them wet while he worked on them.  He held his projects in process between his knees rather than to use a vice of any kind.  When completed, Mr. Janel would use aniline dyes on the portions of the carvings that were not flesh.  His carvings are unmistakable and his style is most obvious.  Janel spent somewhere between 1 and 2 weeks to complete a typical carving and he kept his unfinished work soaking in water to keep it soft while he worked on it.  And, I understand that he pretty much used full sized gouges and knives.  Before his death at 84, Janel had won world acclaim.

I first became aware of Emil Janel in the early 1970s when I read about him and saw pictures of his work featured in E.J. Tangerman’s Modern Book of Whittling and Woodcarving.  Specifically, I remember a complex carving of seven old gentlemen playing cards.  At the time, I was struggling to carve faces and here, in Janel’s work, I saw character and personality beyond what I ever dreamed as possible to carve.  Mr. Janel was quickly added to my short list of carving heroes.

In addition to Mr. Janel’s incredible carving ability he was also a bit of a philosopher.  There are two great quotes credited to him that I will always remember: (1) “Only age and experience give character; the young have little to say”, and (2) “I don’t follow anyone.  Anyone who follows is always behind.”

One of the most remarkable things about the left-handed Janel is that he never used pictures or sketches, no clay models or even markings on the wood.  Everything was created from memory, as he said his “inner eye.”  How cool is that?!!

Emil Janel died in 1981 and left the world a legacy of wonderful carvings.  One thing that he left behind that is not measurable is his enormous influence on all carvers that follow him.

Perhaps the best reference work on the late Mr. Janel is Master American Woodcarver Emil Janel published in 1984 and written by Ira Weismann and John Mathews.  While the book is out of print, it is available at larger libraries, in the secondary market, and is often included in the collections of woodcarving clubs.

The following are just a few examples of Emil Janel’s work.

Emil Janel's Sawyers from the Washington State Historical Society

One of many of Emil Janel's portrait works

Emil Janel Workman taking a rest

Emil Janel's Chinese Man w/cane

One of Emil Janel's many group carvings

Emil Janel's catching up on some reading

Emil Janel's favorite musical instrument

Emil Janel's Violinist

Emil Janel workman taking a nap

As you can see, Emil Janel was not a typical caricature carver.  These carvings illustrate real life during Emil Janel’s early years.  I wished I could have known him.  I am sure the kindness in each of his subjects was because it existed in himself.

Keep sharp and happy carving!

Please visit my White Eagle Studios web site.



    • Just recently, I was contacted by a gentleman who is interested in purchasing Janel pieces. His contact information is:
      John S. Staral
      Telephone (mobile): 651-324-5633

      I have also seen them posted on ebay and art auction sites.

  2. I just purchased a used anatomy instruction book where a previous owner had written “Sculpture Instructor – Emil Janel”. The book is copyrighted 1919 and has writing indicating that it was originally from San Francisco. Do you know at which school Mr. Janel taught? There is also a hand-written recipe for Crepe Suzette with the notation “Mrs Janel’s recipe”. I like to think that he and his wife were both very kind people. Thank you for your informative site.

    • Lynda, thank your for your note. I have no information on Emil Janel ever teaching. I do know that Mr. Janel was a woodsman in Canada before immigrating to the U.S. He moved to San Francisco and then to LA (where he met and married his wife) and back to San Francisco. As he began his carving career, Mr. Janel was also a professional accordion player. He was born in approximately 1900 so in 1919, Mr. Janel would have been about 19 years of age. No reference material that I have or have seen references Mr. Janel ever teaching. If you find out otherwise or the answer to your question, I would appreciate hearing about it so that I can up date my own information.
      Best regards,


  3. I have in my possesion an small carving of Mr Janil, signed and dated 1952. I was 8 years old and my father met Mr Janil in a Russin River Bar / resturant. We were invited to his home and spent the afternoon. The carving
    is of a open hand with a face atop it.. It looks a pratice or uncompleated piece. Strange looking.

  4. I have sold a number of Janel Carvings in early 2000 on eBay. A group of Cowboy carvings were signed by Farrell Dwyer which was supposed to be a understudy and at first site looks similar to Emil’s carving. Never sure if Dwyer was from Canada, Seattle or California.

    • Interesting! Thank you Marc.

    • Hejje Marc, I have purchased a group of cowboys playing instruments. Farrell Dwyer

  5. I would say Mr Janel is a little crusty around the edges.

  6. I just inherited a cabin with my brother and father in the Russian River. It was built by Janel and has several of his carvings in the redwood trees and a mural he painted on a wall of what was his studio. I’m going to the river next week and plan to take photographs of his artwork. I would love to share them with anyone who is interested in seeing them.

    • You are fortunate. I for one would love to see them and, if you wish, add them to the blog for everyone to see.

    • My grandparents used to live across the road from the Janel home, as a kid the carvings he did on the trees scared me. I made a trip there and was so disappointed to see they were all gone. I would love to see any pictures you have to share.

      • Hi Wendy… How fortunate you were to be able to witness Janel’s work. All photos that I have are either in the article or are contained i the books that I referenced in the article. Janel was quite prolific and his carvings often show up on e-Bay or Etsy for sale. Thanks for the note.

  7. My father was a friend of Janel when he lived in San Francisco. As a result I have inherited several of Janel’s carvings. I am looking to sell a few of them. I would like to know if there is a market for these carvings in the San Francisco Bay Area.

    • I am sorry, I just do not know for sure. Over the years, I have had a lot of inquiries re: selling Janel’s art. I have seen them on Ebay and I hear of them being in galleries for sale. I will say this… they generally do not command a high price and you may well be better off holding on to them. Good Luck!

  8. Jag har några sniderier av Emil Janel

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