Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | November 26, 2011

Clean Woodcarving

Warning… this posting contains “filthy” words.  Words like “grime,” “smear,” “carbon,” “dirt,” “dust,” crud and many other disgusting words.  As such, this material may not be appropriate to all readers.

There are not many things more pristine and beautiful than an attractive piece of wood following a smooth cut by an artist’s carving tool.  It is crisp and clean.  Often, as our piece is being worked on, it becomes soiled and loses that clean look of freshness.  The beauty of the wood can rapidly disappear.

I don’t paint my carvings.  I apply only oil.  When I do so, if my carving is dirty, I lock that grimy dirt in place.  The only way I can get it off is to cut it off.  Of course if you paint your carving, maybe dirt doesn’t matter… but, you know in your heart that imperfection lies just below the paint.

I have seen many a carving, particularly in basswood that are ruined because of the dirt and grime left there by the carver.  He or she either couldn’t keep it clean of didn’t care about cleanliness in their carving.

To have your carving looking its best and to end up with an attractive appearance, before you apply your final finish, your carving must be clean and fresh.  Once your carving becomes soiled, there is nothing you can do except re-carve it.

My buddy, Don Mertz (the Woodbee Carver) told me a story about Harold Enlow… Don said someone had once asked Harold how to avoid dirty carvings and Harold said: “carve faster.”  Cute!  I wished only that would work.  By the way, there are probably not many cleaner carvers in the land than is Don Mertz.

So, let’s analyze where most of this dirt comes from and what we can do about it.  For me personally, it comes from several primary places.

Sharpening:  Sharpening is a dirty process and the grit material, micro metal shavings, oils, and compound all stick to fingers and tools like glue.  We leave the sharpening equipment with grimy fingers, immediately pick up tools and carvings and all this crud is transferred to the carving.  This is probably the dirtiest crud of any that we face.  To ensure that this grime transference does not occur, we need to carefully wipe down our newly sharpened tools and take a trip to the wash basin and scrub our hands.  Pretend you are a surgeon prepping for an operation.  This would be one reason to do all of your sharpening, honing, and stropping at once so you don’t spend more time at the wash basin than you do carving.  I also will wear nitrile gloves when I sharpen if I possibly can.

Pencil lead:  Most of us do some amount of drawing on our carvings with a lead pencil.  I do and I find that I am probably too aggressive with the pencil during the rough-out stages.  Not only is there a strong likelihood that some amount of pencil marks will remain when I am finished with a particular stage of work but handling a carving with lead lines on it tends to smear the lead over the entire face of the carving.  The more it is handled… the more smear.  I suppose this is one additional case for using a holding device… no matter how small the carving.  I find that using a carver’s glove can present an additional problem because not only is the lead smeared on your current carving… it is also picked up by your glove and transferred to the next carving.   I have tried washing a carver’s glove and had some success but not totally.  Kevlar must be porous.

I believe the things one can do to lessen lead smear is to minimize the amount of drawing you do and to draw as lightly as possible.  Depending upon the wood, one can even wash the carving with liquid dish soap but this too does only a half-baked job.  The best measure to prevent lead smear is to use lead sparingly and to carefully clean up your final carving… using fine, thin shavings… just enough to get the lead off (and, of course, you need dang sharp tools for this).  Also, try to avoid drawing in detail areas like eyes.  With detail like this it is much more difficult to get the lead out.  I recently learned that acetone will remove pencil marks.  I tried it on a sample piece of wood but have not tried it on a carving where there are cut marks.  If you try it, proceed with cauthion.

Carbon Paper:  This stuff is worse than lead.  Whenever I use carbon paper, it is only in the VERY early stages of a carving.   Not only does the carbon “hit” the wood where you trace, it smears EVERYWHERE that your hand drags on the paper.  UGLY, UGLY!

Rather than use carbon paper, you can draw your design on a thin (tracing) paper and then flip it over and trace over the lines on the other side of the paper… ending up with the exact mirror image on the back of the paper.  Then you can apply the paper to the wood and trace over your existing lines.  It may take a bit longer but it will greatly eliminate smearing.  Here you still face the same issues as you do with lead (above) but it is much easier to control and clean up than is carbon paper.

A Dirty Shop:  Dirt and dust seem to magically appear in our shops and studios.  When you think about it, we are always making dust.  We have a stash off wood brought in from the outdoors often with bark on that is laced with dirt and dust.  Our sharpening equipment creates grime and dust.  I notice that even my handy as heck Auto Mach reciprocal carver develops black grease around the collet and every time I change a blade, that crud gets on my hands.  ACK!  I even notice that hand sawing produces dust that flies everywhere.

I keep a shop-vac sitting close to me at all times to keep dust to a minimum.  I also keep a container of old (clean) rags close by to wipe up sharpening grit, grease and other grime that seems to develop around the shop.  I do a pretty good job at keeping things clean but I have to “stay on it” full time.  I was once complimented by a student that told me I have the cleanest shop he had ever seen… he was in on a good day…ha!

I also keep a draftsman’s brush handy as well and will brush my carvings to remove chips and dust… keeping my hands off the carving.  A clean shoe or floor brush could also be used.

One thing I did when we build our home which includes my studio in the basement… I built a separate room off my shop where I do my cutting and dust making.  It is separated by double glass doors.  In the winter when there is 3 feet of snow on the ground and its 10 degrees outside, I even use my handy electric chainsaw in that room.  It greatly reduces dust in my studio.

Dirty Clothes:  Many of us wear shop aprons when working in our shops.  Mine is leather and because of all the crud developed in the shop, that stuff gets on my apron.  Because it’s leather, I can’t wash it and that crud can easily be transferred to my carvings.  A cloth apron or a shop coat could easily be washed.  Carving and other gloves attract and hold the same dirt as my leather shop apron.  My Wranglers get dirty if I have been roughing out pieces with a chainsaw or router.  One must be aware of where this dirt is and to keep it away from carvings.

So… What do we do?

Keep our hands clean especially after sharpening or eating;

Keep our tools free of sharpening grime;

Keep our clothing clean;

Clean up you carving area every day or two;

“Spring clean” at least once a month and get into the corners;

Avoid handling your carving with your hands;

Use CLEAN carving gloves;

Use lead pencils sparingly and lightly (avoid carbon paper); and

If you can, keep your sharpening equipment far from you carving area.

Let us “toast” to clean carving!

Stay sharp and always be carveful!

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  1. And when a delicate relief carving worked on for quite a while has gotten dirty and I intend to leave it without finish (it’s cermolus Alpine pine), and I don’t like the washing that some suggest, what would you suggest?

    • Ann, if delicate, re-carving is probably out of the question. At this point, I might simply add oil or the like as it will darken the wood and hopefully offset light dirtiness. I use Howard Feed n Wax and sometimes tint it slightly. The key is to keep a carving clean… which is well more easy than to go back and attempt to clean a carving. Good luck!

  2. This is a very late response to this article but I just came across your blog.

    What of woods that are susceptible to iron-stain? I was green carving some sort of olive wood and within a very short time, the piece was getting the blue/black staining. Have you run across this type of thing before?

    • Owen, I have not experienced such a thing. If it is iron stain, perhaps “iron out” would work. If you try it, best try it on a piece of scrap first. Iron our works well on stone. Iron Out can be found with laundry soaps etc. at a larger store…. like Wal-Mart. Good luck.

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