Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | April 14, 2012

A Dozen Things I Tell My Woodcarving Students

For this posting, I have picked a dozen things I tell my woodcarving students.  But in reality, there are really a lot more than a dozen but lets stick to twelve today.  They are:

1. There is no substitute for the time you spend with a knife or chisel.  You can only learn to carve or whittle by carving and whittling (hereafter referred to as “carving”).  Nothing teaches like experience.  You can learn about carving by listening to others, reading books and magazines, and by watching teaching DVDs and You Tubes, but it is only actually doing the carving where you will learn to carve.  Actually doing it is the best instructor.  Carve …and then carve some more.

2. Give yourself permission to fail.  And, give yourself permission to succeed, to experiment, to enjoy the process of carving as much as what the end result might be.  What is important is to “do it.”  Watch your self talk.  Give yourself a ‘good’ talking to.  Don’t be one of those people who say they want to learn to carve and then continually tell themselves they can’t, or berate themselves because they’re not carving masterpieces immediately.  Affirm to yourself that you are a skilled, great, master, carver… or what have you.  I promise you that with practice, you will be a skilled carver.

3. Better quality materials will give you better quality results.  Buy accordingly.  It’s tough enough to get a good result when you are learning to carve without giving yourself a further handicap by using inferior tools or crappy wood.  Buying cheap is often a false economy and is likely to set you up for frustration and disappointment.

4. Keep sharp.  Keep your knives and tools as sharp as you are capable of making them.  Strop often.  Like using cheap tools, a dull tool makes carving well more difficult.  If you don’t know how to sharpen, get someone that does to show you how.   Personally, I don’t think a book can help with this one.  By the by, it is difficult to keep a good edge on a cheap tool.

5. You don’t know what you don’t know.  Do workshops with different instructors. There is no right or wrong way to carve, there are only results.  With the countless techniques and different ways of working there are, no one person can show you or teach you all that’s possible.  Every workshop is worthwhile practice and who knows what you might learn that will be useful?  And, you won’t only learn from an instructor; you will also learn from fellow participants.

6. You have an artistic license.  Yes… a woodcarver is an artist so use your artistic license.  An artistic license means you do not have to limit your options to what is before you or to what is “real.”  Use reference material, but remember your carving is your creation.  You can change the style, change the position, emphasize, minimize, simplify, or add or leave out elements to make it a better representation of what you want.

7. Variety is what creates and maintains interest in carving.  So aim for variety in all things: in subjects, in sizes and shapes, in woods and in style.  Vary your carving technique.  Carve what you want and what interests you.

8. Asymmetrical designs can be much more interesting than symmetrical ones.  So place the main point of interest off center.  Whether you are doing an abstract, a figurative work or a landscape, principles of design are still relevant if you want to create a pleasing image.  The ‘rule’ of thirds is one such principle.

9.  Learn to squint and turn things up side down.  Squinting at or looking at your piece upside down is a great way to check your work.  Doing so will present you with different perspectives.

10.  Depth in a relief carving is an illusion.  A good relief carving is a wonderful illusion that invites the viewer to ‘enter’ the picture.  Simple techniques you can use to create a sense of distance is the use of undercutting, more detail with closer objects and less with objects in back, and differing tones in staining.  Overlapping shapes and linear perspective using foreshortening and converging lines along with repeated shapes of diminishing size all add to the sense of depth in a carving.

11.  Employ safety.  Work safely in all areas of carving.  Avoid breathing wood dust; only put things in front of your blade that you intend to cut; being intoxicated or tired do not mix with carving.  Think first… are you working safely?

12.  Do what is comfortable and feels right to you.  No one else’s opinion is any match for your own instincts and intuition.  Consider what others may tell you but remember, you are your own artist.

Stay Sharp and Happy Carving!

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  1. I’ve been wood carving only recently at the senior center classes in Cozad Nebraska and have taken a fancy to carve staffs and was wondering if you have any sample patterns that I can learn from an willing to pay.. as my work I usually give away free to older members in my community. Am wanting to know what best wood I can use as a beginner and from where I can obtain it.
    Joe Michael

    • Hi Joe… Thanks for writing. I simply use photos or my own drawings for patterns. There are lots of source for patterns though through the millions of woodcarving books on the market. Nature is also a grand source for patterns. As far as wood goes, I get most material for walking sticks from the woods. I look for sticks with character and with the right size to carve a “head piece” in. A couple of years ago, I bought a small supply of aged Alaska Yellow Cedar that I also like to use. One source for carving sticks is Treeline Supply in Provo, Utah. They have walking stick material and a good selection of walking stick supplies. Hope that helps. Good luck!

  2. Great advice….. specially number 2 which I have no problem with at all.

    Quite a few of the woodcarving people that I’ve met in the less than a year I’ve been trying it, are very opinionated, and somewhat dismissive.

    “you can’t do that.” kind of stuff.

    My reply…. It doesn’t matter if I try something and it doesn’t work.

    I just want to have some fun. I Almost let them ruin my simple enjoyment.

    Thanks a lot. Your site is very helpful.

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