Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | December 15, 2013

Carving with Ian Norbury

This is likely the longest blog that I will ever write.


Ian Norbury is clearly one of the preeminent woodcarvers of our time.  I became aware of Norbury sometime in the early 1980’s when I discovered his book, Techniques of Creative Woodcarving.  Prior to that time, there were few woodcarving books available and finding this book was a big deal for me.  I copied his workbench that he featured in the book and also did the falcon project.  In 1985 and 1987, respectively, Norbury published two additional books.  Projects for Creative Woodcarving and Relief Woodcarving and Lettering.  Each of these books were “top of their class” for the time and it was easy to tell that our Mr. Norbury was truly a gifted artist and master carver.  I had only two other books that I valued as much… Wood Sculpture by Ronald Cartmell and Holz-schnitzen und Holzbildhauen by Friedrich Frutschi.  The later was written in German and I was unable to read more than a few a words but the photos seemed enough for me.

Over the years, I learned more about Ian Norbury and continue to marvel at his talent to this day.  Without question, he has been a great influence on my carving.  In early 2000, I learned that Norbury wou;d be coming to the U.S. on a tour and that Woodcraft Supply was to feature him in several stores with a 3-day workshop.  I immediately called the local Woodcraft store and signed up for a December, 2000 workshop.  He was offering 5 projects to work and I chose a female torso.  It was a wonderful weekend.  I met Ian in the flesh and enjoyed him very much.  But this article is about Ian’s most recent visit to the U.S.

Ian has a great web site and blog ( ) and I have religiously followed him over the years.  In early 2013… probably January, I learned that Ian was returning to the U.S. for another tour and series of workshops.  This time Ian was offering two projects… a similar torso to the one I had done in 2000 and a female head and face.  I chose the head and face.  Truth be known, I was intimidated by the idea of this project as carving females has never been easy for me.  Once again, I was fortunate enough to register for the workshop which occurred in early November of this year at the Seattle Woodcraft store… 13 years after my first experience with Ian in Portland, Oregon.

All did not start out well.  Woodcraft Seattle was totally unprepared for the workshop and nothing seemed to be set-up or planned for.  I first thought it was going to be a disaster.  Each of Ian’s sponsoring sites, as part of his agreement with them, was to prepare sawn blanks and a suitable vice for each attendee.  Well, I do not believe Woodcraft Seattle had a carver’s vice in the entire store and certainly none for attendees to use.  Fortunately, I and a few others had brought our own vices.  Others had to work with traditional woodworking and general purpose vices.While nothing could be done about Woodcraft’s lack of preparation, Betty Norbury quickly ensured that all else would be better executed in the balance of the workshop.  I must say that the Woodcraft store associates did get their act together, once Betty re-aligned their thinking.  Betty is a “peach.”

It was late but the carving did began!  Nine folks were in attendance and 7 were doing the head and 2 chose the torso.  As Ian’s work is generally not for beginners, most carvers in the group were quite skilled and all were great folks.  As with my first experience in a Norbury workshop, there was a high energy that seems to swirl up and my carving went much quicker and with greater ease than I had expected.  Frankly, I had not expected to finish my project in the workshop.

The first day was roughing out…  the face, neck and hair.  Each chunk of wood that fell from the carving revealed a better glimpse of what was coming in the end.  Ian has a great eye and could simply glance at my work and tell me that the hair line on the left side of my girls head was closer to the eye than it was on the right.


The photo above is into the second day when things were taking shape


Above, Ian is working with John

Day two was taking the rough-out to a reasonably nice looking woman.  The end of day 2, Ian hurled a knife (metaphorically) into my chest.  He told me my woman looked pretty rough and that I needed to get to sanding her.  Yikes, I had never sanded a carving in my life and did not want to start now.  But, I also realized that if anything required a fine finish, it is a woman’s skin.  So, my ENTIRE day 3 was fine detail, touch-up and SANDING, sanding, and sanding.  Even me, with a history of being critical of sanding, has to admit that sanding made a very positive difference in my lady.


Beyond his skills as an artist, Ian Norbury has a great sense of humor and is fun to talk with.  If Ian has an ego, I did not see it.  He takes his talents pretty much in stride.  I suspect Ian has positively influenced thousands of carvers in his career and when I asked him how he felt about that, he said: “I don’t really know, I have never thought about it.”

Rather than me try to describe Ian, I would like to paraphrase quotes from accomplished carvers and of collectors that participated in the Forward to Ian’s great book; The Art of Ian Norbury.

Simon Channing-Williams
“Ian Norbury was introduced to me when I was looking for someone to do some carvings of birds for a film I was producing. We had a thoroughly enjoyable meeting, shared a glass or two of wine and Ian lit a pipe. It’s been like that now for almost 20 years, the only deviation seems to include good food and strong coffee!

“Ian of course turned down my offer of work; he was too busy…, an exhibition was planned…, he needed to travel… The truth was simply that if he had accepted he would have had to compromise, do someone else’s bidding, be a hired hand, and that is not what Ian Norbury is about.

“Over the years I have commissioned two pieces from Ian and am the lucky owner of a number more, and I know that Ian has to be given the freedom to explore in order to deliver a creation in an organic way. He has a voracious appetite for ideas, he’s a great listener, a formidable raconteur, but you can’t buy him; feed him information and detail and the result will inevitably excite and inspire.

“Ian is of course technically brilliant but technical in terms of art and creation can sometimes be boring, and that he is not. He is an artist of our time; drawing on the past, but creating and delivering work both for and of the present, as well as the future in a totally uncompromising way. He is able to combine the eye of a cartoonist with the mind of a sharp political commentator.

“Like all great artists, Ian invites us to look beyond what we actually see, urging us to open our eyes. To really look, perhaps even to glimpse beyond his own horizons.

“Unsurprisingly, Ian Norbury is a complex man – idiosyncratic, charismatic, iconoclastic – a great debunker of pomp, and wonderfully politically incorrect, he is a powerful presence and at times perhaps satanic. He is also a passionate and caring man, a man of passion. He has the delicate and sensual hands of a trusted lover who encourages us to expose his subjects further. His eye is truthful, he sees the beauty but he also sees the pain and doubt; that same unerring eye also reminds us of our responsibilities to this earth and of our own mortality.

“It is no wonder to me that Ian Norbury should work with wood, a raw material that is so tactile, warm and sensual. It can also be hard and unforgiving, but with Ian this is a true union of man and material, the one complementing the other to the greatest possible effect.”

Ray Gonzales
“Whenever I think of Ian Norbury’s work, I think not only of his sculptures, but of his books, courses and exhibitions, as an entire package, a kind of Ian Norbuy machine that is kept in good running order by Betty, who provides the dedicated promotion that Ian needs, leaving him free to perform his magic.”

Gonzales, in referring to Ian’s work goes on… “this type of work was a shock to many traditionalists who remain stuck in the groove of classical decorative woodcarving and slaves to tradition.”

Fred Cogelow
“He is furthermore a brave soul, this Ian.  Many a mediocre artist indulges “Multimedia” as an easy fix, a means of achieving originality simply through new combinations of old tricks from separate spheres. The results are often so void of esthetic merit that they can hardly be called advances.  The pitfalls snare them, and their works smack more of novelty than novel.  Against the principle of medium, the added ingredients appear intrusive and extraneous and seem contrived and supplementary rather than complimentary.”

“Ian’s skill, intelligence and wit would place his works at the top of his genre…”

In looking over Ian’s work, it is most clear that he never takes the easy way out.  He carves free standing ribbons, inlays woods, and is not afraid of the most minute detail in his work.  The man is a master in its truest definition… and I feel fortunate to have spent time with him.  He advises that he will never return to Seattle but is working on a Canadian tour that will include a stop in Greater Vancouver… hope so… I’ll be there.


If you have an interest in carving either a female head or torso, I highly recommend Ian’s latest book, Sculpting the Female Face and Figure in Wood.  It is a beauty.

Ian and Betty reside in the countryside of Ireland.

Thanks for reading and stay sharp!

Please visit my website at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: