Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | November 7, 2017

Spoon Carvin’ Jack by Flex Cut

Hi everyone.   It has been a very long time since I made a post.  Truth is, I kind of ran out of topics.  One type of posts that I have always enjoyed doing are product reviews.  Being totally independent and not accepting compensation, I can be completely honest with my observation.

Spoon Carvin' Jack

Flexcut recently released their newest knife… the Spoon Carvin’ Jack.  I hate to put the punch line first, but I must.  In my opinion, this may be their best knife yet.  Here is why:

Blades.  The Spoon Carvin’ Jack has three blades.  1.) A 1 3/8th inch straight knife blade… the same blade as is found in Flexcut’s other Jack knives that they call a “detail knife.”  In my mind it is a little large to get the “detail’ title but it is a good sized blade for hand carving.  2.) A 1 3/8 shallow bent knife that is unique to the Spoon Carvin’ Jack.  I like it as it is good for slightly concaved work that cannot be done with a straight blade. The shape of this blade is typical of many North Coast Indian bent knives.  For some reason, Flexcut calls this a Hook Knife.  It’s not a hook; it is bent.  And 3.) A 1-inch deep bent knife blade.  This is the same bent knife blade found in Flexcut’s Carvin’ Jack.  This, too, is a great blade for whittling and carving.   All blades lock solidly.  As with all Flexcut Jacks, the blade pivot is a little rough, but they do smooth out with use.  Although, my Detail Jack takes force to get it to completely shut and I have been using it for over a year.

Like all Flexcut blades, they come dang sharp with a low bevel… perfect in my mind.

The blades are mounted in such a way that if you hold the knife in your left hand, the blade edges are away from you, which is perfect for carving away from you (pushing rather than pulling).  So, obviously, if you hold it in your right hand, you will be making pull cuts.

Handle.  This is Flexcut’s first folder with an extremely comfortable aluminum handle.  The scales are ergonomic with deep and comfortable cross hatching.  This is a wonderful feature and I wished all Flexcut folders were fitted in such a manner.  By ergonomic, I mean, the scales have a light bulge to them.  I cannot over emphasize how comfortable this knife is in my hand.

Size.  The knife is 4 ¼ inches in length, closed… the same as the Carvin’ Jack.  It is 7/8” thick as compared to the 5/8” thick Carvin’ Jack.  Between the size and the handle material and shape, I find this to be the most comfortable folding carving knife I own.

Price.  The list price is $124.95.  I bought mine from Greg Dorrance Company ( for $99.96.  Not only is that a good price but Greg Dorrance provides expert advice and the best service that I have found anywhere in woodcarving land.  And, Greg actually answers the phone if you happen to call.

Bottom Line.  I love the Spoon Carvin’ Jack as I do the Carving Jack’s.  I highly recommend it for whittling, carving, and oh yes, spoon carving.

Be “carveful” and stay sharp!

Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | January 3, 2016

Carving a Living Tree

The first of last month, a cousin of mine living in Utah sent me an article featuring a fellow that carves “tree spirits” and the like in living trees in a community located near my cousin. At first, I admit that I was attracted to the idea… partially because of a photo that was in included in the article and then “Googling” “carvings in live trees.” My imagination went off like a sky rocket and I pictured a cool wizard character similar to Gandalf with the bark of the tree growing back and framing the face.

Then, I came to my senses and reality set in. I seriously thought through carving a living tree. It took only a matter of seconds to consider that this would be similar to carving a wizard on ones forearm. It would seriously hurt and while it may heal, the arm would never be the same and would for sure be impaired for life. Another comparison might be made to carving a face on the back of your dog. Not at all cool.

A tree is a living thing. It is bad enough to kill one needlessly but I can think of no excuse to mutilate one. We can only imagine what feelings a tree may have but it has been proven scientifically that all plants have feelings and react to even the thought of being harmed.

I suppose that there may be an argument for carving on a previously damaged area but even then I am not so sure. But introducing a wound to a healthy tree will surely introduce pathogens or insects. Please do not suggest that all would be rectified by applying a wood preservative. Would you paint that on an open wound on your body… I think not.

The fellow featured in the article stated that he “never lost a tree.” Well one may not die from carving up his or her arm but s/he may well wish for death due to the pain. So far in my life, I have not met a talking live tree but I am certain that they would scream at the thought of being carved up.

I know of no way to stop rot in a living tree. According to an arborist friend, a damaged area of a tree will never heal. The tree will attempt to save itself by isolating the damaged area and putting its life force into the areas surrounding the wound but the wound will remain and will likely rot… and rot spreads. It may or may not kill the tree depending upon the health of the tree, its age, the species of the tree, and its location but it will impair the tree forever.

Imagine, if you will, an 8 inch diameter tree and a carving is made in it roughly one half its circumference and 1-2 inches deep. The tree will attempt to segregate the wound leaving roughly one half of the trunk to provide nutrients to the balance of the tree. Its chance of survival has been reduced to half and it is scared for life. Even if a tree does not die in a short period of time, its life will have been shortened.

One may also argue that you can look at photos of tree carvings and see no visible signs of damage. I assure you, there is damage… the carving itself is damage and other damage will lie behind the carving out of sight… but it is there. Ask an arborist.

One last thought. Certain trees such as Western Red Cedar, Big Leaf Maple and others often have hollow areas within the trunk. Carving such a trunk will greatly reduce the strength of the trunk.

Let us stick to carving dead trees. There are plenty of those around that we don’t need to inflict mayhem on a living tree.

Happy New Year to everyone. I wish you a truly amazing year. Keep sharp!

Please visit my web site at

Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | March 14, 2015

Woodcarving with Files and Rifflers

Many years ago, I was fortunate enough to spend about a dozen evenings working in the shop of a Swiss Master Carver that had learned his trade in the canton woodcarving school in Brienz, Switzerland. Walter was an exceptionally fine woodcarver but he had a real issue with using rasps and files, etc. He would not allow them in his shop. I took on his attitude regarding such things and would never use them either. On top of that, I have always liked the looks of wood carvings to be obvious so for years I was careful to leave a clean hewn look to the wood surface. I stayed as far away from sand paper as I possibly could. We all have “weirdio synchronicities” (my made up term) and NO files and sandpaper have been one of mine for many years.

You can teach an old dog new tricks…

Then in an Ian Norbury workshop, working on a female face, I knew that a hewn finish was not going to be acceptable. A workshop mate (John Culver) had a fancy file that he let me use. John explained the virtues of the file and I borrowed it to smooth out my lady’s cheeks… then I went to fine sandpaper. Well, right then and there the clouds parted and I was converted to using not only a fine wood file but also good sandpaper.

But, neither files nor sandpaper are created equal. I set out to find a file as nice as John’s. Since this article is about files and rifflers, let me only quickly mention that the best sandpaper that is readily available, in my opinion, is Lowe’s proprietary 3M brand. Nice stuff. Less available but also very nice is Swiss sandpaper carried by some woodcarvers supply sources. I’m sure there are others as well.

Okay, back to files and rifflers.

I searched the web and found some Iwasaki brand wood files. They come in flat and half round and in a couple of sizes. These files are a woodcarver’s dream for shaping, sculpting, easing hard edges & eliminating chisel and gouge marks. They remove material quickly like a rasp, but leave a very clean surface finish like you’d get from a plane. The teeth are curved and are arranged like a single cut file. The wood shaving breaks off & is forced up & away from the face of the file so the teeth are less prone to clog. The tailings created are not dust, but ultra mini-shavings and look as if they came from a tiny plane! The teeth are both danged hard and sharp efficient cutting & long life typical of good quality Japanese carving tools. They come in “medium,” “fine,” and extreme fne” cuts. I highly recommend the extreme fine cut for carving. They also come straight and curved. There are merits for owning both but I do suggest the small 8” size for carving. The curved file allows for getting into areas that a straight file simply will not. The 8” file comes with a comfortable handle and is a pull cut allowing for better control. The larger ones are “push” cuts and less convenient for carving… at least for me.

I also found a Chris Pye, Auriou (French) riffler that I love. I suggest the “Thumb and Laurel” version. Auriou also makes the same riffler without Chris Pye’s endorsement but it is coarser than the Pye version. It is also a bit less money. You do want the finest cut possible. These Auriou rifflers (and their files) are seriously “pricy” but in defense of their cost, they are hand cut. The Pye version is roughly 7” which is perfect for handling. But, rifflers are rasps, after all, and the leave a rougher cut requiring more sanding. I wish Auriou would not only find a way to reduce their cost but also make a finer grain for wood carvers.

Files 2

My File Selection

With the curved Iwasaki file and Pye, Auriou riffler mentioned above, I have added a whole new dimension to my carving process. I found all files mentioned here at Highland Woodworking. In fact they offer a huge selection.

Also, an invaluable little file… if you want to call it that… is to place a diamond or ruby burr in a pin vice or the like and use it for the finest of work. I have also used carbide burrs in a pin vise for more aggressive cutting. Burrs come in a myriad of shapes, sizes, and grits so one can get into cracks and crevices where a knife simply cannot. The best pin vise that I have found is at Cascade Carvers Supply at a very affordable price (their product number 60-6145). I highly recommend this… in fact, get two. This pin vise is double ended so you can place a burr in each end which helps with having to constantly change them around. Cascade Carvers also carries a nice selection of burrs and Swiss sandpaper. Oh, and a little bonus here… as Cascade Carvers mentions on their web site, one can insert a fret saw blade in this pin vise and have a micro saw… pretty “slick” for tight spots with softer wood like basswood.

I am sure there are other fine files that I am unaware of and I welcome suggestions and experiences from readers.

Thank you for reading and…

Keep Sharp!

Please look at my web site at

Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | February 8, 2015

The Other Woodcarving Glove

It goes without question that when one is whittling or whittle carving¹, one should be wearing a good quality carving glove. The best kind have a micro steel wire, often stainless, sewn into the fabric. Also, avoid those bulky ones… look for a good fitting glove. But, here, I want to mention the “other carving glove.”

I am one of those folks that like to have their work fastened securely in a vise or attached to a work positioner. Doing so, keeps my hands out or ‘harm’s way” and as my hands have aged… it’s just plain easier on them.

Often, when using gouges I tend to use the palms of my hands as a mallet to provide that little extra nudge. I know, not too smart… especially for aging hands but its fast and easy. To help cushion the blow, I wear one of a couple of bicycling gloves that I have. One has a minimal amount of padding in the palm (but they are suede and cool looking with a woven back) and the other pair has a generous gel pad on the palm. I use the latter for heavy work. The suede pair is pretty much for lighter work and for when I want to look cool. Although cycling gloves come with and without fingers, my gloves are both fingerless so I have good control and can pick up small things easily.

Gloves also provide a better grip both on gouges and mallets and being leather, I don’t get sweaty with them. I have seen folks wear those rubber or neoprene faced gardening gloves but they do get sweaty. I’ll take leather any time.

While they do not replace a “real” carving glove, simply because they provide a layer of leather on top of my skin they do offer slight protection. However no protection for the forward part of one’s fingers. I am proud to say that my gloves are many years old and neither have no slices or blood stains on them.

If you are holding your work in your hand and carving or whittling with the other, put on a real carver’s glove.

L1060421Suede (makes me look “Cool”) Gloves

L1060422Heavy Gel Gloves

Thanks for reading, always be “carveful” and stay sharp!

Please visit my website at

¹ “Whittle carving” is a clever and well-aimed term coined by Don Mertz, an excellent “whittle carver.”

Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | January 30, 2015

Why do Woodcarvers Carve?

There are probably as many answers to that question as there are carvers. Here are some of the most obvious reasons that come to mind for me:

To Create – Creation brings us a great satisfaction. It brings us joy to have added to the world in a positive way;

To Manifest our Passion – Not only do we manifest our passion simply by carving but also by reproducing our dreams in a very tangible form;

To leave our Signature on the World – When we leave this planet, we will leave behind not only whatever memories others might have of us but also little relics of what was important to us and others;

To Bring Happiness to Ourselves and to Others – Clearly, carving brings us happiness but we also bring happiness to others to whom we gift our carvings… something pleasing to the recipient;

Introduces Relationships – Carving introduces us to a vast group of artisans who are also great people. We seldom meet a carver that we don’t appreciate and like;

Form of Meditation – We find that carving is a form of meditation. While carving we often find ourselves in a trance like state… introducing us to unlimited moments of enlightenment and clarity;

Income – If we sell our products, we are generating a bit of income from doing what we love.

Challenge – When carving a piece that challenges us, it helps us grow to new level of creativity and skill;

Helping Others – We can all agree how rewarding it is to teach others and helping them with woodcarving;

And the list goes on. Anyone reading this is probably adding many more items to this list which have quickly come to their mind.

I have a friend who is constantly reminding me that “there is so much wood and so little time.” We better get back to work.

Keep Sharp

Please visit my website at

Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | January 28, 2015

The Best Steel for Woodcarving Knives

Asking “what kind of steel is the best for carving knives” sounds like a simple enough question. Good question maybe but not a simple question… at least not a simple answer.

When one goes to the sales material or “tech” information of a knife manufacturer and explores what kind of steel they use, it is usually found that the manufacturer simply states they use “high carbon steel.” Not really much help with that description as “high carbon” can mean almost anything.  And, one can’t simply walk up to a sales counter and ask for this knife in D-2 and that knife in W-1 steel. Each maker has their unique steel and generally they don’t tell you what that is.

Here we are talking about carving/whittling knives and not kitchen cutlery. The best steel for carving is not the same as the best steel for the kitchen. Kitchen knives spend a lot of time wet… carving knives should be kept dry at all times.

There are probably 50 (plus) steels available today. They each have unique properties that make them subtly different.

Steel Element Basics

Basically, steel is a mix of carbon and (principally) iron that is often enriched with other elements to allegedly improve certain characteristics depending on the desired application. These other elements are called “alloys” and the more prominent ones are: chromium, molybdenum, manganese, nickel, cobalt, tungsten and silicon. Let’s discuss the primary elements:

Carbon – Carbon in every form of steel. Essentially, it’s the element that turns the basic metal iron into steel and enables the hardening process. Generally with increased levels of carbon you get a harder steel, improved tensile strength, edge retention and overall resistance to wear.

Chromium – Chromium increases the resistance to oxidation and corrosion in general. To be classified as “Stainless Steel” there is generally 13% plus or minus chromium content. Still, every steel is going to corrode if left out in the elements for any length of time.

Molybdenum – will improve the strength at high temperatures and overall hardness. This helps with how easy a blade is to produce in the factory.

Vanadium – Vanadium produces a very fine grain during the steel’s heat treatment process which improves overall toughness. Ultra-premium steels often contain relatively high levels of vanadium and allow for a super sharp edge.

The other elements are typically so minor that they really do not need to be addressed here.

So what do we want in a Carving/Whittling Knife?

Let’s look at some common properties:

Strength – This represents the ability to resist deforming when subject to stress and applied forces. This is more important on hard woods;

Hardness – Similar to strength this refers to the ability to avoid any permanent deformations. Hardness is generally measured by using the Rockwell scale. I like hard knifes in the 58 to 60 range. The harder the steel, the more difficult to sharpen but more importantly, the harder the steel the longer lasting the edge is and the edge can likely be maintained by simple stropping;

Toughness – Similar to strength, above, the ability to resist damage like cracks or chips when being used in heavy duty applications. This also defines the steel’s ability to flex without breaking. Note that the stronger or harder the steel the less tough it will likely be as

Corrosion/Rust Resistance – This is the ability to resist corrosion such as rust caused by external element. Note that a high resistance to corrosion does involve a sacrifice in the overall edge performance. This should not be an issue with carving knives as they should not be used in a corrosive environment;

Edge Retention – Represents how long the blade will retain its sharpness and not require re-sharpening. For carvers, this is a biggie.

The best carving knife steel is not simply a case of maximizing each of the above properties. We need to find some balance in the above and we need to remember our use… carving, not chopping, whacking, cutting cardboard or skinning a deer or the neighbor.

As a carver, I am of the belief that I need a steel that is HIGH carbon (1% to 1.5%). I don’t care so much about corrosion so I don’t want chromium content. (My belief is that a stainless steel knife should be relegated to kitchen duty… and stainless steel knives with above 14% chromium should be thrown away.)

My Steel Recommendations

My choice for carving knife steels are: W-1 and W-2 and if you want a bit of corrosion resistance, O-1 (that’s “oh one”). With these you will get dang good edge holding abilities that can easily be maintained through stropping. And, with W-1 you will get a beauty in the knife as it will develop a natural patina that brags of its carbon content.  If I could only pick one, it would be W-1.

I have no idea what steels Flexcut, Queen City and other big name knife makers use but I do know they each have good edge holding properties.  Cape Forge, Northbay Forge, and Savage Forge each use W-1 and either W-2 or O-1 steels. These later are my favorites hands down.

Thanks for reading and keep sharp!

Please visit my website at

Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | November 30, 2014

Carving an Eagle in Brazilian Walnut

It is difficult to remember when I became infatuated with Eagles. But suffice it to say, it was a long, long time ago… maybe even a previous life, if there is such a thing. Way back in the mid-70’s, I carved my first real Eagle accomplishment… first real woodcarving accomplishment, for that matter.  Part of the accomplishment was the fact that it was my first material sale.  But, probably the best part of the accomplishment was the fact that the buyer loved the Eagle as much as I did.  Many years have passed since then but in early 2013, I made the decision to do a similar Eagle to the first. It took me over a year… the feathers got to be a challenge after a while.  I don’t have a lot of patience and the feathers took well more than I had.

Blocked Out Eagle

Blocked Out Eagle

Early Gouge Work

Early Gouge Work

Eagle Finished

Eagle Finished

Another view

Another view

One of the blessings in my life was a good friend of mine, a banker, had a client that was in the lumber Import business. This lumber broker had mentioned to my friend that he had a shipment of Brazilian Walnut destined to become veneer. Well, my friend told me about it and off we went to the broker’s lumber yard. There, before my eyes was a monstrous stack of gorgeous Brazilian Walnut cants. This took place in roughly 1972. I bought 2 cants of the walnut and a couple of other woods and the amount of the bill was in the neighborhood of $125.00. Today, the wood is priceless. My friend and another fellow had also purchased a cant or two. Over the years, I traded things with these guys and ended up with most their walnut as well. I have been pretty selective as to where I use the stuff but two projects were the two Eagles discussed above. And, I still have several feet of 8” X 8” material that I am saving for another wonderful project. There are benefits to being an older guy and buying this wood forty some-odd years ago at a dirt cheap price is one of them.

Thanks for reading.

Keep sharp!

Please visit my web site at

Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | November 11, 2014

Carving a Native American Flute

For many years I have had an urge to craft an authentic Native American Indian Flute but for some reason, it never happened… probably because I knew that I would not be able to play it even if I did build one :).  But, two things recently happened to renew my interest.  First I was listening to a wonderful CD by Scott August titled Distant Spirits which is predominately Indian flute music and, second, a local Chelan gift store named Spirals added a line of beautiful flutes to their offerings.  I became motivated!  Then I recalled a very old book I have by W. Ben Hunt titled The Complete How-To Book of Indian Craft.  This book was compiled from other books written by Hunt in the early 40’s and included plans for a Indian Flute.  I was “in business.”

I pretty much followed Hunt’s plans with some minor modifications.  Rather than repeat Bent Hunt’s directions here, I will simply refer you to Hunt’s plans that can be found at  I will, however, mention the few things that I did differently from Hunt.  Some I did as the tone of my first flute was okay but far from great.  Here are some differences that I suggest making:

1) Hunt calls for a mouth hole measuring 1/8th inch.  I found that well too small and went with a ¼” hole.  Additionally, Hunt’s mouth piece is a short 3/8th inch. My second flute is 1”.
2) The instructions calls for making a volume control piece where Hunt suggests using lead, celluloid or cardboard. Yikes!… lead?  Obviously written during a different time.  I made mine out of hardwood.  It is not easy though as it is to be only 1/32” thick. 1/32” is the thickness of a standard credit card.  With my second flute, I scrapped the whole volume control thing. Rather I made a recessed 1/32” flue;
3) Hunt makes no mention of the need for everything to be smooth and contoured.  On my second flute I replaced all the square-ness with contoured, well sanded and angled lines, making sure all burrs and rough spots were removed.  I made all air passages like a smooth flowing waterway.  And, Hunt’s block is 1/4″… I suggest 1″.

“Google” Native American flute making and look over what is available.  I could not find any detailed plans or measured drawings but I did  find lots of suggestions… as you will.  In the end, I don’t believe measurement is all that important.  I just heard about someone that made a flute out of a carrot.  And, there is a company than commercially makes sells flutes made from branches and limbs… some are even made into walking sticks.

So here is my first flute in progressive steps:


Here, I have  a 1 1/4″… 20″ long piece of Alaska Cedar which has been ripped, marked and one half gouged out.


The second side is now gouged out and the various holes cut and drilled per Hunt’s measurement and instructions


The two sides are now glued together.  Before gluing, I tried it out for sound.  If it had been too bad, I could have made some adjustments.  As it was, it was okay.  At this point, I really did not know what improvements I could make and should have done more research even before marking and gouging.

My finished flute.  Those that know me know I love eagles… so here we go again.

This is the “block.”  This is where one adjusts the tone as best as they can. Typically, Indian flute blocks are carved in a Southwest Indian motif.

I placed a rattler on the upper wall of the end of the sound chamber and a eagle feather on each side.

This is my second flute.  It is not as ornate as my first but it sounds 100% better.  The block on this one has an eagle feather and there are eagle feathers on each side of the chamber, below the block.   On this one I added “Four Directions holes” at the end of the sound chamber.  The block here is made of New Zealand Kauri wood and the flute is Alaska Yellow Cedar.  By the way, Kauri wood is over 30,000 years old… pretty rare stuff.

But, dang…. I still can’t play one of these.  I will have to work on that.

Thank you for reading and keep sharp!

Please visit my website at

Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | October 15, 2014

Transferring Patterns to Wood for Woodcarving

A not-so-fun step in woodcarving is transferring your selected pattern to wood. I have tried nearly everything and I find none of it to be any fun. I just want to get to carving.

There are several options in transferring patterns. Let’s look at a few of the most common methods.

Carbon Paper

In my beginnings as a woodcarver, I used carbon paper and still use it even today for some applications like large lettering on rough wood. It does a reasonable job but you will be lucky if you can avoid smearing. With large lettering, it is easy to carve off the smears but it becomes less easy with detailed and smaller pieces. And, light woods like basswood seem to act like a sponge with the smearing. I am left handed and I seem to have more trouble with smearing than many do but everyone faces the problem to some degree. Using carbon paper is really very simple… first tape one of two edges of your pattern to the wood. Then carefully slip carbon paper under your pattern and tape it down as well. Then simply trace your pattern to the wood. If you don’t tape the carbon paper, the risk of it sliding around and smearing increases.

Ponce Wheels

Ponce wheels are those nifty little gadgets with a spiked wheel mounted on a handle used for fabric, leather and even wood. The wheels and spikes come in several sizes but I suggest using the smallest spikes that you will be able to see on your wood. With these, one simply tapes the pattern to wood and then runs over the pattern with the spiked wheel. Here again, I find the best use for these with larger patterns lacking detail. Remove the pattern and you will clearly see your pattern in the wood in the form of little “prick marks.” I always, then, go over everything with a soft pencil to make things stand out. You, of course, will want to carve those prick marks out. Ponce wheels are available at artist suppliers, fabric shops, and even Walmart.

Adhesive Spray

It may be obvious to some but I only became familiar with adhesive spray through looking at Chris Pye’s articles in carving magazines some years back. This seems to be his default method of pattern transfer and it rapidly became mine. One caution though… be sure to use a “re-positionable” or “low-tack adhesive such as Scotch Brand Spray Mount. The other stuff “sticks like no tomorrow” and it is very difficult to remove residue from your carving. Spray Mount is available at Michael’s, Office Depot, and elsewhere for from $11.00 to $17.00. I found Michael’s to be the least expensive. If you happen to have a can of regular spray adhesive and want to use it, be sure to go lightly had hold the can a fair distance from your piece to lighten the amount of adhesive. You can remove spray residue with turpentine but turpentine stinks awful, should not be breathed and it will smear any black from your pattern on to your wood. Heavy adhesive and smearing black ink are both difficult to deal with.

Pencil on the Back of Your Pattern

A method we all learned back in elementary school is to hold your pattern up against a window (pattern facing glass) and trace your pattern in reverse on the back of the pattern paper with a soft pencil. Once done, tape the pattern on to your wood and simply draw over your pattern. In doing so, the pencil on the back will be transferred to your wood. Once done, remove the pattern and clean up the transferred pencil marks. This method is the most time consuming of any but it is much cleaner than carbon paper and is a virtually no cost method.

If you happen to know an additional trick, please let me know.

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Thanks for visiting, be carveful and keep sharp!

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!

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