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.

Please visit my web site at

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!

Please visit my website at

Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | April 10, 2013

Japanese Professional Woodcarving Gouges

I just found this blog posting in my draft folder on my WordPress site.  Apparently, I forgot it was sitting there and it was never published.  So we are a little late with it….

Depending upon how old you are, you might remember when Japanese branding was not considered to be the greatest particularly when it came to tools.  Well, times long ago changed but one area where Japanese manufacturing has always been excellent is that of cutlery.  There are legends about the samurai swords and they are not unfounded.

Some years ago, I discovered Japanese Professional gouges.  Initially, I knew little about them other than they were danged sharp, comfortable to use and quite attractive and a little expensive.  Since then, I learned from Fred Damsen, the original owner of the Japan Woodworker that the specific tools that I was purchasing were hand made by a Japanese couple named Tanaka.  The Tanakas resided (and may still reside) in the 1300 year old Miki City, known for its legendary blacksmiths.  It also became obvious that these tools would soon become scarce as in 2006, when I made inquiry of Mr. Damsen, the Tanakas were in their seventies.  Today, the Japan Woodworker appears to have removed Tanaka tools from their catalog.  I recently inquired about them with the new Japan Woodworker (Woodcraft Supply) but they did not respond.  I can find nothing on the Internet about Tanaka tools.


Professional Japanese Gouges are hand forged from high-quality, high-carbon white steel (Shirogami Hagane) and forge welded to wrought iron.  Each tool is individually tempered to Rc64-65.  By comparison, most gouge steel is hardened to Rc58 or so.  A few, considered to be hard, are about Rc62.

These tools tempered to Rc64-65 hold a razor sharp edge for a long period of time. Normally, a tool tempered to Rc64 would be highly fragile and subject to fracture.  The process of laminating the high-carbon, white steel to wrought iron provides great strength.  Although, having said that, as the tools are so very hard, it is imperative that one never pries with them as they can chip.  I have found that on the more aggressive sweeps, it helps to place a micro-bevel on the inside of the edge.


The Tanaka tools are a medium-sized tool at about eight inches and comes with a beautiful and tough Japanese Red Oak (Akagashi) palm-shaped handle combined with a bolstered shank.  The shape of the handle make them a joy to hold for hand work and the bolster provides serious strength.  I see it as a perfect set up and consider them to be the finest carving gouges available.  I only wish that the Tanaka family or others made small palm gouges.  If you are into fine hand tools, you will want to hold one of these gouges and feel the magic that emanates from them.  Some where early on, I learned that the comfortable pear shaped handle was actually made for violin makers.  The pear shaped handle was designed for comfort in the hand and was not intended for mallet use.  However, I have used a light weight (12 oz) urethane mallet with them for years and have experienced no ill affects.  And, as I have aged, a comfortable handle has become important to me.


As I mentioned previously, Tanaka tools seem to have disappeared in the past few years.  There are other good brands available but I have found only one with that wonderful shaped handle.  These that I am referring to are Maru Nomi Gouges carried in the U.S. by Howard Core Company, a violin supplies wholesaler.  While they are wholesale, they will sell gouges retail.  Only one drawback here and that is that they import these tools from Germany.  So, they are made in Japan, shipped to and distributed through Germany, each with a stronger currency than the U.S. so the end price is pretty hefty.  The other thing to be aware of here is that the Howard Core write up of these gouges incorrectly states that the handles are unvarnished pear wood soaked in linseed oil when they are, in fact, Japanese Red Oak with a varnish finish… at least the ones I have purchased have been Red Oak… gorgeous too.

Japan Woodworker continues to offer a line of straight handled gouges (Takahashi) that seem to be of high quality but they lack that incredible pear shaped handle.  Many carvers feel that even these tools are too high priced.  Japan Woodworker does an excellent job of discussing Japanese  woodworking tools in their catalog and I think you would enjoy reading their write-up.

Japanese Professional gouges are danged expensive as compared to others but if you are a professional and love having the best, then I would argue that they are well worth the money.  They are my “go to” gouge.

The sweeps on Japanese Professional tools pretty much line up with the Swiss made tools.  However sweeps of 8 and 9 on the Japanese chart are more of a 7 and 8 on the Swiss chart.

Thanks for visiting, Stay sharp and be “Carveful!”

Please visit my website at

Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | November 10, 2012

A New Folding Whittling Knife

Flexcut has introduced their new Tri-Jack Pro and it is a “Home Run”.  It is a 3 blade folding whittling knife that meets most requirements for a good whittling knife.  It has a large blade for “hogging” that Flexcut calls a “roughing knife”, a mid sized blade that is titled a “detail blade.”  The third blade is a extra small blade that Flexcut has referred to as a “mini cutting knife.”

Tri-Jack Pro w/3 blades open

Let us take a closer look…

The Tri-Jack Pro, like its sibling the Whittlin’ Jack, is ultra sharp right out of the package.  In fact, I would argue that you will not be able to find a sharper knife with a factory edge.  And, like all Flexcut knives, it holds an edge exceptionally well.  In fact these knives are the only knives I have experienced that hold an edge as well as a fine hand forged knife.

The handle shape is as good as it gets for a folding knife.  While it is not as comfortable as a fixed handle knife, it is large enough to fit the hand of a male adult, unlike most other folding knives, yet it also will fit a smaller hand.  Because it is virtually all metal, it is a bit heavy but I don’t see that as a “deal breaker.”

It does not look like a traditional pocket (whittling) knife but it is an attractive knife and has a rich look to it with dark anodized metal framing surrounding an attractive hardwood veneer in-set.  The blades mesh with the handle very well.  Unlike its predecessor, the Whittlin’ Jack, ones fingers are not drawn to the heal of the blades for nicking.  And, another nice feature is the fact that these blades lock.  There will be no accidental closing of the blades.

What would I Change?

There really is not much I would change but there are two small “tweaks.”  Since Flexcut’s knife blades are stamped out and they are relatively thin, the back of their blades have abrupt, uncomfortable edges.  I find them hard on the opposing thumb as I push on the back of the blade when carving.  The longer I whittle, the less comfortable they are.  Hard wood makes it even worse.  Of course, the problem is solved with a thumb guard but I also found that, for myself, very lightly grinding off the back corners was a tremendous help… just a tiny bit is all that is needed.  If you do it, do not use a grinding wheel; use a stone or a slow moving abrasive belt.

IMPORTANT NOTE OF CAUTION: Any tampering with the knife will likely void any warranty on the thing.  So think twice about doing any modifications to the knife.

The second change I would make is putting a detail point on the mini blade.  Doing so would result in a perfect combination of three blades, in my opinion.

The Bottom Line

If I could have only one whittling knife, this would be it.  In fact, If I lived on a sailboat or in a motor home and had to keep my whittling tools to an absolute minimum, I think the Tri-Jack Pro and both the right and left handed versions of the Carvin’ Jack would set me up well for whittling or whittle carving.*

Comparing the Tri-Jack Pro to the pocket knife with the “X’s” on it that grandpa supposedly used is like comparing a Porche 918 to a Ford Pinto.  At this point, one wonders if Flexcut can come up with yet another better folding whittling knife… maybe a titanium body perhaps.


Like all Flexcut tools, the Tri-Jack Pro is available from many Internet suppliers and carving stores.  I bought my knife from Greg Dorrance Company and paid $78.88.  I found the Dorrance price to be well less than anyone else and he has a $7.50 flat rate shipping charge.  My knife was shipped from Massachusetts on a Friday and I had it on the following Monday in my little town in North Central Washington State via USPS Priority mail.  I have bought several knives from Greg Dorrance and his service is un-matched (friendliness, efficiency, shipping costs, etc.).

Related Postings

When Flexcut came out with the Whittlin’ Jack a year ago, I was impressed.  You might take a look at my blog posting of December 2011 to see my comments on the Whittlin’ Jack,. ( ) .

Another posting covering whittling knives can be found at:

Go Forth and Whittle!

Thanks for reading.  Please see my web site at: .

Stay sharp and Happy Carving!

*”Whittle Carving” is a term learned from Don Mertz where a whittler also incorporates select palm gouges in his or her hand held carving project.

Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | November 2, 2012

Carving a Wine Barrel

Recently, I took on a project for the Chamber of Commerce for a fund raiser in support of a local charity organization.  The project… carving a wine barrel.  The project was offered to members of the Lake Chelan Artist Alliance as well as a few non-member local artists.  The instructions allowed us to do anything to a wine barrel that we wanted to.  Most are being painted.  One was even cut up and a piece of furniture was made from it.  Mine, of course, was carved.  The barrels will be used and displayed for a period of time and then auctioned off.  Initially, the auction was to be at approximately the time of a local wine and chocolate event around Valentines Day.

When I picked up my barrel, I quickly discovered how very heavy they are.  I mean seriously heavy.  With help, I managed to get it loaded in my truck and off I went.  With the obvious link to both Chelan’s wine industry and Valentines Day, I proceeded to lay out a design that I believed would fit the occasion.  After my project was well underway the date of the auction was moved forward so my Valentine’s theme became just “Love Wine.”

First a word about oak.  Oak is hard, heavy and grainy. Oak wine barrel staves are about an inch thick.  Oak would not be my first choice to carve.  It is difficult.   Then, couple that with this barrel being an older, used barrel, I am sure it got harder and heavier.  Ha!  Oak is also a wood that produces lethal slivers.  Slivers that seem to hurt more than any other wood and they seem to be prone to infecting well more than other woods.

Then, there is the barrel shape.  It is a shape that is not easy to position for carving nor is it easy to work on.  I ended up laying mine on its side on the floor in a cradle of sand bags.  I carved 90% of it by sitting on it.  But barrel oak is slick and the closer my fanny got to the barrel ends, the easier I would begin to slide off.  Next time, I will use one of those carpet pads to sit on.  And, if I were to do very many more barrels, I would build a cradle that allowed me to position the barrel on a 45 degree (or so) angle and raise it to be off the floor about a foot to 18 inches.

All in all, it was a fun project but it was not without it’s challenges as noted above.

Since oak is hard, one must give your gouges a serious whopping with a mallet to cut very deeply… and then the whopping needs to be repeated a couple of more times to achieve the depth needed for lettering.  Once all the carving was roughed in and looking reasonable, I applied Howard Feed’n Wax… which I put on everything.  In addition to helping with the finish and appearance, the orange oil in the product permeated the wood and I could go back and more easily tidy up my cuts with hand work (little or no mallet).

So, here’s my barrel.  You can double and triple click on images for a closer look.

Wine Barrel – Full

A wine barrel stands to be just over 3 feet.  It is about 28 inches in diameter at the widest point.

Wine Barrel Center

My wine barrel had a red stain from a wine which ended up being just about where my wine glass was positioned.  The vines and the “Love Wine” were roughed out with a Auto-mach carver and then finished with palm gouges and knives.  “Love Wine” are 2 1/2″ letters.

Wine Barrel Upper Portion

Wine Barrel Top Detail

The ” Discover Great Wines” are 1 1/2″ letters.  They are quite deep as I wanted them to stand out well.  As a result, they took a lot of mallet work.  Once roughed in, I went back with No. 2 palm sized gouges and knives to clean up the corners.

Wine Barrel Left Detail

Wine Barrel Right Detail

The only finishes on the barrel are Howard Feed’n Wax on the carved areas and the entire barrel was then sealed with Daly’s SeaFin to give it lasting weather resistance.

Thanks for reading.  Please visit my web site at .

Stay sharp and happy carving!

Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | September 24, 2012

How to Wood Carve

The quick answer as to how to wood carve is to quote Nike, “just do it.”

The only way any of us becomes proficient at wood carving is by doing it.  Clearly, hanging around other woodcarvers helps, reading woodcarving books provides help, taking classes helps, and lots of other things help but the bottom line is spending time behind the knife and gouge… lots of time.

When I first carved, I was pre-school and I recall taking the corners of a small length of construction 2X4 and thinking it was a dang fine looking car.  Over the years, I have moved on to different and more complicated subjects but that car was particularly challenging to me.  Many first attempts have wound up in the fire place.  Now some 60 years later some first attempts are still ending up in the fire place.  But the point is that practice will be your best teacher.  Like I said above, you definitely want input but practice, alone, will be your greatest teacher and get you to where you want to be.

There is an interesting thing you will discover along the way.  No matter to what level skill we achieve, we will always find that there are those more skilled than we are as well as those less skilled.  That is just the way it is.  We should appreciate those more skilled than we are as they will be our motivation as we go forward.  We can appreciate those less skilled as we can help them on their carving journey.  By the way, I am convinced that helping others helps us improve our own skills by leaps and bounds.

I kind of get a kick out of books that are titled something similar to “How to Carve Wood.”  Of course the book helps but it can not possible teach us how to carve wood.  We must do that our selves by practice, trial and error.

If you are starting out carving wood, I do have a few tips to help you in your woodcarving pursuits.

1.  Remember, I said above, hang around with other carvers.  One great way to do that is to join a carving group and to listen to all the experiences offered by members… and if their work impresses you, ask them about their techniques, their tools, and anything else you can think of.  The same applies to carving shows; take some in and speak to the carvers you will find there.

2.  Invest in good tools.  If you do not know good tools, ask some who does know.  I wasted a lot of money on disappointing tools.  Good tools are a must.

3.  Keep your knives and gouges sharp.  Sharp is GOOD.  Dull is BAD!  You simply will never do good work with dull tools.

4.  Start out with wood that is easy to carve like basswood.  Picking up a piece of fir and trying to carve it will be disappointing.   If you carve a hard wood like fruit wood, best carve it green as it gets almost too hard for hand tools.

5.  Make an appointment with yourself to carve.  Make your time commitment realistic.  Don’t schedule a daily session if you can’t realistically do that… schedule it weekly.  But what ever you do practice as often as possible.  Whenever I take the car in for service or get stuck on the highway, I make sure I have a whittling knife and a stick to keep me busy.

6.  Be safe.  Let’s face it woodcarving tools are a bit more dangerous than some of the other tools found around so we need to use them safely.  Certainly a sharp knife is not like a run-away chainsaw but we do not want to place anything in front of an edge that we do not intend to cut… as I have said many times…. think hands and fingers.

7.  Look at good publications.  There are a few magazines out there for carvers and there are countless books.  You sure don’t need them all but picking up a few good books and a great magazine will be beneficial.   One of my favorite carving book authors is Ian Norbury because his work is so diversified and he is an incredible carver.  Others include writer/carvers from the UK .  My favorite magazines are Wood Carving Magazine form the UK and Wood Carving Illustrated.   Woodcarving Illustrated is a great magazine for beginners.  Wood Carving Magazine features more skilled projects and information.

In addition to books and magazines, there are a number of great carver’s Internet sites out there.  One such site of great “how tos” and good photography is  The guy behind the site is Don Mertz and great guy and a great carver and teacher.  And, check out the 65 or so articles on this site.  The earlier articles tend to be more technical and cover tools, techniques, etc.

8.  And, most importantly… Practice.  Practice and be proud of your work.  Do not become disappointed if something does not turn out like it was done by a master carver.  Carving success takes time for most of us.  You may or may not end up as a master carver and whether you do or do not, you will have a great time on your journey.

The list above could go on for ever but I will end it here.  Do enjoy the carving experience.  It is a wonderful one.

Thanks for reading.

Please visit my web site at .

Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | August 8, 2012

Bringing Emotion to your Woodcarving

One thing I have learned in being an artist woodcarver is how technical ability and emotion are both critical to be successful in your work.  One without the other is not enough for creating really good art.

There are lots of discussion and a myriad of resources to help us to develop the technical part of carving.  There are unlimited classes and books.  Practice is, of course, also a necessity.

The emotional aspect is not so obvious and does not get much attention.  So, how do we foster emotion in our art?

What follows are a few methods that work for me in ensuring emotion is in my work.  And, yes, practice is also important here as well.

1. Spend Some Time in Contemplation – Think of it as relationship building.  The more time you spend in thought, the more reward your thought will give you in return.  Spend time creating in your mind.  Make it a routine.

2. Spend Time With Your Subject – Get to know your subject well.  If you carve from nature, spend a lot of time in nature (or with whatever your subject is).  Walk slowly. Observe, feel, and respond. Smell the air.  Smell the pines and sage.  Explore. Contemplate.  Discover the underlying rhythms of nature.  Meditate.  Build a relationship with your subject.  In doing so, you will strengthen your feelings about it.

3. Create Art with Your Subject in Front of you – Create from life as much as possible.  If you want to carve a cougar and can not bring it into your studio, take some good photos or find some good pictures in reference books.

4. Get Clear through Sketches and Photos – Before you begin your woodcarving, draw several sketches or collect several photos to look over.  In doing so, you will dig deeper into yourself and into your subject.  You will become more aware of what you are goals are.

5. Do Some Writing – I find it helpful to write a few words or a paragraph while doing my sketches or collecting my pictures.  I have also written my thoughts, feelings, and impressions while meditating.
6. Create a title for your Work Before You Begin – Sometimes simply giving your piece a title before you begin carving helps you stay clearly focused on what you want to portray.

7. Develop Your Memory – Since most of us can not bring the cougar into our studio, we need to work from memory…. when reference photos are not exactly what we are striving for.  Superficial details are forgotten and our impressions and emotions are retained through memory.  We let memory guide our work, and as a result we will have more emotion in our work.

8. Create a Studio Setting Favorable to Getting You into the Zone – Create a safe haven in your studio free of distractions.  Fill the space with things that promote reflection, creativity, memory, happiness, etc.

9. Identify Emotional Triggers – Find things that bring you back to meaningful memories or strong emotions.  Such things could include music, smells, images, tastes, etc.  Make sure they are present in your studio.

10. Use rituals, emotional triggers, arrangement of your tools, placement of bench(es), other routines, etc. to get you into the zone.  Do this each time you create.

11. Meditate – Yes, spending time to meditate on the bigger questions in life, on family, on spirituality, etc. is also important.  Our choice of subject and how we respond to it is in direct relation to who we are as individuals.  Our beliefs, philosophies, personality, relationships, etc. all play an important role in shaping us.  Pondering on these issues, though not directly related to our art, will strengthen our inner-self.  Our art will benefit greatly.  Our creative juices come from who we are holistically.

Let us spend time developing our emotional side along with our technical development.  And, when we do our work will have much greater meaning.

Thanks for joining me.

Please visit my website at

Posted by: Michael Keller Woodcarving | June 9, 2012

Sharing Your Passion of Woodcarving

As a wood carver you are a pretty special person.  You are special because you get to work with what I consider the most wonderful medium on the planet – wood.

Wood is beautiful;

Wood feels good to touch;

Wood often smells good;

Wood is warm;

Wood is natural;

Wood holds a wonderful energy;

Wood can convey who you are through sharing what it is you do with wood and how you do it.

I believe that it is important to share your wood carving experience with anyone and everyone interested.

First, you are sharing your talent with your community and the world.

You may share with art enthusiasts or other woodcarvers… or maybe more importantly… with someone who is wishing to carve wood for the first time… perhaps a young person.

If your art is sincere and you are true to your own inner voice, then you are also sharing something from within yourself…  Something from you heart and soul.  You are sharing your thoughts, feelings, likes, philosophies, character, sensitivities, etc.  You are sharing a piece of yourself.  You are sharing your heart.

Your art awakens responses, thoughts, emotions, feelings, etc. in the viewers.  They may be different than yours.  Perhaps they will kindle wonderful memories in the observer.  But, your gift is giving them an opportunity to see and feel and experience something within themselves.  Perhaps your gift will be the gift of inspiration to another carver or student.  Perhaps your art will ignite something from the deep past.

When you are lucky enough to visit with someone who responds to your art, whether it be your art itself or your skills and processes, there is a mutual sharing as you build a relationship.  You are connecting personally with them.

If done right, your woodcarving, your art should be about sharing.  I urge you to share your story.  Share you passion. Share your motivation.  Share your anecdotes. Etc.

Art is sharing. On many levels.

Thank you for visiting.  Keep sharp and stay true.

Please visit my website at .

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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