Question: If you don’t use sandpaper, how did you get the skin on a woman’s face so smooth? BTW, what’s wrong with using sandpaper anyway?

Ivan sez: First of all, to my knowledge, there’s nothing in the Ten Commandments prohibiting the sanding of carvings (and as a consenting adult what you do in the privacy of your own home is your own business anyway, so guys, you can quit hiding sheets of sandpaper between the pages of your Playboy magazines!). Seriously, after studying with Angel Lillo, who did sand his sculptures, and Eduardo Gutierrez who didn’t, I prefer the look of a tool finish over a sanded one. By filling the pores of the wood, sanding makes the surface opaque, and it also kills the crisp “making marks” that to me add interest to the carving.

tool cut, sanded(Yes, the “sanded” picture looks out of focus, doesn’t it? However, it’s the same camera, same lens setting. Here, I’ll put a dollar on it to prove it!)
(Click on the pictures to enlarge them.)
Of course, another carver may find the making marks distracting and thus sand them out. It’s carvers’ choice. It’s a matter of style, not “right or wrong.” If carvers sand because they like the effect, that’s one thing. If they sand because they can’t carve smoothly with the tools, that’s another. In the second case sanding is counter-productive. The grit in the wood and around the shop makes keeping a razor edge on the tools even more difficult. Sanding is best done as a final step and often in a different location to keep the sandpaper grit from dulling the tools.

The old carvers used to say they wanted their carvings to “throw the light around.” Like the facets of a diamond.the multiple tool facets of a carving create an interesting pattern of light and shadow.
C109 St. Francis With a male face I like to leave the making marks quite prominent. I really like the hand-hewed effect that creates. And, while it’s important to soften the facet ridges for a female face, I don’t want to eliminate them altogether.
C103 That Look2m I am making a CARVING here not trying to exactly duplicate the texture of hair and skin. I intentionally keep sharp ridges in the hair to create a rhythmic pattern of texture, twists and turns. And though from a distance the skin may look smooth, it still retains the “making marks” of the carving tools.
C103 That Look2mdetail

It’s possible to get very smooth surfaces with the carving tools. You systematically cut down the peaks of the facets by skewing across them with a skew chisel or even a shallow gouge turned bevel side up. While one hand is pushing the tool forward, the other hand is pulling the blade down across the ridge to be removed. The tools work in two ways, they trim down the peaks and they burnish the wood, leaving the cut clean, smooth, and shiny. In smoothing, it’s important to use a tool that keeps the corners free of the wood. For that reason a chisel doesn’t work very well in smoothing a level surface.

gouge level

For a convex shape, a shallow gouge or a skew chisel works fine.
convex gouge
convex skew

For a concave shape, it is helpful to use a 10 or 11 sweep tool so you can use the sides of the tool in the smoothing process.
concave smoothing

By successively making the ridges shallower and shallower, you can get the surface very smooth. However, I don’t want “billiard ball” smoothness–even for a woman’s face. I want even the fairly smooth surfaces to “throw the light around,” so I soften but not eliminate the making marks, enjoying the clean cuts that can only be made by a very sharp carving tool.