Q. I’m fairly new at carving and am having trouble keeping eyes, etc. from chipping out on my figures and animals.
A. Ivan sez: I assume that you are using a knife. If so, I have some ideas for you. First of all, make sure that the very tip of the knife is sharp. It is easy for a bur to form there, and while the knife seems sharp with the large cuts, that little tip that you use for detail can be giving you problems. Once your knife is sharp, leaving the wood shiny across the entire blade, consider working on your “tip control.” You should be able to control where the tip of the knife is at all times. Beginners often struggle with that. Here are a couple of exercises that will help you gain control of the tip of the knife:
1. Straight V cut. With your knife tilted at about a 45 degree angle, make a straight cut across a scrap piece of wood. Try to maintain that angle through a cut of a couple of inches or more. Then turn the wood around and make another 45 degree angle cut into the first. Work to make the V cut even throughout and the V clean and sharp. Practice that until you feel you have complete control of the tip of the knife.
2. “S” cut with the tip of the knife. Once you feel comfortable with the straight V cut, try some curved cuts. The goal is the same. Make a clean V, keeping the width of the cut even throughout the cut. Learn to know where the tip of the knife is going at all times.
3. Another good practice exercise is carving a mound. You start in the corner of a piece of wood and make two notches.
Then you form a mound out of the peak between the notches. Work slowly, paring the wood away in shallow slices to get the feel of the grain and knowledge of the knife angle and force needed to make clean, smooth cuts. Start with fairly large mounds and then carve smaller and smaller ones to test and develop your skill in handling the knife.
When you carve, then, think of making good, clean cuts just as you practiced above. Most details are made up of a combination of the cuts you just practiced.
Q. What’s a good wood for relief carving? I’m having problems finding wood soft enough.
IVAN SEZ: Actually, woods that are too soft don’t carve as well as most hardwoods. In fact, almost any hardwood works well for relief carving, especially if you use “mallet tools,” tools that you can grasp with both hands. The woods I like to work with are butternut and basswood, both mid-density woods (25-35 lbs. per square ft.). Walnut and oak are fine as well, but you need to use the mallet a bit more on them. The key is to have sharp tools and to work with the grain–the cut should curl off the tool, NOT break ahead of it. Also, don’t “horse” the tool through the wood, make even, controllable cuts. Generally use the tool a third of its capacity, always keeping the corners of the tool free of the wood. Secure the wood to the bench, using both hands on the tool for leverage and control.
Most people who are familiar with Marv Kaisersatt knows he likes to carve his complex works out of a single block of wood. This is, of course, a terrific challenge. One must create a design where all areas can be reached with the tools, and one must create a design that overcomes the limitations of wood. As any carver knows, wood is strong with the grain but quite fragile across it. Marv is a master at dealing with these issues, and the result, partly because of his choice to carve from a single block, is a fine example of the carver’s art. (Marv often works out his deigns in clay, see above).
I’d like to point out a few examples of Marv’s genius: how he uses negative space, the clever way he ties all of the fragile elements to a stronger structure, and how he creates multiple levels in his carvings.
USE OF NEGATIVE SPACE If you squint your eyes to eliminate the details and just look at Marv’s work as an abstract, you will notice that the negative spaces (the open spaces in the carving) form an interesting array of shapes, all different. The need to tie the elements together for strength results in the formation of multiple open spaces, a definite result of the choice to carve out of one block.
CONNECTING FRAGILE ELEMENTS Because cross grain is weak, elements carved cross grain are vulnerable to breaking off both during the carving process and, of course, afterwards should someone bump the carving. Marv’s work is a study in managing fragile elements. Notice that he ties the brushes to the birdhouse, the hands are all anchored, and even the handle on the pail is connected at several points. At first glance the carving looks airy and fragile, but close inspection shows it is quite strong.
MULTIPLE LEVELS Here again, Marv’s choice to carve from one block (rather than assemble figures on a base) allows him to create many levels in his carvings. Here we have the ground level, the mid-level with the painter on the plank, and the upper level, the birdhouse focal point. The converging lines of the pyramid-like composition leading to that point.
Marv’s humor is rare, his carving skill top-notch, but in my mind, what truly sets him apart is the artistic sophistication of his compositions–partly due to his determination to carve from a single block of wood.