Thursday, August 12, 2010

Carving the Wooden Man

My father has long been interested in woodwork so when I was in my early teens I began to tinker about with his carving tools, making things like this:

Wood is an unpredictable medium to work in, each piece unique in its grain and flaws. I read once that woodcarvers can shift easily enough to carving stone but stonecarvers find the transition difficult, moving from the consistency of marble or granite to capricious wood.

The different trees have particular qualities. In school we were taught basic carpentry with Scots Pine, which is soft and easy to cut but with such a pronounced grain that it is difficult to carve. Instead it makes good wood for turning on the lathe, leaving a bright gold and red-brown pattern.

Lime, the wood used in the carved clock above, is very soft and exceptionally easy to carve. The timber is a rather bland pale yellow, and carves in any direction very smoothly but after several frustrated attempts I gradually abandoned it. Lime's softness demands accuracy I lacked; intricate work is prone to snapping.

As this broken piece showed me, nature is cruel to lime too: after a few years hanging in a tree behind my house a large chunk snapped off above the figure's eye.

I simply didn't have the patience for these dramatic set-backs so I gravitated towards another wood, this one probably the one I'm most fond of: elm. At its best elm is a rich, deep red, glinting with threads of light through the darkness. Among the most beautiful wood I've ever worked with is burr (or burl) elm. A burr is a deformation, a growth one sees sometimes bulging from the the side or root of a tree. Inside the burr is a mass of confused grain, rippling and warping back on itself in a maze of irregular knots. This can be extraordinarly beautiful, but difficult to carve as this irregularity is riddled with flaws and weak points: brittle and more inclined to shatter than scrape away. When it works it can take on the chaotic beauty of my turned elm bowl below.

The real advantage for elm, though, is that it is rock hard and carving it is a slow, difficult process: which for me lowered the likelihood of making a catastrophic mistake. Lime wants to be carved. Elm does not, and a slipped gouge tends to do little more than harmlessly nick the surface of the figure. On lime it decapitates.

It's not just the image of wood that appeals, but the texture, even the smell. Left hand guiding the blade of the chisel, right hand providing the force: I can feel the wood's texture reveal itself through the length of the chisel. Sometimes there is more control in using the mallet, that a cool wooden thing too, heavy and reassuring in my right hand.

The smell, well the smell is a mixture of things as varnish and glue from other projects make the air heavy, and draw wasps. The woods do have their own scents, particularly when sanding kicks up a layer of wood dust. The whole workshop is heavy with dust and shavings: messy but not dirty, this is a clean and wholesome carpet of wood that covers tables and floor.

Bog oak - ancient oak wood dyed rich black from thousands of years buried in acidic peat bogs - has a pungent peat smell. It is soft and unpredictable, splitting and crumbling to dust in places, retaining its structure in others but melting away under the chisel leaving a razor-smooth finish. Sight, smell and texture, this is a gorgeous medium indeed, but tempestuous with the flaws of age, and difficult to control.

I can remember going out to the workshop in the dead of winter when I was 14 and 15, working under the flourescent bulbs with the wind and rain howling around the building, the gas heater rumbling beside me and the radio mumbling in the background. Sometimes the cats found me and wandered around the table as I worked, head-butting the chisel from my grip with lusty purrs. It was slow work, gradually stripping the elm down from dull, dusty cubes into gleaming red sculptures. My themes were boyish, the mage:

The boy cowering before his warped shadow:

Both of those took months of work each to finish. As I pushed into my late teens I lost some of the patience needed to stick at those long term projects. But there is pleasure in its glacial progress; I started this one about three years ago:

Perhaps I'll finish it one day. Until then it sits gathering dust in the workshop and that is part of what I love in all of this: slow, slow, slow work that contrasts with the frantic Facebook-checking, Youtube-watching, article-writing multi-tasking frenzy of modernity.


  1. Cool sculptures! My grandfather taught me and my brother far more basic stuff than what you have done, but the woodcarving came to an end when my brother made a deep cut in his own finger.

  2. Ah yes, rule number one of woodworking: always cut away from the body! I stabbed my finger with a chisel once too, and still have a tiny scar there today!

  3. That's a lovely article shane and I really like the carving depicting the boy cowering before his shadow. Do you sell pieces these days?

  4. Hey thanks very much Di :) Actually I've never sold work, and that one with the shadow I made when I was only 15.

    I suspect the time for selling such hand craft may have passed a bit with the recession... might be wrong though!


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