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The Process of Carving: A Photo Treatise on Carving (or Wood Sculpting)
One of the greatest difficulties for people to understand is the time and perseverance involved in the creation of a new wood carving (sculpture). A simple design and its subsequent carving typically requires 6 to 8 weeks to complete -- at a minimum. So we're looking at being able to create 9 or 10 new carvings each year (maybe a few more allowing for overlap of rough and finish work). Taking some time off reduces the number of pieces that can be completed..
Perhaps it might also be useful to talk about "carvings" versus "sculpture". What's the difference? A Google definition of carving is "a sculpture created by removing material (as wood or ivory or stone) in order to create a desired shape" while sculpture is "creating figures or designs in three dimensions" or "create by shaping stone or wood or any other hard material". Not much difference -- and I know that customers have used both terms to refer to my work. Both words involve carving as a process and both require similar design and creativity. In the end, however, I spend a large part of my effort putting a fine finish on my sculpture and to me that is the essential difference. The procedure for making the work is carving, but it is the final smoothing and finishing process that takes a sculpture stand alone, pulling your eyes to it and begging to be touched.
Before any work can begin, a key activity is wood selection. For me, wood selection doesn't mean a trip to the lumber store. The woods used are either personally harvested from dead or dying trees in our local hills or come from a local lumber mill so that I can choose the best grain figure and color for my purpose. Harvesting means finding and cutting the trees and then cutting logs to manageable length so that I can haul them out and later cut them on a bandsaw. Then I prepare the rough lumber for air-drying and wait the necessary years for it to properly cure. Visiting the lumber mill means working through huge piles of air-dried lumber, selecting only the sizes and quality of boards I want and moving them to my drying/storage shed. After drying I have quality rough-cut lumber that must be sized and milled as needed for the work to be done. Finally, the actual woodworking or carving can be started..
(Photos of a few Beauhaven works in the process of being carved appear below to help show this process. At the end, there are also additional before and after pictures of various Beauhaven pieces.)
So why does "carving" take so long -- after all, isn't it just a matter of making chips out of a block of wood? We can assume (as is my basic principle for Beauhaven Woodworking) that every carving will be a new and unique design -- there is no duplication of existing work. I simply have to take a block (or blocks) of wood and create something new (hopefully without being delayed by a bad case of "carver's block"). Priority one in my view is that the natural features of the wood must be displayed and enhanced. Next an image has to be created that is consistent with the philosophy of "Life in Wood". Sometimes this image just seems to appear as if there could be no other form in this piece of wood. At other times there may be a general concept that works its way out during the carving process. The last alternative is that I have a specific purpose in mind and the work will probably be an accessory (or furniture), a functional object rather than a novel "figment of my imagination". At times, some combination of these alternatives along with various drawings or plans that I make will help define the work before cutting starts..
How all this finally takes shape requires time. It can help if a block of wood to be used is left sitting in view for some time (days or weeks) while some kind of "aura" helps bring out an idea. Often the time involved is literally just sitting looking at the block or a rough start or even a nearly finished piece trying to understand what the next step will be. (A wrong step could result in firewood.)
Having started with a concept, I re-examine the wood for features (and re-examine again at every step). I may mark it up with pencil or chalk and continually re-mark it as the sketching is carved away. Step by step (sometimes shaving by shaving) this review of the developing work against the idea that was started hours, days or months before continues. After some indefinable time, I usually end up with a rough carving. (But I can show you several rough starts that have stalled or will never succeed -- scrap or firewood.)
At times a rough carving can be the complete sculpture -- but for me that's not typical. The next major activity is shaping and smoothing to refine the image and pull out the character of the wood. This is the part that hurts. Odd shapes, difficult angles and awkward interfaces can make for very difficult smoothing (to eliminate the nicks and slices of tool work). I'll progress from gouges and scrapers to sanding and back again as features and design come together. The initial use of scrapers and sandpaper is really a slower form of the carving that was started with various gouges. Simply attacking the work with sandpaper to get a smooth surface would obliterate all the hours of design and carving. It's a "touch and feel" process to ensure that the original design and shape are refined rather than eliminated.
We're down now to the last third of this overall process of creating a new carving. I have the shape wanted, but now need the "finish" that I want. By this time I'll have decided whether there will be any "tooling" marks (shapes or facets) left in the carving or whether I'm looking for a completely smooth surface as in "Time's Gate". (In some instances a combination of these features will bring out the desired concept -- see "Time Flies".) The start of finishing is when the fine sanding (150 to 320 grit) is employed. I may apply water or mineral spirits and examine the work over and over (and over and over) again under an angled light (or best of all, in the rays of the setting sun) to try to catch and eliminate any slight tool mark or stray sanding scratch (or the mark of an errant fingernail). Usually by this point (if I didn't know to start with) I've decided what the final finish will be -- tung oil and/or linseed oil, a varnish or a shellac. Each tends to highlight the wood grain and color in different ways. Even more differences appear depending on how the finish materials are applied or combined. Some of this is personal preference (for example, a tung oil finish can be stunning, but it will always darken the wood) or it may be a customer's requirement. Typically, finishes will be applied to several scrap samples just to see how it will work on this wood and for this particular piece. Then 3 to 7 coats of the finish(es) are almost always required -- that's days or weeks for proper curing to achieve the look desired. But in the end, this is where all the work magically becomes worthwhile -- and the anticipation of seeing the completed piece increases.
Possibly the greatest pain in woodworking is that at some time in some light some blatant (or barely observable) mark may show up after the final finish. Maybe that is the purpose of the final finish work -- to keep some level of humility in the obsessive perfection I seek before a work can be released. At any rate, the finish is what shows the work for what it is. The finish reveals everything -- the beauty of the design, the quality of the craftsmanship and the glory of the wood. In the end, the finish defines the work. Maybe a buyer will see a masterpiece. Or a fellow artist may admire it. But if the final work makes the observer look again, or reach out to touch, to caress, or maybe even to buy a treasure, then the work was a success. But no artist on earth can ever fail to miss even the smallest flaw after final finish. That's why if there is a problem, the finish will be partially or completely stripped so that it can be applied again -- hopefully for the final time.
2008 Thoughts: I'm often asked why I've done all my work with hand (non-motorized) tools. This sure isn't what I started out wanting to do! But after experience with various tools and the effects of speed and noise on the final work, I decided that I loved the development of a concept by hand, I don't like the noise of power tools and I really don't like the speed with which a power tool can wipe out or destroy an idea whether already completed or still in progress. There's also the difficulty of losing time and creative concept while changing the "bit" or "tool" (stop/start) -- I can switch to a new gouge in seconds to modify the effect I'm producing. Having said that, change is as necessary for artistic development as it is for any human venture. At this point, I've done some work with a Foredom rotary woodcarver, but power "carving" to me is still a completely different discipline. On the whole, I don't feel any urgency to change how I work and I will continue to identify whether or not a piece has been completely hand-worked without motorized tools.
2009: My next step is to work with a powered grinding tool and special carving blade. This would certainly be useful for rough removal of large amounst of waste, but would be of very limited use for a work such as Aurora (see Work in Progress). -- Rich
(Images by Rich Beaudry)