Carving 101

Article - April 5, 2011

Please welcome guest blogger, Kari Hultman from The Village Carpenter. Kari’s attention to detail and humble personality make her blog one of the best on the web! She was kind enough to give us the scoop on carving. I hope you enjoy.

There are several types of wood carving: letter, chip, and relief carving; and carving in the round. Carving tools include knives, chisels, gouges, and mallets. For carving in the round, rasps and files are helpful. Gouges come in many shapes and are gauged by their width and sweep (the amount of curve on the cutting edge). Included in the mix are straight, bent, fishtail, in-cannel (the bevel is on the inside rather than the outside), spoonbit, and V-gouges. Many are also available with short or long handles.

Which Tools To Buy

Like any new woodworking venture, it can be a little daunting to know where to start. Several woodworkers have emailed me with questions about which tools they need to carve wood. They ask if it?s best to invest in a set of carving tools. My response is always the same: find a project you like?from a book or magazine?and purchase the tools you need to carve it. Publications will often provide you with a checklist of tools for the project. Chances are you?ll use those tools again because you used them to carve a project you like. Whereas, when you buy a set, there will be one or more tools you will never use.

Now, what type of carving would you like to try?

Chip Carving

Chip carving is the easiest. You need only two tools?a primary knife and a stab knife. Chip carving consists of three basic, rather shallow cuts. Once you master them, you need only arrange them to create your own designs.

Letter Carving

Letter carving can be complex or easy. You can use a large variety of chisels and gouges which match every conceivable shape you need. Or, you can simply use a chip carving knife. With chip carving, however, you will be limited by the type of wood (certain hardwoods can very difficult) and the size of the letters. Instead, use a different technique which requires only one chisel and one shallow-sweep gouge. The size of the tools depends on the size of the letters. With this technique I can carve just about any type of wood and any size or shape letter.

Relief Carving

Relief carving is where you start getting into some money. I do not have a huge variety of gouges, and try to make do with what I have. As you begin to carve, you will realize what you?re missing from your collection. Keep in mind, just as you don?t need to have chisels ranging from 1/16? to 2 1/2? and everything in between, you can often get by with less.

Carving in the Round

Carving in the round is like relief carving only the project is carved on all sides, as with a ball-and-claw foot (the image to the left is borrowed from the internet). Rasps can remove lots of wood in short order, and files refine the shape. There is nothing quite as luminous as the smooth facets left by a chisel or gouge however, so I remove all rasp and file marks with them. I do not use sandpaper to smooth portions of carved pieces?the abraded areas have a different appearance than and don?t blend in with the sheared surfaces created by cutting tools. Plus, sandpaper rounds over crisp edges.

Sharp Tools are Essential!

With any carving, you must have sharp tools. I can?t stress this enough. Dull or semi-sharp tools will only frustrate you and you?ll never produce the results you want. I use ceramic-, water-, and slipstones, and strops charged with honing compound. It?s much easier to maintain an edge by frequent honing than it is to completely resharpen a tool.

Read the Grain

You must also learn to read the grain. The ?petting-the-hair-on-a-cat? analogy never resonated with me. Maybe I?ve been petting cats the wrong way all these years (which might explain the scars), but I came up with a different image?that of a skier. Always carve downhill?with the grain. If you carve against the grain, the direction of the cut will leave the fibers that are ahead of your chisel or gouge unsupported, resulting in tearout. If that visual isn?t working for you, think of grain as walking up or down steps?it?s much easier to walk down a flight of stairs.

Looking For More?

I?ve written about all of the above on my blog, with the exception of carving in the round. I also made a couple videos on the subject. In the search box on my blog, key in phrases such as ?chip carving,? ?lettercarving,? ?relief carving,? and ?sharpening gouges? to find more information. If you?re looking for good books, I recommend Wayne Barton?s book ?The Complete Guide to Chip Carving?and Richard Butz?s book ?How to Carve Wood.? I have not found any book that shows the lettercarving technique I use, but I plan to make more videos on the subject in the future.

This article was written by Kari Hultman, who lives in Pennsylvania and owns a graphic design agency which keeps her in lumber and tools. Any free time is devoted to woodworking and her blog. And ice cream. To see more of Kari’s work, check out The Village Carpenter!