Carving a life-size wood figure

Basics of carving big wood figures

I hope this chapter will prove useful to the young sculptor who has his first commission to carve a large figure in the wood. The methods described will follow very closely those used in the ‘The Risen Christ in Glory’ (plates VII-XIII). It is likely that the setting for a large commission will be architectural. First, the building or the plans for the building should be carefully studied. This can be the best stimulus in crystallizing the idea. If you are fortunate you may be working from the outset with the architect in a sympathetic spirit of co-operation, at the same time being given a free hand on the actual design of the figure. When you will gain confidence in your idea do not be too ready to compromise, this can spoil a good design.

If the building is a public one, a committee will want to see your drawings and sketch model for the figure. Some sculptors work only from drawings but I find the model indispensable in planning a large carving. It is advisable to spend a good deal of time and thought on the matter at this vital stage. Once the design is passed, you are to some extent committed. Make your idea as clear as possible, at the same time leaving room for modifications. The model is, of course, only the seed from which the work must grow, and at no time should you think of slavishly following the sketch. On the other hand, any vision and vitality in your first model must not be lost. These problems can only be solved by the artist following his own convictions.

Starting small with your wood carving

There is, however, one point I would like to make. I have found that a student can design a figure on a small scale and on enlarging make changes of which he is unaware. Therefore I would say that you should carefully appraise the sketch and try to see where its virtue lies. If it seems good, analyze the appear­ance of weight, size, and movement you have achieved. Try not to lose this and only build from this foundation.

Some sculptors prefer to work from very rough sketches. I would make no rules about this. For my own part, in a commis­sioned work, I like to solve the major problems at an early stage. It is a very different matter when carving for yourself. You may then prefer to carve direct, or with just a chalk drawing on the wood. The wood and joinery involved in work on a large scale can be expensive and major changes in design can prove very costly. A drawing or painting of the carving in its setting is a great help in visualizing the whole aspect of the work in the position.

Think smart

Another possibility and help to the architect may be a photo­graph of your sketch model placed on the drawn elevation of the building. The photograph must be to scale, of course.

In making the sketch model, I would suggest a scale of 3 in. to 1 ft., that is 1/4 scale. The sketch can be in clay, plaster, wax, or plasticine. As you will be using the sketch model while working, it is best to have it in a fairly permanent material. For instance, it would be best to cast the clay model and work from the plaster. Recently I have used plasticine for sketch models and found that it stands up to a good deal of handling. If you are designing a figure for a cross, make the cross also in order to have the whole design complete at the sketch stage.

When working out the cost of your carving, do not under­estimate the materials. When the design has been passed, the wood can be ordered. We will take it, that the block is to be built up in 4 in. planks. The first move is to approach a reputable timber merchant who can supply good sound timber of the kind required. You may be able to visit the yard or shop in order to inspect the wood yourself. This is, in any case, most interesting and will help to increase your knowledge of the varieties of wood available and enable you to gain much general information of a useful kind.

A word about finance

You will want to pay for the wood soon after delivery. When the price for the carving has been agreed upon, it is quite usual to ask for a deposit fee in advance, in order to cover initial expenses.

The Christ figure is built up in 4 in. planks of lime wood. It is often called the sculptor’s wood and I have found it excellent for this type of work. You must prepare templates of the pieces of timber required for building up the block. First, make a set 1/4scale from your small model. Remember that you are designing a block that will contain the carving without cramping it in any way.

Work with this aim in view. Simplify the line where you can and leave all subtleties of shape for carving. Do not arrange the pieces in such a way that butt-end or grain-end joints come across the figure. Where possible let the pieces run the whole length of the design. Joints will not be obtrusive when one piece of wood is glued on top of another. In fact, the block is literally ‘built up’ to the thickness required.

When you have made a template of each piece 1/4 scale, enlarge these to full size. If the block is simple as in the case of the Christ figure, you can enlarge by calipers and a four-foot rule. Every 3 in. will equal one foot. The templates can be made in a thin card or strong paper. I use roofing felt for this purpose: it cuts easily but is strong and rolls up without tearing or cracking.

When you make the full-size templates, give yourself an inch or two to spare in every direction. You will buy the 4 in. planks of timber unplaned. After planning the thickness maybe only 3 1/2 in. A carving needs more ‘room’ than a clay model. Although you must make your templates on the generous side, do not overdo it, and throw everything out of scale, by, for instance, making figure 6 in. longer. Give yourself enough wood for some license of movement, enough for some change of weight in the head, hands, or feet. The form looks very different in new material and certain changes are a legitimate translation from clay to wood.

Make at least three copies of your large templates. One for the timber merchant, one for the carpenter, and one for yourself. The timber merchant will not, as a rule, cut the shapes but he will need patterns in order to calculate the width and number of planks required. Ask the timber merchant for an estimate of the cost of wood in super-quality.

You must now find a carpenter. I think, on the whole, that it is best to approach a large firm because it will be better equipped to handle the job. The planing machine must be wide enough to take the wood. For instance, the Christ figure discussed in this chapter was approximately 14 in. across the chest without the arms, and small joinery firms are often only equipped with 12 in. machines. Also, the planks maybe 10 ft. long and space will be needed for manipulation.

The weight of these planks is consider­able and three or four men will be needed to carry them. I have not so far had any difficulty in rinding a firm ready to help with the cutting and carpentry. You should always remember, however, that this work may be out of their usual line of business and therefore you should be expeditious in all your dealings.

Having found a carpentry firm, arrange to have your planks delivered directly to their works for the wood to be cut and the block to be glued up. You should do the marking out on the planks yourself. Even if you have bought super-quality, there will be a few knots. By judicious marking out, these can be avoided or placed inconspicuously, and you will know where any blemishes are likely to be cut away in the process of carving. Arrange for the planks to be put on trestles. In this way, you will be able to see both sides. Another important point is that the same kind of wood can vary in color. Lime, for instance, can vary from brownish pink to a very light yellowish pink. Therefore you should try to match up the color as well as you can in pieces that will lie adjacent to one another.

Sometimes a marked color change is unavoidable and I have used bleach successfully to lighten the darker parts of lime wood. Bleach is not so successful in the dark and heavy woods such as rosewood and iroko. Lime, beech, ash, and elm bleach easily. Oak, mahogany, and walnut will bleach but need more than one application. Very good proprietary brands can be bought. The best I have found is the two solu­tion variety, obtainable only in one-gallon quantities. All directions for use are supplied with the bleach. The drapery on the Christ figure was bleached to pure white with one application.

When you have examined the planks carefully for blemishes, and color, lay on the templates. The grain must run the length of the long thin forms. As I have already explained in the section on the grain of the wood, forms sawn across the fibers will be weak. When you are satisfied with the layout, draw round the templates with a stick of chalk. The planks are now ready for cutting. They will be carried to the bandsaw, one-man guiding the plank while the others support the weight.

Ask the machinist to cut the wood just outside your chalk line. The cutting is a quick process and will save you hours of work. When it is completed the cut pieces are fed through the planning machine. The wood is now ready for gluing and I would advise the sculptor to indicate clearly the position and order of the pieces. Mistakes can be made and what seems obvious to you may not be so to others. One of the new resin glues, used under pressure, will give you a joint on which you can rely. The seam will be virtually invisible from a short distance when carved.

Many sculptors are fearful of this method but if the job is really well done it is, in my opinion, the safest way to tackle a large carving. After all, wooden structures have for centuries been built in sections. The planks can also be dowelled to give extra strength, but in the case of good gluing woods carpenters are usually of the opinion that dowels are unnecessary. In the Christ, figure dowels were used in the arms only.

Plan your studio space to receive the glued-up block. It will be an advantage if the ceiling is high enough for the figure to stand upright at some stage of the carving. A sloping position will be easier at first. It is a good idea to screw one or two ‘stops’ of 2 in. x 2 in. wood to the floor to prevent the block from sliding.

Always take safety precautions when working on a large carving which, after all, may weigh five hundred pounds or more. This bulk is an asset in that cramps are superfluous, and the block will be steadied by its own weight. You will need a few strong boxes in order that you may raise and lower the figure as required. Every aid, such as step-ladders and mirrors, should be employed to get as many views of the figure as possible. You cannot hope to see the figure exactly as it will appear in its setting and if practicable a certain amount of carving can be done when the figure is in position.

When the block arrives, mark out the main features from your scale model. The rough shape is there already and this will be a great help in plotting depths and angles. In carving the Christ from the sketch model I did not use an enlarging scale, only a flexible rule, calipers, and a 4 ft. straight edge. The quarter-scale is very easy to work from by simple mental arithmetic.

The sketch model, in fact, becomes less and less important as the larger work takes charge and if all goes well, it will be only used for an occasional reference. If the arms are free from the body, it is possible to carve them separately, but they should be continually placed on the figure by a temporary dowel loose enough for the arm to be taken on and off with ease. In this way, you can carve the arm in the bench vise getting at all parts such as the inner arm and the palm of the hand.

Fig. 1. “The Risen Christ in Glory’: templates for the figure.

The choice of tools is important in carving a large work; 1 in. to 2 in. gouges can be used in roughing out. A large tool has more wood to push away and so more resistance is set up. A lignum vitae mallet weighing at least 2J lb. will save time and labor. As soon as your wrist has become accustomed to the mallet you will enjoy the way the sharp gouge and heavy mallet whip the spare wood away, and what seemed formidable is a delight after all. You will have to draw on the block from time to time.

I find pencil illegible, and poster paint or chalk much better. Avoid inks or any other medium likely to stain the wood. I use white and raw umber powder color and this combination enables me to vary the drawing from light to dark at will. Limewood soils very easily. This does not matter until the final stages. When a protective coat of sealer or wax polish will keep the surface clean.

The fixing of the arms of the Christ figure is dealt with in the following chapter. The crown of this figure was very simple to make. A band of wood was carved on the head, and a band of copper screwed on. The copper rods were dropped into drilled holes around the top of the wooden band. It is difficult to drill the holes at exactly the right angle but this is simple to remedy, by dropping a metal tube over the rod—apiece of gas piping will do— and then pulling the copper rod to the correct angle. By this method, the rod bends at the base only. The cross is made of Utile mahogany, 3 in. thick, and the ‘shadow’ of the crucifixion is in walnut veneer.

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