Wood carving for beginners – Tips and tricks

Basics of wood carving

Wood carving should be a joy, with these tricks and tips, you will feel like a fish in the sea. After reading this even a wood carving beginner should completely understand everything. In this wood carving for beginners tutorial, you will learn about wood, design, patterns, and even more!
When the wood caring workshop is prepared try a few simple exercises so that you may acquire practice with tools and get to know the ‘feel’ of the wood. You will then be ready to think of designing something yourself, and before doing so, look at some really good wood carvings. Photographs can remind us of things seen but for proper appreciation, it is better to see the actual work. A visit to the local museum is a good idea, or to a church or building where fine wood carvings can be seen.

Carving in lime wood by Grinling Gibbons, Belton House, Grantham, England. BJwoodwork Wood carving
Fig. 1. Carving in lime wood by Grinling Gibbons, Belton House, Grantham, England.

Grinling Gibbons, the English sculptor, was one of the most skillful woodcarvers who ever lived and for the realistic carving of natural form in the wood he is unsurpassed. (Fig. 1).

There is no harm in borrowing ideas from the richest sources. This has always happened as a natural evolution in the arts. It would be absurd to say that the artist must always endeavor to copy natural forms, but rather that in nature we have a field of inspiration and profitable study. If for instance, we use the human figure or animal form in design for wood carving, we are engaged in a translation from flesh to wood, stone, or paint, from life movement to move­ment in a static material.

We can find pattern motives in such natural forms as shells and leaves. The African carver finds many of his patterns in the skins of snakes. We draw our ideas then from works of the present and the past and also from life. Even visionary artists such as William Blake did not find the image of their designs without the influence of the environment and the work of other artists.

Wood carving starts in you

The wood carving beginner should not be discouraged by all the tools, methods, diagrams and equipment discussed in this book. It may appear at a glance that the business of wood carving is too involved or costly. I must therefore point out at once that you can carve if you have a piece of wood, a kitchen table, three gouges, and two ‘G’ cramps. Many of us in the profession have a magpie acquisitiveness where tools are concerned and like to be equipped for all eventualities.

This is quite unnecessary for some­one who intends to carve occasionally. Indeed, some well-known highly successful woodcarvers manage perfectly well with very simple equipment and prefer to do so. So much depends on the work at hand. As you progress you will naturally wish to buy more tools from time to time but this can be a gradual process.

Do not try to copy an ivory or metal object as the designs may be unsuitable for wood. Do not expect to be able to carve with the skill of a Chinese ivory carver who has been doing it all his life. For the amateur, time is no object and patience is essential. If you have an idea that comprises two or more figures, it may be better to try a high relief rather than attempt it in the round. Read first the chapters on equipment and sharpening tools, then the paragraph on procuring wood.

Starting with the wood

As a wood carving beginner, you should start with the wood of medium hardness such as lime. You may be discouraged if you commence with a hardwood such as oak. Very softwoods can also be diffi­cult, needing razor-sharp tools and skill in carving, and you may find that you are cutting away too much, too soon. Softwoods also tend to blunt tools quickly. If, however, you are working under the supervision of a teacher it is quite another matter as you will then get guidance in carving and help in sharpening your tools. Not all art schools specialize in wood carving and it is best to inquire locally if you wish to attend classes.

Do not try to work too small at first. It is easier to work on broad surfaces and will also make you bolder and more fearless in the way you use the tools. A complete figure may be too difficult if you have no experience in drawing. A head or an animal would be less of a problem. If you are interested in ornament, you could pick a leaf from the garden and use it as a basis for a design. In leaves, you can find simple shapes with infinite variety. When you have carved one simple piece well it is easy to advance to something more difficult.

Wood carvings designs

If you are very eager to try a wood carving figure, it will do no harm to look at primitive and peasant carving. Look at the American Indian carving illustrated in figure 2. Here you will see a draped figure in most simple terms. This would be a starting point. Carve the body and head as one uniform statement. In the work of early civiliza­tions and more primitive communities, there is a zest and simplicity far away from naturalism. This is in wood carving beginner work also, haha.

There is also a great feeling for pattern and design. It is interesting to make a near copy of something you admire but you will not wish to continue working in a manner that belongs to other countries and civilizations. Therefore, it is better to learn from them but gradually begin to make your own designs.

You can try out texture and pattern with your different tools and master the use of them before starting on a definite project. It is often easier for the beginner to visualize his design as a profile or silhouette. If you are working in relief, an outline is enough to work from. You will discover how to develop this in the process of cutting. If you wish to carve an animal in the round, read the chapter on carving a pigeon. Even if you prefer to carve some other object of simple design, the principles described can be adapted and will still hold good.

 Indian Woman, painted wood, Vancouver Island, Canada. BjWoodWork Wood carving
Fig. 2. Indian Woman, painted wood, Vancouver Island, Canada.

Taking models from life

You may have a smooth-haired cat in the house, if so, you have a model ready at hand. You may at first see your cat’s head as a round knob with fur on it but as you look closer, you will observe that the shape is full of variety, of flat planes and curves that lend themselves to carving. Try to discriminate when you are looking at other models or wood carving of animals. Avoid the sentimental approach or you will lose the real character and vig­or of the animal. Look, for instance, at the way the Egyptians carved their sacred cats in wood and in stone. Observe that the sweet little pottery deer, with eyes six times too large, is no rela­tion of the beautiful animal you can see for yourself in the parks and zoos.

If you have no confidence in your drawing but feel you can carve a shape then just make diagrammatical draw­ings as a shorthand for yourself. If you can get the habit of looking at live things with the idea of using them in your carvings you will begin to see forms and shapes in relation to one another. Notice, for instance, the size of the head. A small head on a figure or animal will make the body look large. A large head on your cat will turn it into a kitten.

Sourcing your wood carving beginner designs

If you feel incapable of designing your own carving, be careful from what source you get your inspiration from. If you are going to copy an ornament, try to work from the photograph or drawing of an original piece belonging to the period in which it was carved. At first, it may be difficult to appreciate the reason why so many modern copies of Gothic ornament become deadly dull. It is as though the wine had been watered down too many times and the original flavor destroyed. It is also that a ‘tidying up’ process goes on. The parts of the design are measured and all made symmetrical. The medieval carver let his work grow more naturally. In consequence, his leaves and flowers are still living while the copies are dead.

There is more to a work of art than its obvious exterior, and something copied just ‘as a job’ cannot have the life infused into it as when the design was first carved, say, in the fourteenth century with feeling and a sense of adven­ture. If, on the other hand, you contemplate some early piece of carving with real appreciation and great liking you may be able to make use of this design and carve something which is in part your own. You must not only be in love with the action of carving but also with your own idea about it. Therefore, before you shut yourself in your workshop go out and look at living things and works of art.

Wood carving is complex

It is interesting to compare similar subjects carved in wood and stone, or modeled for bronze. When the bronze has been worked on with tools and files after casting, it has something in common with carving. I have advised you to get ideas for wood carving from the works in that material. As you become more familiar with wood carving, you will recognize forms that can be translated from stone or bronze to a carving in wood.

Structure in design

If we accept that good design springs from an appreciation and some understanding of organic form, some acquaintance with the structure in plants and animals will be of real value to the carver. The sculptor is often primarily concerned with the human form but, as we have already seen, there are many less complex living forms that can aid and inspire design.

The structure of a building is first apparent in the scaffolding. In animal life, bones are the scaffolding. In the skeleton, we have the key to proportion, articulation, movement, balance, and scale. The importance of these things cannot be over-estimated. The reader may never have attended an art school or looked at an anatomy book and the structure of muscle and bone is a highly complicated affair. Do not let this deter you in your attempts to wood carving design. But it must be remembered that muscles, features, and fur are all controlled in shape by the bone-structure.

More of the shapes

In the diagrams of simplified skeleton shapes, the bone-structure of animals is indicated. It will help you if you notice the points where the bone is almost on the surface of the form, e.g. the skull, shoulders, spine, and joints. The inability to draw in a realistic way can be partially overcome. If you plot these points in making your wood carving design.

Whenever possible this should be allied with observation and drawing of the living animal. The skeleton diagrams in no way indicate the full anatomy and are only intended as a guide to right thinking and planning of animal shape. There are great pitfalls for the beginner as forms not based on the structure can be weak, dull, and repetitive.

Skeleton diagrams: man and horse. BJ Woodwork Wood carving
Fig. 3. Skeleton diagrams: man and horse (drawing by James Turner).

In a limited way, the amateur can begin to design his wood carving, but he must start with fundamentals. If you are a beginner, remember that ‘fools rush in’, pause to think, and start with structure.

Skeleton diagram of a cow. BjWoodwork wood carving
Fig. 4. Skeleton diagram of a cow.
Skeleton diagram of a dog. Wood work wood carving
Fig. 5. Skeleton diagram of a dog.

Design and carving progress together

It should be obvious from what I have said, that you must be interested in the shape of your wood carving from the very beginning.

Fig. 6. Skeleton diagram of a roe.

During the wood carving beginner stage, you may have something resembling a snowman. But you are from the outset experiment­ing with form. You must give yourself your own limits of expres­sion. Through the ages, there have been wide deviations from the literal presentation of natural form. This is legitimate and modern artists go very far in this direction. With experience, an artist will know what weakens or strengthens and selects by instinct. A very abstract design may well have its roots in organic form and will be all the better for that. Consistency is something that should be aimed for, I think, in the treatment of the carving. If it is a very long and thin figure, then the arms and head must be in character with your conception of the whole. At the same time, do not allow monotony of form to creep into your work.

Fig. 7. Fish shapes. A. Short-Finned Tunny. B. Sea Robin. C. Trigger Fish. D. Siganid.

When carving a wood figure in the round try to think in terms of sections and not only in silhouette.

Try replicate reality

Take for instance the arm. Look at your own arm in the mirror. It could be treated as a cylinder, the same width all the way down, but this would be a dull form. A tapering cylinder would be nearer the truth and more interesting. Look at your arm again and you will see how the cylinder is modified by flatter facets at the wrists and inside the upper arm. You will see swift curves on the lower arm termi­nating in the fine straight lines in the bones of the hand.

Notice how the forms twist with the movement of the hand. Movement is something we must consider here. This does not necessarily mean the movement of an active kind, as for instance a running figure. Look for movement in the shapes. For instance, a figure can be said to have moved if the weight is on one leg, one knee is bent and the head turned. In the case of an animal, movement may be introduced into the flexible spine. Do not value symmetry too much. In nature one side of a head is never exactly like the other.

Don’t rush as wood carving beginner

As you carve do not attempt to finish one part but keep the whole design as far as possible at the same stage. This is very important, particularly at the beginning. The amateur is over­anxious to see the end-product quickly and usually gets too interested in the face and tries to carve this long before the shape of the head as a whole has been established. Keep the head large at first because the features and line of profile need a fair amount of wood. On the other hand, do not be hypnotized by the idea ‘I must not take off too much, I cannot put it back’. If you know that the shoulders must be lowered two inches in order to get ahead and neck then cut the spare wood away without hesitation.

Think about the whole process from the beginning

One of the difficulties for the wood carving beginner is to form a clear idea of the completed work. Therefore, do not be too ambitious at first and stick to your idea. It is far better to complete the first carving and if you are not satisfied, then do another. It often happens that a student develops ideas while carving and fails because he cannot make up his mind, is afraid to commit himself, and continues to travel hopefully but never arrives. As the figure appears from the wood you may be depressed by the result, but
if you persevere, you will find in time that the carving seems to take charge and you are working more by instinct and feeling than by intellect.

To return to the design of the carving. Apart from drawings and diagrams, you may find it very helpful to make a small model in clay, plasticine, or plaster for guidance. This will help you form your idea and also help you to decide whether it is a good one. You can make a full-size plaster model which can be quite rough. In fact, this is often better as you should feel free to re-create the figure in the wood. The model should be regarded as a pointer only and put aside fairly early. All attention should then be given to the carving itself.

Last words

Everybody starts as a wood carving beginner. These tips might be very simple, but if you master them you won’t need the “wood carving for beginners” tutorial anymore. I am going to suggest, such as an egg, completely uninteresting. However, as a carver, you will discover that shape and form are enjoyable. I will not press this point as many readers will wish to make carvings with pictorial content. The most important consideration is that the carving should be enjoyable. Therefore carve a design that interests you. I hope you will take your wood carving to the next level.

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