Carving provides me with the silent communion with
self that is necessary for me to function and grow.
It is not a form of instant gratifications: Like
most artistic pursuits it takes time, patience and
dedication. At the same time, however, it stimulates
and relaxes the mind.
Woodcarving is very much a fine art to me. It
is the means of self-expression, a language that
enables me to say what needs to be said. The words
and sentences are visual and take the form of projection,
recession, size, form, space, mass, volume, textures,
line, penetration and degree of abstraction - not
to mention the type of wood used and the subject
Seeing woodcarving as a fine art demands that
I approach each piece from an emotional standpoint.
In other words, a greater emphasis is placed on
how I feel about the piece being carved than the
initial visualised image, which is subject to much
change from conception to completion.
This might seem limiting but in fact is creatively
quite liberating. It enables me to respond to every
unexpected occurrence in the material as it is being
carved. How well the occurrence reflects the initial
impetus to accomplish the piece will determine whether
it will be retained, altered or eliminated. I can
re-articulate the form, as I carve, to accommodorate
very positive occurrences in the wood such as an
unexpected colour or grain pattern change, or something
very negative such as rot, a check or a foreigh
object. The image is manoeuvered mentally to include
or exclude these surprise characteristics.
I know that to many this approach will seem difficult
if not impossible to master - and at first it is.
But with time and practice it becomes second nature
and brings out the creative best in you.
A good exercise to develop this technique is simply
to begin carving a piece with absolutely no idea
of what you are going to create. Draw nothing on
the wood. Cut in lines, spaces and shapes that you
feel suit your true mood and self. Despite the initial
insecurity that you will unquestionably feel, the
sculpture will ultimately define and refine itself.
Each of my wood sculptures begins with a myth
or legend. I usually identify with a particular
character or situation within the story which prompts
me to express my perception. This generates a notion
of an abstract shape that not only seeks to avoid
obvious shortcomings in the material, but also creates
a sense of movement, flow and/or continuity around
and through the piece consistent with my own emotional
imagery. The arrangement of the 'visual word' components
- such as form, size, line and texture - that will
ultimately tell the story, is at this point ambiguous
Actual carving starts with the touch of the chainsaw
on the material to establish the preliminary form,
volume and direction. I use a 12A Makita electrical
saw with a 12 in, 305mm bar. I have removed the
bar guard so that I can carve with the tip. It spins
at 1600 revolution per minute (RPM), so I wear protective
clothing as well as eye, head and ear protection.
The advantage is that I can use the saw pretty well
to draw in three dimensions.
Rough form is achieved quickly and effortlessly.
This is important to me because I find that wood
sculpture is downright ugly ninety percent of the
time you're working on it. Day in and day out, despite
your efforts, the piece seems to manifest precious
little of the beauty of which you know it's capable.
Only in the very last stages does the work show
indications that it's really happening, that everything
is going to be fine. The increased speed of rendition
helps to get me through the 'stock removal doldrums'.
The next level deals with coarse detailing, for
which I use a Craftsman, 28.000 RPM, 1/4in drive
portable die grinder. This tool is most useful for
creating secondary detail, surface contouring and
sculpting. The portability and speed of the die
grinder makes for quick and easy work on the rough
hewn surfacing left by the chainsaw. It also gives
enough control to see what is happening with the
material by way of grain pattern and colour changes.
This is where much of the subtle beauty of wood
is uncovered, discovered and recovered. For me this
phase is not only interesting but also tremendous
Next comes the fine detailing. This is done partly
with the Dremel Moto-flex grinder and partly with
the Dremel Series 396. These tools bridge the transition
from the 1/4in drive cutters to the 1/8in drive
(and less) and the fine detailing capabilities they
provide. For superfine detailing, my dentist provides
me with as many 1/16in drive cutters and stones
as I need, (this also ensures that I'll come in
for my check-up).
I regard technology not as a threat but as an
of my own will to reflect, accomplish and create'
Both Dremel grinders are used to create the variety
of texture on the sculptures by changing the cutter
type, size, angle, speed and contours, along with
the size, proximity and degree of penetration of
the cuts. The quantity and degree of refinement
of texture should reflect the overall character
of the sculpture. I find it useful to carve sample
textures on a scrap of the same wood before applying
it on the piece.
Once all the carving is finsihed, the most tiresome
and tedious phase begins, sanding. I use drum sanders
and sleeves on both Dremel grinders as well as on
the Craftsman die grinders for coarse sanding. My
wife, however, presented me with a Craftsman electric
finger file for my last birthday, so recently I've
been using it for coarse sanding more than the grinders.
It handles most of the very organic contouring with
Inevitably, though, the power tools must fall by
the wayside to be replaced by sandpaper and elbow
grease. Though I see no way to get around this,
there are some helpful tips. Hand-made contour rasps
and rifflers are ideal for levelling out those inaccessible
contours. The Sandvik hand wedges and sanding belts
are a godsend for crisping up edges and rim-like
Another item I've found helpful is the wool-bodied,
rubber-pimpled sanding glove. It can be used during
most of the hand sanding except in extremely tight
situations where it tends to get in the way. However,
the pound of skin it saves makes it well worth the
investment. The piece is taken through sandpaper
grades 50 to 600 (wet/dry)
A protective finish is then applied. I use Benjamin
Moor's satin urethane cut with lacquer thinner.
This immediately brings out the beautiful colour
and grain of the wood, and the effect is often quite
stunning. Initial applications is with a fine brush.
Excess is wiped off and the process is continued
with a soft cloth; material from tee-shirts or from
baby sheets works well. The piece may require anything
from three to five light coats of this finish. Extra
fine, 600 grit sanding is performed between coats.
The final surface protects the piece but gives the
appearance of having only been waxed.
This type of protective finish is necessary for
my sculptures as they are often on public display.
Frequent touching can have very negative effects
on unprotected wood sculpture. The piece can, of
course, just be waxed but the effect would be purely
cosmetic, ie. a waxy feel and smell, rather than
My sculptures sell well. I believe this is because
no two pieces are alike even though I regularly
repeat certain subjects. Clients often express appreciation
for that fourth dimension, the story behind the
piece. The story or character is usually of such
a universal nature that it touches the life of the
client - past, present, or possibly, maybe hoped
for, the future. They also enjoy telling the story
to friends and visitors, and pointing out hidden
imagery in the sculpture.
There are those who feel that woodcarving is threatened
by the onset of technology and so cling to the tired
and true ways of old. That's OK because woodcarving
should be what we need it to be. It must take us
to that place of solitude where self-reflection
can happen and self-satisfaction can blossom.
I choose to see woodcarving as a fine art and,
as such, reflective of my self and my life experience.
Also, being very much a product of the twentieth
century, I need to see a reasonable degree of accomplishment
for my time and efforts. The power tools help me
to reflect while I accomplish. And having regularly
used high-speed die ginders as an aircraft mechanic
in the airforce, the power tools are indeed a true
reflection of my life experiences.
I therefore regard technolgy not as a threat but
as an extension of my own will to reflect, accomplish
and create. It's not the tool that is important
but how it is used. St.Francis of Assisi put it
best when he wrote:'he who works with his hands
is a labourer. He who works with his hands and his
head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands
and his head and his heart is an artist.'