Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Carving Safety

OK. Today we are going to talk about safety. Carving, just like any time you are playing with sharp and pointy objects, is risky. You can (will!) get cut.

Getting cut can be dangerous. You can damage tendons, muscles and nerves if you go deep enough.

Getting cut can be expensive. A trip to the emergency room will cost you big bucks.

Getting cut is annoying. You get blood on the carving, not to mention floor, carpet, clothes, etc., and the stains just don't come out. Depending on where you cut yourself, you could be out of the carving game while you heal.

So let's try to minimize the chances of getting cut.

The first thing you need to do is get a carving glove. The one I am so elegantly modeling here is available from your local Woodcraft store (I receive no financial or in-kind remuneration from Woodcraft) for somewhere between $15 and $20. A whole heck of a lot cheaper than a trip to the emergency room. This one I believe has kevlar in the weave. Others have stainless steel woven in. Aside from Woodcraft another good source for good cut resistant gloves is a restaurant supply store. The internet is also a good source.

Keep in mind that no glove is absolute proof against getting cut. A really sharp knife moving at high speed with a lot of force behind it will cut through almost all non-chain-mail gloves. But you won't get cut as badly as you would if you weren't wearing the glove. And no glove, including chain-mail, will keep you from getting stabbed. Although, again, it won't be as deep or as serious.

Now, for about the first 45 years after I first picked up a knife, I didn't use a carving glove. And I got cut every once in a while. Never seriously, thank goodness, but I do have scars. I finally began using a glove (it was a struggle, like quitting smoking), because I didn't want to get cut anymore. I can't truthfully say I put on the glove every time I pick up a knife now, but about 95% of the time I do so.

Another good investment is a thumb guard. The ones Woodcraft carries are leather with an elastic strap across the back. They come in various sizes and cost somewhere around $5 a pair. Not only do they protect your thumb from being cut, mostly, they cushion your thumb as you push on the back of your knife for a push cut. You can also make your own thumb guard with medical tape or vet wrap, available in any drug store.

Now we've talked about the equipment, let's talk about procedures. There are a lot of "rules" out there in the wild about safe carving. One of the most common, heard from every parent at one time or another, is "don't cut toward yourself". Good advice. Except. If you are carving wood, especially if you are trying to comply with the other rule of "cut with the grain", sooner or later you will be cutting toward yourself. All you can do is establish safe habits for this type of cut. For instance, have a piece of the carving between you and the blade.

This is a good practice, but it is not fool proof. I have cut myself doing this when the grain was such that the knife split off a piece of the carving and continued right into my finger. I wasn't wearing a glove at the time, worse luck.

The most valuable advice I can give you is this:

1. Learn to properly sharpen your tools and keep them as sharp as you can possibly get them at all times. A sharp tool is a safer tool. It requires less force to move the tool through the wood, and excessive force being applied to the tool is probably the most common cause for the tool slipping. And slipping is probably the most common cause of getting cut.

2. Before you make a cut, plan it out. Look at what you need to cut, and how much you need to take off. Look at where your blade will go if it slips and keep your leaky parts out of that area. This sounds like it takes a long time, but as you gain experience this will become second nature.

3. Take small chips. One of the most common causes of blade slippage is trying to take off too much wood with one cut. Small cuts take less force, and we all know about force, don't we. If we don't, reread #1 above. With practice your small cuts can move as much wood almost as quickly as a single large cut.

If you have about $25 to spare, I highly recommend you go to Pinewood Forge and order Harley Refsal's video, "Figure Carving Scandinavian Style". Not only is it a great video about the history and practice of Scandinavian flat plane figure carving, it has what I consider to be the best demonstration of carving safety, sharpening your knife, wearing a glove, limiting your cuts, etc., that I have ever seen. And I've watched a lot of carving videos! (Again, I don't receive any consideration, financial or otherwise, from Pinewood Forge.)

This is getting long, but one more thing. Tendinitis, also known as tennis elbow, golfer's elbow, etc. I got it as a result of starting to use a carving glove. I was gripping the carving so hard to keep it from slipping that I gave myself carver's elbow. It is painful. And persistent. It kept me from carving for six weeks, and when I started carving again, it came back. That's when I found this video. Within a week of doing the exercises two or three times a day, the tendinitis went away. Occasionally, I will start to get a relapse, but after a couple of days of doing the exercises, it goes away again.

Well, I've made this post probably too long, but safety is important, and the more you educate yourself about it, the safer you will be.

So until next time when we will actually get started, let the chips fly!

Monday, October 10, 2011


As I believe I mentioned earlier these posts are going to be enhanced and made into a book that will be available on Kindle and Nook (assuming I can work out photography) for the low, low price of $2.99. For that reason I'm covering the initial steps prior to carving just like it was a tutorial for a beginner, hence the posts on knives and the one to come on Safety. Be patient, we'll get to the actual carving very soon.

The knife you use to carve is important. It has to fit your hand, not slide around when your hand gets sweaty, and be comfortable to hold for long periods. More important than the knife is how sharp it is. For most of my carving life I used a folding pocket knife (more on this later), and while it was what I considered sharp, I didn't really know what sharp was until I purchased my first fixed-blade, honest-to-goodness carving knife from Del Stubbs at Pinewood Forge. That's the knife I'm talking about there to the left of old Happy, the Wood Spirit. I have since learned to put a carving edge on just about any knife, and I would suggest you do the same. You don't need a lot of expensive equipment (multiple diamond hones, water stones, ceramic stones, etc.) to do the job right. Just google "scary sharp system" and you will find everything you need for not much money. Just don't fall into the trap of over-sharpening. Once you get a good edge on the knife (many knives come with a great edge) all you need to do is strop the edge every half hour or so. Unless you try to carve a nail or something you should almost never touch the knife to a sharpener again.

Another knife I have used is the Flexcut Pelican pictured here.

I consider a sheath of some kind an essential accessory to a carving knife. They take up less room (yeah, even that Flexcut sheath) than the traditional packaging a knife comes in, and they provide protection for the edge. This Flexcut sheath is pretty pricey, about half the cost of the knife itself, but it will save you a lot of worry.

Del Stubs's knives come with traditional Scandinavian birch bark sheaths at no extra cost, so the cost of one of his knives is about the same as the cost of a Pelican and sheath.

I've posted an official photo of the Flexcut Pelican to point out a peculiarity of mine. I can't leave a production knife alone. I've always got to be modifying them to make them fit me better. By comparing the photos of my Pelican above and the factory Pelican here, you can see what I've done.

The first thing I did was take a sander to the handle and remove the factory finish. Straight from the factory Flexcut knives come with a hard, slick (polyurethane, I presume) finish to the handle. As soon as my hand starts sweating, the knife starts trying to slide around. This results in gripping the knife harder and, for me at least, a case of tendinitis (we'll talk about this in the upcoming Safety post).

The next thing I did was very carefully grind the hump off the point of the blade. Flexcut puts that hump there to strengthen the point, but I wanted a point that would allow me to make really tight turns. I knew grinding that hump off would make the point more delicate, but I've broken enough points off blades to know how to avoid that.

This lesson of this is that you can take a factory knife that isn't exactly what you need, and, with some research and experience, modify it to make it truly yours.

Now, this is the one knife that I'm going to use to carve the face in this tutorial. It's the Regular Slojd from Pinewood Forge. It has a 2-1/4" blade, a birch bark sheath, a beautiful wood handle that doesn't slide around in your hand, and costs $38 the last I looked. If you like a shorter blade they have the Short Slojd with a 1-3/4" blade. (Full disclosure, I have always paid for everything I received from Pinewood Forge.) Del and Mary are great people to deal with and will bend over backward to get you what you want. By the way, I haven't modified this knife a whit. It's perfect the way it is.

You may have noticed something about all the knives I've recommended here: they all have a curved edge. I think this is the best blade style for a beginner. I prefer the curved edge because it makes slicing cuts easier. A slicing cut is the easiest, most efficient way to cut wood. It requires less force and thus is safer. Even when you push the blade straight into the wood, the curved edge imparts a natural slicing action. An awful lot of carving knives have a straight edge, some variation of what is called a Wharncliffe blade style. I do use these blades for some things, but I consider them an expert's blade due to the more complex motion that is required to get a slicing cut.

One more caveat, you will need a knife with a relatively thick blade which gives more support to the edge. That's not so important if you are carving in commercially obtained wood, but if you are carving in found wood, and you will probably want to do that sooner or later, you will want that support to deal with whatever foreign objects (dirt, etc.) might be present. Just be careful.

About folding knives: beginners shouldn't use them. Now some may call me an uneducated hypocrite because most kids start whittling with folding knives, and, in fact, my first whittling knife was a folding knife. But today I wouldn't start any child or adult beginner with anything but a fixed blade knife for safety reasons. Until you get good with a knife, practicing the proper ways to make a cut, folding knives have a tendency to fold (go figure!) and cut your fingers. Yep, happened to me on a couple of occasions. So, please, stick to fixed blade knives for a while.

If you have any questions about knives, sharpening or stropping, feel free to leave a comment.

Next time we'll cover Safety. You'll want to pay attention because, trust me, blood will just ruin a good piece of wood.

Until then, let the chips fly!

Monday, October 3, 2011


Faces are an endless source of fascination for me and for many other carvers. One of the most often heard requests is "Can you teach me to carve faces?" And that's only natural.

Human beings are hardwired to recognize faces. I believe that to be a survival skill from our earliest tribal days a million years ago. At that time our pre-homo sapiens sapiens ancestors lived in small groups that could be called tribes. Inter-tribal warfare was probably more common than not, so it was a decided advantage to be able to distinguish between "us" and "them". "Them" were dangerous!

Facial recognition was also a great help in keeping the nuclear family stable. Imagine the embarrassment if Ugh got caught dragging Eeep's wife off to his cave. "Ooops! Sorry Eeep! I thought she was my wife. You know these females. They all look alike to me."

Research has shown that humans can recognize a face in the most rudimentary of drawings or pictures. Take the Happy Face for example. What is it but a circle, two dots and a curve.

Not only do we see faces in rudimentary drawings, we also see them in nature: clouds, rocks and even pieces of wood. Take The Jester up at the top of the post. Before I took my knife to him, he was just a piece of a tree branch, but I could see him in there just waiting to get out.

It's a lot of fun to carve faces into found wood, but for beginners or moderately advanced carvers it is easier to learn with commercially processed wood. Found wood is, to be polite, variable in quality. The piece that I used to carve The Jester had soft spots, downright rotten spots, and grain that went every which way. It short, it was a challenge, one that required the use of CA glue to stabilize a couple of areas.

That's why, as I show you how I carve faces I'll be using a piece of 1-1/2" birch dowel that I got from my local Woodcraft store. You just buy a 3-foot length for less than $5.00 and cut it up into six 6" pieces. It's cheap, so if you accidentally turn it into firewood, you haven't lost much in the way of materials. The wood is consistent in density and the grain runs all in one direction. That's what I used to carve old Windy there.

In the next post I'll talk about the knife I use. I say knife instead of tools because I'm going to be showing you how to do this with one knife. Once you learn how to carve a face with only a knife, it's easy to bring other tools into the process.

So, until next time, let those chips fly!