Saturday, December 31, 2011


This time I'm introducing an intermission in the Faces Tutorial to talk about something that has been weighing on my mind of late: the limitations imposed on design by the way we work. Clint Eastwood, in one of his gajillion movies, once said that a man has to know his limitations. Well, a lot (by no means all!) of my limitations can be summed up in the fact that I don't use power tools: band saw, scroll saw, circular saw, table saw, router, sander, Dremel, Foredom, Weecher, etc. Another of my limitations is that I don't like to use gouges. The worst cut I ever gave myself was with a gouge. Irrational, I know, but . . . .

Take a look at old 9-Toes Nelson here. I carved him from a 1-1/2" square by 6" long piece of bass wood. He is all one piece of wood, including the rifle. Since I don't use a band saw to cut out the basic form of a piece, I am limited to smaller carvings if I don't want to spend more time hoggin' off waste wood than I do carving. Nor do I clamp things to a bench and work off the wood with gouges. If a design requires that kind of thing, I don't do it. I have to be able to hold the piece in one hand while I work on it. That's a limitation. Isn't it?

Let's talk about painting a minute. Old 9-Toes up there is just about my most ambitious painting effort to date, what with that striped shirt and all. If you want to see some real painting go to Lynn Doughty's website and look in his gallery. THAT's what I call painting! I would love to produce pieces of that quality, but I find that I just don't enjoy painting. Even the limited painting I do takes as long or longer than the carving. Why spend all that time doing something I don't enjoy when I could be carving, something I do enjoy. There's another limitation. Right?

I call this my Birds & Fishes Love Spoon, one of my early efforts. It's 11" long and about 2-1/2" wide. There are some pretty complex and small celtic knots in that piece. Pay particular attention to the necks of the cranes. All done with a drill and a knife. (A battery powered drill is the only concession I make to the no-power-tools rule, since I can use it anywhere and hold the piece with one hand and drill with the other.) Took for-freakin'-ever! Even though it's done in poplar, which is a pretty soft hardwood.

Now go take a look at some of David Western's love spoons. I admire his work more than I can say. And, boy, would I like to be able to do that kind of complex work. But I've come to the conclusion that if I stay with using only hand-powered tools I'm going to be limited to only doing things like this.

That's a real limitation. Isn't it? Somehow I don't think so.

I didn't always think that way. For a long time I wanted so badly to do all the beautiful, complex things I saw people like Lynn and Dave do. And I was frustrated. Lately I have come to my senses. I think.

Of late I have come to see my limitations, the constraints I impose on my way of working, more as opportunities than as limitations. I don't have to paint like Lynn Doughty. I don't have to do complex knots like Dave Western (though I still find myself wanting to!). What I have to do is improve the skill with which I do what I want to do. I have to develop designs that make the most of the hand tools I use. I have to find the opportunities that exist within the constraints I have imposed upon myself and use them to do things no one else does. Only in this way will I grow as an artist, a carver.

Design limitations? No! Design opportunities.

I want to encourage everyone who reads this blog to evaluate how you work, what you really like to do. Develop your own designs to make the most of your tools and your methods. Don't let these things limit you. Find the opportunities that are there and grow!

[Rev] By all this I don't mean to imply that those who use power tools are any less an artist than the mossy-backs like me that just use hand tools. Artistry is artistry whether you use a chainsaw or a pocket knife. Use whatever makes you happy and to hell with those who say you're wrong!

Until next time, let the chips fly!

Sunday, December 18, 2011


Today we are going to start on the nose, but first, in order to move around the carving so that you don't get too concentrated on any one thing, let's start making the slope from below the chin to the nose more gradual.

Just start shaving wood away from the whole front of the face from below the chin line up toward the nose.

When you are done, the profile should look something like this. I don't typically take this all the way to the nose, because the bottom of the mustache will stick out farther than where the upper lip joins the nose.

Now you want to determine the width of your carving's nose. Make it wider than you think it needs to be. You can always remove wood if you think it is too wide, but you can't put wood back if you get it too narrow. So make the first mark on one side of the center line. This will locate the outside of the nostril.

Using the same precision measuring method you used to locate your nose and mouth lines, measure the distance from the center line to the nostril line you just drew and transfer that measurement to the other side of the center line.

Now you have the limits of your nose marked out.

Now make a slightly slanted cut up from the nose center line to the outside of the nose. If you look in the mirror you will probably find that the outside of your nostrils are higher than the point at which the center of your nose meets your upper lip.

Your carving should look like this.

Do the same thing on the other side of the nose.

Next you want to make another cut, slanted upward at a greater angle, from the bottom of the nostril line.

You probably won't be able to cut all the way down to the bottom of the nose cut the first time, so don't be afraid to make multiple cuts.

Clean up the bottom of the cut before proceeding.

Make a third cut along the outside of the nostril, this time almost, but not quite, parallel to the center line. Once you repeat these cuts on the other side of the nose, your carving should look like this.

Nostrils have a top, so you'll want to make one more cut to delineate that.

It's time to start defining the shape of the bridge of the nose. Start the cut at the inside end of the top of the nostril and curve it up all the way to the eyebrows.

If you run your finger along the side of your nose from the top of the bridge down to your cheek, you will be able to feel that the side of your nose slopes out from the top. Make your cut with the blade of your knife sloped accordingly. In order to maintain good control of your blade you need to make several shallow cuts rather than one deep one. As you can see (look where the arrow is pointing) my knife slipped on the first cut and extended out over the eyebrow onto the forehead. A classic example of using too much force. I'm not worried about it, because the cut is shallow and will probably be carved out as the carving progresses. By the way, in case you didn't know, you can click on the photo and view it full size. Details are much clearer.

Make a slanted cut back down from the outside toward the nose cut. You are going to wind up with a "vee" cut here. The bottom of the "vee" should be only slightly above the level of the upper lip. Take your right index finger and put it on the high-point of your right cheek bone. This should be just under the outside corner of your eye. Now slide your finger in to the side of your nose and then back out to where you started. You should be able to feel that your face slopes from your cheek down toward your nose.

This is how the carving should look once you have done both sides of the nose. You can really see the cut I made when my knife slipped in this photo. You will make mistakes. Don't let it worry you. It's only a piece of wood!

Next time we'll start on the eyes. Eyes really worry beginning carvers, but they really aren't that difficult to do. You'll see!

So, until next time, let those chips fly!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Roughing Out the Brow and Eye Planes

Before we get started, I thought you might want to meet Wallace.

Wallace is the latest addition to my stable of wood spirits. I originally thought about calling him Cyrano because of his nose, but my daughter thought he looked like one of the characters in the Wallace & Grommet claymation movies, so, Wallace, he became. He serves as another example of the great variety of things we humans recognize as faces.

And now, to business!

The next thing we want to do is give the upper part of the face a little depth, so we are going to carve a flat plane from the nose up to meet the hair line. Start about 1/4" above the nose cut. You want to leave enough wood to give you some options later on. We want to establish the depth of the hair line to be a little less than the depth of the nose cut. I am using a push cut here as I showed you in the previous post.

Push that cut all the way up to the furrow you cut along the hair line. You may well have to readjust your grip on the wood to finish the cut. That's OK. Take a look at the chip I've raised here. Your chip shouldn't be any thicker than this one.

You may find it easier to use the lever cut technique, using the thumb of your holding hand as a pivot point. By using the last third or quarter of the blade length as shown here, you'll get a longer cut with less force.

This is about what your first cut should look like.

As you deepen the cut at the hair line, you'll want to cut down from above also. On most people who don't sport a rockabilly hairdo the hair doesn't jut out from the forehead at a right angle. Here I'm using what I call a pivot cut. I have planted my knife-hand thumb against the wood and am pivoting the knife around that point down into the wood. This is a fairly safe cut, even though you are cutting back toward your holding hand, for three reasons. First, you are cutting down into the wood. The blade will stop against the bottom of the cut you just finished up from the nose. Second, by using this pivot cut you limit the travel of the blade. It can't move more than an inch or so, and your thumb and holding hand are out of the way. Third, you'll be taking multiple thin cuts, so you don't have to use excessive force. And (remember this?) excessive force is the most common cause for knife slippage.

At this point, your carving should look similar to this.

Left side view. As you can see, the depth of the cut at the hair line is not quite as deep as the depth at the nose cut.

Now we need to start carving in the areas where the eyes will be. You want to cut another flat plane on both sides of the face's center line from a point just below where you started the hair line cut up to the hair line.

Again, you'll be making multiple thin cuts.

When you're done, your carving should look something like what you see on the left side of the center line. On the right of the center line, I've already done the next step, but fear not, I'll show you the cuts in a bit.

A side view of what I call the eye plane.

Now you want to scoop out a concave chunk of wood from the bottom of the eye plane cut you just did to a point just above the eye line. You want to angle the knife edge down into the wood then, as the cut progresses, turn the knife edge horizontal then up leaving a dip in the wood,

Due to the grain direction you will get a little tear out as you see here. Don't worry about it.

Just grab the piece by the other end and cut down toward the bottom of the dip with the same technique you used above. Be careful because you won't have as much wood to hold onto as you did cutting from below. So use the lever cut and make thin cuts. You'll be able to smooth out the bottom of the dip using very light cuts with the tip of the blade.

Make a cut from the top of the dip you just carved down and back to the hair line. This will establish your carving's eye brows.

Once you are done, begin doing the same thing on the other side of the face. Try to keep the two sides as symmetrical as you can. Both sides don't have to be exactly the same, but keeping them nearly the same at this stage will simplify things later in the carving process. You will probably have to go back and make some corrective cuts on one side, then the other. I did! When you are done your carving should look something like this.

Left hand view.

Right hand view.

Use your pencil to extend the eye lines from the remnants of the eye line that you drew past the hair line. I told you that would be useful!

We're going to stop now. You must be tired. I know I am! Strop your knife really well so it will be as sharp as you can get it when we begin again. I can't emphasize enough the importance of stropping often.

Next time we'll work on the lower part of the face. At this point the temptation is to continue with the eyes, but that's really not a good idea. Most beginning carvers want to begin carving detail way too soon in the process. You want to get all the major forms on the face carved before you start any kind of detail carving. If you started detailed carving on the eyes now, probably you would make them too small. You need to have your nose better established to get the eye size right. Form must always precede detail. The basic form gives you the location and size of the details. So don't get in a hurry.

Until next time, let those chips fly.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Cutting Wood

Well, you can't carve a face like this without cutting wood, so here we go! Be sure to wear your carving glove and thumb protector. I don't want you springing a leak and getting blood all over that lovely piece of wood you have in your hand! That will just ruin a carving.

The first thing you need to do is take the tip of your knife and cut into the wood following the line you drew to outline the face. Cut in at a slight downward angle; it'll be a little easier that way. Don't worry if you wander off line. As you can see, I did.

Next, from just below the first cut make a series of small cuts back toward the first cut. Do this all the way around the face. Or where the face will be.

This leaves you with a small furrow that outlines the place your face will soon appear. This line will sink straight, more or less, down into the wood as we continue to carve to it, deeper and deeper from both sides. Look at old Sleepy at the top of this post. This furrow you just cut is where his forehead disappears into the wood. Since this is his hair line, you don't want it wandering too far north or south from where it is, or your facial proportions will be off. I just want to repeat here that this is neither rocket science nor mathematics, so it doesn't matter if the line moves a little.

Here's where we begin locating and carving the nose. Make a shallow cut straight down into the wood along the nose line. Try to make the cut extend an equal distance on either side of the center line. You won't be able to cut far down into the wood so don't worry about it and don't try to force it. That cut you just made is called a stop cut. It's called that because it stops the next cut you make from going too far.

Now place your knife below the stop cut on the nose line and cut back up to it raising a small chip of wood like you see here. You're going to be making a lot of these cuts, and each time you do, renew the stop cut at the nose line so the chip will fall away.

This kind of cut is called a "push cut". You will be using it a lot. As you can see from the photo, you put the thumb of the hand holding the wood on the back of the knife blade and push. This gives you a great deal of control and minimizes the chance that the knife will slip and run away from you. Use just enough force to make the cut and don't try to take too large a chip at any one time. Cutting thin chips may seem like the "slow boat" way to do things, but, believe me, once you get some practice you can remove just as much wood just as quickly and much more safely as you can with a single deep cut. You can also make this cut by putting one thumb on top of the other, but that's a little hard on the bottom thumb.

You can also make the cut this way. Put the thumb of your holding hand on the back of the blade and move your knife hand back toward you. This turns your thumb into a fulcrum and your knife into a lever. You still have great control and much more power than with a straight push cut.

You will continue to make these cuts until you have cut a deep vee up to the nose line as shown in this photo. This will take some time, and you will get tired, so take a break every now and then. You want to make this cut deep, because if you don't your face will be flat. You don't want to carve flat faces! One of my issues about wood spirits is that many of them have flat faces when viewed from the side. I don't like that look, but your mileage may vary.

Old Tangle Foot here doesn't have a flat face, and neither should the wood spirits you carve. I haven't always been so successful as with Tangle Foot, but that was mostly because I was carving in a hard wood and got lazy. One rule to keep in mind: if you think you've finally carved deep enough, carve deeper!

Next time we'll start defining the upper part of the face. Be prepared for some major wood removal!

So, until then, let those chips fly!