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Woodcarvings by Maura
So, You really want to be a woodcarver?
The State of Woodcarving in America Today
Dedicated to Elmer J Tangerman
I have spent the last year of my life talking and meeting with woodcarvers from all over the planet. The insight that I have gained has been staggering. As I began carving, a few years ago, alone, down in my basement, I thought that me and my little piece of wood was what it was all about. But as the hip bone is connected to the leg bone and the leg bone is connected to the foot bone…….. Everything in carving is related to everything else. But our realities are really what we perceive them to be. As a solitary carver, that was all there was to woodcarving, it was me, the wood and the knife. I didn’t care about much else in the woodcarving world. I didn’t know much else. It wasn’t until I met another woodcarver in person that woodcarving began changing for me. Then I met some more woodcarvers, some in person, some on the web, some on the phone and I learned of others through my many woodcarving books and hours of private research. With each new person I spoke to, I found myself caring more and more about the state of woodcarving in America today.
I found carvers to be a most helpful and generous bunch. They would share their tools, their techniques, their supplies, their books, and their stockpiles of wood. As the idea of writing this dissertation, turned project, turned book began, it was going to be a casual little thing but somewhere in the process, I started asking if carvers would share their personal thoughts as freely as they shared their tools and knowledge. What I found was that carvers come in different shades just as everyone else in the world does. I invited opinions on the state of woodcarving in America today. Some jumped in right away, proud to feel they had something to contribute, and contribute they did. Some accused me of trying to get something for nothing. Others eagerly just wanted to be part of the project. I received some well thought out replies to the question posed. Some expressed that they were not good enough to have their thoughts out there for all to see. Some were just shy, others didn’t think that a novice carvers’ words would be worth much. There were those who said they wanted to submit something and then didn’t, those who said they wouldn’t submit but then did. There were even those who expressed their opinions to me but didn’t want their 15 minutes of fame.
“What, in your opinion is the current state of woodcarving in America today?”
Interesting things began to happen once the question was put out there, especially to me. I had the opportunity to speak with carvers near and far. The phone would ring and I would innocently pick it up only to realize that I was on the phone with some carving legend, someone whose carvings I had seen in the national magazines, the carvings that I drooled over and drew my initial inspiration from. Please excuse me if in my awe, I stumbled on a few of my words. A few calls were even to ask my opinion of something carving related. I couldn’t believe it. I still considered myself a novice.
The project started to generate its own interest and I soon came to know that my name and project were being talked about in some pretty high places. Initially that scared me. Imagine my reaction when a carver I had never met before, came up to me and shook my hand and thanked me for what I was doing. I thought he had the wrong person until he mentioned the project. People would just walk right up to me and tell me what a great thing I was doing for woodcarving. While it did take some time and energy, and dragged me away from my carvings, this project was just something that I felt compelled to do. For myself, yes, but in a larger way, it was my opportunity to give something back to the community which had given so much to me. A few people told me to reconsider posting it for free on the internet. They said I should be looking to sell it. No amount of money is worth the experience I received writing this. Though I may eventually look to publish it, it was important that I freely shared what I had learned, as others had shared freely with me. I believe that those things that are given freely do repay us tenfold. Someone suggested that it was my way of pushing myself over the edge, into a woodcarving career. After giving it much thought I came to understand that they were right.
Here I was now an almost intermediate carver, with a house full of carvings. What is the next step? Do I chuck them in the fire to make room for new ones? Or do I get out there and test the waters. And if I test the waters, which direction do I head in. I had paid close attention over the past few years to internet postings that involved making a living in woodcarving. I eagerly soaked up everything that was being discussed. It seemed to me that there were plenty of people out there doing just that, carving for a living. Yet in my everyday life, I received mostly negative comments. “People are not willing to pay what a woodcarving is worth”. “Don’t waste your time trying to sell them, you will be disappointed.” I heard it time and time again. I asked some carvers why they didn’t try to sell their stuff and was met with many a blank stare. Others instantly put up a wall and ended the conversation. I even had a carver laugh at me when I said I wanted to try to find a way to make a career out of woodcarving. I knew that there were carvers out there who were financially successful. And I knew that they weren’t very different from me. What did they have that I didn’t have? Knowledge and experience, that’s what. And it made all the difference in the world. There is nothing anyone can do to help me with the experience part of the equation, but knowledge….where would the knowledge come from? And a startling idea came into my head. What if I just asked? What’s the worst thing that can happen? “Ask and ye shall receive”. Ask I did. Receive I did. I learned and I learned and I cared more and more.
Some very interesting things happened to me in the months it took to put this all into words. First of all, by asking my innocent question on the forum of one of the larger woodcarving magazines, I caused quite a ruckus. My name and question were being thrown around its offices as they attempted to figure out how to deal with such a posting that was asking for replies and submissions and using their site to do so. I am proud and happy to say that all the information in this book came directly from my personal journey in woodcarving, carvers who eagerly wanted to be part of this project, my own endless hours of research and the knowledge I gained along the way. After all was said and done, I looked back on this experience as a good one. What more could a novice, one day to turn professional carver ask for, than to have their name known in the upper echelons of the carving publishing world. No harm, no foul. I look forward to having a good relationship with this magazine in the future.
I received an email out of the blue one day from a farmer named Dave Gillilan of Ohio. He is an amateur archeology buff, who while digging up some property, came across a huge cache of thousands of bark carvings, clay and pottery shards and ancient stone art. He asked if there was anyone I could recommend that would be interested in his find. He was trying to locate someone who could carbon date these items. All of his knowledge led him to believe that these pieces were perhaps 18,000 years old. He was being scoffed at by those he contacted because, although it is known that there were Stone Age peoples in the Americas, they were not supposed to be capable of such work. But to give Dave his due, there are known examples of woodcarvings older than what he is claiming in other parts of the world, namely China, India, Egypt and Mexico and South American. I did suggest he contact the Smithsonian, a few carving museums and The Museum of Natural History here in New York City but as of this writing, I don’t believe any conclusions have been reached. Without the carvings being authenticated, I can only say that they seem to be old. How old? I wouldn’t care to have an opinion on that. I will say one thing I noticed about the small collection of carvings Dave sent me, they were extremely light, almost as if I was holding onto air. I imagine this is due to the drying time of history. It was as if only a skeleton remained and the bones had dried up too. Taking any one of these items by itself, it is easy to dismiss them as pure imagination on Dave’s part but thousands of these items were buried together. Before banks existed, burial was one of the primary ways that valuables were protected. Dave says that in person, it is obvious that they are carvings. These are just some of the pictures that he sent to me.
spear or lance? Deer? bison?
bird? early man images? face in profile?
Above photos courtesy of Dave Gillilan, Ohio
I recently attended a local carving show and was surprised to have met one of the contributors to this project in person, Eric Bunn of The American Woodcarving School in Wayne, NJ. While I do know many of my contributors through previous personal contact, I was very happy to have met Eric, who answered my e-mailed question without knowing me or too much about the project at that point. He is the type of person who made this project so rewarding for me. His connection to The American Woodcarving School made me consider him someone whose opinion would be much valued by the readers of my project and would even give some validity to the work that this project involved. I was thrilled to be able to thank him for his participation in person. Hopefully in my future carving related travels I will meet more of those that I don’t know yet.
I had a most marvelous call with the famed Nora Hall and her son Wendell, and spent about an hour discussing the current state of woodcarving in America with her. I have had correspondence with carvers in Japan, Australia, England, Germany and Canada and spent a wonderful evening discussing the topic with Jim O’dea and Elmer Jumper as we sat on a porch one night at a recent roundup. I received a phone call from Everett Ellenwood and we discussed sharpening and the history of woodcarving for quite a while. I have received appeals from a few editors seeking submissions and excerpts of this project for publication. This novice carver was very much honored to have these editors coming to me as is usually not the case.
So many things happened to me while I was writing this. I had my first solo carving exhibition and was quite happy with the results. It took a lot of work to get ready for and I was happy that I had been doing the research I did for this project as I got to put some of it to work for me. The high point of my carving career to this point happened unexpectantly and started as most big things do, innocently. I received an email from a carving friend, Jud Hindes who lives in Florida. He asked if I knew how to sharpen my carving tools. I told him that I did okay and knew how to keep my tools sharp. I asked him “why”? He said there was a carver up my way who needed to learn to sharpen her gouges. Luckily for me I am pretty friendly and have some time on my hands. I said to send her over and I would show her how I sharpen. With that, Jud gave us each other’s email addresses so we could arrange for the lesson. I asked him to make sure that she was okay with a ‘real’ old basement, low ceilings, piled high with junk and an old cat who seeks refuge there.
This is part of the reply I received from her.
“ Hi Maura. Old basements are like home to me. I wouldn't know any other kind. My Dad's was full of all kinds of old tools and jerry-rigged things. My brother-in-law was down there the last weekend trying to sort out and throw away and make some better sense of what has been left. The wood down there is fabulous. I can't store it all myself, but when we sell the house, which will probably be within a year, it's all got to go somewhere……. “.
Okay, so now I’m getting an idea of who she is. I’m thinking that she is just some beginner who has inherited her fathers tools and wants to start carving, such a beginner that she has not learned to sharpen yet. I am feeling quite confidant that I can give her a decent lesson that will help her with her learning.
This is the next e-mail I received from her.
“I truly appreciate your time and interest. I don't know what Jud's told you about me or my dad, but presuming he has not begun the saga...I am the daughter of Tange, the fellow about whom Jud's written his latest Me and Tange and......... Now, that's not to say I am in Dad's league, but I have learned a lot from him, just not good on sharpening my tools, much as I have tried! I've carved for about 19 years give or take. I prefer, I guess, what Dad called polyglot panels, low relief, but my commissions often want in the round, so I do that, too. I use a series of tools sent to me by Dad's carving friends, but mostly Harman, I think. I have short-handled indecisive tools which can be hand or mallet, and only one palm gouge. I have some real oldsters which are definitely in need of a mallet to help them cut. Dad used to say that he preferred harder woods because he didn't have to spend all that time sharpening his tools and could still cut into a piece of wood without gashing himself too badly. When we travelled to Brasstown each summer to the folk school, he depended upon his students/friends to take pity on him and sharpen the worst of his tools. Imagine that, a world-famous carver who has pages in his books about sharpening, and his tools were NOT! Sort of like the high-priced barber's children...”
I just about fell off my chair when I read this. Elmer Tangermans’ daughter Judi would be coming to my house! I tried to explain to my family what this meant, that in the woodcarving world it was as if a Kennedy or Rockefeller was coming to dinner at our house. Elmer J. Tangerman died in 1998. He still is considered the “dean” of American woodcarving. Although he was an accomplished carver, he gained his greatest fame as a promoter of woodcarving. Beginning in the early 1940’s, E.J. Tangerman wrote over 20 different books related to woodcarving which are still being reprinted today. The Modern Book of Whittling and Woodcarving, 1973 and Design and Figure Carving, 1940 are referred to as the bibles of woodcarving. They are the first woodcarving books that I read and are contained in the libraries of most serious woodcarvers. His daughter Judi is a commission carver who lives in Long Island, NY. Judi stopped by one evening and we spent the next few hours sharpening and honing close to 100 different chisels and gouges. It was my pleasure to have met this fine lady in person. It was as if I had met and touched the great Tangerman just by being in the presence of his bloodline. This holds special significance for me as Artist Maricha Oxley of Australia told me that by writing this project I was continuing the work of Elmer J. Tangerman. I don’t think that I can ever come close to what Tangerman did for woodcarving in the 20th century but it is with great reverence that I dedicate this conclusion chapter in his memory.
Not everything that happened to me while I was writing this was good. Due to an unstable domestic situation, I left my home and workshop of ten years, to strike out on my own. It happened right on cue as I was finishing up my chapter on the workshop. I was emotionally, mentally and financially devastated. The day I packed up my little workshop was very difficult for me, knowing that the boxes would have to stay packed for a while, until I could set up a new shop somewhere. I took more care in the packing of my tools than with any of my other possessions. I took days to sort everything into separate boxes, one for sanding stuff, one for pyrography, another for finishing supplies. I labeled the boxes carefully so that I can easily find what I need. As of this moment in time I am still in transition and the boxes remain packed. I was in a bit of a depression for a while and had absolutely no desire or will to carve or even to continue writing this. I keep my chisels and gouges, a small rotary tool and my painting supplies with me and at present have access to a much larger workshop now. The urge to carve is slowly returning and, have no fear; As the Phoenix, I will rise again.
New beginnings are both scary and exciting. I feel this coming year will be the turning point of my life. It is my opportunity to fit my life around my carving, rather than trying to fit my carving into an already full life. In a previous chapter I wrote that divorce is not uncommon among professional woodcarvers and woodworkers. You will never succeed if your husband, wife or partner does not believe in you and accommodate your carving. They must challenge you, support you and push you. There is always a silver lining and I wish to one day look back at this as one of the best things that ever happened to me. I also wish to thank a special carver out there, who gave me a shoulder to cry on and offered me wonderful advice. They even generously offered to fly me cross country, to hang out and burn some incense, while discussing the problems of the world and getting some perspective my life. I am slowly rebuilding one day at a time and I will be better for the experience.
My carving club in Queens lost their meeting place. It is a very special bunch of talented dedicated woodcarvers and I would hate it if everyone went their separate ways. Our carving club was free to everyone and had members of all different skill and talent levels. We had scroll sawers, woodburners, caricature carvers and even a fully trained Bulgarian Master Carver. We met at the YMCA up in Woodside Queens for two hours each month. No body quite knows why the YMCA decided after all these years that they no longer have any space for us but it is a shame. We are currently searching for another facility in which to hold our meetings.
I now am working in a new larger shop with all types of top grade of woodworking machinery and am now beginning to take on larger projects. As one door closes, another door opens. I am glad to be finishing this book as I must get back to work.
My Queens Carving Club is now meeting on the grounds of The Queens Farm Museum, which is sort of like a smaller Williamsburg, Virginia setting and seems very appropriate for woodcarving.
Dave the Farmer still can not get anyone interested in authenticating his finds.
The State of woodcarving in America Today
What is the state of woodcarving in America today? It is a complicated subject and it will be a complicated answer. And be forewarned, I will upset and perhaps offend some of you, though unintentionally. Some of my conclusions you may agree with, other parts you may not. Please take it all with a grain of salt, as none of it is personal and it is just the opinion of one person, based on my experience and the interpretation of the knowledge that was handed to me. What gives me the right to judge, in my opinion is that I am still relatively new to woodcarving and can look in with a new comers perspective at things that may be hindering the promotion of woodcarving to the masses. I also have had a chance to talk to many, many accomplished American and international woodcarvers, most with years and years of experience in the woodcarving world. I have listened intently on internet carving forums, have sat in on informal discussions of the topic, have read many articles and have talked face-to-face, by email, written correspondence and telephone conversations. There are probably close to 1000 carvers who I have had contact with who in one way or another, unknowingly or intentionally, have contributed to the formation of this opinion. I have had these carvers who have much more experience than I will ever have, express their concerns for the future. It is on that knowledge that I particularly base my conclusion. But do understand that my opinion is only my opinion. In order to critique woodcarving in America, I must first make a distinction between professional and hobby carving. They are a world apart and must be treated as two different entities.
Let me start with the easy stuff. Hobby woodcarving is thriving! Absolutely, positively! Whether that is due to the fact that hobbies in general are thriving right now, that woodcarving is in the beginning stages of ‘coming out of the closet’ or that there is more leisure time for more people is unclear. The leading edge of the baby boomers, the largest, longest surviving generation in history are growing older, their children are leaving home, and some are retiring and looking for something to fill their time up. I am sure that as in any other hobby, there are people who have the idea that they might try their hand at carving. They buy a few tools, make a few small items and then they go on to the next hobby of the moment. But for the most part, I see determined people, most with no financial aims, those who just want to carve for the enjoyment it brings to them. I completely relate to them as it is the solitude of me at peace with the wood which fueled my passion in the first place.
Lots of people have worked their whole lives and are now retired and don’t want to put another drop of energy into chasing the dollar. They have learned the lessons of the depression and have grown up trying to save their pennies. They are now able to indulge their hobbies, buy the tools and supplies they need because they have saved wisely and can now reap the benefits of their frugalness. Baby boomers on the other hand have had everything handed to them. They are the best educated generation in history. They are also the richest and still they carry an unprecedented amount of debt. They have grown up with Brand names being thrown at them all their lives. You no longer keep up with the Jones’ but you try to out-do them. Just look around at the cars being driven. It’s all about status and how much money you have. Baby boomers are used to having what they want, when they want and only the best quality. Credit cards will pay for it all. Their pockets are deep and their materialism endless. They will spend any amount of money on their hobbies because “they deserve it”. Just from a pure mathematical standpoint, as more and more baby boomers near retirement age, businesses that steer themselves towards merchandising cannot help but reap the profits. What do boomers spend their money on? Nice shiny new tools, Gadgets, Books, DVDS, and patterns, anything that will make carving easier for them. Some of them are not interested in learning real technique. They look for cut-outs and rough-outs and easy to follow patterns. There are currently 2 American magazines catering to these hobby carvers, Carving Magazine and Woodcarving Illustrated. Most issues will have a few quality patterns with step by step tutorials. They do a good job of covering the basics. There will be relief, in-the-round, sharpening, painting, and pyrography articles. There will be projects for the novice and intermediate. It is not likely that the merchandising side of carving will lose much in the coming decades. The bulk of the baby boomers are in their 40’s and 50’s now. At least 10-20 years away from retiring. Those businesses selling quality tools and supplies for a reasonable price will do well as long as they cater to the hobbyist.
Carving instructors should also do well in the coming decades. Most people, especially when new to carving, prefer to take lessons. This is all good for those doing the teaching. It is my suggestion that businesses dedicated to selling carving tools and supplies should network with those carvers who do the instructing. They should sell reasonable quality beginner carving sets directly through the instructors. These businesses should also have carvers demonstrating from time to time. Perhaps they should even put aside some room so that classes may be held in their stores. The more reasons that a carver has for going to a particular business, the more money he/she will spend there. One major problem is that there are not that many stores catering full time to carvers. A store that concerns itself strictly with carving will be more knowledgeable about the products that they are selling and will sell better quality items. Their reputations will be most important and will be what draws the highly educated baby boomers in. Stores that cater to general woodworking and have some dedicated woodcarving items will generally do as well as they do now, because there will always be those people who like the convenience of one stop shopping.
The ‘Americanization’ of woodcarving will continue to thrive. American carvers have developed their own styles of carvings vastly different from the carvings being produced in the rest of the world, namely western and caricature carvings. I was quite pleased to recently see a Native American bust project as the cover story on a European carving magazine. Americans have always done things differently. There is marvelous folk art, Americana and western art, rural art and tramp art being carved every day. There is a large bunch of carvers who are concentrating on technique and realism and are producing very life-like museum quality works. The American woodcarving venues which deal with the awarding of ribbons are one of the avenues which are supporting the evolution of the American woodcarving style. It has become more common place that some of the caricature carvings are grabbing top honors, even as they compete against more classical carving styles. Winning awards and ribbons are a boon to any professional carver looking to command higher prices for their work and to be recognized on a national and international level. On lower levels it is those awards and ribbons which have lesser known artists striving for excellence year after year.
I strongly support these types of competitions but do have a few suggestions for streamlining. There needs to be a national standard for these shows and for the judges at such shows. There needs to be a system where carvings are entered into competition at local levels and make their way up the ladder to city, state, regional, and then onto national and international levels. Consider it a World Series of Carving where the Winner has come up through the ranks and files to be judged among the best of the best. There also needs to be a system in place where the winning carvings, after having received their recognition are then retired so that they can not be entered at other shows to take more ribbons with the same carvings. There should also be some sort of ruling that the carvings must have been carved within 1 year’s time of the competition. It is redundant to have one carving which has received 20 top honors and is only a way to feed the ego of the carver.
Judging at these competitions needs to be standardized and winning carvings must meet all technical criteria for top honors. While I know it is next to impossible to remove the human element from judging, some judges seem to prefer certain types of carvings over others and certain carvers over others, carvings need to be judged on their technical merits, not on their crowd or judge pleasing aspects. That is what the people choice awards are for. It would be a tremendous boon to other carvers striving in the lower levels of competitions if Judges could justify their choices by sharing information on why they choose the carvings that they do to win the ribbons. Sometimes I just can’t understand why one carving stands out among equally well done and pleasing carvings. These explanations of what the judges are looking for will be extremely welcome to those trying to better their chances in competition and would open the competition up a bit more to the lesser known carvers.
Categories of competitions need to be standardized and judges need to be qualified and certified as are the umpires in American baseball. While Umpires can and do make the wrong calls, they all study the same manual and take the same standardized test to become certified. I further suggest that there should be a few new categories added to the list which carvings may be entered under, namely originality and creativity. They are not the same and should be highly encouraged in competition as a way to keep carving fresh, innovative and open to all.
It is my desire to see an American tool company produce a high-quality full line of carving chisels. My hat is off to the folks at Flex-cut for their innovative design and Warren for their economy line. Ramelson produces a decent tool but still can’t touch the quality of some overseas manufacturers. They need some hungry competition. There is definitely money to be made both here and abroad if a competitive top-notch quality tool was being produced domestically. Some of the best tools I have ever used were tools that other carvers had designed and/or fabricated. The knowledge and the materials are readily available.
One area that I find lacking as a newcomer is the promotion of woodcarving as an art to the public. There is plenty of promoting it as a craft and as a hobby to the carver himself once he has learned where to look for it but little to impress upon non carvers, the skill that is required to create a woodcarving. There is almost no presence of woodcarving in our culture at large today. Yet it is alive and well. It is being carried on by an almost secret society of underground woodcarvers. Before I stumbled upon woodcarving at the age of 40 or so, I had never had one person introduce me to it. Wood carving has survived for thousand of years and at certain times was in greater demand than other times. It seems as if it is waning at present in comparison to past periods in history and whether or not it will ever come back into fashion, rests on the shoulders of the next few generations of carvers.
The artists among us must continue pushing the boundaries, and stray outside of the traditional carving venues by promoting their work as ‘art’, modern, folk and fine art. Some will find this a hard road to travel but for each carver that makes some small headway in this area there will be tremendous benefit for the future of woodcarving.
We live in a complicated society and as much as we might yearn for simpler times, it is never going to happen. This is the information age. We are bombarded on a daily basis by data and images. We don’t know how to live without cell phones and computers. Marketing research has shown that the more people are exposed to something the more they are accepting of it.
How is a person exposed to something, where does the information come from which will pique his interest? Television, magazines, radio, websites, and newspapers are the primary avenues of mass marketing. Out of those I only have good things to say about two. There are lots of woodcarvers with a website presence, that’s a good thing. And there are now two American woodcarving magazines being sold on newsstands. Those glossy magazines being on display will attract a few new carvers who accidentally stumble across them while browsing. That makes a total of three US publications and one UK publication devoted exclusively to woodcarving and I suspect there are a few more foreign publications with which I’m not presently familiar with. That is more than at any other time in history. Wood carving needs exposure, on a local, national and global level. It needs publicity, corporate backing and organization. It needs art patronage and sponsorship. It also needs some form of organization on the national level to assist professional carvers.
I had the idea that there needs to be a central database somewhere for commission carvers. I was recently on vacation and received a call from a man requesting a commission chainsaw carving. Having only a second to decide, I knew that I was not up to learning chainsaw carving and having to go out and buy all the things I would need to do a chainsaw carving, namely some expensive chainsaws. I politely explained that I had never turned down a commission, and was willing to do it if he really wanted me to but that it would take a little time. He of course was in a hurry for it and needed it to be done on site so I suggested that he do an internet search to find an experienced chainsaw carver near him who would be willing to do it. I didn’t know off hand the name of a carver to refer him to. If there was some type of registry listing carvers willing to accept commissions, I could have instantly found him someone. It got me to thinking about all the other carvers who are asked to do a commission piece and can’t for one reason or another. Then I started thinking about all those starving carvers who would love the chance to work. A while ago I did an internet search and did come across a chainsaw carver registry. Its web address is http://www.chainsawsculptors.com/commission_sculptor.html. It would be a wonderful thing if we could have a national or international registry for all commission carvers. We need as a group, to try to capitalize on all commission carving requests. Someone will gladly take the job on even if you can’t. There could be a slight yearly charge for membership to cover the cost of running the registry and for giving the host a small income.
While I hate to be political myself and do shy away from it, I do think that there should be some type of woodcarving union, not a political union, but some entity on a national level which would help maintain standards of technique and education in the industry. There would be no need for the hobbyist carvers and clubs to be involved in this, but I do think it would benefit semi-pro and professional carvers to be card carrying members, to be professionally affiliated with other professional carvers for the purpose of sharing of information and to keep prices realistic and consistent for certain types of carvings. There will always be the gifted and famed artists and craftsman among us, who will have no need for this type of organization, who do their own thing and charge what they want, whose skill alone keeps them in high demand. But I think that if there is to be any woodcarving industry in the future, it is up to the present carvers to organize, instruct and promote it.
There needs to be a push to bring carving into the public eye and to keep it there. I have gone to many of the larger traveling woodworking shows which tour the country and have yet to see any woodcarvers demonstrating nor any dedicated carving businesses. I have seen numerous turners and scroll saw workers and manufacturers but no woodcarving. At one recent large show in the New York metropolitan area, there were over 100 booths dedicated to different woodworking products and companies. There was one area which devoted a small space to Japanese carving tools almost as an afterthought. There were however 2 different displays of CNC(Computer(ized) Numerical(ly) Control(led)) machines and also a few displays of laser engravers. After cheap imports and resin duplicates, CNC and laser engravers are the professional woodcarver’s fiercest competitors in the modern market. The larger quality carving tool manufacturers need to show their wares and hire carvers to demonstrate for other woodworkers. Woodcarving needs to maintain a presence and compete with other forms of woodworking. The woodworkers who attend these shows already enjoy working with wood and love buying tools and accessories. They need to be targeted by the woodcarving merchandisers.
The CNC machines present a curious problem in the woodcarving world. I have never heard a woodcarver say anything good about them but I do think they are absolutely amazing technological wonders. One just has to stand and watch the machines work for a few moments to appreciate the ease and speed which with they work. A couple of minutes of computer work and seconds later, a perfectly carved image is produced. Yes, it is machine generated and yes, it lacks the warm feelings of a hand-made carving but could there possibly be a place for this type of machine in the woodcarving world? The strong points of the CNC machines are speed, accuracy and efficiency. Any woodcarver working for profit will tell you that these are the qualities that they themselves are constantly trying to improve upon. I had a thought that perhaps we could use these machines to our advantage. Imagine a CNC machine being set up in the middle of a mall in the weeks leading up to Christmas. The wizardry of the computerized carving machines would draw people to itself. Inexpensive items such as wooden pens and household items could be personalized, quickly and cheaply. Now, imagine that a woodcarver sets up a display of wonderful hand carved items behind the machine and sits in his booth demonstrating hand carving. Not only would a person most likely turn a profit selling the inexpensive CNC items but he would also expose a lot of people to his more expensive carvings. People would be able to see the difference of the machine carved vs. hand carved items. People who were originally attracted by the technology of the CNC machine would get a chance to see the carvings that took endless hours to produce and might just walk away with an appreciation for hand crafted work. The more we educate the public on what it takes to produce a woodcarving, the better chance we have that they will understand why professional carvers price their work as high as they do.
CNC and Laser Engraving Systems are only in the infancy of their technologies. 20 years ago, most people did not own cell phones or computers. Technology invades our lives and in some cases changes us forever. There is no stopping this movement so it is my advise to find a way to reconcile with it. The bigger problem woodcarvers face today, is the influx of cheap overseas carvings and duplicated carvings being sold and represented as real hand carvings. Until the economy of the world changes and brings all countries to a level playing field, there is not much to be done about the cheap overseas carvings being offered here in America. The only way to counter this market will be on-site demonstrating of the craft, and offering an original, quality work of art.
There are some unscrupulous people who merchandise carvings as hand-carvings when they know very well that they are offering a fraudulent product. These carvings are produced in the thousands on lathe duplicators and are handed off to carvers to put a few details into them, using hand tools. These carvings are then represented as hand-carved items and quite often come with a decent price attached to them. I truly don’t know what there is that we as carvers can do to counteract this situation, except to educate our possible customers.
The three main areas of carving that I see the greatest problem with are: 1) that we are losing the knowledge and techniques of classical carving design, 2) that creativity is not being encouraged as much as it should be and 3) that we are not reaching out to the younger generations. Professional standards should be held to, just as in most other fields. Doctors, lawyers, electricians, mechanics and teachers all must pass rigorous certification and I believe to be considered a serious profession by the general public, professional woodcarvers also need to hold some type of certification. People, in general, respect education and I do think it would bring a bit more respectability to the craft of woodcarving and allow someone contemplating woodcarving as a professional, justification for that choice. Notice here that I say craft. Artists and hobbyists must always be free to be original and creative and need not be certified in any way. This certification process would be needed more in architectural and restorative carving, and would give respected credentials to some of the many free-lance commission carvers and sign makers.
Professional Carver Joe Dillett of Illinois is one carver who I have always looked up to. Among the living carvers I am currently familiar with, he is the number one promoter of woodcarving as a business in America today. He was extremely helpful to me as a beginner and offers his services and advice to all fledging woodcarvers. Through my dealings with him I learned of the Apprentice program that he runs. I think it is an invaluable thing that he is doing. He set his program up modeling the European Guild system in that basic skills must be learned and mastered before moving onto other skills and certification is only granted when certain criteria has been met.
To achieve an
Apprentice 1 level they began with a simple project that
they choose. They learn safety precautions. They must be able to take a knife
and gouge and V-tool from a wide blunt edge and get them razor sharp. All
have certified through the sharpening. They are all working on carving
moldings. Each molding teaches them right and left hand carving, grain structure
and direction of cut. The first molding is a chase carving with a V-tool or
veiner (spoon carved design). The next molding is a row of small raised
buttons surrounded in a conceived circle. The third molding is a rope
design. Two are still working on the rope design and the rest have
certified through this point. Egg and dart is the next molding. A shell is the next
molding. The last molding will be their design. After completing all the
moldings they must apply a finish. Then they must certify to knowing how
to calculate mathematical ratios and proportions and certify to enlarging or
reducing a picture to create a pattern per my requirements. They must
certify to knowing the common types of wood they will be carving and how
to choose the direction of grain to orientate a face or how to choose the
best and finest grain direction to orientate the carving. They must develop a
respect for wood and the source it comes from through good conservation
practices inside and outside the shop. Than they must complete a project.
That will get them to Apprentice 1 level.
Apprentice 2 level will have exercises that refine their chisel
techniques, uses power to improve productivity and studies good design techniques and human and animal proportions.They must know how to construct a block for carvings and use good gluing practices by calculating how to even out clamping
pressure. There will be much time devoted to drawing which will be taught
from the book, drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards.
They will be learning wood burning techniques and develop a wide
vocabulary of texturing techniques by using chisels. They must develop the ability
to make clean cuts in remote areas so to eliminate 'hamburger'.
To get certified to Journeyman they must have logged about 1000 hours of
carving time, demonstrate originality and uniqueness of design. Capable
of designing and drawing their own patterns from several sources. Produce a
carving from real life, both in the round and in relief. Does not need
instruction to design, carve and finish a carving. Understand the
material of wood and how it is affected by moisture changes, UV exposure, various
drying techniques, strength and weatherability. Understand, know when to
use different finishes and how to apply those different finishes. Able to
make several carvings of the same subject, like an oak leaf, and express
different feelings, such as serenity, anxiety, sadness, and joy . Knowledge
of all laws and regulations that apply to the carving business, such as
sales and income tax, EPA regulations, MSDS sheets, different business
structures such as s-corporation or sole-proprietorship, accounting
practices as applied to running a carving business. Demonstrate a
willingness to share their knowledge by teaching woodcarving classes.
To achieve the Master Carver level they must have knowledge of good
business practices, know how to quote jobs, write work orders/contracts, create
invoices and estimate completion times accurately. Demonstrate good
marketing skills. Demonstrated a desire to promote woodcarving and teaches
on a regular basis. They must demonstrate a willingness to give back to
their community by getting involved in community activities.
The Carving Shop
The use of the term ‘master carver’ has been confused here in America and I don’t think it should be used as freely as it has been. I believe that it should only be attached to those carvers who merit the title not those who have become excellent accomplished carvers. I can as a hobby, take up practicing dentistry and become very proficient at it but I will never be able to be legitimate until I study a course curriculum and pass a series of tests. Let the very good carvers be called just that, the very good carver but let the carver who has truly merited the title be called the Master.
In the best of all worlds, something along the lines of Joes Dilletts’ program should be standard education for aspiring professional woodcarvers. There is the danger that classical woodcarving techniques, which relies greatly on design, efficiency and knowledge of proper tool usage will be lost to future generations. This may not affect the average carver on a day to day basis but should be of concern to those who see the larger picture of our place in woodcarving history. We can only learn from the past and not let the knowledge slip away when we can do something about it.
In creating this certification process, we also need to keep in mind the pitfalls of this type of system, which is that we create an elite society of carvers who carefully guard all of their trade secrets and deny membership to the common mortals, limiting the numbers of those who can achieve such a rank as Master carver. It should be an open and encouraging system simply to grant certification and legitimacy.
Creativity and originality need to be encouraged, especially among the lower levels of hobby carvers. It needs to be encouraged in the magazines and books being published. The majority of what is available to hobby carvers is books that deal with reproducing one particular carving, kits that come complete with cut outs or rough outs, patterns, magazine articles that say here’s how to make this or make that and roundup workshops that concentrate on a particular carving being duplicated. Originality, ingenuity and innovation have always been the trademarks of America. Who knows what we are losing by not first and foremost, encouraging originality. By making any woodcarver feel that there is a right way and wrong way to do something, we risk stifling the evolution of woodcarving. Experimentation should be the norm not just left to those who refused to be boxed in.
Originality is where we Americans will separate ourselves from the rest of the world. Combining creativity and classical carving knowledge can have no bad side effects. I reach out to all workshop organizers, instructors, book and magazine publishers to begin placing emphasis on creativity and classical techniques. They are the sparks that will ignite woodcarving and see it into the next century.
It is imperative that the current day woodcarvers reach out and pull in the next generation of carvers. It may be difficult to compete against sports and video games in the fast paced lifestyle of today’s children but we simply need to start exposing kids to the world of woodcarving. Children under 10 are naturally curious and will express an eagerness to carve if you take a moment to interest them. Ask them what type of things that they are interested in. And then carve them something. Keep in mind that they have short attention spans and allow them to carve a small quick item.
I met an enthusiastic young man a few years ago at one of the northeastern woodcarving roundups. His name is John Hane and he is from Ohio. He is rare in that he is a woodcarver with no grey hairs on his head. His age is not the only thing that separates him from the rest of the bunch. His youthful enthusiasm stands out. As a student, he is likes to challenge his carving instructors to explain why something must be done they way they direct him to. His greatest asset is his parents, who head out on a moments notice to attend woodcarving events with him. The importance of their encouragement in this young mans life can not be underestimated. An interview with Young Johns Mom gave me an overview of his carving career
How old is Young John?
Age 14 Grade 8
Has Young John won any carving awards?
He won first and second place Mahoning Valley Woodcarvers Show, Niles Ohio March 2004 and 2005 Third place at Dayton, Oh Artistry in Wood Show 2004 and Honorable mention in 2005. Rose carving contest sponsored by Chip Chats Magazine Won first prize along with 3 other young carvers, gift certificate donated by Larry Yudis, aka Big Dog, from the Wood Craft Shop Bettendorf IA and winner of the grand prize of a Micro Pro micro-motor system donated by Deborah and Timothy Efferem of Wood Carvers Supply in Englewood, FL
What was Young John’s first attempt at carving?
First carving attempt was pliers; we brought him home a pair from the Warther Museum in
Dover, Oh. He has tried to carve these pliers many times but cant seem to get the angles right. John has been carving ever since sometimes for pleasure sometimes for profit.
What are Young John’s future Carving plans?
John really enjoys carving and I think he will continue with this hobby. He hopes to someday make his living at carving and wants to one day get the chance to study with the Masters over in Austria and Germany.
What has given Young John the most pleasure on his carving Journey?
Having an article published in Wood Carvers Illustrated about him. Winning the Rose carving contest. He loves the Honesdale Roundup. Going to Fox Chapel Publishing with Jan Oegema.
Are there any carvers who John looks up to?
John has met so many wonderful people over the last couple of years it is hard to pick. Jan Oegema was one of the first people he got to meet, Ol Don, Floyd Rhadigan, Chris Howard, Wayne Barton. These are just of few of the greats who have inspired and taught him.
Which instructors have Mentored Young John?
Each of the teachers he has worked with have influenced John with their own personal skill and artistry he has worked closest with Jan Oegema and Floyd Rhadigan.
I started carving when I was 11. I am 14 now. I enjoy carving so much that I have tried to get some of my friends interested in it instead of them only wanting to play video games. Carving is a great hobby and I have met a lot of really great people who share my interest unfortunately they are mostly adults and not kids around my own age. Since I started carving my grades have improved and I have learned to be more patient. I wish there were more classes in wood carving closer to me, but I really enjoy going to the Round Ups. It is fun for my family we really enjoy the time together even though my parents don't carve. I hope this short paragraph will maybe inspire some other young person to pick up a knife and a piece of wood and just try their best and have fun.
Young John Hane.
I I will be watching Young John as he travels on his carving journey and I will be expecting some big things from him. Probabilities are that he will have another 50-70 years to develop his carving talents. Who among us does not envy that? We can only hope that we do not lose him to “girls”! Young John, would you ever consider joining a monastery?
As to the question of whether or not it is possible to run a full time profitable woodcarving business in the 21st century, the answer is undeniably yes. It is being proved right here in North America all the time, by Joe Dillett, Ivan Whillock, Bill Judt, Teri Embrey, Chris Howard, Shawn Cipa, George Chau and Floyd Rhadigan just to name a few. Maricha Oxley of Austrailia, Ian Norbury and Chris Pye of Great Britain show that it is not only possible in America but worldwide as well. No, it is not easy and reputations and profit levels are built up over time, but it can be done. It requires determination, motivation and passion. Many carvers choose to use woodcarving as a part time income while holding down jobs in other chosen fields. It would be my advice if you are not willing to starve for a few years, to go this route in the beginning. Have an income to maintain your living standard and devote the remainder of your time to pursuing your woodcarving career. This method may lead to early retirement or a mid-life career change once your woodcarving income level catches up. The best chance of going directly from school to a woodcarving career, lies with exposing the young to woodcarving as a career choice so that they may spend their struggling years at a time when their responsibilities and income needs are less than after they have purchased a home and are in the process of raising a family. Don’t allow anyone to discourage you and tell you that it can’t be done. Woodcarving is not a dying art and there are plenty of people out there willing to pay for excellence. The first step is simple, get out there and do it! It can be and is being done. Wouldn’t that be so much better than looking back with regret that you never tried.
We woodcarvers ourselves must appreciate the possibilities that lie ahead for future woodcarving generations. Those that are unfamiliar with woodcarving or who do not value its presence in society are not going to care what happens to it. Woodcarvers come from all professions and from all walks of life, we need to infuse woodcarving into those professions and lifestyles so that others will have a much greater exposure to it. Imagine if every carver who had any type of involvement in other businesses insisted on only having hand carved signage, if all retirement and achievement plaques were hand carved, if every classroom in every school contained a woodcarving, if every accredited college offered woodcarving, there would be exposure to woodcarving as a viable and profitable art form. The responsibility rests on our very shoulders and it is not something that should be left up to others to care about. Do something, today and everyday, even if in a minor way, which will promote woodcarving to the masses. Get people involved. The future of woodcarving is at stake.
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