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Wood carving is a form of working wood by means of a cutting tool held in the hand (this may be a power tool), resulting in a wooden figure or figurine (this may be abstract in nature) or in the sculptural ornamentation of a wooden object. The phrase may also refer to the finished product, from individual sculptures, to hand-worked mouldings composing part of a tracery.
Some of the finest extant examples of early wood carving are from the Middle Ages in Italy and France, where the typical themes of that era were Christian iconography. In England many complete examples remain from the 16th and 17th century, where oak was the preferred medium.
From the remotest ages the decoration of wood has been a foremost art. The tendency of human nature has always been to ornament every article in use. Just as a child of today instinctively cuts patterns on the bark of his switch freshly taken from the hedgerow, humanity has from the earliest times cut designs on every wooden article fit for carving. The North American native carves his wooden fish-hook or his pipe stem just as the Polynesian works patterns on his paddle. The native of Guyana decorates his cassava grater with a well-conceived scheme of incised scrolls, while a Loango Bay native might re-envision his spoon with figures standing up in full relief carrying a hammock.
Wood carving of a hobo by Carl Johan Trygg
Wood carving of a hobo by Carl Johan Trygg
Figural carving seems to have been widespread. The carving to represent one’s god in a tangible form finds expression in numberless ways. The early carver, and, for that matter, the native of the present day, has found a difficulty in giving expression to the eye, and at times has evaded it by inlaying this feature with colored material.
Basic tool set
* the carving knife: a specialized knife used to pare, cut, and smooth wood.
* the gouge: a tool with a curved cutting edge used in a variety of forms and sizes for carving hollows, rounds and sweeping curves.
* the chisel, large and small, whose straight cutting edge is used for lines and cleaning up flat surfaces.
* the V-tool used for parting, and in certain classes of flat work for emphasizing lines.
* the veiner: a specialized deep gouge with a U shaped cutting edge.
* sharpening equipment, such as various stones and a strop, necessary for maintaining edges.
A special screw for fixing work to the workbench, and a mallet, complete the carvers kit, though other tools, both specialized and adapted, are often used, such as a router for bringing grounds to a uniform level, bent gouges and bent chisels for cutting hollows too deep for the ordinary tool.
* Gouge — Carving tool with a curved cutting edge. The most used category of carving tools.
* Sweep — The curvature of the cutting edge of a carving gouge. A lower number (like #3) indicates a shallow, flat sweep while a high number (like #9) is used for a deeply curved gouge.
* Veiner — A deep gouge with a U shaped cutting edge. Usually #11 sweep.
* Chisel — A carving tool with a straight cutting edge (usually termed #1 sweep) at right angles (or square to) the sides of the blade.
* Skew Chisel — A chisel with the edge at a "skew" or angle relative the sides of the blade. Often termed #2 sweep.
* V-Tool or Parting Tool — A carving tool with a V shaped cutting edge. Used for outlining and decorative cuts.
* Long Bent — A gouge, chisel or V tool where the blade is curved along its entire length. Handy for deep work.
* Short Bent or Spoon — A gouge, chisel or V tool where the blade is straight with a curve at the end, like a spoon. Use for work in deep or inaccessible areas.
* Fishtail — A gouge or chisel with a straight, narrow shank that flares out at the end to form a "fishtail" shaped tool. The narrow shaft of the tool allows for clearance in tight areas.
* Back Bent — A spoon gouge with a reverse bent end. Used for undercuts and reeding work.
* Palm Tools — Short (5"), stubby tools used with one hand while the work is held in the other. Great for detail and small carving.
* Full-size Tools — 10" to 11" tools used with two hands.
* Tang — The tapered part of the blade that is driven into the handle.
* Bolster — A flared section of the blade near the tang that keeps the blade from being driven further into the handle.
* Ferrule — A metal collar on the handle that keeps the wood from splitting when the tool is used with a mallet. Some tools have an external, visible ferrule while others have an internal ferrule.
* Rockwell Hardness — A scale that indicates the hardness of steel. A Rockwell range of 58 to 61 is considered optimum for fine woodworking edge tools.
Selecting a wood
The nature of the wood being carved limits the scope of the carver in that wood is not equally strong in all directions: it is an anisotropic material. The direction is which wood is strongest is called "grain" (grain may be straight, interlocked, wavy or fiddleback, &c.). It is wise to arrange the more delicate parts of a design along the grain instead of across it, and the more slender stalks or leaf-points should not be too much separated from their adjacent surroundings. The failure to appreciate these primary rules may constantly be seen in damaged work, when it will be noticed that, whereas tendrils, tips of birds beaks, &c., arranged across the grain have been broken away, similar details designed more in harmony with the growth of the wood and not too deeply undercut remain intact. Probably the two most common woods used for carving are Basswood(aka Tilia or Lime) and Tupelo, both are hardwoods that are relatively easy to work with. Oak is a lovely wood for carving, on account of its durability and toughness without being too hard. Chestnut (very like oak), American walnut, mahogany and teak are also very good woods; while for fine work Italian walnut, sycamore maple, apple, pear or plum, are generally chosen. Decoration that is to be painted and of not too delicate a nature is as a rule carved in pine.
A wood carver begins a new carving by selecting a chunk of wood the approximate size and shape of the figure he or she wishes to create. The type of wood is important. Hardwoods are more difficult to shape but have greater luster and longevity. Softer woods may be easier to carve, but are less resistant to damage. Once the sculptor has selected their wood, he or she begins a general shaping process using gouges of various sizes. The gouge is a curved blade that can remove large portions of wood smoothly. For harder woods, the sculptor may use a chisel and mallet, similar to a stone carver. Smaller sculptures may require the wood carver to use a knife, and larger pieces might require the use of a saw. No matter what wood is selected or tool used, the wood sculptor must always carve with the grain of the wood, never against the grain.
Once the general shape is made, the carver may use a variety of tools for creating details. For example, a “veiner” can be used to make deep gouges into the surface, or a “v-tool” for making fine lines or decorative cuts. Once the finer details have been added, the wood carver smooths the surface. General smoothing can be done with tools such as “rasps,” which are flat-bladed tools with rippled edges. “Rifflers” are similar to rasps, but round in shape for working in folds or crevasses. The finer polishing is done with sandpaper. Large grained paper with a rougher surface is used first, with the sculptor then using finer grained paper that can make the surface of the sculpture slick to the touch.
After the carving and polishing is completed, the artist may color the wood with a variety of natural stains, such as walnut or linseed oil. He or she may also apply a final coat a varnish, a resin-based sealer that will protect the surface and give it a shiny appearance. Objects made of wood are frequently coated with a layer of wax, which protects the finish and enhances the shine.
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