Friday, September 2, 2016

Whittling away the hours: My First 3 Days of Wood Carving

With a little bit more money coming in from my new freelance work as an independent courier around Seattle for new on-demand businesses like DoorDash and Postmates, I've found myself back in the place where I'm thinking about that little bucket list of things in my head that I've been wanting to do for years, but couldn't because I've been too broke. It's not a super fancy list, as I rather enjoy some of the simpler things in life, but it does grow throughout the years as I find myself staring in the window or at the website, wishing and hoping. Among some of the less expensive adventures on my list, has been wood carving. Ever since I sat down one halloween evening and decided to carve out a profile portrait of my recently deceased AmStaff, I told myself I would try out wood carving some day.

That was almost 5 years ago, and for whatever reason, wood carving won out over any of my other smaller list items, and I can't say I made a wrong choice. Four days ago I found myself searching google maps for nearby craft stores, hoping to find my first set of wood carving tools, and some recommended basswood for experimenting with. The next day, I found myself a nice little Midwest Products 10 piece kit of carving knives for beginners. I was really hoping to see a few different options for carving knife styles, but there are only two stores between north Seattle and Lynnwood that even had whittling knifes. JoAnn's Fabrics is one of my favorites, and just so happened to be having a half off deal on the single set of knives they had, but didn't have any basswood or any other good beginners carving wood. Between the two stores I went to, they only had some decorative wood rounds and boxes that really weren't meant for carving. They were super cheap, so I grabbed a couple of things in the hopes that my eagerness to start carving could make up for the lack of ease in whittling something out of the wood I had to work with.

After spending that evening trying and failing to carve any discernable images into the wood I had, I resolved to take time the next day and go into the another store. One that I promised myself I'd never set foot in -- Hobby Lobby (Bleck!). I searched every hardware store in the area, and even swallowed my pride to search Wal-Mart for a few more specific knives and some size appropriate basswood, but none of them had what I wanted. Since I couldn't find it within myself to wait a whole week for these supplies to arrive if I ordered them from online, my only last ditch option was Hobby Lobby.

Braving the thick religious fog that permeated every square foot of ceiling to floor space in the store, I found the little section where they had wood carving tools, only to be harshly disappointed. I had seen online that they had the basswood chunks I was after, AND that this very location had all the wood carving tools a new carving could dream of. But of course, it was too good to be true (or it was Mercury Retrograde), they didn't have any of the items listed that I courageously traveled in for. This didn't help my level of disgust for the franchises executives, but I wasn't about to completely waste my first and hopefully last trip in there. As sad as I was too see they didn't have the tools I was looking for, or any good spoon sized chunks of basswood, I grabbed the small bag of basswood they had and then made my way through the myriad of faux Native American art and menacing rosaries, to purchase coveted wood blocks.

Since then, I've spent the last three days happily whittling away the hours.

To be honest, while I knew on several levels that I would like wood carving (that's why I wanted to try it out), I didn't have any preconceived notions about instantly being any good at it or wanting to keep working for long sessions of time. Though I absolutely do love it, and I've found already that even with cheap little set of tools and a few blocks of good wood, that I've already learned a few things that others might found useful.
1. YouTube Can't Help You
Okay, I'm exaggerating a little. There are maybe a half dozen tutorials on YouTube that can help you get started with whittling. Though out of all the viable ones, there were only two videos that weren't completely boring and/or unintelligible. Part of the problem is that if you're carving wood by hand with small knives and chisels, you need to know to look for Whittling Tutorials, and not wood carving tutorials. The other part of the problem is that most of the whittling videos available, show carvers who are using dremel's and other fancy electric tools. Once you search through the few videos that actually go into depth about electricity-free whittling, you'll need to wade through the narration to learn what little you can about the different kinds of basic cuts -- Chip Cuts, Straight Cuts, Pare Cuts, and Push Strokes. There were also a few decent videos on basic safety tips and gear, but outside of that, I would say that YouTube is not your friend if you're looking to get into knife whittling. I found the time-lapsed videos of larger wood carvings more insightful to form and shaping than any of the tutorials.

2. Oh Callouses...
Like playing guitar or playing intense video games, you'll find that your thumbs in particular, are quickly going to start building up callouses. There's really not much you can do about it, and really, you shouldn't want to. As painful as it can be to build up the callouses, they actually end of giving you extra protection and comfort down the road.

3. Go to Your Happy Place...
Because whittling is an art that can become highly dangerous when you rush it, the best thing you can do is allow your mind to reach a peaceful meditative state as you focus on using small purposeful cuts and strokes. Once you've roughed out your basic shape, do everything you can to keep your pace slow, steady, and deliberate. This way you're details will come out crisper, and your hand won't pay the price of a rushed job.

4. One Knife, Two Chisels...
That's all you really need in the beginning. It'd be nice to have a scoop and a few fancier tools, but out of the set of ten carving knives and chisels I bought, I've found that I mostly only use one of the carving knife and one of the woodcarvers chisel, with an occasional stroke from the left skew chisel for particular areas. I've tried out all the rest of the knives, gouges, and chisels with very results of crappy results. They obviously have uses down the road, but in the beginning, simple is better.

5. You're Finger Wasn't Meant to Be a Pin Cushion...
Even when you're being as deliberate and cautious as possible, there are still going to be times when the knife slips. My index finger has already paid the price five or six times. Thankfully none of the jabs have been too bad, but the closer you get to finishing your project, the more often your knife has a chance of sliding off track when you're trying to get in a particular cut. Even in those moments when you were sure you had your digits out of the path of destruction, you can still knick yourself pretty badly. After a few days of this, I finally broke down and grabbed some duct tape. Even just a few light layers of the tape is way better than nursing a big bloody cut.

6. Simple and Stupid...
Pick a first project that is super simple, but that has enough details to keep you interested from start to finish. Most google tutorials suggest starting with something like an egg. It doesn't sound to exciting, but it's a great way to start out. Turning a square chunk of wood into an ovular shape is no easy feat, despite the lack of intricacy, which can quickly teach you how to perform some tricky cuts without losing too much skin in the process, and without the usual level of disappoint that beginning woodcarvers find themselves sitting with after they realize they don't yet have the skills to whittle out that beautiful mustang. As a bit of a joke with my partner, I actually decide my first wood carving project would be a penis. At first, I figured I'd just carve out a rough shape, laugh about it, and then move on to a more interesting project. Though the more I worked on the miniature sized phallic member, the more I found myself enchanted with the idea of working in finer details, and getting everything out in proper scale. Like an egg, carving a penis doesn't require any rocket science or college art background, but it does take purpose, focus, and an artistic eye. By seeing my first silly project through, I actually figured out several unique techniques for carving out round edges and various bevels that I couldn't begin to explain in words.

My next project is going to be a spoon, which is another ultra simple design that I hope will help me learn another handful of lessons that can get me closer to carving out the much more artist projects floating around in the empty spaces of my mind. Not sure what I'll do after a few spoons, but there's no lack for starter ideas on our friend google, so I'm sure I'll be able to think of something.

If you're just getting into whittling, or you've been a carver for ages, tell me about your first few projects in the comments section below. I'd truly love to hear them!

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