Whittling away at carving styles


Mankind, since the discovery of edged tools, has whittled and carved many articles from their daily lives, including wood, soft stone and other easily worked mediums.

For centuries many artisans have indulged into this realm of art, and during the last several decades, the interest in this form of expression has escalated many times over.

Every large and small town has an organization delving into the several aspects of wood carving and sculpting.

Things to carve. Similar to other interests, progress has brought diverse machine-assisting devices. Modern developments have added new materials to the carving list, including plastics, fibrous mediums and large ostrich eggs. Even food has been carved: cheese, bread dough and even ice.

Anyone in Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts probably carved soap at one time or another. Dillinger even escaped from prison in the 1930s by fashioning a pistol from soap.

Biblical times. Jesus of Nazareth was termed a carpenter. Actually the original Greek word for this trade meant “smith,” an artisan.

Wood was quite uncommon in that region during Christ’s era, and in the Bible it was imported for most large buildings. Carvings are quite common in the scriptures. Rachael is reported to have stolen her father’s graven images.

The recorded wood species were chittin wood (a cedar or box wood), cedar, ebony, fir and cypress.

Ebony had a notable history during biblical times. This wood was brought to Tyre before 1000 B.C. At the time Jesus was a young man in Nazareth, and wood carvers possessed about a dozen necessary tools – rule, chalk line, compasses, a leveling tool such as a plane, saw, hatchet, knife, files, awl, sharpening stone and hone, drill, mallet and chisels.

Progression. For the past several centuries, wood carving has survived in the designs of furniture, principally in flat chip carving.

Wood carvers were quite numerous in 1835 in Bavaria. More than 2,000 families earned their income from this art form, and schools were founded to teach this skill.

In the 1930s there was still more than 1,000 active carvers and one large teaching institution. Only appreciation of the individuality of mind and hand work, the beauty of the people’s creative ability, and the joy derived from the articles’ completion has retained the art.

Whittle. As mentioned earlier, furniture manufacturing has been a major factor that has kept wood carving (and some wood carvers) alive.

Whittling, as it is termed, does not have any recorded history. It is possibly a natural reaction of human desire to add decoration.

Knives have always been made in many forms of diverse materials and employed for many duties. Carving is what we are interested in at this time.

The proper use of a knife and its careful use for carving is the first step in learning the art. Many historical personalities were whittlers, including Abe Lincoln, Calvin Coolidge, Will Rogers and many others.

Reference. Even if a person is a novice, remember all carvers were beginners at one time; only practice creates perfection.

Back in 1940 when yours truly became interested in carving again, there were only a few instructive manuals or books for reference.

My top references were E.J. Tangerman, who often published articles in Popular Science, and John L. Lacey, who published a book in 1951.

My only tools in those years was a good Barlow knife, steel files, rasps and sandpaper. I kept my tools in a cigar box, and that was all I needed.

Carving today. Today there are hundreds of publications pertaining to carving plus many tools.

Wood is easy to obtain. Cabinetmakers and pattern shops have scraps that are quite satisfactory. Sugar and white pine and poplar can be obtained there. American Linden and other fine woods are for sale many places.

Tools required in the beginning can be found in kits, and often Big Lots and Marc’s have low priced sets. A more expensive similar kit is sold by X-acto. There are many more expensive knives, however the kits indicated will suffice.

Local group. Locally, the Olde Quaker Towne Carvers is active in Salem, Ohio. In July 1993 I began instructing and advising wood carving. I still do that every Tuesday at the Memorial Building, 1-3 p.m. A limited number can still be accepted.

During the 10 years the group has been together, more than 60 individuals have enjoyed the art of carving in Salem.


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