Wood is alive long after it has been cut. It speaks to us in a language that can be understood. It has something to say, and some of us have conversations with it.
Since I was a child, I loved knives and axes but had little knowledge of how people used them to make things. Everything I had seen was about people using power tools; making a
lot of noise and a lot of saw dust. In my mid to late 20’s I went to a school to learn bush crafting and primitive skills, and it changed everything. I saw the ingenuity and genius of our ancestors making everything themselves over countless generations, all with hand tools which were themselves made by hand.
Now we live in a world far removed from the full experience of making something by hand. Since the industrial revolution, products and materials have become more accessible and affordable, and more and more power tools have been developed. But the art of making things by hand risks being lost. It only takes one generation. Something made by hand is alive in a way a machine-made thing is not and will never be. For one thing, machines can’t follow the grain of the wood.
Wood carving is all about the grain. We even have a popular saying about “going against the grain.” When the work follows the grain, the wood is stronger, longer lasting and more beautiful. The wood speaks through the grain, and if you listen, what you make will be stronger and more beautiful than if you just impose your will.
If I make a curved serving spoon, I choose a piece of wood with a natural bend or elbow in it. The wood is in control of how steep or shallow that bend is based on how it splits along the grain. If there are knots or imperfections in the wood, I make them a part of the beauty and character though sometimes the piece may just not be suited for the idea. If I make a mistake, I ask how I can work it into the final design. It sometimes gives me ideas and character I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.
I don’t follow an exact plan when I make something. To me, that is too confining. I prefer to be free to express as the ideas take me or appear to me. I have an idea, and as I work I see different things in the wood that want to come out. Things I never would have thought up completely on my own. When I add wood burning to a piece, I also want the best parts of the grain to still be visible so there is a balance of what is burnt and what is natural. I always go for a natural look. It must look and feel alive to me.
Now let’s talk materials, wood. I use wood to heat my home as well as for carving and I have much love and respect for tress. I will cut or prune trees that need care so that everything
stays diverse, balanced and healthy. If you are cutting trees that aren’t on your property be respectful and get permission. Also know that there is so much wasted and available wood in the world, you just need to go find it. I talk to people and arborists that are cutting down trees. I look online for free wood and pick up free wood I see when out and about. Lots of people leave wood out for the taking instead of paying for disposal.
What I don’t find suitable for carving, I use as firewood. I use the wood chips from roughing out with the carving axe as mulch in the yard. The finer wood chips, from detail carving, work great for slow drying green carvings while still working on them. Currently I have birch and apple wood. The birch is from a friend of a friend’s yard and the apple was in our own yard that needed some long overdue pruning. Apple heart wood is beautiful and not easy to come by. It is also very challenging to work with. Green, it can crack and twist very easily if not worked correctly and dried can be like carving a rock.
Hand tools… You have to keep them sharp, and I mean really sharp. This is another skill for anyone using hand tools, it takes time to care for them properly: skills within skills. Often with power tools people just buy a new blade when it becomes dull. There was a time when everyone sharpened everything. I encourage you to delve into the world of hand tools, it is vast!
My essence is in my work. I am in my work. Disclaimer: for this reason, I don’t carve when I am in a foul mood. (Also that’s a great way to cut yourself. How do I know? . . . .Anyway, moving on . . . ) I also like to listen to audio books while carving. A carving is a story and listening to stories while carving imbues in the work too. Music is also good. I even carve in the house in the colder months because carving creates wood chips, not saw dust, easy to do on a drop cloth.
Useful vs artful. I tend to make more things that have a useful purpose over just an art piece. I love things that are useful and beautiful. Call me practical, but interacting with and touching a beautiful carving is more satisfying than just looking at it as decoration.
I hope you are inspired to have a more creative relationship with yourself and the natural world.
Check out more of Adam's work here.