Woodcarving – Trying something new but with knives

This year, on my birthday, I tagged along with my dad to a carving show held in our city convention center.

Craft shows tend to have a particular layout, and if they don’t have a common design, they at least have similar features. People come to these to meet up with other enthusiasts, buy a new tool or special materials for a project, get inspired, attend classes, enter contests, and attend classes by experts and professionals.

I went because I make a hobby of hobbies. Or you might say I have a passion for other passions. My dad and my granddad enjoy carving so it’s especially interesting to go see things they’re interested in.

I’d love to share with you the incredible work I saw there at the show, but out of respect for the artists and the photography and permissions policy of the show, I can’t share the pictures I took while there.

I can, however, provide a few links to see a half dozen other types of artistic carving styles! See the bottom of this post for those and what you’ll get to see.

Here’s the thing – I want you to try this.

If any of these styles sound appealing, there are wonderful, simple, cheap, and entertaining ways to do basic carving even if you’re afraid of sharp knives.

Wood, by its very nature, is hard and has a grain. Trees, especially those good for carving projects, have fibers that run from their roots to their crown. If you cut down these fibers, it’s more likely bits will flake or break off. If you cut against them, however, shapes and cuts come out clean and clear. When just giving this a shot, grains can be intimidating, so practice materials without a grain can be a good stepping stone and confidence booster.

You can try with floral foam – a densely packed green foam that comes in blocks and can be found at craft stores. It’s soft enough to carve with a butter knife. Just don’t grip this stuff too hard while you’re carving it or you’ll make dents with your fingers.

Soap is another common practice medium, and one I took advantage of at this particular show.

Along the side of the main area where the contest winners were displayed, one booth selling beginner carving kits had space open for beginner soap carving.

I sat myself down next to a cocky 10 year old and gave it a whirl. The couple running the booth gave me a bar of Ivory soap, access to a few simple wooden tools, and a template to get started.

I also got quite a lot of unsolicited attention – everything from jokes about my age to sincere observations along the lines of “we need more young people like you getting into carving”.

The median age in that hall was close to 60, despite there being a significant smattering of 40-50 year old couples looking around. There were even a handful of kids, including my 10 year old attention-seeker companion and another young boy who began his project and lost interest after it took more than 5 minutes.

Still, this is a hobby that has the unfair connotation as being for old men. Certainly, the templates and subject matter of a lot of the works lean that way, but a significant number of the contest winners were female. Yes, a project usually takes quite a bit of time. The skills to be effective and creative with it take a lot of practice (and wood, and error). It’s also one of those hobbies that will suck your wallet dry if you’re easily taken by tool-envy.

Woodworking is as ancient a tradition as they come. As a medium for sculpting, wood isn’t simple. Sculpture can be additive, subtractive, and kinetic. Carving, which took most of the show we attended, is subtractive, and this is what my dad and granddad do. You essentially take off all the bits from a block that don’t belong to your final product. Take too much and you’ll either have to adapt your project or glue it back on. It’s a point of pride to carve projects that are fully whole, while still dancing on the edge of instability.

Dad and Granddad do caricature carving. It’s like the cartoon artist doing portraits or single scenes in 3D. This isn’t to my taste, but I can see the allure of creating figures with a lot of expression and personality.

Featured in Woodcarving Illustrated, this cowboy is the creation of Dale Green.

They’ve also played around a bit with trick carving, the kind I mentioned that toe the line of stability, or that show off knife skills and look like puzzle games.

This is an example of a “whimsy” from VikingWoodCarving.com. Traditionally, these are whittled from single pieces of wood. No cuts. No glue.

Grandpa does chip carving and wood burning too. A chip carving is usually geometric, with smooth chips removed to create a pattern.

This beautiful piece by Roger Strautman won an honorable mention in the chip carving division of the 2010 Best Carving Design contest, put on by Woodcarving Illustrated.

Wood burning is just what it sounds like. Essentially, hot tools are used to “draw” on the wood. Those viral videos of painting with gunpowder began this way, I believe. Could be wrong.


The show I went to was pretty amazing. Some of the pieces on display, I found out, had been in contests all over the southwest and a few even across the country, raking in prizes and awards for the artists. Just about every hobby has a competition circuit, though I’m pretty sure my corner of Arizona isn’t high on the champions’ checklist!

I’m just getting to my list of a few of the different carving disciplines, but let’s revisit beginner soap for a second.

There it is! I made that! Is it goofy? Yes. Slippery? Yes, that too. But I spent a calm 45 minutes making it, despite all the smart-mouthed contest winners coming by to ask who the “older teenager” was at the kiddie table.


Types of Carving

Inlay demonstration by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston – https://youtu.be/IjXGu8v7kNo

Woodturning a tumbling bowl with Thomas Anton Geurts – https://youtu.be/BAe2kIVJ0QI

Figure carving a 2 inch figure from a block with Gene Messer –

Part 1 https://youtu.be/gn_W3eWf2cQ

Part 2 https://youtu.be/QkkEGaReAxc

Part 3 https://youtu.be/hKKTxjPOtgk

Conclusion https://youtu.be/IsWLd1B-E24

(If the videos are too long for you, understand that carving figures like these can take a lot longer than 45 minutes for people who have only been carving for a few years.)

Wood burning demo in Dylan’s DIY Workshop – https://youtu.be/fsKPmqLLjF4

Relief carving with Mary May – https://youtu.be/43dLqrKV9OI

Staff carving demo recorded by Viewwithme – https://youtu.be/o0n0vIi1Ilk

Nature/decoy carving with carveaduck – https://youtu.be/gqq9Oirm0zg

(If you’re not into ducks, this type of carving includes creating hyper realistic animals of all kinds, often with natural-looking set pieces for display.)

Bark relief carving with Schpoingle – https://youtu.be/uwW5kSaYOhg

Laser-cut/Scroll saw cut-out work with Super Tech – https://youtu.be/UulvXC1eja0

(This is less about hand-work and more about tools. These works can be about positive space like the video demo, or about negative space with an image or design cut out of a wooden plank.)


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