Just Right

I had great difficulty learning to carve incised letters. It had nothing to do with the technique and everything to do with my perception of depth. My mentor, Warburton, overcame this by teaching me a popular method with German carvers. Using the profiles of the curved and straight tools, you make a series of stabbing cuts. By using different tools, you create individual letters, then words. The system works fine for small inscriptions. You need a comprehensive set of tools with all the curves and such to make it work well. Once I was away from Warburton’s shop and hundreds of tools, that system fell apart.
If your toolset consisted of about seven tools, as mine did, that system is impractical. It can take years for a carver to acquire a comprehensive set of tools. Proper tools are not cheap, and I wasn’t flush with funds. I had to develop an alternative that was economical in terms of tools needed, but that also looked good.
An advantage to a limited toolset is that you become adaptable, and learn how to extend your tools through technique rather than searching the tool rack for just the right tool. That method was what helped me stumble upon what I called the bolster method. After the sign was designed and the typography was drawn ( that’s how long ago this was – no computers for typography), you took either a carver’s firmer ( a chisel sharpened on both faces) or a knife and outlined the letter with vertical cuts. On curves, you used curved gouges or a knife. Using cuts of about forty-five degrees, you then cut around the letter. The key to making this look good was your cuts’ accuracy and how you finished the sign after the cuts were made. I’d varnish the sign. And then paint the sloping cuts one color and the body of the letter in some complementary color.
I abandoned this method once my depth perception for letters snapped in one day, and left me wondering where it had been hiding.

I forgot all about the method for years. One summer, I was teaching a course in carving in a town near where I live. One of the students was a gentleman who seemed to have an inability to grasp letter carving. Your cuts need to be at a consistent angle. His were never the same angle twice, and as a result, his lettering was beyond redemption. None of the practice exercises helped. At last, I demonstrated both the method Warburton had shown me and the bolster method.
I had ten students in the class, and they were all eager to move onto carving an eagle. I assumed he’d experiment after class.

About a year later, I received a call from my former student, asking me to visit and see his “carving studio.” Curious, I agreed. He had put up a beautiful shed that he had lavishly customized into a carving studio in his back yard. Inside was a workbench that I recognized from a top tool seller’s catalog. It retailed for about a thousand dollars. The racks below the bench held every single tool manufactured by the Pfeil company, an expensive Swiss tool company. Where I have perhaps forty of their gouges, he had bought out their entire collection. I asked him to show me some of his work. He pulled out a beautiful piece of Honduras mahogany marked up with attempts to letter in the bolster method. No two cuts were consistent. He then showed me another board lettered in the German method Warburton had shown me. It was passable, but barely. “Well, Charlie, what else have you been doing?” His reply: “I had to get the shop set up first, then the bench needed assembly, and It took a long time to order and rack all the tools. So I’ve just started. I was thinking of taking an advanced course with you.”
We sat down in the shop to kill for and had some cold drinks. Last year he had sold the software venture he was part owner in and now had time and money to pursue his passion, carving. Trying hard not to hurt his feelings I attempted to explain that he was not ready for an advanced course. I went over to his tools and gathered seven tools. ” A Scottish carver named Sayres wrote a great book on carving that only uses these seven tools. You can attain incredible mastery by working with his methods until you master them. Then you’ll be ready to use the other tools you own.”
It didn’t go down well, and I got up to leave. On my way out, he yelled at me: ” I’ll do fine on my own! I don’t need to work with turkeys like you!”
I replied: “There is an old saying – ” sometimes you have to fly with the turkeys, before you can soar with the eagles.” – so goodbye.”

I was glad that I had had to work long and hard with my few tools. Most carvers, I know, have lots of tools. They collect around you over the years like metal shavings around a magnet. But walk into a busy carver’s shop and look at the bench. She or he has about a dozen that are used all the time. Rather than searching for just the right sweep of gouge, you make do with your favorite.

A shop with all the tools neatly racked, and no chips are like a clean desk—a sign of a sick mind.

2 Replies to “Just Right”

  1. Yes, you can have all the tools in the world, but if you don’t know how to use them or use them properly, there’s no point.

    1. Right on target Sue. I don’t know how it is in Canada these days, but around here if a girl or boy doesn’t go to a technical school they never have a shop class. For many, that means not having any basic mechanical skills.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: