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Wood Carving: The Secrets to Making Your Own Kitchen Tools, Home Decor, and More

In his upcoming book, "The Artful Wooden Spoon," Joshua Vogel of Blackcreek Mercantile & Trading Co. shares more than 100 handcrafted pieces from his workshop. In this interview with the master woodworker, we chip away at the mysteries of this discipline and whittling functional wonders of your own.

Photography by: Seth and Kendra Smoot
Reprinted with permission from "The Artful Wooden Spoon" by Joshua Vogel. Photographs by Seth and Kendra Smoot (Chronicle Books, 2015).

1. What is wood carving?

Wood carving is a particular part of what we largely consider to be "woodwork" in general.


Carving is less about joinery or putting many parts together and more about making one thing from a single piece of wood, finding shapes that exist inside, revealing a form from within the material.


Ultimately, it's a reductive, sculptural process, chipping away of bits from the old proverbial block. It is a craft that is very ancient and far-reaching in part because of its accessibility. Material actually does grow on trees and it is available regionally, if not in your own backyard. Few tools are needed, especially to start, and it can also be a great introduction to the world of woodwork, design, and sculpture in general.


2. What basic tools would you recommend for a beginner?

Sharpening stones first -- think about these as an integral part of your tool kit. A dull knife is worse than just useless, it is dangerous (I like to use "water" stones; at least get medium and fine). Then, much can be accomplished with a small 1-1/2-inch carving knife; this is the knife that I use for 90 percent of small projects, and I would also suggest a 3/4-inch gouge or a hook knife to start. I like to divide the work into "inside curve," or concave work, and "outside curve," or convex; each is particular. You will need a tool that will help accomplish each shape. A flat knife can work outside curves, while the hook knife or gouge is for inside curves. Start with the basics and add to your tool kit as your skill level increases and you know what you want to work on.


It can take some time to get the hang of carving, making cuts safely and removing material efficiently. Give yourself the ability to experiment with just what a tool will do with out having to realize a project. Make practice cuts to get the idea of how it works and if it is sharp enough, which it will not be because carving tools can never be sharp enough. You will not really get the hang of carving until you know how to correctly sharpen your tools.

Photography by: Seth and Kendra Smoot

3. What should we know about wood, and how it is used?

Choosing the right piece of wood, or scaling a project to match the material or tools that you have. For instance, you would not start with a whole log if you just wanted to make a toothpick nor should you try to carve a canoe with a pen knife.


Hard or soft, wet or dry are the main, most basic categories of material. There are many different types of wood to meet all different needs. In the end, all wood can be carved. Seasoned wood has previously been through a drying process, it can be carved and put right to use. Green wood is fresh cut and quite literally "wet." Although it may be easier to carve, it still needs to be dried after it is worked. Tighter-grained hard woods are more suitable for carving fine detail or holding small fragile shapes; softer more fibrous woods tend to work better for larger more gestural carving. I like being adventurous and trying material that I haven't used before. I am attracted to many qualities about a type of wood other than just its color. The nature and direction of its "grain," what kind of tree does it come from, what part of the tree it is from, its workability, durability, and its scent, are all important to me. Think about cherry as a tree and then as a wood, how about persimmon or holly?

Photography by: Seth and Kendra Smoot

4. What techniques should someone learn and eventually master?

I think that learning about the grain direction in wood and how to cut it is as important as any knife technique. Many techniques revolve around grain direction. Trying to cut against the grain is very difficult and can lead to great frustration. Learn how to read what the grain is doing. Learn how to safely change the direction of your cut, and to make similar cuts on the opposite sides of a piece to follow grain direction.


It is all easier said than done, but in beginning carving, I would suggest four basic types of knife cuts:


1. Large shearing type cuts, which use the full length and power of your arms to rough-cut shapes.


2. Thumb-assisted cuts, to and from the body, which gain extra leverage against the blade by getting your other thumb involved, used for heavy, controlled shaping.


3. Light paring cuts, made with the grain to refine the surface and describe edges.


4. Stop cuts, which can begin to describe inside corners or further define edge work.


5. What are the safety rules a person should abide by?

Some of the worst shop accidents can happen with hand tools. Tools are not toys in spite of what some people may say, or their attitude toward them. A healthy dose of respect goes a long ways toward staying safe while using edged tools, like knives and chisels. Keeping tools sharp can not be reiterated enough; making measured controlled cuts is also important. There are actually many instances where you will make cuts toward yourself, so that can't really be a rule of thumb. It is important, however, to think about how you are holding the work so that is comfortable, safe, and all your important parts are out of the way. I think a lot about where my tool hand will go if I slip through a cut. Some nicks are to be expected while carving, but cuts can be serious, so think before you put a lot of pressure behind your knife.

Photography by: Seth and Kendra Smoot

6. What would you recommend as a first project?

Why not just carve a wooden egg or a sphere? Carvings need not be specifically "useful" to be beautiful or provide a good learning experience. There are also many "useful" iconic shapes that are well suited to, and very probably began as, wood carvings: a basic spatula, an hors d' oeuvre fork, a small bowl or tray. I am, however, prejudiced toward the spoon as one of the best, most well rounded forms for learning wood carving. Spoons make great gifts, and it is one of the items that I find it is hard to have too many of. It is a universally understood shape that is easy to critique and requires the use of all of the basic skills and tools needed to investigate more complex work.



7. What are your "golden rules" for wood carving?

If you feel as if you are working too hard, you probably are. Think about what you are doing.


Keep your tools sharp, be prepared.


You can always take more wood off, but you can't necessarily put any back.


Try to relax and take your time.


I try to break objects that I am carving down into three basic parts -- this helps me simplify shapes and focus on work with particular tools. Think about inside curves, outside curves, and then where they meet -- which will be an edge or transition. An inconsistency in one may indicate a problem in the shape of another. I find that if I treat each part distinctly and I have resolved each part, the balance will be reflected within the whole in clean lines and surfaces that relate well to one another.


In the end, I try to keep in mind that no mater how long I have worked on a carving that it is only wood, there are many things that are much more precious in life, that the next project will turn out better than the last, and of course that everything is sweeter when it is shared.


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