A Fine Line; Working With the Fragility of Wood

A woodcarving tutorial

Caril Chasens

When one designs a carving in wood, one must consider the fragility of the medium. The fibers of wood separate more easily than they tear. Wood breaks relatively easily in the direction that separates the fibers, the direction in which it tends to split.

Of course, the fragility depends on the kind of wood. In general, the carvability of wood depends on the strength of the fibers and on the strength of the natural glue that holds them together. Red oak is very hard, but it splits all too easily. Butternut is medium hard with little tendency to split. Birch is medium on both counts. Black walnut is hard and difficult to split.

One can design a carving so that the bits that most need strength lie in the direction of the wood fibers.

Some people design and carve extremely fragile works. If you do that, I will be impressed. I AM a woodcarver. And certainly there is history and tradition for artwork that is not intended to last. One can draw in the sand. But, in working with wood, I prefer to keep fragility to a minimum.

I have represented a fine line, wire, for instance, or a mosquito’s leg, as a cut incised in the wood. I might make the space between the lines concave or convex, to help make it space and not just a board.

wood sculpture carving

Some shapes are, by nature, not solid, so it is tricky to represent them with a solid shape. The trick is to use ones instincts, to fudge, to compromise. A mouse’s face, for instance; the shape is largely defined by a cloud of delicate hair. Neither the broadest extent of the hair nor the skin shape underneath will look like the mouse.

wood sculpture carving

A fishes’ fin, for instance, is translucently thin. One can, of course, simply carve it thicker, perhaps hide the thicker material at an angle where it is less visible. I have preferred to bring the space up behind the fin up to support it. The wood supporting the fin is not just there, it is an integral part of the composition. It needs to be worked into the compositions that it belongs there, so that it is as much a part of the whole as any other.

wood sculpture carving

In short, the limitations of wood are also opportunities. One more: The sharp ridges where gouge cuts meet form the subtle impression of fine lines. If the work is lightly sanded, these lines become much more prominent, and form or can be made to form very interesting and suggestive patterns.

Woodcarving and sculpture tutorials

Sculpture in Wood, Caril Chasens