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by Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin

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Can't/Don't, Never Have, No Talent Wood Carving!

Highland asked if I would do a product tour video of some wood carving tools, and I politely declined. Me demonstrating wood carving tools would be a little like Tiny Tim demonstrating a Stradivarius. Okay, that was a bit obscure… Here's the bottom line… I can't/don't carve; never have… no talent, no experience, no way. It would have been embarrassing.

Then one day this summer I picked up a double acorn and handed it to my wife and said, "That's us… just two nuts, but always together." She thought that was sweet and insisted I keep the conjoined acorns. I didn't have the heart then to tell her that double acorns are not all that rare.

I had an idea of carving a heart in a piece of wood and mounting the acorns inside. It would make a cute gift, however the problem was pretty obvious… I can't/don't carve; no talent, no experience… remember?

So as the holidays were rapidly approaching I called Highland seeking some advice. They helpfully steered me to a beginner's set of hand-push carving tools and a couple of gouges intended to be struck by mallet. I ordered them, and set out to make my first rudimentary carving.

I grabbed what I thought was a suitable block of wood. It was ash, and I have since learned that basswood is infinitely preferable for a neophyte carver, but that's what happens when you can't/don't carve. Ash has a Janka hardness rating of 1320 while basswood's rating is 410. Oh well.

On the block of wood I sketched a sort of stylized heart, but I found myself altering the sketch to match/blend with the natural grain lines in the wood. After finally achieving a sketch that I liked (I can't draw, either!), I started to carve. I know, I know, I should have practiced a little, but I figured if it got royally messed up there were other blocks of wood in my scrap bin.

Figure 11 - My first attempt at carving

As I began to carve, I noticed a couple of wonderful things. First, the blades seemed to turn and curve with not only my whims, but also with the grain of the wood. The wood seemed almost to invite the shaping, partly directing the blade and taking over where my own talent came up short. Second, I was having a lot of fun. When building a piece of furniture, artistic expression is realized over a relatively long period of time. Artistic expression when carving gives immediate feedback. Every push of a blade and stroke of the mallet reveals something new inside the wood and a new look on the surface. Not just fun… a LOT of fun!

Of course you folks that carve intricate floral designs or historical scenes or trains or tiny vines and leaves in chair backs and table legs will look at my first carving and laugh. But for a newbie carver, I was pretty happy. My wife was happy, too. She said it was the best gift I ever gave her. Could have saved a lot of money on jewelry over the years.

These are the tools I purchased:

Highland advised me that the Flexcut tools come "working sharp" and they do. Right out of the package they sliced through the ash like a hot knife through butter. I can't imagine what they would do on basswood! It turns out that touching up (honing) the blades after they start to dull is super easy with the Tormek, but I did use a slipstone by hand and re-sharpen one blade that I nicked a bit (a whole different story). That was pretty easy, too.

If you have never tried carving, do it. It is a blast! I'm looking forward to practicing, learning, and perhaps adding a vine and leaves to a project in the near future. And if you are an accomplished carver and want to make a snide comment about my heart and acorns, save it. I have enough trouble maintaining my self-esteem!

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Steven Johnson is retired from an almost 30-year career selling medical equipment and supplies, and now enjoys improving his shop, his skills, and his designs on a full time basis (although he says home improvement projects and furniture building have been hobbies for most of his adult life).

Steven can be reached directly via email at downtoearthwoodworks@me.com .

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