I recently had several weeks that I could devote to a very unique carving project. Bob Van Dyke, of the Connecticut Valley School of Woodworking generously gave me a large block of mahogany (8″ x 10″ x 21″) that a friend had given him. It must have come from a large beam because there was evidence of small nail holes, but it was definitely old mahogany – probably Honduran.
In its block form, it was difficult to tell what quality it was. The surface was rough and the grain was a complete mystery… until I began to carve. And then it began to sing…
I had been walking past this block of wood in my workshop for nearly 6 months. It was a bit intimidating, and I tried to ignore it. But it kept taunting me. I continued to pass by it, pretending it did not exist. Since I am often carving commissioned pieces, I don’t have the opportunity to carve my own designs much… and when the opportunity does come along, I’m not sure what to do. This piece of mahogany was begging for something unique and special, and I needed to wait for the right time… for inspiration. And it just wasn’t coming. I also knew that when I began carving on this piece of wood that I would need to focus on that, and nothing else until it was finished. With my schedule as crazy as it often is, that’s another difficult task.
When I finally had a few weeks to “play”, I decided I needed to begin – even if I wasn’t quite sure where it would go. I hoped that the design would emerge as I began to carve. I clamped this magnificent block of mahogany between my bench dogs on my workbench. I imagined that I wanted to carve a woman with curling, flowing hair. But that was the extent of it.
The process of carving directly into the material without referring to a model is called “direct” carving. A woman was in there somewhere. I just needed to begin chipping the wood away and find out where and who she was.
I could have taken an aggressive grinder to remove the “waste” wood, but decided to proceed with mallet and chisel. Without having a specific design, how do you know what is “waste” wood, anyway? This process of slowly chipping away helped me to discover the design as I carved. Not knowing exactly where she would appear made me over-cautious to not remove too much wood too quickly and then limiting my design. Once it’s removed, that it!
To use the most of this square block, I decided to make her face and nose fit into one of the corners and it took 2 days to get the general “block” shape off – with a LOT of chiseling. And then it was just patiently chipping away to find her face. Carving the hair could come anytime, but the face was the real challenge. I also left a large block of wood under her chin where I was possibly going to have her hand gently rising up touching her neck – maybe. I wanted to leave the option open, just in case… but was not committing to anything at that point.
Another decision I made at this point was to have her face tilting upward slightly. My desire was to create a peaceful woman in a gentle, relaxed posture. This created challenges that I did not realize until I began shaping her face, as all the details in the face are affected by this slight upturned angle. I had a mirror in front of me as I was carving, so I guess she naturally ended up having some of my features. Looking at an actual face helps tremendously in carving details.
Her eyes were closed, which added a particular challenge in itself (how do I use myself as a model with closed eyes?). I also discovered that a woman’s brow and eye have subtly gentle shapes. I was having great difficulty getting her eyes to look right, so in frustration I decided to step away from my carving and run some errands. I was waiting in line at the bank and began studying the features of the bank teller. Aha! She was about 25 and the area where the brow flowed into her eye was exactly what I was looking for! She must have thought I was a bit odd because I kept staring at her the entire time I was waiting in line. I immediately went home and corrected the issues I was having with her eyes.
For the next 2 weeks I spend many late nights completely consumed with bringing personality into this block of mahogany. I carved her hand gently touching her neck, and carved curl after curl spiraling around her head. It was the most fun I have had in a long time. I was truly in my element and the wood was some of the most beautiful carving wood I have ever carved.
A commission of carving a historical Charleston fireplace was soon coming up and I knew I had to finish her before starting into another project, or she would never get fully finished. She would be one of those “I’ll finish that someday” projects and I have enough of them around my workshop. She seemed quite upset that I would soon be putting her aside, so she decided to slip out of the bench dogs, leap off my workbench, scrape down my shin and land on the top of my foot. So much for a peaceful spirit! Fortunately she wasn’t damaged, but my shin and pride were what hurt the most.
I worked several more late nights finishing the curls on her hair, and finally had to put the chisels down. I decided to lightly sand her face and hand to create a satiny, smooth surface that would contrast with her hair. I then put 2 coats of thinned down shellac (2 parts denatured alcohol with 1 part shellac) on her, lightly sanding her face and hands between coats. I also put wax on her and buffed her skin to a satin finish. I was very pleased with her (and she was pretty pleased with herself).
Shortly after putting the final touches on her I was sitting in church and she revealed her name as “Grace”. We all need a bit of Grace in our lives…
Check out photos of my journey with Grace and recent projects on my Instagram page, and Happy Carving everyone!