The Diary of a Student Woodcarver


The Diary of a Student Woodcarver:
William Barsley talks about the progress of his final year and the transition from student to professional carver.

George Edwards carving a bust

This series follows my journey as I undertake a three-year diploma in Ornamental Woodcarving & Gilding at the City & Guilds of London Art School, turning my passion for woodcarving into a full time profession. 

With the end of the first term fast approaching, before we know it the degree show will be upon us (June 2018) and our carvings will need to be finished to the highest quality possible. There is a buzz of excitement around the Art School, with myself and other students enjoying the freedom of working on our own projects. Knowing that my time at the Art School is almost over provides great motivation to learn and absorb as much as possible before leaving and embarking on a full time career as a carver.

The Roly-Poly Bird
As mentioned in the previous article, I’ve been asked by Roald Dahl’s grandson to carve his new family crest, and have decided to undertake this as one of my final year projects. The crest is the Roly-Poly Bird from Roald Dahl’s books, sat atop a circlet of medieval clouds. So far, the carving is going well, with the bird’s body, tail feathers and medieval clouds all complete, and just the painting now left to do.
The biggest challenge I’ve faced with this project has undoubtedly been creating the delicate, twisting tail feathers that support the body of the bird without making them too fragile or difficult to carve. A whole range of ideas were suggested by the tutors, from carving them in lime wood jointed together, laminating sections of veneer, to cutting and bending sheet metal. In the end, we decided to bronze-cast the feathers to give them structural integrity that can support the weight of the bird and can also be brightly painted to match with the finished design. Learning to bronze cast was fascinating, and I will talk about that more in another article. 

The Roly-Poly Bird wings and beak jointed in

The back of the Roly-Poly Bird in progress

Feather sample for the Roly-Poly Bird

One of the great benefits of being at the City & Guilds of London Art School is that some amazing live projects are offered to final year students to carve. This year, in the woodcarving department, my fellow classmates are working on some incredible projects that I must tell you about. 

Borys Burrough
Borys is working on an exciting potential commission to carve a frame for an original Van Dyck painting, the portrait of Olivia Boteler Porter (c.1630s). The Art School was contacted by the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle, County Durham, enquiring as to whether any final-year students would be interested in this new project. As Borys has more than five years’ experience of working in a high-end antique picture framer’s, he was the perfect match for the project. His frame is a modern take on the 17th-century English auricular style and will be carved in beautiful Quebec pine and gilded to finish.

Borys working on a possible picture frame for an original Van Dyck painting

Wilfe Gorlin
The Art School was also contacted by a member of the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers, which was looking for someone to carve a dolphin coffee table. Wilfe Gorlin put together a beautiful design, with two classical dolphins twisted together to support a glass top. He is carving the piece in lime wood with silver gilt to finish. The joinery involved in this project is very complex due to the size and the fact the two dolphins are to be carved separately and then interlocked, but it’s going to look stunning when it’s finished.

Dolphin coffee table by Wilfe Gorlin

Xabier Mendizabal
For more than 300 years, the new Prime Warden of the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers has received a hand-carved coat of arms, which hangs in its grand hall. Every year since the 1980s the Art School has run a competition for one of the final-year woodcarvers to make this special piece. This year, Xabier Mendizabal was granted that honour, and has designed a beautiful model based on the heraldic description provided by the Royal College of Arms, but with a Spanish twist to reflect his roots, plus the addition of the traditional Fishmongers’ dolphins. The final crest will be fully painted and gilded. As well as woodcarving, there is a fantastic stone carving department at the Art School, and I wanted to quickly show you some of its projects as it’s interesting to see carving in a different medium. The projects include a copy of a gigantic boss from Lincoln cathedral, classical portrait busts, a powerful design of a griffin, copies of traditional stiff-leaf capitals, and a Romanesque relief, to name but a few. 

Xabier Medizabal working on his clay model of the coat of arms

Xabier starting work on the coat of arms for the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers

Carving is not always an easy path to follow professionally, as many of you likely know. On consulting with a number of carvers prior to enrolling on the course, this point was reiterated on numerous occasions. The common difficulties lie in factors such as: finding people who value your work and the time it takes to produce it; the worry of turning your hobby and passion in life into a career without spoiling it; and making sure the demand is there for your work.
The art of carving is wonderfully diverse and can be the basis of a whole range of careers – none better than another, but each right for the individual following their passion. For me personally, the main reason I chose to enroll on the carving course was to turn my love of traditional ornamental carving into a viable full-time career. This could be working in a traditional carving workshop (though these are now few and far between), or setting up as a self-employed carver and managing my own workshop.


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