Calamity Control


Calamity Control:
Dave Western talk about making mistakes on your carvings and how to avoid them

Dave Western talk about making mistakes on your carvings and how to avoid them

Just once in my carving life, I would love to go from start to finish on a project without making some kind of mistake. Although many years of bitter experiences have helped me reduce the number of errors I now make, I would be a liar if I said that I ever manage to complete any carving without some sort of mess-up. I hope I can help my fellow carvers avoid some of the pitfalls I have careened into and can remedy any you do make.

An ounce of prevention
Although I risk sounding terribly patronising, there are very few real accidents or errors in woodcarving. You may occasionally encounter a piece of wood with hidden defects or you may have a tool misbehave due to faulty material, but for the most part, most carving blunders are completely of our own doing. Sadly, the following list is neither sexy nor exhaustive, but I hope reading through it will help you get a better grasp on the first phase of mistake correction… not making them in the first place!  

Going too fast
Of all the mistakes generated in the woodcarving realm, I would hazard that carvers who simply work too fast cause the vast majority of their woes. In our rush to see progress, it is easy to mishandle the work piece and rush the cutting or lose concentration and cut too much or cut in the wrong area. I know because I’m as guilty as the next person of getting swept away by the excitement of ploughing through the wood, but it is always important to stay under control. 

Carving beyond ability
This is a tough one as it isn’t necessarily a bad thing to take on a challenge and learn some lessons the hard way. The trick is to know where that ‘one step too far’ is and try your absolute best not to cross it. Carving too far beyond your capability will lead to frustration and that can lead to errors in both judgement and technique. 

Pushing too hard
This error is often inextricably bound in with going too fast and not keeping tools sharp enough for the job at hand. You are always safer to take two or three shallow cuts than to try and push about a bit chunk in one pass. Combine pushing too hard with a dull tool edge and you have the perfect recipe for a carving disaster. 

Dull tools
A dull tool is a very dangerous tool, both for the work piece and for the operator. Tools that are not in peak condition are more likely to leave ragged, unattractive cuts in their wake. They are also far more likely to be pushed too hard, which increases the risk of breaking through the cut and damaging the carving and injuring the carver. 

Wrong tool
Often it is tempting to use the wrong tool to make a cut. Even though knives are versatile tools, they have their limitations as well as gouges and chisels. By using tools for purposes they were not designed for, you risk damage to the piece, the tool and even yourself. 

Bad light
If you can’t see clearly then you run greater risk of cutting errors. Lighting that is too dark or too bright should be adjusted by the use of blinds or auxiliary lighting and if you require glasses for optimum vision. Don’t be too lazy or vain; put them on! 

Working against the grain
If you are anything like me, you won’t be able to count the times you’ve split off an edge, torn up a section or got a tool jammed because you have cut against the grain. Wood is a capricious medium and its grain is seldom completely uniform. Take the time to learn each piece’s quirks and then try to work with them rather than against them. 

A knife slip
With the sermon out of the way, let’s concentrate on what to do when the air is blue and your carving has been stricken. If the mistake is relatively minor, such as a small section chipped or a cut that has veered slightly over a line, then it may be possible to simply rework the design a bit to accommodate it. Carving is a pretty fluid endeavour, so making modifications and adjustments on the fly should be thought of as part of the process. More often than not, a refining cut repair will be unnoticeable. 

An errant knife pass has knocked off a small section of the wolf’s ear. The damage is relatively minor and can be easily repaired

By simply re-carving the ear to a slightly greater depth, the damage has been removed. To accommodate the now deeper ear, a bit more of the shoulder was also removed

Split spoon bowl
Sometimes, the mistake can be a bit more serious and glue repairs become necessary. If the piece is broken off cleanly then it can be glued back in place by a number of methods. Here a split bowl is repaired two different ways.

1. A clean break can generally be glued back in place, leaving little evidence of the damage

2. Here, carpenter’s yellow glue (which I prefer to the white glue) is applied to the break before it is clamped back together. Epoxy or quick setting glue can also be used, but if it is possible to get good clamping pressure, I find the carpenter’s glue gives the strongest and least noticeable repair

3. If you can clamp the piece without causing further damage, it is generally the best way to achieve a tight, unnoticeable repair. Small fast action clamps are excellent as are the clothes-peg type plastic clamps. Be careful not to damage the wood with excessive clamping pressure

4. Sometimes it is difficult to use clamps to bind a break. Try a doubled up strip of masking tape to make a versatile and contour fitting clamp. It is possible to exert great clamping force with double layer masking tape, so avoid pulling too hard

5. If mechanical clamping is not possible, consider using a cyanoacrylate type rapid set glue. These glues allow the repair of awkwardly shaped breaks using only hand pressure. Note that some of these glues bond instantly so you have to be confident of your placement when you rejoin the broken sections

6. Gentle hand pressure will allow you to reunite a break if you are using quick setting glues. I generally hold mine slightly longer than manufacturer suggestions to give a bit more setting time

Small chip outs

1. A small chip out has the potential to cause a lot of grief if I have to reshape the entire area around this Celtic knot. Fortunately, it has not broken away completely, which would necessitate a panicky search for the wayward piece, so it is a simple repair

2. Using a thin stick, some carpenter’s yellow glue is worked into the break (being careful not to dislodge the chip). Avoid piling too much glue in the break, but make certain there is enough to cover the entire break

3. With another thin stick, gently press down on the chip to seat it back in place. Don’t exert too much force and be aware of any lateral movement

4. Once the chip as been set back in its proper location, a bit of masking tape holds it in place until the glue has dried. Note that this same operation could be done using quick set glue if you are in a hurry

5. Although this chip has dried slightly off a perfect setting, it is close enough that it can easily be reworked for a nearly invisible finish in the final product

Awkward breaks

1. A break always brings a lump to the throat and fills the air with various hues of blue. If it’s in a really tricky location like this one, it can be a nightmare. Fortunately, quick setting epoxies and cyanoacrylate glues allow even the most horrific fractures to be reset

2. For an awkward break like this one where clamping is pretty much impossible, I always resort to cyanoacrylate for a speedy and strong repair. Sometimes, if the wood is particularly porous, it may take two coats of glue, but generally one layer applied as per manufacturer instructions is all it takes

3. With the glue applied, the broken section must be swiftly and confidently rejoined. Be careful not to contact the glued section with skin or you will be bonded to your carving at more than a spiritual level. Press the sections together firmly but not excessively and hold for a bit longer than recommended by the instructions. I generally leave it cure for a few hours before working the area, although you can resume carving almost immediately if you are in a rush

Dealing with small cracks and blemishes

1. Occasionally, you might encounter small checks, cracks, soft sections, pinholes, insect marks etc., on the piece of wood you are carving. There are a myriad number of wax or wood based sealers, fillers and finishes that can be used to cover over these unsightly blemishes, or you can make your own with fine sawdust and glue preparation

2. I keep several little vials of super fine sawdust from a variety of tree species on hand in case I need to make my own filler. Usually I collect it from my random orbit sander so I know it will be as powdery as I can get it

3. When I mix up a batch for filling, I keep it about 50–50 sawdust and yellow glue. I like it to be fairly thick, but not solid… somewhere around the consistency of cold treacle

4. Use a thin stick to spread the fill mixture generously. Work it into the affected areas but leave a build up on the surface because the mixture will shrink as it dries

5. When dried, use a cabinet scraper or chisel to scrape the excess material away. I’ll often fine sand the last little bit, but I stay away from sanding too much as the mixture just clogs the paper and scraping looks better anyway

Dire straights
I always keep as many of the offcut pieces from my current carvings as I can. Hang on to them until the carving is complete as they can be an excellent source of material for patches if you need to affect a major repair. When a piece is broken and lost or the colour match is critical, a patch cut from the same board you are presently carving can be the perfect way to rescue an otherwise doomed project. No one ever wants to have to glue in whole sections, but if you have to do it then the job is always more pleasant when you have a piece that is of similar colour, grain pattern, weight, etc.
A carving mistake need not cause a coronary and it doesn’t have to signal the end of the line for your carving. Most are preventable, but when they do happen just stay calm and get out the glue and masking tape.


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