Peter Benson talks us through a crucial stage of the carving process.
The production of any carving can be broken down into four parts. First comes the research to produce the pattern of whatever it is that you intend to carve. Second is the roughing out process to remove as much of the unwanted wood as you can, until the basic shape or form of the subject is recognisable. Third is adding all of the necessary detail and finally comes the finishing.
In this article we will look at roughing out and the tool in your collection that is most suited for this function. In general I always advise carvers to use the largest tool that they can handle comfortably for any particular task. This tool selection is inevitably affected by the strength of the person using it, so there can be no hard and fast rules here. Any size gouge with a sweep from a No.3 to a No.9 can be used, preferably with a mallet, and with practice it can remove quite large quantities of waste wood. If you want a finished surface that is relatively flat, I would recommend that you use a tool with a No.3 or No.4 sweep, but for a general-purpose roughing gouge I have chosen a No.6 gouge, 18mm wide.
This has a cutting edge equivalent to a slightly larger No.3 but will actually remove more waste material, cutting deeper into the flat surface of a block. The big advantage of this tool is that you can go as deep as the tool will allow, yet can also make very shallow or small cuts by not cutting as deep into the surface – something you cannot do with a tool of a shallower sweep. A No.3 or No.4 sweep will, however, work better on a rounded or angled surface where it can remove more wood and leave a flatter surface afterwards. When adding to your toolbox you might like to bear this in mind.
The first and most important part of roughing out is to ensure that the block is securely fixed to the work surface. This can be done with a variety of proprietary carving clamps, a suitable bench vice or even by clamping directly to the work surface. When I was a lot younger, I roughed out a horse that I was carving by kneeling on an extension of the block on the floor. If I say that I was also using a shoe as a mallet you can understand that my tools and experience were severely lacking. But I was still a schoolboy at the time!
Quite a high proportion of the carvers I meet nowadays are ladies and, no matter how we feel about equal rights and opportunities, there is no doubt that, in general, ladies don’t have the arm or hand strength of most men. As a result more thought about technique is probably desirable, rather than brute force, when approaching the roughing out process.
When getting novice carvers to rough out a large carving, my biggest problem is to persuade them that white knuckles and a grip of iron are not necessarily the best way to go about it. This part of carving is one that takes the most time and is very important to get right. If it goes wrong, the whole carving is likely to suffer. Therefore, you should pace yourself, removing only as much wood as you can manage comfortably. As long as your gouge is kept sharp and you have a mallet that is not too heavy, you should be able to continue carving for as long as you like, but stop before you get tired and you will be able to continue the next day.
One small tip when roughing out is to give yourself plenty of room and sit, or stand, in a comfortable position. Let the mallet do the work and don’t rely too much on your shoulder for power or you will suffer the next day.
You should always be aware of the grain direction when carving, as you will have more control when working across the grain but can remove more wood working with the grain. You may well be able to take advantage of the fact that the wood will tend to split when cutting along the grain as not so much effort will be needed. However be careful, as I have had some very unpleasant splinters in my hand and arms in the past, when I have tried removing large amounts of wood this way. The wood can split quite suddenly and violently. Although this may be to your advantage, more often than not it will happen quite unexpectedly, causing large pieces of wood to end up in undesirable places.
As with all the tools in your toolbox, the No.6, 18mm gouge has more than one use. It can of course be used without a mallet as a small or large gouge, depending how deep you push it into the wood. It can be used in a slicing motion to give a smoother finish or even upside down for convex curves. It will carve concave hollows as well as long sweeps for foliage or fabric folds. The only limitations that many carvers experience with a larger tool like this are down to them not keeping it sharp enough. It is quite a big tool for a novice and will take a lot of effort to get it through the wood if not kept regularly honed. As a result the carver resorts to using a much smaller tool requiring less effort but giving an inferior finish. The larger the cutting edge the better will be the finish attained.