Smoky Mountain Woodcarvers 


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From time to time I will add carving hints and ideas that I have collected over the years. These suggestions come from experience and from other carvers who generally had to learn these things the hard way. We hope you will come back to read these hints and let me know if they work and to send me any new hints, ideas and suggestions that work for you.

I will add items chronologically as I remember them and as I receive them.
Happy Carving!

Preparation & Care of Wood
Using Denatured ALCOHOL to Soften Wood
Some woods, such as walnut or oak, are very tough and hard to carve. You can soften the wood up by applying de-natured alcohol to it. The alcohol will not cause the grain to raise like water will. The alcohol, of course, will evaporate with time. Works great on end grain as well.

Some woods will be pithy and will fuzz up (some basswood) when you cut it or grind it. I have found that when you mix 50% de-natured alcohol and 50% white shellac and coat the wood, it stabilizes the wood and makes it very smooth to cut and grind. This mixture will not hurt the wood or cause the grain to raise up. You can paint or burn the wood after you finish carving
just like always. You will have to re-apply the mixture as you waste the wood.

Help for Preventing Pieces from Checking

It is worth leaving wood in your shop for some time before it, whether it has been air or kiln dried, so as to allow it to acclimatize and settle down. Ideally the wood should be stored for awhile where the carving will finally reside but this is neither practical or very possible. Be aware of dry atmospheres such as centrally heated houses such as most of us have. Keeping wood in a damp out-building or garage, and then bringing it into
a warm, very dry house is asking for trouble. Try to introduce what you need gradually - perhaps initially in a plastic bag- some time before you need it and keep an eye on it. Keep work covered in a plastic bag between carving sessions. Keeping damp rags or towels in the plastic bag with the wood also helps.

Help for Brittle Wood

For really brittle woods, especially in undercuts on relief carvings: mix a solution of 5 parts water to 2 parts of white (Elmer's) glue. Paint this on the weakened areas of the carving and allow to dry. The glue will penetrate the dry wood and add some needed strength while you work the areas around and underneath the area. (Editor's note: most any water soluble glue will work). Our thanks to John Mark Vaughn for this tip.

If you need to darken a piece of black walnut that isn't quite dark enough, paint it with a 10% solution of lye to get proper effect. The best way to do this is to work the wood to the desired dimensions first and then wash or paint on the solution. After drying the piece should be polished with fine sandpaper. Care must be taken not to make the lye solution too strong. Don't forget the microwave oven can be use to dry small pieces of wood - at low temperature. Several sessions at a lower temperature are usually better than one time at high temperatures. Splitting or Checking

If you are working on a piece and you are worried about it checking or splitting, store it in a plastic bag along with some damp towels or cloths between carving sessions. Also, be sure to not store it where there are wide temperature variations.

Need to fill in a crack or check? Mix sawdust from your piece with glue and put into crack or check. When dry, carve or sand and finish as usual. A piece of the same kind of wood can be glued into a large crack or hole and then carved to fit. Need a good wood filler? Use baking soda. Just fill in the crack or hole and add a drop or two of super glue. You can carve and paint it when it hardens. Thanks to Bob Lowe for this tip. Hairline crack in your carving? Pick up some acrylic paste from any art supply store. It can be colored to match any wood, using acrylic paints. This paste will fill into hairline cracks and can be piled up to about 1/8" thick without cracking. It can be carved and sanded like wood and will take any finish you wish. Often logs or even large blocks of wood develop checks from drying stress. Checks often develop in the most undesirable places. The usual remedy of pushing in glue and sawdust mixture doesn't work well. Try putting in the glue first. Work the glue down into the checks with a thin knife blade, then sprinkle the area with sawdust and work it into the check. The crevice will be more deeply filled.
Drying Wood

When air drying wood , make sure you separate the layers of wood with a stringer (narrow piece of wood) so that air can circulate between the layers. Also, coat the ends of the boards with sealer. Commercial sealers are available but you can also use latex paint or wax. The sealing should be applied to the logs as soon as they are cut. If not, apply it as soon as possible. The sealing drives the moisture toward the center of the board or log. This keeps the wood from splitting on the ends and helps the wood to dry uniformly.

Painting & Finishing
Matte spray can be used to seal your carvings before painting and after painting. Spraying on after painting will protect the paint when the carving is handled and will preserve the colors for years to come. Matte spray will not leave a shiny finish and dries quickly. Staining tip: Since most carpenter's glues are almost colorless when dry, it is often missed until the stain is applied. That tell-tale white spot or line shows up. To solve this problem, tint the glue with food coloring. A few drops of red or green will make any squeezed out glue highly visible and easier to sand off. Painting and antiquing your caricature carvings? Using acrylic paints, fill a small jar with water then add a small quantity of the paint. Apply the thin washes to your carving, drying between coats with a hair dryer to prevent bleeding. For the antiquing: In a quart jar mix equal parts of boiled linseed oil (buy at local hardware store) and mineral spirits. Darken to 'taste' with burnt umber artists oil paint. Dip or brush the carving with this mixture and blot off excess. It will soften the colors, fill in any voids in the paint and it will make the wood grain show through the paint. This will keep down the number of questions about being wood or not. Don't be afraid to experiment with antiquing solutions. You might try adding a small amount of walnut stain to your linseed oil instead of the burnt umber. A mixture of Watco Natural liquid wax with a small amount of Watco Walnut liquid wax added, also works well. Wax-based shoe polish is a great stain and filler for open-grained woods such as oak and walnut. Using a small jar place a small chunk of shoe polish with enough turpentine to liquefy. Rub the liquified in and wipe off as with any other stain. Choose your shades and, of course, test on a piece of scrap first to confirm desired effect. This coating will not interfere with subsequent finishes. What is Gesso?
Gesso is a paste made by mixing glue with plaster of Paris, gypsum or whiting is used as a base for painting on canvas or wood. It is useful for several kinds of applications because it can be textured, sanded smooth or carved. It can be applied thick (if it is to be carved or used to fill cracks) or thinned with water for a thin, smooth coat. Gesso serves as a good bond because it is absorbent for both oil and water based coatings. Gesso can be used for basecoat, say on a grey wolf. After burning the fur with a very hot tip, paint the fur with Gesso and while wet, scrub the fur with a tooth brush. The Gesso mixes with the charcoal and produces a nice shade of grey for your basecoat. Checking out your wood before finishing You can apply paint thinner to the wood before finishing and any scratch or other unwanted marks will show up. The thinner will not affect the wood. Secondly, take the piece out in the sunlight. The sunlight will show up these marks very well. Also use the sunlight to check out your paint finish. You will be shocked at what you see out in the sun. Don't carve after sanding
It is not a good idea to carve after you have sanded your piece. The  abrasive particles from the sandpaper will have a tendency to stay in the wood and can dull your tools.

Check out our sharpening page in this site: Sharpening - How we do it.  Smoky Mountain Woodcarving Supply Sharpening Page

Re-sharpen ONLY when necessary!

Once your tools are sharp - NEVER - re-sharpen unless you want to re-shape the cutting edge or there is a chip or break in the blade. Once the blade is sharp, only strop or buff your tool. Re-sharpening only wears away the metal unnecessarily.

Use a leather shoe string to remove burs from the inside of v-tools.

Miscellaneous Stuff

Improve Your Dust Collector with Pinesol

When critiquing the quality of your carving, try this: Cut a 1" round hole in cardboard or paper. Place over a section of your carving and review the area through the hole. This will allow you to focus on a particular area without seeing the whole project. A tip of the chip to Susan Bowers for the following: You can remove the residue from labels, tags and tape by applying alcohol to the spot. Let the application dry, then reapply as needed. When I use water-based paint, stain or polyurethane to a box (I chip carve) it distorts the way the cover sits. When dry I put a strong rubber band around the box; after a day or so the cover closes cleanly. Susan Bowers Cary, IL
Spray a light coating of Pine-sol on your dust collector filter. This will
attract lots more dust and increase the efficiency of your filter. Why and how does this work? Dunno, but it does. Maybe an engineering type carver out there can tell us. Oh yeah, it works just as well on your ac/heater filter in your house. Of course, your house will smell like pinesol for a couple of days (lemon scented helps). As far as I can tell, you only need to do this one time as you change or clean the filter.

Thanks to Robert & Barbara Speer for the following: I know this will sound sacrilegious to some people but , thin down the sides of you knife handle , especially on detail knives. You will be able to get closer to your work . A gentleman who has been carving for thirty years , mainly with a knife ,taught me this . Try it on an old knife. It really does help. 11/30/1998 2/3/1999 - Put carbon paper under your pattern as usual. Then place a piece of tissue over your pattern and trace your pattern. This will save your pattern leaving it like new. You can also see where you have drawn and where you have not. Take that one step further and place a thumb tack or one of those long pins through the wax paper, pattern and carbon so that if you do miss some of it you can relay all three accurately and complete the intended tracing. When making a pattern, place carving on a flat surface in front of a wall. Tape a piece of white paper on the wall. Place a light in front of carving. The shadow leaves a detail outline of the carving. Moving the lamp closer or further to carving shrinks or enlarges the pattern. Need dirt? Keep those used coffee grounds. Let them dry then mix with common white glue until you have a paste. Spread over your piece and let dry. This can be piled up to any shape for hills or just level ground. Hint from Paul Handley (3/2003) Use a computer extensivly in producing(and reducing) patterns. Use your scanner (set to line draw or illustration, and scan your pattern. Most scanners come with simple programs that will let you resize and flip your pattern to obtain a pattern for the opposite side of your carving. when you have the pattern the way you want it, print it. Now for the easy part. tape the pattern to your wood with the printed side against the wood. take a spoon and with the back side, rub it over the pattern a few times. The result is that the printer ink has transfered itself to the wood and you have your pattern. Throw away that pencil or stylus and the messy carbon paper. You dont need any special heat tool either to "iron" on the design, although you could if desired.

Your tungsten carbide burs clogged? Use a small torch to burn out the wood fibers. Doesn't harm the bur at all. You can also use oven cleaner. Spray it on and let sit for awhile and then use a wire brush to brush off the wood particles that the oven cleaner has brought to the top. Be careful using these methods and go outdoors to it. We recommend our cleaning kit in a bottle - Bit Cleaner

March 14, 1999 Tip from Ron the woodcarver (Ron Wells) Try carving eyes inside out. I often hear new carvers say that they have the most trouble with faces and in particular, the eyes. When carving eyes, the common practice is to start at the outside and carve the eyelids and wrinkles first, then carve the eyeballs last. What often happens is that you run out of space for the eyeball. Try reversing the process. Carve the eyeball first, then the eyelid and wrinkles. Eyeballs tend to be a little on the large side at first, but you will have room for all the parts and its much easier. After you get the process down pat, proportion will fall into place.

Face and Body Proportions Techniques
GENERAL GUIDELINES. for Face and Body Proportions
HEAD- Width of torso (sans shoulders)
SHOULDERS- One-half of face past head
HAIRLINE- One eye-length above eyes
FEET- Length of half of shin (or roughly the size of the forearm). HANDS- Fingerbase (across knuckles) half as wide as face
LEGS- Torso length (hip to knee)
TORSO- (hip to collarbone) 2 1/2 head lengths
FACE- If looking straight ahead, ends of face will stop at 1/2 of collarbone.
ARMS- Elbow ends just above waist (not hips)
FOREARM- if hand is on shoulder, wrist is at mid-shoulder.
HAND- (Fingertips to wrist) 3/4 of forearm
The human figure is an average of 7 heads high. The width from shoulder to shoulder is 3 heads width. The distance from the hip to the toes is 4 heads. The distance from the top of the head to the bottom of the chest is 2 heads. The distance from the wrist to the end of the outstretched fingers of the hand is 1 head. The length from top to bottom of the buttocks is 1 head. The distance from the elbow to the end of outstretched fingers is 2 heads. The eyes are halfway between the top of the head and the chin. The bottom of the nose is halfway between the eyes and the chin. The mouth is halfway between the nose and the chin. The corners of the mouth line up with the centers of the eyes. The top of the ears line up with the center of the eyes. The bottom of the ears line up with the bottom of the nose.

THE HEAD Divide the head into six parts from top to bottom. This will give you the:
0. The top of the skull,
1. The hairline,
2. The center of the forehead,
2.5 The brow,
3. The pupils,
4. The center of the nose bulb circle,
5. The bottom of the top teeth,
6. The bottom of the chin
The head sideways is one head high and one head wide.
The top of the ear is on line with the eye brows.
The ear hole is in line with bottom of the nose, and just above the backbone- skull pivot point. The bottom of the ear varies with the individual.
The average main face triangle touches the two pupils, the widest part of the nose and the point between the front teeth. To me this is an important character trait. The triangle goes from the center of the pupil, touches the outside of the nose nostril and stops at the center line, every bodies triangle is a little different. The smiling mouth lines up under the pupils, the two iris usually equal the maximum width of the mouth. Five eye widths span the center of the skull, everybody is a little different. The space between the pupils is always the same though, two and a half inches. The width of one eye is always equal to the space between the eyes.

THE BODY The neck is 1/4 of a head high. The shoulders are two head lengths (not widths) wide. The chin to shoulder line is 1/4 of one heads length. The chin to nipples line equals one head length. The nipples to the belly button equals one head length. From the belly button to the space between the legs is one and 1/4 head. The width of the waste at the belly button is one head length wide (not head width wide). From the hip [trunk] top triangle line to the space between the legs, is one head high and two head widths wide. Not more. The center of the body is the bend line, it is 1/4 head above the space between the legs and two head widths wide. Not more. The torso triangle is from the ends of the shoulder line to the center and the top line of the bend line triangle. That is the quarter head high triangle within the trunk triangle. The rib cage can be represented by an oval two heads high, starting 1/4 head length above the shoulder line. The upper arm, from the shoulder triangles outside edge, is one and 1/2 heads long. The lower arm is one and 1/4 heads long. The hand is 3/4 of a head long, equal to the average face. The chest side view is one head width wide at the nipples. The upper arm is one and 1/2 head lengths, connecting through the shoulder ball, a quarter head circle reaching the end of the shoulder line. Just below the leg space, the legs and the body are the widest. Two egg shaped heads, side by side, upside down, will fit in the trunk area. From the outside point of the bend line triangle down to the center of the knee cap is two head lengths. The bend line is the center of the body. The knee cap is a 1/4 head length circle. The calf muscle is higher on the outside. From the center of the knee cap to the ground is two head lengths. The ankle is 1/4 head high off the ground. The foot is one head length long. The ankle bone is higher on the inside.

The line from the tip of the nose to the cheek bones is a right angle. You can see what I mean if you take your hand and place it on the tip of the nose (the space between the thumb and forefinger is touching the tip of the nose) with the thumb touching your check bone on one side and you fore finger touching your cheek bone on the other side. The distance from your nose to the bottom of your chin is the same distance as from the bottom of your nose to the point between your eyes. Go ahead, measure and see.
IMPORTANT! Eyes are not holes! They are mounds and the eye socket is quite large. Take a look at a human skull to see what I mean. When you view your carving of the face from the side and you can see the other eye, the eye sockets need to be deeper. There are 2 things that keep growing as we get older: the nose and the ears. So, when you carve older people make the nose and ears larger. This is also great for caricatures representing any age. Your mirror is your best source for a model for a face. The facial ratios are the same for any face. Always start out with larger face proportions, particularly the nose, than you will have for the end result. This means that you should draw large when laying out the face. It is a heck of a lot easier to take away excess wood than to add it back.


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