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Whittling Wood

I’m guessing you may not have thought about whittling wood as a hobby. Yet if something’s never in fashion, it can’t go out of fashion, right?

I got a starter set from my niece as a present (see below), and quickly realised that sitting outside with a beer and chopping bits off a chunk of wood is a surprisingly pleasurable way to spend summer’s evening. I’d encourage you to give it a go, you might be surprised how relaxing it is.

Starter set

Whittling isn’t something I did with the kids, I wasn’t sure I was safe to be handling sharp implements, let alone supervise them (I still intend to buy a protective glove as I nicked my fingers quite a few times). However, I’m including it in the blog as an example of how you can get better quickly with a bit of perseverance.

If you buy a starter kit, you get a pack with a range of different tools in. Basically, they all do slightly different functions. Some carve deep lines, some scoop, some do a blunt edge, some curved. I’m sure you can google what they all do, but I found the only way to figure it out was to mess about with each one. The rough outline of an owl below was literally me just getting a block of wood and taking each tool in turn to see what cut it made. It was good enough to keep me going.

First attempt – an owl. Mainly just trying to figure out which tool does what.

I then moved on to trying to do a little figurine. You can see that first attempt below, carved and then painted. Its rough around the edges but by this time I was really enjoying it, and although its tricky visualising what you want to do in three dimensions, I decided to take it a bit more seriously and find out how to do it properly.

Mike Shipley’s books do carving people in much more detail, but here’s a quick overview of how I did mine.

As mentioned, the tricky bit is visualising in three dimensions. I think Michelangelo is mis-quoted as saying about sculpture something along the lines of ‘it’s easy, just take away the bits that aren’t David’; and whilst I’m sure he wasn’t referring to carving a small bit of wood in your back garden, there is a truth to it in that as you take layers away, it slowly gets closer to what you want to see. You just have to think of how making a cut might change the look of the other sides of what you’re doing.

Using a template can help with those first steps. I got one of a woodland chap and just shrank it a bit onto some card so it would fit the block I was working on. You can see below that it helps with thinking about what the character looks like from the front and from the side. If you draw around these onto the block, you’ve then got an idea of the proportions you want to achieve at the end.

POWER TOOL ALERT! – I don’t have many tools, I’m simply too clumsy to use them. In this case however, I did use a Jigsaw to get cut it roughly to size and shape, and get an overall outline. This did save a lot of time as the tools in the starter set are for intricacy rather than just cutting big bits off. I forgot to take a photo of that stage but it basically looked like the picture below but without the detail on the face, hair etc. Needless to say I was pretty proud of myself at this point and grateful that I still had all my fingers.

I basically then just worked away at the shape, taking an area at a time, and working it with the tools, from each side and then using sandpaper to smooth it off. The hat for example, you just keep rotating it until each side is what you want. The body and feet etc were easy enough, just give it some shoulders, arms, legs and shoes etc.

The face was the trickiest bit as I’m more used to painting where for example, you’re adding a layer each time you paint and the nose can grow towards you with the thicker layers of paint. With carving though, its the opposite – if you want a big nose, you have to leave enough wood where the nose should be. I found that hard to get used to, and made a few mistakes. It was also tricky to do ears as they were quite intricate so I kind of gave up on that and just painted them on at the end.

When I’d finished the carving and sandpapering it looked like this:

I then moved on to the painting, which was fun. I chose quite bold colours and used acrylics as I wasn’t sure how well they would stick. That seemed to work well.

Finally, I gave it a coat of clear wood varnish I had in the shed, and the finished product looked like the figure below. As I said, I didn’t involve the kids but they saw the various stages and were impressed with the final transformation with the paint. I was chuffed with it, and genuinely think you might be surprised what you can do if you give it a go.

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