To carve efficiently, your tools must be razor sharp. They should leave a shiny cut through the wood, with no white streaks that indicate a nick in the blade. To determine the direction of the grain, look at the long cell fibers. The darker streaks of the annual rings can help indicate the direction of the grain. Wood is composed of longitudinal cells lying parallel to each other and running in a roughly straight direction from the roots of the tree to the leaf canopy.
Carve in a downward direction onto the parallel lines of grain. Note, if the wood seems to be tearing, and your tools are sharp, then you are probably going in the wrong direction. Turn around and carve in the opposite direction. You can also carve diagonally across the grain and even parallel to it, but if you carve upwards against the grain, it will only tear and splinter the wood.
Note: The grain in a board doesn't always follow the parallel sides of the board. It often angles slightly up or down, or can even take unexpected dips and curves.
Using a Knife
When working on a small carving that can be held in the hand, hold the wood in the left hand (assuming you are right handed), the knife in the right. Keep the left hand behind the knife and use the left thumb on the blunt side of the blade to act like a lever to control the cut. With the thumb stationary, rotate your right hand and wrist to make the cut. In this position, if the knife should slip, you will not be cut. the knife should never go flying out off the wood. You can also hold the knife as though you were peeling an apple. Just be careful not to nick your thumb.
Hold the handle in the palm of the right hand to push the gouge; hold the metal shaft with the left hand to guide the cut. With your left hand firmly holding the metal shaft of the gouge and resting on the wood, it can act like a brake so that the tool does not slip out of control when pushed forward. Use your body weight to help push the tool.
Remove as much of the scrap wood as possible with a band saw or chain saw. The most common mistake of first time-carvers is that they are not aggressive enough in removing material. They never get past the square shape of the original block. Don't be afraid to round out the basic shapes. Start with large U-gouges to remove the maximum amount of material. Establish large shapes first. A good way to do that is to define the major planes of the object being carved. Work from the large forms to the small details. If you have not established the large shapes, no amount of beautiful detail laid on top will save ill-defined forms.
Adding the Details
After the structure has been established, you can begin to put in the details with the smaller U-gouges. V-gouges and veiners (small U-gouges) help define smaller shapes. At this point, it is important to keep tools razor-sharp if you intend to leave the tool marks as the final texture. Any nicks in the tool's edge will leave white lines in the tool's cut.
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