Let’s Talk Carving…

Welcome to the unique world of Susan Alexander, a serious carver since 2007.

Susan is a member of Mensa, and the National Writers Union. She has three novels, numerous magazine and newspaper articles published both in the U.S. and internationally, holds a black belt in Judo, and is a woman of force, even when not holding a carving knife.

This blog contains material and TIPS for beginner and intermediate carvers from her column Let’s Talk Carving published in Carving Magazine and will inspire you, share news from the world of carving, and keep you motivated with new carving tips each month.  You can reach Susan at letstalkcarving@comcast.net, or leave her a Comment.

Now, sit back and enjoy your time here, as Susan shares information on carving with new carvers who have fallen in love with wood.

Helen Gallagher, blog designer
Computer Clarity

Posted in Carving History, Carving Tips, From the Experts, Getting Started, Let's Talk Carving | Tagged , , ,

Letters, we’ve got letters, Part 2

Read Part 1 of our recent letters here:

Part 2:

Please refer to all manufacturers’ label instructions for proper product usage.

A month ago, I had just about completed a small, intricate carving. I had put off carving the eyes because the wood that I had grabbed in an enthusiastic burst of carving excitement (and what wood you grab is a good topic for us to discuss one day), turned out to be soft in the eye area and I was not in the mood to play with it. And, yes, my tools were sharp.

I enjoy carving eyes, and usually do carve them early into the carving because as my friend and woodcarver extraordinaire, Joe Dillett, once told me, “The eyes give the piece its soul.” He explained that the body, with its language and motion should reflect the carving’s spirit, and you can’t know its spirit until the eyes are completed. (I am paraphrasing here).

So last month, I put that carving aside, eyes uncarved, and started another piece. Three days later, I received Arpad Juhasz’s “letter” which goes to prove that old Buddhist Proverb, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” They never said “how” the teacher would appear.

TIP: Arpad Juhasz’s wrote:  “This is something I have found helpful when carving small detail in some really brittle pallet grade mahogany. Take clear nail polish, the more liquidy the better. [Note: The cheaper the polish, the thinner it will be. Expensive nail polish can be thick as glue – not good for this application!]  … and paint over the area with it.  In a few minutes it will be dry enough to carve and the nail polish acts as a binder helping keep the wood together. I was doing eyes, about 1/4 inch wide, on a realistic face and needed to do eye-lids. The wood kept crumbling although my blade was sharp.  Using the nail polish let me do the delicate job successfully.  (Also helped with the wings of the nose).  Because the nail polish is clear, it did not mess up the clear polyurethane finish.”

Arpad, how could you know that I needed your help just then? Thank you so much for sending that email. Arpad also wrote that he carves at the Towson, MD, BYKOTA (“Be ye kind one to another,’ a biblical quote) Senior Center. That’s no surprise, Arpad. I have found, over and over again, that the word “kind” constantly crops up wherever carvers congregate.

Arpad’s TIP came at the perfect time and I was able to easily carve small, realistic eyes into soft wood.

Next, I had to paint the carving, and I dreaded it. I would have preferred to leave the carving natural, however, it was a commission and the person requested it be painted.

I have ruined more carvings through poor painting/staining techniques, then through poor carving (well, almost). It is so painful to ruin a decent carving that way.

Knowing that painting/staining carvings is not my forte, I collect different finishing methods from magazines and seminars. To say I have over 30 different methods of finishing a carving would not be an exaggeration. I have tried most of them, and haven’t loved any of them … until … (there really should be a drum roll here) I received a “letter” from Grant Reagan, and I’ll be darned if that old Buddhist proverb didn’t prove itself twice in one week.

TIP:  Grant Reagan wrote:  “At craft and office supply stores you can purchase water mixable linseed oil to use with acrylics. I use it instead of water and it gives much better results. … If it is a little thick just add a little water. I would try it on a scrap piece first. Then let it dry for a day or so to make sure you get the results that you want before you try it on your carving. The one I have been using is Artisan water mixable linseed oil, the only difference is the thickness.

… After painting I use spray shellac I get from Home Depot to seal the carving. Unlike Deft it has very little fumes and is much safer. It does give a high gloss however. Paint the oil and acrylic mix on to bare wood, then after it dries, spray on Deft or shellac. I even overkill by using Howards Feed and Wax and then buffing with a soft cloth. Mixing raw sienna and oil gives you a near perfect flesh tone. Experiment with amounts.”

I never thought oil and water could be mixed, but the very next day I was at Hobby Lobby looking for water mixable linseed oil. While I couldn’t find the exact product Grant used, I did find two products that had “water mixable oil” on the label. See Photos 2 (left) and 3 (right)…

I emailed the photos to Grant, and he suggested I use Photo 2, although either would work.

Saturday evening, I tried Grant’s painting technique, and it worked so well that I painted until early Sunday morning. It was wonderful and easy! For the first time, I had control over the paint and was not crossing my fingers that I wouldn’t ruin a carving that I worked on for weeks. At 3 a.m., I was dancing in the kitchen, with the blinds down or the neighbors would have thought I was high on paint fumes.

I usually spray a painting with Deft prior to painting it, but I didn’t have to do so using Grant’s technique. In fact, I didn’t even experience any bleeding. If you want to see grain through your paint/stain, this is not the technique to use. If you just need to paint the carving, then this is a terrific technique. I had Deft, so I used that as a finish, in lieu of shellac. It looked so great, that I totally forgot about applying Howard’s Feed and Wax.

Grant, thank you so much for taking the time to send me your painting method. I will be using it for years and am grateful you allowed me to share it with my readers.

I recently came across a quote from Beethoven, “Don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets …” That’s what this column is all about … forcing our way into the secrets of carving, discovering and then sharing them.

All the TIPS we share, as woodcarvers, bring us closer to understanding the beauty and intricacies of wood, control of our tools and ways to improve our carving skills. I believe that woodcarvers are so giving with the secrets of their art is because although we are all on the same journey, in the end, we ultimately carve each piece alone.

Amazingly, in this one column we have discovered quotes from Buddha, the Bible and Beethoven that apply, in one form or another, to woodcarving.

“Find a wheel and it goes round, round, round as it skims along with a happy sound.”

May your wood be plentiful, and your tools stay sharp. Take care, carve lots, and always remember to smile.

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Letters, we’ve got letters…Part 1

Reading emails from readers, I found myself quietly singing the words to an old song, “Letters, we’ve got letters, we’ve got lots and lots of letters,” If you can remember what variety (that should give you a hint) show started with a female chorus singing those words, then I know how old you are, and you know my age, too.

Of course, there was no question that my brothers and I watched whatever TV program my parents watched because then there was only one black and white TV in the house, five channels, and should you even think of whining, you would hear, “Do you want me to give you something to cry about?”

By age 7, I thoroughly loathed Lawrence Welk, but loved Perry Como and always hoped he would sing my favorite song, “Find a wheel and it goes round, round, round as it skims along with a happy sound.”

I could never have guessed that years later my “happy sound” would be sharp steel slicing through wood, and the “letters” from his opening song would be emails I receive from carving friends around the world, offering me TIPS and words of encouragement.

Two columns ago (which, actually will be a year ago when you read this because I’m writing this in December, and you are reading it in spring) (here’s the link),  I offered methods of finding carving information from past magazines.

Issue 40 Holiday 12You may recall, that I suggested using sticky notes (of all types and sizes) to locate articles. This column resulted in three carvers writing me to describe their method of finding old magazine articles.

The first “letter” (as Mr. C. would say) came from Andy DiPace, Show Chairman & Webmaster of The Lancaster County Woodcarvers. Andy, a hobby woodworker for over 30 years, always wanted to learn woodcarving. After retiring in 2002, he and his wife moved to Lancaster County where he discovered that The Lancaster County Woodcarvers offered a beginner’s woodcarving class. That was the first class LCW gave, now they offer numerous classes throughout the year.

TIP:   Andy wrote: “For my method of cataloging magazine articles, I use MS Excel as a data base. I [enter] … the name of the article, type, publication, issue and page #. When a new issue arrives, I take the old one and enter the info in my index [data base]. The great thing about this method is that you can sort the listing by any of the columns, and you can also search for any specific article or type of article. The magazines are then placed in cardboard magazine boxes (Staple sells them), the box has a label with the publication name and the issue #s in that box.”

Andy goes on to say that at his beginner’s class, his teacher was club member Jay Herr. At every meeting Andy attended, Jay would always find him and offer help. Andy wanted to echo something Jay said when asked how he felt about woodcarving: “I have met the best group of people since I started carving, my only regret is that I didn’t start carving sooner.”

I couldn’t agree more with either Andy or Jay.

This second letter came from retired dentist, Ian MacLachlan, who has been carving just over four years, but if you count how long he’s been “carving” teeth, then Ian’s been carving for over 35 years.

TIP:   Ian wrote: “I take a few minutes after reading each magazine to determine which of the articles I liked and might carve at a later date. Then I open my carving file on my computer and add them to the list. [Ian uses Microsoft Word]. I subdivide the list by subject: Santa’s, caricatures, animals, etc. I also devised a short-hand code for each publication. Lastly, I add the magazine’s date of publication and/or volume number. As long as I keep the various magazines separated by title and in chronological order, it works great for me … my memory not being what it used to be.”

Ian, I think most of us experience this same issue.

Ian continued, “Once the new “hope-to-carve” articles are on the list, I save it and, once or twice a year, I print an updated list and place it in the file boxes with the magazines as a master index. As I read new magazines and want to add more articles, I just hit “return” and place the item where it belongs in the list.” Ian keeps his list alphabetized.

Ian and Andy’s TIPS use the computer. However, some of you don’t use computers, or like me, have intentions of creating a magazine index using Word or Excel, but never find the time.

If you don’t use a computer, don’t want to use my sticky note TIP, or if, like me, you just never “get around” to creating that index, Paul Klein sent me a “letter” that is the next best thing since sliced bread (No – I am not THAT old, that was my mother’s favorite saying).


Photo 1

  TIP:  Paul wrote: “I just read your article in Issue 40 of Carving Magazine and thought I would give you my TIP for locating magazine articles. You may have already heard this, but what I do is make copies of every issue’s index and file them in a binder. [See Photo 1 at left]. Whenever I want to find a particular article, I just look at the index copies rather than thumbing through every issue of the magazine. I read three different carving magazines … so my binder has a section for each magazine. Hope this helps.”

Thanks for taking the time to write me, Paul. If that isn’t the easiest method of keeping track of magazine articles, I don’t know what is! Plus, when I do find the time to create an index of magazine articles, I’ll have all the information right in front of me.

Part 2 of Letters continues here>>

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Winners from 2013 International Woodcarving Congress

Marc Featherly, a professional photographer, photographs the Congress exhibit pieces every year. The carvings are absolutely amazing, and Marc’s photographs are simply excellent.

Here is Marc’s contact information should you wish to order copies.
Marc Featherly
E-mail; mfeather@iwu.edu


1) Best of Show-Fred Cogelow; Wilman, MN; “Questions and Answer Equality, Profound”
2) First Runner-up Best of Show-Josh Guge; Gilberts, IL; “Butterfly Catchers”
3) Second Runner-upBest of Show-Terry Brasher; Petersburg, PA; “White Buffalo”
4) Intarsia, Second in Group and First in Class-Robert Wills; Coal City, IL; “Standing Egret”
5) Pyrography, First in Group and Class-William Tuchscherer, Neenah, WI; “King of the Knight”

If you have never attended the International Woodcarvers Congress, now is the time to consider arranging your schedule for 2014 and join us for the 48th Congress, held in Maquoketa, Iowa the second full week in June. Photos of the 47th Congress are posted on the AWC website. Just go to awcltd.org and see what you missed this year.

Posted in Inspiration, Intl. Woodcarving Congress, Let's Talk Carving, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Insider Tips on Entering Carving Competitions

Carol Leavy, the woman in charge of setting up the exhibits for the International Woodcarving Congress, had a number of suggestions that we all would benefit from should we decide to submit a carving to any competition. Since I saw this as an opportunity for us to see the exhibit process from the “inside” I asked Carol to give us TIPS for future competitors. Here’s what she said.

“I had the honor of being in charge of setting up the show after the judging process. During this time, I discovered many points that may be helpful to competitors submitting their work to any shows/exhibits. This is your artwork; you have some control over how it is best displayed.

• If your plate, relief, or carving would best be displayed on a stand, send the stand with your piece; do not assume that they have stands.

• Make sure your stand/base/backing is stable. If your piece is mounted on anything, mount it securely.

• If your piece is not mounted to your stand, it is important to put your name on your stand.

• At times, wall space is not available. Therefore, do not assume your piece will be hung. If your carving shows best when hung with a backing, you can do that. This will ensure you get the appropriate background for your piece.

• Artists choose different “hanging” methods for their artwork. Returning your artwork to you in the same condition you entered it, is a priority. If there are doubts as to the stability of your “hanging” method, your piece may not be hung, to keep it safe.

• If you send a rotating base, insert new batteries and mark your name on the base.

• If you send a lamp, insert a working bulb and mark your name on the lamp.

• If you send something like a nightlight, make an attractive display that those people setting up the display only need to plug in. Often there are limitations to the venue, so be wise and prepare as best you can.

• Do not use double-stick tape. Your piece will be handled several times, by many people, as it travels through the judging process and the show set-up. Judges examine all sides of all carvings. They cannot see the bottom of bird’s feet without turning it upside down. To fairly judge each piece, they must be able to handle it without the risk of it falling off its base.

• Rules in Congress state that all carvings must be securely attached to their bases and the same rule often applies to other competitions.

• When shipping your piece, keep in mind that the person unpacking it has no idea what treasure they will find. To be safe, consider this suggestion: After you pack your piece, and before you seal the box, unpack it. Better yet, have someone else unpack it. This ensures there will be no problem when it is unpacked at the exhibit hall. You can even go a step further by including a photo of your artwork on top of the packing material to give those unpacking your piece an idea of what is inside. This will help make the unpacking process go smoothly and ensure that your artwork is not damaged.

You have spent many long hours to create a piece of art. By following these suggestions, you can ensure that it arrives safely and is showcased as you would want it to be. We, at Affiliated Woodcarvers Carvers (AWC), work hard to ensure that each piece is handled properly and that it is returned to you as we received it. Thank you and I look forward to seeing your entry next year. Carol Leavy.”

Posted in Carving Tips, From the Experts, Intl. Woodcarving Congress | Leave a comment

Puzzle-Lock Flooring

Talking about good-hearted carvers, last June I attended the International Congress and was taking a class from Marty Dolphens to learn how to carve a Native American Bust. It was a wonderful class. One of the best parts was that I was fortunate enough to find myself carving next to Paul Terpening who was also taking Marty’s class.

Marty’s class would last for two days; the next three days I would be in Vic Hood’s class. Both classes consisted of mallet work while standing on the concrete floor. I wore good shoes, but knew my knees and feet would be complaining at the end of the day, much less at the end of five days.

Floor TilePaul is an experienced carver who knew what he was doing. He had brought puzzle lock soft tiles to class. I had never seen them before.

You never know how much room you’re going to have in any carving class. The beauty of these tiles is that they interlock in any way required, they are easy to transport, and on the Internet I found them from between .98 to 1.59 s.f.  Not only would these be good to your knees when taking a class, but also they’d be great for under your workbench. Since they come apart, cleaning up wood chips would be easy, and you could make them fit into whatever size floor space you had available.

The second day of class, (didn’t I tell you carvers are the best people around?) Paul was kind enough to bring me four tiles from home, which he let me use both in Marty’s class and in Vic Hood’s class.

Paul – you are a good person and a terrific carver. Thanks for being so thoughtful to someone you only knew for a day.

Posted in Carving Tips, Household items, Safety | 4 Comments

Smooth Finishing/Sanding Technique Using Boiling Water

I mentioned, in the last column, that the U.K. Magazine, Carving, published an article about me. The best thing that came out of the article was that I made friends through emails from carvers living in the U.K.

On especially fine carver, Timothy Williams, sent me four photos of his carvings: a Squirrel, a Pirate, a Medieval English Court Jester, and the Flying Lady.


Timothy’s use of different types of woods is amazing. We’ve been emailing back and forth, and the first question I asked him was about the types of woods he used. Here is his response.

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA“To answer your questions about my Flying Lady carving, which was based on a Ferdinand Preiss art deco figurine and the Rolls Royce car emblem, the woods I used were camphor laurel for the dress, and lime for all body parts. The base is sycamore, walnut and masseur birch. All parts are dowelled and glued using epoxy resin glue.

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAMy Pirate carving is what I call a construction carving as I carved it in separate parts. The woods I used were walnut, box, olive, ebony, pine, lime, sycamore, oak and camphor, some sheet brass and aluminum.”

I asked Timothy about his carving education. He said that he has always appreciated anything made by human hand whether craft or art. He’s been carving for 12 years and is self-taught. He’s experimented with different finishes, picking up techniques from books, magazines, Internet, and DVDs.

I had to ask Timothy about his finishing technique. This is what he emailed me.

TIP: “Please mention that my techniques originally came from Ian Norbury. Before sanding, I finely tool the work with chisels all over. The better the tool work the less hard work the sanding process is. My sanding process is the same as Ian Norbury’s.  I start with 80 grit to eliminate all tool cuts, then on to 120, 150, 180, and 240. Ian said he stops at 240 grit, as he can’t see the scratches, but I go to 320 grit and finish there. Also, I brush on boiled water between each grit change. Once dry this raises the grain and shows up imperfections and makes sanding the next grit easier. Effectively this process is polishing the wood as the grits get finer and finer and when the finish is brushed, on the grain of the wood will show up beautifully.”

When Timothy told me he used boiling water, I had to ask him to expand on his sanding technique as I had never heard of it before and wanted to share it with you. Here is his explanation.

TIP: “With the boiling water process, I just boil the kettle and pour it into a metal pan, so it is just off the boil or very hot, then apply it with a brush. The heat of the water accelerates the swelling up of the fibers and grain left from the previous grit. Once dry carry on with following grit. The whole sanding and boiled water process may seem tedious, but I think it is worth the effort, as you will end up with a superb finish to your carving. When sanding is complete, I brush on a good quality polyurethane matt or satin varnish, depending on the sheen you want. Most carvers would not want a gloss finish to their work. When the carving is coated with varnish, wipe off excess thoroughly, then using a clean, dry brush, brush over the whole piece, to remove excess, and any from the details, to stop it puddling in the corners. Repeat 3 times, letting it dry in between coats. This will leave a protective coat with a soft sheen and enhance the wood grain. All this information, I picked up from Ian Norbury’s books.”

Wow! I can’t wait to try Timothy’s process. Looking at his carvings, the time spent using his finishing technique is well worth the effort. Thank you, Timothy, for sharing your technique with me and allowing me to share it with my fellow carvers. As always, no matter where carvers live, they are the kindest, most giving people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting – whether in person or through email.

Posted in Carving Tips, Carving Tools, Finishing/Painting, From the Experts | 2 Comments

Does Your Carving Club Have an Embroidered Patch?

Hi all – Carol Leavy, Affiliated Woodcarvers Carvers, Publicity Chairperson, is  working on a raffle project for Congress.  It will be a blanket / quilt with embroidered patches from woodcarving clubs. She already has quite a few already, but it will take a lot to make this quilt amazing.
Carol will have the Congress logo embroidered in the middle of a good quality wool blanket and then sew the patches around it.  She has been getting patches from all over and told me it was great fun to see all the different ones that the clubs have designed.
If you have any questions, you can email Carol at: bleavy@mchsi.com
Here is Carol’s address, if your club wants to be represented and has an embroidered patch you’d like to send her.
Carol Leavy
1 Heather Lane
Clinton Iowa 52732
Keep carving!
Posted in Intl. Woodcarving Congress, Uncategorized | 2 Comments