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JOEL Joel's Blog

In Which I Start a Course in Woodcarving With Chris Pye


In Which I Start a Course in Woodcarving With Chris Pye 4There are many things in life that I probably won't get the chance to do and a lot of things that are worth trying to learn.
About three or four years ago I was having a chat with master carver and woodcarving teacher Chris Pye, and somehow I let it slip that I could not carve, had never carved (I hadn't done this carving yet), and had no talent in that direction anyway. Chris immediately suggested that I come to England (not a bad idea) and take some classes with him (also a fine idea). However as I pointed out there were two basic flaws in his proposal.

1 - I can't just pop-off on vacation for a couple of weeks and leave my wife at home with the kid.
2- I have no artistic talent whatsoever. "Really" I told him "I don't".

This latter point is important because the first question Chris asked me was "what was my goal in learning to carve".
I mentioned the following goals:

  • I love classic carving, and at the very least would love to be able to do a little letter carving.

  • I am interested in technique of all sorts and carving is a total mystery to me.

  • I am interested in improving my furniture abilities and small amounts of decorative carving - well done - could really open my opportunities to do some really interesting furniture.

  • As a manufacturer of tools knowing more about how the tools are used might give me some ideas on new tools that we can bring to market - either better versions of existing designs or new stuff entirely.

  • As a seller of one of the largest selections of different carving tools in the US the more I know about carving the better I can train my staff and the better we can advise customers.

  • The story of whether or not I can learn to carve might make, win or lose, an interesting blog series and might even encourage other people to start learning stuff they don't know.

On the down side I am very short of time and the only way I could even think of getting anything done is by a series of formal lessons. I read tons, I watch videos, but the structure of a class is important. While there are other fine instructors of carving in the US I find Chris's approach, which I learned from his books, directly in line with the way I learn. And that's really important for me - I need a teacher who speaks to the way I learn.

Chris thought that my lack of artistic talent is at some level about a lack of developing the basic manual skills, and since I am dextrous in other area, with good technique and practice, I should be able to make real progress. I can see that, I don't think I can become an inspired carver, but maybe with practice a competent one. And that would be a real achievement for me.

"How about" I asked Chris. "Can you teach me via correspondence?" This was an interesting idea and it turned out that Chris was thinking along those lines but in a slightly different way. He was in the middle of launching, in partnership with his wife Carrie, a Woodcarving Workshop web site that would allow students to watch his demonstrations, email in questions, and learn in perhaps a less structured way that a formal correspondence course would be. The basis idea is the same; being able to take a series of classes with Chris Pye, learn his methods, without actually having to be in the same room.
In my case I needed more structure but the material that Chris has on the site, along with his books will provide the illustrated technique I need to learn, and the one - one sessions, via Skype, will be used to give me the structure I need, and to allow Chris to review my work, and offer specific advise.
Of course this approach of one on one tutoring is more costly than just subscribing to the workshop, but for me I think it's worth the investment.

Chris didn't want to get started until his website went on line. And then he spent the summer teaching in Maine. As it happened he and his wife Carrie managed a short visit to New York City where he taught a quick short lesson to myself and one of my co-workers. Then we went to Katz's for lunch and then uptown to the most amazing walkabout in the metroplitain museum I have ever had. A visit that really fired me up to get this going and deserves a blog entry all it's own. Classes start next week.

The big risk of course is that I find I can't do the work. Chris is asking for a commitment of a couple of hours a week and I am scared I will find myself unable to put my regular job aside and find the time. This is part of the reason that I wanted formal lessons - I need schedules and structure. I also plan to blog about how I progress, which is another incentive, as I would prefer to avoid any public embarrassment. Stay tuned.

Join the conversation
08/09/2011 Lewis E. Ward, Figure in the Wood
Chris Pye has the best books on how to carve. In 1997 a friend needed a modest sign for her therapist practice. I purchased two books, Chris's book essentially guided me through the process of letter carving. The other book was more about design and examples. I have a good sense of graphic design so I didn't need that after all.
I used white oak not English and practiced on red oak and a small piece of white oak. When I had trouble envisioning, I did a practice letter. Chris advised that the triangles of the A,M,N,W and V have a way of chipping out. The advise he gave limited the number of breakouts to 25% not bad for a beginner making signs.
His books give reasoned and experienced sound advise. The pictures always show the description of the technique or affect and best of all never have the thumb covering the important information.
Good luck and find the time to practice.
08/09/2011 SFPaul
Good luck, I'll be following your progress. Surfing the web right now is really preventing me from doing what I'm supposed to be doing which is Italian homework and class is tonight. Schedule and I better get on it.
08/09/2011 Fred West
Joel, I am wishing you all the best in this endeavor. I love carving but am not yet have anywhere near the level I would like to reach. For me I only want to learn what will help me with furniture. I love seeing people that can carve ducks or bears or anything in the round like that but unless it is a finial that is as far as I want to go. Relief and chip carving will cover almost everything I want or need to know. I am really looking forward to following your progress. Fred
08/10/2011 Bob Easton
DANG! Why didn't you tell me? We could have made it a semi-private "cost sharing" lesson. [I'm less than 2 hours "up the road."]

You're right Joel, about Chris' new website being a good learning place. He is clear and concise, presenting each lesson as a relatively short segment of "here's what you need to know." Far better than other videos where one watches someone whittle on endlessly for hours.

Hope you kept a copy of Chris' Lettercarving book. It's listed in your inventory but out of stock almost everywhere. After having some hands on teaching directly from Chris, you should easily be able to follow the lettercarving book, which is a course in itself. It's the next best thing to having him in the shop. I'm currently about 3/4 through, with enough confidence to try a couple of small lettering projects.

So, set up your Bench on Bench and make time. We'll be watching for results.
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