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JOEL Joel's Blog

Carving With Chris Pye - First Lessons


Carving With Chris Pye - First Lessons 4Rome as they say, was not built in a day. After the initial work on carving I realized that I needed a higher bench. So, in addition to my day job of selling tools and getting ready for the holidays, in the past weeks I have been setting up my carving workstation and tools. This was actually part of my first assignment from Chris, setting up a place to carve, assembling the tools I needed for the lessons, sharpening them up and getting ready.

I'm the sort of person where if something isn't convenient I won't do it so this part of the assignment was really important for me.

My solution was a small wooden top and a set of adjustable legs. It fits in my office nicely and when I work I can work on all sides. The big question was clamping. I drilled some 3/4" holes in the top. I'll drill more as I need them. Right now I've just got three. One in the middle for a woodcarver's screw, two on the sides for a clamp. While I love my holdfasts I would rather keep them out of the path of my carving tools and so far I have not managed to be able to do that. So I'm using a Lee Valley Wonder Dog - which works well and I like it so far but I am scouting around for something better. I want something faster. Don't know what that is yet.

Conditioning the half dozen or so tools that I needed tool took a lot of time and while I have cases for my big stones I need to figure out what do to with my slips. As a newbie I am still fussing with them. Chris suggested a pullout shelf under my bench for my stones and maybe another shelf for the tools. I'm not there yet but I will do something soon.

The first exercises as outlined on Chris's website are straight and curved cuts. The goal is to practice the basic handholds. I can do the cuts pretty easily but what I need to do is practice so that it's consistent. In other words I get no brownie points being able to cut 30 straight lines to a stop mark in a row UNLESS I can cut them all perfectly evenly with EITHER HAND. The wood blocks in the background of the picture are practice. I can easily see improvement. I know I'm not there yet, but I should be in a couple of weeks. The piece in the foreground is the end result of being about to do some sort of very simple design, using the basic handholds, and doing my best to carve it cleanly.

I'm studying with Chris using a combination of books, videos, email, and skyping. I'm basically a book guy, so that's my first line of attack, but the videos have been really helpful because no matter how well written a book is you can't beat an active video demonstration on things like grips and basic cuts (which is what I am learning now). Chris has put some videos on YouTube to give you more of a sense on how his video workshops work. The video amplifies a recent article in woodcarving illustrated, and I learned a lot from watching it (especially the wiggling he does at the end of the cut to cleanly sever the fibers. His talks on design are really important for me as I am so weak in that area. (Click here if the embedded video does not work).

So for the followup on this first lesson I reported into Chris and he quizzed me on whether or not I had seen the required videos (there are more on his website), which I had, and I showed him my workspace and the work I had done so far. I don't think he is particularly impressed with the actual work but he was very pleased with my overall progress.

"95% of success is showing up" - said Chris Pye quoting Woody Allen. And what Chris means I think is that my actual carving isn't any great shakes yet, but setting up the workbench, starting the exercises, getting practice with the tools, and having something to show him, is important because getting good is not about just reading the material, it's about finding the time, getting into the shop, and actually doing stuff. So I am pleased that he is pleased. And I am making progress. My cuts are smoother, getting more consistent, but most important I'm developing an understanding of how the tools feel when I make a cut and the feedback I need to understand to be able to control the tool. Chris can teach me technique and ways of seeing things, but tactile understand comes from practice and paying attention to the practice.

For my next assignment I have to condition a 1/16" #11 gouge and carve an outlined carving.

Join the conversation
11/22/2011 Lukasz Budzynski
Hi Joel!

Congratulation with the progress :)

Could You tell what where the tools that You conditioned? From the picture I think they are:

- skew
- 2x #3 sweep gouges
- 2x #6 sweep gouges
- 2z #9 sweep gouges

Am I correct?

Regards and waiting for more,
Thanks for pointing out Chris' site! I have his "Woodcarving Course" book, though I haven't done much with it yet. I took a carving class from Al Breed a couple weeks ago where we addressed some of the issues you brought up (see the link at my name for my blog post on it).

For an elevated work surface, I brought my bench-on-bench, using my Gramercy holdfasts to secure the work. The actual carving blank was glued to a plywood backing piece; the holdfasts secured the backing piece. That kept the holdfasts and tools away from each other. It made a very effective setup.

My real trouble area is sharpening. I've improved my flat-blade sharpening skills significantly over the past two years, but my carving tool sharpening skills are still pretty poor.
the tools I am using are: (all Ashley Iles)
39 x 5/16"
11 x 1/16"
6 x 9/16"
5 x 3/8"
9 x 1/8"
8 x 7/16"
7 x 1/2"
2 x 3/8"

Carving is like any other craft when you start out getting set up is time and money - but then you just coast. For regular woodworking I haven't bought a tool in years. It is kind of fun for me to be a buyer again.

I loved my bench on bench for carving but I wanted a stand alone solution - a Bench on bench on legs would work too. I also use my holdfasts for fastening things down but unless they are far from the work, like you have, I was just hitting the pad too much and damaging tools.

For sharpening check out Chris's course book (which we stock) and of course his videos.
11/25/2011 Eric R
Very intriguing.
I think I'm going to have to order these lessons.
Thanks Joel.
11/25/2011 Jean-Francois Prieur ( JF )
Hi Joel, The carving set you posted is the basic starting up carving set that chris suggested to follow him through this series of exercises. Also what kind of stones (oil or water) and other sharpening items that I would need to start. Could you suggest a basic kit to start and grow from.

Thank You
Big fan of your blog's
Thank you for your support of my blog!

In general for carving you want oilstones as they are harder and don't dish or groove nearly as much waterstones. I have a Arkansas and medium India stones pair that I have been using since the 1980's. It's perfect for this application (I'm going to do a blog entry on the stones in the future). For slips I have just about everything anyone has returned to TFWW in the past ten years. Way Overkill. I need to figure out a good way of keeping them convenient for use but that's another story.
By an large if you are interested in learning this stuff you might as well save oodles of time and money and get some books/videos.
Obviously since I am studying with Chris Pye I'm just following his recommendations. Chris's Video site above, and both his "Chris Pye's Woodcarving Tools, Materials & Equipment" (volume 1 especially )
and his "Chris Pye's Woodcarving Course & Reference Manual", both of which we stock, I think are required reading. Of course there is lots of other material out there. That the cost of a couple of books, a few videos, some lessons, etc. will greatly speed up the learning process and the cost pales in contrast to the cost of the tools and materials. I'm personally not a fan of learning by trial and error and that's why my lessons with Chris are so important to me.
12/27/2011 Steve Branam
So I pretty much went all in on Chris' stuff here, after looking at his site and based on recommendations I've seen in the past in online forums, as well as reading his Woodcarving Course book. I bought all his videos, Volume 1 of Tools, Materials, and Equipment, and his slip stones in three sizes (I already had good bench stones).

I'll be doing a full package review on my blog soon, but the short of it is that I really like his instruction. Commissioning the tools is time-consuming, but I ended up with carving gouges that practically drive themselves through the wood, leaving a curved surface as smooth as my best hand planing. That's a huge first step on the road to success.
You can see my solution to the bench- and slip-stone storage problem on my blog by following the link by my name above. Still in progress, but you'll get the idea. This would work well for a pullout shelf like Chris recommended.
01/12/2012 Roy Almaroad
Joel: Chris does not go into how deep to make the stab cuts to start these thumbnails. I'm hoping to use the videos to better my carving. Any advise on which ones to use or what succession to follow? I'm reading and following his book right now.
03/05/2012 Hal Brown
Joel enjoyed you video on circle saw and plan on making one. Been a woodworker for some twenty yrs mostly cabinetry and some furniture. Have always admired wood carvers and would like to learn the basic technique of carving, purchased Ashley Iles starter carving set from Tool forwoodworking.
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