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JOEL Joel's Blog

How to Learn to Carve in the Modern Age - The Online Approach


The traditional way of learning to carve was via an apprenticeship. Some kid who thought, or whose parents thought, that he had some talent for sculpture would be apprenticed at age 14 to a master carver. Ideally, seven years later the kid would be able to carve well enough and fast enough to make a living. Very talented youngsters, such as the young Grinling Gibbons, even had sponsors pay for their training. Amateur carving became a popular hobby in the 19th century, when shorter working hours made hobbies possible and the Arts & Crafts movement made craft hobbies attractive.

When I was a young woodworker, you could study carving in three ways:
In person at a class:
When I studied at the Craft Students League, carving was always a popular course. In-person craft classes provide the opportunity to for a teacher (and your classmates) to observe you carving and suggest ideas and techniques to improve. It's certainly the best means of instruction. But nowadays many carving programs (like the Craft Students League) have closed, and realistic carving and decorative architectural woodwork have decidedly gone out of fashion. Longer work hours may make evening classes difficult, even if you are lucky enough to live near a class. One-time workshops and seminars can be treats, but they don't have the regular weekly practice that a local class can have.

From books and magazines:
This is a fine way of learning and still has tremendous value. Carving magazines are a great source of ideas and designs, overviews on tools, and written instruction. They fall short, however, because a picture or drawing, even a before-during-and after picture, cannot always illuminate the particular misunderstanding a student has on a specific area. I had that issue myself with lettering. I went back and forth over one paragraph and I still did not get how to do serifs without breaking off a bit. Obviously the writer (Chris Pye - who is and awesome writer of instructions) missed the particular situation that a thickheaded student could miss.

From videos -- VHS and television shows back in the day, and in the modern world, DVDs: DVDs are the best of the video presentations. You can see the project being made, and things that are hard to understand on the written page can be easily demonstrated. Professionally shot and edited videos, traditionally 45 minutes or longer, are expensive to make (and so their cost must be recouped) and generally designed for linear watching on a computer (or old school DVD player). Increasingly this is not how people consume "content" - viewers expect to be able to find short videos focusing on particular issues that can be watched on a phone or tablet.

But here comes an entirely new method.

A couple of years ago, Chris Pye set up a subscription website to teach carving. The site now offers several hundred videos, all short. You can watch them in a curated sequence, or individually to answer a question, or randomly to see what's up. This is how I sorted my serif problem. I just watched the snippet I needed on serifs and I was done. I didn't have to wait for a DVD to arrive in the mail, and I could watch it at my bench until I got it.

I realize the obvious rejoinder to the idea of subscribing to a service is, "Why would I pay for video when I can get it all for free on YouTube?" This is a valid point. There are three main advantages to subscribing rather than viewing on YouTube.

The first reason is coherence. If perchance you were to wake up one morning and have a burning desire to make a nameplate, you might type "how to carve letters into wood" into YouTube. You would immediately get a list of credible videos. Some might be good, but most topics get a mix of good, off-topic and waste of time. You could probably muddle through and learn a bit.

But this isn't what really learning carving is about. It's a question of coherence. A good teacher will want you to understand sharp tools, which tools, lettering fonts, basic technique, and then more complicated approaches. The whole point of a website devoted to teaching carving as taught by one person is to get the benefit of your instructor's worldview and best practices. You get the sequence of lessons you need to really master the breath of a skill, and -- because all the lessons are taught by the same person or school -- the approach is consistent. YouTube, for all it's many wonders, gives a platform for every approach and method on the planet, and consequently it lacks consistency and depth. I am learning to carve the Pye way. It's not the only way to learn, there are several excellent sites on learning to carve via subscription. But as I know from previous experiences, Pye's approach really speaks to me, and with each video and my practice, I am slowly building forward. I am not learning every possible way to do something, but one way, that works and can expand.

The second service that you get with a subscription is that you can ask questions. If you have a problem you can email Chris and get answers.

Third reason is one of support and belonging. By supporting a teacher's subscription service, you enable more videos to be produced. The money goes straight to the teacher and goes a lot further. Because there is a revenue stream, production values are professional, and the topics covered can have both breadth and depth. And at the same time you are belonging to something. The school of carving that Chris has established, even though it's virtual, has a style and a method, and you now have studied and learned in the same way as all his other students. If you get together for a reunion, you can sing the old school songs and understand and support each other's carving in a way that schoolmates can. And as a matter of fact, that's why I periodically write about his site. I am learning to carve; I really like his approach; and like a good alumnus, I want to give something back so I work the old school tie into all the conversations I can.

N.B. The videos in this blog are from several sample lessons Chris has put on YouTube.
Join the conversation
03/15/2017 Bob Easton
... and for those who prefer to BUY AMERICAN, appreciate carving in the classical style, and maybe have an interest in period furniture decorations, give a look at Mary May. Mary has been teaching woodcarving for over 20 years, and like Chris has an online school for about 4 years. With a new lesson every week, there's quite an accumulation of woodcarving instruction. All of it in a friendly style from a gentle woman who lives in classic Charleston South Carolina.

Find her online school at:
She too has a collection of free YouTube lessons:
Mary May is an excellent teacher with excellent resources too. Both use tools made in Europe. I think the beginner would be best served by taking advantage of the free material by both teachers and picking the teacher that speaks best to their way of learning.
03/15/2017 Joe
The internet and associated technology has the opportunity to help reach out and teach many in crafts. I wanted to get into hand tool woodworking. I settled into Paul Seller initial because of the YouTube and other free material and then later to the paid portion because I wanted the things you so nicely talked about.

If you tie in the possibility for live streaming, web cams, etc, there is so much that could be done also with instant Q&A and feedback.

Given the potential global audience, I can see where both and instructors can benefit.

I really like my 19th century tools, but it's the 21st century technology that is helping me to learn them.
03/15/2017 Jeff Polaski
I subscribe to Paul Sellers' site. I've learned a lot, but age is pushing me to smaller things.

Probably, this year will end with a subscription to Chris Pye's school, and/or Lora Irish's site. Two different schools of thought, but absolutely everything you just blogged confirms my intentions and the reasons for them.

I do spend time in every autumn in Southwest Harbor, Maine, where the Wendell Gilley Museum teaches bird carving. I attended, tried to follow up, but truth be told, there are so many feathers. Ye gads, all those feathers! Now I hint at feathers and go for form. Form over feathers. Chris Pye's work can accommodate that.
03/15/2017 Frank Ehrhardt
I second Bob's comments about Mary May based on firsthand experience. I own a couple of her videos, have taken some short courses from her locally, and have also traveled to her studio for lessons. Top notch instruction and I would be hard pressed to think of a nicer, more patient person.
03/15/2017 Stan
Joel, I too have been Pye online school fan for a few years. Learning the basic techniques like grip, sharpening, and cuts were what got me to successfully carve numbers and letters for signage. His various projects in relief and round are what I aspire to tackle next; just have to find the time. The Pye recommended lettering gouges and chisels are super quality by the way. Pye's knowledge and experience come across well in the video school so learning from him works for me.
03/16/2017 Tom Gill
Joel, I wanted to thank you for this blog that comes to me free and is of such fine quality. I look forward to it each time. The information is always informative and in good detail. The Chris Pye videos are outstanding.
One thing that came to my mind as I watched. Chris' voice and modest presentation make it easy to listen and learn. Some folks probably have good intentions and may have good information, but the way they carry out the presentation is off putting. Either they skip around and try to cover too much or they pass up important details. Good folks, I am sure, but they could learn a lot from someone like Chris Pye and his presentations......or your own. All excellent.
Comments are closed.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the blog's author and guests and in no way reflect the views of Tools for Working Wood.
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