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Friday 1 March 2013

Teaching woodcarving- Some thoughts about courses and tutorials in Bristol and beyond

About a month ago I was reading one of Chris Pye's interesting e-bulletins (you can go to his website by clicking on this link). He made some thought-provoking comments about woodcarving tutorial videos on Youtube:

"This arguably doesn't need saying but it's important: just because you see something filmed doesn't mean it's something worth watching; or that the techniques you see are worth emulating. Observe carefully. Test things out.
It's very easy to upload video clips to Youtube and, while there's a lot of good stuff to be seen, you need discretion in what you watch or, rather, what you take on board as a technique."

It reminded me of something that I've been thinking about for a while - how can you tell in advance whether a woodcarving tutor (or, indeed, a tutor in any other craft) is any good?

A few months ago, I dropped in on an open workshop being conducted by someone who had set themselves up as a woodcarving tutor. They run courses for paying customers at their studio as well as running workshops elsewhere, including in the town centre. They seemed like a nice person and all was fine until they held up a 'V' tool and told me that they had no idea what it was or what it was for. 
For anyone else who doesn't know, this is a 'V' tool (sometimes also called a parting tool). They also come with a 90 degree or 45 degree angle and get their name from the 'V' shaped cross section of the blade:

Image from
'V' tools are used for many different things in woodcarving, but some of the principal ones are in some styles of lettercutting, carving fur or hair and when roughing out the design of a relief carving. They are pretty fundamental pieces of kit and seeing this person say this was a bit like a professional car mechanic holding up an adjustable wrench and asking me what it was for! They then told me that at that time they were giving students what they knew to be poorly-seasoned oak to carve. Such timber would be quite likely to split if kept in a centrally-heated room.

At first what I'd heard didn't bother me - well done to the tutor for getting workshops running - but as time went on, it bothered me more and more. The tutor seemed to be teaching people who were paying them to learn woodcarving, when they didn't seem to know that much about it either. 

There is obviously no certification scheme to show that someone running a carving course has the experience and skill to make a good teacher. With the range of disciplines that woodcarving covers, everything from ecclesiastical restoration work to fine art sculpture to whittled caricature carvings, perhaps this something that is unlikely to change!

Chipping away at a piece of wood is a wonderful and (sometimes!) relaxing thing as any carver knows. Giving people the chance to try it is great, without them having to buy the expensive kit only to perhaps find out that carving isn't for them. Everyone has to start somewhere! But it's also potentially dangerous and accidents can happen very fast. If a carving tutor has little experience, there must be an obvious concern that students could get injured.

There are well respected courses about, such as the City and Guilds courses in woodcarving taught in London. However, a good woodcarver isn't necessarily a good teacher. I've met some fantastic carvers who just didn't have the disposition to take on students (or the inclination for that matter).

Word-of-mouth could be a good guide, but if the person telling you that a carving course is good has no experience of anything else, how can you trust that they actually learnt anything worth learning? As the proverb says; 'In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king'. 

But then why should technique be worth taking the time to learn? The highly skilled carver Guy Reid has said something that makes sense to me:
"The ability to master technique enables one to be free to express something beyond just technical skill. From this basis of technical mastership comes the freedom of self-expression."

It should be said that even two experienced and well-respected woodcarvers and teachers can differ completely in their opinions and teachings. One example that comes to mind is in the use of metal stonecarver's 'dummy' mallets to carve wood:

A Dummy Mallet
(Image from 

 Ian Norbury has written (in 'Fundamentals of Figure Carving'):

"The mallet I now use is in fact a stone mason's mallet made from an alloy of lead and zinc... Its advantages are the conveniently small size to weight ratio and its density. There is very little bounce back when it strikes the gouge, thus it does not waste energy rebounding up through your arm, which is injurious to the joints. The metal does not damage the handles any more than a hardwood mallet, indeed the chisel handles dent the metal."

Michael Painter, however, writes in 'Woodcarving' magazine (Jan/Feb 2013):

"One of my tallest soap boxes arises at the use of metal mallets!...why would you want to hit the wooden handle of a chisel with a piece of unforgiving metal? These mallets, also called dummies, derive from the stone carving profession and haven't any place in a woodworking environment."

Both very experienced and well-respected carvers and teachers. (For what it's worth, I sometimes use a dummy mallet in woodcarving and find it very useful. I wouldn't use it exclusively though, wooden mallets give a softer and more delicate blow to the gouge which suits some cuts better in my experience).

No one could honestly be able to claim that they have the definitive knowledge of a subject as complex, internationally practised and ancient as woodcarving. Would anyone want to? A great and wonderful part of woodcarving for me is the knowledge that there is always more to learn.

Someone accepting money to teach using sharp and specialised woodcarving tools does seem to me to need a certain level of knowledge and responsibility however. What should that level be and how can it be demonstrated? 

Looking at their previous work online or elsewhere is an obvious starting point; I'd look for someone who is making and showing work regularly that you would like to be able to make yourself. If someone isn't making their own work that often or showing much of it online then they might be worth treating with some caution, although if you are reading this blog then I probably don't need to point these things out to you! 

I don't have many quick answers I'm afraid. It just feels like some carving tuition I'm seeing around doesn't come from particularly experienced carvers...

Perhaps it's worth searching for good tutorials in books - not the same as actually doing some carving, but a good lead into this great pastime. I'd recommend those by Chris Pye and Dick Onians myself. 

For those wishing to learn about woodcarving in Bristol, you could do worse than contacting the West Country Woodcarvers. They meet in Downend and are a group of carving enthusiasts with some very skilled members. Their website can be found at

Right, time to pack the soapbox away and get on with some carving!


  1. Hi Can you recommend any courses yourself? Have you heard of sierrawoodworks on Picton Street?

    I am a complete beginner...interested in learning how to do decorative woodcarving.


  2. Hi,
    Thanks very much for getting in touch!

    I've seen Jesus Sierra's work before and he can certainly carve well. He also has a good knowledge of timbers. Nic, who works with him, came on a course that I ran a couple of years ago at St Werburghs too. I don't know anyone who has studied with him, so couldn't honestly say what his teaching style is like.

    With the feedback that I'm getting, I'm actually thinking of working towards setting up my own woodcarving tuition, although unfortunately I'm too busy with commissioned carving work to do regular sessions for a couple of months at least. But watch this space...

    Meanwhile, if you are prepared to travel a bit, I could recommend courses run by Zoe Gertner in Devon and Martin Turner 'At the sign of the parrot' in Dorset.

    For now, you might like to have look at some of the books in Bristol Central Library. There are some good ones in there to give you ideas and a headstart on techniques.

    All the best and good luck with your carving.