Canadian Woodworking

Direct carving – the Johnson method

Author: David Bruce Johnson
Published: December January 2005
Direct Carving
Direct Carving

Direct Carving can be defined as “the process of creating a three dimensional image without using a pattern or a clay model for reference”.


This is an intimidating proposition for most carvers because of the risk of making a mistake. The Johnson Method of direct carving eliminates that risk and the accompanying fear of failure.

There is no question that the common practice of using a pattern and/or a model helps to accurately produce an image. The problem is inflexibility. What you see in the pattern or model is all you are going to get. Also, it seems that making a model uses up all your creativity and reduces the carving process to that of a human duplicator machine.

Draw static figure in proportion

Build 3-D reference with wire

Mark critical points at joints with masking tape

Compare wire skeleton with wood to confirm sufficient size block

Bend the wire skeleton into the desired position

Use the wire skeleton to position the figure in the wood

As you might imagine, much wood was removed between each photo

Continue carving to arrive at the finished piece


In contrast, flexibility and creativity are the main advantages of direct carving. Using the conceptually simple approach provided by the Johnson Method, you are able to modify your work, either whenever you want to, or when circumstances demand it. If you notice an attractive grain pattern, you can exploit it. If you encounter some bad wood, you can alter your image to avoid it. If you simply change your mind, you can revise your plan. If you make a mistake, you can adjust your carving and avoid a new start.

A major challenge with direct carving is to maintain proper proportions. The Johnson Method helps achieve that end throughout the carving process. Its application is based upon knowledge of anatomy regardless of the subject and, as with most challenging processes, requires practice. As an example, this article presents a sequence of pictures showing how the Johnson Method was used to sculpt a solid block of wood into one of the most demanding subjects; a human figure in an animated position.

If you have been following this series of articles, you will know that, as a first step, you should ensure that your wood is held securely. (I used lag bolts through a piece of 1″ plywood, which I then clamped to my workbench.) With that done, go ahead and remove the wood that is not needed. (That’s easy to say, isn’t it?)

As with many other art forms, carving is a process of refinement. Also, carving or sculpture is a subtractive process; that is, wood is only removed, not added. As you will see, there is a progression from broad strokes to carefully refined actions. Build a 3-dimensional wire skeleton that you can repeatedly refer to as you carve, re-establishing the key points of the sculpture each time.

Ultimately, the carving process becomes a matter of “connecting the dots”. You know, the shoulder bone connected to the elbow bone, connected to the wrist bone. If you encounter a problem along the way or change your mind, it is simple to bend the wire skeleton into a different position and continue carving.

In the next article, the Johnson Method for Direct Carving will be applied to a much different and simpler project; a Decorative Canada Goose.

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