Canadian Woodworking

Tricks of the Trade

Author: David Bruce Johnson
Published: February March 2007
carving tricks
carving tricks

Renowned Canadian woodcarver David Bruce Johnson shares some of his top carving tricks.


  • Canadian Woodworking Member Exclusive Giveaways Nov 2023


Where To Get Wood

The types of wood that I use to carve with are basswood, willow, butternut, and black walnut. Rather than buying kilndried wood, I go as directly to the source as possible. I approach all the tree service businesses in my area; tell them about my interest in carving; and ask them to let me know when there may be a tree being removed that I might use.

Fortunately, the types of wood I carve are not good firewood. Consequently, the tree people are usually quite willing to give it to me – most often for free, but sometimes with a little compensation, far below the cost of kiln-dried wood.

Of course, unlike kiln-dried, wood from such sources is usually fresh cut and green (i.e. having a high water content). That doesn’t bother me though, because I prefer to carve green wood. I will tell you more about carving green wood in an upcoming article.

Wood scraper

A carved surface has many facets

Scrape in direction of grain 

Use strips of cloth-backed sandpaper

Apply pressure with your thumb

Pull in one direction

A deep crevice is sharp

Establish a strong stop cut 

Curved tip knife

This is how the two knives meet

Dental tool for removing chips

A good gouge inscribes a circle

Keep beveled edge vertical 

Use same gouge for wood removal

Twist gouge for exit cuts

A perfectly gouged hole

Does It Take Long To Sand a Sculpture?

I have always disliked sanding, because it creates a lot of fine dust, and it can consume a lot of time. When you do have to sand, use a dust mask to protect your lungs, and be sure to clean the dust from your workspace.

However, I have found a two-part solution to this distasteful task. The first half of the secret is a wood scraper. Major ridges can be removed very quickly with a scraper, as they act essentially like a hand plane. When you have shaped your carving as carefully as you desire with your gouges and knives, use a scraper to smooth the surface. It is imperative that you scrape with the grain.

After scraping, I use strips of cloth-backed sandpaper. Press the sandpaper against the wood with one thumb. Using your other hand, pull the sandpaper across the wood under your thumb. It is important to sand with the grain and in only one direction. This technique eliminates the ‘fuzzing’ that always occurs when you rub sandpaper back and forth across wood grain. Sanding this way is very fast. When you sand in only one direction (with the grain), the task can be completed in minutes instead of hours.

How To Carve Deep Crevices?

When carving a deep crevice, many people have difficulty removing the deepest chips of wood. The solution is all in the angles of cuts… and a little patience. First, it is necessary to make a strong vertical cut that will provide an edge from which wood will be removed. Then, use a curved tip knife to cut away the wood beside the vertical cut. The bent tip creates a slightly less acute angle deep in the crack.

It is most important that you make a good effort to remove the wood chip. Often, a carver will shave off several new slices of wood when trying to remove a piece that is already detached. To extract difficult slices, a dental tool can be quite useful. Many dentists will give you the tools they are discarding.

How to Carve a Hole?

There are many situations where you need to carve a hole, either to start a pass through for further expansion, or to create a hole for itself. In many instances, a power drill or a brace and bit will work. In other cases, however, it is simply easier to use a gouge. Here, I have used a #7 gouge.

A well-made gouge will inscribe a perfect circle. Begin by inscribing a circle where you want the hole. Be sure to keep the beveled edge of the gouge vertical. Remove the wood inside the circle using the same gouge. Repeat the process as many times as necessary, always keeping the beveled edge of the gouge vertical. Care is necessary when the exit side of the hole is reached. Twist the gouge as you cut your way out of the wood in order to prevent splintering the exit side. If you are careful, your gouge-drilled hole can be as accurate as anything you would get with a drill.

More Tricks?

We all know that the techniques described in this article aren’t actually tricks, because anyone can do them. They are merely the result of experimentation, aimed at achieving desired results.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Other articles to explore
Username: Password: