I just spent the last five days learning to carve, burn, dye, and paint wood. What a great but tiring week! Each day was filled with new lessons and new skills. There were ten of us wanna-be carvers – most of us hadn’t even removed our carvers and burners from their packaging. At the spry age of 53, I was the youngest student and the only one trying to juggle this hobby with a full-time career. Retirement keeps looking better and better!
This was my second class at John C. Campbell Folk School, which is tucked away in the tiny hamlet of Brasstown, in the southwestern corner of North Carolina. Aside from the school, there’s not a whole lot going on here. I opted out of campus housing in favor of an affordable little loft apartment located a mile from the school. I wasn’t completely alone in this isolated refuge – I had visits from deer, a pair of turkeys, and even a cat. This turned into a really great option as I had privacy and all the conveniences of home.
I love arts and crafts and enjoy working with wood. In fact, one of the components of my personal happiness formula is exercising my creativity. So why not try a class that will teach me how to turn wood into art? I’d rather not wait until retirement to explore hobbies and potential side hustles. Besides, the class was taught by wood artist extraordinaire Dixie Biggs and her wonderfully helpful and talented assistant, Jean LeGwin. A week in the mountains learning new skills – that’s a tough combination to beat.
If I so desired, I could work from morning to night, with breaks for lunch and dinner. The days were long and I was tuckered out by the end of the week. Our class had a tremendous range of skills and it’s likely we didn’t progress as quickly as the instructors had hoped. But considering we were all beginners, the pace was plenty fast for me. Those long hours took a toll on my hands, back, and butt. Sleep was definitely welcome at the end of each night. Here’s my play-by-play account.
We met for the first time on Sunday evening, when we commenced to unpack our supplies, greet one another, and receive a welcome introduction. Our work began in earnest on Monday morning. The primary canvas for the week was a wood disc that we partitioned into six sections for practicing our techniques. Dixie gave us brief demonstrations on each specific skill and we then proceeded to our work stations to practice. By the end of the first day we had learned how to create: (1) “hot spots” with a Dremel tool and a misused burr, (2) random patterns (or scribblings) with an engraver; (3) designs with a wood burner, (4) Zentangle patterns using a diamond carver bit, (5) a step pattern using a modified bit, and finally (6) an inlaid fern. What a day!
On the second day, we focused on relief carving. Again, Dixie’s approach was to teach us one step at a time, which helped tremendously. We learned which bits to use for what effects, how to make “proud” veins on leaves, and how to develop depth on our project. By the end of day 2, we had the basic design of our leaves carved into our new disc. I messed up a bit by chewing too much wood out of the edge of the disc, but I began to feel a little more comfortable controlling the power carver. And I found I was having better success by slowing down, a luxury not afforded in my career.
We returned to our leaves on day 3, which turned into an extraordinarily long day. I “fixed” up my previous day’s mistake by creating a vine around the perimeter and creating a highly textured background. The nice thing about carving is that you can usually cover up your mistakes. The day turned into evening as I painted autumn colors on the leaves. While I’m pretty pleased with the way the leaves turned out, creating the background with the Dremel tool and the burner turned into quite a tedious task.
On the final two days, we completed our sample disc, applied finishes to the sections, and began our personal projects. The curse of the week – creating a patch of clovers! This is the assignment that slowed us down, and in my case, was a big fail. As Dixie remarked, it looks like some of us mowed our clover fields. Guilty! Here’s the important thing: I know exactly what I did wrong, and while I’m not inclined to make another clover, like EVER, I understand the technique now. In terms of finishes and effects, I learned about using liming wax to create some neat effects, especially over Zentangle patterns. And I used my open space on the disc to carve a heron. It’s fair-to-middling.
Even though I’ve taken several wood turning classes, I am a novice. The thing with turning a bowl, platter, or hollow form is that it takes a lot of time; I can’t interrupt the project mid-form. And I just don’t have the time to turn, so I keep re-learning the basic skills. I feel differently about carving and burning. Carving includes a lot of small steps – or natural opportunities to interrupt the work. I don’t need an enormous chunk of time. Rather, I can spend an hour here and there to create a project and hone my skills. I really want to fit this into my crazy schedule.
Will I ever make money from turning or carving? Maybe in the long run, after I’ve built solid skills and developed my own style. But that’s really not that important to me at this point. I’m in it for the fun. In the immediate future, I plan to get back to the lathe, create some wood art, take more classes, and build contacts in the Women in Turning community. I had a super week, but it sure flew by fast and left me wanting more!
Wood carving and wood burning are highly specialized skills. In this rare instance, Amazon isn’t the best resource. You’ll want a high quality power carver (like Mastercarver Micro-Pro Champion) and dual burner. Check out these sites for a good variety of tools and finishing products.