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Wood carving, knot

Mixed media: Wood carving - process/technical discussion.

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Untitled (knot). Test carving, plywood. 2018 (WIP). ~7x7x2cm

Before you say so: The pattern may be nice but this is hardly even a wood carving: The carving job is almost nothing, its execution is terrible, and it looks awful! Read on for discussion...

Image above is larger than the original (unless viewed on a telephone).

Two notes first: The symmetry in the image above is less than perfect because the knot (as it is) was hand drawn quickly and edited very little before carving began. Also, the block is not symmetrical, it is not quadratic. That, and the second note: This knot is my own design.

I usually make knot-designs in linoleum, for printing. If I recall correctly this is the first knot design I have carved in wood. I have some experience with woodcuts and -carvings, this is just the first carving of a knot. It is more akin to a wood cut than to a -carving, except that it is not intended for a print.

I think this particular block of wood is softwood, from pine. That is, I'm almost sure but this block was a discarded residue from some building project, so I can only tell from the looks, the weight, and the experienced hardness while carving.

So, why does it look so bad? Well, the answer is somewhat surprising: Because I initially used a knife made for wood carving! Specifically a "V" type knife, the most narrow and sharp one I could find. This choice was not bad as this tool would be the proper one to choose for carving thin lines in wood.

Still, that knife made a mess out of my lines! You can easily see it from the photo above (if not, click the image to enlarge it even more): all lines that are somewhat "horizontal" (albeit curved) are very uneven and fuzzy at the edges. They should have been smooth and well-defined like most of the "vertical" (and curved) lines are.

It's the wood grain! The grain direction of the block is vertical, which means that a knife will follow the grain when working in a vertical-ish direction, but cross the grain when working horisontally. Following the grain the knife makes more-or-less well-defined lines, but crossing the grain the knife makes a mess in stead. Probably more of a mess in softwood than in hardwood. Also, any type of curved line will risk becoming a straight one in stead due to "grain pressure" (in lack of a better term).

(Here, I should add that this "mess" (the fuzzy lines) may indeed be desirable for some types of projects, and that some artists routinely consider this kind of imprecision to be "a gift" that adds value to their works. In the case described here the lines should ideally be as accurate and well-defined as pencil-drawn lines so in this case these imprecisions are unwanted.)

The solution: Use a common Stanley Knife ("safety cutter" / "utility knife"...) in stead, with a solid straight and flat blade. Regardless of grain vs. line direction this blade makes sharp well-defined lines, even curved ones. I used a retractable blade knife ("carpet cutter"), this type has a thicker and more solid blade than the "snap-off blade" variety.

All lines on the photo above have been re-carved with a straight blade following the v-tool failure. This made the lines deeper and more well-defined, but it could not remove all of the faults introduced by the "v-tool" wood carving knife. This is because the straight blade works at the centre of the line whereas all the cruft that the v-tool produced is outside the line proper. To remove all the cruft/fuzzyness would require making the lines broader in which case some lines that should be apart would have to merge in stead. This of course will ruin the pattern design.

I will probably work a little more on this; as it is ruined already there is no point in trying to make it perfect - there is no such option. Still I may be able to convert it to something a little different from what I originally intended. The knot pattern was, and is, intended for a future linoleum block/print which is why I was a bit sloppy in applying the design to the wood block - it was never intended to become accurate.

The process described above has a name: Learning. The hard way. Obviously this block/pattern is ruined beyond repair but for me the damage is not very big (if extant at all) as this block was intended as a quick test block from the outset. If not I would have made an effort to get the block proportions and the pattern symmery and line flow proper and accurate before I started to carve anything at all.

Still, for others this little essay may be able to offer some tips to avoid wasting time and getting frustrated. Sometimes the proper tool for the job is not the proper tool to use for the job!

2018.09.22 12:43 in Mixed media


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