A few weeks ago I spent the weekend teaching a class on carving reproductions of the panels from the Byrdcliffe Iris Desk at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking deep in the corn maze of central Indiana. Carving is the part of woodworking that I’m most passionate about and if I had my way I would spend a lot more time carving and a lot less time sitting at a computer. My interest in carving came about when I was first exposed to furniture from the Byrdcliffe colony, although it took several years to get up the nerve to color wood in the way in was done 100 years ago.
The photo at right is the drop front panel from the Byrdcliffe Iris desk, and the goal of the class was to carve and color one of the three panels. After listening to me explain that the best way to get a really keen edge on a carving gouge is to make a mean face and stick your belly out as far as you can (while holding the stone so that the camera can see it but you can’t) the students jumped to it and got to work.They made good progress and we finished up Sunday afternoon working on coloring the carving with watercolors, and mixing up a home brew oil stain to turn cherry frames green.
Most of the original Byrdcliffe carvings are pretty flat. The art work has wonderful lines, but when I carve these I can’t leave well enough along. I like things to be a little more lively, so I add texture and curves. I think it looks better, but who am I to think I can improve someone else’s masterpiece. So these aren’t really reproductions in the strictest sense.
After roughing out their carvings, the class decided to follow me into the deep end. By the time I got through explaining that they could, and probably should leave things flat they were making leaves look more like real leaves, petals look more like real petals, and asking how to make undercuts to add shadows. Even though we all made a lot more work for ourselves, we had a great time.
Why not include color and carving in our furniture? Why not take a carving that originally was part of a piece of furniture, frame it and hang it on the wall? That’s an area I plan on exploring further. I usually don’t get all gushy about using hand tools, except when it comes to carving. When I carve there’s the wood and me and a sharp edge in between. There is a design that will most likely require breaking the rules and going against the grain both figuratively and literally . There’s an element of risk because to get away with breaking the rules the tools need to be as sharp as possible and I need to be careful and pay attention.
In the end, if things go well, there’s a physical result that hopefully other people will enjoy, whether they understand the effort that goes into it or not. Here is one of my finished panels. The carving is basswood colored with watercolors and the frame is cherry.