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 Joel's Blog

Guest Blog - Chris Pye: What's it Like to Be a Woodcarver?

05/15/2019

Carving Japanese Clouds

Chris Pye is a master carver whom I have known for years. Chris is an acclaimed teacher, author of many books and the star of the excellent online school woodcarvingworkshops.tv). But interestingly, as Chris says below, he supports himself not only as as a teacher of carving but also substantially as a working carver. I have wondered, "How do you sustain yourself as a professional woodcarver?"

Nowadays traditional carving is an outlier in the decorative arts and there certainly not many people who could make the claim of working as a carver professionally. So even staking out as a carver requires some boldness and optimism. Does this passion live up to the promise? What approach does Chris use so that he can continue to balance the creativity of his craft with the obligations of commissioned work? I'll turn it over to Chris:

What's it like to be a woodcarver? Well, it certainly feels a privilege and that I've been extraordinarily lucky. But it’s all seems very odd. In fact, there are many odd things that strike me about it. Here are a few:

Aside from teaching and writing about carving, a substantial chunk of my income over 40 years has come from, and still comes from - think about this: me cutting into a chunk of tree with a piece of metal! Two of earth’s great materials. I mean, in these days when you can print a 3-D heart valve, I get to continue a tradition that’s over 11,000 years old. How cool is that? (Search for the Shigir Idol, a totemic sculpture found in the Ural mountains in 1890.)

Then again, the process itself is an odd thing: I start with the block and remove wood. Simple, yes. But consider this: Even as I am carving wood away, what really matters is what I’m leaving behind. So I'm more concerned with what I'm not carving. What you see when you look at my finished piece is wood that I haven't carved! If I’ve touched it with a chisel, it's on the floor… So, as I carve, I'm sort of splitting my attention between taking and leaving, with far more concern about the leaving. My brain took a quantum leap when I understood that.

And there it is. A blank canvas: the initial block of wood in front of which I’m standing, gouge and mallet in hand. All I have to do is take away the wood that’s not needed, yes? And somewhere in that block I’ll find the final carving itself, like Stanley finding Livingstone in the jungle. Well, no. Not at all.

I never really ‘find’ anything. I’m standing not in front of a block of wood, but at the start of a process that I’ve learned through experience; a path, if you will, that I will walk step by step, both creating and finding at the same time. It’s like a painter who may well start with an idea of what they want but in the very creative act of painting - the brushes, the paint, their technical ability - stylises the result in ways they never could have guessed. So the odd thing here is that my finished carving often surprises me! And that in turn surprises many who see what I’ve made and who assume I had this actual carving in mind all along.

Here's one last weird, but wonderful, thing: My best carving comes when I stop thinking and ‘just do it’. On the e-learning website that I run with my wife Carrie, (woodcarvingworkshops.tv), I'm being filmed with my teaching hat firmly on. I talk about what I'm doing, the process; how I'm holding this tool or making that cut, and so on. It’s crucial to pass these fundamental insights on to students and I’m doing good work - but I never feel that I'm doing my best carving work. That comes when I stop thinking, and talking. A lot of carvers will tell you about the ‘flow’: the focussed attention when time seems to stop; when the tool becomes an extension of your hand and the good stuff appears. It’s all true. And probably what has kept me, and many others, carving all these years.
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Note: If you have interest in carving, you will find Chris Pye's video instruction well done and very useful. For the next few months (I don't know the end date) Chris and Carrie are offering a FREE two-week pass to their video instruction. Click here for the invite!

(P.S. We do not get any commission or anything from this link - it's just a favor for a friend. We do think that the more people learn to carve systematically and efficiently the more enjoyable they will find the craft.)
Join the conversation
05/15/2019 Michael Lemay
After my first year apprenticing with my Grandfather which was spent entirely learning by doing sharpening his chisels and plane blades. He set me loose on carving. First letters and numbers, then beads and flowers. I loved it. He told me even then, this is a sharpening study, no a career! I have made custom furniture for 50 years. To date, I have sold 2 pieces where the Client was willing to pay for hand carving.

Cudos to this fine artist for being able to make a living from carving! My only question is: What is his hourly rate? For me, between insurance, rent and liability insurance, and then the cost of Worker’s comp for my Apprentice.... carving is out the window.

In this throw away society, most will not pay especially when it can be done on a CNC router, perfectly and repeatedly. Most do not see the value in variation from the human hand and eye.

I have some benefactors who will not ask the price. Just state their desires. They are far and few between....

So, I will end as I started, what is your hourly rate for hand carving, vs. the cost of producing a reproduction of your work on a CNC?
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The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the blog's author and guests and in no way reflect the views of Tools for Working Wood.
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