Getting started with wood carving – What to carve

Enough about knives, safety, and wood.  Let’s talk about what to carve.  If you’re new to wood carving, then you probably should start with simple projects so that you can get comfortable with holding the knife and using the basic cuts.  A good place to start is Gene Messer‘s 3-part series on Whittling The 5 Minute Bear.  If you don’t particularly like bears, you can try his 5 Minute Wizard.   I found both projects to be excellent for learning basic techniques.  And for refining techniques.  I’ve carved dozens of each in the last six months.

Just don’t get impatient.  It’ll probably take you an hour or more the first time you try one of these.

The first project I did when I started carving a year ago was the pinecone ornament from Little Shavers.  Arleen at carverswoodshop recently made a video series about carving and painting this ornament.  Arleen starts with a pattern that she’s cut out on the band saw rather than from a raw block of wood as described on the Little Shaver’s Web site.  That’ll save you some time paring down the block of wood, but don’t worry if you don’t have a bandsaw.  You’ll just have to work a little harder.

Another good project, although a little more difficult for a beginner, is the Santa tree ornament.  I recently discovered a YouTube video series showing how to carve this ornament.  It’s well worth the time to watch, especially if you’re a beginner.

Gene and Arleen both have many beginner projects, some that start with a raw block of wood, and others that start with a bandsaw cutout.  If you don’t have a bandsaw, you’ll probably be most interested in those that start with just a block of wood.  I suggest that you go preview the videos and find one that you like and think you’re ready to try.

Beginners Carving Corner has a lot of simple and fun projects for the beginning carver.  Try the 5 Minute Owl, the gnome, the Old World Santa, or the Civil War Soldier.

I also highly recommend that you join the Woodcarving Illustrated message board, where a lot of experienced carvers hang out and share their knowledge of knives, wood, and all things carving.  It’s free to join, the members are very willing to answer beginners’ questions, and you get to see a lot of different types of carving.  It’s likely that you’ll find something there that you will want to carve.

There are a lot of other resources for beginners, but that’ll get you started.  As you tour the message boards, blogs, and videos, you’ll learn about other sites that have beginner projects.  And it’s all free.  Ya gotta love the Internet.

It’s important to remember is that you’re just starting out.  It’s unlikely that your first 5 Minute Wizard will look as good as the one in Gene’s video.  He’s been carving for 15 years or more.  But don’t get discouraged.  Your first wizard probably will be recognizable as a wizard, and your second, third, and so on will get better.  With every project you do, you’ll build confidence and skill.  It just takes a little bit of patience.

Most important, though, is to have fun.  The worst thing that can happen is you botch a project and end up with a bit of designer firewood.  I’ve collected my share over the last 12 months.  If you do botch a project or get to where you don’t know where to go with it, you might set it aside.  You just might come back to that scrap a few months later and see where you can fix your mistake or make something completely different from the botched project.

So get your knife, sit down in front of a video, and start carving.  It’s one of the least expensive hobbies I know of, and very rewarding.

Two useful, one marginal

I recently had the need to delve into the world of JSON (Java Script Object Notation) to read some data from a particular Web site. For my purposes, the simple JSON reader provided by .NET worked just fine. The way it works is interesting: you call JsonReaderWriterFactory.CreateJsonReader, and it returns an XmlReader instance. That’s right, it converts the JSON to XML behind the scenes. Apparently there are some limitations in how it handles nested structures, but I didn’t encounter them. That’s useful thing #1.

I discovered useful thing #2 when my XmlReader threw an exception trying to parse the JSON I fed it. I originally thought that the problem was with the JSON-to-XML conversion. But then I fed the JSON to JSONLint.  It turns out that the string "It\'s an error" contains an error.  Escaping the apostrophe is an error in JSON.  There are only a handful of characters that can be legally escaped.  It’s nice to know that the site was in error and not my JSON-to-XML converter.  Either way, I still have to gracefully handle the error.

I had hoped to use the Windows command FINDSTR as a substitute for grep.  No such luck.  FINDSTR has two problems that make it marginally useful at best.  First, there’s no switch that corresponds to grep’s --only-matching (-o) option.  If you specify --only-matching, then grep outputs only the text that matches the query expression rather than outputting the entire line that contains the match.  FINDSTR lacks that option, making it useless for many of the things I do.

The other problem is very odd.  Both grep and FINDSTR are line-oriented tools.  But FINDSTR’s definition of a line is inconsistent when working with files whose lines end with just a line feed.  For example, if I’m looking for all lines that contain the text “.xml”, I’d write this:

FINDSTR /R "\.xml" file.txt

The /R switch tells FINDSTR to treat the search string as a regular expression.  I could have done a literal search in this instance, but I want to illustrate the error.  FINDSTR correctly finds and outputs all of the lines that contain the string “.xml”.

What I really want, though, is just those lines that end with “.xml”. So the command would be:

FINDSTR /R "\.xml$" file.txt

FINDSTR doesn’t find any lines that end in “.xml” unless I convert the file so that it has CR/LF line ends. grep correctly handles both line end conventions. Since I can’t guarantee the format of the files I work with (I often am working with files that I download with wget), FINDSTR is practically useless if I’m doing regular expression searches.

My advice, download GNU Grep for Windows.

A box of peppers

Well, it seemed like a box.  When we lived in Scottsdale, Debra and I did a lot of our grocery shopping at Price Club (since purchased by Costco).  One day we needed crushed red peppers.  But you can’t get a small jar of anything at those membership stores.  We ended up with 12 ounces of crushed red peppers.


That was 1990 or 1991.  12 oz. of crushed red pepper goes a long way.

It’s been something of a running joke between us since then.  I’d get out the peppers to spice up my pizza and joke that we’re running out.  About a year ago we really were running out and from time to time we’d dump in the contents of those little crushed red pepper packets we’d get from the pizza place.  I think Debra even added some of the dried peppers that she put up a few years back when we had the bumper crop.

Last night we put the last of the crushed red pepper in the chili.  I guess we’re back to scavenging from the pizza packets until we make it to the grocery store.  I suspect our next container won’t hold anywhere near 12 ounces.

Karate Bear

This was a gift for a friend’s birthday.  It’s carved from a 3″ x 1″ x 1″ piece of basswood.  I hope to use this basic design (shape of the head and general proportion) for a number of different caricatures.  This one is the prototype.


Sniffing network traffic

My latest crawler modifications require me to scrape Web pages that host videos so that I can obtain metadata (title, description, date posted, etc.) that we place in our index.  Unfortunately, there’s no standard way for sites to present such information.  ESPN and Vimeo have HTML <meta> tags that provide some info, but I have to go parsing through the body of the document to find the date.  (And yes, I’m aware that Vimeo has an API that will make this a moot point.  I’ll be investigating that soon.)

Other sites are much worse in that they provide no metadata in the HTML.  For example, one site’s video page is very code-heavy.  Requiring that the page be reloaded every time you request a new video would require a lot of network traffic.  Their design instead uses JavaScript to request a particular video’s metadata from a server.  Loading a new video involves downloading just a few kilobytes of data.

I spent some time this afternoon searching through the a video page HTML and the associated JavaScript, looking for the magic incantation that would get me the data I’m looking for.  The amount of code involved is staggering, and I quickly went crosseyed trying to decipher it before I hit on the idea of hooking up a sniffer to see if I could identify the HTTP request that gets the data.

It took me all of five minutes to download and install Free Http Sniffer, request a video from the site in question, and locate the magic line in the 230 or so requests that the page makes when it loads.  Problem solved.  Now all I have to do is write code that’ll transform a video page url into a request for the metadata, and I’m set.

I have no idea why I didn’t think of the sniffer earlier.  I’d used one before for a similar purpose.  I suspect I’ll be making heavy use of it in the near future as I expand the number of sites that we crawl for media.

Getting started with wood carving – Wood Part 1

The most commonly used carving wood in the U.S. is kiln dried basswood.  The wood is relatively soft, but hard enough to hold fine detail.  The softness and uniformity of the wood make it easier to carve than most other woods.  It’s also very light colored, allowing paints to cover it fairly easily.

Basswood in the U.S. is usually categorized as northern or southern, based on where it was grown.  In general, northern basswood is better for carving because it’s lighter in color and and the grain is tighter (because the tree grows more slowly).

You can buy basswood in many different places, but the quality and price will vary widely.  Craft stores like Hobby Lobby and Michael’s sell basswood carving blocks in small packages at ridiculously high prices.  I found basswood from Michael’s to be of very low quality:  poor color, splinters easily, and is in general less uniform than what I’ve obtained from other sources.

Woodcraft and other woodworking shops also sell basswood.  You can buy individual blocks or “grab boxes” that contain blocks of varying sizes.  The individual blocks will be of somewhat higher quality than the wood in the grab boxes, but at a higher price.

Almost every online source that sells carving supplies will also sell basswood.  The wood you buy from these sites comes in three forms:  blocks, cutouts, and roughouts.  A block is what you expect:  just a block of wood.  Included with blocks are dowels, eggs, spheres, and other basic shapes from which you’re expected to carve something.

A cutout is a block of wood that’s been cut to the basic finished shape.  Typically this is done on a bandsaw.  A simple example is shown below:  the cutout I made for my little dog, and the finished product.


A roughout includes more detail than the cutout.  Most of the figure is “roughed out” so that all you need to add are details.  A good example is Herby’s Angel Roughout.  Expect to pay more for a cutout than for a block, and more for a roughout than for a cutout.

Let me stress that whichever you choose is fine.  Some people like whittling away all the waste wood and are happy starting with a block of wood.  Others find roughing things out annoying and want to get right to the detail, which they find most interesting.  Most carvers I know have worked with blocks, cutouts, and roughouts.  As far as I know, there isn’t a stigma attached to which of the above you start with.  I’ve never seen a carver look down on somebody’s carving because he started with a roughout rather than a block.

The consensus of carvers I know is that Heinecke Wood Products is the place to buy basswood in bulk.  The wood is very high quality, the prices are very good (even when you take the shipping cost into account), and their customer service is first rate.  I bought a bunch of practice sticks from them and have been very happy with the quality of the wood.  But shipping charges will eat you up if you’re ordering small quantities.

My suggestion if you’re just starting is to visit your local Woodcraft or similar store and get a grab box of blocks, or find a place to order it online.  The wood probably won’t be as good quality as what you’ll get from Heinecke, but the price is very reasonable and you’ll get an idea if this carving thing is something that you want to persue.

Another source for basswood (and other woods, for that matter) is cabinet shops and other businesses that work with wood.  You might stop by a cabinet shop and ask them if you can have their cutoffs.  Some will sell them to you at a very reasonable price.  Others will be happy to give you more wood than you can possibly carve in a lifetime.  The wood will be of varying quality, but you can’t beat the price.

Although basswood is by far the most common wood used for carving, you can carve just about any type of wood.  I’ll talk more about that next time.

Getting started with wood carving – Safety

Before I move on to wood and beginner projects, I should talk a little bit about safety.

Unless you’re a chef or a surgeon, or have some other job that requires you to play with sharp implements, your carving knife will most likely be the sharpest knife you’ve ever had. A year ago I thought I knew how to sharpen a knife. And in Boy Scout circles, I did. Yes, I could shave hairs off my arm with my pocket knife. But even that’s dull compared to the edge you’ll find on a good carving knife. If you’re not careful you can do some serious damage to yourself with that knife.

You’d be well served to get a carving glove and a thumb guard when you buy your carving knife.  The glove is made from Kevlar and will usually prevent a cut when your knife slips.  It can’t stop all cuts, and it won’t prevent a stab (i.e. hitting your hand with the point of the knife).  But it will stop most slices.  You wear the glove on your holding hand:  the one that’s not holding the knife.  The thumb guard is for your knife hand, to protect the thumb when you’re pulling the knife towards yourself in much the same way you’d peel an apple.

There are carvers who don’t wear a glove or thumb guard.  There are also carvers who will tell you that they wish they had worn them.  I haven’t cut myself when wearing the glove and thumb guard.  I have, however, cut myself when not wearing them.  That’s good enough reason for me to make sure I have my safety gear.

You’ve probably heard that you’re more likely to cut yourself with a dull knife than with a sharp one.  That appears to be true, even though the idea seems counter-intuitive.  Consider:

  • A dull knife is more likely to slip off the wood.  When the blade slips, you lose control of it.
  • It takes more force to push a dull knife through the wood.  If it slips or if the wood splits, you have more force behind the blade.  You have less control when applying heavy force, so again you can lose control of where the blade goes.

The knife is designed for cutting, not prying.  If you try to pry with the knife, you’re likely to break the blade.  Not only does this ruin the knife, but that tip can become an eye-seeking projectile.

The old Boy Scout rule I remember was to create a “zone of safety” around myself whenever I was holding a knife.  Whenever somebody came within arm’s reach, I was to stop whittling and close the knife.  It’s a good idea to keep that in mind when you’re carving.  If somebody approaches, stop carving and put the knife down.  Or put the blade cover on the knife and hold it.

Never take your eyes off the blade when you’re carving.  Yes, there are blind carvers, but the rest of us depend primarily on our eyes to tell where the blade is.  If you take your eyes off the blade, it’s as likely to cut your hand as it is the wood.

Don’t put your hands or other parts of your body in front of the blade, and when you catch yourself thinking that a particular cut you’re about to attempt is a bad idea, stop and think about what you’re doing.  As always, the most important part of safety is using your brain to keep yourself from getting hurt.

Getting started with wood carving – The Knife

A good sharp knife is the only essential tool you need in order to get started with whittling or wood carving.  Well, you’ll also need a way to keep the knife sharp.  Other than that, everything else is optional.  Just like the bike doesn’t make the cyclist, the toolbox doesn’t make the carver.  I’ve seen some beautifully intricate work done with “just a knife” that most carvers couldn’t duplicate even if they had the best tool collection in the world.  There is no substitute for experience.

You might be tempted to just grab any old knife, put an edge on it, and start hacking away on a piece of wood.  I strongly discourage that.  Although it’s possible to be productive with any kind of blade, you’re better off with a knife that’s designed for carving wood.  The handle is designed to fit comfortably in your hand.  The steel is selected for a good balance between edge retention and ease of sharpening, the blade is thinner than on most pocket knives, and it’s typically shaped for a specific purpose.  I have enjoyed carving a lot more since I bought my first purpose-built carving knife.

You can get a good carving knife for about $15.  I think you’re wasting money if you spend more than $30 for your first knife.  If you buy from a reputable supplier, the knife will come to you sharp and ready to go.  The first carving knife I bought was the Flexcut KN12 Cutting Knife, that I picked up at the local Woodcraft store for $15 or $20.  Although certainly not the best knife in the world, this one opened my eyes to a completely new world of carving.  The blade shape, its sharpness, and the way it fit in my hand improved my carving almost overnight and convinced me to use purpose-built tools.

Although I haven’t used one, I’ve had several people tell me that the Murphy bench knife is a great beginner’s knife.  At under $15 for this knife, it’s hard to justify using an old pocket knife for wood carving.

About two months ago, on recommendation from others, I bought a Shipley/Wells 1-3/8″ Detail Blade (item 50720 on that page).  I now use the Wells knife for all of my small carvings in basswood, and I’m using the Flexcut almost exclusively for my “found wood” (oak, mesquite, and random other woods I pick up) work.  My pocket knife rarely cuts wood these days.  No matter how sharp I make it, it can’t compare to either of the carving knives, and the handle is too small to be comfortable in my hand.

Sharp is good.  Dull is bad.  Or, as Chris Lubkeman says in his Little Book of Whittling (a great little book, by the way):

Ten Extremely Import Rules of Carving

  1. Make sure your knife is sharp.
  2. Your knife must be really sharp.
  3. Don’t try carving with a knife that isn’t sharp.
  4. Before starting to carve, check your knife to see if it’s sharp.
  5. Carving with a less-than-very-sharp knife is very frustrating!
  6. In the realm of woodcarving, sharp is good, dull is bad.
  7. Keep your knife sharp!
  8. If your knife is really sharp, it will cut better.
  9. If you missed the point of Rules 1 through 8, make sure the knife you carve with is sharp!
  10. If there’s any remaining doubt, refer back to Rules 1 through 9.

Unless you damage the blade, you shouldn’t ever have to sharpen your carving knife.  The secret is to maintain the edge so that it never gets dull.  The best way to do that is with a leather strop that has some kind of polishing compound on it.  Take a break every 15 or 20 minutes during your carving and strop your knife on the leather.  Strop more frequently if you feel the blade becoming dull or if you’re carving harder woods.  If you follow this rule, then your knife never has the opportunity to become dull.

Although you can make a strop from an old belt or other piece of leather, I recommend that you buy one or at least examine a few before you decide to make one yourself.

If you buy a strop, it’ll come with simple instructions.  Briefly:

  1. Put some of the abrasive compound on the strop.
  2. Place your knife blad flat on the strop so that the edge is pointing toward you.
  3. Push the knife back along the length of the strop.  DO NOT pull it forward as if trying to shave a thin slice off the strop.
  4. When you get to the end of the strop, roll the knife over the back of the blade so that the edge is pointing away from you, and pull the knife back towards you.
  5. Repeat the above steps five or ten times (that is, five or ten strokes along the strop for each side of the edge).

The compound you place on the strop is a very fine abrasive.  In a sense, it is “sharpening”, although it’s more like polishing.

Frequent stropping will prevent the blade from ever becoming dull and requiring you to perform real sharpening with stones or other equipment.

Always cover your knife blade when you’re not using it.  There are two reasons to cover the blade:  your own safety and protecting the blade.  You can make a blade cover from a piece of wood, or use cork or other material.  Don’t use a cork that was previously used for wine, though.  The moisture in the cork will rust your blade.

One last thing:  your carving knife is meant for wood carving.  Don’t use it to open packages, clean your fingernails, filet a fish, or anything else you’d use your pocket knife or some other blade for.  The carving knife will certainly do the job most of the time, but you risk damaging the blade.  Use the carving knife for carving, and nothing else.

Inevitably, you’ll damage a blade.  Even experienced carvers drop a knife from time to time.  If the edge becomes damaged or dulled, you can try to sharpen it yourself or you can send it off to be sharpened.  I recommend that you learn how to sharpen a knife yourself, but until you’ve gained some experience with other blades, you’ll probably want to send your carving knives to a professional.

I highly recommend Little Shavers Wood Carving Supply for all things carving related.  They have a wide selection of tools and their prices are competitive.  More importantly, they’re great people to work with.  Their customer service is first rate.  The tools I’ve bought from them have come in razor sharp and ready to carve.  If you buy a tool from them, they’ll sharpen it for free at any time.  All you pay is the actual shipping cost.  If you want them to sharpen a tool you didn’t purchase there, the cost is $3 per tool, plus shipping.

Almost all wood carvers are tool collectors.  I’ve met carvers who have tens of thousands of dollars invested in tools:  knives of all shapes and sizes, chisels, gouges, scoops, hook knives, and exotic blade shapes that I can’t even imagine a use for.  But ask them which tool they’d pick if they could only have one, and almost invariably the result will be a fairly common carving knife.  Everything else is nice to have, but optional.

As with any other hobby, my advice for wood carving is to start simple and build slowly.  Remember:  the tool doesn’t know how to carve wood.  Get a good carving knife and learn how to use and maintain it.  Start with simple projects and move on to more complex things as you gain more control over and comfort with the knife.  The time to buy other tools is when you find that there’s something you’d like to do that you can’t do with the knife or that would be more easily accomplished with another tool.  Don’t waste your money buying tools just to collect them or because you might need them in the future.  Doing so will just frustrate you.

Next time I’ll talk a bit about carving wood and some simple projects.

Tracking Hurricanes

We’ve had a relatively calm hurricane season this year.  According to the National Hurricane Center, we’ve had eight storms:  two hurricanes, five tropical storms, and one tropical depression.  That’s a far cry from the past eleven years in which the number of storms has been in the teens.  Except for 2005, when we had a whopping 28 storms, including 15 hurricanes with four of them reaching Category 5.  A Category 5 storm is rare indeed:  there have been 32 of them recorded since 1851.

The National Weather Service or its forebears has been keeping information on hurricanes and tropical storms since 1851.  Perhaps before, but the records available from the NHC only go back that far.  You can download the raw data from 1851 through 2008 from the NHC’s Hurricane Research Division.  The data isn’t in the most convenient format—a text file of fixed fields—but parsing it with a C# program proved to be easy enough, and within an hour or so I was examining the data.

The last ten years of hurricane activity has raised many concerns that climate change is increasing the number of storms and the intensity of the storms.  Looking at the historical record, it’s impossible not to draw the conclusion that 11 consecutive years with 10 or more storms is anomalous.  It’s way out there.  No other 10-year period has had even close to that number of storms.

I created a dump of the data to a comma-separated format so that I could massage it with Microsoft Excel.  I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not an Excel expert, but I can do the basics and create usable if not especially nice looking charts.  In Excel, I created two charts:  one examining the number of hurricanes each year, and another showing average storm intensities.  If you like, you can download my Excel file with the raw data and the charts.

Let’s talk a bit about those charts.  This first chart has two sections:  storms per year, and storms per year that hit the U.S.  There are also lines for the 5- and 20-year rolling averages.


The top part of the chart is the storms per year, and the bottom part is storms that hit the U.S.  Looking at the chart, there’s no doubt that recent hurricane activity is far out of the ordinary.  Even the 20-year rolling average shows a sharp uptick starting around 1995.  And in general we seem to be having quite a few more storms over the past 60 years than previously.  But there are a few things about the data that make me wonder how much I can trust it.

It’s interesting that, although the average number of storms increased sharply from 1935 to 1953 or so and then plateaued, the average number of storms hitting the U.S. doesn’t show a similar increase.  This makes me wonder if global weather patterns tend to cycle, pushing hurricanes towards the U.S. in some years and pushing them away in other years.  The other possible explanation is detection bias.  That is, it’s quite likely that prior to 1935 we just didn’t have the technology to detect hurricanes that didn’t hit any major population centers.  That wouldn’t explain the increase since 1995, but it certainly could explain the increase from 1935 to 1953.

The second chart shows average storm intensities, along with 5- and 20-year rolling averages.  Excel did a poor job of converting this graph to a .GIF.  Download the Excel file if you want more readable text.


I computed the average storm intensity by multiplying the number of tropical storms by 1, category 1 hurricanes by 2, etc., adding it all up and dividing by the total number of storms.  So if you had two tropical storms and three Category 1 storms in a year, the average intensity would be ((2 * 1) + (3 * 2))/5, or 1.6.  The 5- and 20-year averages summed the number of storms in each category, did the multiplication, and then divided by the total number of storms.  I didn’t fall for the “average of averages” trick.

The interesting thing about this chart is that recent average storm intensity is at or below the historical norm.  The high point in the 20-year rolling average is in the late 1960s.

I’m not sure what conclusions, if any, to draw here.  Well, I can draw one for sure:  the recent hurricane activity is way above normal.  Why we’re getting that activity is something I’ll leave to climate scientists.  Other than that, I just have questions.  Two in particular:

  1. I am curious about the sharp increase from 1935 to the plateau starting in 1953.  The 20-year rolling average is almost completely flat from 1953 until 1995.  That’s pretty strange.
  2. I’d sure like to know why the average number of storms hitting the U.S. doesn’t show an increase similar to the total number of storms.

I was a little surprised to find just how far current activity is from “normal.”  I expected it to be perhaps a little unusual.  I’m not yet ready to call it a trend, although if the next ten years are as active, I’ll start wondering what the heck is going on.

I’d be interested in any comments you have about the raw data, my methods, or my interpretations of the data presented.  I am not prepared, though, to have a discussion about what’s causing the recent spike in hurricane activity, because I haven’t yet seen a credible hypothesis.  The honest climate scientists have said that they don’t know yet.  Perhaps more on that another time.


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