Carving Whimsical Houses, Day 1

My carving club, the Central Texas Woodcarvers Association, invited Rick Jensen to come teach a couple of classes locally.  After carving my first whimsical house back in March, I jumped at the chance to take a class from one of the best cottonwood bark carvers around.  Today was the first day of a three-day class.

The class title is something like Carving Whimsical Houses in the Round.  You’ve probably seen these things (if you haven’t, try here or check out Rick’s books) and wondered what kind of wood they’re made from.  Typically, it’s cottonwood bark.  That’s right, bark from the cottonwood tree.  The bark is exceptionally thick, and carves very much like a soft wood although it has a character unlike any other wood I’ve ever carved.

The class schedule is 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM (with a break for lunch) for three days in a row.  I thought this would be like other classes I’ve taken and there would be lots of down time.  Boy, was I wrong!  I was busy all day and I expect that’ll be the case for the next two days.

One of the things I find most interesting about carving these whimsical houses is that there’s no set pattern.  Most types of carving classes start with a bandsawn blank and everybody carves the same thing in the same pose.  Some classes let you pick from a small handful of blanks (an elephant, for example, in one of three different poses), but in the end every piece looks very much like the others.  You can see the common starting point.

 Carving whimsical houses is much different.  Each person starts with a blank that is just two pieces of cottonwood bark glued together with a thin piece of cardboard separating them.  I didn’t get to see the blank being made, but I assume it involves cutting and planing the pieces flat before sticking them together.  The glue used is simple Elmer’s white glue.

It’s done this way because we’ll want to take the piece apart to hollow it out after setting the basic shape of the house and drilling holes for the windows.  The final product will be a house “in the round,” with windows that actually let in light.  More advanced carvers even carve features inside the house.  I doubt that this class will involve that level of detail.

The blank I started with is shown on the left.  It’s 12″ tall, almost 9″ wide, and at a little more than four inches thick.

This probably wasn’t the best blank for a beginner to select, but I saw a display house that I wanted to use as inspiration, and this blank looked like it could be molded into shape.

Something else about cottonwood bark:  it’s not consistent.  With most woods, if you pick up a piece that’s 12″ x 9″ x 4″, you can be confident that it will be of consistent texture, hardness, etc. throughout.  Bark is much different.  There are soft spots, rotted sections, cracks in odd places, and irregularities throughout.  As a result, it’s nearly impossible to duplicate in bark another carving of any size.  Much of a bark carving’s design is a result of the material:  working around those irregularities.

The first thing to do when carving a whimsical house is rough out the trunk and leave some space to add features like roots and rocks around the roots.  Then we lay out the branches that surround the house and place the house in the tree.  It sounds easy, but it’s a lot of work.  Especially if you don’t have the proper tools.  The class notes recommended buying some large gouges, but I figured I could do most of the work with a knife.  How wrong I was!  It’s very difficult to take off those large chunks of wood with a knife of any size.  A large (1″ or larger) shallow gouge, on the other hand, works wonders, as does a power carver.

The picture on the left is after about three hours of drawing and erasing lines on the bark to lay out the branches, carving away wood for the trunk, and beginning to define the branches.  I took about half of the trunk wood away with a knife.  The rest went quickly with a power carver and an aggressive bit.  Another option for carving away the large chunk of trunk wood is a bandsaw, which is probably what I’ll use if I buy one of these blanks to bring home after I’m through with the class.

It’s probably hard to believe that what you see here is the product of about three hours’ work.  Understand, I’m new at this.  Also, I spent a whole lot of time trying to figure out how to make what I saw in my mind appear on the wood.  You can’t see it yet, but there are branches wrapping around both sides of the house and curving over the top.

After another few hours’ work, you can definitely see the branches on the sides.  I’ve defined the basic house shape and the roof line, and placed the house on a platform supported by two shorter limbs.

In the picture on the left, you can see that one side of the roof line is pretty strange.  There was some rotton wood there that I had to carve away, and I got a little too close to the join line in the process.  I’ll have to wait until after splitting and re-join before I clean up that part of the roof.  That’s okay, by the way.  The whole idea behind these whimsical houses is that they’re supposed to be irregular and even a little bit wacky.  After all, gnomes live in them.  Gnomes like to be comfortable.  They’re not terribly worried about silly things like straight lines, even floors and perfect symmetry.  To be honest, I think the gnomes who live in these houses revel in their wackiness.

You can see that I’ve also removed more wood from between the limbs near the trunk.  I’ll do more of that tomorrow after hollowing out the piece and putting it back together.  That process involves clamping the piece, and I don’t want the clamps to mar up my nicely finished carving.  So it’s best to leave as much detail work as possible until after the re-joining.

Finally, here’s the house at the end of the first day.  I’ve further defined the shape of the house and the roof line, set it into the branches, and have further defined the branches.  I’ve also drawn in doors and windows, drilled holes, and roughed out the openings. 

We drill holes and rough out the openings so that when we break the piece apart we know how deeply to hollow it.

I’m a little bit disappointed in how I’ve laid out the part with the door.  I have the door there, and one long narrow vertical window, but that side of the house looks a little bare.  Perhaps I’ll try adding a small window or two above the door.

I’m going to have some difficulty separating the two shorter limbs under the house.  That was poor planning on my part.  Although I probably could (and probably should, too) do it before splitting the house apart, Rick said that he’d like to try helping me do it once we’ve split the piece.  The potential pitfall is that I might booger up the nice flat edge and have to re-plane it before gluing the pieces back together.  That’ll cause me to lose a frraction of an inch, but there isn’t any detail there, so it’s worth the risk.

This last picture shows one side of the house where I decided to put two limbs rather close together.  The piece of bark strongly suggested this configuration, but it’s been difficult to work with and I’ll likely need some help before it’s done.  There is very little space between the two limbs, and I need to round them quite a bit more.  Of course, rounding them will remove material, which will give me more space to work.  This is the primary reason I’m having difficuly separating the two shorter limbs under the house; there’s no straight line path to get a tool under there because these two limbs are in the way.  Removing either one would make things much easier.  But then, the piece wouldn’t look near as cool as it’s turning out.

All told, I’m very happy with the way this project is shaping up.  I do need to get some more appropriate tools, though, if I’m going to do more of these houses.  A large shallow gouge is a must, and I need a few V-tools, as well, for outlining and for removing wood in narrow places.  Using one side of a V-tool like a chisel is surprisingly effective.

You can see more pictures of the work in progress on my Facebook photo album: Carving Whimsical Houses in the Round.  And, of course, I’ll update here after tomorrow’s class.

View Day 2.