Wood Carving is one of the most ancient arts in Human History, it exists since the first men in prehistory, and it is considered the fundamental woodwork method. Carved designs appear in furniture design, in the building components of our homes and places of worship, in the household items we use daily and as mesmerizing and beautiful decorative sculptures.
All its techniques are connected to handcrafted woodworking and usually use a cutting tool in one hand, a chisel with both hands or a chisel with one hand and a mallet with the other. The wood carving techniques always create wooden figures or sculptural ornaments of wooden objects.
Carving wood by hand involves innumerous methods and tools to turn the original raw piece into a finished work of art. The traditional carving tools that are used most often are: chisels, knifes, gouges, hammers, along with sanding, painting or other methods to carefully finish projects. Wood is a very light material that can take very fine detail and it’s easier to sculpt than stone. Being an easy material to find in nature and due to its versatility, it was always a favorite for artists.
A talented master wood carver needs to be able to adapt several different techniques and skills that take years of trial and error, practice and dedication to learn. This ancient art is always learnt with the experienced master artisans that pass their precious knowledge to the young generations.
One of the problems woodwork sculptures in general have is the fact that its survival is harder than the one of art pieces made of stone and bronze, for example. Wood is a living material that is vulnerable to decay, insect damage and fire. That’s why the wooden works of art are so precious and must be taken care of gently. The ancient wooden sculptures that lasted until our days are true treasures to Art History.
Many of the most important sculptures in oriental countries like China and Japan are made in wood. Woodwork is also a huge part of Africa’s traditions, most African wearable masks and ornaments are made of wood.
Some of the finest European wood carved art pieces come from the Middle Ages in Germany, Russia, Italy and France. In the past, religion had a huge impact in people’s lives, that’s why the themes present in European art are often connected to Christian iconography. Wooden sculptures were no exception.
Among the singularities of wood, we can focus on its fibrous nature and layered composition. As it is a living material, its characteristics change according to the specie of the tree that produced it. This means each type of wood has a unique density, shape and color, it’s complex and sometimes unpredictable. The wood can also be divided in the soft and hard categories. The softwood is the best to sculpt because it offers less resistance, but it’s less durable. The hardwood is complex to work with but allows an unbeatable level of quality and precision. Despite the colossal challenge, the best woodcarvers always use hardwood because it allows excellent finishes.
The trunk, being the part of the tree with the highest wood concentration, is the best one to sculpt, but the branches that grow from it are also great possibilities. The choice of the trunk for a project is vital because its original shape can inspire the sculpture’s concept. The artisan needs to pay attention to the knots and wood cracks. The seasons can also have an impact on the wood’s characteristics: a trunk cut in spring is very different from one cut in winter, temperature and humidity change wood. The wood cut from a living tree is also unlike one from a dead tree.
For some master artisans, wood is an irreplaceable material that allows them to express their thoughts and imagination like no other. They need to have a deep connection and knowledge about wood to be able to bring to life the best possible art pieces using it.
Some dedicated wood sculptors even accepted the challenge to manipulate wood from living trees. One example is the surprising Land Art piece called Ash Dome from the British sculptor David Nash, a project that started in 1977 and that is shaped like a dome. As time goes by, the artist controls the trees’ growth, so they always maintain that shape in a natural architecture, using ancient pruning techniques. David wants his work to be an ecological tribute to nature and a proof that wooden art can live longer than we thought it was possible.
Obviously, all master artisans agree that a tree by itself, as beautiful as it can be in its natural state, is not a work of art. The human intervention is needed to transform it into a true art piece. These words were spoken by Alberto Carneiro, a Portuguese plastic and ecological artist that created Uma Floresta para os teus sonhos.
Wood that was modified by fire, almost carbonized, can also be used to generate art, as we can see in the works of the Polish Brazilian sculptor Frans Krajcber or the Korean master artisan Seon-ghi Bahk.
On another side, we can also see outstanding works coming from wood altered by water, like wood sculptures from the collection “Ossos” by João Castro Silva that uses wood eroded by the ocean and the beach coast.
In the wood carving process, as in stone sculpting, the first step is to remove the excess of wood trying to obtain an outline of the final shape. The next steps involve more precise and detailed work. However, unlike stone sculpting, wood carving needs to chip according to the fibrous structure of the wood that is unique to each tree as it is affected by its growth.
Woodwork is a slow and hard activity that starts by using large cutting tools and ends with small blades. It is always a dedicated and detailed process that involves a lot of passion. The finest wood crafts come from the hands of the best master artisans that have not only the talent and skill but also the precious knowledge of one of the most interesting materials ever used in art.
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