Daily Fishing and Outdoor Report
Wednesday, March 02, 2011: What a day for outdoor knife building. I should know since I finished not one but two highly complex bakelite handles to (soon) hold carving blades. Craving knives, technically blades, are essentially finely tuned whittling tools for plug shaping, decoy fine detailing and purely artistic efforts.
Things have gotten very elaborate in the carving/whittling realm. Wood carving blades now include roughout carver, general carver, draper detailer, big detailer, upsweep detail, “butterknife,” and various inner-brand varieties.
The thing about finely made, finely shaped, finely tuned carving knives is the absolute delight in using them. Once honed to shaving razor sharpness, they are what a perfect camelhair brush is to a paint artist: a tool that allows the ultimate in fast and accurate creativity. And they feel great just to hold.
If you’ve never done any carving, you’re missing out of one of the truly soothing and satisfying aspects of outdoorsing. And there is, indeed, an inseparable alliance with between a love of the outdoors and the spare-time shaping of wood, soapstone, and even certain plastics into plugs, decoys, abstract images -- whatever comes to mind and hand.
Way too many folks think there are set-in-granite guidelines and procedures to carving. That’s absurd. Sure, there are methods to carve raw material into a spittin’ image of a favorite plug and “expert” ways to detail the final look of a decoy to perfectly match a given species but that’s a lot like assuming all art entails trying to paint the perfect looking apple. Nothing is further from carving reality. I can assure you there is a cosmic appreciation of whatever the hell it is you end up with. It’s your creation. Your expression. Free-carving is when things are the most fun.
I’ll be the first to admit it helps to know the basics. Nowadays, these can be acquired on YouTube, under “carving.” You can pick up all you need to get started in a matter of hours. To jump start the learning process, look around for some local lessons/classes. Around here these are often taught by top-notch carvers. The Tuckerton Seaport, the Loveladies Foundation of Arts and Sciences, High school nighttime specialty classes are good places to check for carving courses. I’m not wild about books, per se. They’re kinda good for learning terms and such but hands on practice is everything -- and it’s too easy spending time simply reading and intending instead of creating and learning.
Sidebar: When mentioning plugmaking, most folks think there is an absolute need for a medium lathe. Not necessarily. Expert carvers like Tuckertonians Alfie Stevens and Don Johnson make some of the most insanely cool plugs on the planet and use virtually no power tools. For them, it’s all hand carve and hand sand. Look for an upcoming story in The SandPaper and the mainland Leaders featuring both of these carvers.
For carving equipment, I get my raw material from http://www.deepwoodsventures.com. There are also a number of carving blades on eBay and at Amazon. I fully recommend buying finished knives/blades. While I make my own handles and reshape my own blades, I often wouldn’t wish that process on my worst enemy. From just my work handle-making labors today, I have two seeping wounds (third-degree abrasions) on each of my pointing fingers, which I’m sure won’t even be slightly healed before I rip them open again mounting my blades into the handles. In the interim, I can’t really carve comfortably because of the wounds. Kinda counterproductive to carving.
Cool thing: Find a nice section of mixed cedar/oak woods. There are sections of cedars woods all over Ocean County. Right off Rte 9 there are many such cedars sections. Walk on in and look for small blowdown cedars – long dead juvenile trees, maybe the thickness of a broom handle or less. These juvenile white cedars are often straight as a cane and relatively branch free – though also keep an eye open for a few with loads of tiny branches all along. Those branch point offer a beautiful knotty look when carved.
Using a small saw or even strong loping sheers, cut and gather to your heart’s content. You’re not killing anything. In fact, the longer they been dead, the better. Make sure to grab some super straight pieces four feet long or more.
Just like that, you’ve got some indigenous raw carving material, of a quality that people in many areas of the country pay big money for. It’s aged/seasoned white cedar – with a heart of not gold but reddish purple.
Back at the ranch, cut pieces down to a couple few inches. That’ll be for roughing out to shape lures. Go longer if you’re thinking in term of carving cedars plugs/bubblers for offshore fishing.
As for those long pieces, they’re just what they look like: future walking sticks. But more than that, they’re the very best way to break into carving. Lessons go from roughing off the bark to exposing the curvy dendrite-like black “contour” lines (created by hydrogen sulfide, often introduced via boring insects) to going deep at the end, reaching the deep purple heartwood. In many ways, a single finished walking stick, if done slowly and studiously, will take you from novice carver to a more-than-newbie status. Advice: Very lightly sand the finished walking stick, to remove accumulated dirt and hand oils -- and to bring out the wood’s true color. Try very hard to leave your stick’s carved “whittle” marks – those half-moons, of sorts. Resist the urge to sand them off for smoothness sake. The artistic aesthetic of seeing that human hands meticulously and painstakingly removed wood, bit by bit, actually makes even a first-time walking stick a sellable product. It’s art, dude. Congrats.