Christmas in July Has a Whole Different Meaning to a Santa Woodcarver
Woodcarvings play a major role in my Santa Keeper Mystery series. I write magical realism mysteries in which woodcarvings come to life. Magical realism is the acceptance of magic in the rational world.
As a woodcarver who specializes in Santa Claus carvings, July is the time to prepare for my busy season. In August I put all my other projects down and start carving Santas and other holiday figures. I need to have a large inventory to fulfill the fall and winter markets. I use the summertime to design and create new pieces. By autumn I will have a good selection for the customers. This is much like finding time to start a new story.
Designing New Pieces
I create new designs to keep my inventory fresh, like brainstorming a new story. I can get ideas for new designs by observing other artist’s mediums such as paintings, illustrations, glass work and photos. Observing other artist’s perspective makes the new design fresh and exciting. I look for color trends, decorative embellishments, repeated patterns and new techniques. Inspiration comes from many sources: nature, wall paper, clothing, catalogs, rugs, architecture, and others.
I have a coffee mug sitting on my paint table right now so I can look at the pattern and color of the decorative border around the bottom. I want to try and imitate the color and design on a Santa’s coat trim. It won’t be an exact imitation but more of an inspiration. Last year I purchased an old ugly sweater at a garage sale for $2 to examine a row of snowmen dancing across the chest. It is ugly but the snowmen pattern is cute.
Once I have a design in mind I sketch it out with pencil and paper. I keep in mind the nature of the wood and how I will convert the two-dimensional design to a three-dimensional woodcarving. Once I have a design I create a pattern and cut it out to apply to the wood.
For most of my carvings I use basswood, also known as American linden. The wood is pale tan with fine close grain. A wood carver can cut into basswood with ease with hand tools and chisels. My basswood comes from northern Minnesota. The best time to harvest basswood is in February when it is cold and the sap is not running. The cut pieces are either air-dried or kiln dried.
For my Santa carvings I will find a piece that is suitable in size and carve-ability. Most of my Santa carvings are between 8 to 12 inches in height.
I attached the paper pattern with glue or tape and trace the outline of the pattern on to the wood. I then go to the band saw and cut out the rough shape. This would be like the drafting process. I know where the completed work needs to go from here.
I use hand tools to carve such as knives, chisels, gouges and pencils. Some carvers use power rotary tools. I use power tools only when I want to carve harder woods like walnut, cherry, oak, maple, or ash. Keeping the tools sharp is important for the ease of carving and to make clean cuts. Tools must be sharp for safety. I use a pencil to establish the center lines and mark the wood where I plan to cut. The center line shows the carver direction to make cut. If I ignore the center line the carving may come out lopsided.
There are many rules and guidelines to follow when carving faces. I want to keep the wood carved face anatomically correct to insure a balanced face. I observe the width of the eyes, the placement of the ear and the width of the mouth as a few points of measurements. There are many levels of reality when carving faces. Some faces are caricatures, realistic or distorted to achieve humor or fright. With Santa carvings the expression is important. Remember Santa is a ‘jolly old elf’ so a happy expression is the most desirable. As in writing, describing the right expression will add realism to your characters.
Painting and Finishing
I clean the finished carving and give it a protective finish before I paint. I use acrylic paints to color and enhance the wood carving. I have taken several painting classes to learn techniques to gain confidence. Some of my carving colleagues fear the painting process. They have storage bins of unfinished and unpainted woodcarvings. To me painting a piece is a challenge and a pleasure. I can’t wait to try new color combinations and designs. Like a character for my stories, there are many layers to his personality that give the story more depth.
Once the paint is dry I spray on another protective coat. Then I apply a stain or colored wax to achieve an antique look. When that is dry the piece is buffed and signed, ready to be labeled, priced, added to inventory and marketed. I have a sense of accomplishment finishing a carving like finishing a story. I’m anxious to see what the beholder thinks.
Frequently people ask me how long it takes to carve a Santa. This question is difficult because there are so many steps involved to finish the carving. The answer depends on size, level of difficulty and my daily interruptions. And in my case whether the carvings speak to me or not – they can be so distracting at times.
Carving Santa characters is much like creating a story and the characters involved. With both, I start with nothing and create something alive and meaningful. I hope both give joy to those who possess my work. Well, back to carving the next.