A Craving for Carving

By Tiffany Killblane, M1, Class of 2023 .

Woodcarving was actually something I started to decompress from the stresses of my previous work (college professor) and the “hurry up and wait” of the application process of applying to medical school. I still use it that way – when I need a break from studying, need to think, or just want to sit outside for a bit I’ll go grab my tools and whittle away. I think its important to have a hobby like this – it isn’t demanding by any means, and I can devote a few minutes to a few hours any given day to it. Its easy to pick up and easy to put back down, so it fits in with the demands of a medical student’s life pretty well.

My father-in-law actually did a lot of woodcarving, so when I expressed interest and picked up a few tools, he gave me his entire collection – he now has arthritis and can’t do much with them. It was a wonderful way to connect with him and I could see that it brought him great joy to teach me what he knew about how to use the various knives, gouges, and other tools. Seems like every time I see him he is giving me another tool, book, or tip nowadays.


Wood carving can have a lot to it; I use a variety of whittling knives, xacto blades, rasps (essentially giant graters or zesters but for wood)  gouges which are essentially sharp U or V shapes and chisels of varying sizes to cut at the wood how I want. Some folks use just knives, others even use chainsaws. The most sophisticated tool I used is probably a sanding wheel to smooth curves. The great thing about woodcarving is that there aren’t really any rules to it – all you need is a knife – preferably a sharp one, otherwise you will end up cutting yourself a lot – and a piece of wood. It may seem counter-intuitive that the knife needs to be incredibly sharp, but the more force you apply, the more likely you are to skip past the wood and into your hand that is holding the object. I have done so many, many times! To sharpen them, I keep a set of files and diamond stones on hand, but a good strop (piece of leather) is typically good enough as long as you pass the blade across it often.


I usually start with an idea, but wood tends to have a mind of its own, so to speak, and I have to adapt to whatever I find. The direction of the grain can really dictate how things are shaped as cuts don’t look good or parts will chip out badly if you try to go against it. In the heart, you can see an interesting looking knot that I discovered near the apex; I had to work around that as the grain pattern will change in all sorts of directions near the knot itself. I start by sketching out what I want to carve on the piece of wood I’m working with, then shape it with a combination of rasps and saws to the rough shape. From there, it’s a lot of knife and chisel work to tune the details. Gouges play a big role in getting depth to the piece. When I am satisfied with how it looks, I will sand it with some sand paper or use a dremel with a sander tip to get rid of some of the rougher looking spots. If I want to wood burn it, that’s the last step. The tool for wood burning is really just a pen that gets really hot at the tip. It has some different tip options so you can change the shape of it for stenciling or other applications, but I tend to use a calligraphy style one as I find it most versatile. It takes some getting used to, because again, the grain kind of dictates where the wood burner is going to go in a lot of instances. I’ve people use soldering irons like you would use on electronics, but the one I have is from a hardware store and meant for this kind of application. Some woods burn better than others and give better shading – pine is my favorite for wood burning art into. Basswood seems to burn just one color, but since I also enjoy drawing, it seems wrong to leave art without shading.

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