Crafts Center teaches the art of wood carving

The wood carving workshop held at the Craft Center gives students the chance to create.

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Posted: Sunday, November 6, 2011 12:00 am | Updated: 2:01 pm, Fri Jan 4, 2013.

Students picked up a knife and pencil each, along with a block of wood, to take their first step towards wood carving. The wood carving workshop, held at the N.C . State Crafts Center, is instructed by Leon Harkins , who has been carving since he was 11 years old.

"I started when I was in middle school when I got a book on wood carving checked out from the library," Harkins , now 77, said. "I ended up doing all the pieces in the book, and haven't stopped since then."

The first lesson he gives in the class is on how to get a firm grip on the wood block, and how to get control of the knife for cutting safely.  Students have to draw the design they want to carve on the block, and then practice cutting it off. He makes them practice U-cuts, V-cuts and perpendiculars.

"The thing about wood is that when you take it off, you can't put it back like clay, so it is important to be careful," Harkins said.

The perpendicular cut is the hardest to make successfully, according to Harkins . To make it easier, he suggests the technique of taking wood off from one side, then the other, and finally from the middle, a little bit at a time.

The wood he uses to give his students their first bit of practice is basswood, the same type primarily used in Europe. It grows in mountainous areas, such as the Appalachian Mountains, and it is denser than normal wood because of the cool, crisp climate.

Harkins said he gets wood for his workshops mostly from lumberyards and sometimes from hardwood stores.

Carving styles he uses include carving in the round; relief carving, which refers to the carved subject being made to stand above the background; and chip carving, which is putting the design on wood and taking it out by small incisions.

Harkins has carved all sizes of wood in his lifetime, from very small pieces to 16-foot-tall totem poles. He has also done some pieces for the College of Engineering at N.C . State.

Mary Lynn, a statistics professor at UNC , came all the way from Chapel Hill to attend the workshop.

"I have always been interested in wood carving, and when somebody dropped out of this session and a spot opened up, I immediately signed up for it" Lynn said. "It's a long drive to this place, but we don't have anything like this Crafts Center at UNC , so it's worth it."

After the students have practiced for a while making cuts and removing tiny parts from their initial piece, Harkins gives them the actual blocks of wood from which they will carve out a wolf. This wood is a little thicker than the practice piece, but not much harder. The block has already been roughly shaped like a wolf, with the prominent anatomical details and posture of the animal to be carved sketched on it in pencil.

The students will have to carve off the extra pieces to make it finer in detail. They began by putting a center line around the piece, as Harkins describes to each student individually from where to take the wood out, and puts more pencil marks on their pieces to make things easier to figure out.

"You have to go around the tail, one side from the other, and then work on the legs," Harkins said. "Pay attention to the fact that one of the legs is in front of the other. Just keep working around, and once you get most of the wood out, I will guide you further."

Each student's wolf will be carved out part by part in a series of similar workshops and will be completed in about six weeks.

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