Learning to carve with the Northern Alberta Woodcarvers’ Association

NAWCA Logo

Photo: Erin Wallace

I’ve always wanted to be able to create something that is both beautiful and useful. I cross stitch, which is really more decorative than practical. I’ve tried knitting, and it’s not working out too well (I’m the only person I know who has sustained a knitting-related injury). So after seeing all the wonderful things my husband and father-in-law have created as members of the Northern Alberta Woodcarvers’ Association (NAWCA), and learning that the club is always open to new members, I saw an opportunity to learn a new skill and create beautiful, useful things. How hard could it be?

The Northern Alberta Woodcarvers’ Association was started in 1980, to promote and teach the skill of carving wood and to provide a supportive place for carvers to work and learn together. The group members (approximately 80 to date) work on chip, relief and bark carving, both by hand and using power tools. They carve ornamental figures of birds, animals, fish and human caricatures, and create the wizened faces of wood spirits and intricate whimsical houses out of cottonwood bark. They add beauty to functionality by carving intricate canes and walking sticks, and traditional Welsh “love spoons.” The group combines their talents every year to carve ornaments for a Christmas tree donated to the Festival of Trees, and compete in the club’s annual carving show and sale. They are a diverse group of people who share a common interest in an old art form.

The first day

Northern Alberta Woodcarervers Association meetings <em>Photo: Erin Wallace</em>

The members of NAWCA work collectively on their own projects during a typical weekly meeting. Photo: Erin Wallace

I tag along with my husband to one of the weekly carving meetings, held every Wednesday at Duggan Hall (3728 106 St.). When we arrive at around 6:30 p.m., carvers are seated around a U-shaped collection of tables, quietly hard at work on their individual projects. The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly, and members frequently get up from their work to visit and offer comments and suggestions on each other’s projects.

I’m greeted right away by Donna, a long-time carver and the wife of the club’s president, Doug. She gives me a little wooden “blank” in the rough shape of a Christmas stocking, a pattern on paper, and one of her own knives to start working with.  I’m ready to start carving a Christmas tree ornament.

The beginnings of a Christmas tree ornament.

The beginnings of a Christmas tree ornament. Photo: Erin Wallace

After a quick tutorial from my father-in-law Jack about the three types of cuts — lever cut (away from yourself), paring cut (towards yourself) and stop cut (notches you make to carve up to) — I find a free chair, next to a man who introduces himself as Heinz. We chat as I start digging into my blank.

Heinz tells me he had always carved a little, up until about 30 years ago, when he started to really pursue his hobby. He’s been with the NAWCA for more than 20 years. A member of the Sculptor’s Association (he carved the six-foot-tall permanent Sam Steele figure on Broadmoor Boulevard in Sherwood Park), he likes to bring his work to club meetings to get opinions. Heinz introduces me to a good philosophy for my carving endeavours: “Don’t call it an error, call it an adjustment.”

I’m already starting to see that some adjustments are needed on my carving.

The second try

After missing a couple of meetings due to the Christmas season, I’m back and ready to try again. I’ve changed my project, to the peanut butter spreader that most new carvers start with. My father-in-law has found me a carving glove for a left-handed carver — you wear the glove on your non-dominant hand, and it’s valuable protection against the very sharp knives that you work with. I have my blank, cut into a rough version of a knife-like spreader, and a knife borrowed from my husband, but I’m not ready to carve yet. I want to visit a bit first.

My project starts out like most: as a "blank" cut from an easy-to-carve wood, such as basswood.

My project starts out like most: as a “blank” cut from an easy-to-carve wood, such as basswood. Photo: Erin Wallace

I sit down beside Julie, who joined the club fairly recently, about 1.5 years ago. She’s a carpenter by trade, and actually had hoped to carve wood as her profession when she moved to Edmonton. The post-secondary wood carving program she had wanted to join unfortunately ended before she could apply, but luckily she found this group. Right now she’s working on turning a small chunk of basswood into a goat’s head for a marionette. She’s never made a marionette before, but she loves them, so she’s reading up on how to put all the pieces together.

Northern Alberta Woodcarvers Association member

Julie works on transforming a chunk of wood into a marionette. Photo: Erin Wallace

I’m sure that the other carvers will be on hand to help her. Everyone in this club benefits from the experiences of the other members. There is such an open, sharing atmosphere at these meetings — the members are supportive and friendly, whether you are an experienced carver or a total newbie like me.

As I start to work on my peanut butter spreader, my first task is to round the edges. My husband shows me how to draw a line around the middle of the blank, to create a mid-point, and to make stop-cuts where the handle meets the blade, creating notches to carve up to. As I begin to hack away, he also shows me how to carve with the grain of the wood, to avoid taking ragged chunks out of my carving. So far I’m creating an impressive pile of wood shavings, and I haven’t cut myself, which I feel is sort of a miracle. After about half an hour, my hands are getting a little tired, but I can see that the edges are actually getting rounder, and the handle is starting to look like a handle. The carver next to me, Paulette, suggests that I try to take smaller “nibbles” out of the wood, instead of bigger chunks (I have to fight the urge to make big, sweeping cuts, like peeling vegetables).

Northern Alberta Woodcarvers Association member

Friendly carvers like Paulette make everyone feel welcome. Photo: Erin Wallace

Paulette says she realized that she wanted to be a woodcarver when she found herself reading a book at Windsor Plywood about how to carve Santa Clauses, and after half an hour, decided she’d better just buy it. A trip to Lee Valley Tools to buy her first carving knife introduced her to founding NAWCA member Llew Bertsch, who told her about the woodcarvers’ club. She’s been a member for more than 15 years.

Originally from 150 Mile House, B.C., Paulette finds the sight and smell of the wood to be a comforting reminder of home. Currently she’s working on several chubby little reindeer, which she says are evolving to look more like moose. That’s the way woodcarving goes sometimes, she says. You follow a pattern but carvings take on a life of their own.

The carving continues

Reindeer or moose?  Either way, Paulette's carvings are pretty cute!

Reindeer or moose? Either way, Paulette’s carvings are pretty cute! Photo: Erin Wallace

My spreader is gradually taking shape. Well, it looks different, anyway. I worry that symmetry is going to be a problem for me. And my cuts aren’t uniform, so the overall surface of my project looks kind of lumpy; actually, it kind of looks like the stone tools I learned about in anthropology class at university. My husband reassures me that these uneven bits are called facets and some carvers use them for effect on the surface of a finished project. Well. Maybe I’ll try to use facets for the handle, but I really would like the blade to be smooth and uniform.

wood carving

Halfway done! It’s starting to look less like a block of wood and more like a spreader. Photo: Erin Wallace

Everyone at the meeting who comes by as I work is friendly and supportive. I hear lots of “You’re doing so well!” and “Just keep working at it — everyone starts with this project!” There is such a wealth of experience in this group. I can hardly believe that these carvers, who turn out amazing lifelike birds and animals, or whimsical houses so full of detail, ever started out with a lowly peanut butter spreader. This is a diverse group — retirees and thirtysomethings, parents and children — working together.

Victor carved this chain from one piece of wood.  Seriously.

Victor carved this chain from one piece of wood. Seriously. Photo: Erin Wallace

And then there’s Victor. At 15 years old, he’s one of the youngest members of the group. Victor started carving about three years ago — he was spending too much time on the computer and needed a hobby, he says. Considering that he also plays the piano and the violin, and volunteers as a costumed interpreter/entertainer at Fort Edmonton Park, I’m not sure where he finds the time for a hobby. He likes to carve animals, but he’s also carved a whimsical house (complete with a tunnel!). He shows me some of his other carvings, including a chain carved from a single piece of wood, and I’m impressed and, quite frankly, a bit intimidated. This kid’s got talent.

The finished(?) project

Years ago I tried whittling for the first time. I ended up with a large pile of wood shavings, and a smaller stick. After several serious carving sessions, my peanut butter spreader has been rounded, shaped and sanded. It’s not exactly what I imagined it would be, but it does look better than I expected. There’s a lot more I could do to it, to decorate and personalize it. But I feel a sense of accomplishment for this simple little carving, and I’m thrilled to have gotten to know the members of this group.

The finished peanut butter spreader!

The finished peanut butter spreader! Photo: Erin Wallace

Each member of the club has their own specialty or interest, but they work together to carve special projects. They come to the meetings because they love to carve and to learn more about it (and they also come for the coffee). This diverse club is always looking for new members, and if you want to learn how to create beautiful, useful things, they will help you learn.

The Northern Alberta Woodcarvers’ Association meets every Wednesday, 6:30 to 9 p.m., at Duggan Community Hall (3728 106 St., Edmonton). You can learn more about the club at nawca.ca. New members are always welcome!

The Woodcarver's Club Christmas Tree, donated to the Festival of Trees in 2015.

The woodcarvers’ club Christmas tree, donated to the Festival of Trees in 2015. Photo: Erin Wallace

A whimsical house, carved from cottonwood bark.  A project I may be ready to tackle many, many years from now.

A whimsical house, carved by my husband. A project I may be ready to tackle many, many years from now. Photo: Erin Wallace

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One Response to “Learning to carve with the Northern Alberta Woodcarvers’ Association”

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  1. Llew Bertsch says:

    Great article Erin. Would you be interested in doing a history article of the NAWCA?