Techniques on Carving a Higgledy-Piggledy House

Monday 9 July 2018

Why copy? Whenever anyone embarks upon the journey of trying to teach enthusiastic would-be carvers the necessary skills, two simple problems will almost certainly crop up in the process.

The first problem is to convince these carvers that they are capable of producing original work. Too often, sure that they have no artistic ability, they will carve piece after piece that is either copied from the work of others (often from very poor photographs) or worked from patterns and blanks from books, magazines or the numerous vendors specialising in such things.

As a result they never experience the joy that can be had from seeing an original idea materialising into an item of carving, admired by other carvers or members of the public. An enormous amount of encouragement can be had from admiring or even critical comments from others.

The second problem for any tutor who bandsaws learning projects or the ideas that students present for cutting out is how to get rid of all the offcuts that are produced in the process. In my old workshop these helped keep us all warm while we carved by acting as fuel for my log burner. Now, living in a thatched cottage this is not recommended, so I have moved to plan B.

It was with both these problems in mind that I took a leaf out of the American Cottonwood Bark Carver and started to explore the realms of whimsical houses and villages that have become such a regular feature in the USA.

One of the attractions of this style of carving is that there is no need for an extensive range of chisels and gouges. It is possible to complete such a carving using only a sharp carving knife (and safety gloves of course!)

The only controlling feature of carving like this is the shape of the offcut you use. Strangely, it is this limitation that actually makes the carving easier. You cannot get carried away with your design as the wood itself controls, to some extent, the direction you go.

Start with the roof

It is probably best to start by choosing where the top will be and begin to carve there. I would suggest a simple house first of all but don’t try to be too regular and symmetrical. This was my problem. I am a square and upright person, not doing crooked and leaning very well so I had quite a few difficulties to begin with. Let yourself go with the flow, using whatever wood is available.

Start with the roof and chimneys, not trying to carve too small and remember, with this style of carving, proportion, regularity and symmetry have gone out of the window.

Walls and shaping

If you taper the walls, making them narrower at the bottom you create more ground space, thereby giving more scope for later additions.

Once the first house is complete, you need to look at what wood is available for the next. By making undercuts you can make material free for the next house or detail.

You can link each feature with the previous one by steps or slopes giving continuity to the carving. Once you start doing this, you will probably have begun to formulate some kind of story. If you haven’t, show the carving to a young child and they will have a detailed story within minutes – just try it!

Step, windows and doors

There may well be places where you find it impossible to fit steps. If this is the case you can give the impression of stairs inside the carving by the use of open doors and strategically placed windows. It is not always what is there but what the viewer thinks is there.

The main thing to bear in mind is that there are no rules, no right or wrong, anything goes.

You are completely free to include anything you wish, you have the opportunity to experiment and practise as much as you wish – just let the story develop. You can be as fussy as you wish (or not) it is entirely up to you.

The general idea is to include as many different levels, angles and textures as possible. You can use bricks, timber of different types, rocks and stones and tiles as well as adding arches, tunnels, windows and doors. By leaving these windows and doors open or partly open you can add to the mystery of the piece.

Finally, as long as your cuts are clean and neat all that should be needed to finish the carving is to oil or varnish it or add a little dilute acrylic watercolour if that is what you wish.

You may not feel that this style of work is the accepted sort of thing considered to be proper woodcarving but I guarantee that you will have difficulty hanging on to any finished piece that you produce – they are very attractive to a lot of people. You will find a new kind of freedom in the way you carve and will never go back to mere copying. Try and see for yourself!