« You might see a bird »
Interview with Douglas, amateur in wood carving
Wood carving school, Tirol, Austria, December 2013
Douglas was a General Manager at Mercedez-Benz in Sydney. Since retiring, he has been rediscovering his passion for wood work and learning the art of wood carving. He comes regularly to Europe to attend an intensive wood carving course in Tirol. We wanted to find out more about his approach in wood carving and his interest in attending courses in Austria.
When did you start wood carving ?
I started wood carving 5-6 years ago, after retiring. And I joined a woodworking club in Melbourne. There are about 110 members. It’s been going for quite a lot of years and it’s a very good club. There are wood turning, box making, carving, Intasia and the scroll-saw section. There have got first class wood equipment there. The Club is run by volunteers. One or two of them have worked in tech-schools,
quite a few are tradesman, so they’re pretty good with machinery. The others who are not tradesmen, like me, can get pretty good assistance, when needed.
From making furniture to wood carving
I first joined The Club as a box maker, because I wanted to make furniture, and to me, boxes are a good foundation for furniture. Furniture is just made up of big boxes. Once we know how to make a nice box, with different joints, you just expand this to make bigger boxes for furniture.
I’ve always been interested in wood work. That came about because my father died during the war in Burma [Myanmar], and we grew up with my grandparents. My grandfather was a very good general handyman at anything. As kids, we always were sawing wood, nailing wood and making kid stuff. My brother and I have always been interested in it.
So you first started with box making.
Yes, I was box making for about a year and a half. Then I got a chance to do a little bit of wood carving.
A weekend in the countryside
Once a year, The Club organizes a weekend in the countryside, about an hour away from Melbourne. There are about 60 of us, not only people from my club, but also from another half a dozen clubs. We go there on Friday and come home on Sunday, and we just spend the whole time carving. Everyone carves.
This has been going for about 15 or 18 years now. That’s when I decided I’d like to come to Austria. Because some of the box-making or wood-carving people I got to know in Australia have been in Tirol.
Elisabeth and I then decided to come in December 2009 for the first time. And I’ve been here three more times ever since.
From Melbourne to Tirol
How does your club knows about this wood carving course in Tirol ?
From the Internet. Everyone goes on the Internet and checks stuff out.
It’s quite a long way from Australia. But nevertheless you come every year !
Well, what happens in our club is that if you work with a group of people, with any pursuit, unless you get someone from outside who has got better skills than you do, you just stay on one level. What I want to do is improve. And to do that, I’ve got to go with the people who are better than the people I usually mix with. There is nothing wrong with the people I mix with. It’s just that we are all on about the same level.
There’re no teachers in your Club ?
There’re no professionals. There are some very good carvers, really good carvers, but I tend to look at
pieces that are a little bit beyond me, as I do with the piece I am currently carving here, the Nightwatchman. He’s really at the top end of my capabilities. In fact, I struggle with him. But because you get professional teachers here, they can get you through it. Whereas if I was still in Australia, I would never go through with it. Because no one there is competent enough with figures, human figures. And I like to do that when I come to Austria.
We carve plenty of things in the round at home, like animals, birds. And we do a lot of relief carving. But we don’t have anybody who is an expert in the human form. So that’s my interest in coming here. I have also come to Tirol to learn different sharpening techniques, and specific uses of chisels. I’ve got probably 50-60 very good chisels, but I get to learn how to use them better here, because there are professionals who change between the chisels so quickly. You get to pick up some of that technique.
This year we’ve had two people from our club who’ve come to Tirol ; Next year another man is coming, so you know, through word of mouth, we do get people
coming from Australia regularily. And I think people will continue to come.
« It was a tree and its life goes on. »
Why are you interested in wood ? Have you tried stone, for instance ?
I have tried stone, in fact, soapstone. And we carved quite a bit of sandstone or limestone at home. But I like wood, because wood is so tactile. If we get a new piece of wood, in The Club, that no one has ever seen, everyone drools over it. It gets everyone’s attention. We don’t think wood ever dies, you see, even if you carve something, wood keeps shrinking and absorbing moisture, and then shrinking and absorbing some more. So it’s something that is perpetual. It was a tree, and its life goes on. And we help by carving, giving it some life and some purpose after it is no longer being used in the bush. And it’s very tactile – the grains in the timber and the colors. Particularly in Victoria, where I come from, or in Australia generally, we use hard woods, and some of the grains are very striking. It’s beautiful.
« I like the process. Selecting the timber for the project. It gives me a lot of pleasure. »
What goes on your mind when you carve ? Why is it that you like spending hours just carving ?
It has something to do with the end product. But the process has probably more to do with it: to be able to transform a square block of wood in a few days, into something that can be quite interesting and beautiful, it gives me a lot of pleasure. So, it’s the process. I like the process as much as the finished product. Quite often, I have lots of carvings at home in a shed. I don’t even see them, because the process is complete, and I’ve given enough away to my kids, they don’t want any more. So I’ve finished off and it’s stored. And people have asked me, why I don’t have a sale to sell them off. But I don’t really want to sell anything ; I don’t have any commercial inclination.
It’s the process. Selecting the timber for the project. [When you find a piece of wood, you might « see » something in it, a form, an animal,] you might see a bird.
I’ve got some timber I’ve had for two or three years, [and I keep it aside,] because the right project hasn’t come yet.
Does it mean that you have to « see » the project when you see the timber ?
Yeah. Quite often, I’d get bits of natural timber that looks like rubbish, but I can see something in them. And I keep them for quite a long time until I’ve worked through how it is going to fit with what I have in my mind. A lot of other men in my club do the same. When we see a piece of timber, we know it’s going to be good for something, but we’re not sure just yet. Also, it’s too good not to have, so we hold on to it. Everyone holds timber, just in case the right project comes along. And it’s amazing, sometimes you see something and you say « that bit of wood fits ! » so you go and get that bit of wood and you’re on your way.
We are real hoarders with timber. We’ve all got timber we can’t use. I’ve got more timber that I can use in my life ! Just in case. And I’m looking for more every day !
Do you know the hard rubbish collections, when you can leave on the street at night the rubbish you want to get rid of, and the council sends a truck to collect it ? Well, when the hard rubbish goes out, we are out looking at the rubbish. Because people put out old furniture, and old furniture has very good timber, very good wood ! Unlike now, when you get cheap timber that is made out of furniture these days. So we are out, like hawks, and we are looking for it. In the night, we go out and knock on the door of people’s houses and ask « Can I take… ? Do you mind ? » « Oh of course ! » We love that. It’s a good process..
The forms in natural timber
I make walking sticks and I find that – apart from the things you can carve, like a fish out of a model in a book, or gargoyles for door handles – there are quite a lot of natural forms in the fork of a tree. I did one walking stick last year. The timber came from a fruit tree that we pruned – a peach tree – it had magnificent bark. The timber came up to a fork
and had the little curve for handle, with a bit of a knot on it. I carved a fox’s head in it. A beautiful little fox. And it wasn’t hard to do. But that’s what you get chasing.
This right moment. This inspiration ?
Yeah, that’s it. I’m just looking for the next thing. If I didn’t have to do a bit of work around the house, I’d just carve. I’ve got a small studio just for carving. There is a window and I can look across my paddock to the forest. You know the dog house ? – this is called Doug’s house! [laugh]
This time of the year, [high Summer in Australia], we have to clean up because of the bush fires. Australian native’s [gum trees] drop branches incessantly, so we have to clean up and set fires. I had two big fires before I came away – just to clean up the rubbish. Some days I might spend four or five hours mowing grass. But if that’s not happening, I do carve.
Interview with Douglas, Amateur in Wood Carving