Introduction: Wood Carving the Female Form With Peter Boyd Woodcarving

The ultimate wood carving challenge - Pete is going to attempt to carve a 500 year old oak tree into the female human form. We will be following his progress on a day to day basis and learning about how a artist approaches his task, how he thinks and how he gradually hones his concentration to such a level that he can successfully carve a beautiful women's face in the tree.

His most famous work to date is 'The Goddess in the Forest' carved into a living tree which was hit by lightning at Cae Mabon in Snowdonia, North Wales, UK. This woodcarving sculpture is not only remarkable for it's captivating exquisite beauty but also for the story behind it which has real personal meaning for Pete. The mark of a true artist is that not only that the work he produces is beautiful, but that it has actual meaning on several or even many different levels. Also, there are not many woodcarvers who will attempt the female human form as it is so difficult to get right. Many people will carve bears and other animals as the thick coats give relatively amorphous forms rather than the delicate bone structure of a person. There is also the high risk that you create a kind of ugly Frankenstein with some or even just one important feature slightly out of place.

Presently, the Goddess is, as the title suggests, is almost a figure of worship for Pete and, striving to rid himself of the shadow that the Goddess holds over him, he is now bravely attempting another woodcarving sculpture of a similar theme. It is my task to document this adventure. Can Pete produce another world class sculpture, or will it just be ordinary wood carving craftsmanship? Will the Goddess release the hold that she has on him? Will the project be successful? It's all quite nerve wracking. No pressure!

Good luck Pete!

Difficulty:..........You need to be able to use a chainsaw
Hazards:..........You need chainsaw training

Step 1: Tools and Equipment

Chainsaws - they are probably the most dangerous hand tool you will ever use so make sure you get proper training in how to use them safely and wear the appropriate protective clothing, namely kevlar trousers, protective boots, face mask and ear deaf enders. Also, the chain mechanism should be well maintained and properly adjusted and the teeth should be sharp. Never start the chainsaw near the re-fuelling site or you might cause an explosion. Also the arbortech blade on the angle grinder is potentially extremely dangerous so do not attempt to use this tool without good general experience of powerful hand tools.

Step 2: Day 1 - Selecting the Tree and Transportation

There were a couple of different options for Pete in terms of where he would get his material from and much of it was down to ease of access and being able to get in contact with the land owner. Various different types of wood were possible, one of which was lime which is very easy to carve but not at all durable if it is for outdoors display. Ash was also a possibility but Pete dislikes this particular wood as it has too much 'bounce' on the chisels. In the end he went for a truly majestic oak tree that had been felled not 1/2 a mile from where he lives. As soon as he had cleared it with the owner, we went down with a few extra hands to try and shift it onto a trailer.

We soon realised that moving the tree by hand was going to be completely impossible as it looked like it weighed well over 1/2 a ton. Between us, we managed to work out that there was a JCB and a decent trailer on the premises if we could track down the right people to ask to borrow/hire them. At the start, it looked extremely complicated to organise with key people not able to meet in the same place at the same time. However, being extremely determined we quickly solved the problem by spotting a guy working with a JCB in a nearby field. Fortunately, he was getting very pissed off with the ditch that he was digging and was very keen to have a blast across the field to go and play with a tree!

Things started to happen very quickly and within ten minutes we had the perfect trailer behind my van on the roadside with the JCB already loaded up with the tree, steaming down the track towards us. The trailer was in position, the driver hopped out of his cab for a quick chat and ......... Oh my God ...... The JCB started moving slowly towards us on it's own accord. I screamed out as loud as I could "The JCBs moving ... Watch out!" But the driver seemed completely unflustered like it happened all the time and miraculously the machine stopped after about 2 metres!

After that minor incident, it was all relatively easy as we had a tractor at the other end with a hand brake that I KNEW DID NOT WORK! We did, however, drop the tree a couple of times trying to get it to stand upright, but nothing too tricky. Eventually we got the tree in position in my tractor shed and put wooden wedges all around the base so that it would be secure. The restraining straps were released and .... Hey Presto! ..... It's ready for work.

Step 3: Day 2 - Selecting a Pose With the Model

Before any chainsaws were started, Pete asked Cat, the model for the project, to stand beside it and there started a long and protracted conversation about where her arms and feet were to go. If we did not know better it would be easy to say - 'Come on Pete, just get on with it!' But once we all tuned in with what was going on we began to see it from the wood carver's point of view.

There were several really prominent features in the tree that were going to dictate how the carving worked out, one was the base, which allowed for the feet to be positioned on in front of the other. The other features were the stubs of former branches, which lent themselves to be used for arms. At this point in time Pete and Cat worked together to find a pose that used all the features of the tree to best effect. Nobody had a definite image of what the sculpture was going to end up like. In Pete's own words: "The work would reveal itself to them" rather than him exerting his will on the tree. Totally amazing!

Another aspect that was guiding Pete and Cat in their decisions was the grain of the wood as it's important that the grain is not 'crossed' near the base of the sculpture in the leg/ankle location. If the grain was not running correctly, the leg positions that they chose could cause catastrophic weaknesses in the sculpture that could cause it to break or be unstable. Fortunately, the grain was favourable for the forward facing leg position that they were seeking. The wood at the base also allowed for one foot to be lower than the other, which started to give the sculpture a dynamic effect.

Very early in the work, we started to appreciate how Pete works with wood as an artist. It's really not a case of having a preconceived idea of what it is going to look like, more seeing how it magically evolves with a will of it's own. It's very much like it starts to develop it's own character and the artist is simply a medium for some kind of spirit in the wood that wants to say something.

Step 4: Sacred Ritual

Having realised that the tree had a 'spirit' we decided that it would be a good idea to try and address the tree in a formal manner and apologise to it for cutting it down and promise that we would do something useful with it. We did a quick role play thing with Cat pretending to be the tree spirit but it soon began to look like, in Dylan's words, a scene from a 'cheap porno movie' so we quickly abandoned that idea! I had a chat with Pete the next day and we decided that he needed to be a bit more up front with the tree and not let it intimidate him in any way.

At this stage, things began to tie in with the previous sculpture, the famous 'Goddess in the Forest'. Pete was determined to rid himself of the shadow that the Goddess had over him. I suggested to Pete that Cat, representing the tree spirit the day before had 'walked all over him', and was threatening to take control and that he should approach the tree a bit more assertively. I'm sure this is beginning to sound really weird, but please stay with me on this one!

If you watch the short video, you will see Pete perform a short 'Hakka' like movement in front of the tree followed quickly by a moment of relaxation and then by a very bold and well spoken apology to the tree and a promise that he would do his best to produce a great sculpture - Perfect! The 'Intention' was now in place and things should go smoothly. No Tree Spirits were hurt in the production of this instructable.

Step 5: Day 2 - Marking Out and the First Few Cuts

After several hours of deliberation, Pete decided that enough was enough and it was time to just 'go for it'. He admitted feeling very nervous at this stage but knew that he just had to get on with it now. After drawing a rough outline of Cat in the pose that they had chosen, he started up his large chainsaw and proceeded to cut several huge chunks of wood out of the tree. Progress was now very rapid and we stood back in awe as the shape of the sculpture started to reveal itself very quickly. Pete was like a man possessed and at this stage could only be tempted away from the project by coffee and scones! We all knew he was totally psyched and would not mess it up and kept feeding him coffee until the basic outline was complete. It did not take long!

Step 6: Day 3 - Amazonion Warrior

'One of the great things about being creative is that you don't have a fixed idea of what it is going to look like and you have to be open minded about which way it is going to go'. Pete is finding himself guided in part by the model and the tree and does not try and exert his 'will' on the sculpture. At this stage he's looking to find a bit of 'active, confident purpose' to the sculpture so that it is not just a static thing that looks pretty. One of the ideas put forward was an Amazonian warrioress throwing a spear. However, after discussing this with Cat, this idea evolved into 'somebody throwing a wish to the universe', which was more in line with Cat's current life situation. As time went on this idea started to have a truly profound meaning for Pete as well.

Step 7: Day 4 - Using the Arbitech Turboplane

After a couple of days off to become mentally refreshed Pete continues work. He mentions that it is really important not to try to work beyond 100% as the inspiration tends to dry up and serious mistakes can be made. As time goes on, the project becomes more and more risky as one false cut could ruin the sculpture and make all the work to date a waste of time. Pete now starts to work with the Arbortech power tools to do some finer work and start revealing some of the grain in the wood. He also uses a powered respirator to protect his lungs from the dust which he says is essential to anybody undertaking this kind of project.

Step 8: Day 5 - Seeing the Curves and Shapes

Pete mentions here that using the power tools is much better for his body than the traditional chisel and mallet, which has more of a jarring effect on his wrists. He also mentions that it's not practical to have Cat, the model, there every day and that he can do quite a bit from photographs on his phone or printed out. He's also taken a very comprehensive set of measurements with a tape measure and callipers so that he can keep checking that everything is in correct proportion.

Pete will be using Cat as the basic guide for the sculpture but will add his own interpretation as he goes along so some parts of her body will be accentuated to produce some thing 'extraordinary' rather than just a straight copy of her figure which may well be technically correct but would not be proper 'Art'.

Step 9: Day 6 Angle Grinder Blows Up

Pete mentions how life and death is an important theme in the sculpture and that he likes the womb area of the female form. Obviously, the tree is dead, but Cat, the model, is a healthy young women in the prime of life. Ironically, the dust from the tree killed Pete's angle grinder as he neglected to check the ventilation ducts protecting it from overheating. He explains that it's really important to keep the Arbortech Turboplane sharp and keep the dust down.

Condensation on the inside of his visor has also been a bit of a problem so he sprayed the inside of it with some motorcycle visor anti fog spray made by Bob Heath.

Step 10: Day 7 Buttocks

Pete has to think very carefully how adjusting one part of the body will affect another. In this case, making the buttocks smaller will make the legs longer which then works well with the measurements that he has taken. The sculpture requires a tremendous amount of concentration and Pete always takes the time to step back and think about what he is doing rather than just 'carrying on regardless'.

Step 11: Day 8 - the Female Form

Pete announces that the female form is 'nothing like a bear'. Damn it, that's where I've been going wrong all these years! Being serious, he says that it is much harder to carve a women than a man or a bear. A bear is largely an amorphous form covered in a loose scraggy coat and you can give the bear huge paws or a small head and it would not spoil the sculpture. Similarly with a man, you can make mistakes like too big a muscle in the wrong place and it will just look more manly whereas if you do that on a female form the 'manly' mistake is totally inappropriate. The other danger is that you make the women look like a child by taking features like the nose down too small.

There is also the need to avoid 'everything becoming melted' by smoothing everything off. There are numerous important parts of the body where outlines are very important like the large muscles in the back and the angular shape of the pelvis.

The ankles of the sculpture are now starting to get thin so there is a mechanical strength consideration to be aware of. Fortunately the grain of the wood is all running in the right direction at the base of the sculpture, but Pete might have to insert steel bars up the inside of the legs if needed.

One of the key themes of this particular sculpture that has evolved as time has gone by is the concept of flow and movement. When Pete is carving the hands he has one of them closed in a fist and the other open so the imaginary energy is flowing from one side to the other and out of the open hand. This was inspired by Cat's idea to be casting a wish into the universe. I wonder what she is wishing for? Also, what meaning does the sculpture have for Pete himself?

Step 12: Day 9 - Hitting the Metaphorical 'Wall'

Work started early today but Pete began to feel a bit annoyed with the sculpture and the perceived lack of progress. It was always going to be a 'make or break' day today or, more exactly a 'make or firewood' day as he starts to work more intensively on the face. After several cups of coffee, a corn beef pasty and an enormous chocolate brownie his spirits are buoyant once more. He says it's very easy to reach this kind of very difficult stage and just give up and it's important to remember the friends and family out there who have given him support. Hopefully, like the 'wall' that marathon runners often face, he's through it now and out on the other side.

Step 13: Day 10 - the Fine Details of the Face

Pete starts using hand tools to create the very delicate facial features. He is constantly referring to his notebook for measurements and the photos of Cat for proportions and very carefully removes the wood bit by bit until the face is revealed. He has to concentrate very hard at this stage and exercise the utmost patience as one false move and he could turn the whole sculpture into a Frankenstein!

Step 14: Using the Arbortech Power Chisel

Peter gives a quick run down of the Arbortech Power Chisel - how to sharpen the chisels, lubricate the mechanism and use the tool to quickly and effectively carve parts of the sculpture.

Step 15: Day 11 - the Wood Grain Is Revealed

On the last and final day, Pete puts some finishing touches on the fingers and carves in the hair. He also makes some interesting revelations - suddenly the sculpture comes to life as the grain of the wood is revealed and he talks candidly about what the sculpture actually means to him on a personal level.

Step 16: Full Frontal Photo of Finished Sculpture

Step 17: Full Video Playlist

Play all the videos from start to finish. Run time: 73 minutes.

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