A Promise to Myself and #59

Posted by Whit Barringer , Monday, October 04, 2010 11:04 AM

I've been lamenting my absence from this blog, considering it's my only official persona online anymore (all of the others being defunct or abandoned). Since I know people who blog every day, and I have been reading the 120-year-old diaries of a man who wrote nearly every single day of his life for 51 years in the 19th century, I've felt a creeping inspiration. 

So. I've decided to split the difference between blogging every day and my inevitable laziness and promise to post three times a week on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I can't promise that they'll be much good at that rate, considering how hectic my life is now, but they will never be a one word post.  I'll give you something good, whether it's a story link, a video, a picture, or an actual honest-to-God blog post.  There will be many times this semester when sparse posts will take every ounce of my being to post due to how much of my time is spent doing grad work (on the aforementioned diaries alone, I'm spending about 22 hours - that's reading and then doing a written exploration - on each diary year every week). But it's my promise, more to myself than to anyone who's reading this (you're more than welcome to come along, however).

To make good on my promise and make this more than just an update post, I thought I'd update you all on how #59 is going.

I decided to try whittling and carving as a way to pass my time in the apartment (where I am 95-100% of the day) that wasn't video game related. From what I knew of the hobby, I really didn't need much, so a small investment would get me pretty far.  Once I developed some skill, I could decide whether I wanted to get deeper into the hobby or go ahead and do my mastery project (I'll explain in a minute) and call it done.

I made several mistakes when I decided my approach to #59. The first was my underestimation of the hobby itself. Whittling and carving is pretty intense. Background noise while working is okay, but it requires concentration and time.  Almost every project that I could do that appeals to my standards for carving takes days, weeks, or even months to complete.

My second mistake was honestly thinking whittling and carving were the same thing. They most certainly are not. Carving has a refined connotation that whittling does not have, due to the methods that are used to achieve the final product. Whittling is about controlling your knife but not worrying about the rough edges. Whittled pieces look blocky and have a lot of flat planes on them. That comes from mainly using one kind of straight-bladed knife throughout the entire project. 

Carving, however, is a different beast. Carving is all about control, smoothness, continuity, seamlessness, and presentation. Carving tools are designed to make smooth cuts, or at the very least mask where you made subpar ones.  In general (from my brief, mind-boggling look at the books I have), a whittled project is more likely to be painted, while a carved project is more likely to be stained. Whittling is more folksy; carving more professional. Whittling naturally has a whimsical and unrefined feel; carving is dramatic and stately. These are wide generalizations, but it's what I've been able to skim from the top of such deep and ancient skills.

Imagine my surprise when I started ordering whittling and carving supplies and resources only to find out from the books coming in that I didn't buy the right thing. So I splurged when I shouldn't have and experimented with tools themselves without the book telling me what to do. I found out very quickly why most pieces, whether they start out more as whittling or carving, end up using both.  The good woodworker, a voice in the back of my brain told me, would be able to master both.

My third mistake came from my location. I live in an apartment, and noise travels quickly (I got six noise complaints right after I got the newest Coheed album).  Woodworking, at its more advanced levels, refuses to be quiet: mallets start coming into play, as well as drills, sanders, saws, etc. Spacewise and soundwise, this hobby can quickly become incompatible with the fruits of "budget-living." I'm far from the mechanical bit, and I'm still a bit away from the mallets (if only because I can't afford one and the carving tools that come with it). It's the spatial part with which I'm having a fit. My roommate and I barely have enough time to clean or enough room to walk as it is. Building a workstation of the type suggested by virtually every magazine and book I have looked at is simply impossible (unless I put stuff out on the balcony in the cold weather).

My fourth mistake, and possibly the one that will cost me the most time, was overestimating my ability to work on my mastery project. My #59 Mastery, at least on the whittling side, was going to be a chess set. I don't know what it will be on the carving side, or what my whittling mastery project would be if I carved chess pieces, but I have this vague wonderful idea of a detailed chess set with oversized pieces that would become a family keepsake.

I'm currently working on a turtle.  It was a template with a plaster model.  When it came, it basically said, "Go at it and have fun." I've spent three hours on said turtle in total, and it's coming out of the wood. But I have absolutely no creative experience in the realms of drawing, painting, or sculpture. There is a learning curve that I did not foresee, whether because of my own overconfidence, my lack of knowledge, or both, and I have turned what I thought would be a year-long hobby into a multi-year multi-stage possible obsession, in which I apprentice myself vicariously to the men and women who write books on carving and post on woodcarving forums.  This is all to say, my mastery project, the project that, when completed, will allow me to cross #59 off of the list, is a multi-year project from where I stand today. It's all very daunting to say the least.

Feeling discouraged, I decided to just go to town on a block and see what came out of it. I had no idea what I was doing or what it was going to be. I had an inkling that a boat would be kind of neat, so I began whittling it more and more into the basic shape.  I realized that my tools were wrong for carving out the curved middle of the project, so I had to order even more tools. When I finally got them in and was able to really dig in, I was able to make in about two nights a little boat. Misshapen, yes. Crude as well. The inside bottom of the boat is grooved and rough, while the outside is sanded and a little pock-marked.  The bow and stern are not symmetrical. I slashed my hand four times and stabbed my thumb and middle finger twice in the process. Ugly as the whole process was, I still fell in love with my boat.

 The inside of the boat. The piece of wood on the left is about two inches longer than the single piece from which the boat was created.
 The underside of the boat. All of the visible shavings are from hollowing out the inside.
We didn't have any bandaids Paper towels and packing tape was the next best thing.  The bandaid situation has been taken care of with a package of awesome Transformers band aids.

My confidence having been restored, I have decided to soldier on. Once I finish that damn turtle, I might feel invincible.  It's too late to turn back now, anyway.

Any of you get into a hobby that got over your head in about two seconds?

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