3. Carving tools: Huck still uses wood gouges from a set he received 20 plus years ago. Taken care of, a good set of gouges will last a lifetime. Huck feels strongly that Japanese steel is the very best steel. He largely uses Josei Moku Hanga To gouges obtained from the online retailer, McClain's Printmaking Supplies. Because I watched Huck's YouTube interview, I too, purchased the same tools from McClain's. (I'll take a moment to give McClain's some love, mostly so that everyone buys from them and they stay in business. I've since bought all my supplies from McClain's: inks, brayers, barens, their many beautiful papers, practically everything but the wooden spoon I use to hand rub prints—which I stole from our kitchen. They have excellent service and they publish tons of free information on how to choose, use, and care for your equipment. Sign up for the catalog, which is fantastic and also full of wood print art. I get the same thrill looking through the McClain’s catalog as I do the seed catalogs we get in the springtime. Check them out!) If you don't want to spend $200-$300 on a set of Hanga Tos, you have a couple choices. You can buy gouges individually. A 3mm V gouge, a 3mm U gouge, and an exacto knife can get you pretty far . In fact, you'll probably find, as I did, that you have a favorite gouge and use it for almost everything. (I watched one very talented young lady at bootcamp carve her entire intricate block with a V gauge that was huge. It must have been at least 6mm.) Personally, I almost exclusively use the fore mentioned 3mm gouges, exacto knife, and a 1mm U gouge that I'll review in a future blog post. Another option is a brand of gouges called Power Grip. These very affordable gouges come in sets around $50 and use Japanese steel. Huck gives this brand a thumbs up due to the quality of the steel, especially for students.
4. Carving with gouges: The best way to learn how to carve is to just do it. If you have some scrap birch plywood (or you can use the backside of the board you plan on printing), draw something simple and go to it. You’ll quickly learn the feel and the response of the wood to different pressures, the difference of feel when cutting with the grain verses across grain, using an exacto knife to score, etc. But here are some general pointers:
You hold the gouge in your dominate hand and push with your arm to sink the gouge tip and power it along in the wood. To protect your hands from muscle strain on long carving sessions, learn to use your arm to power the gouge forward, not the muscles of your wrist and fingers (you will use them sometimes, but get in the habit of using your arm). You use your opposite hand to steady and direct the gouge. Obviously, scoop away from you, not towards you. This just protects you from accidents. A nice sharp gouge will slice through wood like butter. It’s a great feeling. Just mind where the sharp part of the gouge is headed. V gouges tend to give you very fine detailed lines depending on how deep you go. The deeper you go, the wider the line becomes because of its V shape. They also do better cutting across the grain without splintering (you can sometimes run into splintering problems with a U gouge cutting across the grain). U gouges give you a wider path which does not get much wider the deeper you go. An exacto knife can be used to score the edge of a cut if you want to be sure to get a clean break (like around the letters on my block, for example). How deep to go is always a concern for first time carvers. The answer is not very deep. If you need a measurement, probably a millimeter or so. The white parts of the print do not become more white because you carved more deeply. (Depth of carving can get a bit more complicated with large white areas and I’ll cover that when we talk about inking.)
5. Where to carve: You will be carving away all the white areas of your drawing and leaving all the black lines you’ve drawn. These Sharpie lines will become the inked parts of the print. This is called 'black line' carving, when you transfer your drawing to the block and then carve around all the black parts. There is also another approach called 'white line' carving. This is when you stain the block black, make a quick sketch with white chalk or a white pencil on the block, and then carve out the image in a much more ‘winging it’ fashion. The German Expressionists loved and exploited this technique. Most modern woodcuts will use both black and white techniques. I ended up using the white line approach on the devil's face (something I will talk about more specifically on that blog day).
Finally, to make your carving life much easier, here’s a little trick: You will notice when you gouge out a white area of wood, it is difficult to distinguish the carved area from an uncarved white area of wood. To easily see carved vs uncarved wood, the old masters stained their blocks a light red or orange color. Now all the areas to cut can be easily differentiated from the drawn black lines AND the areas already cut (which will be white). Today, we use a big red Sharpie to do this, the magnum-sized one. Before you start to carve, cover the entire block with red sharpie. (Yes, cover over the black parts too. It’s quicker and easier to red the whole block. The black will show through the red just fine.)
6. Sharpening your tools: You will need to sharpen your gouges at least once a day. Huck likes to do it in the morning before getting started. Huck sharpens on a leather belt. This is usually called the strop method. It’s the same method old time barbers used to sharpen their straight razors. A leather belt, or a strop (which is a short leather belt for barbers), or a piece of wood with cow or horse hide adhered to it, will all work well for this type of sharpening. You will also need polishing compound. It comes in a stick, about the size of sidewalk chalk, usually green. Take the polishing compound and rub some on the leather. Now you are ready to sharpen. I will describe the process, but because this is highly visual, looking at a Youtube video or two might be helpful.
Starting with a V gouge (because it’s the easiest to master), put the green sharpening compound on a section of the leather and place the V gouge on the compound on one side of the V at a 35 degree angle, the tip pointing away from you. Pull the gouge toward you through the compound maintaining the 30 degree angle. (You will pull it about 4-6 inches.) Lift the V gouge and place it back at the point where you started. Repeat the process. You do not push the gouge forward. It will cut into your leather. You can put a little pressure on the blade as you pull it. You can pull it quickly. You will notice as you continue this process, the polishing compound will turn from bright green to dark green. Some people like to count strokes, like 50 for example. Others prefer to do it for a specific time, like a minute. After one side is finished, flip the gouge so that the opposite side of the V is against the leather. Now do this side just the same. Congrats. You have sharpened your V gouge.
The U gouge is a little different. You pull it toward you and push it away from you in a figure 8 pattern. Because you push it away from you, the angle is a bit more crucial. Too steep an angle and you will cut into the leather on the forward motion. I suggest starting with an angle around 20 degrees or so and increase it as you get more comfortable with the motion. Again you can count the cycles or do it for a certain amount of time. Like anything, you will quickly get the feel and be able to tell the difference between a sharp gouge and a dull one and the quality of your sharpening.
As mentioned, Huck feels that leather sharpening is the best and easiest method for keeping tools sharp for life. There are, however, other methods of sharpening you may run across, like sharpening with stones. Huck uses stones if a gouge gets a nick in the blade or some kind of unusual damage that needs to be ground out more aggressively than leather can accomplish. There are two common types of sharpening stones. Both work well. Water stones, which are soaked in water for 30-45min before sharpening, and oil stones, which use 3-in-1 oil on the surface of the stone as lubricant. The same motions are used for sharpening as with leather. If you use a water stone, however, make sure the tools are well dried afterward to avoid rust. A little 3-in-1 oil can be wiped on the blades to further protect them.
And while on the subject of gouge care: Don't toss your gouges or drop them. Don't keep them in a box all jumbled together and rattling around. This is how blades get damaged and nicked. Gouges should be kept rolled in a pouch (McClain's sells nice ones cheap), and their tips should be capped with the rubber tubing they are shipped with. This will ensure a lifetime of use.
7. Miscellaneous: Here are a few more tidbits that Huck has incorporated into his carving routine, largely in response to the wear and tear of long carving sessions on his hands and body.
Typically, Hanga To gouge handles come long and you cut them to fit your hand (they come with instructions on how to do this). Huck does not shorten his handles. This is because his first set came as a gift and he didn't know he was supposed to. By the time he found out, he'd gotten used to the long handles. He finds there is an advantage of the long handle when his hand and arm get tired, he can move his hand back on the handle for a bit more leverage. Being a disciple of Huck, I too, keep the handles long. I like them this way. That said, I have a new short handled gouge and I like it just as well. If you keep your handles long, I will warn to be careful with that extra leverage on thinner blades, like 1mm gouges. I've broken the blade because of the extra pressure you can exert.
Huck now wears gloves when he carves. He uses a brand called Impacto that makes gloves for construction workers and frequent box cutter or knife handles. He finds the box cutter version has pads that give him support in all the places that wood cutting demands. Over the Impacto gloves, he wears open-fingered weight lifting gloves.
Because the hand must grip harder on narrower objects, Huck also wraps his gouges with hockey tape. The tape increases the diameter of the handle (less grip required) and hockey tape specifically contains a grit agent for better gripping. When the tape gets worn or ratty, he peels it off and replaces it with new.
Few of us may find ourselves with a gouge in our hand for 8 or 12 hours daily for days on end. It is important, however, to pay attention to any aches and pains you might develop while carving. And so to end this block post, here is a quick warning story from yours truly: