Tom Huck Woodcut Bootcamp Day 3: Learning To Carve Huck Style

Huck gives us a carving lesson (pic by Shannon Cousino).

Huck gives us a carving lesson (pic by Shannon Cousino).

Shannon, our Den Mother, told us we'd fall into a routine after a couple days of bootcamp chaos. And that's pretty much what happened. Officially we are to be up by 8am. Shannon does this by blasting our morning wake up song. The first morning it was Crazy Train. That's the only one I remember; well, and the last song on Sunday, Poison’s Home Sweet Home. Even though I was only getting 4 or 5 hours of sleep, I was usually up by 6:30am, trying to stumble quietly to my work station and get to carving. I'm typically a 9 hours of sleep necessary guy. So it was really interesting to get by on half that. Part of it was driven by terror, the possibility of not being ready by print day. The other part was excitement. I discovered jumping out of bed to do something you love is quite a bit different than waking to go do something you don't. For the rest of the week, this was my routine:

1. Wake up, look around and see if anyone else is working (Bryan was always up. He was in the military. Guess early to rise stuck with him.)

2. Brush my teeth

3. Work on my piece until Shannon unlocked the front door (we were locked in at night).

4. Walk 5 minutes down the street to this amazing grocery store called Fields where they have a coffee bar, a beer bar, a sushi bar, a sandwich bar. I've never seen anything like it; clean, everyone friendly, just fantastic. It's a little like Fresh Thyme where I'm from, but on steroids. So I'd get my coffee, some fruit, then head back to the print shop.

5. At 8am, the wake-up song would play. At this time we are to pack up all our sleeping gear and stow it in our assigned place along the wall and out of the way.

6. Onto the shower (or lack there of). On the list of items to bring, one was “lots and lots of baby wipes.” What is this for, I pondered. For removing ink, most likely. Well, yes, they're good for that, but mostly they're for a bath when you don't have a bath. A bit awkward at first, but by mid-week I was quite adept at a full body baby wipe rub down. Put on some fresh clothes, pick out a black ironic t-shirt, a hat, spritz a little acqua di gio and I'm a new man. Back to the carving board looking dandy and smelling fresh.

7. Eat breakfast (usually fruit and a bagel) while carving. Yes, my board has peanut butter on it.

Looks disgusting, right? This is our bathroom sink. I like this sink. This is an art sink, stained with ink , paint, and creativity tears. We all learned how to wash our hair in this sink.

Looks disgusting, right? This is our bathroom sink. I like this sink. This is an art sink, stained with ink , paint, and creativity tears. We all learned how to wash our hair in this sink.

In fact, I dig the whole bathroom. Some killer art in here.

In fact, I dig the whole bathroom. Some killer art in here.

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Love this piece by the toilet. Somebody know who did it, message me!

Love this piece by the toilet. Somebody know who did it, message me!

Love this one too!

Love this one too!

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On this day 3 of our lord, Huck was to give his carving lesson. Arriving at the shop mid-day, he walked around the room, looking at our board drawings. He made comments, gave encouragement. Inspecting my work, he picked up a pen and made some shade lines on the devil's hand. Yep, Tom Huck drew on my board. Pretty sweet. (I'm such a fan boy.)

This is Ian, very accurately emoting what it’s like to have Huck draw on your board. (pic by Shannon Cousino)

This is Ian, very accurately emoting what it’s like to have Huck draw on your board. (pic by Shannon Cousino)

Gathered round for the carving lecture.

Gathered round for the carving lecture.

As much of Huck's carving lecture is nitty-gritty technical, I'll give the overview here for the casual reader, and then for all you shop rats, I’ll put the juicy details in the pro-tips section at the bottom. (“Shop rats:” an affectionate term for printing nerds. Pretty great, huh? You should see the shirt! Sadly, I couldn't get one. JT, I'm size large, just sayin'...)

So, a brief overview of old school printing: Back in Durer's day (the God of all printing), and we're talking late 1500's here, wood blocks were made from the hardest of hardwoods; cherry, pear, and apple. The blocks were solid pieces of timber (not laminated press-board like we use now) and they weren’t much bigger than our standard paper size. The blocks needed to be so hard because the presses of the time stamped downwards from above (not like the pressurized rollers currently in use). Due to the brutality of the presses, the raised edges of a soft wood block would be pulverized after just a few printings, so you needed hard wood to take the abuse. Also, they printed the bejesus out of the blocks. There were no 'limited edition’ runs in Durer's day. It was more about making as many prints as possible for as long as possible so they could make money selling them. These hard blocks of wood were carved (gauged) with long, metal V gauges that were beat into the wood with a hammer. Considering that Durer's technical skills are rarely matched to this day, the fact that he used such crude tools makes his work all the more mind blowing.

Homework: Want to get to know some of history's most notable print makers? Here's Huck's top 5:

Albrecht Durer, Jose Guadalupe Posada, William Hogarth, Kathe Kollwitz, Honore Daumier

Huck's favorite print of all time? He waffles between two:
Durer's Knight, Death and the Devil and Durer’s Rhinoceros (make sure you read the story behind Rhinoceros)

After the carving lecture, Huck invites us behind the mysterious black curtain where he has magically appeared and disappeared the last two days. Down a short hall and to the left is the cozy space that is his personal studio. It's also the space where they shot the YouTube interview I've watched so many times. At the time, Huck was working hard on Electric Baloneyland. Now, he is drawing out one of the panels in his new epic work, A Monkey Mountain Chronicle. Huck spends the next half hour explaining the details of the drawing (all about American gluttony and greed). His studio is filled with the great knickknacks of a collector, memorabilia, books and art. There’s also a full sized slot machine against the wall (that I never got around to asking him about).

Huck’s studio in the back of the print shop. (pic by Shannon Cousino)

Huck’s studio in the back of the print shop. (pic by Shannon Cousino)

A Monkey Mountain Chronicle (back panel) nearly finished days later. Huck will carve this block in Scotland in the coming weeks. (pic by Shannon Cousino)

A Monkey Mountain Chronicle (back panel) nearly finished days later. Huck will carve this block in Scotland in the coming weeks. (pic by Shannon Cousino)

The back wall of Huck’s studio. Check out the killer painting by Valerie Wallace hanging above the bookshelf. Love that piece (minus the unfortunate glare). You can follow her on Instagram.

The back wall of Huck’s studio. Check out the killer painting by Valerie Wallace hanging above the bookshelf. Love that piece (minus the unfortunate glare). You can follow her on Instagram.

After Huck's lecture, it’s finally carving time for some of us. I get out my big red sharpie and go to town. (Wonder what the red sharpie is all about? Check out pro-tips.)

Last step is complete. On to carving—finally!

Last step is complete. On to carving—finally!

The rest of the afternoon and into the night I spend carving. I begin with the letters in the upper left hand corner. I like carving around letters and I wanted to start in familiar territory to get in the groove. Before going to bed, I had ‘Red Hot Devil Music’ completed.

Pro tips (this section is for those interested in the technical aspects of woodblock printing):

1. Drawing like Durer: Why is Durer such a master? Part of the answer has to do with the way he penned shapes and figures. Yes, he had a profound grasp of such pen staples as cross hatching and stippling, but there is another technique to his genius. Durer did not typically outline his forms. He let the differences between shadow gradients create the form, just as they are created in real life. In the picture below, look at the top box, and then the upper left quadrant of the box. Huck uses shadows to create the shape of the box, not a line of demarcation. When carried throughout the drawing, this technique adds weight to the objects and their relationship to one another.

The bottom box is how most folks draw a cube, outlining all the edges of the shape. Durer lets the shadows define the edges of the shape, just as they occur in real life. This is one reason why Durer’s images are so dynamic.

The bottom box is how most folks draw a cube, outlining all the edges of the shape. Durer lets the shadows define the edges of the shape, just as they occur in real life. This is one reason why Durer’s images are so dynamic.

2. Picking out your block: Most woodcuts are printed from Birch Plywood blocks. Birch is a semi-hard hardwood, can hold very detailed lines, stands up well to the rigors of a press, and is fairly economical. Where to get it? Huck warns against getting your block at box stores like Lowes, Menards, or Home Depot. He gets his from Mom and Pop lumberyards or flooring specialty stores. That said, our blocks for bootcamp came from Home Depot. Also, for some of us (like yours truly), Lowes is the easiest, closest place to get it. So, if you are purchasing from a subpar lumber retailer, you can do a couple things to improve the quality of the material. First, get 3/4 Birch Plywood rather than 1/2 inch. 1/2 inch is just fine for carving, but the 3/4 inch is considered ‘cabinet grade’ and so will be a better product. Second, inspect the edges of the plywood. The problem with laminated plywood is that sometimes the plywood sheet sandwiched between the birch laminate will contain gaps where two pieces of plywood don’t quite butt up together. You can see these gaps if you look at the sides of the board. The gaps will usually run the entire length of the board and if you hit one while carving, you will encounter a hole that cannot hold your line. Also, it is not uncommon for these gaps to lead to a silver dollar sized hole that you will discover only after you've carved into it. For my work, running into one of these holes is not a big deal. I can adapt or use it as part of the piece. (See close up of my bat print, for an example of a discovered gap.) For technical masters like Huck, a hole or gap can ruin years of work. Yes, you can touch up the print by hand if necessary, but it's really better to avoid the hassle from the get go. So look at the sides of the wood you're considering. If you see a gap, look for a better piece. Also, look for a side of the board with zero to very minimal wood knots. Knots tend to crumble as you carve into them. Again, a pain. For these reasons, Huck has actually switched to carving on cherry blocks. Because it takes him 3-4 years to carve a piece, he simply can't afford issues with material. But rest assured, for most of us, birch is just fine.

You can see the unplanned gap in the halo around the bat’s head in my block, O Negative. For my work, gaps and holes can add to the aesthetic. For technical virtuosos like Huck, these defects are a nightmare.

You can see the unplanned gap in the halo around the bat’s head in my block, O Negative. For my work, gaps and holes can add to the aesthetic. For technical virtuosos like Huck, these defects are a nightmare.

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:

This posture got me in trouble.

This posture got me in trouble.

This is how I stood for much of my carving time. I'm right handed, so I'm leaning on my left hand. For hours. For days. Leaning on that hand. I noticed some tingling in my left hand after a couple days. I ignored it and pushed on. By the time I got home on Sunday, my pinkie and ring finger would not move. They weren't swollen, they just wouldn't move. I play lead guitar in a local band and with a couple festivals coming up, as soon as I got home, I went straight to a guitar. I couldn't play it. My fingers wouldn’t work. I freaked out and called a friend who does hand nerve testing. She said I'd stressed the ulner nerve at the elbow by ignoring the warning signs and now the signal path was disrupted, the impulses not getting through to my fingers. Fortunately not permanently. Ice 3 times a day at the elbow and wrist. Rest the arm. I'm writing this a week and a half since Sunday. It's better, I can move all my fingers, but it’s not close to 100% yet. So don't ignore those warning signs, friends! Find a better table height or lean the board against a wall like Huck does. Take breaks. Stretch your hands and arms daily (you can find simple hand stretches on Google. The ones that work for office workers who type a lot are good for carving).