Wood Carving

from The New Book of Knowledge®

ART HISTORY ON DEMAND > Materials and Techniques >

Wood carving is one of the oldest crafts in the world. Prehistoric peoples used wood to make decorative handles for their tools and weapons. In ancient Egypt, religious figures carved of wood were placed in tombs to protect the dead. Wood sculpture in early Christian churches described the life of Christ for worshipers who could not read.

In the South Pacific and Africa, people who had not yet developed writing made wood carvings that were used in their worship. Modern people found the carvings interesting as history. Later, modern artists, such as Pablo Picasso, appreciated them as fine art. They greatly influenced modern art. In Europe, wood carvings were used to decorate panels, altars, mantels in churches, and mansions. Wood carvings are found in many art museums today.

Wood rots if it is not protected from dampness and changes in weather. Therefore, there are few existing examples of wood carvings made long ago. Among the most famous of those that have survived are carefully preserved pieces by Grinling Gibbons. He worked during the late 1600's and early 1700's. His ornate, detailed carvings of fruit, flowers, and birds decorate wall panels, altars, and mantels in many British churches and mansions. Among these are St. Paul's Cathedral and Canterbury Cathedral.

Wood can be carved with a variety of tools, such as a knife, chisel, or electric carver. So it has been a favorite material for folk artists around the world. Many people carve as a hobby because wood and tools are easily obtained.

For centuries, beautifully carved figures have been fashioned by folk artists. Small churches in many communities are decorated with brightly colored nativity scenes carved from wood. Swedish folk artists make elaborately carved wooden musical instruments. In northern Canada and Alaska, Inuit make utensils and containers from driftwood. In southwestern Canada, woodland farmers shape wooden bowls, cups, and other vessels. All over the world, people of the sea spend time carving models of ships.

Professional sculptors as well as folk artists had long been attracted to wood's natural beauty. But they preferred to work with more permanent materials, such as marble or metal. Modern methods of controlling temperature and humidity, along with stains, varnishes, and other types of wood sealants, can now help preserve all kinds of woodwork almost indefinitely. These developments have spurred a renewed interest in wood carving.

Reviewed by Cecil C. Carstenson
Author, The Craft and Creation of Wood Sculpture


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