Wood Carving Course Report

Teaching an intensive, letter carving in wood course at Little Sparta on a late October weekend was a rather special and enjoyable experience. The first day was sunny and bright, the second outrageously wild, wet and windy. But all was tranquil in the warm and glowing atmosphere of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s library where thirteen students were hard at work, quiet and entirely focussed on absorbing new skills. What an extraordinary place to teach and to learn, surrounded by such a diverse collection of books, many of which have markers at pages carrying words that can be matched with the artworks they inspired. Irresistible not to dip into one or two books over the weekend, though never forgetting to return them exactly as Hamilton Finlay left them. Out beyond the library’s steamed-up windows, his magnificent garden, filled with lettering pieces in stone, wood, bronze and ceramics by Ian Hamilton Finlay, created in collaboration with some of the greats of the lettering world.

The students were dedicated, keen on learning correct handling of the tools, discovering stabbing, chopping and sliding techniques, and fathoming the mysteries of grain direction. We began with soft and forgiving lime wood, and by the end of Saturday some students were already demonstrating good technique. All were getting to grips with the curves and junctions of letters. An upgrade the following day, to a more demanding but crisper, more satisfying piece of cherry wood, seemed to be universally appreciated! It was very gratifying to pause at moments to look round an entirely hushed room and see such concentration and determination all around. It was a friendly and full weekend in which we managed to lay the groundwork for an understanding and appreciation of what it takes to cut beautiful letters in wood. Letter cutting in wood is a subtle skill which takes much practice. Wood responds to gentle persuasion and in time it becomes possible to feel the flow of the grain through the chisels. From that point, imagination becomes your guide.

Many thanks to Little Sparta and to George Gilliland and Pantea Cameron for planning the weekend, and to all who attended the course – you worked hard and achieved some fine results!

Robbie Schneider & Beatrice Searle