After much practice and dedication, Carol developed the right technique to create the intricate, colorful wood art.
One Chip at a Time
Approaching her retirement years, Carol Wherry of rural Fair Grove was searching for something to fill her upcoming hours of freedom. She found the answer while visiting a crafts festival at Silver Dollar City where Pam Grisham was demonstrating chip carving. Having taught college and high school math, Carol realized this was a way she might incorporate her affinity for geometry into a creation of art.
After reading one of Grisham’s books, Carol realized she was doing nearly everything wrong. She learned her choice of wood was incorrect, as was the carving knife she bought, and the way she used it. After taking her first lesson in 2006 and finding a specially shaped, extremely sharp knife that fit her hand well, she purchased some basswood blanks and began to chip carve correctly. Most of the basswood she uses comes from Wisconsin and Minnesota, and recently she’s begun to carve willow from Romania.
Besides standard chip carving, Carol also does gouge chip carving by tapping curved gouges with a wooden mallet and following patterns drawn on pieces of hardwood (such as cherry, maple, and walnut) and then accenting them with adjacent knife cuts. She rubs a paste made of baby oil and cocoa into the depressions to enhance the carving.
“It is a poor-man’s type of wood carving,” Carol says about the peasant art form found in several countries. “I was first attracted to a style that developed in Europe. In Germany and Switzerland they call it kerb-schnitzen. For centuries people have carved decorations into spoons, wooden shoes, ox yokes, and furniture. I studied Old World methods that originated in Romania before learning a type of more modern gouge chip carving created by a man in Springfield.”
Carol, with years of teaching experience, has developed her skills well enough to show others how to do chip carving. “I tell people that to be good at it they need to like precision, creativity, and enjoy working with wood.”
Carol uses a mechanical pencil with a metal shaft and a 15-centimeter ruler to draw her designs before she carves. Each tool has its own purpose. “The pencil has a very fine graphite lead, soft enough to make clear marks but not so hard that it will penetrate the wood’s surface.”
With the right tools, Carol also needs the right technique. “As I was learning, my instructors said that pushing the knife at just the right pressure would eventually feel natural,” Carol says. “I have finally achieved that stage of touch.”
Carol has created various decorative pieces over the past 16 years. She has kept a few of them as examples of her work. They range from a six-sided kaleidoscope to a Greek key chessboard to treasure boxes of many shapes and sizes to a hail-damaged tulip tree limb fashioned into a decorated walking stick. There is one chip-carved cabinet in her house, perhaps to prove that she can create a piece of furniture just as fine as her German predecessors might have made.
At yearly gatherings of the North Arkansas Woodworkers Association, Branson’s Artfolk Show, and the Rio Grande Valley Woodcarvers in Texas, Carol has received many awards. However, she has not sold any of her creations.
Part of this is due to watching her father’s success as a craftsman. After her father retired, he began hand-making wooden chairs. They sold well enough that he took them to craft shows, so he hired additional workers to keep up with the increased demand.
Seeing her father’s hobby become overpowering influenced her to keep production small and to stay away from sales. Instead, she enjoys giving them away or donating pieces to benefit auctions for the Fair Grove United Methodist Church.
Her works of art are received and kept as treasured gifts by her many beloved friends and relatives.