Carving for children?
November 13, 2017 8:28 AM   Subscribe

My ten-year-old grandson is interested in carving. I would like to buy him a kit for Christmas, but I'm not thrilled with what I'm finding. Is this doable?

My major concerns are safety and frustration level. I tried soap carving before, and I found the soap just fell apart too much. I found some children's sandstone carving kits on Amazon last week, but there aren't a lot of reviews. I've found this children's kit for wood carving, but the reviews are pretty bad. Would love to hear of other possible sources or ideas or experiences with these kits - or even if he's just too young for this. I'm willing to spend more for something that will be high quality.
posted by FencingGal to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Back in art class when I was a kid we had this weird stiff, high density foam stuff we used for carving. It was great. It was easy enough to carve that you could use tools that you wouldn't hurt yourself with, but stayed together well. Some googling suggests it's probably this material, balsa carving foam. I recall it giving off a lot of dust during detail work, though, so make sure he knows how to clean up after himself.
posted by phunniemee at 8:46 AM on November 13, 2017

If people think the balsa carving foam is a good idea, could you please link to specific carving tools that would be appropriate?
posted by FencingGal at 8:50 AM on November 13, 2017

Not strictly carving but this came to mind when I was reading your question and may be of interest. At round about that age I had to make linocuts in art class. I do remember the tools being sharp and being told to take care. Nobody got hurt as far as I recall.
posted by koahiatamadl at 9:00 AM on November 13, 2017

If your grandson wants to carve in low relief, erasers work pretty well and are cheap. Here's a tutorial. There are bigger versions, still essentially erasers, e.g. these.

Either can be carved with wood or linoleum carving tools - but much easier than either of those substrates, so probably safer. I've used an exacto knife for some trimming on them as well.
posted by janell at 9:01 AM on November 13, 2017

As a summer camp counselor, we would have our beginners practice carving using bars of soap (very cheap) and butter knives, and have them learn all the proper etiquette around holding and using a knife with those first before graduating them to pocket knives. Carving foam seems like it would work similarly.

We always asked our kids to try and carve a very detailed fish without breaking the bar of soap. The end result matters less than how they go about it. (Are they making small detailed cuts? Are they cutting towards themselves? Are they cutting on a surface or on their knee?)
posted by ejfox at 9:04 AM on November 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

I think the important part is getting a good knife and a good knife sharpening kit. Then maybe pick out scraps of wood together or chunks of wood to carve with. As ejfox states, it is the process and learning how to do it well that matters at the beginning. And having good tools to be proud of is important, too.
posted by jillithd at 9:22 AM on November 13, 2017

Circa 10 years old: I think he's ready for a good knife, a decent stone, and a chunk or three of basswood, possibly as a pre-sawn blank (to get a little closer to a first shape).

I went to a Waldorf school, and when I was around that age one of the class projects was to use a hacksaw and a file to cut an old saw blade into a knife blade, and a rasp to form a piece of hardwood into a knife handle (This progression enabled learning about tool use in a way that leaping straight to a blade doesn't). The blade was epoxied into the handle, and we then carved seals out of basswood (mostly rounding the sides of the sawn blank, with a little detail work to bring out the flippers). I actually thought I still had that knife, but I don't, and I'm kinda bummed, 'cause it was a good knife.

Nowadays I have seen carving gloves, which look like a really good idea and would probably have saved me all sorts of palm and finger scars.

But I think the larger question is: Do you have someone who can help with mentoring? Even just an hour or so with someone who exhibits at your local craft fair gives an aspirational goal, helps with all of the "no, really don't hold it this way, and this is the voice of experience talking" questions, and would probably let you spend an extra ten bucks now that'll save any amount of frustration later.
posted by straw at 9:57 AM on November 13, 2017 [7 favorites]

I received an X-Acto knife set when I was ten or eleven and still have a scar on my left middle finger from one of my carving attempts. Seconding the idea that a good knife and stone and a good mentor would be the way I would have wanted to go at that age.
posted by craven_morhead at 9:59 AM on November 13, 2017

I suppose it depends on your grandson's temperament, and what his parents might say, but I think 10 is plenty old to have a real blade. Maybe a little whittling kit like this one will get him set with a decent blade that isn't too unwieldy.
posted by stinkfoot at 10:02 AM on November 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

Soapstone carving with metal files is a DIY-ish possibility. It's something that doesn't require a knife, which is a nice safety bonus; he (or a helper) can rough-cut the raw soapstone with a handsaw and then use metal files and rasps to do all the shaping. A set of large files for rough shaping and smaller rasps for detail work will go a long way for cheap, and the potential-injury territory maxes out in the vicinity of skinning a knuckle instead of needing stitches.

Finishing soapstone usually involves hand sanding with wet/dry sandpaper in a series of grit finenesses, something like 100, 200, then 400 for a satisfying smooth finish.

The main caveat with soapstone is dust, so he'd need to know to clean up dust regularly and not to go inhaling it for fun. If you're not working with power tools to cut or carve it's a pretty minimal issue since the stuff isn't being blown around the room, but a bunch of filing to do rough shaping will definitely create a pile of dust that needs accounting for.
posted by cortex at 10:21 AM on November 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

You could call Greg Dorrance and he might have some good suggestions.
posted by lakersfan1222 at 11:04 AM on November 13, 2017

I've worked around a lot of skilled woodcarvers. I think this is a great interest to encourage, but the best way to learn is with a supervising mentor, as mentioned above. Soap and other faux woods don't really cut it, no pun intended, but it's hard to get a satisfying result and much harder to get a useful one, plus you can't paint/gild/or otherwise finish it, which is often part of the joy of creating carved pieces and signs.

It might be worthwhile to help him explore the world of woodworking, specifically woodcarving, with meetups and classes. I just don't think you can teach yourself good carving, even with the best kit in the world, and even with all the resources of online learning. There's so much practical knowledge to it. I'd see about getting him some good knives, but also working with him to find ways to meet people he can learn from.
posted by Miko at 12:23 PM on November 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

The Cub Scouts have 4th graders carve soap with short pocketknives (2.5 inches). There is a short course to take about safety, and four safety violations result in the removal of the knife privilege until the course is re-completed.
posted by wnissen at 1:38 PM on November 13, 2017

What about carving a linoleum block? Or clay?

I found linoleum block carving (and printmaking) to be very satisfying at that age.

Carving clay is something that its also fun. You generally wait until it's "leather hard" and then carve it with small loop-shaped tools. If you have a local pottery studio near you they will often fire it for a small fee.
posted by Ostara at 2:36 PM on November 13, 2017

FYI, my grandson lives far away from me. I’ll be there at Christmas for a week. He’s in a suburb of Salt Lake City, if anyone knows resources close to him.
posted by FencingGal at 2:43 PM on November 13, 2017

So it looks like there's a Woodcraft store there with carving classes. It also looks like there's a cool program called the Pioneer Craft House that teaches carving (among other things) to teens and kids. You might find some other leads on Google - looks like it's a pretty popular art form in those parts.
posted by Miko at 4:49 PM on November 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

I got this soapstone carving kit. It came with everything that was needed, and easy to learn/do, and the end result was super cool, given that I could tell people I carved stone. Granted, I'm not 10. But his parents could help him. The website is kind of basic but the people are nice.
posted by bluesky78987 at 8:06 AM on November 14, 2017

Sjoberg Smart Vise gets one's hands completely away from the sharp edges. Maybe a chisel set also? Maybe a mallet? One of those portable workbenches can be used as well, any vise, pretty much. Barring that style of hands-off woodworking, a cutproof safety glove.
posted by at at 10:48 AM on November 15, 2017

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