The carving of designs into wood or the carving of objects out of wood.
|Historic area of significance||UK|
|Area currently practised||UK|
|Origin in the UK|
|Current no. of professionals (main craft)||51-100|
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main craft)
|Current no. of trainees||11-20 (there are currently 17 British Woodcarvers’ Association members aged under 25 who are learning the skills)|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required||51-100|
Wood carving dates back to when we learned how to make sharp tools. The earliest examples are lost to the decay of the material. Some may consider that wood carving achieved its pinnacle in the UK in the late-17th century with the naturalistic style of Grinling Gibbons and his contemporaries. There have however been exceptional carvers in all the periods between then and now.
Wood carvers today fall into two groups, amateur and professional. The amateur or hobbyist carving group is thriving with many participants taking it up in later life. This group depends solely on their own enthusiasm. The professional group has been in decline in the early-21st century.
The art or skill of wood carving can be simply put as the removal of surplus wood using variously sharped hand tools. Woodcarving is usually done using a knife (one hand) or a chisel (two hands), and results in a wooden figure or figurine, or in sculptural ornamentation of a wooden object.
There are regional variations in the styles of carving. These are generally considered the difference between metropolitan and rural carving within any given style. There are exceptions of specific objects such as Welsh love spoons etc.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
The professional group of woodcarvers has been in decline in the early-21st century. This is due to:
Changing tastes: The lack of decoration required for the current vogue in interior design and the collapse of the general antiques trade; the former being a major source for new works and the latter that for restoration. Both areas (new work and restoration) amongst others such as ecclesiastical or heraldic carving are still active but to a lesser degree and so support fewer craftspeople.
Foreign competition: Much of the basic repetitive work is now carved overseas in places where incomes and the cost of living are low. This proves problematic when considering training and having the confidence that the volume of work will be consistent to employ the trainee.
- Foreign competition: Outsourced work, even when copied, is inevitably influenced by cultural interpretations; ‘English Chippendale’ becomes Indonesian, Indian, Chinese or other, much as ‘English Chinoiserie’ differs from the original Chinese style it was based on. This muddies the understanding clients have of what they are buying into.
Training issues: The apprenticeship regime broke down and disappeared in the 1960s. This had been of seven years duration and had included tuition in drawing and modelling. The term ’improver’ was applied to apprentices. Apprenticeships are being re-introduced but are far shorter, three years at most, and leave the apprentice with much experience to be gained before they can be fully considered a professional carver. The Master Carvers’ Association (MCA) and other interested parties formed the National Working Group for carving under the auspices of the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB). This group developed the National Occupational Standard (NOS) for carving in both wood and stone. At the MCA’s request Cskills Awards (CITB) now offers a level 3 NVQ Diploma for carving. This is presently the first and only in-work qualification for carving.
Cost: Hand-carved decoration can be expensive and time is money.
Lack of awareness: Sponsors have limited knowledge of the workings of woodcarvers versus current technical innovations. Potential clients have poor understanding of what is possible, e.g. decoration being designed out of projects because the designer is unaware of the skills available.
Advances in CNC routing and latterly 3D printing.
British Woodcarvers Association – has just under a thousand UK members, of which 90% are hobbyists. There are 31 regional groups (the minimum number of carvers for a regional group is 6). There are currently 17 members under the age of 25 who are learning the skills; the majority of members are over the age of 50. Note: the BWA website is not currently available – last checked October 2022.
Master Carvers Association – an organisation for professional stone and wood carvers, 44 members
The Worshipful Company of Joiners and Ceilers – represents woodcarvers, cornicers, and ceiling and wall panellers. Is active in sponsorship, awards schemes and appointments of apprentices.
Craftspeople currently known
- A list of carvers can be found on the website of the Association of Master Carvers.
- Master Carvers Association