Ask a carver – Daniel Clay

“I believe we are an animal that makes things. A lot of people these days are divorced mentally from their existence as an animal that makes things. I’m not saying that it will solve all your problems, but it can make you feel a lot better about the world if you learn to make something with your hands.” says Daniel from his home in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Daniel Clay is a woodworker, designer and artist, including a very accomplished chip carver whose Chip Carving courses will soon appear on The Spoon Crank. We connect through a video call on Instagram – it’s morning for him and late afternoon for me.

I try to find a decent position for my mobile so that I can see and hear Daniel properly while taking notes – easier said than done. How did he get into creating things with his hands, I wonder. “I actually studied music and then worked as a professional guitarist for five years. I didn’t like making a business out of it though, it burned me out and I needed a change. A friend told me about a boat building apprenticeship up north, which I applied for and got accepted. I did that for a year, and a couple of instructors were into sloyd crafts including spoon carving so I got into that as well. My first job after the boat bulding was with a timber farmer, and it was a very important job for me. Eventually I moved back south and worked for a kitchen cabinet maker doing boring cabinetry.” Luckily, since that wasn’t exactly his cup of tea, things took a strange turn again. “Another friend who was a videographer needed extra hands, so I joined him and we ended up working together for almost 10 years. But what didn’t work for me about that was being in front of a computer all day long. I kept doing woodworking as a hobby, but I missed working with my hands.” 

I mention that I hear this comment quite often and he shares the path he decided to take, “I got myself a small woodworking shop, edited enough videos remotely in order to make some money, build my website and Instagram, and spent all my free time towards being able to do woodworking full time. The transition period was about two years.” 

I wanna know how he got into actual chip carving though. “It’s a bit of a funny one… I had bought a set of chip carving knives and a how-to book for someone else that never ended up using them. One winter I decided to teach myself, and I picked it up pretty fast. After that first book I looked at other books and YouTube videos. I then started researching older and older books and things kind of snowballed… I taught two classes at home for friends, and someone ended up inviting me to teach elsewhere in the country. From there on I started teaching all around the country.” His yellow cat joins the conversation for a moment, gets a dose of cuddles and leaps off again. Teaching all around the country doesn’t sound like an amazingly good combination with a pandemic. How did the pandemic affect his chip carving teaching work I ask. “It temporarily came to and end. Then I started doing some classes on Zoom. But it’s harder because I don’t get the same kind of visual cues, I can’t tell how sharp someones knife is for example. The pandemic influenced me to create more online resources, including videos available on Patreon, for which my videography experience came in handy. I hope it doesn’t happen, but if we go through this again globally, I want to be prepared. I will also start doing face to face classes again, and when I do, I want to have my book finished and with me.” 

Oooh, there is a book? I wanna know all about that… “The timing of the book was a coincidence with the pandemic really – the publisher had approached me just before. But I had a lot of time to carve endlessly and I wrote most of the first draft during the first part of the lockdown. It’s important for me to not just re-write the books that are already out there.” I ask him to explain his approach. “The first part is technical: tools, materials, how to transfer patterns, sharpening, practice boards etc. Learning chip carving is similar to learning calligraphy; you need to develop muscle memory in order for the tool to become second nature. The second part contains about 10 beginner projects where you can re-iterate what you have just learned but in the context of a finished piece. It puts a little more pressure on you to do good work because you want a finished piece to have as high quality as possible, and that extra pressure is usually a good thing. There are also some chapters on more advanced techniques and designs. The book will be out during early 2022.” 

Speaking of telling how sharp someone’s knife is makes me wonder about his tips for avoiding accidents. Reassuringly he tells me “In general with the Swiss chip carving technique, which is what I use and teach, safety and good results go hand in hand. Safety is built into the technique so to speak. I’ve never had a student cut themselves in a class, and I’ve only given myself a serious cut once and that’s because I was doing something stupid.” he says smiling.

What is the history of chip carving I want to know and he passionately explains “It’s hard to put together a definitive global timeline. When it comes to the US you can work your way backward to Wayne Barton who studied carving in Switzerland and took the alpine style of chip carving and condensed it into a method that a lot of people in the US practice now. Chip carving has been prevalent in the Nordics, Germany and Eastern Europe but you can find the same patterns which we still use on gold disks from ancient Mycenae [Ancient Greece] and carvings in stone from first century Palestine. It’s impossible to know when it started. Chip carving has probably been done in many places in parallel throughout history. It’s this very old and global technique but it’s still very much alive as a modern art. I really enjoy both traditional and modern work in terms of design, and I like doing things that can somehow occupy both of those categories at once.”

So what does the future hold for such a Swiss knife of a person; someone with so many talents. “I would like to achieve enough success with the book and teaching in order to do more original work. If I had a magic wand I would create a magic patron that pays for everything I do, to whom I’d be what Hans Holbein [the court painter] was to Henry VIII” he smiles jokingly and adds “Right now, I can only do high end original pieces if someone commissions them from me, because otherwise I have to take time away from immediate income generating work.” I have a feeling that Daniel is gonna get where he wants to, because he seems like a most determined and hard working person. 

Before we hang up I have to ask one last thing to satisfy my curiosity; being a musician, has he ever built a guitar? “No, actually never. But there are two guitar shops in the shared workshop where I am, so I’ll never say never.”

Follow Daniel on Instagram at @danielclay, check out his work at saturdayboxcompany.com or subscribe via Patreon.

Via The Spoon Crank, Daniel will be offering his courses soon. Stay tuned!

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