An Interview With
Self Taught Master Carver
At the age of seven, William Schnute knew what he wanted to do- carve. With only a brief hiatus here and there, he has done just that ever since, sometimes with another full time job simultaneously. But for the last twenty years he has pursued carving alone full time, and has numerous very elaborate and expensive commissions to his credit.
For instance, a few years ago he made two large panels depicting aspen trees with doves, which were installed in a corporate executive jet. On a rush order, the several month job was completed in one month. In 1985 he completed wall panels and doors for a mansion in Aspen Colorado, which took him three months to complete. The house was recently featured in Architectural Digest. And since opening his shop, Oak Leaves Studio, in the Monterey/Carmel area of central California, he has done numerous entry doors for some of the expensive houses built in the area.
But at the age of seven the future of carving didn't look so bright. Growing up in Chicago and Iowa, though he actively pursued his craft, he felt compelled to hide it, sometimes even throwing away his carvings so they wouldn't be seen. The mid-west work ethic of the time was highly resistant to people doing something different.
Schnute pursued a more "traditional" career goal of pre-med at the University of Iowa, then worked at the University doing research in the Department of Pharmacology. A few years later he was drafted into the Army and was stationed in California. All of this time he continued his carving whenever he could, often working late into the night.
A few years after he left the military, Schnute decided it was time to pursue his first love full time, and returned to Iowa to do so. He sold many of his works through an Amish store, the Krause Furniture store in the Amana Colonies, which carried locally made furniture, and built a house for himself and his family out of an old covered bridge. About five years ago he decided to relocate on the west coast where attitudes were less traditional and more conducive to his craft. It was a wise decision, because he has gotten many good commissions since coming to Carmel Valley.
SCIENCE AND ART
Though the scientific and artistic communities often butt heads, Schnute does not see a conflict between his training in science and the pursuit of his craft.
"In science, you see a lot of art, a lot of great beauty. Many artists don't realize that there is much of the artist in some scientists. Much of the beauty you'll find in the natural world is such that it makes contemporary art seem superficial.
"When you look at a landscape, all that you see is what's on top, but what's underneath is incredible, too. The substructure of rock represents a great deal of time, time which puts our lives into perspective.
"Many people go through their daily lives without thinking much about the world around them, the time it took for all this to form. I try to bring into my art something to remind them of what's going on around them, to put people in their place, see how they fit in the world."
This he did with a carving of an owl with wings outspread, the base of which wraps around a large piece of stone. This juxtaposition of rough stone and finely carved wood contrasts the fleeting moment of a bird caught in flight with the eons of geologic development.
Witness also a panel carving of a fawn, the lower third of which is left flat and uncarved. The uncarved section of the panel contrasts starkly with the carved section, showing us the grain and figure of the wood undisturbed by carved facets. The form and structure of the carving is juxtaposed against the form and structure of the wood itself, reminding us that there is more to the carving than the artist's hand, there is also the hand of nature.
Schnute doesn't want his work to be put up on a pedestal and sanctified like some art. He wants it to be touched, so people can feel as well as see the textures he incorporates in the carvings. He would prefer to embellish the functional items we use daily with art rather than make art which is supposed to stand alone. Carved entry doors are a perfect medium for this philosophy, and have been a mainstay of Schnute's business for years.
"When I do an entry door, I interview the people to be sure that the door will say something about them. Wood sculpture is more effective when it is done for a specific location, so you can control the theme, sighting, and lighting. You can use natural and electric light to vary the appearance of the wood through the day.
"I want to use traditional woodworking methods to say something about where we live- it doesn't bother me that it's a functional article like a door which you have to open to get through."
Schnute's book, High Relief Carving (Sterling), gives a detailed description of his techniques, which require very thick carving blanks to get the dimensions involved. Schnute laminates pieces together, first edge gluing 2x stock and then face gluing these together. Sometimes he will carve the edge-glued blanks before face gluing, if the design calls for multiple layers of carving.
|Schnute's projects begin with a massive glue up to get the carving blank.|
Schnute has about 200 different carving tools. These he has gradually accumulated over the years.
"I wish, when I started out, that I had bought a complete set of tools with the full range of contour gradations. You can get any shape you want with tools that are not quite the right shape, but it's faster and easier to use a tool whose shape matches exactly what you want.
|Two die grinders used to do rough work.|
"Many people ask me to help them get tools, and I've sold many. I've considered buying and offering sets of eight to ten tools, but often beginners only need three or four, and it's senseless for them to buy more than they need."
Schnute has a grinder with a coarse wheel mounted on it, but rarely uses it, because he says, "It takes the temper off the cutting edge." On the other side of the grinder is mounted a buffing wheel, on which he applies white rouge abrasive polishing compound for honing the edge of his chisels. He holds the tool pointing downward, so the wheel spins away from the edge, not toward it.
|The finer grinder is used with skinny bits to cut down into valleys.|
"Usually all a tool needs is buffing on this wheel. I walk back and forth all day to this wheel, honing each tool as it needs it. Gradually the bevel on the tool becomes rounded, but I'll go on using it so long as it does what I want. To work on the bevel I use water stones, which cut very quickly."
Schnute uses pneumatic rotary grinders to do most of the rough out work on his carvings. These tools are sold commercially as die grinders, and the bits used are called rotary files.
|The larger grinder is used to hog away large amounts of waste.|
"Rotary tools cut the time significantly. Using a small diameter straight bit I can make deep stop cuts very fast and accurately. A round bit clears out waste quickly. The bits leave a rough surface though, so I do all finish work with hand tools."
He tried the electrically driven rotary tools, but found them grossly underpowered compared to pneumatic. Also, electric drive works differently from air.
"When an electric tool has a load applied, the motor draws more amps and powers up. This can cause your tool to dig into the work and cut where you don't want. Pneumatic tools just slow or stop under increased load, allowing you to carefully regulate the cut."
|After the die grinders, Schnute begins with traditional chisels which leave a smooth, faceted surface.|
Many carvers consider the use of rotary tools to be cheating, but to Schnute it is just common sense to use what is most efficient.
The theme of much of Schnute's work is animals, mostly wild life and vegetation from the animals' habitat. The bird sculptures capture the creatures in a moment of motion with wings outspread, and will surprise the viewer with their realism and dynamic appearance. He uses whatever drawings and photos he can find to look at while he carves, often pinning photos next to the work while in progress. He borrowed a preserved and mounted red tail hawk from The Carmel Valley Historical Society, the bird sits on his bench as a ready model.
|Use a chisel that has the shape you want to acheive, rather than making the shape with repeated cuts using a tool of the wrong shape.|
"Each animal has an interesting story to be told, how it develops its form, why it is as it is. I like to relate the shape and form of the animal to its environment, to try to show how that animal's adaptation and evolution to its specific niche in nature allows it to survive and thrive over eons of time."
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