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Teaching Kids to Carve

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Jim Calder's sweet potato faces make carving easy

For Jim Calder, teaching kids to carve is a win-win situation. He enjoys it so much, he has taught more than 3,000 children the basics of woodcarving–for free.

"I just love to see children carve for the first time and watch their eyes light up when they see what they are capable of creating," Jim said with a bit of a smile.

Originally from Baltimore, Md., Jim splits his time between Chesapeake, Va., and Haywood County, N.C. But wherever he lives or travels, he constantly looks for opportunities to offer carving classes to kids.

Jim has donated countless hours of time to schools, camps, county fairs, clubs, and other organizations so people of all ages can learn woodcarving. He's even set up shop in his own front yard to pique the interest of neighborhood kids.

Perhaps his affinity for children and his uncanny ability to fire up their interest in an age-old art form comes from the fact that Jim was just seven when he stumbled into woodworking for the first time.

"I used to sneak over to my neighbor's barn and peek inside to see what he was doing. He caught me standing there and told me straight out that if I was going to watch, I’d have to work. So he took me under his wing and taught me the trade," Jim recalled.

It turns out this crusty old neighbor was none other than Norbert Munson, a renowned furniture maker in the 1950s who never used power tools and proudly posted a sign that read, "Sandpaper is for fools who can't sharpen their tools."

Norbert taught the eager lad everything he knew about woodworking, and somewhere along the line, the boy developed his own love of wood. Young Jim couldn't get enough of it.

"The only thing Munson required of me, besides my full attention, was to give back to others what he had given to me–to keep the art alive," Jim said. Jim does that every chance he gets.

Daniel Manget, of the Haywood County, N.C., 4-H Program, was thrilled to have Jim offer a free class to his 4-H students. He said the response from the kids and parents alike was overwhelming.

"It's great to see kids enjoying a hobby that requires this kind of concentration, dedication, and artistic expression that is otherwise lacking in our new Internet Age," said Daniel. "Jim inspires kids to put down the video game controller and express themselves in a piece of wood."

At the beginning of each class, Jim reviews the list of dos and don'ts of carving safety with the kids. He relates how, in the past, carving and painting were ways of capturing, recording, and passing down history. When the kids are thoroughly captivated, Jim pulls out the spuds–sweet potatoes that is.

"Sweet potatoes come in interesting shapes, they're easy to carve, and they dry into a brick-hard substance that retains the carving and actually resembles wood. The kids really get a kick out of it." The tools for carving sweet potatoes vary from pocket knives to sharpened popsicle sticks.

To ensure every kid has a positive experience, Jim developed a simple carving method 28 years ago that he still teaches today. Called the "Calder Triangle Method®," it involves overlaying a series of triangles to create a face. Jim's method, deatiled in WCI issue #44 , has been successful with beginners of all ages.

"I see carving being renewed as each child takes with them a piece of the art," he said. "My legacy will be the children I've taught and knowing I've opened a door some of them may walk through–to keep the art alive."  Scroll down for article images.

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Image gallery
Feeding Frenzy of Koi carved from boat teak Calder Doors carved from black walnut Jim Calder demonstrates carving to children and parents Basket Lady carved from pecan Bluegill carved from cherry Dragon carved from red oak Native American carved from maple SWEET CARVINGS: Jim Calder and Maddie Roma show off some of the sweet potato carvings Maddie created under Jim's instruction. Jim demonstrates the Calder Triangle Method® on a sweet potato for 4-H students. Wesley Simmons, age nine, said, "It was so neat getting to carve sweet potatoes."
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Comments (6 posted):

Carrie Yuen on 08/11/2008 05:08:02
I found this very interesting. I have used potatoes to help young kids with carving but didn't know that sweet potatoes were better. I teach carving to kids using woodwork tools - mallets, chisles and files on aircrete blocks. They love it. One kid once said, 'But isn't this what Michaeangelo does?' Carrie Yuen website: Sculpture 4 Schools - The Exciting, Hands On, 3D Art Experience (Chainsaw carvings) Carrie Yuen, Artist
brotherwilliam on 08/22/2008 21:26:13
I teach kids that express an interest to whittle flowers (I emphasize not using folding knives). What is this triangle method of making a face that is mentioned? brother william brother william Carvings
crazycarver on 09/02/2008 18:42:22
I have been teaching children to carve on soap this summer and they really seem to enjoy it. I am at Mohican Wilderness Campgrounds near Loudonville, Oh. Use the popsicle sticks and they work great. I make up a kit with a bar of Ivory soap, knife and chisel, piece of paper towel for sandpaper, toothpick for detailing, spray paint beaded pin heads black for the eyes and a pattern. Use paper plates to carve on so when the plate gets full we just dump the shavings in a bag and start with a clean slate. We have done, Owls, Dog, Cat, Pine Tree, Horse head, Fish, Snowman, in the round. Flower relief carving.
Shannon on 09/03/2008 08:05:20
Jim's triangle method is demonstrated on the 2 pages following the article. Page 42 & 43. He uses a series of triangles to create the face.
Ron T on 09/03/2008 12:16:28
Hello Carrie, I see you're a new member. Welcome! You have an impressive body of work and it's nice to see what you're doing to introduce at to children.
Wudwright on 02/24/2010 13:25:42
Jim's triangle method is demonstrated on the 2 pages following the article. Page 42 & 43. He uses a series of triangles to create the face. Hi Shannon, thanks for the article on woodcarving for children in the latest issue. I have just started to teach my young nephew some carving, he's 11. It couldn't come at a better time.
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Kathleen Ryan
Kathleen Ryan is an award-winning freelance writer specializing in business and people profile stories more