Carving Cypress Knee Santas
From beginning to end I find, design, carve and paint my own Santas…
about: THE PROCESS
10. Complete SAntas
1. Finding Cypress Knees
In the past, I have had friends take me on to their private land that has cypress knee stands. Some of these stands have knees emerging from the roots through the ground or water. A single tree will have from 20 to 300 knees near the tree. We will cull about 5% of the knees from an area. It is like pruning a fruit tree. When you prune a few of the knees, the tree sends up more knees to take their place. Oftentimes a new knee will form on the exact place on the root where the knee was cut. Many times I can immediately see the design I want to carve, even before I cut the knee.
I keep the knees wet until I remove the bark through a heat treatment process. Once I peel the bark off each knee it takes several weeks of initial drying to prevent the knees from mildewing. The complete drying time can take from six months to a year depending on the size of the knee.
Next I have to decide the orientation of the knee and cut the bottom on the bandsaw so that the knee stands plumb. Next I sand the bottom until it is smooth. Often times these knees go back on the rack to continue drying or I will burn my name on the bottom to save time later.
When I look at a knee I am looking at all of the bumps, twists and shapes that already exist. The shape will determine what I eventually will carve. The knee speaks, as it were, telling me what design it should become. Sometimes I see a Mary and Joseph or Three Wise Men. Other times I might see a “Sandy Claus” with a bathing suit at the beach. I first locate the nose, then the eye plane and then the shoulders. If those features are symmetrical then I add the mustache, beard, arms and any other features like a staff, toy bag, teddy bear etc. I draw this design on the knee with a pencil. When I get in a creative mood I will often draw the design on a dozen knees at the same sitting because there have been many times when I get design block and cannot seem to see a thing.
5. Stop Cuts - One of the most difficult cuts as well as the most dangerous is the initial stop-cut. A stop cut is a cut about 3/16” deep on the drawn line. From that straight in cut in the wood, a carver then makes another cut intersecting it to form a “v” shaped groove. I usually will make all of the stop cuts on a group of knees so that I am ready to carve if I get the opportunity.
My preferred form of carving is with a razor sharp knife. Years ago it was difficult to find high quality knives so I started making my own out of old barber razors. If your knife is not razor sharp you will find it impossible to get a clean smooth cut on soft cypress wood. I also use whatever power tool or technique that gets the job done. When I need to remove a large amount of material I will use a chain saw, foredom grinder or power gouge. When I need to do some fine detail I will use a knife as small as a toothpick or a dental bit in a micro grinder. Most of my Santas would fall into the style category of Olde World Saint Nicholas. Because of the shape of the cypress knee the Santa often has a long flowing robe. Depending on my inclination, the carving may be simple with a few details or it may have intricately carved eyes. If the other features are muted, that draws attention back to the expression on the face. With cypress knee “found wood” carving, the emphasis is on incorporating the natural shapes and features into your design. If I wanted a perfectly symmetrical, true to form Santa Claus, I would start with a large square chunk of wood and carve the perfectly proportioned figure… but then again you can find those things in any store. I carve what I see and enjoy the uniqueness of each cypress knee as inspiration.
6. FAce Carving
start and end with the face. If the face doesn’t work you might as well start over. At first I only carve the basic outline of the face and then go on to carve the rest of the Santa. I finish the delicate face details at the end so I don’t make a mistake and damage the eyes or nose.
Even after you remove the bark on a knee there remains a waxy skin over the more porous soft wood. I usually remove this skin so that paint will adhere. For most applications I use acrylic paints. I use a variety of techniques to age or antique the newly painted knees. Shadowing works well in most situations.
Years ago an older artist told me to always sign, date and number my carvings. For the most part I have followed his advice and I have kept a record of my carvings. I use a fine burning pen to permanently mark my work.
Contact me if you have any questions about
my carving process.