Indoors: How to carve a sitting duck

More and more people are soothing themselves with the lathe, the gouge, the mallet and the rasp after a stressful day's work. Sally Staples joins the party
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The Independent Online
When Adam Ritchie began giving classes in wood-carving, he specialised in teaching people how to make decoy ducks. All varieties were carved by his pupils, who became experts on the finer points of the mallard and the pintail. But Adam realised, with growing fascination, that if he gave 12 students exactly the same pattern to copy they would all produce completely individual ducks. However new to the craft, they would each put something of themselves into the finished product.

"Now I like to keep the classes less structured," he says, "and pupils are encouraged to have a go at what they feel they want to carve. I'm not really keen on carving English roses, but if someone wants to carve them, of course I'll help. I try not to direct people too much. I will tell them the most efficient and quickest way to achieve an effect, and I never make them do anything that isn't necessary."

Beginners, however, often choose to start with a duck that is carved from two separate pieces hollowed out to form the body, with a third piece to make the head. Students at Adam's current evening class have progressed to tropical fish, long dishes, African heads and, in one case, a kitchen cupboard.

Adam teaches at the Kensington and Chelsea College and his pupils - several of whom are teachers themselves - are mostly people who come to unwind for the three-hour evening session after a busy day's work. He provides all the tools, so there is no need to buy anything before joining a class.

He has dozens of different-sized gouges, mallets, clamps and alarming- looking instruments called rasps. These are rather like lethal cheese graters and if you mistake your knuckles for the wood - well, the squeamish would be advised to look away. However,, as Adam explains, the craft is perfectly safe if you abide by the rules - namely that fingers should always be kept behind the blade and away from the direction the gouge or rasp is working.

One young enthusiast embarking on his second 10-week course at the college is Richard Thomas. He was working on a tropical fish the day I visited. "I'd never tried wood-carving before," he said. "When I was at school woodwork seemed rather boring, because everything had to be measured - and you had to make what you were told.

"The joy of this course is that you are totally free to work as you want. You become so involved with what you are doing that the conscious mind is completely switched off. Whatever you were worried about when you arrived is forgotten once you get down to work. And what you produce gives you real pride and pleasure."

Denise O'Riley, a ceramics and clay teacher, was working on a long wooden dish to hold party nibbles. She was enjoying making something practical, and said that the pleasure of wood-carving is that it involves your hands and your head. "I really enjoy working with wood, but the mistakes are harder to cover up than when you work with clay."

Carmel Henry had spent the evening working an enormous lathe, rounding off the edges of a block of wood until they were smooth and even. After that she planned to make a pair of salad servers.

Christina Klassen had designed and made an ambitious kitchen cupboard, complete with shelves, a table flap and a carving of a cat. She had spent a total of 30 hours on the piece, and hoped it would be finished after another six.

Meanwhile, Cliff Pearcey, who works as an education media resources officer, was carving a seagull in relief against a sea background. One of Adam's long-standing pupils, he was using Canadian Douglas fir. His work is so professional that he holds exhibitions and sells much of his work,

Some pupils like to use sweet-smelling cedar wood to carve ashtrays and dishes. Joan Smith, a teacher, was experimenting with mulberry wood and was carving a bowl shape out of a log, leaving half of the piece in its natural, rough-hewn state.

The four beginners on the course were each given a small duck, roughly cut from a large piece of wood, so they could begin to learn how to gouge the wood, rasp it and smooth the surface. Adam made his way round the class offering a word of advice here and there. Pupils can use the wood available in the college workshop or buy bits and pieces from Adam, who managed to stockpile some choice pieces after the great storm of 1987 felled so many trees.

Adam Ritchie also runs classes in furniture design at the Kensington and Chelsea College (0171-573 5333). His decorative wood course, 10 sessions of three hours each, costs pounds 59-pounds 71. Details of other wood-carving classes from local education authorities.