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Honing his skills, whittle by whittle

Litchfield man celebrates Scandinavian heritage with each wood carving

By Bill Vossler

The first small Santa that Charles Banks of Litchfield ever carved took him a long time. “When I first started carving--I would now call that ‘whittling,’ as I sliced away very small pieces of wood with each stroke--pieces took me three months to do each one.”

Charles Banks in his workshop where he is whittling away at a new creation. Photo by Sallie Banks

Thus making several for gifts took a number of months for the Litchfield art teacher. “But people enjoyed them so much that I really wanted to carve them for a living. An older member of a carving club looked at me and said, ‘Do you realize how many Santas you’d have to create to make a living doing that?’ I thought about that, and realized he was right. Way too many.”

But all the time and work did not stop Charles from pursuing the Norwegian Flat Plane Carving method, a style where figures are carved in large flat planes, leaving tool marks in the wood, without any sanding or rounding.

A Bit of History

Charles credits his eventual proficiency with tools in Norwegian Flat Plane Carving to growing up on a farm in southwestern Minnesota. 

“And my parents,” he said. “My mother was very much into Scandinavian heritage, so I grew up with food and decorating traditions in the Nordic culture. Then my dad always taught us to work with our hands, and to use what was around you. So I attribute my heritage and hand work to my folks.”

one if his favorites, an orignial design of a man with his hands in his pocket and legs crossed, leaning againsta a wall. It took 27 sketches before he found the final pattern. Photo by Sallie Banks

Plus, growing up Charles was told stories about his grandpa and great-grandpa from Norway. “My great grandfather was the eldest son in his family and traditionally would have gotten the farm. Instead he wanted to try his luck in America. Shortly after receiving his parents’ blessing, he emigrated and ended up in Minnesota. We still have relatives in Norway, and I’ve been fortunate enough to go to Norway to meet them.”

After teaching art each day, Charles wanted an art area for himself. “Since I always gravitated toward working with my hands, I decided to try carving. I’d already seen the little figures made with Norwegian Flat Plane Carving, so I chose to do one of them.”

First was a little monk. “I did that in 1991 because he had no hair, a cap on his head, and a tunic that covered his entire body, with no hands as they were in his sleeves. The only detail was a rope around his belly. I actually carved it while sitting on a swing set in the elementary school playground across from our rental cottage. I had found an old chunk of pine 2x4 and I carved the character with an X-ACTO. I really had no idea what I was doing.”

An Unknown Mentor

Charles started carving more during the next summer. “I found a job in the Wisconsin park system doing late hours of the afternoon and evening shifts. I brought my box of tools, full of knives, chisels, gouges, v-tools, etc. When it got quiet I took that little X-ACTO and tried to carve more characters out of wood chunks. What I was really doing was making little piles of wood chips on the floors of the park offices or cabins.”

His carving life changed forever one night when an older guy in a camper pulled in. “He saw my pile of wood chips. ‘Are you a carver,’ he asked. ‘No,’ I said, ‘but I’d like to be.’”

Charles’ early love was making Santas as gifts for people, which really got him into carving. Photo by Sallie Banks

He invited Charles to his camper. “I knocked, and he invited me in, and started showing me his carving stuff. But it was more than his stuff. He was a carver. He showed me the mistakes I was making, and what I should be doing instead. Unfortunately it’s so long ago that I can’t even remember the gentleman or his name, but that was a big moment for me. He provided me with my first mentorship. He said, ‘Get yourself a real tool instead of that X-ACTO knife.’”

Thus Charles discovered to do Norwegian Flat Plane Carving, all you needed was one carving knife. “If you’re following tradition, all the old Norwegians had was one tool--that knife. They didn’t need anything else, so I didn’t need to learn anything except how to use that one tool, just like many others following the tradition. So I whittled my tool kit down to only one knife, a signature specialty Harley knife, designed by and named after well-known and respected carver Harley Refsal. It is a two-inch straight knife with a round back and flattened handle made of hardwood with a point precise for detail work, yet the blade is heavy and strong to remove material quickly.”

So instead of taking many cuts to get the desired results, Charles discovered that “Instead this flat knife makes all those many, many whittled cuts in three cuts, and I try to make it in two. The goal is fewer cuts.”

So each character no longer took three months to complete. “Three months dropped to three weeks, then three days, then three hours, and now I can do one in an hour and a half, because I know the cuts I need. With a band saw I remove the waste off the basswood blanks so there is very minimal removal of waste material with the knife.”

One of Charles’ goals was to develop his own style, which is shown in this set of figures. Photo by Sallie Banks

So now Charles’ tool kit is much different. “All I have is that Harley knife with a leather strap with strapping compound to keep the knife razor sharp, and a pair of No. 5 gloves, five times the strength of leather, woven with Kevlar threads so they are cut resistant. I carry it all around in a Carhartt purse, a small man-bag. 

Wood Preference

Most wood carvers in the north prefer basswood, Charles said. “It’s the softest of hardwoods. It holds the cut, and it has a straight grain with very few knots or irregular swirls. It’s clear and takes paint well, and grows readily in northern states. In Scandinavia they call it linden, and there’s plenty of it there. I get mine from the Heineke family in Cumberland, Wisconsin. I met a carver in Texas who was upset that basswood couldn’t be found in the south. Fortunately for us we can find it up here.”

Occasionally a piece Charles is working on might break. “Then it’s a nice piece for the fire,” he laughed. “No, really, I can glue it, and make a quick clamp with rubber bands and that fixes it. Use your creativity to solve the problem. One guy broke a foot off his carving, so he turned it into a pirate with a peg leg. As you gain more experience you learn to think before you cut.”

“When I started out carving I copied others’ characters. But now there’s nothing more satisfying than carving a character you’ve designed yourself. So now I research and sketch more than I ever carve. I used to spend hours carving. Now I spend hours on research and pattern development of new characters. That’s what I enjoy the most now.”

Charles made this group of characters, all ready to be painted. Photo by Sallie Banks

“One character I developed is leaning and crossing his feet with his hands in his pockets (pictured on front). The weight is against the shoulder, so the character has to lean against something. It took me 27 sketches before the pattern worked. A picture of it made it into a magazine, and the cover of a catalog, so I’m proud I didn’t give up on that pattern.”

He said that because the wood is static and doesn’t move, many carved characters are also static. “New carvers cull from a block, a blank, and so a lot of these characters stay static.

They retain the shape of the block or blank. But my goal is to make the character show movement and action. That can be as simple as shifting the weight, leaning, or turning the character’s head, or thrusting the hands in pockets or out of pockets, just moving off a straight line.”

“Most difficult is finding time, because life is busy, and finding time to carve is giving yourself time. When I’m asked which carving of the hundreds I’ve made is the best one, I usually say, ‘My best carving is not yet made.’”

After carving a character, Charles paints it. “Not like the old traditional days with milk paint. Now we use thinned-down acrylic paint or ‘paint wash’ that soaks into the wood. Or darkened with black or the colors complement. So even though today’s carvers use modern materials and paint and new things, they are still being true to tradition and style. Painting is its own art form.” 

Charles believes art should be out in the open. “I think it should be out in front of you where you can see it, and be inspired by it. Don’t tuck it away. My carving corner in the basement has a custom-build table I put on my lap, which is my workbench to cut the wood, and my chest is the vice. With the internet there, I can research and sketch, create new patterns and blanks. When I Zoom, behind me are shelves of characters that people can see.”

Charles sits with his carving buddy, Reggie. Photo by Sallie Banks

People are very supportive of his artwork, Charles said. “They love it. My immediate family is very supportive, and my in-laws got me started with the Harley Refsal books as presents.

They have nice Nordic things in their home, and are fun to be around as they have an interest in Nordic arts as well. The whole world of Nordic art is opened up to me now.”

“Norwegian Flat Plane Carving is a wonderful hobby and great pastime, with a connection to my past and heritage. It’s said Scandinavians have wood chips running through our veins, and I’m so happy that I found this connection to my past!”

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