American Wood Carving History

American Wood Carving History image by Juangonzalez64/Wikimedia Commons


Many families own a piece of woodcarving history. After all, wood lasts for centuries when kept in good condition, and it can be expertly shaped to provide beautiful yet functional furniture and decoration. For that reason, the art of woodcarving has a long history in the United States.


Woodcarving is a popular hobby and art form in the United States, where thousands of carvers shape wood into statues, ornaments, and furniture with cutting tools, drills, and abrasives. The popularity of woodcarving in the United States grew rapidly when Europeans emigrated to North America in the 1600s and brought their trade along for the ride. According to Everett Ellenwood, author of The Complete Book of Woodcarving, early American settlers primarily carved useful items such as bowls and wagon wheel spokes. In the 1700s, hand-carvers began to build highly decorative furniture---including cabinets, chairs, tables, and desks---for homeowners, and business owners hired carvers to create signs and figures. Because many settlers did not speak English, they often depicted images rather than words. A well-known example was the cigar store Indian, which was used to identify tobacco shops. In the 1800s, hand-carving as a business venture began to decline. Carving machines, which offered greater production at reduced cost, began to replace handcarving. Many carvers turned to "whimsies," projects more befitting a hobbyist. Carving took another hit as metals and other materials gained favor in the early 1900s. Woodcarving, though, enjoyed a renaissance in the 1950s thanks to sculptors such as Donald Judd and Carl Andre. Today, handcarving serves primarily as a hobby for carvers.


In 1953, a group of American wood carvers founded the National Wood Carvers Association, headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio. The association supports fellowship among woodcarvers and encourages woodcarving exhibitions and gatherings. The Woodworkers Guild of America is another industry group. It provides woodworking instruction.


Fox Chapel Publishing produces many publications designed for the woodcarving community. Woodcarving Illustrated and Scroll Saw Woodworking and Crafts are periodicals produced by the company, which also has published more than 200 book titles related to woodworking.


In 2008, the National Woodcarvers Association held its 28th annual show and sale. The annual event features a juried gallery of woodcarvings, an auction, and seminars.


Many woodcarvers learn on their own with help from various websites and woodcarving publications. Since 1998, though, the National Woodcarving School has provided another avenue. Founded by Andre Breau, the school offers online education about woodcarving for new woodcarvers and trade professionals seeking tips on how to share their knowledge with a new generation of carvers.


The Museum of Woodcarving is located in Shell Lake, Wisc. Maria McKay opened the museum to display the works of her uncle, sculptor Joseph T. Barta, who died in 1972. The museum features 100 life-size carvings and more than 400 miniatures.

Keywords: woodcarving history, U.S. woodcarving, history of woodcarving

About this Author

Based in Central Florida, Ron White is a 37-year-old freelance journalist and stay-at-home dad. A former editor at a Central Florida daily newspaper, Ron now writes frequently for the "Daytona Beach News-Journal" and "Orlando Sentinel." He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in journalism from Eastern Illinois University.

Photo by: Juangonzalez64/Wikimedia Commons

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