Digital technology altering the wood carving industry

Traditional wood carving methods are enriched by modern digital processes

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By CHARLOTTE HUI

Many wood carvers are embracing technological advances in 3D wood carving, despite some artists’ concerns about a shift away from traditional methods.

Modern “computer numerical control” machines allow wood workers to mass produce carvings while eliminating physical dangers. However, the machinery is expensive, and many artists believe the use of such machines sacrifices artistic creativity.

Makerspace director embraces technological advances in wood carving

Phillip Robbins, a Langara College fine arts instructor and the director of Makerspace, is a proponent of CNC machines, laser cutters and 3D printers.

Robbins said there are many positives about employing modern wood carving techniques, while he acknowledged that “digitally mediated processes can become somewhat anonymizing” and can take away the “marks of the maker.”

Modern digital processes have a lot of advantages over traditional techniques, according to Robbins.

“It allows us a level of accuracy and repeatability and detail that we may not be able to achieve with our own physical means,” Robbins said. “One of the shortcomings of traditional processes is that it’s based on your physical skill.”

Robbins said digital technology can “augment or enhance a traditional process,” while he refuted the concept that digital technology ruins artistic merit.

Cost is one factor that discourages some people from using modern wood cutting machinery. Robbins said the laser cutter in Makerspace is worth around $4,000, while the CNC machines are worth approximately $7,000 each. Communal spaces, such as Makerspace, are changing the economics of woodwork by allowing people to share equipment, while saving start-up costs.

Shop owner cognizant of scarcity of wood

A worldwide timber shortage is driving up supply costs for woodworkers. Jeff Chen, co-owner of Vancouver Woodcarving, said cost is one deterrent for his business. His company often uses sawdust and recycled wood to create products.

“We try to use recycled materials,” Chen said.

Chen ships his machines from China to save money. Dust control is his biggest safety concern. Chen said he is planning to purchase a dust suppression machine worth $600,000.

“We try to optimize our environments,” Chen said.

Studio owner hails traditional carving techniques

Federico L. Mendez Castro, owner of Dalbergia Wood + Fine Objects on Granville Island, makes many of his tools, which include gouges, rasps, files and carving knives. Mendez Castro prefers traditional wood carving methods over modern methods.

“Our machine can do the work of 100 ordinary people,” Mendez Castro said. “But an extraordinary people can do the work of 100 machines.”

Mendez Castro’s work is heavily influenced by traditional First Nations West Coast wood carvings.

“The best wood carvers alive – native wood carvers – in the world, in my opinion, are the one that lives in the Pacific Northwest,” Mendez Castro said.

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