edited chat log

a Special Guest Chat with
Master Carver

with co-hosts Lee Grindinger & Ellis Walentine

Sunday, May 15, 2005
9:30 pm EDT

CLICK HERE to visit Ian's website.

Ellis Hi folks. I'm pleased to introduce one of America's top woodcarvers, Ian Agrell, the founder and director of Agrell Architectural Carving Ltd., in Mill Valley, California. Ian brings his decades of elite carving experience to a bustling production shop with 15 full-time woodcarvers, dealing with projects large and small. He has delivered many large and prestigious carving projects, including the Utah Governor's Mansion and the Pope's Throne, and he routinely works with top architects and designers from around the world.
Ian_Agrell Ok Lets GO
Ellis Hey Ian
Ian_Agrell Hey
Lee_Grindinger Welcome Ian, it's quite a pleasure
Ellis Welcome to WoodCentral.
Ian_Agrell Glad to be here!
Ellis Lee Grindinger, as I mentioned, is our special co-host tonight.
Lee_Grindinger I'm happy to be here
Greg Welcome Ian!
Ian_Agrell Hi Greg
Ellis Lee is our resident carving guy and will be steering a lot of the chat tonight.
Lee_Grindinger Shall I kick this thing off?
Ian_Agrell Yup!
Lee_Grindinger Ian, who hires carvers these days?
Ellis (I would if I could afford it. :-)
Ian_Agrell Hardly anyone I'm afraid. Mostly the carvers are self-employed-- there's just not enough work for one work shop to keep a carver busy
Lee_Grindinger So, the large jobs like in Utah are rare.
Lee_Grindinger Is most of the work restoration?
Ian_Agrell No they are not rare -- I do large jobs all the time, but I very seldom do a job for the same client twice.
Ian_Agrell No it's new work thank goodness.
Ian_Agrell It's much cleaner to do new work and I get to do the designing as well
Ellis What are you working on right now, Ian?
Lee_Grindinger Ian, you learned your craft in England, what brought you to America?
Ian_Agrell I'm finishing a job in Texas of about 15,000 hours. I have two major jobs in NY and one in Florida.
Ian_Agrell Following a girlfriend
Lee_Grindinger Are these jobs from the public or private sector?
Ian_Agrell All private
Lee_Grindinger I'll want to meet here someday
Ian_Agrell All residential
Ian_Agrell Her?
Greg Mr. Agrell, would you have a website we could visit
Lee_Grindinger these must be impressive mansions
Lee_Grindinger yes, her
Ian_Agrell She's back in England she married an American and took him back to England
JohnP Ian, do you work alone or have helpers?
Doug I have seen some of your fabulous work, Ian. Do you use any power tools or is it all done with traditional tools?
Lee_Grindinger Well, it's good for us you were stranded here, hah, hah
Ian_Agrell They are impressive mansions, usually in excess of 35,000 sq ft
Ian_Agrell I have loads of helpers
Ian_Agrell We do about 1000 hrs per week
Lee_Grindinger Where do you find the carvers you hire?
Ian_Agrell We never use power tools except the occasional router to take the background down
Ian_Agrell Mostly India
Lee_Grindinger Please expand on your Indian connection
Lee_Grindinger I have often marvelled at the work coming from that part of the world
Ellis There's a lot of history of the craft there. Lotta ingrained knowhow.
Ian_Agrell I had a workshop here where I employed 12 people, but it was hard to keep it going. The staff came and went and the quality was not consistent. I had to deal with all their personallies
Greg What types of material do you carve as a rule?
Lee_Grindinger Ian, do you use any CNC or duplicating tools to rough out your products?
Ian_Agrell Yes there is a tradition of carving they're very detail oriented and are able to copy my work exactly. I'm very proud of them.
Ian_Agrell They are fully employed be me -- it's my workshop. I built it and I run it
Lee_Grindinger Is the carving done in India? or do you import your carvers?
Jim_Shaver Hi Ian, I mostly a furniture maker, carving appeals to me in that I can add simple details or design to my work. Can you recommend any books on the subject or authors I might look up for details? Thanks!
Ellis Such must be the nature of these architectural carving assignments, that you need so many skilled carvers to do that amount of work in a workable time frame.
Ian_Agrell The carving is done in India and I ship wood to them by FEDEX.
Ian_Agrell Yes, William Wheeler's book The Beginner's Guide to Woodcarving.
Ian_Agrell The rest are a poor second
Lee_Grindinger India was a British colony so they are quite familiar with English designs
Ian_Agrell No not really. I had to train them
Lee_Grindinger How long did it take to get them started?
Jim_Shaver Thank You for that!
Ian_Agrell We use all the usual woods -- walnut, mahogony, oak
Ellis How about basswood and pine -- for painted projects?
Ian_Agrell They are excellent carvers they just need to be shown through example
salblues please excuse my shock of the irony here. I came to this site tonight to gain insight on how to manage a living after insurance, overhead and expenses and there is obviousley great profit to be made even with "shipping wood fed-ex"
Ian_Agrell I don't like basswood
Ian_Agrell Yes there is
Lee_Grindinger Do you have a favorite?
Ian_Agrell I'm a professional carver and I live in the San Francisco area -- work it out for yourself
Jim_Shaver Ian, when I look at carving now, I see some people who are all hand tools and some a blend of power carvers and hand tools, I am lost when I look at the power tools. Are there apsects of the power tools I should consider, rotary vs slicing styles of tools?
Ian_Agrell I have a good manager and that's one of the most important things I have
Ian_Agrell Service is more important than anything to my clients
salblues surely he must need an assistant in order to further grow your business
Ellis So Ian, what is the most important part of the carving process?
Ian_Agrell Jim, don't even consider anything else but traditional carving tools, it's faster and produces a far better effect
Lee_Grindinger Ian, as a teacher what is the most important lesson you can teach a novice?
Ian_Agrell To see accurately
Lee_Grindinger Are you referring to that third dimension?
Ian_Agrell And then to be able to make your hands do what you see
JohnP "to see", as an artist?
Ian_Agrell It's all about structure and flow
Lee_Grindinger Do you model in clay?
Carole_in_VA Can seeing acurately be taught/learned? Can anyone learn it?
Jim_Shaver Thank You Ian, I have a few Nora Hall videos and she seems to fly through her process with a great deal of control and detail....some of her hand work seems to be so simple...truely something to appreciate. What attracted you to carving?
Greg How do you market your services? Are you mostly "word of mouth" to this level of client?
Ian_Agrell No as an artisan, by that I mean if it needs to go down half an inch then take it down half an inch and stop messing around!D
Ian_Agrell Yes it can be taught Carole. Go to drawing classes
Ian_Agrell Yes we do use models particularly of human figures, animals etc
Carole_in_VA I did. A miserable failure! :-(
Lee_Grindinger What is a typical beginner's lesson for a novice in your school?
Ian_Agrell Greg, through the website and giving good service to my clients -- looking after them and some advertising in Traditional Building
Ian_Agrell The acanthus leaf
Ellis Layout and execution?
salblues Ian can I check out your site?
Lee_Grindinger The acanthus leaf is a versatile ornament
Ian_Agrell Carole if you can't draw it or model it then how can you carve it?
Ellis Aha. there is the rub.
Carole_in_VA My point, exactly. I guess that's why I am not an artist or a carver. LOL
Ian_Agrell Ellis We have a drawing first and then use carbon paper to transfer it on the wood
salblues Thanks Ellis. Carole perhaps take the course again with a different teacher?
Ian_Agrell Sal, of course!
Ian_Agrell Yes Ellis that is the rub
Lee_Grindinger Do you teach relief as a starting point for most classes?
Ellis So two or three dimensional design ability goes hand-in-hand with carving ability?
Ian_Agrell Lee I always start with the acanthus leaf because it teaches flow and structure and the process can be used in any carving
salblues Good night and good luck to all.
Ian_Agrell Ellis not really. Three-dimensional carving is almost another trade from architectural carving
Ellis Thanks, Sal. Sleep well.
Lee_Grindinger Ian, do you get involved in furniture or is it all architectural?
Greg Mostly architectural style carvings, or do you do "story line" depictions... not sure what to call it ---more than "scenic" types?
Ellis Aha. There is a fundamental difference. I see all carving as three-dimensional.
Ian_Agrell For instance I can do archectectural carving but I would be hopeless at carving a well formed human body because I haven't studied, drawn or modeled it enough
Carole_in_VA You did the Pope's throne??? I'm impressed!
Ian_Agrell Very easy job, badly paid but great publicity
Carole_in_VA An honor, I would think.
Ian_Agrell Hmmm
Ellis But now I see how you conceptualize it. Thanks.
Ellis I would have paid for that privilege.
Ian_Agrell Greg I rarely am asked to do scenic
pam Yes, Carole, always an honor to do work for cheap. Oops, maybe it all went to abused kids.
Ian_Agrell Hmmmmmm
Ellis Ian, what about pictorial friezes. Don't those involve storytelling panels...?
Lee_Grindinger Ian, in architectural work do you ever use plaster castings?
Ian_Agrell I don't quite know what you mean
Ellis Or are they not that common in the required work?
Ian_Agrell We occasionally do yes, Lee
Ellis I was thinking of a frieze around a room, with pictorial panels divided by carved pilasters, etc.
Lee_Grindinger Do you do the finish on your work or is it contracted out?
Ian_Agrell Do you mean scenes?
Ellis Yes
Ian_Agrell Never, ever finish work!
Ian_Agrell I'm not asked to do scenes
Lee_Grindinger I won't ask again, hah, ha...
Ellis Aha.
pam Why not finish? Can't keep it clean? BTW, I love your video, learned a lot.
Ian_Agrell It's a lot of egg and dart and acanthus molding
Ian_Agrell Pam, glad you liked it
Lee_Grindinger If you do the design are you asked to design entire interiors in addittion to the carved ornaments?
Ian_Agrell Because the finishing causes more problems with clients than I can stand. I don't even recommend a finisher
pam Do you expect the client to install raw?
Lee_Grindinger I'm sure you have your share of conflicts with the finishers
Ellis It's nice to be able to stand your ground without losing the customer.
Ian_Agrell Lee -- yes I personnally earn my living in this company by designing and we charge a lot for it to make sure we get commitment from the client
Ian_Agrell Pam, it's up to them
Lee_Grindinger You must work quite closely with the architects then
pam OK, what would you do if it's for your house?
Ian_Agrell I'll lose more customers by screwing up the finish
Ian_Agrell It's not my job to do the finishing
pam I understand that; but do you think it desirable that a given piece be finished at all?
Ellis Do you have different carving standards for the various types of finishes that might be applied or appropriate?
Lee_Grindinger Okay, I have to ask..., Ian how long would it take you to carve a foot of egg and dart about an inch wide?
Ian_Agrell I work very closely with architects and Pam, much of the work in my house is Art Nouveau
pam Which means vis a vis finishing?
Ian_Agrell Pam yes it should be finished or at least sealed.
pam Thank you.
Ellis Could you pigeonhole your work into a particular style, Ian?
Ian_Agrell No Ellis I don't
Ian_Agrell Lee -- 2 hours including layout
Ian_Agrell Pam, the art nouveau is painted
Ellis How do you feel carvings should be finished? I assume you prefer saturated colors? What about glazes that add visual relief? How were these carvings meant to be seen?
Lee_Grindinger For painted work what wood do you use?
pam I thought most of it was, but didn't know for sure. I personally like raw wood, a lot.
Ian_Agrell Yes, Ellis. Big architectural project style in Gothic, Rococo, Renaisance, etc
Ellis Good point, Pam.
Ian_Agrell Ellis I like visual relief!
Lee_Grindinger You said you don't like basswood earlier. Why?
Ellis Well, how much does the finish contribute to it?
Ian_Agrell Lee, I use just a light colored wood -- I am using an Indian wood
Ian_Agrell Lee it's too pithy
Ian_Agrell Ellis 200%
Lee_Grindinger I agree, Ian, harder woods are easier to carve
Ellis Aha. So the finish is a major part of the final presentation.
Ellis Basswood seems to be the favorite of chip carvers and bird carvers.
Ian_Agrell Pam, raw wood gets dirty and splits. Gibbons tried it and it didn't work
RayT If the finish is that important do you have a finish person on staff or do you use whoever is doing the rest of the job.
Ian_Agrell Ellis but it's very soft and therefore in architectural carving it gets dinged up as well
Lee_Grindinger As a furniture maker I generally use varnish but I knock the gloss way down
Ellis Ah, another good point. Thanks.
Ian_Agrell Ray, no, I don't get involved in finishing AT ALL! I don't even recommend finishers, and I want nothing to do with the process. It causes nothing but trouble.
pam Sure, green wood does; and I guess green is easier to carve. But there are all those Japanese temples out there 1300 years old with raw wood, more or less burnished by planes.
Ellis How important is that final stroke of the chisel? I assume all your carving is delivered fresh from the chisel, and not sanded in any way?
pam And totem poles, although they're probably painted for the most part.
Ian_Agrell Finishing causes problems for example on our project in Texas, 10,000 hours of our carving was badly finished by others and had to be stripped down. Can you imagine the lawsuits involved in that?
pam I don't like the blunting effect caused by most painting, like to see nice, sharp, shapes.
Lee_Grindinger I would think that a project such as the type you do, Ian, would scare most finishers away
Ian_Agrell Yes Ellis, a sharp tool in the hands of a skilled worker will burnish the wood. That's why sandpaper should never be used.
Ian_Agrell Lee these are big finishing companies with huge budgets
Ellis How do you make the work of many carvers appear as the work of one?
Ian_Agrell Ah!
Ian_Agrell I can have 15 carvers working on a project carving the same molding and I just can't tell the difference. I told you they were amazing!
Ellis Oh, modest eh?
Ellis Couldn't be how you taught them...
Ian_Agrell They're great guys
Ian_Agrell No it's not
Lee_Grindinger Ian, is Thorpe still involved with you? Have you tried stone carving?
Ian_Agrell Adam is a dear friend but earning a living as a full time carver drove him nuts. He still does design work with me on occasions when he needs the money. He's the greatest carver I've ever known because he can design and carve and he's a great artis
Ian_Agrell Yes I trained in stone as well as wood but dropped it immediately when I started earning a living
Lee_Grindinger There are few carvers making a living carving in this country
Ian_Agrell My wife's hands are getting tired -- she's doing the typing
Ian_Agrell No there aren't many carvers earning a living
Lee_Grindinger Ian, this has been a real pleasure. Thank you
Ellis Aha! Let's bribe her...
Carole_in_VA Nite all. Thanks Ian
Ellis Well, it has been yet another great chat, Ian. Thank you for joining us. And thanks to you, Lee, for ably co-hosting Ian's chat.
Ian_Agrell With a good bottle of pinot noir
pam Thanks for coming.
JohnP thanks Ian
Ellis We'll be in touch again soon. Good luck with all your projects, Ian.
JohnP a very fine discussion tonight
Ian_Agrell Thanks everyone! Have a look at my website you will see low relief art nouveau painted
Ellis And thanks to your lovely wife for her capable assistance.
Ian_Agrell Thank you
Lee_Grindinger Thanks everyone and Good night