In an age when Scouts can earn merit badges in high-tech fields like Animation and Robotics, a low-tech badge — Wood Carving — remains popular. Last year, it was the fifth most popular elective badge, with 32,943 completions.
Assisting with many of those completions were members of the Brotherhood of the Blade, an informal group of Scouters who regularly teach at National Jamborees, the Philmont Training Center and council events. Scouting caught up with two of them, Mike Springer of Collinsville, Ill., and Larry Scheideman of Denver, for tips on teaching this classic badge.
Start With Safety
Not surprisingly, since blades are involved, the badge’s first requirement deals with first aid, a skill that might eventually come in handy for carvers. The second deals with the Totin’ Chip and the Safety Checklist for Carving, which is printed in the merit badge pamphlet. (Fun fact: Springer’s late father, Jeff, who developed the checklist, wrote Boys’ Life magazine’s Slide of the Month column for years.)
Scheideman hits safety “really hard,” and he also limits carving to 20-minute sessions. “When you start carving, your hands get very tired very quick because you’re using muscles you haven’t used much,” he says.
He also keeps an especially close eye on the older Scouts in his classes. “They have more strength, and they can really do a number on themselves,” he says.
And what about girls, who will begin earning this merit badge once Scouts BSA launches next year? Scheideman’s granddaughter, Fayelynn, often helps him teach, and he has seen that girls tend to develop eye-hand coordination before boys.
“The boys get the strength before the girls do, but wood carving doesn’t require a lot of strength if you’re doing it right,” he says.
Tools and Materials
The right tools are important. Grandpa’s Scout pocketknife might be a great family heirloom, but it’s not the right tool for wood carving.
“Wood carving tools are specifically made for wood carving,” Springer says. “A general Scout pocketknife’s just not going to do it.”
Fortunately, tools like those sold by Woodcraft and R. Murphy Knives cost $20 or less, and beginning carvers can get by with just one.
The right wood matters, too. Springer recommends basswood, which offers a nice balance between softness and durability.
“The only bad side of it is, it’s not real nice-looking,” he says. “It’s just kind of a plain, blond color with not much grain that shows through, so you’re going to want to stain it or paint it when you’re done.”
The merit badge culminates in two projects: a 3-D carving and either a low-relief or chip-carving project. For the first, Springer recommends a neckerchief slide and provides blanks for Scouts to start with. For the second, Scheideman steers Scouts to the low-relief project — he suggests they carve their initials — which he says is less tedious than chip carving.
Both counselors emphasize that learning the technique is more important than turning out works of art.
“If the kid takes the time, and he’s learning the cuts properly and all that kind of thing, I’ll go ahead and pass him,” Springer says. “It’s not an art contest.”