Teaching Kids to Carve

Jim Calder’s sweet potato faces make carving easy

By Kathleen Ryan

For Jim Calder, teaching kids to carve is a win-win situation. He enjoys it so much, he has taught more than 3,000 children the basics of woodcarving–for free.

“I just love to see children carve for the first time and watch their eyes light up when they see what they are capable of creating,” Jim said with a bit of a smile.

Originally from Baltimore, Md., Jim splits his time between Chesapeake, Va., and Haywood County, N.C. But wherever he lives or travels, he constantly looks for opportunities to offer carving classes to kids.

Jim has donated countless hours of time to schools, camps, county fairs, clubs, and other organizations so people of all ages can learn woodcarving. He’s even set up shop in his own front yard to pique the interest of neighborhood kids.

Perhaps his affinity for children and his uncanny ability to fire up their interest in an age-old art form comes from the fact that Jim was just seven when he stumbled into woodworking for the first time.

“I used to sneak over to my neighbor’s barn and peek inside to see what he was doing. He caught me standing there and told me straight out that if I was going to watch, I’d have to work. So he took me under his wing and taught me the trade,” Jim recalled.

It turns out this crusty old neighbor was none other than Norbert Munson, a renowned furniture maker in the 1950s who never used power tools and proudly posted a sign that read, “Sandpaper is for fools who can’t sharpen their tools.”

Norbert taught the eager lad everything he knew about woodworking, and somewhere along the line, the boy developed his own love of wood. Young Jim couldn’t get enough of it.

“The only thing Munson required of me, besides my full attention, was to give back to others what he had given to me–to keep the art alive,” Jim said. Jim does that every chance he gets.

Daniel Manget, of the Haywood County, N.C., 4-H Program, was thrilled to have Jim offer a free class to his 4-H students. He said the response from the kids and parents alike was overwhelming.

“It’s great to see kids enjoying a hobby that requires this kind of concentration, dedication, and artistic expression that is otherwise lacking in our new Internet Age,” said Daniel. “Jim inspires kids to put down the video game controller and express themselves in a piece of wood.”

At the beginning of each class, Jim reviews the list of dos and don’ts of carving safety with the kids. He relates how, in the past, carving and painting were ways of capturing, recording, and passing down history. When the kids are thoroughly captivated, Jim pulls out the spuds–sweet potatoes that is.

“Sweet potatoes come in interesting shapes, they’re easy to carve, and they dry into a brick-hard substance that retains the carving and actually resembles wood. The kids really get a kick out of it.” The tools for carving sweet potatoes vary from pocket knives to sharpened popsicle sticks.

To ensure every kid has a positive experience, Jim developed a simple carving method 28 years ago that he still teaches today. Called the “Calder Triangle Method®,” it involves overlaying a series of triangles to create a face. Jim’s method, detailed in Woodcarving Illustrated Fall 2008 (Issue 44), has been successful with beginners of all ages.

“I see carving being renewed as each child takes with them a piece of the art,” he said. “My legacy will be the children I’ve taught and knowing I’ve opened a door some of them may walk through–to keep the art alive.”  

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