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Meet the maker

Finely carved PERSONALITIES

World-renowned woodcarver Harley Refsal’s repertoire has recently grown into the smaller scales. Profiled by Michael Crowe.

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few months ago, Harley Refsal was teaching a class at the John C. Campbell folk school in North Carolina. He’s been carving for years, but usually in a larger scale. Then, a student brought in a few surprising pieces, tiny hand-carved figures, standing less than three inches high.

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The student told the class that they had been carved by his wife’s uncle, back in Sweden. They were smitten. So was Harley. “They were so simple, yet so expressive,” he told me. Many students took pictures of the pieces. Harley wanted to remember them, but a photograph just didn’t

seem to do them justice. “For me, if I take a photo, it’s easy to take it and forget it,” he said. “Where as if I draw Above: Woodcarver Harley Refsal has come to be the leading name in Scandinavian flat-plane carving. Below: A small collection of Harley’s woodcarved figurines. Each one has a distinct character and personality that endears them to the viewer.


Meet the maker something—or better yet, if I carve it—I wind up spending a lot of time looking at it. Creating helps appreciation.” Harley is no novice to the tradition of Scandinavian flat-plane woodcarving. Now though, he focuses his work

“I was absolutely smitten —it was love at first sight. I was mesmerized. I couldn’t wait to get home and start doing it.” almost exclusively on smallerscale figures like the ones he saw in North Carolina. Previously, much of his pieces were slightly larger, though in a similar style, standing about 5-6 inches high. He’s drawn to the reduction in size, and the simplicity of the tiny Scandinavian folk. “The figures boil it down to the basics,” he said. “If you look, none of them are carved up between the legs, but I don’t think until I

said that your first reaction was, ‘oh look at that, they’re so devoid of detail.’” But what about these tiny figures drew him so much, he wondered. He soon learned that the appeal lies not only in the scale, but also in the stylized nature of the pieces. Early on, he experimented with the size, playing with proportions on a computer program. It quickly became apparent that the charm is closely tied to the diminutive size. “Beyond about 150 Left: “Swedish Tomte” stands 4” tall. A tomte or nisse (Norwegian) is a figure of Scandinavian folklore, and is thought to protect a farmer’s home while the family sleeps.

Above: With their sweet smiles, “Kari” (4 ½” tall) and ”Lars” (5” tall) display characteristic Scandinavian dress.

percent [increase in scale,] I started to lose interest,” he said. He also noted that while he could make the proportions of the figures more anatomically accurate, that hindered their appeal as well. Starting out Born and raised in Hoffman, Minnesota, Harley worked with his hands a lot as a child, often fashioning his own toys from wood. An uncle that lived nearby encouraged this pursuit, supervising him in the wood American Miniaturist 63


Meet the maker

Above: Harley uses “The Difficult Art of Simplification” to create clean-cut figures that shine with personality such as his “Lumberjack” figure which stand 5 ½” tall.

shop and further fostering the love. But, he lost interest in high school. Then, it was on a choir tour to Norway in 1965 that Harley rediscovered his love for wood carving, when he stumbled across a few small carvings in a shop. “I was absolutely smitten— it was love at first sight,” he said. “I was mesmerized. I couldn’t wait to get home and start doing it.” Harley bought two figures on that trip, one for his father and one for

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the uncle. Unfortunately, he never got the chance to share his rekindled interest with the uncle, who passed away before Harley returned to the States. Soon after, Harley grabbed a hunk of wood from the shed and started carving. Though primarily self-taught, he also later spent time back in Norway, studying at the Telemark University College Folk School. Harley Refsal is now the name in Scandinavian flatplane carving, both in the United States and Norway. He’s published four books for Fox Chapel Publishing, with his most recent title, Whittling Little Folk, providing the instructions for 20 carved figurines. Harley’s work has been featured internationally, and recently earned him Right: “Josephine,” who is named after one of Harley’s aunts, is 4” tall.

WoodCarving Illustrated’s prestigious “Carver of the Year” award in 2012. In 1996, Harley was recognized by

“There’s a charm in simplicity,” Harley says. “The people that get hooked on carving aren’t a bunch of Luddites that want to turn back the clock, ... but rather a wonderful counterweight to what we do all day.” King Harald V of Norway for his contributions to Scandinavian figure carving in the United States and Norway. The process Harley’s process for a project is relatively straightfor-


Meet the maker

The Harley Knife

Above: “Thea,” standing 3 ¾” tall, is named after Harley’s grandmother.

ward. He begins by sketching out some rough ideas on a block of wood, which he then takes to the band saw to shape the blank. From there, he roughs out the whole figure, focusing on the gross anatomy. “It doesn’t make much sense to detail the head if I don’t know where it will be,” he tells me. After the figure has been roughed, he focuses on the smaller cuts and details. Though he’s gotten much quicker over the years, he considers this time when completing a piece. “I like to say that it takes me 3 hours— and 30 years,” he laughs. Though accomplished, Harley stressed that he’s still learning, and much of his in-

The simplicity Harley appreciates in his figures also carries over to his tools. Harley works with a single blade, a custom “Harley Knife,” which he designed in cooperation with Del Stubbs of Pinewood Forge, based in Northwest Minnesota. Several elements about this blade are unique. First, whereas most knives have two bevels for structural strength, Del and Harley decided to forgo this design element. On knives with a secondary bevel, the angle at which is the edge penetrates the wood is about 26 degrees. “That’s too fat,” Harley says, “to make plunge cuts into the wood.” Working together, Harley and Del borrowed some tools from a nearby university and tinkered with the shape and thickness to make the perfect knife, churning out dozens of prototypes. In their Above: This is a standard carving knife with the sharp edge on the curved side of the search for the perfect blade. A Harley knife is the opposite, with blade, Harley knew he the sharp edge on the straight side of the wanted a single-bevel blade. The knife pictured here was made tool, but one that for Harley by his wife, Norma. wasn’t so weak that he would be constantly sharpening it. Through trial and error, the duo eventually decided that a 12 degree bevel was the perfect angle, balancing strength with precision. Several other elements of the blade are unique to a Harley Knife as well. While most blades have a curve to the sharp edge, Harley’s is reversed, so the thumb rests on the curved back of the blade and the straight edge makes the cut. Del and Harley made knives together for years, ordering Mora knives in bulk from Sweden and repurposing them. But when the supplier made the minimum order too high, Del bought the machinery from a defunct foundry in Flint, Michigan that went down in the 2008 recession. Now, he imports the raw steel from Europe, makes the blades himself, and mounts them in handles hewn from the woods behind his workshop. Del now sells Harley knives and carving blanks that have been designed by Harley. American Miniaturist 65


Meet the maker Right: A close-up of “Thea” shows the small, precise cuts that must be made to create each figure’s facial features.

sight comes from teaching. For many years, he taught Norwegian at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. He also taught Scandinavian Fine Handcrafts, guiding undergraduates

through the basics of several projects including figures and some full-scale items such as a wooden chain and spoons. “I learned a lot from fixing your mistakes,” he ribs me, referencing the class I took with him a couple years ago. He has plenty of opportunities, too—though he retired from Luther a few years back, Harley taught 30 classes in 2012, and has a busy schedule for 2013, including an upcoming November/December segment on PBS. While the pieces look like they only take a few cuts, don’t be deceived, Harley warns. “The Difficult Art of Simplification,” he calls it. The philosophy Harley sees his work as a beautiful contrast to the hustle and bustle of modern life. “There’s a charm in simplicity,” he says. “The people that get hooked on carving aren’t a bunch of Luddites that want Left: “Tiny,” who is 4” tall, is a Dala horse—a highly recognizable figure in traditional Scandinavian culture.

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to turn back the clock, ... but rather a wonderful counterweight to what we do all day.” He tells me about in a class he taught earlier this year, where he took his students outside to split fresh wood for spoons, a popular project. He overheard one student saying, “You know, I told me dad on the phone last night—it’s fun to have one class where we use an axe instead of a computer.” With their finely carved features and sweet, simple smiles, it’s easy to say that the faces of Harley’s miniature figurines are ones that are not soon to be forgotten. AM Below: “Santa Claus in Sami Country.” 4 ½” tall. Sami Country is a region in Scandinavia, where the idea of Santa’s reindeer originated.


Finely Carved Personalities – Harley Refsal  

A profile I wrote for American Miniaturist of internationally renowned woodcarver Harley Refsal.

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