Design & DIY

These carvings by a self-taught woodworker are astonishing

Scottish carver David Robinson often has a story behind his works. His personal story is an interesting tale of innovation, a connection with the natural world, and the Royal Family. Robinson, who completed a commissioned piece that was given to Queen Elizabeth shortly before her death, is one of 40 members of Association of Mastercarvers in Britain. He is innovative, fashioning carving tools from Land Rover springs and scissors, and his work is in high demand. The finalist for Heritage Crafts’ “Woodworker of the Year” award recently shared insight into his work with Cottage Life.


CL: How did you get into wood carving, and how old were you when you started?

DR: I originally trained and worked for many years as a landscape architect. I didn’t get seriously into woodcarving until quite late in my career, I guess my 50s, but have been whittling odd bits and pieces since I was in my 20s—and I did have a piece (Leda & the Swan) exhibited in the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh as far back as 1998 when I was in my early 40s. Really, my woodcarving has grown out of my habit of embellishing my earlier work as a builder and bespoke kitchen and furniture-maker. Most of my carving is still part of my furniture, giving it a practical function, but nowadays the carving rather takes the lead.

CL: What are your favourite things to carve?

DR: I love to carve wildlife, animals, and birds, but really, I enjoy making anything come to life. I’ve carved buildings, people—I even carved a Citroen 2cv once. 

CL: What is the largest challenge you have faced as your carving advanced?

DR: Physically the largest challenge I’ve faced recently is probably a four-metre-extending oak dining table, elaborately carved on the surface, and the set of 14 chairs to go with it. My son’s workshop actually made the chairs to my design, but I carved all the backs to feature the client’s favourite animals.

CL: Where do you get the inspiration for your carving? Are there any really neat stories behind any of your carvings?

DR: Often, of course, my inspiration comes from my clients’ dreams. I’m currently working on a piece for a lady who sailed around the world—the animals featured have to reflect her observations and experiences. But when I get the chance to indulge myself, I turn to my own wildlife encounters. The osprey carving was inspired by one that I watched while out in a boat with my wife on Loch Rannoch, and the otter table that has attracted so much attention was based on an occasion when fly fishing on a remote loch on the Isle of Coll when I had a particularly intimate encounter with an otter (the whole story on my website under “Otter tables.”).

CL: Do you sell your work, or is it all commission? How do you advertise it?

DR: I have sold work in shops and galleries, but now almost all of my work is to commission. I don’t think I’ve ever actually advertised, but my son Callum Robinson has been featuring my work on his social media—a recent post gathered over six million hits and has resulted in more enquiries than I can cope with!

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CL: What is your favourite wood to work with?

DR: I work in oak a lot—it’s what many clients want their furniture to be made from—and the quiet grain doesn’t compete with the carving. But elm is probably my favourite. It’s exasperatingly difficult to work with, but if you can make the grain work for you it can be quite beautiful.

CL: I see on your website you like hardwoods. Do these present more challenges?

DR: I work almost exclusively in native hardwoods. Softwood may sound as if it should be easier, but its open grain makes it difficult to hold any fine detail.

CL: Your son makes reference to you started carving with sharpened Land Rover parts. Can you tell us about that?

DR: The sharpened “Land Rover parts” reference is a slight exaggeration but yes, a couple of my gouges are made from Land Rover springs. My earliest whittling tool was made from a broken penknife and I regularly use chisels fashioned from screwdrivers, jigsaw blades, even an old pair of nail scissors—sometimes to get to an awkward spot you just have to make a tool to fit.

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CL: How long does it take to finish a typical carving?

DR: For me there is no typical carving time. Something small may take a day; a table I’m making now will take a couple of months, perhaps more.

CL: Can you talk more about where you carve – i.e., in a garage, a special shop, etc.

DR: I carve in my furniture-making workshop, two spaces in the outbuildings of the 18th century farmsteading that I’ve been converting into my family home for 40 years or more. At 130 square-meters, it’s getting expensive to heat so I’m currently doing a little reconstruction to arrange a warmer space within it.

CL: Did you take any courses or have any instruction in carving?

DR: No, I’ve never been on a course. I am entirely self-taught, but my background has all been in design and construction, which has helped. Now carving, and the furniture that goes with it, is my full-time profession. I just wish there were more hours in the day to be doing it.

CL: Do you have any advice for beginning carvers?

DR: Practice, practice, practice…and don’t worry about not having all the right kit.

You can see more of David Robinson’s work here.


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