Let us introduct you Joe Dillett. He was very polite to give us this interview about his carreer and life like a carver.


Joe is a traditional carver using primarily hand tools to produce his art. He has more than 30 years experience as a professional carver and 25 years as an instructor. He maintains a 5- year backlog for relief carved family histories on mantels. His full-time carving business includes doors, altars and statues for churches, and other architectural carvings. Joe has a strong background in commercial art and marketing. He lectures at colleges and universities on business and promoting self-employment in the arts. Joe is a member of the National Woodcarvers Association and serves as vice president for the Kishwaukee Woodcarvers Club. He founded the International Carvers' Guild (ICG), a not-for-profit teaching corporation. He lives in Somonauk, Illinois where he operates his business. The Carving Shop.

On Saturday, July 3, 2004, a package arrived in the mail. It was a gift from Reverend O. Michael Wilcox to be auctioned off at a benefit for Marnie Whillock, editor of this magazine. She is recovering from breast cancer. The oak framed Madonna and Child, shown below, demonstrates Michael's skill and generosity to give such a wonderful carving for this good cause. The folds in Mary's robe create the softness of design that enhances the feeling of the tenderness in the scene. The soft satin finish and the three-color stain adds to this softness. The composition is well balanced and interesting. The focal points are Mary, the veil, and the Child's face. Thank you, Reverend Michael Wilcox, for your generosity and love for Marnie. You, as well as many other carvers, gave generously to this worthy cause, making the fundraiser a success.

Reverend Michael Wilcox asks: "Joe, I am asking for some pointers on how you see this carving. Is a fair price to start at $100? What are the weak points in it as you see it? Thanks.”

Mary and Child by Rev. O. Michael Wilcox 8 1/4" x 12" basswood with oak frame


Answer: Thank you for your question. The quick answer about the starting auction price of $100 is, yes it is a good place to begin. Hopefully it will go for what it is worth, about double or triple that amount. The quick answer about the overall carving is that it is very well done. I love the original design, the composition is well constructed, and the carving is done in a beautiful style that is very fitting to the subject. In this article I am not trying to change any of those things. I want to address the way I determine my price and my opinion on improving the overall quality along with reducing the carving time. There are some areas where fewer hours could have increased the value. I thought studying this carving would be a good learning experience for us all. Thank you, Reverend Michael Wilcox, for giving us this opportunity.

Trying to establish pricing is difficult; especially if an artist doesn't have regular sales. For this article I can just show you how I would price the work if it were mine.

When pricing an item, we don't want to price it so high that it's unaffordable. On the other hand, our labor is worth a fair wage. When we begin selling, seeking this balance is a trial and error process. The more you price and sell, the better you get at doing it. The more you sell, the more you explore different markets until you find the markets where your items sell at a consistent rate. Then you can continue to look at better markets in hopes of getting higher prices and selling more items. Soon you'll get an idea of what your items will sell for in which type of market. With experience, you'll become better at estimating B labor costs. That shot in the dark you took at your first pricing becomes a more educated guess as your sales increase.

Establishing a pricing standard

When I began selling, my prices were all over the map. It didn't I take me long to realize that if I wanted any consistency in my pricing I needed a better method I than just putting the price that I ifelt I wanted at the time. Sometimes when I needed the money my prices were low. Other Itimes that same item might be high. Pricing based on the way I I felt just wasn't working, so I needed a method of establishing a base price. This was the only way I could achieve any consistency in pricing because doing time studies was not working for me. Sometimes the same job, for no reason, seemed to take twice as long. I found that, if I wanted my full-time carving business not to become a burden on my family, I needed to achieve the same income level that I was making at my regular job. That income level plus taxes and overhead estimated a needed gross income of $50 an hour. Through trial and error that calculated out to about $4 per square inch of carved surface (plus material). That $4 per square inch is my base labor price. The gross income of $50 per hour sounds very high until you start subtracting the total overhead of the cost of doing business.

Pricing the plaque using my base price

Looking at your plaque I'm guessing that I could carve it in 5 to 6 hours plus about 20 minutes for finishing. The carved surface is 7" x 11", which is 77 square inches of carved surface. Four dollars per square inch is $308 plus materials. If materials were $20, my selling price would be $328. I'm not saying other carvers need to charge $4 per square inch. Your price might be more or less. Two questions should be going through your head. The first is "Where can I find a market that will pay $328 for that size plaque?" and the second is "How am I going to carve that plaque in 5 to 6 hours?"

Finding Markets

You need to seek out markets like shows, galleries, or stores where people regularly come to spend in your price range. This plaque would typically be purchased as an impulse item. Any show or store where 20% of the people attending are not able to spend $200 to $500 on impulse items will not be a good market for this plaque. This rules out most craft shows, some art shows, and almost every woodcarving show as selling shows. Typical craft shows and woodcarving shows yield impulse purchases in the $10 to $20 range and only rare sales in the $500 range. It is difficult to get accepted in galleries, some trade shows, upscale art shows, and exclusive shops, but it is necessary to break into the right market for this plaque. At this time, trade shows (home shows) are the best markets for my hand-carved history mantels. They typically sell in the range of $1,000 to $3,000.

Developing an upscale market takes more time then attending a craft show where you pay a fee and set up your table. My pricing of $4 per square inch includes 15% for marketing. I try to limit my marketing costs to a maximum of 20% of the selling price but they typically land between 7 to 10%.


Back of Madonna and Child plaque Showing the oak frame glued to the basswood. The back is unsealed.

Upscale stores and galleries usually keep 50% of the selling price. The average store or shop usually keeps 40% of the selling price. Developing the right market is critical to achieving the right price.

Improving productivity

The second question is about improving productivity. All efforts to improve productivity must never sacrifice quality. That would be counterproductive and certain death of your art career. The question is how to carve that plaque in less than 6 hours and improve quality while doing so. There are three areas where productivity can be improved without sacrificing quality.

The first way to improve productivity is knowing that the more you carve the faster you will get. This is especially true if you are using tool-specific carving techniques that match the shape of the tool to the shape you are carving. It is also important to make clean, bold cuts. Reverend Michael Wilcox said the undercutting that separated the image from the background was done with a knife. This undercutting could have been done in less time by using a V-tool. I determined that Reverend Michael Wilcox was very skilled with a knife because there were no double cuts or knife-tip scratches. When I examined it I thought it was done with a V-tool because it was very cleanly cut. This also applies to the folds of the clothing and face detail. A shallow gouge, such as a number 3 sweep, quickly breaks the sharp edges left by the V-tool. It slightly rounds the clothes in one or two smooth deliberate cuts. Remember that a gouge can be used both ways, right side up and upside down. I would have turned it up upside down to better match the convex shape of the folds in the cloth.


Showing the uniform background. Steep transition from figure to background and undercuts makes it look like the figure could have been attached.

The second way to improve productivity is to prepare the block or glue-up so minimum stock is removed. These techniques are especially productive on a larger carving and normally do not apply to this plaque or other plaques this size.

The third way to improve productivity is to eliminate unnecessary labor through design changes, but keeping artistic value and productivity in mind. My comments about eliminating unnecessary labor are not directed toward changing your style. Your style is wonderful and fits the subject. The suggestions are given only with an interest of improving quality and productivity. First, I believe the oak frame is not adding value and could be hurting the value or possibly the long term integrity of the carving. The basswood will try to expand and contract more than 5/32" every year. The frame is mounted solid to the basswood with no room for expansion and contraction. This will put stress on the frame and possibly break the glue joints holding the frame together. If the frame was necessary it could have been carved from the same piece of basswood. Carving the frame would have been faster than making one, especially if the frame was designed to allow for expansion and contraction. There are things you can do other than make a frame. This carving could have had an artistic freeform background, outlining the figures without a frame. This would have been faster. Perhaps just the outline of the figures with no background at all would save hours and keep about the same value. These timesaving ideas are designed more to improve the artistic value with an end result of : saved time. However, if you see opportunities to improve artistic value that will increase carving time, the decision is always obvious - to make your art the best that it can be. Another option for this background is a freeform design that might include a secondary message. Perhaps that secondary message might have a partial outline suggesting the shape of a cross. With little or no extra time invested in this secondary design, we wow the customer into shelling out those extra bucks when they connect with the message.

Improving the integrity of the carving with minimal effort

You need to completely finish the whole carving, the back as well as the front. Whatever finish you are using, whether it is oil, varnish, or bare wood, you should treat all surfaces alike. This is to keep the moisture labsorption the same from all sides. Uneven moisture absorption may cause warping. In this case I think the frame and glue joints will prevent the carving from warping.

Eliminating unnecessary labor (depth of background)

Considerable effort went into insuring the background remained at the same depth all over. I measured and saw less than .015" variation over the whole background. This is wonderful craftsmanship but not necessary. In fact, it looks too structured and stiff and makes the figures look like they could have been glued to the background. I felt this extra effort took more time and actually hurt the overall value. I remember in my early days of carving I made depth gauges to insure my backgrounds were consistent depths. Then I learned that it looked better if I didn't measure the depth and worked it just by eye. Measuring the background looks more like a precision machined part and could detract from the art. Not measuring takes I less time and improves the quality.

Eliminating unnecessary labor (undercutting)

Considerable effort went into the 'Undercutting technique by using a knife to go all the way around the figure. It is expertly carved with very uniform cuts. If undercut- ting were necessary, a V-tool would be much quicker than using a knife and would achieve exactly the same effect. Using a V-tool is tool specific carving that matches the shape of the tool to the desired profile of cut. One or two passes with a V-tool could make the undercuts in a few minutes.


Focal point is in the dark shadows

I also feel that the undercutting hurt the value of the piece. This undercutting made it difficult to see if the figures were glued on the background or carved from one piece. If it looks glued on, the customer will not pay as much as if it was obviously carved from one piece of wood. If the glued-on effect was desirable, it could easily have been attached and saved hours of carving.

Adding artistic value without adding labor

The near vertical transition between the background and the image creates the same value of shadow around the entire figure. The focal point of the faces and the edge of Mary's veil could remain in the deep shadow of the vertical drop to the background as they are. However, the other shadows, such as the back of Mary's head, her back, and sleeve of her right hand, should be softened with a more gradual transition to the background. This would make it look like one piece of wood with the image emerging from the background. Her left shoulder and left arm could keep the steeper drop for a heavier shadow to show strength. We've only affected half of the outline of the figure with not more than a 1 /4" of radius on the top and a more gradual radius blending the figure into the background. Then the entire top surface of the figure could remain as it is. That is what gives it the unique style of the artist that is so appropriate to the subject. Dropping off more gradually in selected areas would accomplish two things. It lets the viewer know that it is made from one piece of wood and it draws the focuses to the deeper shadow in the focal point of the faces and veil. Little or no extra time spent on these slight modifications would add value to the work.

I dearly love the carving as it is. The opinions offered are just my personal observations and food for thought. Another carver will give you different opinions. One thing I am certain of is that this carving will be a real treasure with a message to all that see it. It clearly shows the love that the artist, Reverend Michael Wilcox, has for the message. Thank you for allowing me to place your work under criticism so we can use it as a learning experience for all of us.

I offer my opinions with the same love that you've expressed in this wonderful work.

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