Northern Virginia Carvers offers lessions from noon to 4 p.m. every first and third Sunday of the month through October at Colvin Run Mill, off Rte. 7 near Reston. Tools and instruction are provided free of charge; wooden blanks can be purchased for 25 cents to $1 each. For more information call 534-1691.

"I'm a retired bureaucrat, and that's why I like this. It's completely free of rules and regulations," says John Reida. The ex-social worker for the Veterans Administration is turning a slab of cherrywood on an upright lathe as he talks, smoothing the knots, tapping off the sap wood ("where the nutrients travel"), and unveiling the heartwood to create one of his highly abstract sculptures.

Roughly every 30 seconds, he pauses to peer at a wooden duck brought to him by an uncertain carver. This is because the room Reida is standing in -- the "barn" at Colvin Run Mill -- is full to the rafters with first-time wood carvers working on flowers, seagulls, abstract designs, snakes and the ubiquitous ducks. The place looks like a national sanctuary for decoys. There is a reason.

"About 50 years of carving knowhow went into this thing," says veteran carver Ed Underhill, holding up what might be a standing duck, or a loon with whiplash. "This is a simple design for newcomers and teaches them almost all the basic cuts they'll need to know.

"When I first started," he says, encouragingly, "it took me two hours to make one of these things. Now, it takes me about 10 minutes."

Underhill is president of the 180-member Northern Virginia Carvers, a loosely knit group of people from wide-ranging backgrounds who are full of "180 different ideas on how to carve wood."

There are abstract sculptors, shallow-relief cutters, deep-relief carvers, and newcomers, all with their tongues thrust between their teeth in rapt concentration and sawdust in their hair. There are those who paint and those who polish and those who do both; those who work with the grain and those who gouge it; those who copy and those who create; those who like realism and those who do not.

Outside, a few members have come to some agreement about the six works that Fairfax County commissioned for Colvin Run Park. Six three-member teams are doing bas-reliefs of scenes from the mill's past; all are following designs by club member Bert Foster.

"Bas-relief" is a term for a shallow carving into a flat board, where the board remains as background; but the "bas" could refer to the wood. "Basswood" is the carvers' term for linden, which they say is soft and easy to work. This is in direct contrast to the beautiful fruitwoods, which are difficult to cut, but take polish more easily than basswood.

Newcomers carving "in the round," as figured sculptures are dubbed, are given basswood blanks and the "same sort of tools that have been used for the last 2,000 years," says Reida. "Only the type of metal has changed -- the shape remains the same."

The steel shapes amount to either straight "chisels," or the U- or V-shaped "gouges," which vary in width usually from one-eighth inch to two inches. These are used to make incisions; the chisels are used for shaving.

There are other innovations, of course. Gus Burroughs, whose painted birds took a prize recently at the National Waterfowl contest in Easton, Md., uses dental drills to make thin striations of feathers. Wood burning highlights the top feathers, and acrylic latex paints bring his birds to life.

Most people in the room, however, used some version of the pocketknife, supplied by the Carvers. Children under 12 are permitted to use only files, however -- which provided the impetus behind advice from one of the four youngsters we brought to the session.

"Tell them to get a snake to work on," said a weary Ricky Nyman, 8, holding his half-finished wooden shark and staring at Melane Meeks' ready-to-go reptile. "It goes faster."