Introduction: Relief Carving Made Easy

This was a daunting idea because I didn't know about it but i tried and found it wasn't too complicated.

To start it off, theres a couple ways of looking at this. If you are an artist, and have done this long enough you'll be able to do free-work without drawings. Some people are just natural sculptors. The other more common is to draw a pattern or picture, and using a reference to look at, duplicate what you are seeing. A grid is the best way to proportion the design and is the easiest to see what your doing. Everything you see here was done with a swiss army knife for marking and shaping the larger leaves, and palm chisels.

Find a design or picture you'd like to carve, in linear 2D form and either draw freehand or cut a profile or make a template of the design. Whatever you have to do to transfer the image or shape is up to you.

Aside from the chisels, you should get used to simple carving with a knife. And remember, carving smaller things is more dangerous at first. Start with something the size of a cantaloupe, or a piece of firewood. Start with soft wood, it'll make the experience more enjoyable.

Find some really soft cambium pine (like 3/4" pine trim board) or cottonwood or basswood and draw a square on it. Then draw a letter within that square. Carve the outside of the letter within the box and then shape the letter. This is the best way to get used to the chisels. Instant gratification...Palm chisels are great because you can support your hand with the other fingers while holding it in the same hand, easier to guide. Don't try to take too much out at one time, it'll make it very difficult for you, and creat large tear-outs. And when using gouges, you make a series of cuts that are next to each other and have rows of gutter-shape carves. Take down the "peaks" in between the "gutters" with the same gouge. This is the best way to remove lots of material quickly.

And with most of the craving, taking the peaks down makes it easier. If you carve side ways across the grain, that removes wood really fast as well. Go slow so your chisel doesn't steer its way down into the grain, thats where you have to get used to the grain and which direction to start the cut, and end it. This is really tricky with figured and quarter-sawn wood. Take a soft cloth if you have to and sweep over it, you'll see which direction the grain is going. If its snagging, the grain is in the opposite direction of your sweeping. Which equals to tear-outs.

Mark the wood. Take an extremely sharp knife, with a very small fine point like a swiss army knife or exacto and very carefully carve a hairline around the drawing. This will eliminate tear out with the next larger tool that comes behind it. Either carve your way around the objects in the picture and then work on the main element in your picture/carving secondly. So in this example of a Walnut box i made with Gothic Oak leaves, i carved out the background first. Then i carved the inner veins of the leaves to show where the sculpting of the leaves were going to go. Lastly, i gave the leaves some liveliness by curving up and down each leaf.

I used 2 methods for removing the background: 1st method, carving. 2nd method, a dremel with a router base that dremel makes that attaches to the tool allowing you to make a perfectly flat bottom surface.

NOW the other part:

Chisels, chisels, and more chisels.

1- Keep your chisels EXTREMELY sharp, which, without going into detail, will save you from injury.

2- don't bother working on anything when you're tired, plain and simple.

3- get used to the skill of sharpening, if your tool is sharpened and prepared properly it will always be razor sharp when you need to use it. Steel has a lot to do with it. Do yourself a favor and buy yourself some antique chisels that have the proper combination of elements in the metal that will make an edge last. Don't buy a Stanley or Buck brothers, Marples, Pfeil, flex cut, or any other chisel and expect it to stay sharp for a long period of time, and especially if you're not good at sharpening. I have a chisel made by W. Butcher company over 90 years ago and i use it almost everyday and get rolled shavings that you can almost see through still with it. It hasnt been sharpened in over a YEAR !! They don't make those like they used to...

Always keep your other hand behind the cutting part of the chisel, and don't ever hold something in one hand and chisel into it with your other hand. Wells Lamont makes a glove that has stainless steel in the THREADING of the gloves with kevlar, and you can't get any better than that with a cut rating class that high. They're not cumbersome at all.

Take your time with power tools and small carvings, you can ruin a piece in a split second if not careful...