Wood Carving - North America Platter

About: I am a 22 year old woodturner from Sydney. I have been wood turning for about 6.5 years and have completed my apprenticeship in cabinetmaking. I left my full time work to try and make it as a wood turner

I got the opportunity to leave Australia and travel all through North America for 4.5 months. I saw an incredible amount of iconic sites, art, animals and culture. Instead of buying souvenirs, I wanted to make a reminder of my trip. This is a busy carving but it shows the journey of my travels.

The process of making something like this covers many carving and colour techniques. Hopefully you can learn something from the process

Step 1: Inspiration

These are the elements that I added to my platter


Bear sculpture- Denver

Totem poles- Vancouver

Inukshuk- Canmore
Native carving- Glacier bay

Navajo pottery- Monument valley

The mittens and monument- Monument valley

Elk- Banff

Basket- Washington

The white house- Washington

Face of life and death- Mexico city

Chichen Itza- Chichen Itza

Mayan calendar- Mexico city

Bead bowls- Mexico city

Step 2: Preparing the Blank

Timber selection was a key aspect that I had to consider. I needed a light colour so that the painting, staining and other techniques would show up clearly. I wanted something that would hold detail because there are lots of fine aspects in the design. An american timber was idea and I wanted something that wasnt too hard to work. Rock maple is quite hard but im use to much harder in Australia so it worked out well as a timber choice. Seemed to be the perfect choice

I ran the edges of the board over a jointer to true them up and cut them to length. Using tightbond, I glued the pieces up. When dry I drew a circle, cut it out on the band saw and used a forstner bit to drill a 50mm hole in the center for the jaws of the chuck. I put it on the lathe to true up the edge and turn the profile of the top 15mm as well as add the 150mm tenon on the bottom. I didnt shape all the back because I still needed full support as I carved. Using the tenon on the back, I marked the diameter of the bowl section.

Step 3: Drawing the Design

Start with a basic sketch of your design. This should have all the design elements and rough proportions of the carvings. This will probably take many attempts to get it how you want the end result. You wont be able to really fix it after you start carving. When you have the design right, transfer it to the timber. You can add more detail here.

Step 4: Routing the Levels

I used a trimmer router to rough out the levels of the piece. This way they are consistent and much easier and quicker than carving this all down. I went down 12mm in the deepest spot. Dont do this all in one go. The router cant handle that. Slow cuts at 4mm depth worked for me.

Step 5: Roughing the Shapes of the Elements

After the levels are done, rough shaping is next. Depending on the carving, this looks very different. All of this was done with my fordom micromotor with saburtooth burs. They are like a metal spiked abrasive. Very effective at removing waste quickly. Then refined with carbide burs and sanding discs.
For the totem, it was just a matter of rounding it over and dropping the level of the wings. Start with a center line and start taking it from there. It doesnt have to be a perfect cylinder as its replicating a tree which would be close but not perfect.

The bear was similar in ways that the edges were just rolled over. I marked my high points like the center line for the totem. Things to consider so it didnt look too flat was to have the right ear lower in level to the left so it didnt look too flat. With this style of carving, nice flowing line will be key as its not using texture to distract like with the elk.

Kokopelli (navaho flute player), was done by lowering the level to start. This wasnt done with the router was I hand no support. Then I redrew the outline and using cylindrical carbide burs, I outlined the drawing. For the smaller details, I used a smaller bur. Important to have the cutter as perpendicular as possible to keep the level.

The pyramid was the hard one. Its hard to add that much depth working in relief. The high point was the center line on the top corner of each large step. The steps were then undercut and sloped down the sides slightly. The center paths were all one height on the center edge but the change in width adds to the illusion of it being all different. The temple at the top is all the same angle just at a slightly lower level. This took lots of experimenting and small changes. I didnt like it many times over and after small adjustments I got it right and it became one of my favourite elements.

Step 6: Face of Life and Death

When it come to power carving its great to know your cutters and their capabilities. To get get a nice flat cut like in the eyes and the mouth, a cylindrical cutter with cutting teeth on the bottom is ideal. There can be strain on the tool with larger cuts so it is easier to drill out most with a standard drill bit in a drill to remove lots of the bulk and then clean up the rest and get the levels right.

Once again I used the saburtooth burs to remove the bulk of material in rough shaping.

I also used a dovetailed bit to do the center line and the indents about the teeth. I was cutting quickly and got the burn marks but I wasnt worried about that as i know it was going to be stained black.

The other tool for the grooves in the eyes and the skeleton nostril was a spherical cutter. The larger 5mm one worked perfectly for these. With all these types of cuts, its just a matter of taking light cuts with a firm motion. I often lock my arm in place and pivot in the wrist or even with my entire body. The pivot gives control.

The detail in the teeth, top of the head and the cheek were all done with hand tools. My pfeil 11/1 carving chisel is actually my favourite detailing tool. I much prefer it to a V tool as you will get a much more consisted shape as the depth wont vary much

Step 7: Refining the Carvings

I had decided to focus on the mexican (bottom) aspect of the carving to start. The face of life and had been sanded and details were added to the pyramid. The stepped path was cut with a very sharp angled V tool. No idea what they are called but I love them for detailed lines. Start with the vertical ones and then meet them with the horizontal ones. This way its easier not to over cut as you feel a stopping point if you go too far. The large steps were stippled with the same spherical cutter used on the face. Light quick indentations in a random patter will get you this texture. I did also highlight the edge with a smaller cutter. Normally I dont like this 'haloing'. In this case i wanted a sharp crisp edge to define the textured from the smooth. If I had added texture to the smooth area which would be more accurate to the building, the depth of carving would have been lost. It ends up being a perfect contrast.

The beads were a bunch of work. I have a range of cup cutters. These cut domes and in the process they burn as there is no place for the shaving to go. You need to start the cutter on and angle to start the cut then straighten the tool to perpendicular to the wood and push. You will need to clear the burnt shavings regularly. As beads have holes, I then used an engraving bit to put holes in the center of each of these. There were a lot.

Step 8: Adding Areas of Colour

The face of life and death was black and I decided after experiments that an india ink was perfect for it. I also went over the beads to get anywhere that didnt have the burns for more consistency. I applied the larger flatter areas with a rag and the harder to get spots with a brush. Had to do only minimal at a time because I didnt want any drips to run. The face also has a slight gold tint. I thinned a bit of gold paint and rubbed it in with my finger on the higher points, just enough for a bit of a sparkle. That is similar look to the obsidian with is glassy black shine with areas of gold reflection in the light.

The beads and the Navajo background was done with acrylic paints. I stuck with base colours, apart from the green out of the tube as it was slow work and I didnt want the colour difference. I actually painted these with a tooth pick to get more control than a brush. I recommend goo background movies (I got through 2 and a half).

The Navajo area was done with colours slightly varying each row. Make sure that you mix plenty of paint to continually add to each colour. The white line helps transition the reds to blues.

Step 9: Relief Carving Navajo Style

I started with my horizontal lines using my favourite pfeil 11/1 carving tool. That frames the areas with the different patters. These I did carefully measured after drawing the designs on paper. Repetitious pattern should look as consistent as possible. The nature of hand carving will give the natural look, not mass produced. The wider sections were done with another tool that is less aggressive. In these wider sections, dont try and do it all in one cut. The ridges add character similar to the traditional Navajo work. Also if you do slip a little, a little bit of paint the same colour does a great job of hiding that. The other thing that I did to the monument valley silhouette, Kokopelli and bottom of the bear was to go around them with the detail carving tool. This is called haloing and normally I wouldnt recommend it, however in this case I found it really defined the difference and lifted the carvings from the coloured background. This is something that I then carried throughout the entire piece.

Step 10: Engraving

To carve something this detailed is possible bit I dreaded drawing it all out. To avoid all that I just carved through a print out. To prepare the timber, I sanded it smooth and then applied a bitumen stain. That way when I carved though it would be more defined. I then taped the print out securely. It was already cut around the profile of the pyramid and face. I then outlined the key areas with simple dots so the paper would still hold its position. After that was done the paper was removed and it became a game of join the dots. I then stippled and engraved the areas that were black in the photo so it ended up being a reverse of colour. It actually came out cleaner than I had expected

Step 11: Carving by Hand

The key to carving by hand is always to have sharp tool. The good thing is that they can be easily maintained if you take care of them. To touch them up I use a piece of leather with tormeks honing compound. I have never touched them on a grinder, only a buffing wheel and the leather strop.

When carving the totem, it was all fairly basic cuts. First the straight downwards cut which I sometimes used a mallet. The next cut would be coming in from an angle to meet it. When doing the second cuts, you want the tool to not be cutting on the corners. If the tool buries itself, thats where unwanted tear out can happen. Understanding grain direction also helps with successful clean cuts. You never want to cut up the grain our you will get chip out. If you have a good read on the timber you can deliberately chip it in the roughing process but that can be risky for a new carver. With the totem, it was easily safe to go from the center down with out any risk. I did the left side first and then matched the right for symmetry. Also basic carving safety is two hands on the chisel and always have your hands behind the direction of the cut. You cant cut yourself that way.

Step 12: Background for Canada

As im not much of a sketcher, I used an image for the background. I had to cut out around the totem, inukshuk, bear and hockey stick. To then get the image across, I coloured in the back of the page with my pencil, in a way creating a graphite paper back. I could then trace the lines firmly and the graphite on the back came off on the timber.

I then painted as close to those lines as possible but once again my skills with a brush are pretty basic. To get the clean edge I used my detail carving tool to follow the edges. This removes the areas where I may have over painted by 1.5mm. For the really fine detail I found a felt tip pen was a close enough colour. I still carved around these areas. You can see the difference above the hockey stick with the 2nd pic shows it uncarved and the 3rd one is refined

Step 13: Turning

I know the carving isnt all done but at this point, I wanted to get the turning done. I remounted it on the lathe and using bowl gouges I shaped the back. I wont go into the details of turning technique as I cover that in other instructions. Sharpening the tool on the final cut was important with this timber to get this timber ready to sand. I only had to use 180/240/400 grit to get it right.

Turning the inside the main focus for me was getting the diameter exactly right. Proportionally I wanted it to be 1/3 and to get that the top and bottom edge just had to touch the beads and hockey stick. Remembering that sanding will slightly change that depending on how much you have to do. I was able to get a clean cut with a sharp tool that only required minimal sanding so I went up right next to the beads.

Step 14: Basket Illusion

This comes from a turning technique mastered by people like David Nittman and Harvey Meyer. Its a time consuming process with lots of little square to be coloured the run across multiple beads.
I had to carve the beads...

The reason that I did the turning was so that I could evenly divide the space for the beads accurately. I marked out the lines on the lathe by holding my pencil on the timber table that was at center height and rotating the timber by hand. I also made my first cuts using the same process. I used a V shaped cutter in the the foredom, plunged it into the timber 3mm deep and rotated the timber by hand. This worked really well to get accurate lines running around the piece. I got as close as possible to the whitehouse and elk as possible. Then with a range of cylindrical and dovetailed shaped cutters, I shaped the beads off the lathe. Then there was a fair bit of sanding by hand. This step was the one I hand been dreading the entire project but it worked out really well.

Then it went back on the lathe and I used the indexing and divided up the sections, running my pencil across the flat table. It had to be perfectly on center other wise a spiral patter would occur. I then took it off the lathe for pyrography. Using my wood burner with a flat knife shaped wire, I followed my lines going across and in the bottoms of the beads. When that is all done sand again with a high grit to take away the orange marks that come up from burning. That wont take much work and it looks much crisper.

The colouring was done with india ink markers like a sharpie. Start with a small dot to mark out the pattern and then go ahead with colouring them all in. The burn lines create quite a nice border

Step 15: Touch Ups and Changes

Its a very busy platter and with some sections with high colour and others with very little I ended up making quite a few changes. Originally quite a few carved elements like the bear, pyramid and inukshuk had no colour at all. I did quite a bit of experimenting to get it all right on scraps before I put it on the final piece. It can be very hard to undo colour.
Bear- Dye stain which was a combination of quite a few to get the shade I wanted
Totem- Dye stain with acrylic paint highlights
Hockey stick- Dye stain

Inukshuk (rock person)- Water diluted acrylic paint. I didnt want a solid colour and didnt have a grey stain. Can still see the grain clearly

Kokopelli (navaho flute player)- Acrylic paint. Its actually navy in colour as black was quite harsh

Monument valley- Dye stain and then sanded back. The stain stays in the groves and adds depth to the carving

Elk- Dye stain for the body and bitumen stain for the antlers. Black india ink for the eye

White house- Acrylic paint.

Face of life and death- Black india ink with gold paint rub

Pyramid- I tried a grey stain and it looked bad. I sharpened a pencil and rubbed the graphite on it and it worked perfectly as it highlights the higher points adding depth.

Canada backgroud- Acrylic paint.

Navajo background- Acrylic paint.

Basket weave background- India ink markers

Mayan calendar background- Bitumen stain

Step 16: Polishing

For polishing, like most of my projects, I spray on NC lacquer. 3 coats is normally enough. Careful when cutting back between the 2nd and 3rd that you dont cut through any colour

Step 17: Done

85 carving hours later I was done. A great souvenir and reminder of my trip

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    8 Discussions

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    mrwonton

    7 months ago

    We're the totem poles in stanly park? Great platter!

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    Eh Lie Us!

    8 months ago

    Good night, Irene! Amazing work and your documentation is helpful and inspirational. What a great idea. I would hope that others get to travel to Australia, explore the cultures and build something just as beautiful. Digital high-5 brother.

    1 reply

    Cheers. I have though a little bit about what an Australian platter would look like. Something for me to consider too

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    doing2much

    8 months ago

    What a gorgeous way to tell a story! Your platter looks like belongs in the Smithsonian!!

    Voted for you on both counts.

    1 reply
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    seamster

    8 months ago

    Whoa, this is a beautiful piece!! Definitely a work of art, as well as a work of love. Very impressive result. Be proud!

    1 reply