Saturday, March 15, 2008

Lettercarving, Part I








There are several techniques used for lettercarving. I have seen people use a chip carving knife; use chisels and gouges to chop down into a letter from its outside edges; and use a router.

Here is another way—a slicing method. The greatest benefit to using this method is you need only one straight chisel and one straight gouge* (with a 3 sweep) to cut virtually any letter, depending on the size of the letter. I have 4 sets of one chisel and one gouge that range in size from 1mm to 20mm. Smaller letters require smaller chisels and gouges; that's why I have 4 sets.

Using a simple sans serif "I" as an example, make stop cuts with a mallet and a vertically-held chisel along the length and in the center of the letter. You do not have to cut very deep and definitely not as deep as the final depth of the letter. Stop cuts do exactly that—they keep your slicing cut from going further across the grain than you intend.

To cut the right side of the letter, the chisel handle is in your right hand while your left hand guides the cut. Switch hands when cutting the left side. If you train yourself to be ambidextrous, you'll save time by not having to continually turn your workpiece around to make a cut.

Bevel up, the cutting edge of the chisel is 45 degrees to your pencil line. Tip the angle of the chisel up, in relation to the flat surface of your workpiece, about 20 degrees. Maintaining this compound angle, push the chisel into the wood, but not so far that you cut into the wall of the other side of the letter, and slide the chisel forward along your pencil line. Ideally, it should take two passes with the chisel on each side of the letter to pop the center piece out. With the second pass, maintain that compound angle, and ride the back, flat surface of the chisel along the bed of the first cut. You can make sheer, slicing cuts with the chisel if the second pass wasn't perfectly aligned with the first.

Cutting the top and bottom of the letter is the same technique—maintain the compound angle and use two passes with the chisel. Clean up the valley created where two walls meet by working in from all sides and into the crevice. Don't be overly picky. One: chances are you'll add stain or paint to your workpiece, which will conceal some errors, and two: it's a good thing for people to know the lettering was carved by hand. Too perfect, and it looks like a machine created it, and it loses its charm (but that's just my opinion).

Use a chisel that is wider than one side of the letter. This way, one corner of the cutting edge is buried in the wood, while the other corner is above the workpiece (and therefore, won't dig into the nice, flat facet you just created). I'll show how to add serifs and cut curves in another post.

*Every once in a while, you may need to buy a gouge with a more pronounced sweep.
The chisel in the photos is a 20mm straight chisel.

18 comments:

Shazza said...

Beautiful work VC!

Al said...

VC,

It sure *looks* to me like another reason to use hand tools. Your work-in-progress sign looks absolutely beautiful, with all the curves and perfect carving! Is it now finished?

The Village Carpenter said...

Thanks guys. Al, it's still a work in progress. The list of projects I've actually completed is very short....

Stephen Shepherd said...

Village Carpenter,

May I commend you on an excellent tutorial on an often overlooked technique. Your photographs are excellent and your nails are well kept.

Stephen Shepherd

The Village Carpenter said...

LOL, Stephen! Thanks. : )

Shazza said...

I agree with Stephen - you never would guess you were a wood worker with those hands!

The Village Carpenter said...

Another plus in working with handtools...you get to keep all your fingers. ; )

Wyldth1ng said...

You could just pay someone to do it for you, as well.

The Village Carpenter said...

LOL! Yes, Wyld, that certainly would be another option.

Luke said...

Great work VC!!

I'm looking forward to more post on the subject... Very interesting, thanks for sharing.


Luke

The Village Carpenter said...

Thanks, Luke! I'll try to post the next one this weekend. I'll have to see if my "photographer" is free.

Mark H said...

Please save me from fruitlessly searching the internet and tell me what font you used for that beautiful script W on your sign.

The Village Carpenter said...

Mark H, the font is Shelley Volante BT.

Timberwerks Studio - Dale J. Osowski - Furniture Maker said...

Very well done, nice clean cuts.

Todd said...

Kari,

Nice tutorial. What type of carving tools did you use receomend for this type of carving.

Kari Hultman said...

Thank you, Dale.

Todd, I buy Lamp brand carving tools from Woodcarvers' Supply. They're thin and do not have side bevels—perfect for this type of carving.

Mark Jubber said...

Hi there
Great tutuorila thank you. Complete beginner here. Just wondered what type of wood you used as it looks like carving into butter, yet it holds the letter shapes perfectly.

Thanks
Mark

Kari Hultman said...

Thank you, Mark. I'm carving basswood, which carves very easily. Sometimes the wood is spongy, though, and does not hold an edge well, so look for boards that seem harder. Other woods that carve well are butternut and mahogany, but I've also carved cherry (a little harder) and Swiss Pear (a lot harder, but holds a crisp edge).

You might also like chip carving which also allows you to carve letters. I've found that it's a wee bit easier than using chisels and gouges. If you do a search for "chip carving" on my blog, you'll find a couple entries, including a video tutorial.