Thursday, August 21, 2008

Fledgling Relief Carver

I'm new to relief carving. At left is my first attempt, thanks to a tutorial in Richard Bütz's book How to Carve Wood. In it are chapters on tools, sharpening, woods & finishes, design, whittling, chip carving, relief carving, wildlife carving, lettercarving (he uses a different technique than I do), and architectural carving. There are lots of photos and illustrations that clearly explain his process.

All I knew about relief carving before reading his book was that the same principle in lettercarving—where you carve from shorter grain to longer grain, so the wood you are cutting is supported underneath the cut—still applies. This reduces tearout. However, tearout can still result from dull tools.

This October, I'm traveling to Juarez, Mexico with a group from my church where we'll build a home in 3 days for an impoverished family. 3 days! And this includes pouring concrete. The organization that sponsors these home-builds has it down to an art, so I trust we'll finish in time.

A Presbyterian church in El Paso, Texas is cooking meals for us while we're there and I wanted to give them something in return for their hospitality, so I plan to carve a Celtic cross. This will be a challenge for me, so I'm starting now—well in advance of our departure date.

That way, if all I create is fireplace fodder, there's still time to order them a gift.


Anonymous said...

First attempt at relief carving? Very nicely done. It looks like you're motivated enough to start early. I'm sure you'll finish in time, although you should get action figure too. :-)

Thanks again for the great blog. I don't read too many of them, but yours is a great example of how to do one correctly.

Also, you've inspired me to try my hand at lettercarving. I've always wanted to give it a go.


Anonymous said...

Beautiful work as usual! Looks like a lot of detail is required in the cross. My first attempt at relief carving was an utter failure... tried to put very fine details into Mahogany and the grain just wouldn't hold the details on a small scale (yes, it has to be the wood's fault and have nothing to do with my complete incompetence). Will look forward to seeing your write-up on this project... you have a wonderful way of breaking these things down in such a clear and concise way... always a pleasure to read your posts!

Anonymous said...

I admit that after paging through Butz's book I was intimidated by this Baroque curve. Kudos to you for giving it a go, and well done on the attempt. I really like your celtic cross design and I have to say that I actually have one of those action figures. I got it in my stocking for Christmas a few years back as a joke.

Vic Hubbard said...

See Kari! This is why I choose you as my mentor. Even when you don't know what you're doing, you do it so well!! That's just beautiful. I can wait to see the cross. I'm sure it will turn out extraordinarily beautiful, too.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like an interesting project. I always wanted to do carving as a kid, but it never worked out for me. I just didn't have enough direction.

Relief carving still interests me, but I don't know if I will ever get into it. I am not sure I have enough artistic ability to do things like people or animals. I think I would have to find just the right niche to get going with it.

Speaking of crosses, I have on my bucket list to do a study of Roman woodworking to try to get a handle on what Jesus cross might actually have looked like. The more I learn about hand tool woodworking, the more I am starting to suspect that our modern representations are probably quite lacking from an historical standpoint.

Woodfired! said...

Nice work as always Kari. I always love the free-carved texture of the background.

I also have a Jesus Action Figure that a friend brought me back from the US some years ago.

Kari Hultman said...

Michael, good luck with lettercarving! If you have any questions, just shoot me an email. I forgot to show how to create the serifs on letters, so I'll do that soon.

Charles, I'm glad you mentioned that about mahogany. I have never tried to carve it, but thought it might be a good choice for the cross, but I'll rethink that.

Shannon, I actually found the cross online; I didn't design it. There are tons of versions and I chose one that wasn't as intricate as others.

:o) @ Vic.

Luke, if you discover anything in your research about the Jesus cross, I hope you'll blog about it. The book on Roman Woodworking discusses many complex joinery techniques.

Mark, if you talk to Mattie sometime, could you ask him how he makes his wood sculptures so smooth? I tried to smooth the large areas of the "S" with a chisel, no sandpaper, but wasn't able to get rid of the facets. I did not try flipping a gouge over. Maybe he uses an in-cannel gouge?

Ethan said...


Please be sure to photo-document your Celtic knot carving process in great detail, as I've attempted and struggled with these in the past. Would love to know how you handle the over/under sections... :)

I'd really like to be able to carve a small embelishment to inlay into the lid of some boxes I'm planning on making. Wanted to use the knotwork motif for obvious reasons (well, obvious if you know what the boxes were for, I suppose...).

Shazza said...

I'm so honored that you carved an "S" for Shazza...I'm speechless!

Kari Hultman said...

Ethan, will do! So...what are the boxes for??

Shazza, how did you guess? ; )

Woodfired! said...

Kari, I passed your question on to Matty. His response is:

"Depends on the size of the letters and the timber used.
You could try sandpaper or use scrapers. Try a sharp flat chisel scraped towards you at approx 80degrees to the surface with flat face of the chisel towards
you. The best disposable scraper though which can be cut to suit a profile is glass (standard window glass would do) cut with glass cutters."

I guess the flat chisel will only work with the convex faces. I have used glass as a scraper myself but not for some time. I think you just score and break it to shape as for lead-lighting. You still need to be aware of the grain direction of course.

Hope this helps a bit.

Kari Hultman said...

Mark, thank you for asking Matty. I'll try his chisel idea and I hadn't thought about using scrapers---that's a great idea. Thanks!

Vic Hubbard said...

Kari!! Did I miss your birthday? If I did or if it's coming up...Happy, happy, happy, happy, happy, happy birthday!!! Happy happy, happy, happy, happy, happy birthday!!!!
OK...everyone sing...just kidding..I hope you enjoyed or are going to enjoy your special day!!!
You're still not quite as old as me:D

Kari Hultman said...

Vic! You haven't missed it. There's still time to send me a Lee Valley gift certificate. ; ) haha

It's this Thursday. Thanks for the early bday wishes!

Metalworker Mike said...

Kari - You're haring off to Mexico to build a house? Didn't you just have an operation? I suppose those retractable adamantium claws would come in handy for the woodcarving, along with the regenerative powers. :)
As for smoothing the carving, I have two thoughts - firstly, if you make it too smooth it might look plastic, but if you want to try it anyway then my suggestion would be to use a heavy-bodied gouge with a steep (like, 35 degrees), rounded bevel. This allows you major control because as you can change the depth of cut so easily. I say 'heavy bodied' because if your gouge is as thin as my Henry Taylors, then you'd need a wicked steep bevel. An alternative to get the same effect is to use a bent or better a spoon gouge. The idea is that you can rock them to vary the cut depth.
Oh, and glass is certainly useful as a scraper, but it only works well when it's freshly broken. After it lies around for a while (even unused) it loses some of its magic.


Kari Hultman said...

Mike, I'm pretty much fully recovered
(plus, I didn't tell my doctor I'm going...)

I recently bought my first spoon gouge, actually to try on spoons, but I'll try it out with other types of carving. I also like the scraper idea.

And I agree, you never want to make a carving look TOO perfect, otherwise it won't look handmade and it loses its charm.

Metalworker Mike said...

A lovely bit of serendipity today. I don't have cable, and I don't normally watch television, but on Sundays I visit my parents for Family Dinner and sometimes I indulge in my guilty pleasure of watching "Top Gear" on BBC Canada. Well, I had some time to kill and I started watching "How It's Made", and I saw a lady engraver working on a ~6" diameter proof plate for a new coin. The way she was using her engraving tools set off bells in my head, as it was decidedly brilliant, and I'm hungering to try it for carving.
What she was doing was using a ~3" diameter steel ring of 1/8" diameter wire as a fulcrum for her tools. The ring was easy to hang on to, and by doing the cutting inside the ring (which was laying on the surface of the workpiece) she could lever up against it to control her depth of cut. Ding ding ding! We have a winner! Now, it won't work exactly as she used it, because she was working on a generally flat object (a coin proof) and relief carving isn't usually flat, but the concept... the concept is well worth investigating. Even a bit of 1/8" dowel duct-taped behind the bevel of the gouge could be dead handy. This needs some investigation. Dearly.


Metalworker Mike said...

Hi, there. Me again.
I knew I'd seen that funny-looking 'S' before. In a book. I was sure of it. I just spent about 45 minutes pawing through about a dozen Roughneck containers of books (I'm kind of book-oriented in the way that Tammy-Faye Bakker is kind of make-up oriented) and I pulled out the few carving books that I have left, after having given most of them, in a very uncharacteristic gesture, to an uncle to wanted to do some carving. Not that I am not generous, it's just that my generosity does not usually apply to my books, which I hoard jealously regardless of whether I think I will ever read them again.
But I ramble.

Anyway, I found what I was looking for. In the mid-ish-80's Rick Bütz wrote an article for Fine Woodworking called "Relief Carving - Traditional methods work best", and in that article he used that very carving as an example.
So why am I bringing this up? I bring this up because in the article he mentioned his methods for smoothing the outer surfaces. To quote:
"A firmer smooths the outside curves, again with long sweeping cuts." (and you can tell that was a quote because if I'd written it I would have added a comma between 'long' and 'sweeping' because that's just the kind of guy that I am).
and furthermore...
"Long sweep cuts leave a smooth finish. A bent gouge or spoon gouge may be best for inside curves. The right hand powers the tool, while the edge of the left hand rests firmly on the work."

I'm feeling deliciously smug at the moment, as you can well imagine. :)

He does, however, somewhat shoot holes in my duct-taped-dowel notion, in a way that depresses me even more than the grammar of his second quote, because he says later that to do these sweeping finishing cuts you use this procedure:
"Begin by steadying the blade of the tool with your left hand. The palm rests firmly upon the surface of the carving. By pushing the tool with the right hand and pivoting on the palm of the left, the edge of the gouge can be made to follow a very well-controlled curve. By experimenting with he point where the left hand pivots, a great variety of arcs can be achieved to follow the curves of most carvings."
So basically, he uses his hand as the fulcrum, and rolls his hand as the chisel advances.
I honestly should have thought of this, as I do it myself when paring with the chisel, and when cutting with a torch, and welding, and when doing a hundred other things, but it just didn't come to mind previously. Ah well. Better late than never...

We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming....


Kari Hultman said...

Mike, thanks for all your research! I like the rolling gouge idea and definitely plan to practice that technique; makes total sense. For the convex curves, though, even with long sweeping cuts with a chisel, you get facets (since the chisel is flat-backed). And maybe that's just the way it is unless you want to use sandpaper or a scraper. The fulcrum idea is interesting, especially if you're making a low relief carving, like the engraver lady.

(Tammy Faye Bakker...thanks for THAT visual!)

Metalworker Mike said...

No, no! No need to thank me. I _enjoy_ reminding people of pop culture's troubled past (two words - 'Karma Chameleon') and need no added incentive to keep at it. Bjork.
As for the chisel leaving facets, I'm trying to figure out how to describe the way the hand-rolling thing would allow a facet-less cut. Barney the Dinosaur. I'll make up a test piece and take some pictures and hopefully that will end up being useful.
Jerry Springer.


Rosanne Barr's album.

Anonymous said...

You'll do a fine job, Kari. You won't need to order a gift. The knot looks awesome. Beautiful.

Kari Hultman said...

Mike....Bjork. ew.

Thanks Meg!