Monday 9 July 2018

There is an inevitable paradox with relief carving. Obviously the greater the depth of carving, the more convincingly you can portray the perspective of a three-dimensional object, a bird in flight for example. However, the greater the depth, the worse that perspective appears when seen from an oblique angle. If a deep relief is mounted on a wall as a picture, even if the undercutting has been completed with great skill, what you see when you enter the room is not particularly impressive; it is best displayed in an alcove, ideally with strategically placed lighting. This project was a commission to construct a table lectern for a church hall, with the face towards the audience to be decorated with a dove (see photo 1). Fortunately, this meant that the carving would generally be seen from the front, so I decided to set the bird with a background depth of half an inch in a framed surround. The timber chosen by the client was cherry. The same design could be carved on a simple board for wall mounting, using any close-grained timber of choice (see photo 2).

Timber selection

Having selected a piece of American cherry (Prunus serotina), if I had consulted Terry Porter's excellent Wood Identification and Use, I would have been ready for the 'brown flecks and small gum pockets' which were exposed later. It's always a good idea to know your timber intimately before making the first cut! Two boards 460 x 180 x 25mm (18 x 7 x 1in) were butt glued together, making up the size required for the lectern front. For a hanging picture, the dimensions can be adjusted to frame the bird more snugly (see photo 2), which has the advantage of supporting the weaker extremities on the frame bevel.

Whichever way you make up the board, i.e. whether you set the grain horizontally or vertically, there will always be vulnerable areas of cross-grain – for example, at the beak and wing tips. The piece of timber available may dictate the choice for you, and the width of the frame and bevel will need to be appropriate to the size of bird you wish to carve.

The design of the dove is partly stylised (see drawing); the most difficult area I found to deal with were the legs – I know, it shows! With a reasonably complex outline such as a bird, I find it best to photocopy the drawing on to thick paper and cut around the outline. This is then placed on the timber, and marking around the edge becomes easy (see photo 3).

Getting started

The carving begins with a fair amount of tedious waste removal. I suppose this could be done with a router, but with awkward shapes, it only needs a small slip from such a powerful tool to destroy an essential area of carving. The method I use is 'drill and chop' (see photo 4). This can be facilitated using a Forstner bit, though these drills leave an unwelcome hole from the central spike. With all drilling, it is essential to use a depth gauge – just one hole to greater depth means the entire background must be cut back to that depth. Also for the edges, a simple guide is useful (see photo 5).

Excavate carefully with a mallet and a medium sweep gouge (see photos 6-7). This will leave the background and frame bevels fairly rough, which is good. It is a good thing not to clean these up until the bird is almost complete, otherwise one slip during carving can damage a beautiful backdrop, which has been finished too early.


Photo 10 shows the bosting in complete and feathers marked for detailed carving. Before starting the detail, the bird should be undercut all round. This is actually the most difficult aspect of the project; the deeper the undercut the more awkward it is to clean up. More specialised chisels are very useful for this work if available (see photo 11). At all events, try to avoid unwanted stab marks in the background or bevels. The overall effect should be to see the bird flying out of the frame.

The details of feathers, feet, eyes and beak can now be tackled. Remember to overlap the feathers in the correct natural direction: i.e. on the wings, each feather overlapping the one below; on the tail they overlap from each side to the central feather. The distant wing of course, has proportionately smaller feathers to enhance the perspective. With the feet, eye and beak, a fair amount of careful work with small tools is required.

The background and frame bevels can now be cleaned up. This should be done with the shallowest gouge you have available – at a pinch a straight chisel can be used, though this will inevitably leave edge marks.


At this stage, a decision needs to be made whether to finish by sanding (see photo 12), or to leave the carving slightly more vibrant with chisel marks showing. If you sand, make sure the clean edges of feathers etc., are not destroyed. If the finish is chiselled, lightly work over the whole piece with sharply honed tools in the appropriate grain direction.

The best sealant to use depends on the timber. As my project was in cherry and sanded, I used three coats of Osmo TopOil – a product recommended by a joiner friend, which gives an excellent natural matt finish, ideal for a final two coats of Liberon Fine Paste Wax, applied over two days. The wax can be applied to the more inaccessible areas with a cut-down half-inch paintbrush, so that the bristles provide a stiff brush effect.

When finishing is complete, we come to the final test. Is the dove simply a nice decoration on a piece of wood, or is it flying?