Monday 9 July 2018
If your carving time is limited, this is a project you can complete in about ten hours. It only requires a few tools and a piece of oak 380 x 75 x 32mm (15 x 3 x 1 1/4in)
The design for this panel was inspired by a motif on the windows of Blackwell – a well-known Arts & Crafts house in the English Lake District (www.blackwell.org.uk). The Arts & Crafts Movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was, as the name implies, as much an ethos as a style. In an age where mass-production was churning out cheap machine-made goods to furnish the Victorian and Edwardian home, the Arts & Crafts Movement stood up for traditional values in design and craftsmanship. It was, if you like, the craftsperson's 'Jerusalem' – a reaction against industrialisation.
In stylistic terms, Arts & Crafts is a close relative of Art Nouveau. Stylised plant forms predominate in all aspects of decoration and in this panel I have employed some of the distinctive features of the period. The hollow in the broadest leaf, the flattening of the tulip flower, and the angular double-bend at the 'root' end of the stem are features typical of the style.
Oak was the dominant wood for Arts & Crafts carving, so it is the most appropriate wood for this project. Ideally you need 'green' oak, which has been drying for a couple of years. Green oak is much easier to carve than fully dried oak. It holds together well in thin sections and can be cut without too much use of the mallet, whereas fully dried oak can be hard and brittle. The only drawback of green oak is its tendency to warp as it continues to dry out, so avoid pieces with knots or a contorted grain pattern. On a panel of this size any later warping should not be too pronounced.
Make a full-size copy of the pattern using a photocopier, scanner, digital camera, or by drawing it using grid squares. I have made the panel 381 x 76mm (15 x 3in) but you can scale it up or down as you wish. You can paste the pattern onto the wood, but I prefer to trace it on using carbon paper (see photos 2-3), allowing you to see the grain as you are carving.
Draw a line all the way round the sides of the block 13mm (1/2in) from the top. This will be your 'ground' level. Fix the wood to a backing board, screwing from the back with shallow screws, allowing about 75mm (3in) all the way round for clamping to the bench.
Setting in & grounding out
We start carving by removing surplus wood to leave our plant pattern standing clear of the 'ground'. The first step is to define the edge of the pattern lines with a V-tool (see photo 4). Avoid the temptation to 'bost' down vertically at this stage as you will just create ragged and fractured sides to the raised areas. Now take a stout gouge and a mallet to remove the bulk of the unwanted wood (see photo 5).
Next we square up the vertical edges of the pattern by paring along the sides with a fine flat chisel, working with the grain (see photo 6). In certain areas, like external points and internal corners, you will need to refine the paring cuts by careful vertical cuts (see photo 7). Your tools need to be sharp for this so you don't crush the grain and break off the points. Thin slices with a sharp tool will avoid this problem.
There is another part of this pattern that needs special attention – the narrow gap between the top of the main leaf and the flower is best tackled with a padsaw (see photo 8). If you don't have a padsaw, don't attempt to chisel out the gap at this stage – wait until you start rounding off the flower.
With the plant form now clearly defined, use a broader chisel to flatten off the ground. Don't go right down to the ground line at this stage – leave about 2mm (5/64in) above the line as the surface will inevitably suffer some scaring as we shape the stems.
Stem and leaves
The first step in moulding the stem and leaves is to define the overlaps by making shallow cuts on the lower side of the crossing points (see photo 9). See how the stem goes over the main leaf at the root end, and under it at the flower end. The two subsidiary leaves flow out from under the main leaf – one crossing under it to the left, and the other crossing under the stem to the right.
Now the real carving starts! Shape the stem and leaves, mainly with the concave side of No.3 and No.5 gouges, carefully working with the grain to create a smooth flow and a clean surface (see photo 10). On the two subsidiary leaves, create a shallow slope on one side of the profile and a steep slope on the other to produce a distinct ridge along the leaf. Where these leaves cross under the stem and the main leaf, make sure the line and profile continue on each side of the crossover without any jarring changes in direction. Also make sure that the rise and fall above the ground is smooth and natural.
Round over the stem and, again, give it a natural looking rise and fall as it crosses over and under the main leaf. Form the hollow in the main leaf and the 'root' using the convex side of the same gouges, and carefully round over the edges. Try to capture the period style.
Finish the modelling of the stem and leaves by undercutting the edges. The aim is to make it look as though the plant is detached from the background. Because the detail and background are the same colour, we need undercutting to create shadows to separate them visually. First 'undermine' the vertical edge with a V-tool, then open out the undercut with No.3 and No.6 gouges (see photo 11).
Shaping the flower
Define the overlaps of the flower petals by making a shallow cut with a V-tool on the lower side of each line (see photo 12). Make the two small petal points slope back under the three main petals, but leave their tips at the original level.
Use a No.3 gouge to round over the two side petals, with their inner edges slightly undercutting the centre petal. The change in grain direction in the neck of the curve can make it difficult to get a clean cut. The best way is to pare in from each direction then, where the gouge starts to dig in at the curve, pare down vertically to create the curve (see photo 13).
Shape the centre petal by running a groove down each side with a No.5 gouge so that the edges of the petal appear to flip up and over the side petals (see photo 14). This is very much a style of this period and getting it right is an important part of the period detail. Round the central part of the petal smoothly into the side hollows.
The undercutting on the sides of the flower is less pronounced than on the leaves, but you need to show a defined edge between the flower and the ground. The three centre points of the petals need very pronounced undercutting so they appear fully detached from the ground (see photo 15). This is an illusion achieved by leaving about 6mm (1/4in) at the edges and cutting back below that at an angle of about 45 degrees. The longitudinal grain means the points are quite strong, but don't shave them too thin.
Texturing the ground
To help the pattern stand out from the ground, we texture the ground surface to give a contrast. Using a No.8 8mm curved gouge or similar, reduce the ground down to its final level with lots of little 'scooping' cuts (see photo 16). Push the curved gouge smoothly down, along and up in a continuous arc, taking care not to break out the grain on the upward stroke. You will need to use a smaller gouge in the tight edges and corners. Give your cuts a natural directional flow to simulate background grass and foliage, using the flow of the leaves and stem as your guide. Try not to end up with a mass of parallel lines or you will lose the effect.
One final touch is to put a cove or chamfer along each edge of the panel.
I am using a 3mm (1/8in) moulding plane to make a narrow cove (see photo 17), but if you don't have a suitable moulding plane simply make a chamfer with a small flat plane. Always plane across the end grain first, taking care not to break out the corners, then finish off with the sides. Note that I am using a piece of wood the same thickness as the panel edge to keep my plane level.
And finally, once you have completed your carving, polish the whole panel with a good light-brown wax polish – I generally use Antiquax on oak – hang it on the wall, and admire your weekend's handiwork.