Weekend Project – Owl Relief

Monday 9 July 2018

This is a simple relief carving designed for the novice woodcarver. The idea is to introduce a carver to using a few basic gouges, thinking in three dimensions and holding the carving securely. The project should take about two days to carve. The gouges referenced in the list above are those used but any suitable gouge could be used. It is recommended to use as big a gouge as practical and to ensure it is sharp throughout the carving.

Any hardwood could be used, in this example a stock piece of lime (Tilia vulgaris) measuring 143mm wide x 168mm high x 25mm deep was used with the grain running across. The actual size of the relief can vary to suit the wood available. Scale the design as required. For the novice carver, it is suggested that the size should not be smaller as it would become more difficult to carve.

The owl is a 'generic' owl and similar to a barn owl. If preferred, you could add ears and make it a long- or short-eared owl. The horizontal lines are suggestions for a 'rustic look'. Note in all relief carvings that the objects tend to be flattened; the extent of flattening often depending on the wood thickness.


Draw the design onto the wood, then ensure the carving is safely secured. It could either be clamped to the bench, or it may be small enough to be held in a vice, perhaps with a block underneath to keep the carving above the top level of the vice. An alternative, especially if only a small vice is available, could be to glue a small block of wood on the bottom with a piece of newspaper between the block and carving to ease removal of the block at the end. Using a No.11, 6mm straight gouge, carve a groove around the outside of the owl about 2mm from the line. This is preferable to stabbing the outline with a gouge, which tends to act as a wedge and 'squashes' the wood either side


Next, use a No.5, 10mm straight gouge to carve the slope down to a depth of about 8mm. Straighten the slope using a No.3 or No.2, 15mm gouge. As the carving progresses, the depth will increase slightly. The angle of the slope will vary around the owl. If the slope was left constant the depth would vary, i.e. if the wood is thicker than 25mm, the depth of the slope could be increased, which would allow a more rounded owl to be carved. Draw in the centreline of the owl and make a mark about half the height of the body. Mark in a block around the feet to ensure the feet are not carved away. Also, draw in the neck. Using a No.4 or No.5, 20mm straight gouge, start to shape the owl's body. Keep the body fattish at the mid height. The curvature should be slight at the centre, becoming more extreme at the edge. When cutting the wood use a shearing action of the gouge cutting edge to minimise any 'tearing' of the wood. Leave a block at the bottom of the owl in the region of the feet about 10mm above the base and 4mm deep. The head should also be shaped in a similar way. Make sure the eyes and beak are redrawn if necessary


Now to carve in the eyes. Mark the outside of the eyes with a straight gouge with a radius equivalent to that required for the eyes. Here I am using a No.9, 10mm gouge. Be careful not to pull out the centre of the eye as you remove the gouge. Next, pare down from the outside of the eye socket to the eye to a depth of about 3mm using a No.11, 6mm straight gouge, which will give a 'fluted' appearance. The direction of the slope should be towards the centre of the eye. Leave the beak and drop the level of the carving outside of the beak to a depth of about 2mm at the tip. You should now have the general shape of the owl. You could increase the depth of the slope outside the owl, but do not undercut at this stage


Now it is time to shape the eyes. Mark the centre of each eye and using a No.4, 10mm fishtail – or straight – gouge, round over the eyes. Take several small cuts working from the outside towards the centre


For the feet and toes, mark in the general shape required and then carve in using a No.3, 6mm gouge. Using a small skew gouge between the toes is helpful here


Undercutting the piece will tend to attenuate the curvature of the owl. Decide on the 'finish' of the slope outside of the owl: it could be left flat, which can be difficult as small blemishes would show up, or you could create a 'fluted look', which I chose here. Using a No.5, 12mm straight gouge, pare down the slope, leaving a ridged look


You need to carve the extreme area and make it 'rustic looking'. Using a 8mm 'V' gouge, or a veiner, make grooves about 3mm deep along each of the lines. Be careful that the grain of the wood does not take over the direction of the gouge. Then, using a No.2 or No.3, 20mm gouge, round over between each groove


Stand back and take a look at the carving. Turning it upside down can be useful and sometimes shows areas that need further attention. Also, looking at the carving in a mirror can help to show up problem areas. In this case, it was considered that the carving needed more curvature over its surface. Although various undercutting has been done, it is possible to carve away a little, which demonstrates that undercutting must be left until the very end!


Two other problems have now been highlighted: first, the design depicts wings. These had been forgotten, which demonstrates that key features should continually be replaced when carved away. In this example, the wings are only an indication and not accurate in any way. The wings should now be marked in and the body from the centreline to the wings carved away; this will tend to further increase the curvature of the body. Second, a significant error. Although an owl has three toes on its feet, only two would be seen at the front, with one at the back. This demonstrates that full research should be carried out on the design of the subject at the beginning of any carving, however simple. Rectification in this case is quite easy. The middle toe can be carved away leaving the two remaining toes set more widely apart, as shown here


Go around the whole carving again, tidying up. Finally, sand the carving, going through the various grits and then finish with a sealer and wax, acrylic varnish or other appropriate finish. I decided to leave the sloping area immediately outside the owl and the eye sockets with a 'tooled-finish'