Wood carvings by Grant McMillan


Hi and welcome to my blog about wood carvings and sculptures.
  • Acanthus Panel 2
  • Acanthus Leaves
  • Shepherd's Crook Cutout
  • Floor Grate Installed
  • Filing the edges
  • Floor Grate Laid Out


Acanthus Leaf Finials

If you’ve been following my blog for a while now, you may be wondering what all those acanthus leaf panels are for and where they will go. They are for a client’s grand entry to his home. The entry is quite large – two stories (ten-foot ceiling stories) tall, and large enough that an eight-foot wide chandelier could be bigger and you wouldn’t notice. 

The panels are part of the board that covers up the stair stringer and the board that runs under the handrail of the balcony. The client called me up to show me the carvings that he had temporarily installed until they could be stained and lacquered. I took a few photos to share with you.

Stair Stringer Acanthus Leaf Panel

Stair Stringer Acanthus Leaf Panel

Balcony Acanthus Leaf Panel

Balcony Acanthus Leaf Panel

But there’s more! The client wanted some finials (sort of an upside down post cap) carved as well. One is a full square, the other is only half of a finial. They are to be installed under his balcony to look as though the post for the hand-rail continues right through to the finial. In the picture below, you’ll see four wood clamps. The full finial is to go between the two middle clamps underneath the post for the handrail with the point of it aiming at the ground. The half finial is to go just to the right side of the 4th clamp on the right. 

 postcap location

 Here’s what the finial looks like mostly finished – there’s still some final smoothing, burnishing, and sanding to do to it.

Square Finial

Square Finial

Note that I am holding the finial upside down compared to how it will be installed.

The two finials were quite challenging to carve, as they are primarily end grain after they begin curving toward the point. The design had to be modified slightly because I found that undercutting a point of a leaf to give it shadow meant I was cutting all the fibers underneath the tip that were holding the point in place. They may not have held up under the pressures of sanding, staining and lacquering, so I had to do a little redesigning on the fly. What I like about low-relief carving is that it is basically a trompe l’oeil, so I was able to create a little illusion instead of actually undercutting the leaf tips. The only way you can tell the difference is by actually running your finger tips over the carving. 

That completes this part of the job and now I can move on to some completely different carving. I’m working on a hummingbird “in the round,” some posts for an entry way to a home, and a large sign complete with trees, ocean, lettering, etc. Sign up to receive an email that alerts you every time I post some new pictures of another project. 

Acanthus Leaf Panel Carvings Completed

Finally, after some long and challenging carving sessions, the acanthus leaf panels are complete. The client was very particular about the style he was looking for and the level of sanding required (smooth, down to 320 grit). I actually prefer the carved look versus the sanded look, but these will pop when they’re stained and varnished. The installation also required a very consistent depth of carving (3/8ths of an inch deep). Setting the depth was relatively easy. Maintaining it was not. It took some steely nerves and strong wrists to carve to the edge of the leaves but not let the carving tools slip over the edge and into the background. That would leave a mark that would have to be carved and sanded out, lowering the depth in that spot.

Acanthus 1

The various panels all have a similar theme and look to them, but the leaf patterns are all different. I can’t wait to see them installed.

Acanthus Panel 2

They are all carved in 3/4 inch thick red oak. I like this wood for carving as it can hold a lot of detail. Sometimes the grain of red oak can be distracting for highly detailed carvings, but in this case, the grain actually highlights the carving. I like it!

This was an interesting job because the client had been unable to find exactly what he wanted, but upon contacting me found that I could offer a solution. No one else will have anything like this in their home and I’m excited for him. His unique home (really, an English style manor) in the Fort Langley area will be a show piece when it’s finished.

I’ll post more pictures when these carvings are stained, varnished and installed.

Til then,


Update on Acanthus Leaf Carvings

I finished carving and sanding the first of the acanthus leaf panels and made good progress towards finishing the second one last night. People will primarily view the panels from below so I carved the leaves in such a way as to highlight the shadows all the way down the boards. This meant carving the leaves at the top of the board a little more proud than the ones nearer the bottom.

Acanthus Leaves

The client is pleased with them, especially the dramatic shadows they throw because I left the centre stems so proud and undercut the leaves. He just dropped off two more blocks to be carved. They will be even more challenging because I will have to carve mostly end grain in solid oak.

The client has his own painter who will stain and varnish these panels when they’re all completed. I’m like a kid waiting for Christmas – I can’t wait to see them!

In other news, we met Dale & Val – very good friends visiting from Saskatchewan on Tuesday, and enjoyed a fun afternoon in Crescent Beach with them. We had a good laugh at this sign:

Flower sign

Note that there were no flowers in bloom anywhere within sight!

Till next time,



Acanthus Leaves Part Two

Work on the acanthus leaves is progressing slowly, but with increasing speed. I met with the client who showed me the carvings “in situ” which caused me to adjust the carvings slightly. Because of the height they will be displayed, and the decorative pieces they will be set next to, the depth of the carving needs to be increased and the angles need to be sharper to throw more dramatic shadows. Otherwise the carving fades into the background.


In other news, we spent some time at my mom’s place building a raised bed garden, and planting it while our kids went hiking in the local mountains.


Also, the client I’m carving the acanthus leaves for took me to a friend’s place to see some of the carvings he brought back from Africa. Stunning!


Carving Acanthus Leaves – Many of Them!

The past few weeks, I have spent many hours in the shop carving acanthus leaves in oak. Remember the fireplace carvings I finished in the fall? That client called me again to get me to start some carvings for his front entry stairs and balcony.

I started by transferring the drawings onto the boards.



Then I bosted in the carvings to just above the correct depth by cutting around the outline of the leaves.



Most recently, I have been layering the leaves and putting “movement” into them. By “movement” I mean rises and falls, curves where leaves overlap, and varying the curves of the leaves in and out.



This is when the carving gets fun – when the artist in me comes to the fore, and the technical work that I spent weeks on starts to shine. Now only 7 more of these to go!

Bishop’s Crozier & Pectoral Cross

A few weeks ago I was contacted by an Anglican minister who was going to be installed as a Bishop and was looking for a few items to be made for the ceremony. He wanted a Bishop’s Crozier and a Pectoral Cross, both with Celtic themes. Not being an Anglican I was unfamiliar with these terms and had to do some research. Based on the research I made a few proposals which he kindly helped me to refine. After giving me the go-ahead on the carving I had some difficulties finding the right materials for the job. Finding straight grained Black Walnut of decent length is harder than I thought. After scouring all the local (and not-so-local) hardwood lumber shops with no luck I remembered my dad had a length of it in his shop. I hoped it was straight-grained, as he was pretty picky about his wood. I found the chunk of 2″ by 8″ by 4 ft length had 3 feet of length that would suffice, which was a huge sigh of relief. But finding the right kind of ash was much, much easier, fortunately.

I started by glueing up a few pieces of the walnut to make the shepherd’s crook. I needed to join the pieces in such a way as to make the crook stronger, as any end-grain would be prone to breaking. Then I drew up a shape that looked pleasing to my eye and appeared to be traditional, which the client was looking for.

Shepherd's Crook Cutout

Shepherd’s Crook Cutout

Then I shaped the crook with a rasp until it looked like this.

Shepherd's Crook Shaped

Shepherd’s Crook Shaped

After this, I got to work with my table saw, cutting the walnut into two 3 foot lengths and then rounding them with a spoke shave and hand plane. Of course, you remember that the longest straight-grained walnut I could get was 3 feet, so I had to join two lengths together. I did that by inserting cane couplers from Lee Valley Tools into the end-grain. I used my drill press and some epoxy glue for the task. It proved to be a little tricky to get them to be straight!



Crozier Shafts Rounded

Crozier Shafts Rounded


Crozier Shaft Joinery

Crozier Shaft Joinery

After rough-sanding everything, I got down to carving a Celtic cross into the shaft of the Crozier. I’ve rarely done relief carvings “in the round” so to speak, so that proved a little interesting. I drew the cross onto the shaft and then clamped the shaft in my vise and worked on a section before rotating the shaft to work around the bend. Setting the right depths was important, especially working around the shaft. But in the end it worked out and I couldn’t wait to test a little patch with my favourite oil & wax finish.

Oiling the Celtic Cross

Oiling the Celtic Cross

Finally, after sanding through several grits of sand-paper, and down to 400 grit wet-dry paper, I oiled the entire project and immediately fell in love with it. This is the moment I wait for every time I carve something. It just pops. But that’s just my opinion. Take a look at this next picture and tell me what you think:

Crozier drying

Crozier drying

Detail of Celtic Cross

Detail of Celtic Cross

Finally, I worked on the Pectoral Cross, which is a cross the Bishop wears on his chest. This was fairly easy, as I’ve carved numerous Celtic crosses in the recent past. The biggest challenge of this carving was stopping all the little bits from breaking off. In the end, I had to find a happy medium between enough depth so you can see the carving, but not so deep as to have parts break off.

Pectoral Cross

Pectoral Cross

I had the opportunity to meet the client and deliver the carvings in person, which is a real joy. And as a bonus, I also was able to meet his wife and daughter. Meeting clients adds so much to the experience for me. The connection between maker and receiver is one of those intangibles that makes my work important to me. It is something you can’t get at the cash register in the big box home decor store.


Floor Grate Installed (with pic)

The other day I gave the floor grate to my friends Scott & Cheryl, who kindly shared a photo of it installed in their floor. I think it looks pretty good there. It’s super strong, too – you could probably drive a truck over it! First, a pic of the old metal floor grate which was warped and guaranteed to rip a new hole in your socks

Metal Floor Grate

Metal Floor Grate

Now a pic of the maple floor grate installed:

Floor Grate Installed

Floor Grate Installed

I really love doing projects for people I care about. Creating something useful and beautiful is what makes me tick!

In other news, I’ve been getting out steelhead fishing lately, but with no luck. I’m starting to get antsy about gardening, although it’s still below freezing here right now. I have numerous carving projects to finish, and I’m planning an artistic pair of bookends out of the leftovers of a couple of parallam beams that an old friend from high school donated to my stash. I live in Langley, BC, which has the highest concentration of horses in all of Canada so I’m thinking something horse-ish. Stay tuned.

Finished Floor Grate

Last time I posted, I anticipated having to trim the floor grate to squeeze it into the hole in the floor. When visiting our friends, I test fitted the grate into the hole and it was just a wee bit too large. I could have probably used a rubber mallet and forced it to fit, but it’s the kind of thing you might want to remove for cleaning. The floor may also expand and contract due to humidity changes from summer to winter and I would hate to cause anything to warp or break. I took it back home, trimmed it up by running one end and one side through my table saw, taking just a sliver off. Then I sanded the top perfectly flat, trimmed the glue that had squeezed out inside most of the square holes (what a lot of work!), and started rounding off the edges of the squares so they wouldn’t be so sharp on bare feet or sock feet.

This is how I did that:

Filing the edges

Rounding over the sharp edges

Remember, woodworking friends, files can be very helpful tools for shaping and finishing work. I use them all the time.

After the filing and a bit of touch-up sanding, I chose a semi-transparent stain in a colour that was as close to the floor colour as possible and spent an hour staining all the edges with a half-inch craft brush. I had a little trouble with the stain running, but I quickly figured out that if I stood the project on edge, the bottom side of all the squares could be done without the stain being able to run. it was a simple matter of brushing all the lower sides of the squares, rotating the grate 90 degrees, staining all the lower sides of the squares, repeat.

After letting the stain dry, I sprayed the grate with Varathane Diamond Finish with a matte finish, and really loaded it on as thick as I dared, and did so with 4 coats, sanding lightly between coats.

I really liked how the Diamond Finish ended up. It feels very hard, but yet feels nicer than lacquer.

Finished Cold Air Return Grate

Finished Cold Air Return Grate

My friends’ wood floor is not new. It shows all the scuffs, dings, and marks that give it character. I wanted the floor grate to fit in with that look, so I left some of the sanding marks and deliberately scuffed it up a little before staining it so that the stain would gather in those marks to give it a similar character. I can’t wait to see what it looks like in the floor. Time to go make a delivery!

“Carving” a Floor Grate

Some good friends are renovating their home and have lovely wood floors, but they are left with an ugly metal grate covering the cold air return in the floor. I had a similar situation with a home I renovated in Saskatchewan. At that time, my father and I created a floor grate in oak to match the floor. My dad came up with the plan and showed me how to do it. It worked quite well, and so I shared the idea with our friends and suggested I could make one for them.

Their floors are light coloured and the cold air return is in a high traffic area, so I chose maple, as it is both light coloured and one of the strongest woods available. After taking measurements of the opening in the floor, I cut strips in the maple to be 1/2″ thick by 1 & 1/2″ tall. Then I laid out the grate on the strips so that it would have 3/4″ holes.

Floor Grate Laid Out

Floor Grate Laid Out

The black Xs mark the sections which will have the wood removed to half the height of the strips. I clamped the strips together and cut out the waste sections with multiple passes on my table saw (I don’t have a dado blade). When I did this in Saskatchewan, I used a router, but found that protecting against tear out took too much work and made the job slower.

Next, I test-fitted the pieces and found that I had cut the strips to have tolerances that were too tight and didn’t allow enough wiggle-room for such a puzzle-piece as this. In this next photo, you can see that the strips didn’t quite slide together enough. I could have forced them a little more, but I was afraid of breaking them and also wanted to leave enough room for the glue to do its work.

Too Tight!

Too Tight!

So it was back to the table saw to cut a few slivers off the slots, which solved the problem nicely.

Maple Floor Grate Fitted

It Fits!

Next up is test-fitting the grate in the hole in the floor. I made it a wee bit larger than the hole measurements, so I anticipate running the whole grate through the table saw to take a few slivers off the outside edges until the grate fits. Then it’s just a matter of staining it to match the floor, spraying a polyurethane finish on it, and dropping it in the floor.

Grant McMillan Wood Carving Blog 2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 6,100 times in 2013. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.


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