Wood carvings by Grant McMillan

In-the-Round Carving

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.


An Early Carving

My wife went to visit her folks for a few days this week and sent me a photo of one of my earliest carvings that I made for my mother-in-law. She loves hummingbirds and goes through about 30 pounds of sugar feeding the hummingbirds over the summer. That’s a serious addiction to hummingbirds, if you ask me!

So a number of years ago, I decided to carve her a hummingbird. I foolishly decided that figured maple would be the wood of choice, mostly because that was what what my dad had given me. What a lot of hard work that was! I tried to capture the idea of movement and gracefulness, with the beauty of a hummingbird in mid-hover.

After about a month of Sundays sanding and sanding and more sanding, this is what emerged from the wood.

Hummingbird view 2

Hummingbird view 2

Hummingbird view 1

Hummingbird view 1

About the carving:

It’s about 8 inches tall, carved in figured maple and black walnut. It is finished with Krylon. It’s in my mother-in-law’s private collection.

Cherry Nativity Set (SOLD!)

ImageThis nativity set comes with a story. I started carving it in 2007, as a personal project. It was personal because the piece of cherry wood I carved it out of was a gift from my father. He brought the wood to me the last time he came for a visit. He had cut a large limb that he got while trimming a tree for a friend in the town of Hope. Unfortunately, in the process of drying, it developed a split that meant it wasn’t useful for making furniture, and he hoped I might be able to do something with it.

It sat for a while as I considered what would be a suitable carving. In the meantime, my father passed away from cancer, which somehow made the importance of what I carved with that piece all the greater. My father, Victor McMillan, was a committed Christian and someone who made a significant difference in the lives of many people. This was evident at his funeral which saw well over 500 people in attendance. That Christmas season, as we unpacked a nativity set that he had made for our family, I knew exactly what I would carve: a nativity.
It suits my father because it is representative of his Christian faith and the difference that following the Baby Jesus can make in anyone’s life. That old cherry tree limb found new life too – in this carving!

It is sold now, to a family that knew and were influenced by my dad. How appropriate! Approximate size of the largest character is 3″. The wood is cherry, finished in many coats of natural tung oil, hand rubbed between coats. This is a one-of-a-kind carving from a unique piece of wood, carved in memory of a unique man.


If you were to sign up for a beginner carving course, chances are you would learn to carve a spoon. It’s the perfect project for a beginner because it involves many carving techniques, yet it is relatively easy and requires only a knife and a gouge. Everyone knows what a spoon should look like, so the shape is non-threatening. The shape of a spoon means that there are some parts that are fragile and require extra care to ensure that the direction of the grain in the wood will support those parts to the best advantage.

Walnut Spoon

Carving the bowl of a spoon teaches students how to hold a gouge, especially when to carve with or across the grain. Carving the neck of the spoon will show how to give the illusion of a thin, delicate neck, while actually leaving it heavier and stronger than it looks. Carving the handle will teach you how to use a carving knife while dealing with grain direction, splitting, and how to shape a gentle, comfortable curve.

Walnut Spoon 2

Finally, finishing the spoon also teaches some important points of carving. Sanding is tedious, and the better the carving technique, the less sanding is required. And the choice of what finish, if any, to use on the spoon is very important. If the spoon is purely decorative, any finish will do: varnish, wax, oil, or unfinished is fine. But if the spoon is to be used, the finish needs to be food-safe. This limits the choices down to a few, and most of these are oils or special waxes that do not contain mineral spirits or other toxins. Mineral oil, 100% natural tung oil, beeswax, or salad bowl wax are the most common choices. It’s possible to use walnut oil, but it’s a bit hard to find. Some people use olive oil or vegetable oil, but the problem with these is that they can go rancid.

Walnut Spoon 3

Why don’t you pick up a gouge with a #5 sweep, 10 millimeters wide, and a pocket knife (or carving knife), and give it a go?

About the carving:

The wood is Black Walnut. It was carved in about an hour, and finished in a natural oil finish. As you can see from the last picture, it’s about 6 inches long by an inch and a half wide.

A Fun Little Carving

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Too much serious wood carving can be the same for me, so every now and then I enjoy making a fun, whimsical carving. For this carving, I wanted to make something that you can pick up and hold – a carving so smooth it feels like a river rock, worn glossy smooth.

I had a small piece of Lignum Vitae left over from another project, which would be perfect. It’s one of the heaviest, hardest woods in the world. It’s also naturally oily and shines beautifully when smoothed. Now to decide what would be fun to carve as well as fun to hold…

One day were out walking at Derby Reach near Fort Langley, BC, when we found a little salamander crawling on an old foundation of a ruined barn. It was so shiny and smooth, with a long tail that curled around, and a bulbous head. We watched it for a while until it seemed to find a nice sunny spot to warm itself to sleep. We would have liked to pick her up, she was so cute, but we decided it was better not to disturb her. Yes, this would make a nice fun little project to carve, and one that no one would mind picking up and holding.

Sally the Salamander

If you’ve been a regular reader of my blog, you also know that I enjoy carving projects that have a little pleasant surprise – a kind of “Oh! Look at that!” experience is what I hope you’ll have. So, for this fun little girl, I added a little something extra fun. I inserted a powerful rare-earth magnet into the bottom of her tummy, which means she can hug walls (on a drywall screw) and fridges and corner-beads of walls, etc. My sister has one of these little salamanders and her kids have fun moving her around. The last time we were at her house, I saw it on her fireplace screen. Such fun!

Sally on a corner bead

About the carving:

It’s carved in Lignum Vitae, and sanded smooth. There’s no finish on it as it is naturally oily. It is 4″ long by 1″ wide and about a 1/2″ thick. I can make you one in something other than Lignum Vitae, as it’s an endangered wood and I don’t have any more left. But there are numerous other hardwoods available. $45 each plus shipping & handling.

Wood Carving Art Show

Hear Ye! Hear Ye!

The Central Fraser Valley Woodcarvers Clubis hosting a public art show. “The Art of the Carver” is a show and sale of carving art from all over the northwest. It’s being held in Chilliwack, BC, at Heritage Park on Saturday, May 7th, from 11 am to 7 pm. Admission is $2 donation for adults. Kids under 12 are free.

Carved Harp at 2010 “Art of the Carver” show carved by Ken Fotheringham

Now’s your chance to see some world class wood carvers displaying their art in a show while also competing for awards like “Best of Show” and “First Place in Division”, etc. Three judges,  including Canada’s premiere carver, Dennis Moor, will be at the show to make their determinations for what makes a great carving. Dennis Moor is the owner of Chipping Away, a wood carving store, and also is the designer of what are undoubtably the world’s best chip carving knives on the market. Not only will he be judging the entries, but he will also be doing a few carving demonstrations throughout the day.

Stylized bird from the 2010 “Art of the Carver” show (again, not my carving)

Also, if you’d like to find out prices of carvings, many of the carvers will have their carvings on sale. If you’re a carver, you can compare prices to see if you’ve priced your carvings “in the market”. There will be hundreds of people at the show admiring and buying. If you’re looking at picking up a tool or two, there will be many vendors displaying tools and materials and giving demonstrations.

Carved Horse from the 2010 “Art of the Carver” show (Someone else’s carving)

I hope to see you there!


Carved and Painted Loon

This carving was an attempt for me to try my hand at a common woodcarving subject: the Great Northern Diver or Common Loon. I don’t normally paint my carvings, as I prefer the wood to show, but sometimes I’ll make an exception. You see, the way I figure it, if I’m going to go through the trouble of carving something in wood, why bother painting it? To me, a painted carving suddenly becomes in competition with the cheap, plastic or resin jobs that you can get at the nearest big box department store. Who can tell if it’s wood or mass-produced resin? But if I let the wood show through, well then, it’s pretty hard to compete with that – the skill of the carver is on display.

Obviously, to paint a carving well takes great skill. I’m not belittling those great carvers who carve birds with every possible detail, right down to wood burning the feathers, and then paint them with iridescent colours. Those carvings look like they could up and fly away at a moment’s notice. But I’m just not that into painting – I’m a wood carver by nature. However, every now and then, something catches my fancy and I just have to give it a whirl.

The picture below is of a Great Northern Diver or Common Loon, carved as a smoothie, with just a touch of detail carved into it. And then I painted it. The part that makes me happiest is that you can actually see the wood grain under the paint. You can’t see through the paint (although that idea did run through my mind), but the grain is raised enough to be seen in the paint.

Common Loon

About the carving:

It’s carved in pine, approximately 12 inches long by 7 inches tall. It’s painted with acrylics, top-coated with clear acrylic. This is in a private collection and not for sale.

Please give me your feedback : do you prefer painted or natural wood carvings?


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