Weekend Letter Carving Seminar

On Saturday, September 12, I taught a letter and number carving seminar at Lee Valley Tools in Coquitlam. The seminar went from 9:30-4:30, which was just the right amount of time for the students to create a sign, and have about an hour near the end of the course to either embellish the sign with a carving or start a new project of their own making.

Letter Carving Seminar Students working hard.
Letter Carving Seminar Students working hard.

We started with introductions and what people hoped to get out of the course. I presented a short historical overview and use of letter carving before moving on to typical fonts and how they are applied in wood carving. We reviewed a few tools and how we planned to use them throughout the day, and then started carving.

To start carving we learned how to hold a gouge effectively and how to carve a circle. Following that we learned how the same gouge can carve a smaller or larger circle as well as an ellipse using a few simple techniques. After a few practice circles, we moved on to carving a sign. We talked about how to lay out the letters and I gave them a small problem to resolve where the letters were too closely aligned. We discussed kerning and fonts, and a few common printing/type-setting matters. Then we discovered how to remove wood from letters without them chipping or splitting outside the lines: my woodcarving mantra is that you have to give wood a place to go or it will go where it wants without regard to your desires. I showed them how shadows make or break letter carving and we learned that a very common letter-carving angle is 60 degrees because it creates a pleasing shadow.

The seminar participants got to work and we spent a few hours with mallets and chisels and gouges. After lunch we had a quick sharpening review with the seminar coordinator Derek Darling, and we took the opportunity to touch up the tools and get back at the carving. Later in the afternoon after everyone had finished carving the sign they had the chance to add some extra carvings to it or start their own design.

Letter Carving Students trying their own designs.
Letter Carving Students trying their own designs.

All in all, it was a lot of fun and good learning. The techniques can be applied far beyond what we did in the course. The students saw the benefits of having only a few tools and “making do”, but we also saw how more tools can make letter carving faster with the advantage of requiring less cleaning up of the letters.

If you would like to take a carving course like this, check out Lee Valley Tools seminars. You can also check with your local woodcarving club to see if they offer anything similar. I hope to offer this course at my own club soon, so if you live in the Lower Mainland area of BC and want to take this course, please let me know.

Grant McMillan

Horse Bust Completed

The horse bust is completely finished!  

This sculpture captures the history and the future of horses in the area in which it was carved. It is sculpted out of an old material (wood), remade into something new with the most modern technology (parallam), all supported by a strong base that isn’t interested in stealing any of the limelight. It represents the nature of horses in the Langley region. Originally used as working animals in the lumber, ranching and farming industries, they have been repurposed for the modern industries of equestrian therapeutic riding for the disabled and people with special needs, as well as the competitive world of show horses, with hunter jumper, vaulting, western and English shows. Both industries demonstrate the future of horses in Langley. And the material is a mess of torn up strips of wood fibres pressed and conformed into a controlled product. The sculpture captures the wildness and the structure of the modern horse. 

This sculpture  is for sale. It is 23″ tall by 21″ wide on a base of steel custom made by my friend Steve Bennett. 


Horse Sculpture

i have completed the carving stage of the horse head sculpture. This included a few last minute adjustments to the eyes, mouth and mane. Then I determined the way it would stand before cutting the base of the neck at the proper angle.

The next steps are to put a finish on it and make a stand. Does anyone know where I can find some plate steel, something at least 1/4″ thick onto which I can weld a post? 

Thank you to my lovely daughter Miriah for the photos.


Horse Mane Carving

The horse mane carving has gone well, although I did find it challenging to work in wood where little bits just randomly spring off and fall out under the v-gouge. This happens when certain strips of wood in the parallam beam did not receive enough glue. It’s not really a problem. It means I adjust the carving slightly. I finished the mane tonight. At this point I will set the carving as it will stand and make sure the entire sculpture looks right. I’ll probably stare at it, turn it around and around, nip off bits here and there. I’ll sand it and sand it some more until I’m finally satisfied. Only then will I put the finishing coats on. 

This is the point where I get excited. 

A Horse of Course

Horse head in progress
Horse head in progress

Now that I’ve finished carving the corbels for a client, I am able to return to a project that has been in the works for some time. The horse bust you see above is coming along. I am relatively happy with the general shape, and so am able to focus on getting the details correct. Last night I worked on the inside of the nostrils. Next I need to shape the eyes, ears and mouth. After that will come the sides of the snout, the ears and the mane on the forehead. I will be shaping the head a little better around the ears too. The very last thing I will focus on is the mane down the neck. I’ve left quite a bit of material there to make it look a little wild. This is a wild horse sculpted from some pretty wild wood, so the mane will not be tame.

The wood is a parallam beam. You can get an idea of its size from the carving bench it’s on, which is 16″ in diameter.

Horse Snout in Progress
Horse Snout in Progress

Carved Corbels

Completed Corbel
Completed Corbel

As regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve been carving a pair of corbels in oak for some time now. I’m proud to say that they are complete and are waiting for finishing (stain, lacquer, installation). These have taken a long time to complete from start to finish, so I thought you might like to know what steps were taken to complete these.

  1. Dream and vision: the owner of the home has had a vision for his house that spans at least 30 years. He knew he wanted corbels supporting a beam in the entryway for at least that long.
  2. Contact the carver (me) to confirm the possibility. As you now know, I said yes. I don’t remember the exact wording my reply, but it probably went like this: “No problem – I can do that.”
  3. The owner and I with our partners took a cruise (ok, it was on BC Ferries) to Vancouver Island, specifically to look at and photograph some of the architectural details in Craigdarroch Castle in Victoria. Several different photos of the corbels in the Castle provided the ideas for the ones I carved (pictured above).
  4. The owner’s partner Sandi Stephens drew up the design.
  5. The owner’s carpenter, Larry Kwiatkowski, glued up the wood and cut out the shape on a bandsaw.
  6. The owner had me rough out the general shape of some of the curves. I argued this was an unnecessary step, but he couldn’t envision the job without me doing this, so I did it (hey, it’s his money).
  7. Sandi Stephens transferred the drawing to the wood (also unnecessary, but again the owner…).
  8. I roughed out the leaves and stems of the acanthus motif, set the basic depths, and showed the progress to the owner, who approved with a few modifications.
  9. I finished the carving to about 90% complete, and took the corbels to the owner for one last chance to make changes. I looked at the other carvings I’ve done for him and determined how to complete the corbels so they would match the rest of the carvings.
  10. I completed the carving and spent numerous hours sanding. A helpful sanding product is self-adhesive emery paper, which I cut out and stuck to my fingers, sticks, needle files and just about anything that was the right shape and curvature to help speed up the monotonous sanding. Personally, I hate sanding and much prefer carvings that are finished right from the chisels and gouges, but see my previous comments about the owner….

There are two headblocks to be carved, which will be placed above the corbels and under the beams. Stay tuned to see what they look like.