Commissioning a Maple Leaf Carving, Part 3

When we left off yesterday, I was waiting for the glue to dry and had carved the maple leaf. Next up is to clean the glue off the background and draw the curve to be cut out with the bandsaw.

The shape that Peter had sketched looked like a Gothic style arched window. My challenge was to draw it so that the arch looked equal on each side. The easiest solution for that was to fold my paper in half and draw one side only. Then I took a pair of scissors and cut out the arch. Once it was cut out, I could unfold the paper and have perfectly matching sides.

Cutting the arch

Cleaning up the glue off the maple background was quite easy. I grabbed my 1″ wide cabinet maker’s chisel and laid it flat on the wood and drove it at the glue lines that had bubbled out. The hardened glue chipped off nicely. This is one of the things I like about working with maple – it cleans up so easily. Once that was finished, I traced the outline of the arch onto the wood and cut it out with my bandsaw. The longest part of this job so far was the sanding. Maple is one of the hardest woods grown in North America and as a result it takes a long time to sand smooth. I used coarse paper to sand off the blade marks and followed it up with a cabinet scraper. I like using a scraper on maple because the grain is so tight it doesn’t crush, and the scraped wood is glassy-smooth when finished.

My next job was to the take the base and lay out the words CORAM DEO onto it. The other nice thing about working with maple is just how smooth it is. That makes drawing out complex shapes like letters fairly easy – the pencil doesn’t follow the grain lines – it goes where you want it to. I have a copy of Chris Pye’s book, Lettercarving In Wood, and he has a letter style called Versal that he profiles. I hadn’t tried it before, but this seemed like the perfect project for it. The Versal style of letter has some fine detail that the hard, close grain of maple will show quite well.

It took me a little while to get the letters drawn out just so and carved into the base. I roughed-in the letters and got the basic shapes carved into the base and then put all the parts together just to see how it would look. As you can see, it’s getting there.

Unfinished Maple Leaf

Commissioning a Maple Leaf Carving, Part Two

At the end of my blog post yesterday, I left you hanging,while I was waiting, hoping for the go-ahead to start carving the maple leaf plaque. Good news! Peter came back and said, “My wife likes it and she says ‘Go for it.'”

Yes! I could hardly wait to get home from my day job to start the carving. I rushed down to my shop before supper and shuffled through my piles of various hardwoods. I had already decided that because this was to be a bit of Canadiana and the leaf was supposed to look like a maple leaf, I should actually make it out of maple wood. I found the perfect pieces of maple – with a few tiny birds-eyes even – bonus! I ran them through my table saw and jointer to true them up. I glued up the base and the background with a very strong glue.

I then turned my hand to finding a suitable piece for the leaf itself. I had decided to cut the leaf out separately and glue it to the background because the leaf needed to be stained. It would be almost impossible to stop the stain from bleeding through to the background unless the leaf was separate from the background when I stained it. I found a piece of straight-grained wood and ran it through my band saw so that it was 3/8ths of an inch thick.I traced the leaf onto the wood and  set about carving it right away.

Maple Leaf Tracing

In less than an hour, I had cut out the leaf on the bandsaw and carved the face of the leaf and the veins. Then I slightly undercut the edges so that it would emphasize the shadow. I couldn’t undercut it too much or the points of the leaf would be subject to breaking off. Just a few degrees of undercut seemed right.

Then I sat back and admired the leaf and waited for the glue to dry. Hint, waiting for glue to dry is like watching a pot of water boil – it never happens fast enough! I settled for taking the above picture and sending it off to Peter so he would have an update of where the carving was at.

Check back tomorrow for Part Three!

Part 1: Commissioning a Maple Leaf Gift

Several people have asked me how I would work with them to commission a carving and I’m never sure that I’ve done a good job of helping them understand. I’ve explained this numerous times, but sometimes a few photos will say more than a thousand words. It just so happens that I was recently commissioned to carve a piece for a gift, and I took photos along the way. I’ll describe the process as it went along and do so in real-time, meaning that each day I’ll post a description of what happened that day, with photos to show how it went. You can follow along each day and get as close to replicating the experience as possible.

Exciting eh? Well, ok, maybe not. But it will give you a unique window into the world of how to commission a carving. It’s really not that difficult as you’ll see. Hang onto your hats, and check your pockets for change – tie your shoes on tight because we’re going for a ride!

Day 1: Peter (a guy at work) has been interested in my blog and Facebook pictures for a little while and the other day he approached me about carving something. He explained that it was a gift for a family member who lives in South Africa and his wife was going there in a couple of weeks. The first question he asked was, “Would you have time to carve something before she leaves?”

“Well,” I said, “It depends on the complexity of the project, but I’m interested. What did you have in mind?”

In his case, he had a relatively simple carving idea, and it was a fairly well-developed idea. He explained that he wanted something that could sit on a mantel or hang on a wall, “and about so big” he showed me with his hands. “And I’d like it to have a leaf carved into it.” It didn’t take long before he grabbed a pen and paper and drew up a sketch for me.

“Sure, I can do that in a couple of weeks, no problem,” I replied when he put down the pen. Then I asked him a few more questions about the project and we determined that he wanted a leaf on, or in, a background, with a darker wood for the leaf so that it stood out. He also wanted the phrase, “Coram Deo” (Latin for “In the presence of God”) carved into the base. Neither of us could remember exactly how to spell the phrase (was it Corem or Coram?), so he said he would look it up and make sure it was correct.

Right about then he explained that it couldn’t be too much money because he was paid on a TWU salary (at which point we looked at each other knowingly – you have to work there to know just how little TWU people get paid), and his wife would have to give the final OK because it was to be her gift to a friend.

“No problem. I completely understand.” I explained that I would draw up the project in more detail and give him a price for approval. I made sure to mention that there would be no commitment until he liked it and wanted to go ahead with it. I know how tough it is to ask someone to make you an artistic piece that you only have an idea in your head about. And I know I wouldn’t want to commit to such a project without knowing a price. I get that and I make sure my clients understand that I understand. I find it goes a long way to helping them to trust me.

Maple Leaf Idea

I went home and drew up the picture you see above and figured out a rough estimate of about 5 hours worth of work, which included the following:

  • time to draw the picture
  • time to calculate the wood options and requirements.
  • Time to calculate the costs of the wood and the potential finishes
  • Time to cut the wood out, glue it up, and carve the leaf
  • Time to carve the letters. I always calculate letter carving separately because it’s complex work, but I know about how long it takes to carve a letter.

Then, because Peter’s a good guy and I’m a bad businessman, I hacked a bunch off the price. I wrote it all up and sent it off to Peter for approval. Even after seeing it sketched out in real size, I know that people often have a hard time committing to a price because they still can’t hold the art in their own hands yet, so I waited and hoped.

To be continued. Be sure to check in tomorrow for part two.

Repeat Clients

There are a few reasons why I love wood carving. I get to work with people and take their ideas and put them into something tangible and artistic all at once. And you get something useful and beautiful, while enjoying the anticipation while it’s being worked on.

For example, in a previous post I spoke about the Blossoming Lotus Studios and the carving I did in Western Red Cedar. The client was very pleased when I delivered the carving, and she spoke about the need for a doorstop and a sign to tell students to remove their shoes before entering the studio. We were just talking about ideas when she stopped me and asked, “Could you carve something in the same theme?” As we developed her ideas a little further, possibilities took shape in my head.

For the doorstop, she wanted something that would hold the door open but also hold some coloured stones, fitting with the theme of an eastern studio. I always try to having carvings that hint at something more, or that let people have an “Oh look at that!” moment. So, I designed the doorstop with a bowl for stones and inside the bowl would be an outline of the lotus theme. My vision was that when the bowl was full of stones, you might only see hints of the lotus – maybe enough for you to stick your fingers in and stir the stones round to see more. I knew it had to be in heavy hardwood to stand up to the abuse of a door and also needed to be big enough to kick under a door, so it couldn’t be in Western Red Cedar. Here’s what I came up with:


As for a sign to remind people to remove their shoes, I thought it should be one of the first things to set the tone for the studio. As students walk down the hallway, they would pass by painted lotus blossoms on the wall. Then the next thing they would see would be the sign. So I wanted it to be welcoming and in the same theme as the entire studio, but also stand out from the light colours. Specifically, I wanted to draw people’s attention from the sign to the carved lotus blossom on the wall as soon as they walked in. Tell me, do you think I achieved my goals?

Please Remove Shoes Sign

About these carvings:

The door stop is carved in Cherry, in fact, a local piece of wood from Hope, BC. It’s finished in multiple coats of tung oil. I glued an anti-slip rubber strip to the bottom because the floor in the studio is very slippery laminate.

The shoe sign is Western Red Cedar, approximately 12 by 18 in inches and 3/4″ thick. It also is finished in multiple coats of tung oil. The letters are raised, as are the two icons of the blossoming lotus.

Shoes Sign in Progress 1
Shoes Sign in Progress 2

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!


A Carved Lotus Blossom

Last year, I was contacted by a person who was creating a studio at the Richmond campus of Kwantlen Polytechnic University. The studio was called “Blossoming Lotus Studio” and was being created by the Student Association. The studio had an image they wanted to use, and which was being painted on the wall of the hallway outside. They wanted me to carve something similar.

As this was going to be one of the few pieces of art inside the studio, I understood that it needed to be a relatively large piece. The studio also had  distinctly Eastern feel about it, yet here it was almost as West as it gets in Canada. This piece needed to capture both East and West. I decided that to be eastern, it needed to look like the lotus blossom, while also carved in a rich, dark wood. To reflect it’s location in the West, the lotus should be carved from an indigenous wood – local and common in Richmond – Western Red Cedar just seemed right.

Here’s a series of photos showing the progression of the carving:

Lotus in Concept

 The above picture is 5 pieces of Western Red Cedar, laminated together to form a panel almost 3 feet by 3 feet.

Lotus cut out


Lotus Beginning Carving


Lotus Almost Completed


Completed Blossoming Lotus


About the carving:

This carving was done in Western Red Cedar, approximately 2 feet 6 inches tall by 3 feet wide by 5/8″ thick. It’s finished with multiple coats of Tung Oil and hand rubbed to a smooth finish. It was done as a commission and is not for sale. It is currently hanging in the Blossoming Lotus Studio at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Richmond Campus.

Carved Bread Plate

What I enjoy most about wood carving are the never-ending challenges. First comes the challenge of a good design. I hope to design carvings that are pleasing to the eye and create the impression of wholeness. Second comes the challenge of the material. Wood is always unique. There are no two pieces of wood that are the same. Different types of wood create different effects and allow or limit the carver’s options. For example soft woods are difficult to carve intricate detail into because the grain can crush or simply not be strong enough to hold up under the carver’s gouge. Hard woods, on the other hand, can take any amount of detail, but take much longer to carve. Also, different types of wood have colour and grain uniquenesses, and knowing how these work with or against the design is important. Third comes the challenge of executing the design in a special piece of wood and bringing all the elements of skill, design, and material to form a piece of art.

I am particularly fond of this bread plate:

Carved Bread Plate

About the carving:

This is a bread plate that is 18″ in diameter and 1″ thick. It’s carved in Cherry wood which naturally oxidizes and turns the rich reddish/brown that you see here. It’s finished in a food safe oil and beeswax blend. The phrase is taken from the famous “Lord’s Prayer” passage in the Bible (Matthew chapter 6, verse 11).

Carving letters around a circle is more difficult than I first imagined. I hadn’t realized that the outside of the circle would be longer than the inside. Stretch a string around the inside of circle below the letters and then again around the outside of the rim of the plate, and you’ll find aproximately one and a half inches difference in length. The design of the letters and the spacing of the top of the letters and the bottom of the letters all has to take that into account. I ended up using a compass and protractor, drawing rays from the centre out to where I thought each letter should be. I spent many hours figuring out the spacing and drawing each letter to fit the spacing, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

The symbol at the top of the plate is a stylized stalk of wheat. I designed and carved this while we lived in Saskatchewan. Our house overlooked a wheat field, literally a few steps behind our house, which was a daily reminder that we lived in the Bread Basket of Canada. I jogged past amber waves of grain daily in the summer and early fall and often thought about how I might incorporate some of that beauty into my carvings.

This one is in a private collection, as are 5 of 6 others carved in oak, walnut and maple and I can carve you one of your own for $150. Other phrases are also possible too! Send me an email at to commission your own.