Relief Carving Classes

One of the things I love about woodcarving is how many people are interested in learning it. In my other life at university, I teach a few courses every year and I find teaching to be something I love. Teaching carving classes is also something I do quite often and I find a lot of fulfillment in watching students get excited as they think about the endless possibilities of carving.

Recently, I have taught two different types of carving classes. The first was a lettering class at Lee Valley Tools in Coquitlam. In that class, we learned some basic principles of lettering – such as what is a serif? We didn’t dwell on this part, but moved on quickly to learn how light and shadow works for letters and how important it is to have tools that match the ┬ácurves of the letters. We learned that a 60 degree incised angle can be difficult to cut but it can make a large difference to the look of the letters. We learned that it is important to “give the wood a place to go or it will find its own way” and so we started each letter with stab cuts in the middle of the letter. Then we also learned how much easier it is to cut the serifs before cutting the rest of the letters. The students went home with a completed project and some ideas for how to apply their new-found carving skills to other carpentry projects.

The second class was an introductory relief carving class which I taught at our club location – the Central Fraser Valley Woodcarvers Club. We meet at Yale Secondary School in Abbotsford on Wednesday nights.

Relief Carving Class Brochure

What I found most interesting was how much the students seemed to take to carving with large gouges hit with a mallet. They learned just how easy it is to control a carving gouge with a mallet and how fine details can be cut by light taps with a mallet on the tools. We also learned how every carving gouge can cut a circle and how much difference it makes to use a slicing action when carving by hand. My goal is to show the students how to finish a carving right from the gouge, with no sandpaper needed. This method of carving is quite quick, and with the correct techniques and some artistic vision, can create a unique piece of artwork that shows the individual carver skill. I compare this to a painter whose brushstrokes set him or her apart from every other artist. The marks left by the carver show the skill of the carver, the sharpness of the tools, and are what shows the uniqueness of each woodcarver.

No sandpaper was used on these relief carvings!


If you are interested in taking a course, contact me by email at gvmcmillan(at)



Woodcarving Course Update

Yesterday I had some fun teaching a woodcarving course at the Coquitlam location of Lee Valley Tools. There were seven students with varying degrees of experience. We carved an acanthus leaf in aspen.

Acanthus Leaf in aspen.
Acanthus Leaf in aspen.

Lee Valley Tools is doing a good thing with these seminars that teach skills such as wood carving. The participants got to try out new tools and many of them bought one or two that they liked. This will improve their carving experience. We all learned new things, and everyone went home with a mostly finished new piece of art. My own personal favourite carving gouge is a Henry Taylor #3 in half-inch width.

Carving in aspen is very nice. It is much cheaper than basswood and is at least as easy to carve. It does tend to fuzz when sanded and can be more brittle and prone to breaking, but it hold good detail especially in a low-relief carving such as this one.

I left my card with each participant in the hopes that they will contact me and keep up with their carving.

I look forward to doing this again.

An Un-Carved Masterpiece

Sometimes the very best carving decisions I make are when I choose not to carve a piece of wood.

The other day I was visiting my mom and had a few minutes to rummage around in my dad’s old wood pile. He collected all sorts of interesting pieces of wood – from trees he cut down, or slabs from his woodworking friends, or some from friends who saw something they thought he would like. There are oodles of chunks of wood in that pile. Some are pieces so big I could barely move them, and others so small you might be tempted to throw them out or burn them.

One piece jumped out at me and called me to run it through my dad’s old jointer. After a few passes, I realized it was a piece of yellow cedar cut as a slab from a burl.

Yellow Cedar Burl post-jointer
Post-jointer burl

I was quite excited by what I saw and couldn’t wait to get it home and carve it into something interesting. But the piece was so unusual, I didn’t really know what I would do with it. I posted on Facebook, “Well now, what am I going to do with this?” I got some interesting replies such as:

  • “Looks like a sheep in the making!”
  • “Looks like the USA or a slab of pork – hahaha”
  • “Looks like a map of Russia” (from my Russian friend, of course)
  • “Cribbage board.”
  • “A running dog”

Most of these sound like responses from a Rorschach ink blot test and didn’t inspire me much (sorry, friends!).

I kept cleaning it up – sanding it first with my belt-sander, then a random orbit sander, and finally a card scraper. The more I cleaned up the wood, the more excited I got. There were really interesting grain lines and little details that showed up better with each scrape of the tools. I popped the bark off the edges, got impatient and gave it a swipe with a brush full of oil and beeswax and thoroughly enjoyed what happened to the wood.

Cedar burl first coat
Cedar burl first coat

That’s when my sister-in-law (a great host) suggested using it as a tray for cheese and crackers. I liked that because I could no longer entertain the idea of cutting into such a beautiful piece of wood. So I proceeded to take the bark off the edges, sand it up a little and scrape the bottom side smooth. Then I added about 5 coats of oil and beeswax, buffing the slab by hand after each coat.

Cedar Burl after 5 coats
Cedar Burl after 5 coats

Here are a few close-up macro-images to show you what makes me excited about this piece.


Macro Cedar Burl 1
Macro Cedar Burl 1
Macro Cedar Burl 2
Macro Cedar Burl 2
Macro Cedar Burl 3
Macro Cedar Burl 3

Approximate size is 24 inches long by 8 or 10 inches wide (depending on where you measure it) by 2 inches thick. The finish is Lee Valley’s Tried and True Original Wood Finish, which is my favourite finish to use.

What do you think? Did I make the right choice, or should I have turned it into a cribbage board or a running dog? Leave a comment!


My Favourite Finish

Back in 2003, I picked up a book from the Moose Jaw Public Library on letter carving by Chris Pye. There were all sorts of good instructions and starter projects in it, but naturally I skipped all those and went right to the most difficult of all: letter carving around a circle. It took me hours and hours to figure out how to space and size the letters correctly. And then, naturally again (if you know me), I chose one of the hardest woods to carve it in – Black Cherry.

But while I choose to do difficult projects in challenging woods, I do believe in finding the easiest wood finishes to use and maintain. My all time favourite wood finish is carried by Lee Valley Tools, and it’s called Tried and True Original Wood Finish. That project I completed in 2003 was a bread plate, and after 9 years, the finish needed a little refreshing. Here it is with a new coat just brushed on and waiting to soak in.

Bread Plate with Tried And True Original Wood Finish

I like this finish because it is completely natural – just linseed oil and bees wax – no petroleum distillates, no harmful vapours. It’s food safe, and wipes clean with a damp cloth. It has a soft, antique glow when it’s dry, and buffs up beautifully. What do you think of it? Leave a comment below.

And, in closing, here is a picture of a slightly easier letter carving job I have on the go right now. I’m into high production mode with this job!

Sign Carving