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 curves 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.
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.
If you are interested in taking a course, contact me by email at gvmcmillan(at)gmail.com
I carved two other pieces that I have done before: a lettercarving piece (the first photo above) and a stylized acanthus leaf in relief.
And on the heraldry front, I am working on a large family crest that is getting close to being finished. The short video below shows some progress.
Stay tuned for more updates. I have a very large lettercarving project that I am on the verge of starting. In the new year I am picking up the wood for an ornately carved lintel over a front door in a large foyer. And I have another family crest in the works. It’s nice to have work, but I am feeling the pressure to get things completed!
The past few evenings have been spent finishing this carving. In my last post, I had glued up the cherry boards. Since then, I cut out the circle with my bandsaw circle-cutting jig that my father (the jig-master) made me decades ago.
Then I hand planed the surface.
Once the circle was flattened I fell in love with the piece of wood. The lines, the tiny pin knots, and the range of rich colours that were showing up made my heart pitter-patter.
Next I laid out the letters, which always takes longer than expected when working around a circle. The letters have to be sloped just so, spaced just so, and just a little narrower towards the inside of the circle. Then I got down to business cutting the letters.
After the letters were all incised, I redrew the inside circle. Then I got after the ‘bowl’ carving.
Then I flipped the plate to carve the back.
I’ve learned from the native carvers from the west coast about the value of a simple file in wood carving. I put my file to use trueing the outside rim of the plate.
Then after a little cleaning and final touch ups under a bright light and magnifying lense, all that was left was to put the finish on.
After posting a picture of it on Instagram, it lasted all of a half-hour before it was snapped up by someone. I delivered it this evening in this package :
The wood is black cherry
The dimensions are 14″ in diameter by just over 1″ thick
I came across a lovely bunch of rough cut cherry wood, which I have been on the hunt for since my last bread plate went to a good home in Fernie, BC. I have wanted to carve another similar plate, but as long-time readers of this site know, I need the perfect piece of wood before I can start.
I went to visit my mom and while I was there I dug through dad’s old piles of lumber and found the perfect piece of cherry.
I after rough-sizing the wood and jointing the edges by hand, I glued and clamped the wood together on a flat surface. I only need one flat surface for this project as the rest will be carved away.
Next job is to cut a circle out of this board and plane it perfectly flat.
A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of teaching a letter carving course at my local carving club, the Central Fraser Valley Woodcarvers club. All old, 14 people took the course. We carved the word Peace into some clear Aspen. I chose that word because we’re close to Christmas, but also because it has a couple of challenging letters (P, e, and a). Learning to carve perfectly straight lines that blend in with curved lines can be hard if you don’t know some helpful techniques.
If you want to join us, we meet on Wednesday nights from 6-9 at Yale Secondary School, in the woodshop. It’s a great group and we’d be glad to have you.
Thanks to the Club President Joany for taking and sharing these photos with me.
Interested in learning how to do incised letter carving in wood? The Central Fraser Valley Woodcarvers club is offering a course on Wednesday, November 18, with a follow-up session the following week if needed or wanted.
The instructor is yours truly. We will be carving the word “Peace” in 1×5″ Aspen. If you have never carved a letter in your life or you want to hone your well-developed skills at lettering, the club welcomes students of all levels of experience.
You must have the following tools, or ones very close to these:
3/4″ chisel (bring other sizes if you have them),
1/2″ gouges in #3 and #5 sweep,
3/8″ gouge in #7,
More gouges if you have them,
Methods for holding the wood (double-sided carpet tape is great), the shop has vises at each table too.
The club meets on Wednesdays from 6-9 pm in the wood shop of Yale Secondary School. The cost of the course is $5 for members. There may be an additional fee for non-members (but membership is only $30).
I hope you can make it. Please let me know you are coming so I can bring enough wood for you.
Some carving jobs are large, large, large, some are small, small, small. For example, I’m in the middle of a large sign carving – approximately 4 ft by 5 ft, which requires special jigging in my small shop. It’s going to take me a while to finish that one.
But then there are smaller jobs that present their own challenges.
This one came to me via a fellow wood worker, Chris Wong of Flair Woodworks fame. He contacted me a few weeks ago because a client of his had just purchased one of his very unique cribbage game boards and wanted some letter carving done in it for a special Christmas gift. Chris wondered if I would be interested in doing this for his client. I jumped at the chance for several reasons. I really enjoy letter carving, and this cribbage board is really cool, plus it would be a chance to collaborate with a fellow woodworker who I respect very much. The perfect triad.
The client was wonderful to work for – someone who left me with enough creative license to present some options to her, but also someone who knew enough of what she wanted to give me direction when I asked for it. All-in-all, I think the project turned out quite well.
I encourage you to check out Chris Wong’s website – particularly some of his videos. There’s some funny stuff in there, some top quality woodworking and joinery, as well as a true creative flair. If you’re on Twitter, follow him @flairwoodworks
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.
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!
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:
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 email@example.com to commission your own.