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)



Cherry Bread Plate

The demand for my hand-carved cherry bread plates is growing. 

Bread Plate 2016

A word about the finish and care of these plates is in order. They are not intended to be cutting boards – they are intended to be serving trays. They are finished with a food safe oil & wax (natural linseed oil which comes from flax, and beeswax). If you cut with a knife on this plate, it will scratch. If you put the plate in the dishwasher, you will destroy it. Instead, just wipe it off with a cloth or paper towel and put it back on your display rack (you do have a display rack for this, right?!?). I recommend that maybe once a year you grab a soft cotton cloth and give the plate a quick buff to restore the luster. My mom has one of these that I carved in oak at least 10 years ago. The last time I was home, I simply rubbed a cotton rag over it to buff it up and the glow returned to the plate. 

If you would like one of these, please contact me at

Commissioning a Maple Leaf Carving, Final Episode

When I left off describing the stage of the Coram Deo carving, I mentioned it had been stained, glued and mostly finished. I buffed the whole thing, although I left the leaf a little rough partly to help it stand out from the background (sort of like a flat finish against a gloss finish) and partly because leaves are not perfectly smooth and I assume people will want to touch the carving. Then I gave it a final coat of tung oil and left it sit for a few minutes before wiping it off. A couple of hours of drying time and another bit of buffing and the carving was ready for delivery.

Coram Deo Maple Leaf

As I said yesterday, Peter told me the story behind the reason they requested the carving in the first place. It’s a very heartwarming story and gave me a lot of joy to become part of the story as the woodcarver. I’ll tell you the story now.

Peter’s wife was born to a single-mother in South Africa in an era when people didn’t talk about such things happening – it was all “hush hush”. Fortunately she was adopted by a wonderful Christian family who raised her as their own. A few years ago, she was able to find and make contact with her birth mother who had converted to Christianity herself, and through a visit to South Africa, Facebook and Skype, text messaging etc., the two of them developed a good friendship. She now considers herself to have a Mom who raised her and a mother who she is good friends with. God has been good to them and they felt blessed to have been able to connect in this way. Her birth mother also has a family now and who have welcomed their “new” sister with open arms.

Very recently, there has been a new twist to the story. Peter’s wife was able to find and make contact with her birth father too. This was a little more of a touchy situation, as he had remarried and had his own family who knew nothing about his first child. In a twist of grace, he and his family had all become Christians as well, and he felt that he could tell them, although it would take some time and prayers for wisdom. In due time, he told the family, who received the news quite well. They embraced the idea of having another sister with open arms also. Peter’s wife found herself with quite the large extended family.

Now Peter’s wife has the chance to go to South Africa to meet her birth father for the first time, and she has just landed there this afternoon. I can only imagine the butterflies that must be in her stomach as she meets her father at the airport. The whole story is an example of God’s redeeming power and grace, taking what could have been a very messy situation and turning it into something wonderful. Peter and his wife wanted to take a gift to her birth father that would say something about this. It needed to be a little bit of Canadiana because that’s where she lives now, and it needed to carry the message of God’s grace over them all. This is where the phrase “Coram Deo” came in.

Coram Deo is a Latin phrase that strictly interpreted means “In the presence of God” but as RC Sproule says, it carries the big idea of the Christian life, which is to live as though God is near us and we are in his presence,living under God’s authority and for his glory. It is to live a principled life, a humble life that is open before God.

It strikes me that this new family is experiencing a new life precisely because they have chosen and been called to live Coram Deo lives. And I have been blessed to be the one asked to carve this “icon” of grace – a symbol of this good news story.

Another view of the Maple Leaf

Soli Deo Gloria.


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