Passion and Patience

This post was inspired by two others: Nancy Hillier and Rick B, who posted a quote from Maya Angelou that grabbed me.

Seek patience and passion in equal amounts.
Patience alone will not build the temple.
Passion alone will destroy its walls.

– Maya Angelou

Below is an example of how I apply this to my carving. I’ve been “working” on this relief carving of a fireman’s helmet for several years. In fact, I started working on it before I even knew what it looked like because the person who commissioned the carving hadn’t provided me with a photo or a concept – just a “Hey Grant, one day I’d like you to carve my fireman helmet.”

This is an in-progress photo of me carving a fireman helmet in relief.
Fireman Helmet Relief Carving In Progress

I was itching to get started, but I have started and ruined many a carving by, to use a track & field image, jumping the gun. I’ve learned to be patient, and in this case, rolling the helmet idea around and around in my head for several years before the client said, “Go!” It’s a good thing, too, because it turns out he was hesitating and I was hesitating because we both thought it meant carving a full-size, in-the-round, 3-D, helmet, and neither of us really wanted that. With due patience and thought, other ideas came to my mind and with them, a measure of relief (see what I did there?).

Once that was settled, the passion could take over!


Restoring Two Antique Carved Tables

A few months ago, a long term client asked me to restore two antique side-tables for him. These two tables were originally made for his father in the Congo sometime in 1930.

The tables had suffered from moving to three different continents, and the results of changes in humidity and some dodgy repairs attempts. The top of one was seriously warped and needed a lot of careful work with a hand plane. It was made of one solid piece of rosewood, and I couldn’t risk running it through a thickness planer for fear it would break in half.

This was followed by working both sides over with a card scraper.

Perhaps the most difficult part was fitting the feet of the legs with thick sheets of copper, drilled and screwed into place. The difficulty was because everything about these tables was hand made with no two pieces exactly the same. On top of that, the legs were badly warped and twisted. So each sheet of copper had to be individually fitted into the feet. This meant that I had to clamp the legs together, make individual cardboard templates for each foot, cut these out of the copper sheets, and then inset them into the feet. One I had the copper feet properly fitted, I clamped them into the legs and marked them for drilling. Many hours were spent at my drill press first drilling the correct holes and then drilling matching pilot holes for the screws in the legs.

At this point, no carving was done, but don’t worry, that’s still coming.

Next, the owner asked me to make the two tables match a little better. One table had nice arabesque cutouts in the legs. The other table had solid legs. So I made a template for the cutout, bought a new blade for my bandsaw and with a lump in my throat, I started cutting into the solid rosewood legs.

After a quick clean up to remove the saw marks, it was time to restore the carved elements. I pulled out my chip carving knife and went at the repetitive work of skim-cutting surfaces of the diamond facets on the legs. On the legs that I cut the arabesque shapes out, I used a scratch stock to etch a line around the shape, matching the other table legs.

Once this was done, I took the card scraper to the legs, touching the tops and legs with 400 grit sandpaper afterwards to soften the edges a little.

now to what type of finish to use! The client really didn’t want the carved diamonds to fill with lacquer or varnish thereby muting the crisp cuts. So I chose Tung Oil which would soak in and form a very thin layer, yet still have the soft sheen of the rest of the woodwork in his estate home. This was a labour intensive choice as it turns out. I ended up putting on 6 coats, which were hand rubbed with cotton cloths, and then, 24 hours later were buffed by hand before the next coat of oil was applied. After a week of drying and curing it was time to put the tables together.

The delivery of both tables ended with a surprise. The client has a book stand from the same place and era that he wanted restored in a similar fashion. I went home with another job!

Woodcarvers need to be creative and in some cases, we need to have technical woodworking skills too. I am thankful for men like my father and his good friend Ivor Monahan, and my shop teachers years ago for the good training and showing me that every problem has a solution. This project had more than its share of problems, but with time and resources, I was able to make it work out!

Mostly I am thankful for a client who trusts me with his antique heirlooms.

Grant McMillan

Dogwood Relief Sculpture

The dogwood relief carving I have been working on for several months is finally complete.

This carving is carved out of one solid piece of wood. It is a one-of-a-kind relief carving of the official flower of the Province of British Columbia.

The frame is a 10×14 inch shadow box.

It is available. Message me if you would like to buy it.

Dogwood Flower Sculpture

Here is an in-progress shot of a spray of dogwood flowers I am sculpting:

This sculpture is an art piece of my own (a rare non-commissioned piece), which I have been nibbling away at for a few months now. I had hoped to complete it before Christmas, but there are many competing interests at this time of year, so it may have to wait.

Here are a few more pics:

In this last photo, I am undercutting the flowers to make them appear to float above the background. I intend to frame this piece in a shadow box with a black background.

Art of the Carver Show and Sale Summary 2018

Ken Fotheringhame’s Carving won People’s Choice

The Art of the Carver show and sale today was a big success. One hundred twenty seven carvings were on display.

Ken Smorang’s carving won Best of Show

The quality of the works on display were top notch. And the number of people coming through to visit was huge!

This Meadow Lark took me back to Saskatchewan

Watch for more photos and updates at the club website soon.

Thanks to all who came out to support our art.

DeWitte Family Crest

So many of my clients become friends, which I hope for because it means my carving adds meaning to their lives.

The DeWitte family have become some of our very best friends after they called me on a recommendation from the President of the Central Fraser Valley Woodcarvers Club. Jack is an amateur historian and a very good one. He knows his family history and he knows heraldry. This family crest, with helmet (those are feathers coming out of the top), shield, lions, castle towers, and surrounded by acanthus leaves, is historically accurate for the DeWitte family.

The wood is walnut, and is carved not deeper than one quarter of an inch, which means that all the depth you see is an illusion. It utilizes light and shadow to give the impression that there is more depth than in reality.

I feel privileged to work for true lovers of this art and craft like the DeWittes. And even more pleased to call them friends!

If you are interested in having something similar carved for your family, please email me at

Rifle Stock Carving

I get some very interesting carving commissions! That’s what I love about this work – there’s no getting stale because someone is always asking me to carve something creative and challenging.

This latest commission is for a rifle stock. The wood is walnut, and the carving is to match a tattoo! How cool is that?

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  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.

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)


Herald Angels or Heraldry?

It has been quiet on this site but not because it has been quiet in my carving studio! It had been crazy busy with carving work such that I have neglected you, my loyal readers! 

The Christmas season always sneaks up on me and I have to be careful not to overcommit. Must leave time to sing “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and other Christmas carols.

Some projects I am working on include a blanket ladder with dovetail joinery. 

It isn’t really carving work, per se, but I wanted to show old Roubo that his rants about carvers being imprecise are misplaced. I was building furniture and doing complex joinery long before I picked up a carving tool. 

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! 

Acanthus Leaf Study

Finished Acanthus Leaf

I call this relief carving “Acanthus Leaf Study” because it is the one I use as a model to teach introductory woodcarving classes. It has all the elements of a classic low relief sculpture. It has a level foundation, some high sides, some low, some slopes, deep vees, undercuts and undulations. It has curves like Venus de Milo and is evocative of Ancient Greek and Roman sculptures. It throws a lovely shadow and will gradually warm to an antique shade over time.

Unfinished Acanthus Leaf

It is carved in Aspen wood. The dimensions are 6 inches by 4 inches, by 3/4 inches thick. It is signed as an original with my brand initials.

Owned by a private collector.