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.

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.

Acanthus Leaf Finials

If you’ve been following my blog for a while now, you may be wondering what all those acanthus leaf panels are for and where they will go. They are for a client’s grand entry to his home. The entry is quite large – two stories (ten-foot ceiling stories) tall, and large enough that an eight-foot wide chandelier could be bigger and you wouldn’t notice. 

The panels are part of the board that covers up the stair stringer and the board that runs under the handrail of the balcony. The client called me up to show me the carvings that he had temporarily installed until they could be stained and lacquered. I took a few photos to share with you.

Stair Stringer Acanthus Leaf Panel
Stair Stringer Acanthus Leaf Panel
Balcony Acanthus Leaf Panel
Balcony Acanthus Leaf Panel

But there’s more! The client wanted some finials (sort of an upside down post cap) carved as well. One is a full square, the other is only half of a finial. They are to be installed under his balcony to look as though the post for the hand-rail continues right through to the finial. In the picture below, you’ll see four wood clamps. The full finial is to go between the two middle clamps underneath the post for the handrail with the point of it aiming at the ground. The half finial is to go just to the right side of the 4th clamp on the right. 

 postcap location

 Here’s what the finial looks like mostly finished – there’s still some final smoothing, burnishing, and sanding to do to it.

Square Finial
Square Finial

Note that I am holding the finial upside down compared to how it will be installed.

The two finials were quite challenging to carve, as they are primarily end grain after they begin curving toward the point. The design had to be modified slightly because I found that undercutting a point of a leaf to give it shadow meant I was cutting all the fibers underneath the tip that were holding the point in place. They may not have held up under the pressures of sanding, staining and lacquering, so I had to do a little redesigning on the fly. What I like about low-relief carving is that it is basically a trompe l’oeil, so I was able to create a little illusion instead of actually undercutting the leaf tips. The only way you can tell the difference is by actually running your finger tips over the carving. 

That completes this part of the job and now I can move on to some completely different carving. I’m working on a hummingbird “in the round,” some posts for an entry way to a home, and a large sign complete with trees, ocean, lettering, etc. Sign up to receive an email that alerts you every time I post some new pictures of another project. 

Update on Acanthus Leaf Carvings

I finished carving and sanding the first of the acanthus leaf panels and made good progress towards finishing the second one last night. People will primarily view the panels from below so I carved the leaves in such a way as to highlight the shadows all the way down the boards. This meant carving the leaves at the top of the board a little more proud than the ones nearer the bottom.

Acanthus Leaves

The client is pleased with them, especially the dramatic shadows they throw because I left the centre stems so proud and undercut the leaves. He just dropped off two more blocks to be carved. They will be even more challenging because I will have to carve mostly end grain in solid oak.

The client has his own painter who will stain and varnish these panels when they’re all completed. I’m like a kid waiting for Christmas – I can’t wait to see them!

In other news, we met Dale & Val – very good friends visiting from Saskatchewan on Tuesday, and enjoyed a fun afternoon in Crescent Beach with them. We had a good laugh at this sign:

Flower sign

Note that there were no flowers in bloom anywhere within sight!

Till next time,



Carved Fireplace Mantel Installed

It’s  been a quiet few weeks for carving as we’ve been camping and doing a mini family reunion. However, I was excited to receive a phone call this afternoon inviting me to see a couple of fireplace mantels that I had carved a while ago. They had just recently been installed in a palatial home, and the client was anxious to have me see them. Kathleen and I dropped everything and headed over to the Fort Langley home to see the mantels. The client kindly permitted me to take a picture of each mantel so you can see how they turned out.

Carved Fireplace Mantel
Fireplace Mantel in Library
Carved Fireplace Mantel in Dining Room
Dining Room Fireplace Mantel

What do you think of them? Have any questions? Leave a comment and let me know.


Hope Chest Complete

A couple of years ago, my daughter went on a S.A.L.T.S. trip where she spent 10 days on a tall ship, cruising the high seas around Vancouver Island. That gave my wife the idea that she might like a sea chest for her 19th birthday (my wife is the one with all the good ideas). In a recent blog post, I showed you how the hope chest was started, but a few other projects with urgent deadlines delayed its completion until now.

I completed it tonight and have the pictures to prove it. Here you can see that I’ve cleaned up the dovetail joints, glued it up with Gorilla Glue polyurethane glue. The clamp placed diagonally is to help square up the box. It’s a trick I learned working for a house framer (D. Gartner Contracting). I measured the box diagonally each way, and determined that it was slightly out of square. Pinching it with the clamp across the corners squeezed it slightly and put it back into square. It worked very slick.

Hope Chest clamped
Hope Chest Glue Up

Next, after pulling the clamps off, I could see I had some clean up to do. Polyurethane glue foams up like crazy. One of the reasons I like using it is because I was going to stain the box, and polyurethane glue peels off the surface leaving almost no residue. You can see it easily, and it doesn’t really soak into the wood like typical carpenter’s glue. It requires good joinery to work well – you can’t do a crappy job of cutting joints and hope it will expand and fill the gaps (which it will do) as well as have any strength (which it won’t). That’s why I spent so much time cutting the dovetails and dry-fitting the joints as you saw in my previous posts.

Polyurethane Glue Expansion
Glue Squeeze Out

I cleaned up the glue with a paint-scraper, and then proceeded to sand the corners to make the joints look perfect. Then I proceeded to sand and scrape the box with a cabinet scraper. A sharp cabinet scraper left a nice pile of shavings as you can see below.

Wood shavings
Wood Scrapings

After scraping and sanding, it was time to stain the box. The wood is pine. Pine is notorious for being difficult to stain evenly. So I chose a nice gel stain because of it’s ease of use. I can control how dark or light it gets by how long I leave it on the wood and how many coats of stain to do. One coat of stain worked quite nicely.

Stained Dovetails
Stained Box

After the box was stained, you can see it looks quite rustic – which was exactly the look I was going for. I didn’t want it perfectly smooth, but with some of the tooling marks still showing. The box was turning out just as I hoped it would! Now it was time to install the carved tall ship:

Relief carved tall ship
Tall Ship Relief Carving

Gluing the tall ship to the box turned out to be a bit of a challenge as the carving had slightly warped. I spent a good amount of time pressing it down with my hands until the glue set up. After that, I sprayed the box with a nice polyurethane finish and put the handles on it. My wife had another of her good ideas and decided the box needed handles made of twine, tied in a fisherman’s knot. She tied them up and I installed them by simply drilling 3/4 inch holes and threading the handles through and tying them off on the inside.

Fisherman's Knot Handle
Fisherman’s Knot Handle

Finally, I fitted the lid in place and the box was complete!


Tall Ship Close Up
Tall Ship Close Up
Hope Chest Front Face
Hope Chest Front Face


Hope Chest Complete
Hope Chest Complete

I think my daughter was pretty pleased to finally get the hope chest. I know I was pleased at how it turned out.


Progress on Fireplace Mantel Carving

I’m making progress on the fireplace mantel carving. I’ve finished all the bows as well as all the flower drops and flower swags. I’ve started on the end medallions but must first touch base with the client about some of the finer details regarding them. In the meantime, I’ve started the large flower leg drops.

Large Flower Leg Drops
Flower Leg Drops

I can see some light at the end of this project. All that’s left to complete is these two leg drops and the two medallions. Then I can begin on the next project, which is a mahogany version of this carving, but with the addition of a fruit bowl. That should be an interesting challenge.

Local weather in Langley, BC is rainy today. That’s ok as I need to stay inside and carve! The garden is growing like a wild thing. We’ve fought off the slugs and have been eating lettuce and radishes for some time now. The strawberries are finished. Next to harvest will be peas and carrots, maybe a few beets.

Back to stabbing wood with pointy, sharp things!


Carving a Family Crest, Final Installment

Welcome to the final post about the carving of the Bailie family crest. Yesterday I left you with a mostly-finished carving. What was left to complete was a final preparation of the two banners, or ribbons, at the top and bottom, the letters for the name and the Latin phrase, and then the finish, or top-coat of the carving.

The edges of the banners needed to be smoothed out and ‘softened’ which meant that I needed to take my micro V-gouge (from Flexcut tools) and cut along the sides so that the banners made a nice arc. Also, the V-gouge is quite a steep V (the cutting edge looks like a small v), and I ran the bottom of the v along the edge of the banner where it rises out of the wood background. That means the V-gouge undercut the wood. Then, I carefully carved the top of the banners with a slight hollow and the edges rolling over. I managed to get that smooth enough with the gouges so that I didn’t have to sand them (phew – I wasn’t quite sure how that was going to happen).

The next step was to lay out the letters, trace them onto the banners, and cut them in. Letter carving is something that requires a great deal of precision. Most of us recognize what letters are supposed to look like, and so it’s easy to be critical of poorly designed or carved letters. Also, this was a family name, and people take great pride in their name. I needed to get this just right. First, I contacted the family to confirm the spelling. Bailie is a bit of an unusual spelling, but it was legitimate and confirmed, so I went ahead laying out the the letters on paper that matched the banners. Once I was satisfied with the look, I transferred the letters and carved them in. When I first started carving letters, I had a tendency to have a light hand – not wanting to carve too deeply in case I made a mistake. But I’m pretty confident in my letter carving, and so I went all out and carved the letters actually deeper than the banners were thick. You can see the effect the deep shadows of the letters and how it makes them stand out. I needed them to, because the rest of the carving was so dramatic that the words might get lost without something extra to make them jump out at you.

After the letters, the carving was ready to be finished. The carving called for a dark look, with an oiled, matte finish. That meant a stain, and then a few coats of tung oil. However, staining carvings is risky because stain shows up any marks or errors in carving. But I have a solution to that, something I learned through my cedar strip canoe building. This is a “trick of the trade” that I’m sharing with you in confidence (shh!) 😉

The trick is to ‘paint’ the carving first with lacquer thinner. It’s amazing all the marks that show up when the lacquer thinner goes on. It quickly evaporates (and is highly toxic) so I do this with a lot of ventilation, usually outside. Then I clean up the spots and give it one final ‘paint’ with thinner to ensure I did it well enough.

Next was to choose a stain colour. A quick sample of 4 stains was sent to the client for choice. She chose the same colour I did – a rich, medium walnut stain. Two coats of the stain, and three coats of tung oil later, and here is how it turned out!

Finished Family Crest
Bailie Crest Completed

The completion of this carving also coincided nicely with an art show that I enter in each year. I entered this carving in it and won a blue ribbon (first place) for relief carvings in my category! As an added bonus to the client, I included the blue ribbon with a description of the award when I delivered the carving.

Bailie Crest Winnter
Blue Ribbon Winner

About the carving:

It’s carved in Butternut, 16″ in diameter by 1″ thick, stained and finished in tung oil. The name “Bailie” is carved in the top banner, and the Latin phrase, “QUID CLARIUS ASTRIS” is carved in the lower banner. It means, “You shine among the stars” or “What is brighter than the stars” and is the Bailie family motto.

I can carve you a family crest too, and depending on the size and level of detail you want, I can do so for somewhere between $300 and $400 – that’s for an heirloom quality carving commemorating your family. Contact me at and we can talk with no obligation.


Grant McMillan