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People have used woodcarving for several different applications throughout the centuries. Relief Carving is the most historically popular of its kind. This form was one of the very first used by ancient civilizations such as the Egyptians and Greeks.
The word relief comes from how the wood is used like a canvas. The wood is carved to provide depth and the objects in the carving appear to jump off the wood.
Here you will find out what relief carving is, why it is so unique, and how the process works.
Let’s start by looking in greater detail as to what relief carving is all about.
What is Relief Carving?
Relief carving begins with a flat panel of wood and the carver using his tools to provide a 3-D perspective of the objects he carves while maintaining a flat background.
In a way, this technique is like an unfinished statue, protruding only from one end of the medium being carved, in this case, wood.
The process involves removing material from the flat panel and creating objects or designs that project towards the onlooker.
Carvers usually begin by tracing the idea of the pattern on specialized paper or tape that will be laid upon the panel.
After the trace, the carver will use his/her tools to gouge wood from the panel and make the required curves and cuts. Generally, relief carving will be either low relief or high relief. This means that the pattern will project slightly from the panel (low relief) or it will possess great depth (high relief).
Relief carving relies on illusion.
It is essentially attempting to play a trick on the viewer’s eyes by using various cuts that give depth and bring the objects to life.
Relief carving is known for its realistic qualities and incredible eye tricks. Extreme detail and intricacy can be manifested using this style. It takes only a small projection from the wood (less than 3/4” in depth) to create such an illusion, although higher projections can allow for a more realistic looking pattern.
To highlight the uniqueness of relief carving, below are some other styles of woodcarving and how they differ:
How Relief Carving Differs from Other Styles
As stated above, relief carving is a partial cut from wood that projects an object using depth, unlike these other styles of woodcarving:
Relief carving is a unique and elaborate process that it is not imitated by other styles. It differs from other styles not only in technique and process, but also in the amount of time and intricacy it requires.
Now that you have a basic understanding of what relief carving looks like, let’s get acquainted with the tools used to create such amazing woodwork.
Although the type of lumber to be carved is important, the tools are what allow the carver’s imagination to come to life. While other tools can be implemented to create whatever desired object or pattern a carver could want, these are the three main tools utilized with this style:
- Chisels: These are one of the most common tools used in woodcarving, and are no less important when performing relief carving. Chisels are used to scrape wood from the wood panel with their straight edge.
Generally, a carver will use a larger chisel to remove substantial amounts of wood and then work his/her way down to smaller chisels used for detailing.
Chisels are often used in concert with mallets, with the carver holding a mallet in one hand and the chisel in the other. The mallet then hits the handle of the chisel forcing it into the wood, penetrating further than a normal stroke of hand carving.
Chisels come in different shapes and sizes, and the common ones are #1 sweep. The sweep is the amount of curvature a blade possesses, thus, because chisels are straight-edged tools, they generally offer no curvature and are #1 sweep.
However, there are chisels that are beveled or skewed:
- Beveled Chisels: Chisels with a bevel have the ends turned up instead of being straight-edged, possessing greater than #1 sweep around the edges.
- Skew Chisels: Skew chisels are made to cut at a certain angle, commonly made to 60 degrees.
- Gouges: Another vital tool to the success of a relief carver, and for most woodcarvers in general, is the gouge.
Gouges are the curved blade cousins to the chisel and are the most common woodcarving tool. Their sweep generally ranges from #1-#9 sweep and are used to cut curves in the wood.
However, there are some special gouges that own a much higher sweep.
For lightly rounded cuts, a lower sweep gouge will be used, while for more rounded cuts, carvers will employ a higher sweep gouge. Gouges can also be used with a mallet, allowing for more wood removal. The most common gouges are flat and have rounded blades.
However, there are several other types of gouges:
- U-shaped gouges and V-shaped gouges: U-shaped and V-shaped gouges are simply gouges that are shaped like a U or V at its working edge and allows for cuts that require said shapes.
- Spoon gouge: The spoon gouge is an interesting tool that is bent along its length, like a spoon, and used for removing excess wood or getting into areas not easily accessible by a straight-edge blade.
- Fishtail Gouge: The fishtail gouge is narrow throughout most of its length and then broadens into a rounded blade at the working edge, allow it to reach tight spaces.
- Mallets: Mallets are used to produce a more powerful cut when using a chisel or gouge. They drive the blade into the wood and are especially helpful when needing to carve through strong woods such as Cherry or Mahogany.
Traditional mallets are similar to the shape of a bottle, with a handle at the bottom of a cylindrical piece of wood. Today, mallets have handles with a barrel shaped piece of wood at the end in the shape of a T. Most mallets are completely wooden; however, there are several woodworkers who prefer to use rubber mallets for a couple reasons.
Rubber is preferred because it is not as loud when working like a wooden mallet and because it puts less stress on the handles of the chisels and gouges. The only downside to rubber is that it does not produce as much force as a wooden mallet.
Each of these tools have been made to supply just about every type of possible cut one can make into a piece of wood. However, different types of wood allow for different types of projects. Selecting the right wood is just as important as the tools the woodcarvers brings to his craft.
Let’s look at what some of the best wood is for relief carving.
What Wood is Best for Relief Carving?
When selecting the right wood, it often comes down to the complexity of the image he/she has in mind.
For relief carving, there is no one wood that is superior to the rest. Just about any type can be used, although softer woods will more often produce the best results.
Lime, Jelutong, Basswood, Butternut, and White Pine are some of the softest and easiest woods to work with.
Here is a short list of woods that are ideal, and not so ideal, for relief carving:
- Basswood: One of the easiest woods to work with and may be the most ideal type, mainly whittling
- Jelutong: A soft and easy wood to work with, especially for relief carving
- Lime (European Lime): Second to Basswood for hand carving, especially in relief carving
- Butternut: Has a distinct pattern and is soft enough for easy relief carving
- Black Ash: A more intermediate carve, but usually produces good results
- Mahogany: Although it is usually easy to work with, it can have issues with tearing and unwanted chipping
- Cherry: Although it can have a beautiful appearance, Cherry is very hard to work with when relief carving
- Sugar Maple: This is another very difficult wood to carve and is not recommended for relief carving beginners
Now that you have a rundown of some of the more popular woods and how idyllic they are for relief carving, let’s look at how the process of this style of woodcarving works.
How to Perform the Relief Carving Style
It is a style that takes a patient worker and a steady hand. The preparation in order to carve is just as important as the act itself.
Since relief carving can become extremely intricate and detailed, understanding the various stages and aspects of the process are essential. Becoming acquainted with the phases of relief carving, its different styles, and the various cuts that are associated with each style, will prepare you to start your relief carving career.
To begin, here are the eight stages of relief carving:
The 8 Stages of Relief Carving
To produce the best results, relief carvers have to follow the eight stages that go into making superb woodcarving masterpieces:
- Create a pattern:
The first step in relief carving is creating a pattern that is drawn on carbon or transfer paper. This pattern will be laid upon the wood panel to be carved and will stay there until the carving has been finished.
- Prepare a wooden panel for carving:
Now the carver must prepare the piece of wood or laminated panel he has chosen to be carved. During the process of preparation, the carver will need to put the wood on a bench or table, making a bench hook of some kind that will prevent the piece from moving (or in woodcarving terms, walking) as he/she carves.
- Transfer the pattern to the panel:
The carver now has to transfer the pattern that he wishes to carve onto the panel of wood. The carver should do this using carbon paper. The transfer will need to be accurate and precise, thus, preparing the wood to be still before transferring is necessary as well.
- Remove material around the objects that compromise the pattern:
The pattern has been transferred and the carver is ready to work on the panel. This stage requires the bulk of the carving phase, removing the excess material from around the pattern in order to set up the cutting details. This is when the mallet and chisel become especially useful.
- Model the objects:
This is when the project will begin to take its shape as the carver adds depth to his/her pattern. The carver will be carving around the outline he/she made and bringing the objects into a 3-D perspective.
- Detail the objects:
Once the proper depth of the objects has been added, the carver will begin to add the details of the objects. For example, if the carver had modeled a fish, he could now start carving to add scales and the other details he had outlined to add.
- Tidy the background behind the objects:
After the carver has added all the desired details and intricacies, he/she must clean up the background for chips, sawdust, and may need to sand the background depending on his/her preference. The background can be smooth or textured, but should be overall flat enough to illustrate the depth of the objects the carver modeled.
- Apply a suitable finish to the panel:
Lastly, to complete the work of art, the carver must apply a finish to the panel. This will depend on the type of wood used and modeling of the project. Finishes and laminates will ensure that the project is maintained and will not experience weathering.
After those eight stages are completed, the carver will have a finished relief carving. Adhering to these instructions, anybody can complete a project for this style.
Although, there are plenty more details to consider when deciding to create such a project.
The first of many decisions to make is the type of relief carving one wishes to create.
Styles of Relief Carving
As mentioned earlier, there are a few different types of relief carvings:
- High Relief: A high relief is a carving that is usually between 1/2” and 2” in depth.
High reliefs are more dramatic in appearance, and because of the modern trend to create realistic and over-the-top pieces of art, high relief is often used.
The process of creating a high relief carving is little different than low reliefs. In fact, high reliefs start out as low reliefs and then after using a special cut (the undercut), depth and perspective is added to create a more dramatic projection from the wood.
- Bas Relief/Low Relief: Low relief carving is usually under 1/2” and is not quite as a dramatic art, but allows for more detailing.
The shallow depth gives the notion that the pattern has been cut into the wood, when really it has been cut out of the wood. Although the depth is significantly less than high relief, the expertise required to make stunning visuals is in no way diminished. In fact, it is more difficult to supply perspective to the onlooker when carving a low relief design. In order to achieve proper perspective, the carver must level his/her work to make objects visually close up or far away. Leveling is making overlaps in the pattern to provide a certain illusion, such as leaves behind a flower pedal.
- Deep Relief: Deep relief carving is any carving over 2” in depth.
Something to be conscientious of, especially when considering carving a deep relief, is to understand how thick your wood is. Reliefs should only be carved into about half the thickness of the wood.
For example, if your entire panel of wood is 4”, you should only carve to 2” in depth because of the natural warping of wood from the varying moisture in the environment. As a result of the warping, it can cause stress and break down the weakest points of the pattern. Keeping the carving depth to only half of the thickness of the panel will prevent any serious issues by allowing the background enough support for the design.
- Pierced Relief: A pierced relief is an extraordinarily amazing way to do relief carving.
Per its name, pierced reliefs have holes in the wood that have been carved completely through the wood.
These type of designs are extremely intricate and require great expertise.
For example, if a tree was part of the design, there could be empty space between branches, allowing the onlooker to see through the wood carving.
With each style of relief carving comes different techniques and cuts used to achieve the illusion the carver intends to create.
Here are some of the most common:
Types of Cuts
There are several different cuts a carver can make in woodworking, so here are a few basic and advanced cuts that can be made:
- Basic Cuts
- Gouge Cuts: This is a simple cut which is done for shaving the background area with a gouge. Other types of gouge cuts can be used to round out areas and model the objects in the pattern.
- Back Down Chisel Cuts: Using the back side of a chisel will allow the carver to create thick cuts.
- Back Up Chisel Cuts: Using the thinner side of a chisel will allow the carver to make more detailed, thin cuts.
- Technical Cuts
- Stop Cuts: A stop cut is a cut made by a chisel that will prevent other cuts from penetrating past a certain point. The chisel makes a cut through the wood, and then cuts are made moving towards the stop cut to model the pattern.
- Undercut: The undercut is used primarily in high relief carvings. Undercuts are done underneath areas of the design, out of sight by the viewer, adding depth and shadowing. This is an extremely necessary cut to create successful high and deep relief carvings.
V-Cuts: The V-cut is done with the corner of a chisel, first making a cut with it angled to the left, and making the same cut in the same position again, but angled to the right. This cut creates a V shape in the wood panel.
These cuts, along with many more, help create the amazing relief carvings seen done by past civilizations and modern-day woodcarvers.
Next, we’ll go over some tips and tricks to help beginners get started relief carving.
Tips and Tricks for Beginners
Here are some tips and tricks that beginners will find useful in quickly improving their relief carving, and overall woodcarving skills:
- Choose easy to carve woods:
Be knowledgeable about the wood you have chosen to work with. Knowing if a certain piece of wood will be soft enough to get the results you want as a beginner is essential to not becoming frustrated.
Also be sure not to pick up random lumber you have lying around as these will only break and crumble underneath the blades.
- Notice the wood’s grain:
In some cases, you will want to carve along the grain and others against it. To get a glimpse of how the grain runs in a certain piece of wood, carve a small piece out of the corner or along the side.
Once you have determined how it runs, consider the pattern you are wanting to make. Depending on your wood and design, carving with the grain can lead to splits in the pattern. Take the time to research if you are unsure which path to take.
- Always keep tools sharp:
A common mistake beginners can make is not sharpening their tools when they become dull. A dull blade can not only lead to poor craftsmanship, but also bodily injury from the extraneous force being exerted to produce the desired result.
- Shorter is better:
This principle is especially important when cutting the background. Attempting to make large cuts in the wood can lead to unwanted penetrations or gashes into the wood.
Taking the time to make small, short, continuous cutting strokes will result in a cleaner and more refined design.
Relief carving delivers some of the most incredible wooden artworks the world has ever known. The detail and precision that is required to make such life-like and dramatic designs is unbelievable.
Now that you have a basic understanding and appreciation of what relief carving is, you too can make fantastic works of art.