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Relief Carving Wood Spirits

By Lora Irish

Reviewed by Joan Rathbun

Wood spirits have become a very popular subject to carve. Lora Irish brings her wonderful ability to draw and create along with her knack for instruction to this new book. Even the contents pages are impressive due to the huge page-and-a-quarter sized wood spirit drawing that stares out at you from the pages.

The book is divided into three sections with an appendix.

Part One:

  • Getting Started in Relief Carving
  • About Relief Carving and Wood Spirits
  • Relief Carving Tools and Materials
  • Relief Carving Skills and Techniques

Part One starts with a history of wood spirits, then moves into the steps in the process of relief carving, which is a good overview for beginners and a review for the rest of us. Tools and materials used in a relief carving, such as knives, chisels, and gouges, a depth gauge, types of wood, and work surfaces, among other things, are covered. Sharpening instruction and suggestions for finishing your piece are included here as well.

There are also instructions for making your own bench hook. A bench hook is a piece of plywood with wood attached to the bottom front to hook over the edge of a table to keep it from moving, and two boards in one corner to hold your relief carving in place while you work on it.

Many techniques are explained including creating shadows, making chip and stop cuts, texturing, using a tool upside down and walking the band saw. While most of us know these things already, it’s still interesting reading, thanks to Lora’s conversational writing style. Who knows, you may even learn something new. Following that are several informative pages on understanding facial anatomy. Steps for carving eyes completes Part One.

Part Two:

  • Carving a Wood Spirit
  • Preparing the Wood Blank
  • Roughing Out the Carving
  • Smoothing the Face
  • Detailing the Leaves
  • Cleaning Up and Finishing

I think these are the most detailed step-by-step instructions I’ve seen in a carving book. The pictures are excellent and they and the instructions are easy to follow. There are even bulleted lists of goals for each section within part two.

To start, there’s a whole page of everything you’ll need for the grape man wood spirit project. Lora suggests printing several copies of the pattern so you can cut them into smaller pieces later for retracing specific areas. There are tips like these in brown boxes throughout the book.

I like the progression of the steps to this carving which are very methodical, making them easy to understand. All of the steps and techniques learned here can be applied to the other patterns in the book.

Part Three:

  • Patterns

There are twelve full-sized patterns ranging from a classic wood spirit to a long maple leaf panel. Many of them look more like green men to me since the faces are set in amongst leaves. Along with each pattern are two smaller versions; one is numbered to indicate depth, e.g. the nose has a 1 on it to indicate it is the highest point on the face, while the other is shaded, which would be useful when using a woodburner. There is also a page of leaf drawings.

There is a sad, droopy appearance to the patterns. I prefer happier looking faces, but these are nice ones nonetheless, and the expression can always be changed to be brighter and more upbeat, if desired. The leaf part of some of them could also be used with your own face design.


  • Tutorial 1: Dry Brush Painting Your Wood Spirit

Here we learn about using paint, oils and turpentine to color our carving for a wood grain look, and then how to dry brush added color onto it. There are instructions for both the base and stain coats, and dry brushing and roughing. Carving and artist supply lists are included.

  • Tutorial 2: Three Oaks Close Up

The faces of the three oaks pattern are explained in this two page tutorial. They are turned instead of facing straight ahead, which we know is more of a challenge to carve. Techniques are shown that make the faces turn to one side or the other.

  • Tutorial 3: Adding Extra Depth

A piece of basswood is carved in this section to look like a weathered piece of barn wood and serves as a background to a wood spirit. Dowels are used to hold the wood spirit in place. The wood spirit, George, is carved from two pieces of basswood; one for his face and the other for his nose, mustache, and lip beard (Lora’s terminology, not mine). George has a beard that reminds me of the one on the snowman narrator in Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, as well as your standard, longer beard. In reading through this wonderful book, I got the feeling that nothing was left out, and I could relax in the knowledge that when I carve the step-by-step project, I’ll have an attentive and thorough instructor, even though she won’t be there in person. I highly recommend this book for all of the fantastic instruction, clear photos, and tips Lora has packed into its 127 pages. It sells for $19.95, and I think it’s well worth the money.

Joan Rathbun is the librarian of the Central Minnesota Woodcarvers Association and writes book reviews for the Minnesota Woodcarvers Association newsletter. She’s been carving various subjects, ranging from Santas to acanthus, for 18 years.


Copyright 2009, All rights reserved. May not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.