Tips on Relief Carving

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Editor's note:
Tony Wispinski coined the acronyms HOC and HOC2. The first means Hooked on Carving, while the second one means Hooked on Computers Too ;-)
Tony is the coordinator of the annual Alberta Rocky Mountain Carving Seminar in Hinton, Alberta, Canada.

For my first article I thought it might be a good idea to share with you some general carving considerations that have helped my past students. I have taken them out of my book Carving Canadian Caricatures in Relief

1. How much relief is necessary?:

For each of the characters in this book, you will have to decide which part of the figure might stand out the most from other parts. Study the figure, if a real person were standing the same way, what parts are in the background and what parts in the foreground.

Most of this should be fairly easy to decide on and there is a lot of room for individual interpretation. I will sometimes pretend to be the character, I'll stand the same way as the character and look in the mirror. My interpretation is that the character unfortunately has a very big belly which is farther to the front than any other part and I may carve the figure that way.

2. Type of glue:

Carvings do break. This is a serious problem for some, but it is not the end of your carving career. If a carver can accept that each carving is a learning experience and that good glue works, why there is no problem. My favourite glue is a beige colored, carpenter's or cabinet maker's fast setting glue. (Now here is some product placement which the manufacturers know nothing about.) Two glues that work equally as well are "ELMER'S carpenter's glue" and "LEPAGE'S Suregrip".

For small breakages, - hey how about that mustache that sometimes gets trimmed, - use just a bit of glue. Try to use only the amount needed to spread it evenly over both sides of the break. Allow it to dry until it is a little tacky and then hold the break securely together for a few minutes. A drop of crazy glue on top of the carpenter's glue will act as an unseen clamping device until the other glue dries. If you use too much glue, some glue that might spread out of the joint and onto the surface of the carving may have to be cleaned up later. Leave this carving for an hour or so and then go back to it.

If the break is a large major kind, then you may have to put a peg into both sides of the break (bamboo skewer's are great for this). The clamping of the pieces together, is a good idea, if this can be done without slippage of the pieces.

3. Sanding:

Should a carver use sandpaper? Should a carver use only carving tools to sculpt and shape the carving? How many angels can we carve on one piece of wood? These of course, are all serious considerations. What is the answer, well if you want part of the carving to appear much smoother and more finely finished then use some sandpaper as a carving tool. Of course if your steel tools are razor sharp you may not have to use sandpaper. I do not want to be misleading but there is a difference of opinion among some carvers, and if you associate with carvers you may run into this.

The answer of course is that you decide, I do have sandpaper in my shop, I do use it sometimes and other times will not. Here is a definite hint, if you do sand, then try not to use a carving tool over the sanded surface. Grit from the sandpaper usually ends up in the wood and boy do your tools ever dull fast. Now back to the angels, my answer is, do what you can.

4. Painting, staining or varnishing:

This consideration is a very important one, many a great carving has been spoiled by a poor finish, and good carvings are made to look better with a good finish. The choice of how to finish is a difficult one and I am going to share with you the names of the product brands which have worked out the best for me.

When I decide to paint I always will use a water soluble artist's acrylic paint, and my favourite is the brand "Ceramcoat by Delta". This paint is available in most craft stores, the price is reasonable, it is sold in 2 ounce (60 ml) plastic containers and the color choice is exceptional. I like to be able to see the wood grain through the paint, and this paint works very well in that a few drops in a bit of water will allow me to get this effect. If you are going to paint then buy the best quality brushes that you can afford.
"Benjamin Moore & Co's" ONE HOUR CLEAR LOW LUSTRE varnish is the one that has worked the best for me. I like to buy it in the smaller 250 ml tins, a little bit goes a long way. I do not use enough as a carver to warrant the purchase of the larger tins.

The stain that I like the most is another Benjamin Moore product. It is their one step satin finish POLYURETHANE STAIN. The stain is available in a few different colors and the one I use the most is the Golden Oak. If you chose a dark stain it is an extremely good idea to seal the carving before the stain is applied.

Applying sanding sealer will clog or seal the open pores of the cross sectional surfaces of the wood and then when the stain is applied the absorption of it into the wood will be more uniform. This means that all the surfaces will have approximately the same color and the carving will look better. A dark stain on wood without sealed pores leads to more absorption on the cross sectional surfaces and usually gives a poor appearance. It can actually ruin the looks of a good carving.

5. Time; how long should it take to carve?:

Do not worry about time, or be concerned with how long it should take to do a carving. Carving is not a race, it is a skill, craft and art form. Relax and carve, you will be surprised how fast time will drift by.

6. Carving tension:

I am not talking about tension in the wood but tension in you, the carver. I have noticed this time and again with many of my students in my carving classes. All students want to do so very well at their carving, but some get so excited that tension develops, resulting in sore muscles in necks, shoulders and arms.

Once again I say "RELAX", sit in a comfortable position and if you start to feel tension do not ignore it, do something. Standing and stretching, going for a short walk, even just putting your tools down and looking at something different for awhile will reduce tension.

7. Carving Hygiene:

We all have natural oils in our own skin, it is not uncommon for our hands to get dirty while handing ordinary everyday items. While carving any wood do not be surprised if your carving picks up some of this gunk from your hands. You can actually see dirt streaks and greasy marks on the wood. Keeping your hands washed will reduce the amount of grime found on the carving.

I always wash my carvings before applying any type of paint or finish to the completed carving. Just drip a few drops of liquid dish washing detergent on the carving, gently scrub it with a soft toothbrush, and rinse it quicky under gently running tap water. I generally use a paper towel to damp dry the carving and let it sit overnight before painting or varnishing. If you are in a hurry, use the low setting of an electric hair drier to speed up the drying time.

8. When is the carving done??!!!

Both beginners and experienced carvers have trouble in deciding when a carving is finished. There always seems to be just a little more cleanup carving to complete, and sometimes a particular carving has been so enjoyable to work on that you do not want to quit. Look logically at the work. Is there anymore that you can do at your present level of skill and experience that will improve the carving? You should be the one to decide. Every carving should be a fun learning experience.

My next article will be on carving a face in Cottonwood bark and will include some step by step tips and images.
If you would like to say howdy or comment on this article please email me at woodchuk@telusplanet.net
You are welcome to visit my website at http://www.agt.net/public/woodchuk/wispy.htm


Tony Wispinski, Hoc.