Carving Techniques


There are four simple stages to any carving project, whether it be chip carving, relief carving or sculpture, and it is essential that each one is completed before the next is undertaken.

Stage 1 Drawing

An outline is all that is initialy requred. However, time should be taken to get the drawing precise.

You would not endeavour to cut a dovetail until it had been corectly market out.

2: Construction and Cutting Out

The foundations for the carving are made. If boards neet to be glued together to form the required thickness then the joints should be clean.

When cuting the carving blank out be as accurate rate as possible. 

Stage 3: Roughing In

The overall shape should now be achieved with the carving chisels. Remove the timber in unwanted areas, defining the high and low levels. It sometimes helps in the early stages to mark the high spots with a cross.

Stage 4: Adding Details

Draw the details on to the ‘roughed in’ shape. Take your time as it is important here to ensure that the drawing is IsS accurate, The result of the carved detail wil be a direct reflection of this. 

Remember each stage must be completed before the next is undertaken, It is futile adding details to areas before the entire shape has been formed. 

After all, you would not ice a cake before you had cooked it


Semetimes it is necessary for turned projects to be marked out into vertical sections, forming a foundation for further marking out to take place.

It is imperative that these lines are accurately vertical. If they are slanted, the finished carving will appear to be leaning to to one side. A simple technique to aid this marking out process is to fix two nails into the end grain on either end of the turning, making sure they are located exactly in the centres. Then tie a length of thin string around one of the nails (a kite string is ideal).

Wrap the other end of the string tightly around the opposite nail so it becomes taught along the length of the blank.

The method for marking out turnings. Left: a candlestick; right: a barley twist.

Next, adjust the string so it appears to divide the turning exactly down the middle and mark this line with a pencil. You should use dividers and mark the appropriate number of divisions around the circumference of the turning, ensuring that they are all perfectly equal. This may take a little time. However, your precision at this stage will be evident in the finished carving. Convert these divisions into vertical lines by moving the string for each division being dliligent about forming a perfect line of symmetry before marking it with a pencil.

This method of marking out is ideal for barley twist carvings. Rather than using the string vertically, use it to wrap around the turning to form the line of the twist, You can adjust the string to ensure all twist divisions are equal and then mark it out with a pencil. The pencil line is then used to form the valley with a rounded surform and the high ridges can be rounded with your chisels.


Certain relief carvings and in in particular, three-dimensional carvings, often require all surplus timber to be removed process known as ‘backing off. The example in the photograph shows this technique being carried out on the wing of the griffin. On the right you will also see an example of eighteenth-century carved leaf work that appears to be extremely delicate.

However, as a result of the backing off being carried out correctly, the carving is surprisingly strong.

This process is carried out by placing the carving upside down on an old cushion or material so as not to damage the surface details. Hold the carving securely with one hand and using chisel No, 1, carefully remove any surplus timber that was not previously accessible.┬áRemember always to cut away from the hand holding the carving and only remove tiny slithers of timber at a time with the minimum of force. Obviously, this process can be extremely hazardous so make sure you are in control of the chisel at all times – one slip could lead to a nasty cut.

The general idea is to remove timber without making the carving too weak. In the photograph below only the very tips of the carvings have been reduced to a fine point, with the bulk of timber remaining out of sight.

Backing off. Notice how delicate the wing appears from the front. The leaves on the right are examples of eighteenth century carvings showing how backing off produces very fine edges.