Bede has a degree in fine art and enjoys carving wood in his free time.
Relief Carving How-To
For many carvers of wood or stone, the human face represents the ultimate frontier to cross. Beyond the complexities of proportion and anatomy, there is the challenge to convey a sense of psychological depth. Despite these difficulties, carving faces is the most rewarding of ventures, as far as this author is concerned. I carved my first facial relief in 1995 during a woodcarving class in Frankenmuth, Michigan. The teacher was Georg Keilhofer, a master woodcarver who trained for six years in Oberammergau, Germany. While I’m by no means a master or even a professional, I’m bold enough to offer a few insights that I’ve gained over the years. This article explores relief carving in general and face carving in particular.
- Wood; I recommend panels that are at least three-quarter inches thick. Preferable woods include black walnut, butternut, white oak, sycamore, and basswood. I personally prefer carving hardwoods for the beauty of the colors and grain patterns. Basswood is soft and requires very sharp tools to make clean cuts.
- Carving tools; I use mostly Pfeil tools from Switzerland. These are wonderful tools but expensive. I highly recommend purchasing fewer tools of high quality than many poor quality tools.
- If you are just beginning, you can achieve much with only 5-6 tools: a v-tool, a straightedge chisel, and a few gouges of medium sweep. I find that a fishtail gouge is most helpful for faces.
- Additional tools include Irwin quick grips, C-clamps, or bench dogs to hold your panel in place.
- A mallet, various sharpening stones, and a leather strop.
- A carving bench is of great utility. The one I have is from Harbor Freight. I reinforced it, added extra drawers, and modified it with a peg-board system to keep panels from moving.
If your overall design is discordant, then it won’t particularly matter how well the faces turn out. Hence, successful relief carving begins with a pleasing design. I find it helpful to look at master carvings, both old and new, and ask, “What makes this work?” Timeless designs are typically well balanced, proportionate, and harmonious.
Like most carvers, I’m eager to start digging into the wood. Nonetheless, it’s essential to pull on the reins during the design process. As the final success of your work depends upon it, refine everything on paper first, even to the fine details.
A good practice is also to bring a drawing to near completion then wait a few days. Observe it with fresh eyes and the shortcomings will emerge. Likewise, an old technique is to hold a mirror up to your work; the faults appear more readily. Alternatively, you can scan or photograph the drawing and reverse it in an image editor. Fresh eyes are essential.
Notes on Facial Anatomy
As this article deals with faces specifically, understanding facial anatomy is critical. The human face is the ultimate challenge for carvers because of its complexity. However, matters may be simplified by realizing a few basic measurements, as the face is mathematically proportioned. These measurements are helpful to keep in mind as you begin the design and refine your carving.
The following images explain some essential measurements.
Tips for Carving a Face in Wood
Certain practices assist the goal of understanding facial anatomy.
- First, buy yourself a plastic skull from an art store such as Blick. Making sense of the bone structure helps to reduce complexity.
- Secondly, draw from a live model, or when that's not an option, attempt a self-portrait.
- Try using two mirrors to study the face especially in a three-quarter view.
- Another good practice is to copy master drawings or photographs.
- Above all, keep at it with practice.
Removal of Waste Wood
When you complete the drawing, it’s necessary to transfer it onto a panel using carbon paper. It’s best to avoid transferring fine details at this point and concentrate on the essentials.
The next step is to remove the wood surrounding the outer perimeter of the design. In the old school of relief carving, there were various methods to remove waste wood. One began by cutting the major lines with a V-tool and setting-in with various gouges until reaching the preferable depth.
For several reasons, I prefer the use of power tools in this stage. My philosophy is that it’s best to employ one’s limited time on finer work rather than on the roughing out stage. Moreover, power tools, such as routers, prevent expensive woodcarving tools from dulling too quickly. Sharpening is time-consuming and eats up tools over time.
Modeling or shaping the wood involves rounding the forms in order to create the illusion of depth. Relief carving is all about creating an illusion. To achieve this, it’s important to think in planar terms. Ask yourself, “What facial features are closest to the viewer? What recedes?” The tip of the nose generally has the first plane, then the chin and forehead, lips, cheekbones, etc. It all depends upon the angle, however.
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As it’s often difficult to understand how spatial planes work, creating a model in clay has several advantages. Wood is precious, so to speak, and you will be less likely to take chances. Clay, on the other hand, is fixable. Secondly, even if your drawing is thoroughly developed, it’s challenging to perceive how the forms will appear in a second dimension. A clay model alleviates this challenge.
When starting a face, I first use a v-tool to establish the shape of the nose. Don’t go too close to your carbon lines, though, as you want to retain a gentle curve as the side of the nose blends into the cheekbone. A major challenge for carvers is the eye and socket. It helps to first establish the brow and then create an “eye mound.” Afterward, create the eyelids and gradually reduce the eye mound. Take your time, though, because eyes so often define the character of a face.
Refining the Forms
This stage is most satisfying in my opinion but requires patience. As in the design stage, using a mirror and allowing a few days of rest is helpful to find faults. Again, look at master carvings to gain inspiration.
In terms of refinement, it’s traditional to smooth carvings with nearly flat gouges rather than sandpaper. Ultimately, this stage is a matter of instinct and feeling. In other words, there are limitations to teaching tricks at this juncture and one ultimately has to jump into it and let practice be the teacher
Lastly, we come to the completion process. My personal method is to cover the panel with refined linseed oil, letting it soak in for an hour or so. I then wipe off any excess and let it dry for a couple days. I sometimes add a coat of shellac thinned with denatured alcohol (3:1 ratio). It’s important to brush it on rather swiftly as it tacks very soon.
If you like, colored dyes are available to mix with shellac. These are especially good for light woods such as basswood or boxwood. Use adequate ventilation with shellac and particularly with colored dyes, and clean brushes with denatured alcohol. I sometimes finish with paste wax.
Whatever method you use, try to avoid excessive glossiness. It distracts from the work. If your work is too glossy, go over it with 0000 steel wool.
Constancy and Patience
Wood is a wonderful material to work with and a joy to behold as the final oil pours over it. The varieties of colors and textures are staggering.
My personal motto for carving is Constantia et Patientia. As Benjamin Disraeli said, “The secret of success is constancy to purpose.” If you are determined to persevere through the challenging moments, the likelihood of success is great.
Constancy is required because the human face is indeed a challenge for any carver. This is especially so in relief carving, as one attempts to create the illusion of depth. While an artist naturally has an easier time with carving, I believe that a non-artist can nonetheless succeed with practice and the understanding of basic principles.
Questions & Answers
Question: I see in one of the images that there are palm handled carving tools as well as what looks like traditional carving tools. Are you using Pfeil "intermediate" size carving tools or "full size" carving tools?
Answer: The first Pfeil tools I bought from Woodcraft were a long-handled set with mallet as well as a set of 12 palm tools. From there I tried the intermediate. The palm tools are wonderful to work with has you have nice control in tight spots and detail work. The tools are expensive but if you're serious about it, then they be useful for a whole life-time, and so are a wise investment.
Question: Between "intermediate" or "full size" Pfeil carving tools, which size do you use? They sell both sizes at places such as Woodcraft in the United States.
Answer: I frequently switch back and forth between the full size and intermediate tools. The intermediate and especially the palm tools are useful when you are holding the wood in one hand and carving with the other. With the shorter tools, one has greater leverage when you can't work with the mallet. Both tools are equally a good investment.
© 2019 Bede
Bede (author) from Minnesota on November 12, 2019:
Hey Asad - I appreciate your feedback and compliment. There's always room for improvement.
Asad Dillz Khan from United Kingdom on November 07, 2019:
Very informative and interesting work Bede. Thanks for this master piece.
Bede (author) from Minnesota on February 02, 2019:
Hello Linda, thank you very much for the compliment. I actually feel quite small in this work, as there are so many great woodcarvers from the past and present. On the other hand, I try to work with a sense of devotion, which is perhaps of greater value at the end of the day.
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on February 01, 2019:
You are very talented, Bede. I love the examples of your work, especially the carving shown in the first photo. Thanks for sharing such an informative article.
Bede (author) from Minnesota on January 25, 2019:
Thanks, Frances – we’re still in January, so I figured it was fine to wish a happy New Year. By the way, if you didn’t watch our little video, it has some pleasant Bach/Gounod with a piano and violin duet.
Frances Metcalfe from The Limousin, France on January 25, 2019:
Happy New Year to you also, Bede!
Bede (author) from Minnesota on January 24, 2019:
Hello Frances and happy New Year! I’m familiar with those misericords and others in England, such as at Exeter Cathedral. The ones at Ripon are some of the best I’ve seen. They are indeed humorous and imaginative.
You were lucky to be in such close contact with beautiful carvings - the English tradition of woodcarving is very rich, even up to this day. France also has a wonderful repository of carvings, as you probably know. Thanks for the comment.
Frances Metcalfe from The Limousin, France on January 24, 2019:
This article was of particular interest to me as my partner likes carving wood and was given a set of chisels by his parents for his 21st birthday which he still owns and regularly uses over 40 years on.
I have always loved the misericords at Ripon Cathedral in North Yorkshire, England, near to where I lived before we moved to France. If you don't know them, look them up on the web. They are full of humour and feature musical instruments which is right up my street! Informative article, Bede.