Relief carving is the use of perspective, highlights, shadows, and texture to effectively create an illusion of depth.
This relief carving of two swans, was designed to demonstrate every element of this definition. That is the ‘what’ we are going to do. The real heart of this article however is the ‘how’, using a piece of basswood that is 8" high, 10" wide, and ½" thick.
The process of relief carving doesn’t differ dramatically from carving in the round. Carving is a process of refinement involving a series of steps from the general to the specific.
There are three main steps for this relief carving: OUTLINING, CONTOURING, and DETAILING. Start by transferring the pattern onto your piece of wood. Notice the perspective introduced by making the swans different sizes and by overlapping.
Draw pattern on wood
Outline the Swans
Outlining raises the subject matter above the wood surface or, put another way, it pushes the background behind the subject. Use a parting tool (V-gouge) with one side vertical on the line of the drawing. To avoid inadvertently lifting strips of wood, be careful to keep the other side of the gouge clear of the wood surface. Remove wood perpendicular to the outline with a #5 gouge. Repeat this step several times until you reach your maximum depth. Use your knife to reach into sharp corners.
I stopped when the maximum depth was ⅜". It is important to keep the outline cut vertical; otherwise, the birds will become fatter than the drawing. Also, go as deep as the wood will reasonably allow. A common error is to not use the available wood. In this project, the deepest point occurs where the rear swan’s neck joins its body. This step is complete when the maximum depth is reached and the surrounding oval is created. Add to the illusion of depth by sanding the background thoroughly, making the oval disappear.
Outline with V-gouge
Remove wood with a #5 gouge
Use knife for sharp corners
Deepest point on carving
Complete oval and depth together
Sand to obscure oval shape
Contour to Create Shape
Rounding masses on the swans creates highlights and shadows. Progress from the swans’ bodies to their necks, then to their heads. First, reduce the thickness of the rear swan by approximately ½ the total depth. Then, round its body until the back meets the background smoothly.
The front swan’s body is carved in three layers: the back/secondary feathers, the primary feathers, and the tail/rump. Round each layer toward the top/back. Shadows should cast from each upper layer to the one below it, because the layers are close together. Round the cape (base of neck/back) using a small #8 gouge. Complete the bodies by rounding the rump and belly to meet the background surface at a downward angle. A smooth, angled junction will create the illusion of the swan floating on the water. (Do not undercut this junction. Undercutting would create the impression that the swan was above the surface.)
To appear distant from the background, the swans’ necks must be fairly thin thus preventing a cast shadow. Reduce the thickness of each neck to approximately ½ their width. Then, round the neck to create a half-circle cross-section with both edges perpendicular to the background. The different sized necks of the swans contribute to perspective and the illusion of depth.
Although the swans’ heads are quite small, they deserve special attention. Care must be taken to obtain the desired contours. Because of their importance, the heads can be deeper than the neck without detracting from the overall perspective. The head drawing shows the direction of curvature to achieve the desired contours. Before proceeding to the next step, sand your carving thoroughly. It is always best to have a very good surface on which to add details. Details will never hide surface imperfections.
Make smooth body/background junction
Carve front swan’s body in three layers
Round top layer with #5 gouge, face down
Shape primary feathers with #2 gouge
Define top of tail with #2 gouge
Round cape with #8 gouge
Establish downward angle to join bottom of swan to water surface
Round necks into a half-circle cross-section
Sand to prepare surface for details
Details Contribute to Illusion of Depth
In this project, few details are necessary. Add contours to the backs; undercut the tail to create the rump; round the leg of the front swan; and separate individual feathers. Finally, to add to the desired illusion, carve ripples around the breast and in front of the first swan.
Again, sand the carving thoroughly with special attention to rounding the ripples. In the final carving, notice how the initial oval also contributes to the illusion of a water surface.
Redraw pattern to guide detailing
Carve ripples in front of swans
Direction of curvature
Finishing Your Relief
To finish this carving, I used a satin lacquer and applied one heavy coat followed by two light coats. I also went over the carving with extra-fine steel wool between coats.
Now, to effectively reveal the illusion you have created, find a location for your carving with light coming from the appropriate direction.
Use of Canadian Woodworking's Website and It's Content
This website is presented with the understanding that:
The authors, editors and related web personnel are not responsible for the results of any actions taken on the basis of information on this website, nor for any errors or omissions;
This website is not engaged in rendering professional advice/services; and
Any and all content submitted by this website's users is in no way an expression of the beliefs or opinions of the owners, webmasters, authors and editors.
Canadian Woodworking disclaims all liability for any claim in relation to:
• any matters or factors outside of its control, including the availability or unavailability of the website and digital content due to the availability of the Internet, or telecommunications or other infrastructure systems; for any reasons including but not limited to power outages and maintenance.
The owners, webmasters, administrators, authors and editors, expressly disclaim all and any liability to any person, whether a user of this website or not, in respect of anything and of the consequences of anything done or omitted to be done by any such person in reliance, whether whole or partial, upon the whole or any part of the contents of this website. Please exercise caution when working with any tools or machinery. Follow common safety rules and precautions as outlined in any manuals related to the equipment being used. If advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought.
Use of Canadian Woodworking site and Forum
By posting on this site and forum, the poster grants to Canadian Woodworking Magazine/Website the unrestricted rights to use of the content of the post for any purpose, including, but not limited to, publishing the posted material, including images, in print or electronic form in a future issue or issues of Canadian Woodworking magazine or related Canadian Woodworking products, and to use the post for promotional purposes without further compensation, as well as the right to use the poster's name in a credit along with the post.
CanadianWoodworking never shares, sells or rents your information to any third party without your permission.
This statement explains how we collect information from you and what we do with that information.
This policy does not apply to the practices of companies that CanadianWoodworking.com does not own or control, or to people that CanadianWoodworking.com does not employ or manage.
Information Requests and Use
CanadianWoodworking.com collects personally identifiable information when you use certain CanadianWoodworking.com services, when you visit CanadianWoodworking.com pages, and when you enter promotions or sweepstakes. CanadianWoodworking.com may also receive personally identifiable information from our business partners.
Personally identifying information is information that can be used to identify who you are such as: name, mailing address, email address. To enter certain areas of the site, you will be required to register and provide information about yourself. This information is for the purposes of Canadian Woodworking and helps us to tailor the site to best meet the needs of our audience.
CanadianWoodworking.com also automatically receives and records information on our server logs from your browser including your IP address, CanadianWoodworking.com cookie information and the page you requested.
CanadianWoodworking.com uses information for three general purposes: to customize the advertising and content you see, and to fulfill your requests for certain products and services.
The personal information that we retain is what is provided by you voluntarily. We use it to send you information about Canadian Woodworking and its products or to correspond with you regarding your subscription. If you are a subscriber we need this information to be able to deliver you our product(s) and service your subscription.
By completing a form on this website, you will be able to receive email correspondence from Canadian Woodworking. These emails may include information on upcoming events or special offers for subscribers. If you do not wish to receive email correspondence please email firstname.lastname@example.org and ask to be removed from our email list. Every email that we send to you will include an "opt-out" from receiving future email correspondence.
Aggregate information is information that cannot identify you personally. We collect information on our subscribers that may be used in summary reports presented to our advertisers. This information helps them to better understand our audience and provide advertisements that are more likely to be of interest to you and your organization.
Our intention is always to gather information that will help us serve you better and never to gather information without your knowledge.
As with most websites, we do log web visits. This information, however, does not have a link to you personally. These logs help us understand the needs of our audience and the areas of our site that you do or do not find useful. When you simply browse our site, no personal information is being collected. We may disclose this non-personal information to third parties such as sponsors, clients or advertisers.
Information Sharing and Disclosure
CanadianWoodworking.com will not sell or rent your personally identifiable information to anyone.
CanadianWoodworking.com will send personally identifiable information about you to other companies or people when:
We have your consent to share the information;
We need to share your information to provide the product or service you have requested;
We need to send the information to companies who work on behalf of CanadianWoodworking.com to provide a product or service to you. (Unless we tell you differently, these companies do not have any right to use the personally identifiable information we provide to them beyond what is necessary to assist us.);
We respond to subpoenas, court orders or legal process; or
We find that your actions on our web sites violate the CanadianWoodworking.com Terms of Service or any of our usage guidelines for specific products or services.
CanadianWoodworking.com may set and access CanadianWoodworking.com cookies on your computer.
Cookies are small text files that most Web sites, including canadianwoodworking.com place on your computer. Cookies help us identify your interests. They also prevent you from having to register repeatedly on canadianwoodworking.com or from repeatedly seeing the same ads.
Third party advertising
If you submit your name through a form on our website to request information from an advertiser or third party, canadianwoodworking.com is not responsible for any marketing or other use of your name by that third party.
In certain areas CanadianWoodworking.com uses industry-standard SSL-encryption to protect data transmissions.
Questions or Suggestions
If you have questions or suggestions please contact us.