Sailboat Relief Carving

Sailboat Basic Carving Techniques Tutorial

By L. S. Irish

Finishing Steps

OK … We’re almost done!

The debate about whether to use sandpaper or not to use sandpaper has long raged through the wood carving community. Those that do not use sandpaper insist that if your tools are properly sharpened you will not need to sand at the end of the carving project. Personally, I agree that a properly honed tool will make extremely clean cuts compared to the tearing that is caused by a dull tool. If your pattern area is large, say a 2″ by 4″ acanthus leaf, the need to do any dressing steps is greatly reduced because you have room to make long smooth cuts.

However, this project has been carved on a small surface with a space of approximately 7″ wide by 9″ tall. The links in our chain are each less than 1/4″ long. This means you have worked very tight areas with little chance to make long clean cut strokes. So I do use sandpaper, fine files, and rifflers at this stage to dress out the work!

I begin the dressing out stage using dental picks to remove the small, fine chips trapped between joint lines. The profile edge of your chisel and even your round gouge can be used to scrap areas that need a little attention. Next I move on to an old stiff toothbrush that is in my kit and briskly rub the toothbrush across the surface of the carving. This cleans the surface of any loose wood fibers. Fine files and rifflers, small curved files, are used to work over the curves, inside the undercuts you made along the edges of the sails, and any tight corners. Again clean up the work with your toothbrush.

At this point in the dressing out stages of the work you will still have some fine stray fibers throughout the work. Around the studio we call these the Dust Bunnies of wood carving. Following the directions on the can, give the wood carving a coat of Sanding Sealer, a product made to stiffen the loose wood chips and wood fibers . Sanding Sealer can be purchased at most hardware stores or wood working suppliers. Allow the Sanding Sealer to dry over night. Using very fine grit sandpaper work over the surface of the carving to remove the last stray wood bits from the work. Sandpaper can be folded to tuck it under areas as the undercut on the sails. It can also be rolled to a point for reaching into tight, hard to get areas. Try folding your sandpaper over a pencil point if you need more stiffness to the tip of the paper. When you have completed this step the entire work will have been lightly sanded removing all of the Sanding Sealer from the wood. Dust the piece!

Now it’s time to decide where you are going to sign and date the carving. There are several options used in the hobby. You can carve your initials or signature on the face of the carving along the lower left edge. You can also write your signature to the face of the carving using a soft lead pencil. Pencil signatures are often used on the back or bottom of a wood carving. Avoid ink pens or markers as they can bleed during the polyurethane spray stage. Wherever you decide, do sign and date your work. It is important to friends, relatives, and wood carving customers that they have an identified signed piece of your art.

Another debate in wood carving is whether to stain your wood carving or leave it in it’s natural color tones. This choice is made depending on the particular wood that you used for your carving and the particular look that you want to achieve. Basswood, the most common carving wood in our hobby, does not stain well. Because it is so soft the basswood soaks up much of the stain leaving the work dark and patchy. If you are using basswood you may wish to leave the work natural or go to artist colors to paint the project.

Butternut, the wood that I have used in this tutorial, takes stain better than basswood but does not stain as well as the harder woods as walnut or maple. I have samples below of this project on the butternut shown both in it’s natural colors and with an oil based stain. The natural carving has a medium silver-cream color to the wood, the grain is oblivious as it moves through each area of the carving. The oil stained sample is much darker than the natural color and the stain has reduced the grain look of the work allowing the detailing of the carving to become prominent.

If you chose to stain your carving do a practice piece on a scrap board of the same wood using the stain that you will be using on your carving! Make a few carving cuts into the scrap and lightly sand the surface. This will insure that the scrap wood has the same carving features and so the same absorbency as your project carving. Follow the step below to test the stain. You have at this point worked for many hours on your Sailboat carving, one more hour spent testing the stain on a scrap board can save your project from possible disaster if your project’s wood does not take stain well.

To stain your carving start by applying several light coats of polyurethane spray to the wood. Allow each coat to dry well. Follow the directions of the stain for application. I, personally, wipe any oil stain quickly after applying it to create a thin coat of stain. If the work needs to be stained darker I can always repeat the polyurethane spray – staining steps in a few days after the first coat has dried well. Let the stain dry well, several days, then reapply the polyurethane.

You’re done! I hope you enjoyed the carving work and even learned a few tricks along the way.
Susan Irish


The carving is next dressed out using dental picks, fine files, rifflers, and sandpaper. This removes the loose wood fibers and chips giving the wood a stain smooth finish.
Sanding Sealer will be helpful in removing the last bits of wood from the project. Apply the sealer according to the directions, allow to dry overnight. Now use sandpaper to tease out any extra fibers.
Click the image for a larger view.

This sample of the project has had several light coats of polyurethane spray applied. This leaves the wood in it’s natural colors.

Click the image for a larger view.

Here the butternut board was stained with a dark oak oil based wood stain. Polyurethane spray was then applied.

1 thought on “Sailboat Relief Carving”

  1. I am taking woodcarving classes at our senior center with an excellent instructor. He is a retired occupational therapist and has been teaching carving for 40+ years.

    I found your website while looking for my next carving project and have found several tutorials that are very interesting. My next project will be your sailboat tutorial. This is fitting since I have enjoyed sailing and am a Navy veteran. The tutorial is excellent, but very long. Is it possible to download the instructions and print them out? I am 81 and find it easier to work with instructions that have been printed.

    I have found your web site to be very helpful and well set up. Thanks for your dedication to woodcarving.


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