Sailboat Relief Carving

Sailboat Basic Carving Techniques Tutorial

By L. S. Irish

Learning about Levels


When the rough out of all of the levels in your pattern is completed your work will have
the appearance of steps.

Relief carvings start with the creation of levels in the project. This groups elements and areas of the design into depth layers letting you cut the entire grouping as one unit. Usually a pattern will be divided into at least three levels; one for the background, one for the middle ground, and one for the foreground. More levels can be used depending on your particular pattern and the width of your carving board. Naturally a board that is 2″ thick can handle more levels than one that is only 5/8″ thick.
For this pattern I have divided the design into four levels. When the rough out carving stage is completed for each level the project will have a stepped look with Level 1 as the deepest and Level 4, the highest being un-worked and at the original level of the wood.

Since I am working on a 5/8″ thick board this first level is carved to a depth of no more than 3/8″. As a general rule you do not want to carve deeper than 1/2 the board thickness. This translate to the deepest level on a 2″ thick board going 1″ deep; the deepest level of a 4″ thick board going 2″ deep.


This is your deepest level and is dropped into the wood at about 1/2 the thickness of your board. Level 1 is noted in your Levels Map with blue and includes the sky, clouds, and sun. This particular level surrounds the thin sail line of the Sailboat. This line, the sail line, will require some special attention which is shown on the next page of this tutorial.

Using the bench knife a stop cut has been made along the outlines of Level 1. Each carver seems to have their favorite tool for roughing out, I prefer the round gouge. You can see the gouge marks in the image to the right along the mast line. This tool takes fairly large amounts of wood with each stroke so the carving goes quickly. Work the gouge into the stop cut, this will lift that carving chip out cleanly. Develop your depth slowly. By dropping the level in small amounts you will have more control over the final depth and smoothness as compared to deep cuts all taken at once. So it’s make a stop cut, carve into that stop cut with the round gouge, deepen the stop cut, re-cut with the gouge.

The wood is dropped to the approximate depth that I want, 3/8″ for Level 1 in this example. I can use a depth gauge to check my carving depth as I work. Depth gauges can be purchased through a wood worker’s supply store. If you don’t have one yet get a thin sheet of cardboard such as a cereal box. Cut the cardboard into 1″ wide strips. Along one of the long sides of this strip mark a line for the depth of the level you are carving. Cut off one third of this line, a section on each side of the mid point of the cardboard, leaving a tab section in the center. You can now rest the cut areas (wings) on an un-carved section of the project, dropping the tab into the carved area.

Click the image to see a sample of the Depth Gauges needed for this project.

This sample is not to scale and is shown only as an example.

Once the main roughing out is complete there will be definite gouge marks throughout the area. To reduce these simply re-cut with your round gouge taking finer and finer strokes. Next go to your chisel and skew chisel. These two tools will bring the roughing out into a fairly smooth finish. A favorite tool of mine for smoothing a large area is the Bull Nose Chisel. This chisel has a slightly curved profile with no sharp edges so it takes very thin strips of wood with each stroke without leaving a score line from the corners of the tool’s edge.

Level 1 is dropped into the wood approximately 3/8″, which is one half the thickness of my board.
Careful attention needs to be placed on cutting the sailing line to keep it both thin and straight.

The areas between the mast lines are cut using first a stop cut with the bench knife then followed up with a v-gouge. The v-gouge creates the straight walls along the sides of the sail lines.

The areas between the sails and sail lines that need to be removed are lifted using a narrow round gouge and chisel.

At this stage in roughing out I want a fairly smooth area but it does not have to be either perfectly smooth or perfectly flat as I will be doing more carving in the level area.

The rough out of Level 1 is complete, dropping all of sky, clouds, and sun to one depth.
The areas trapped inside the sail lines needs to be dropped to the same depth as the rest of Level 1.

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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