Relief Wood Carving

How deep do I carve a relief wood carving?

Good morning Scot and Marsha!  Thanks for the great conversation yesterday.  Here are the PDFs that will help you learn how to determine how deep each level or layer is in your relief wood carving.

Two free PDF downloads – Your First Carving and Levels in Relief – below!

While today’s blog topic is about levels and layers in relief carving, the same information can help you as a pyrographer determine the shading levels and layers in your wood burning.  So, please snatch a copy of the these free PDF files and take time to read through the linked projects here of

Free Doodle Patterns, Extra 001

How deep do I cut each level or layer in my pattern in a relief wood carving?

The depth measurement you need for each level or layer in your relief carving depends on several factors.

1. What species of wood are you carving.  Hardwoods as black walnut or maple can stand deeper carved levels than soft woods as poplar and basswood.  The hardness of the wood – how tightly packed the wood grain rings are – helps to avoid excessive cupping and warping.

2. How thick is your wood blank.  You can, of course, carve deeper into a 2″ thick wood blank than you can into a 3/4″ board.

3. How large is your carving blank.  A small blank, 8″ x 12″, is less likely to develop excessive warping than a large blank, 20″ x 32″.  The longer the grain lines in your blank the more likely they are to cup over time.

Free Doodle Patterns, Extra 004

4. What style of carving will you be doing. A simple round-over edge relief carving can be worked fairly deep into the wood, past the one-half thickness rule of thumb.  Since all of the wood grain in a round-over carving is adhered to the wood below it the chances of cupping is reduced.  If you are working an intense under-cut relief carving, you will want to stay above the one-half thickness rule of thumb.  Undercuts create free hanging shelves of wood that are easily effected by the changes in the wood grain of the entire blank.

General Layer Measurements Rule of Thumb!

In general you want to use the top one-half of the thickness of your wood for your carving area.  This leaves one-half of the thickness below the carving to stabilize the board from excessive warping and cupping.  So a board that measures a true 1″ thick can be carved to a 1/2″ depth.

In general your pattern will have three distinct layers – foreground, mid-ground, and background.  Plus it will have one main focal point – a barn, a duck, a dragon.

Free Doodle Patterns, Extra 005

1. Determine in which layer the main focal points falls as this will become your thickest layer.

2. Divide the carving thickness of the wood blank by 4.  This equates to two thickness for the layer that holds your focal point, and one each thickness for the other two layers.

3. So on a 1″ thick board, you will be carving 1/2″ deep.  Divide the 1/2″ by 4 equals 1/8″ per layer.  That’s 1/8″ for the foreground, mid-ground, and background.  Now add the extra 1/8″ to the level or layer that holds the focal point, making it a 1/4″ thick layer.

4.  An example is a barn scene where there is a fence line and mail box in t he foreground, a bank barn with silos in the mid-ground, and a tree line and second fence in the background, worked on a 1″ thick board.  The focal point of the pattern is the bank barn in the mid-ground level.  This equals 1/8″ for the foreground mail box layer, 1/4″ for the bank barn mid-layer, and 1/8″ for the background tree line.

5.  The fourth layer or level is called the sky area or sky line.  This area of carving is usually extremely shallow, a simple 1/16″ rolled-over edge for mountains and trees, and can be carved on the top surface of the remaining 1/2″ thickness of the wood.

Please learn more with these links!

Working with Levels – Simplifying a Pattern into Basic Areas

Simplifying a Pattern into Basic Areas in Relief Wood Carving

Determining The Depth Of The Levels

Levels in Relief Wood Carving

These links will add four more free Lora S Irish patterns to your Artist’s Morgue File!


Free Wood Carving PDFs

Your First Carving by LS Irish 
Let’s take a quick look at the carving tools, sharpening tools, general supplies, and wood that you will be using in your wood carving craft.

Working with Patterns
Band Saw cutting your wood
Five Basic Steps to relief carving
Basic Tools and Cuts
And three free patterns to get your started




Levels in Relief Wood Carving
Looks look at what appears to be an intrigue, complicated landscape to discover how easy it is to determine your foreground, mid-ground, background, and sky areas of the pattern.

Free Relief Carving Tutorial

free wood carving wood spirit project

I want to take a moment and thank Fox Chapel Publishing, and the Wood Carving Illustrated Magazine forum’s moderator BobD for helping me get the Relief Carving Wood Spirit Grape Man WIP tutorial re-posted with all of the original images, photos, patterns, and guides.

I am grateful for the privileged that BobD has granted me, that of “super moderator” status, which allowed me to go over the normal posting levels so that you could have the entire thread back together at one time, ready for you to begin carving.

It was originally posted in 2006 and during the forum crash lost the photo content of the project.

On 12/26/2017 I was able to re-upload the project in its entirety – 262 steps, 351 photos, and lots of great ideas and comments from the forum members that worked along with me.

If you have any questions, please post them to this thread. Please include the number of the post, which is in the upper right hand corner of each post, and if appropriate the photo number so that I can know exactly where you are in the project.

Over the next few weeks I will be working on re-posting the photos to some of the other in-depth projects that Fox has allowed me to share here with you.

Please be patient as I think there are more than a dozen large tutorials and quite a few small step-by-step to redo.

Go to:
Log In: Create an account so that you can view the images and post comments.
Scroll down to: Wood Carving tutorials
Click on: Relief Carving Wood Spirit Grape Man WIP

See ya there!  Lora Irish

Weekend Whittler #002

Weekend Whittler Wood Carving Newsletter, 2014, Issue #002

Carving Tool Handle Styles

Carving tools come with a variety of tool handle styles, let’s take this time to look at the most common and their specific uses. Shown in the photo above, left to right: palm grip, long straight handled, palm grip, tapered grip, and ergonomic.

Palm handles have a short length from the shaft of the cutting blade and end with a wide, bulbous shape that fits in the center of the palm. The weight of your entire arm from the elbow through the hand is directed by the palm handle into the push cuts of the tool. Palm tools are perfect for long, straight, deep cuts that need a little extra pressure.

Straight handled or long handled tools are griped with the handle reaching across the diagonal of the cutting hand palm. The handle is often 3/4″ or wider in diameter to insecure a solid grip. This handle grip places the cutting stroke in the hand and wrist and gives you total control over small, short, and delicate cuts.

Pencil handled styled carving tools have a wooden or plastic handle approximately 1/2″ in diameter or less, much like a large kindergarten style pencil. These narrow long handles are great for very fine detail work because they are very responsive to small changes in your hand position against the wood.

Thick, long, straight handles are used on carving tools to be worked with a leather or rubber mallet. The extra width prevents the handle from cracking after repeated mallet hits. Often a mallet handle tool will have one or more metal bands at the top of the handle to add more strength.

Ergonomic tool handles are becoming more readily available for the hobby carver. This style is formed to fit within the spaces of your fingers to give a stronger grip during use.

Ergonomic handles are not for everyone, they are not a one size fits all shape.If you have an average or large sized hand they work nicely, but often those with small hands will find the finger shapes along the bottom edge of the handle are too widely spaced for comfort.

Most wood carvers will have a variety of tool handles in their carving kit, ready for use for each of the different types of carving needed to complete a project. There are several excellent beginner/intermediate tool sets on the market that can get you started.

No matter which handle style you chose you can increase your gripping power by adding one or two wraps of flexible self-adhesive bandage around your tool handle. It is easy to apply, easy to remove, and if you have arthritis it can make carving much more comfortable for your fingers and joints.


wood carving setail bench knife

If you would like to comment on this issue of the Weekend Whittler Wood Carving Newsletter, please email our studio.
Copyright, Lora S. Irish, Art Designs Studio, 2014, All International Rights Reserved
Chip Carving Basics E-Project by Lora IrishFor more great e-Projects & e-Books visit

Chip Carving e-Project by Lora Irish

37 page, PDF file format, e-project and the
full cp015 Chip Carving Pattern package
with 100 ready -to-print chip carving patterns.

Supplies needed for chip carving
Creating basswood chip carving practice boards
Knife sharpening
Transferring a chip pattern to your board
Styles of chips – triangles, square, straight-wall,
curve-edge, free form, and accent chips

Work a set of chip progressions


Wood Carving Celtic Dragon 3

Over the last two days we have worked on a relief wood carving project featuring a Celtic knot dragon pattern.  Today we will walk through the simple and easy painting steps to give this basswood carving the look of stone.

Wood Carving Celtic Dragon 1
Wood Carving Celtic Dragon 2
Wood Carving Celtic Dragon 3

Celtic Dragon Wood Carving by Lora IrishPreparing the carving for painting

14.  Basswood is an easy to carve wood that has a very clear, white coloring.  Because basswood is very porous it is does not take oil based stains well without the use of a pretreatment sealer as polyurethane or spray sealer.  For our project I used acrylic craft paints to create the stone effect.


Acrylic craft paints in:
Titanium White
Carbon Black
Payne’s Gray
Burnt Umber
Burnt Sienna
Driftwood oil stain
Water bowl
Glass tile, palette paper, or tin foil
Paper towels
Clean, soft cloth
Assorted soft-bristle paintbrushes
Splatter brush or old toothbrush
Masking tape or painter’s tape
220-grit sandpaper
Polyurethane spray sealer

More information on painting your wood carvings.

using a primer coat when painting a wood carvingPrimer coat for relief wood carving

15.  Begin by using painter’s tape along the uncut 1/4″ margin surrounding the carving.  Cut long pieces, place into position, and press firmly.  The painter’s tape will protect these areas from coloring.

Place a small amount of titanium white, Payne’s gray, and burnt umber on a glass tile. Thin each color with an equal amount of clean water.

Brush two wash coats of titanium white on the carved area of the plaque. Because you mixed equal parts paint and water, this coat will not give full, solid coverage.

While the titanium white coats are still damp, pick up a small amount of Payne’s gray and mix it with the titanium white on your tile. Working along the diagonal of the plaque,  brush a few random strokes of the gray/white mix over the white background. Pick up a little more Payne’s gray, mix it with the titanium white on your tile, and apply it to the carving.

Next, add a small touch of burnt umber to the gray/white mix and repeat. Add a small amount of burnt sienna to the mix and repeat. Your background should now contain many  shades of white, gray, and brown. Allow these coatings to dry for about half an hour .

splatter painting a relief wood carvingSplatter the carving with fine paint dots

16.  Clean your glass tile, and then place a small amount of each paint color on the tile. Do not thin these colors with water. Working one color at a time, use an old stiff toothbrush or splatter brush to splatter a coat of each color on the carving.  Do this by picking up a small amount of color on the end of the splatter brush. Hold the brush a few inches from the surface of the carving, and pull your thumb across the top of the brush. This action will spray a fine mist of paint drops over the carving. Thin the paint with a few drops of water if you wish to create a fine spray with small droplets.

Painting the routed border

17.  Remove the tape from the edges of the carving. Brush two thinned wash coats of titanium white on the routed border edges of the plaque. Streak this area with a mix of titanium white and Payne’s gray, just as you did with the center of the carving. Allow the carving to dry overnight.

Creating a vintage look to your painted carving

18.  After you have completed the painting steps and allowed the paint to dry , sand the carved areas, background, and routed edges of the plaque using 220-grit sandpaper to remove some paint from the high areas of the carving. Sand lightly in some areas to remove one or two layers of color; in other areas, sand the carving back to the raw wood. Clean the dust from the board using a soft, dry cloth.

Seal the work with two coats of polyurethane spray sealer. Allow the sealer to dry thoroughly. Following the manufacturer’s instructions to apply an oil-based stain to the carving . Wipe away the excess oil stain with a soft, clean cloth. Allow the stain to dry overnight. Seal the work with one to two light coats of polyurethane spray sealer. Remember to sign and date the back of the plaque when finished.

I hope you have enjoyed this in-depth step-by-step free relief wood carving project and will take the time to browse through the other free online relief carving projects by Lora Irish that we have posted on our blog.

Thank you for visiting – Lora Irish!

Lora Irish celtic knot pattern 129_150x150 Celtic knot patterns by Lora S Irish
Celtic Crosses Celtic Dragon Knot Celtic Knots 2

Celtic Knot Carving Patterns by Lora S Irish,

Celtic Dragon Wood Carving by Lora Irish

Wood Carving Celtic Dragon 2

We are working on a beginner level relief wood carving project with a free Celtic knot dragon pattern by Lora S. Irish.  Yesterday’s post worked through the basic tool kit, preparing your basswood board, tracing your pattern, and rough cutting the background area using a bench knife stop cut and the round gouge.

Today we will work on the general shaping steps, how to smoothly contour the dragon body, and using the bench knife to cut detail lines into the relief wood carving.

Wood Carving Celtic Dragon 1
Wood Carving Celtic Dragon 2
Wood Carving Celtic Dragon 3

general shaping of a reliefwood carvingGeneral shaping of the dragon body

5.  Any celtic knot pattern is created with a line that is knotted in an up-then-down pattern.  The line crosses over itself multiple times.  In our Celtic Knot Dragon pattern, by Lora Irish, the body of the dragon goes from the head under the tail, behind the front leg, under the tail again, behind the back leg, under the tail a third time, then it becomes the tail section that crosses over the body at the neck.

6.  On your pattern, with a pencil, mark each of the cross-over areas of the dragon body.

7.  Using either the bench knife or v-gouge cut a v-trough in the area of the dragon along the cross-over lines, in the background or under-tucked area of the body.  Example, where the tail crosses over the neck, the neck area is cut with the v-trough.

using a straight chisel to shape a relief wood carvingGeneral contouring with a straight chisel

8.  With a straight chisel or skew chisel, cut along the outer edge of each body area of the dragon.  You are carving away the sharp edge of the wall to begin giving your dragon body a curved contour.

Work with the grain of your wood as you shape the outer edges of each area.  Begin the cutting stroke so that the tool runs parallel with the grain and cuts away from the open ends of the grain line.  Turn your board as necessary.  More about Working with the grain of your wood.

Work the eyes, tongue, and teeth in the same manner.

using a v-gouge in relief wood carving using a straight chisel to round over a relief wood carving shaping a relief wood carving with a straight chisel
A v-gouge is used to cut a v-shaped trough along the pattern line that separates one area of the relief carving from another. Hold the straight chisel at an angle along the straight wall edges of each element.  Cut a thin slice.  Work with the grain of the wood to create the cleanest cuts. Lay the chisel with the angle of the cutting edge against the wood for thin slices.  For deep, thick slices use this tool with the angle of the edge up.









Irish_celtic06Smooth the dragon body into a clean, even curve.

9.  To smooth the dragon’s body use your straight chisel or skew chisel held at a very low angle to the wood.  Dropping the chisel as close to the wood as possible allows you to shave extremely thin slices of wood.  Work this step until all of the wood in the dragon has been shaved, do not leave any area uncut or at the original wood plaque surface.

The original wood surface has a different texture and feel than those areas that we have cut.  This difference will visually show after the work is complete and can create a problem during the painting and staining steps as each area will accept coloring in a different way.  Make it a habit to cut the entire wood surface during the smoothing steps.

10.  Basswood has several outstanding qualities that make it a great beginner carving wood.  It is a tight, even grained wood that has a clear, white coloring.  Although it is classified as a hardwood it is easy to cut and take the finest detailing well.  This means that you, as a beginner, have the opportunity to learn how to use your tools, how to make your relief carving strokes, and how to work through the level changes of a relief carving.

Because basswood is an easy cutting wood it often leaves small fiber of loose wood grain after the cut is complete.  I call them Fuzz Bunnies!  To remove these left-over wood fibers re-cut where necessary with your bench knife or chip carving knife.

11.  Using 320-grit sandpaper lightly sand your carving to give a final, smoothing to the work.  You can also use rifflers, small profile-shaped files that fit into the deep edges, sharp angles, and undercuts of a relief wood carving.  Wipe any dust from the carving with a clean, dry cloth.

As your hobby grows you will advance into other woods as maple, walnut, and mahogany.  Because these woods are harder surfaced they seldom need intense sanding, the shaving steps give a clean finish to the work.

v-gouge detailing in a relief wood carvingAdding the detail lines to the dragon

12.  With a pencil mark the areas from the pattern onto your dragon carving for the inner detailing.  You can cut your pattern into small pieces.  Tape those pieces into position on your carving and slide a small piece of graphite paper underneath to make the tracing.

13.  Using either the stop cut made with a bench knife or the v-gouge, cut along the traced inner detailing lines.  If you chose the v-gouge cut the v-trough detail line in several light, shallow passes.  This slowly lowers the line and avoids the corners of the cross hatched areas to chip out.

14. Chip outs happen.  If your tool lifts a corner of wood or complete pops the corner off the board, reset that chip by licking up a small amount of yellow wood glue on the end of a toothpick.  Place the glue dot onto the wood where the chip came off, and place the chip into position.  With a water damp brush clean up any glue that seeps from underneath the chip.  Allow the glue to dry for about 15 minutes.  You are ready to continue carving.

straight chisel shaving in wood carving relief wood carved flower pattern carving detail lines using a round gouge
Shaving can be done using a straight chisel or round gouge.  Hold the tool low to the wood to cut very thin slices of wood. Check your carving for any loose wood fibers, rough cut corners, and harsh contours.  Use 320-grit sandpaper to lightly smooth the finished carving. A v-gouge is used to cut thin, detailing lines into your carving.  Use light pressure and recut the v-gouge lines as necessary to slowly drop the depth of the lines.









Irish_wood_flowerThe woodcarving steps for this Celtic Knot Dragon pattern by Lora Irish are complete.  You can leave your carving in the wood finish coloring or join me tomorrow as we work though the painting technique to create a stone-look to this relief carving.  Thank you for joining me today, Lora Irish.

While you wait for tomorrow’s post, here is the practice flower pattern that you can use in your free relief wood carving project.

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