By L.S. Irish
If you have ever helped your grandmother make holiday sugar cookies you have probably seen her rolling pin that has designs cut down into the surface of the wood. After the cookie dough has been flattened on the floured board she would run the rolling pin over the sugar cookies leaving behind wonderful little pictures in the dough. The rolling pin is an example of intaglio carving. As with incised carving the main design is carved into the surface of the wood leaving the background of the design at the original wood surface level. Antique butter presses and sealing wax stamps are other examples of this carving technique.
With low and high relief carving the main design is the positive image or the highest surface that is left after the carving work is done. Intaglio carving uses the reverse technique to produce the image effect. Here, the main image is the negative areas of the work, instead of the background being carved away it is the design the you remove.
Intaglio takes this reverse carving technique to greater detail than does incised work. Each area of the image is carved and molded into three dimensional looks. Flower petals curve and leaves twist, yet instead of coming toward you they recede into the depths of the wood. Fine intaglio is best done when the depth of the design is exaggerated. Make each area of the image reach down into the wood, away from the original wood surface, to emphasize this style.
Curved gouges, v-gouges, and skews are the main tools with intaglio. A bench knife will be an benefit to your tool kit especially for the deep detail lines that connect individual parts of the pattern. As with any carving work, sharpen your tools often. Take small shallow strokes to develop the design slowly. More than any other technique, with intaglio it is easy to take away the wood but very hard to put it back if you have removed too much of the surface.
This is an excellent carving technique for any paneled wood element in furniture making. Since most of the original wood surface remains after the designs is completed, intaglio carvings allows for routed edges, moldings, and panel insert areas easily. Box fronts and bureau drawer fronts are especially suited furniture elements for intaglio carving. Since the main carving is hidden within the depths of the wood surface, over many years of normal use the design that you have spent hours and hours carving will receive very little damage. Although one hundred years from now the corners of the jewelry chest may be dented or scared you carving will still be pristine.