Initial Discussion of Applied Carving
First, why do applied carving? Why
not just carve your design into the wood directly?
It's possible to carve a design
into wood and have the design stand proud of the surface by
cutting back all of the wood except that of the design (this
technique is known as "carving in the solid"). But there's some
problems with that approach.
The first problem is that it's
wasteful of wood. Let's say you want your design to stand proud
by a half inch. That means you have to buy thicker wood, which
is more expensive.
The second problem is the amount of
work required to work the wood down (the area that is worked
down is called the "ground", perhaps a short hand for
"background"). It's also very difficult to get the ground flat
with carving tools. Additionally, if the design is one that
required cutting downward to outline the design, it's very easy
to slip and put a "gouge mark (or ding)" into the ground. It
takes very good tool control to carve things "in the solid".
The third reason is that applied
carving allows for mistakes. Let's say you have multiple things
to carve, such as the multiple shells on a Townsend chest. You
want to carve it "in the solid" and you complete one of the
shells. But on the second shell, you make a bad mistake. You now
have to start completely over. You not only have to re-carve the
second shell, you have to also re-carve the first shell. This
puts a lot of pressure on the person doing the carving so
they're less likely to carve fast or with abandon (which might
be more creative).
And, in general, there's no real
advantage to carving "in the solid". It's true that the grain
will be continuous but with carved elements and the wood that's
generally used for carving, you won't see the grain to any great
Our woodworking ancestors of the
18th Century almost always used applied carving - there's only a
few examples of "in the solid" carving. Our woodworking
ancestors were business people who needed to minimize costs and
labor in order to make a living.
Okay, so we're going to do an
applied carving - what wood do we choose for the carving.
[Answer] We should use a cutoff from the wood that the carving
is going to be applied to. That cutoff needs to be selected well
- you can't just take the scrap. You need to carefully select a
cutoff that matches in grain and color. You want that piece of
cut off to look like it's part of the wood where you will apply
As the wood ages, it will change color. By using
the same piece of wood, you have a greater chance that the
carving and the ground will "age" the same. If you use a piece
of wood from another board, there's a good chance that it will
age differently and will "stand out" from the ground and not
look like it is part of the ground. You may not see this problem
for years. It's really discouraging to see a piece that you put
so much work into look worse with age, instead of better.
when you buy a piece of wood that will be used for applied
carving, make sure you buy enough that you can get good carving
blanks from the same piece of wood. And make sure you can get a
couple of carving blanks from it. If you make a mistake in your
carving, you want enough wood that you can start over and not
have to buy a whole replacement piece.
The next question is "Which way
should the grain of the applied piece run - vertically or
The answer is "it depends on the
way the grain is running on the wood you will apply the carved
piece to". That is, you want the carved piece to have its grain
running in the same direction as the ground. There's a couple of
reasons for this. The first is that it looks better to have the
grain all running in the same direction. If someone can see the
grain and the carving is applied cross grain, it looks odd and
it's an absolute tip-off that the carved piece is applied. You
want your applied piece to look like it's part of the ground -
you want it to look like it's carved "in the solid."
The second reason is that the
applied piece will stay attached longer if it is not applied
cross grain. Wood moves and if the carving is applied cross
grain, the two pieces will not move together but will always be
moving opposite each other. Over time, there's a good chance
that the glue may give out because of this movement and the
applied piece will fall off.
So when you're doing an applied
carving for furniture, take your carving blank from the *exact*
same board as it will be applied to (and choose the piece
carefully), and orient the grain on the carved piece so it will
align with the grain of the wood that it is applied to.
These considerations do not apply
to the wood you use for this tutorial. You're probably not going
to use the shell you carve - it's just a learning project. If
you have one you want to use, it should probably be the next one
All right, now we're ready to do
some actual carving. The first thing we have to do is prepare
the carving blank. I found some scrap mahogany in my shop.
Some of it is 3/4" and some is 1/2"
and one piece is between. I think 3/4" is a bit thick, although
you can thin it down during the carving. The 1/2" is a bit thin
and doesn't give the amount of relief that I want.