Carving a sign

Ok, so it’s not an artistic piece or even an architectural molding, but it’s a carving! A friend of ours wanted to place a cap on the sign at his farm. He brought over a piece of yellow pine and a sketch of what he wanted. The top of the board is to have a bull nosed edge to shed water and the letters are the address.

The shape of the board was cut out on a bandsaw and I thought I could use my router top to put on the bull nose. After looking at the grain on the board, I decided to do the form by hand. If I had used the router, I would have had to fight tearout. The bull nose radius was started with a block plane. It worked well as I was able to peel off small portions of the wood and change directions to be able to follow the grain. I used a 2/12 chisel to finish the radius. The 90 degree areas were done with the 2/12 chisel.

The numbers were printed out from a computer and placed on the wood with spray adhesive. Shouldn’t be a problem as the finish is paint. I learned how to use a mallet doing these numbers. Yellow pine grain is tough – compared to the soft wood of the board. I made many an ‘oops’ and really didn’t want the field to be as deep as it is, but it’s better than an uneven surface. Still working on the numbers and field.

One problem I had was with very soft wood in between the hard grain. In the deeper parts of the numbers, no matter how I tried, I couldn’t get a clean cut – the soft wood wanted to scuff up and tear off. I tried sharpening, but it didn’t help. So, some places look like I carved them with a hammer.

I took the sign top to the requester and they loved it (even though I thought it was not so good) and are painting it now. My question is, what do you do about pithy wood in a carving? Should I put a little glue on it to toughen it up? Or am I just not doing it right?

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Putting this knowledge base to use – part 3

Doris, I pushed the carving until I was afraid I was going to crack the left and right edges off! I must say that it really makes a difference. As I cut deeper into the wood, suddenly, I liked what I saw … the carving kinda told me to stop. I stepped back and looked at the piece and decided that the wood knew more than I did. I sanded the carving even though I generally like the tool marks, this speaks more to me in a flowing smoothness.

Doris, I hope I got the child and the mother looking at each other. I believe that this is a product of a lot of elements. The posture of the mother’s body, their head tilt, the flow of the veil, and the subtle change in the roundness of the heads (the face area has less curvature.) Did I get close?

Many areas of the carving were pushed deeper, but the area that showed me the most improvement was the arm that supports the child. Mark said that everything is relational (paraphrased, sorry) in a relief. And that the different parts of the body should be at some related depth from each other. I know that sounds confusing, but when I pushed the end of the arm area deeper into the wood, the child’s form seemed to be better defined and the flow of the robe over the right knee seemed more natural.

Ok, I feel pretty good about this, but I still am very open to suggestions.
If you compare this to Mark’s sculpture, does it appear to be a miniature imitation? (imitation is a sincere form of flattery;-)) The relative position of the carving parts can be seen here.

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Putting this knowledge base to use – part 2

You were right, Doris, there is plenty of wood left under the chisel and I needed it to correct the fold. I tried to practice ‘Learning to see’ by using a towel and looking at the fold and what it was doing. I should have just looked more closely at your carving, Mark. You are right on as to the problem with the bottom of the veil. If I would have folded the towel without a corner showing, the fold line would have taken off in a tangent line upwards under the ‘top’ fold. I corrected the line and tried to exaggerate the ‘S’. There was plenty of wood left to do this. I also changed the way the bottom fold exits by continuing the radius of the bottom fold. I had to shorten a few lines, but I think I’ve got the right approach. Looking at the fold, it is a double ‘S’ – the line of the veil coming from the top of the head going down and the ‘S’ from the top of the fold coincide during the fold. If I’d have ‘listened’ to what you and Doris have published … but I didn’t see it without your input. Next time …. Oh, by the way, it was much easier to carve the fold this way. Evidently carving and mathematics go well together!

I like the balloon analogy and can really relate to it. I’ve worked a lot in ratios, but the balloon makes it seem so simple. I totally agree with the way levels are in carving, especially in this one. There is a continual change from one level to the next, and everything is proportionally distributed.

I like the way you have shaped the head of the mother so that even without facial details, it is very apparent that she is looking directly at the child. I believe that some of this comes from the shape of the veil around the head, or am I reading something into this I shouldn’t?

I’m still removing wood and am working toward the proper depth ratios. I believe that I need to take the body of the child down a little. It’s hard to cut this without splintering and splitting the wood. It’s almost like scraping with the chisel. Push, rotate and lift all at the same time. (I need to do some sharpening on the 2/5, this wood must have some silica in it.) This photo shows the relative depth of the carving.

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Putting this knowledge base to use

For a while, I have been reading and following the carving projects on this site. I now have the time to really get into carving and started looking for a learning project. I’ve always liked the panel that you carved, Doris, but I don’t have a good place to start something that grand. When Mark posted his carving of Madonna and Child, it just hit me. Maybe it’s the time of year, or the religious symbolism or the fact that it’s so elegant in its simplicity – I wanted to try to carve a smaller version.

I went to our local lumber yard and picked up a slab of ‘mahogany’ – it felt pretty light, but I got it anyway. I think it’s actually called Philippine mahogany and seems prone to tear out. It does carve very easily. I sketched an outline of the ‘Madonna and Child’ on a 5-1/2 x 8 inch piece of 3/4 inch thick wood. I used a scroll saw to cut the outline and started making chips. I used these chisels – 2/5, 2/12, 5/8, 8/4 and occasionally a 5/12.

This is what the carving looks like at the present time. (Please click on fotos to enlarge)

I’m having a lot of problem getting the folds in the head-dress looking smooth and flowing. As you can see at the bottom of the head-dress, the folds do not look natural. I hung a towel and placed folds in it to use as a reference, but I’m having trouble getting the contours to flow into the right areas. 

The rest of the carving is not professional, but I feel pretty good about it. This wood is very prone to splitting – have to change direction many times when carving with the grain. The rest of the photos are trying to show the levels of relief in the carving. I had a lot of fun with the knees and bottom of the robe. Maybe I should push the carving more in this area?


I’m not done with the head/faces of the mother or the child, but I want to get you expert opinions before I go too far. Thank you for this opportunity and the time you all take to provide such great instructional material.

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