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Simple carving techniques for first-timers using a chisel and knives

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As I mentioned earlier...I am just a beginner with carving.  But to get this group started, allow me the opportunity to describe the 4 basic cuts or techniques I used to carve the crown cipher and the other designs.  This is what I covered with my local club before we undertook the actual carving.  Because the pieces are so small, I used Playdoh to demonstrate the four cuts  we were going to start with.  It allowed us to demonstrate in larger scale so everyone could see it.


Once I am done with cut one....please do reply and let me know if this method to describe the cuts translates well enough for the web.  If you guys think this is a good method I will delete your replies and continue with the remaining three.....


So let me begin.


To start here is an exampled of the same cipher on a contemporary model.    It very plainly carved.  And its gilded.




Here is my first try also gilded.





When you download and print the design patterns here




You will notice on the crown design below, that I added some lines and arrows....the short red lines indicate where we have stop cuts...to be explained later.   The dark vertical lines show the wood grain.  The arrows indicate suggested direction for slicing the laser char from the sides of your carving.  Either with a # 11 blade or chisel.  I used a #11 blade.  I recommend you indicate the grain direction on the enlarged designs before you begin...and also draw in where you will place your stop cuts to establish depth....and arrows to indicate what direction you will slice and carve in.  Its just good practice and a great exercise before the wood shavings start flying.  As you can see I only did this for some of the cuts on the crown cipher......feel free to fill in the others on your design sheet before you begin.




Note the left leg of the monogram.  It has an arrow in green.  This is used to demonstrate the importance in cut direction with your chisel or blade.


The playdough piece below represents this same part of the crown cipher.  Notice the grooves I added to represent the wood grain.




When you are slicing with your chisel or blade....I watched everyone in my club group begin.  It is logical that everyone would start with the design right side up.....and start with this leg of the design.  The goal when starting is just to slice away the laser char from the sides of the piece.  Most started slicing off small shavings in the direction shown below.  I did this also.


Its seems like the obvious way to do it.  But guess what happened?




The blade caught on the grain and either split the leg off entirely or creating a large chip along the grain direction which ruined the piece.....time to start again.  Can you see how this would happen?


Some also decided not to slice or chisel away the char as they were shaping the edges.  They decided to scrape it off with the edge of the #11 blade.  Not only did this make a horrible noise...I wouldnt recommend this approach.  It leaves a dirty and rough surface that wont take a finish well.  It just doesnt look good.  Since we are trying to learn carving its best to try cutting or chiseling.  Very tiny thin shavings....dont try to remove too much.  This takes time to do.  Its very delicate work.




Slice in the other direction as shown below.




This may seem obvious to most but it is well worth mentioning.   This completes the first type of basic cut used on these pieces.  Its real beginner stuff but hopefully useful.   Analyze your piece for the wood grain and its direction and pre-plan the direction of your cuts to avoid splitting and ruining your piece.


You can do this ahead of time by drawing arrows on your printed design sheet. 


Let me know guys if this way of explaining the four basic cuts works....if it does....I will continue on with basic cut number two.....the stop cut.  God I love the smell of playdoh!!!!!! :)



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Another way to explain grain is to think of it as microscopic hollow tubes (it actually is) bundled tightly together and running in different directions along the tree trunk/limbs. Now think of those old straw brooms from grandma's day; then think of the wood grain (tubes) as the individual straws in the broom similarly bundled together into a tight bundle. Now imagine your hand is the knife blade; running your hand down the broom starting at the handle and going in the direction of the bottom, your hand runs (cuts) smoothly over the straw (grain). Now try running your hand over the broom starting at the bottom (working end) and moving upward towards the handle, your hand (knife) digs into the straw and can't move smoothly along without breaking off chucks of straw. Grain works the same way. 


When you carve you want to cut with or across the grain and never against the grain. As Chuck pointed out, when you cut against the grain bad things happen.


BTW, Chuck - like the playdo example.

Edited by Jack12477
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I found that with a fresh sharp blade it is possible to cut cross grain as Janos suggest but slicing the edge there seems to cause a high probability of the blade catching on the grain.  At least with my attempts.  And believe me , as a complete beginner I am just getting familiar with the whole thing.  But this is why we started this group....


It is meant to explore all methods with all tools...rotary included.    Everyone will have their favorite.   I am curious what everyone will experience and what their opinions and preferences will be.  


So I urge all of you to start one of these mini-carving logs here when you get your carving blanks.  And let everyone know how it went.

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I have to agree with you, Chuck. I've had the same experience with grain and a knife. Cross grain or with the grain, sharp knife cuts cleanly but against the grain it digs in and causes problems.  And all the guys in my club with 20 plus years carving teach the same thing - in fact the example I gave is from one of their classes. The predominant choice among the carvers I know is basswood, followed by butternut. There's other species but those are the two I'm familiar with.


Rotary cutters are a whole different ballgame. Janos is correct, grain doesn't much matter to a rotary cutter.  But only 2 guys in my club are rotary cutters the rest use a knife or chisel.


Edit: I should mention that the best basswood for us (USA) comes from the American midwest - mostly Wisconsin area. Cannot speak to overseas areas.

Edited by Jack12477
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For our needs basswood is problematic...I did carve one of the crowns in cherry but using castello worked much better.   I have not tried pear.   I have tried Yellow cedar and that works beautifully.  Carves like butter.  No grain at all.  Its a softer wood but very strong.  Hold a clean crisp egde.


I also tried Jelatung and Tupalo (I think thats how you spell it)  Not good for our small carvings though.   Way too soft.


But Alaskan Yellow cedar has possibilities.   I Loved it so much I actually started building another barge with it.   Here is a sneak peek.  In comparison with Cherry version.  If you can get some its worth a try.  The entire backbone is done in alaskan yellow cedar.




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Yes, tupalo is one of the other woods used by the club members. Another is Southern Yellow pine; I tried it but without much success but more experienced carver than me have gotten some pretty good results.  Basswood is good for larger figures, cuts well, tight grain but none of my fellow club members had tried to use it at the small scale you're trying.  Now that you mentioned it; yes, Cherry is another our experienced members have tried.   Me ! I'm still learning even tho I've been "practicing" since 2008. ;)


You model looks great ! And that Alaskan cedar looks nice also. Have to check it out. I have a club meeting this Thursday night, will consult with the more experienced members and see what they have to offer.

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Too yellow...a very obnoxious yellow for my tastes... also too hard for me to work with.  I couldnt imagine carving it.   



But before we go to far....can we move the discussion of wood choices to the other "tool and wood" topic in this group area.  This way it will be where everyone will eventually look for it.   Its too easy to get off track as I am guilty of here too.  


See you over in that topic....I want to keep this one to the carving techniques as much as possible....

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Interesting comment on AYC Chuck. I carved numberboards out of it for our real boat and love the way it works (other than the smell).


Besides it being easy to carve,(and most modelmakers don't have this problem) Alaska Yellow Cedar is very rot resistant. I hope to make trailboards for our Friendship Sloop one day, and that's the wood I'll be using.





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Well I know bugger all about carving, but I have admired a number of Janos's creations over the last couple of years. One that springs to mind is the vulture he carved for Danny's build. I reckon he knows more about the subject than most of us. When this thread started, he was the first one I thought of. I was hoping he would share some of his knowledge, tricks and ideas with us. I'm sad to see him leave. :( :(

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I thought the same thing.   I havent given up hope though.   I thought he would get excited about this and share his experience and expertise by joining in and becoming a mentor for rotary enthusiasts.


Anyway,  lets get this topic back on track without commenting further about it and just hope he see how ridiculous he is being.  I will continue with my carving techniques discussion showing a stop cut for those who are interested.



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The stop cut is very important in relief carving.  It is a two stroke cut that is used to create depth and relief.


If you look at the crown design you can see the cross piece of the letters.  I have indicated a stop cut on each side of the cross piece in red.  




To replicate this in my crude playdoh demo.....I have created the letter A.  Note the wood grain added.




The first stroke in a stop cut is to slice very carefully to the depth you want.  In this case I am creating a cut straight down.  Remember not to try and go too deep on the first try but rather make a series of stop cuts until you reach the desired depth and shape.  So this first stroke if very shallow to only just begin creating depth.




Heres what it looks like in playdoh




The second stroke of a stop cut is to slice a very thin sliver off.  Carve with your blade or chisel towards the stop cut.  A small sliver should pop free creating depth.




Repeat this process until you reach a depth and shape you want....yes I know it doesnt look great in playdoh but you get the idea.  I am using a small kitchen knife to represent my micro chisel or #11 blade.  Remember that the piece is just 1/32" thick so you will be taking it down at microscopic intervals as you repeat the two stroke stop cut many times on each side of the cross piece.




Then start the process on the other side of the cross bar...








Eventually you will have created some depth in the piece and then you could further shape it by rounding off the edges and cleaning it up....



again ...take a look at my first attempt and and how the cross piece of the letters looks after applying stop cuts to each side....then cleaning it up.  I am sure more experienced carvers can do a much better job with it but this particular cut is used throughout relief carving for ship model carvings.  You will use it a lot.  As I did on my paper design...you can mark where you want your stop cuts in advance....they are shown in red on the drawing.  You can see the other carving and probably pick out where I used the stop cut.  I like to plan ahead and mark them out on my drawing.  I like to pencil where all of the overlaps will be and depth is created.  Its easy to lose track when you lose yourself in the carving process and seeing the pencil marks on the carving helps avoid a mistake where you will have to start over.




see my pencil marks on the uncarved half of this piece.  They show where I will use stop cuts.



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Hey Chuck,

I am so glad that you've actually started this basic tutorial on carving. The concepts and ideas that you are implementing in your discussion is rather straight forward and easily understood. Starting the first cut to have a clean stopping point for the inevitable shave insures that you don't overshoot the mark. Now I know that what I want to say next may be a little off but I believe it shares the same concept. Traditional Celtic Viking tattoo designs show where one knot work goes beneath another via shadows. The line that goes above is clear and sharp while the line beneath has shadows to represent depth. Attached you will see a photo that serves a dual purpose. It will show neat lines and shadowed depth areas while at the same time give people ideas for Viking longboat carving.




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