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What Is Relief Carving?


Randall Stoner Relief Carving with Schaaf Tools

Relief carving sounds like a great hobby to try when you’re stressed, and you might find it relaxing.  However, relief carving or “carving in relief” stems from an old definition that means “the state of being clearly visible or obvious due to being accentuated in some way.”

The woodcarver working “in relief” makes his design clearly visible or obvious in a flat piece of wood by removing the wood around the design. In essence, a relief carving presents a picture “drawn” into the wood with carving tools until it stands out from the background.

Let’s learn more about relief carving by considering unique aspects of relief carving and  the process of relief carving. 

What Are Some Unique Aspects of Relief Carving?

Each type of wood carving is unique in some way, and relief carving has a number of distinctive characteristics.

Unlike several other types of wood carving, relief carving:

Uses a flat piece of wood rather than a block.

Relief carving is worked on only one side of a flat piece of wood. Portions of the surface are carved away to reveal a design or picture, but some of the wood will be left relatively untouched, except perhaps for a light sanding or a finish coat.

Does not alter the basic dimensions of the wood. 

Suppose that you decide to carve a WELCOME sign for the front door or entryway of your home. You choose a flat piece of wood 15 inches wide, 7 inches tall and 1.5 inches thick  As you carve your sign, you remove sections of the background, and vary the thickness of the letters. Your finished carving’s thickness will vary slightly from the original piece, but your finished sign will be 15 inches wide and 7 inches tall.

Ryan Rowicki relief carving a sign with Schaaf Tools Foundation Set

Is classified based on the depth of the carving.

Low-relief (or bas-relief) carvings are shallow, with minimal shadowing. The rule of thumb for low-relief carvings is that the depth is less than ½ inch.

High-relief carvings range in depth from ½ inch to 2 inches. The deeper cuts allow for significant shadowing in the design. High-relief pieces contain extra layers of the design and more detail.

Deep relief carving is the most difficult and usually the most intricate in both detail and craftsmanship. Carvings in deep relief reach a depth of more than 2 inches, demonstrate levels of shadowing and several layers of the design.

Should never be deeper than 50% of the thickness of the wood.

The thickness of your piece of wood limits the depth of your carving. If, for example,  your wood panel is only 1” thick, then your carving will need to be low relief. Conversely, a carving done in deep relief would require you to use a slab of wood more than 4 inches thick.

This rule isn’t an arbitrary guideline. Carving more than halfway through the thickness of the wood increases the likelihood that the panel will warp or crack. That probability grows if your carving will reside in a damp locale or if you’re working with green wood. To protect the integrity of their finished piece, relief carvers follow the 50% guideline.

Tends to be detailed and tricky to carve.

This is a generalization, to be sure. However, since it is essentially a picture carved into wood, relief carving lends itself to lots of detail.  The 3D aspects of depth, shadow and layers increase the difficulty of the carving.

Size can add another level of difficulty. Many relief carvings approximate the size of a painting or framed photo hung for display. Some, however, are carved into large panels of wood. A few even recreate famous masterpieces like Da VInci’s Last Supper painting.

Madcarver relief carving with Schaaf Tools

Requires a range of wood carving tools.

A gifted whittler or chip carver can create beautiful carvings with a piece of wood and a few carving knives. Accomplished relief carvers are no less talented, but they use several more wood carving tools to create their masterpieces.

Relief carvers use knives, some chisels, and a complement of regular gouges, as well as a few specialty gouges. Different tools work best to carve out the background, make grooves or stop cuts around the design,  or match the curves and contours of a piece. Carvers sometimes also need a mallet to make the deepest cuts.

A basic wood carving tool set, a mallet, and a sharpening device provide adequate tools for a beginning project.  As your skills increase, you may need to purchase additional detail wood carving tools.

Schaaf Tools 12 Piece Foundation Carving Set

What practices help beginning relief carvers succeed?

Beginning relief carvers need to follow some of the same guidelines that apply to woodworkers doing chip carving, treen carving, lovespoon carving or any other type of carving. They also are wise to observe a few craft-specific practices.

First, the general guidelines for woodcarvers:

  • Choose proper tools and keep them sharp. Dull tools are harder to use.
  • Wear wood carving gloves to protect your hands from cuts, at least until you are proficient with your carving tools.
  • Choose a piece of softwood that’s easy to carve. Basswood and butternut are popular choices for beginning carvers. Save the hardwoods until you’re experienced.
  • Choose a design that matches your skill level. Starting out with a difficult design will likely lead to frustration and may result in an unfinished project and a discouraged woodcarver.
  • Firmly anchor your wood slab or panel. You don’t want it “walking” while you work on it.

Now, some tips for novice relief carvers.

  • Start with a low-relief project. The deeper the relief, the more complicated the carving becomes. Perpendicular cuts, gradations in height, clearing the background areas--these tasks all increase in difficulty as the depth of the piece increases.
  • Transfer your design carefully onto your panel so that carving lines are clear and your design stands out.
  • Outline your project using a V-shaped gouge. This starts the process of removing the background material and forms a guide for additional cuts.
  • Make stop cuts around the outline of the design. Use chisels for lines and gouges for curves. These stop cuts protect the design from accidental cuts.
  • Visualize the image in 3D as you carve. Account for areas that are shadowed or under other parts. This is what gives the carving texture and makes it look lifelike or real.

One final tip--which no carver wants to hear--is to accept the fact that you’ll make mistakes. Everyone does. You may make lots of them at first. The beauty of relief carving is that many mistakes can be corrected by altering the slope or curve of the piece in the spot where you goofed up.

The Wrap-up

Relief carving is essentially a 3D picture carved into one face of a wood panel. It presents the woodworker with several distinct characteristics and requires a broader range of wood carving tools than some other types use, especially for beginners’ projects

Well-executed projects are beautiful and incredibly realistic, which makes relief carving a hobby worth pursuing.

Randall Stoner does a carving with Schaaf Tools



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