Canadian Woodworking

Relief carving

Author: David Bruce Johnson
Published: October November 2005

Relief carving is the use of perspective, highlights, shadows, and texture to effectively create an illusion of depth.


This relief carving of two swans, was designed to demonstrate every element of this definition. That is the ‘what’ we are going to do. The real heart of this article however is the ‘how’, using a piece of basswood that is 8″ high, 10″ wide, and ½” thick.

The process of relief carving doesn’t differ dramatically from carving in the round. Carving is a process of refinement involving a series of steps from the general to the specific.

There are three main steps for this relief carving: OUTLINING, CONTOURING, and DETAILING. Start by transferring the pattern onto your piece of wood. Notice the perspective introduced by making the swans different sizes and by overlapping.

Draw pattern on wood

Outline with V-gouge 

Remove wood with a #5 gouge 

Use knife for sharp corners

Deepest point on carving

Complete oval and depth together

Sand to obscure oval shape

Make smooth body/background junction

Carve front swan’s body in three layers

Round top layer with #5 gouge, face down

Shape primary feathers with #2 gouge

Define top of tail with #2 gouge 

Round cape with #8 gouge

Establish downward angle to join bottom of swan to water surface

Round necks into a half-circle cross-section

Sand to prepare surface for details

Redraw pattern to guide detailing

Carve ripples in front of swans

Direction of curvature

Outline the Swans

Outlining raises the subject matter above the wood surface or, put another way, it pushes the background behind the subject. Use a parting tool (V-gouge) with one side vertical on the line of the drawing. To avoid inadvertently lifting strips of wood, be careful to keep the other side of the gouge clear of the wood surface. Remove wood perpendicular to the outline with a #5 gouge. Repeat this step several times until you reach your maximum depth. Use your knife to reach into sharp corners.

I stopped when the maximum depth was ⅜”. It is important to keep the outline cut vertical; otherwise, the birds will become fatter than the drawing. Also, go as deep as the wood will reasonably allow. A common error is to not use the available wood. In this project, the deepest point occurs where the rear swan’s neck joins its body. This step is complete when the maximum depth is reached and the surrounding oval is created. Add to the illusion of depth by sanding the background thoroughly, making the oval disappear.

Contour to Create Shape

Rounding masses on the swans creates highlights and shadows. Progress from the swans’ bodies to their necks, then to their heads. First, reduce the thickness of the rear swan by approximately ½ the total depth. Then, round its body until the back meets the background smoothly.

The front swan’s body is carved in three layers: the back/secondary feathers, the primary feathers, and the tail/rump. Round each layer toward the top/back. Shadows should cast from each upper layer to the one below it, because the layers are close together. Round the cape (base of neck/back) using a small #8 gouge. Complete the bodies by rounding the rump and belly to meet the background surface at a downward angle. A smooth, angled junction will create the illusion of the swan floating on the water. (Do not undercut this junction. Undercutting would create the impression that the swan was above the surface.)

To appear distant from the background, the swans’ necks must be fairly thin thus preventing a cast shadow. Reduce the thickness of each neck to approximately ½ their width. Then, round the neck to create a half-circle cross-section with both edges perpendicular to the background. The different sized necks of the swans contribute to perspective and the illusion of depth.

Although the swans’ heads are quite small, they deserve special attention. Care must be taken to obtain the desired contours. Because of their importance, the heads can be deeper than the neck without detracting from the overall perspective. The head drawing shows the direction of curvature to achieve the desired contours. Before proceeding to the next step, sand your carving thoroughly. It is always best to have a very good surface on which to add details. Details will never hide surface imperfections.

Details Contribute to Illusion of Depth

In this project, few details are necessary. Add contours to the backs; undercut the tail to create the rump; round the leg of the front swan; and separate individual feathers. Finally, to add to the desired illusion, carve ripples around the breast and in front of the first swan.

Again, sand the carving thoroughly with special attention to rounding the ripples. In the final carving, notice how the initial oval also contributes to the illusion of a water surface.

Finishing Your Relief

To finish this carving, I used a satin lacquer and applied one heavy coat followed by two light coats. I also went over the carving with extra-fine steel wool between coats.

Now, to effectively reveal the illusion you have created, find a location for your carving with light coming from the appropriate direction.

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