Canadian Woodworking

Intaglio revisited

Author: David Bruce Johnson
Published: August September 2007

“Intaglio”, the reverse of “relief” carving, is an age-old carving technique. It involves carving everything below the surface of the wood. In other words, intaglio is carving negative rather than positive shapes.

Conceptually, intaglio seems complex. In practice, however, it is quite straightforward. One has only to remember the following guideline: the most distant features are carved first and shallow, while features in front are carved last and deep.

The familiar technique of “chip carving” is a form of intaglio. In its traditional form, “chip carving” is done with a knife and involves the creation of precise flat-sided shapes in symmetrical patterns. In contrast, I have found great pleasure in pieces, like this project, that are comprised exclusively of curved surfaces made with a variety of gouges. The manner in which these curved surfaces reflect light results in a delightful optical illusion that cannot be achieved with chip carving.


Paint surface then trace pattern 

Stem of treble clef is second furthest

Most complex area demands layers

Carving with precision is essential

Wide areas require multiple passes

Carve top half of leaf with #8 gouge

Carve bottom half of leaf with #9 gouge

This leaf shows the intaglio illusion

Use a #11/3 gouge for greatest depth

Carve petals from both ends

Make precise edges with #9 gouge

Carve tail with a twist of the gouge

Drill the flower centers

Preparation and Analysis

For this project use a 6″ x 6″ piece of basswood. I used a piece that was ½” thick although ¼” would have done just as well. To provide superior contrast on the finished carving, paint the surface with black gesso and let it dry thoroughly. Then, trace the pattern onto the painted surface. I positioned the pattern diagonally across the board to make better use of the available space.

Before starting to remove wood, closely examine the pattern to determine what elements are furthest away from the viewer and which are closest. In this project, the stems of the plant are furthest while the flower heads are closest. To ensure everyone is seeing the same thing, the second furthest part is the stem of the treble clef.

Carve in Layers

This project has several layers: the plant stems in the rear, the thin stem of the treble clef, the wider parts of the treble clef, the plant/leaf stems in front of the treble clef, the leaves, and the flowers. Each of these layers should be carved in sequence. Also, as the carving progresses, the features come closer to the viewer and must be carved deeper. I used #7, #8, #9 and #11 gouges. The importance of multiple depths is most evident at the bottom of the treble clef where several layers overlap.

Remembering our guideline to carve the most distant part first and shallow, use a #7/5 gouge to carve the small portions of plant stem that pass behind the treble clef. This is an excellent exercise in carving technique – one must keep both points where the gouge emerges from the wood on its pencil line. Use the same gouge with the same precision to carve the second layer – the thin stem of the treble clef. Carve the wide stems of the treble clef with a #8/14 gouge. Because the width of the feature is wider than the gouge, a number of passes will be needed.

The twining plant, with its leaves, stems and flowers, is perhaps the most striking element of this intaglio project. As such, each part requires special attention. The leaves are made in two layers. First, carve the upper half of the leaf with a #8 gouge. Then, use a #9 to carve the bottom half using the central vein as the upper edge of the cut. This is a perfect example of the “intaglio illusion” – because the bottom half is carved deeper, it looks closer to the viewer.

After finishing the leaves, the stems are incised using a #11/3 gouge. This gouge has a round bottom with pronounced straight and vertical sides. One objective is to make smooth transitions from the #7 or #8 cuts made earlier.

Finally, the flowers are added. Each individual petal of every flower is also made with two cuts – one from each end of the petal. This is necessary because many of the petals are aligned with the grain. Attempting to “scoop” out the petal along the grain would result in the undesirable and uncontrolled removal of a large chip.

Finishing Touches

To make a good impression, a few elements benefit from some special attention. Where features overlap, (i.e. where a #8 gouge cut across a #7 feature), use a small #9 gouge to sharpen the edge. To make the treble clef’s tail, twist your #8 gouge in a circle. Finally, use a small drill (or a Dremel tool) to make the centre of each flower. A deep hole will look totally dark while a shallow hole will look like a button.

I always like to seal the finished piece to prevent any unexpected cracking. For that purpose, I use a lacquer finish. Of course, there are many options like wax or oil. The most important thing is to preserve your masterpiece for posterity’s (and enjoyment’s) sake.

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