Canadian Woodworking

Relief carving

Author: David Bruce Johnson
Published: August September 2005
relief carving
relief carving

Relief carving is very appealing. Wood for carving is readily available, little working space is needed, good results can be achieved quickly.


Relief carving is very appealing. Wood for carving is readily available, little working space is needed, good results can be achieved quickly, and, probably most important, the finished work can be displayed easily (like a painting). In fact, it sounds so good one must wonder why everyone isn’t doing it!

In reality, relief carving is similar to watercolour painting. Many people begin painting with watercolours because they are so convenient and easy to clean up. With a little experience and study, they soon discover that watercolour painting is indeed the most difficult paint medium to master. Likewise, initial relief carvings can be quite successful and pleasing; however, mastering relief carving can be a lifelong challenge.

Many books have been written about relief carving. It goes without saying then that comprehensive instruction for relief carving is impossible in a short article. However, it is possible to provide a good starting point by demonstrating three fundamental attributes.

Before proceeding, it is worth stating what relief carving is. Relief carving is merely the flattening or compressing of a three-dimensional image. Here is a definition to help you get started on the right foot: “Relief Carving is the use of perspective, highlights, shadows, and texture to effectively create an illusion of depth”.

Size diminishes with distance

Overlapping objects


Objects close - cast shadows

Objects far - no shadows

Texture as pattern

Texture as shadow

Texture as shadow

Coin shows relief techniques


An object seen up close looks bigger than the same object seen from a distance. That’s the simplest type of perspective. Basically, perspective is achieved by making foreground objects big, by overlapping objects, and by foreshortening.

Highlights and Shadows

Light is reflected from objects. The object is shaded on the side away from the light source, and the object casts a shadow opposite the light source. Relief carving is very logical. That is, the apparent light source must be consistent throughout the carving and highlights must be opposite shadows. To the greatest extent, the perception of a light source is achieved by shaping objects and their surroundings appropriately.

There are two specific conditions that may not be so obvious. A shadow will be cast from one object onto another when the objects are close together. If objects are far apart, there will not be any shadow. The approach taken to create this illusion of separation is counter-intuitive. In the simplest terms, to make objects look far apart, the edge where they join must be very thin. To make them look close a ‘cast shadow’ is created, by making the joining edge thicker, that is, farther apart. The shadow can also be enhanced by undercutting the edge.


The use of texture in relief carving may not be as obvious as perspective, highlights and shadows. Perhaps this is because the impact of texture is not as obvious as the other fundamental techniques.

Texture can help give an illusion of shape. It does this either in the form of a pattern or by simulating a shadow. A shadow can also be simulated by stippling an area with the point of a nail. In both cases, texture can be effective without any relief of the object; that is, it is not necessary for the surface of the object being textured to be higher than the surrounding material. Texture is particularly applicable to background objects since they are not as deep as those in the foreground.

Putting It All Together

The images on coins are excellent examples of relief, and demonstrate various combinations of the techniques described in this article.

Although the relief work on a coin is only 1/10th of a millimeter deep, the images appear three-dimensional thanks to the effective use of perspective, highlights, shadows and texture.

It may come as a surprise to hear that there aren’t any tricks to relief carving. Instead, a few skills and knowledge are far more necessary for relief carving than for carving in the round.

In particular, one needs to hone drawing skills and be familiar with the science of art (e.g. vanishing points). In addition, a selection of well-sharpened carving tools is essential.

Most important, one must be prepared to spend time planning. As with many other endeavors, it is appropriate to say “Time spent planning is time well spent.”

In the next issue, we will apply the techniques introduced here, and complete a small relief carving project.

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