How to carve a wood relief

Artwork by Lilian Nabulime, 2011.

Wood relief carving has been an art form since ancient times. In relief carving, figures or objects are carved into a flat piece of wood. The general process for relief carving involves removing wood so that the carved object appears to rise out of the wood itself.


By courtesy of Dr. Lilian Nabulime, visual artist and lecturer at MTSIFA

Step 1: Get the right tools and the good ideas

Lilian Nabulime will here show you how to carve reliefs in wood, like these ones.

It is important to have the right tools. First of all you will need different kinds of cutting tools. Lilian is here showing chisels and gouges in different sizes and shapes. Gouges are either U- or V-shaped. The smaller tools will be used for the finer details. Use masking tape to protect the tools.

You will need a set of clams to fix the wood firmly on the table. And a mallet. This can be home-made like this one. You need a sharpening stone and sandpapers with different grades to keep the tools sharp. Lilian will here use 8 by 8 inches flat pieces of wood, in mahogny tree, a nice size to practice your skills.

First, make some sketches on paper. Lilian is here sketching a couple of different looking faces. This of course, depends on your own ideas for creation.

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Step 2: Sketch out the design onto the wood

First, fix the piece of wood to the table using the two clams. Then, draw a simple shape of the face you sketched in the notebook. Here, Lilian wants to make a female face with knotted hair, long neck and a simple expression.

Your idea may change during the whole process, so don’t worry to much about getting the details right.

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Step 3: Carve the main lines using a chisel or a v-shaped gouge

Lilian chooses some appropriate tools and then she starts off shaping the main shapes.

First, she uses the chisel to make a deep cut in the wood. The flat side of the chisel should be up. When you hold the chisel like that, you will protect the areas that you would like to remain closer to the viewer. Alternatively, you can use a v-shaped gouge to carve the defining lines.

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Step 4: Remove wooden bits by using gouges or chisels

In this step, Lilian uses bigger gouges to remove bits of wood from the part of the image she wants to have further from the viewer. Hence giving the sculpture physical depth. The lines made with the chisel in the previous step, makes sure that the shapes you want to keep is not accidentally touched.

When you are cutting, you have to study the grains of the wood carefully. When you go against the grain, it is easier and the wood doesn’t chip. Be aware that the grain is different in different types of wood. If you experience that the wood is chipping, change the direction of the chisel or gouge. If you are cutting with a chisel, like here, larger bits of the wood will be removed, but it will lead to spikes and it is more difficult to control the outcome.

If you sharpen the tools properly, it is easier to work the wood.

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Step 5: Carve out the finer details into the rough carving

At this point you might want to update the sketch on your piece of wood. Repeat the technique from previously, use the chisel or a gouge to make outlines of the more detailed part. Again, think about which areas that should remain. All the time, the shapes that you are leaving untouched, will be in the foreground of your sculpture.

When the gouge is very sharp, the surface you are left with are quite smooth, and you can even retain these markings as your finish. If you choose to cut away with a chisel, you have to be extra careful, and are left with a bit different result, as Lilian is showing here.

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Step 6: How to cut small features, like eyes

Now, Lilian is basically using the techniques she has already showed – using chisels, u- and v-shaped gouges – to carry on giving the sculpture depth and shapes. When making an eye like here, Lilian prefers to use a v-shaped gouge to define the line around the eyes, then using a chisel to carve the eyes smooth. But it really depends on what kind of eye you want.

Here, Lilian shows you how to make a closed and an open eye. She uses the chisel, removes everything except the eyeball. Then the v-gouges to cut the eye open. The closed eye is cut with a v-gouge. Then Lilian uses the smaller tools to make the eyeball.

At the end of the day, this is about using the right tools, carving in the right direction with the right amount of power on the mallet.

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Step 7: Finishing off with sandpaper

In the end, you need to decide how the artwork’s finishing details should be. You can use sandpaper to take away the penmarks. Then use either a chisel or finer sandpaper to get the finish you would like. Sometimes you want to leave the sculpture a little bit unfinished, to let the viewer’s imagination finish the work off.

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Step 8: Some suggestions from the artist

Good luck with the wood sculpturing!

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Videotaped and written by: Thomas Bjørnskau, Editor of

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