Woodcarving Templates – repeated small motifs

There are lots of ways to make woodcarving templates, probably as many as there are carvers. Rarely does one need a reusable template for a one-off, but when the occasion calls for multiples of the same motif, a template really helps. Mary May often mentions templates and frequently suggest getting various materials (such as Mylar sheets) from craft stores. I have Scotch ancestry, and am, shall we say, thrifty about some things.

I find template materials in things that follow me home from the grocery store, such as the plastic lids on many products. Usually these are things in paper or cardboard tubes topped with plastic: oatmeal, dried fruits, etc. In this example, I slightly reduced the scale of Mary May’s Tudor Rose (computers are wonderful), printed out 3 copies and made 3 templates. Simple rubber cement attaches the paper to the plastic, and the templates are cut easily with scissors. Other glue sticks would probably work. Draw around them as many times as you want.  Even simpler still are pasteboard cartons from an even wider variety of foodstuffs; maybe not as durable, but easily at hand.

Simple, easy, and no extra stops at other stores for special materials…
BTW, most of these are of a plastic type that many recyclers won’t recycle.

photo of plastic lids  photo of plastic templates


Resawn lumber – Work in progress

Did you know that mahogany, like Cherry and I’m sure other wood types, darkens when exposed to light? That if you stack up a bunch of pieces and come back to them 2 months later, you’ll find lighter silhouettes of the smaller pieces that were placed atop others?

Yeah, that’s what I get for doing other things… More sunlight will fix them.

All the parts for the project were cut, shaped, and had their surfaces smoothed long ago. I deferred assembly of this “you can do it in a weekend” project until the carvings were done. Now, what’s my excuse?

photo of project parts - carved with tudor roses

The carvings are Tudor Roses. Mary May has a lesson that shows how to carve them.


Resawing – Dueling Saws

Yet two more poor choices to learn from.

a comparison of 2 cutsWhen starting this batch of resawing, I reasoned that using the plain ole rip saw would be OK because it was lighter and easier to handle than the 24″ frame saw. At one point I did show the frame saw to a cut in process but quit because the frame saw had decidedly stronger set and I didn’t want to resaw a resawing cut. Then, along came comments from others about frame saws. So, out it came for the second half of a board.

The saws:

The plain saw is a Stanley rip saw of 1970’s vintage, 26″ long, filed at 5 ppi, sharpened just before starting this recent work. Plate thickness is 0.034 inch. Weight: 1 and 1/2 pounds.

The frame saw is one I built from a Disston 1897 saw cut down to 24″ It is filed 4 ppi and I’m not sure when last sharpened. It has an identical plate thickness of 0.034 inch, and something like 50% more set than the plain saw. (I remembered it as 5 ppi, but it really measures 4 ppi.) Weight: 5 pounds.

The lumber for this comparison is an 8/4 piece of mahogany, 7 and 1/4 inches wide and 32 inches long. The resawing line is right down the middle of its thickness.

shallow angle cut - bad ideaI sawed the first half with the plain saw (marked with blue chalk in one of the pictures). I added something different to the routine … cutting in from the end at a shallow angle. It was not easy cutting from that direction and I broke the “manhandling” rule. Bad idea! I knew from the feel of the saw that the cut had gone a little wrong, but couldn’t see inside to know how it had gone wrong.

When it came time to cut from the other end, I switched to the frame saw. I kept to the routine prescribed in the previous post, without the shallow cut from the end: the saw didn’t fit well in that position.

The difference is remarkable! While heavier, the weight of the saw makes a bigger difference than I imagined it would. The combination of its weight and slightly stronger set made for both smoother sawing and faster sawing. It was almost twice as fast as the plain saw! Better yet, it has far less tendency to wander. The blade, being held taut from both ends has much less opportunity to go its own way.

my 24 inch frame sawTwo more points to add to the learning:

  • Given the choice, use the frame saw. Even though heavier, the weight of the frame saw is an advantage and the blade under tension adds to accuracy.
  • Avoid that shallow cut that has too little guidance and too easily goes astray. Oh yeah, don’t manhandle it.


Resawing again! How to go wrong…

Learning to resaw well has been a long journey. With all the resawing I’ve done, I’ve found it’s very easy to end up with something like this: photo of dished cuta dished out area in one board and an matching hump on the other board. That kind of result is rather minor on small boards, or with stock where there’s ample room for error. But as board sizes increase, so do the probabilities and the scale of the mishaps. How do these things happen and how can they be avoided? I picked up some useful suggestions at the School of Hard Knocks.

Long ago, I built  a couple of wonderful small boats. For one of those boats, I made a frame saw and resawed a LOT of cedar into very long planks. (4/4 live edge white cedar, up to 10.5 inches wide and 16 feet long). Minor mishaps there were no problem because the raw boards had more than enough material to produce two 5/16 inch thick boards.  More recently, I’ve resawn cherry and walnut, but on a much smaller scale for desk boxes. Smaller pieces mean less opportunity to go astray.

Now, I’m working on something larger than desk boxes and smaller than boats. My lumber for this project is 8/4 African mahogany that varies from 6 inches wide to 10 inches wide. I bought this lumber from Steve Wall Lumber in Mayodan, NC. They have 20 board foot bundles that are packaged for delivery by FedEx. I bought two bundles and am delighted with what Wall Lumber delivers. Both bundles contained clear lumber, S2S, in generous widths, and easily 20 bd. ft. No end checks, splits, knots or other defects. None! The only one complaining is the FedEx delivery guy who carries the 62 pound packages up our steep driveway. (Takes too much time to get out the hand cart.)

setting a kerfThe project calls for boards 1 inch thick and 3/4 inch thick. With careful resawing, I can get one of each out of an 8/4 board. OK, scant 1 inch and scant 3/4 inch That’s plenty sturdy enough for a project that is not super critical about board thickness. Scant thicknesses will work. But, there’s not much margin for error. Which also means, no room for going astray. However, the boards are long, up to 4 feet, giving yet more opportunity to go astray.

OK. What goes wrong? What causes the problems? In a single word: inaccuracy. BTW, I used my kerfing plane to establish a 1/2 inch deep kerf around all edges of these boards. That kerf is a lot better at guiding the saw than is a pencil line.

Inaccuracy in resawing can come from a lot of things:

  1. Sawing too long from one position.
  2. Guiding the saw instead of letting the kerf guide the saw.
  3. Being too aggressive with the saw — “manhandling.”
  4. Impatience.

No matter what the cause, here’s what happens. Resawing is always done a little from one side, then a little from the other. Switching back and forth frequently eliminates irregularities before they become bothersome. Imagine the cut becoming off by a mere fraction in one direction or the other. Sawing too long from one side lets the problem grow. Then, when you move to the other side, the saw will take the path of least resistance, through that inaccurate kerf. This results in the saw bowing within the cut, creating a dish on one side of the cut. The longer the sawing goes with a bowed path, the deeper the dish gets. Since you can’t see inside the board, the only external awareness you have about this happening is increased friction. It sneaks up slowly, and if you’re manhandling the saw, or holding it with a death grip, you won’t notice the increased friction until it’s too late.

Once a bowed path gets established inside the board it is almost impossible to correct. So, don’t let it get started.

Frequent direction changes are the most important factor for success. Aligning yourself to the work is equally important. As an aside, unlike the boat lumber that I did with a frame saw, I’m cutting this lumber with a common rip saw. Nicely sharpened, but nothing special. It is lighter than the frame saw and has a broader blade that (one hopes) helps keep it moving straight. No matter which saw, the body and saw both have to line up precisely with the cut line.

Stance: I face the work with my shoulders square to the work piece, so that both arms can move as one. I spread my feet about a shoulder’s width distance apart, but position them in a line with the cut. I’m right handed, and place the left foot forward, with the toe exactly in line with the cut. The right foot is back. Why? So I can use the bigger leg muscles to power the work. Using the legs to rock back and forth is far less tiring than just the arms alone, and leads to better accuracy. In fact, when properly lined up, one could pin their elbows to their side and let the legs do all the work.

BIG problem source: Maintaining this stance from both sides of the cut is essential. Not keeping this stance on both sides of the cut was the biggest cause of my problems for a long time. There’s plenty of room to take this stance from the end of the bench. But walk around to the other side of the board and the bench is in the way. Modifying the stance to accommodate simply didn’t work.  So, that meant turning the work piece so I could always work from the end of the bench. Open the vise, turn, close the vise, saw, open the vise, turn, close the vise, saw. Yeah, it was too much trouble to turn the board as often as I should have. Instead of turning, I was spending too much time sawing from one side. added blocksOften, way too much from one side. Very slight wanderings were not being quickly corrected from the other side. They added up… until…

Fix: I solved that problem by adding blocks to offset the work piece from the bench. I started with one 2-by and added a second one later. (They have pegs fitted into holes in the face of the bench so they can easily be added to the vise space.) Bingo!!! That provided enough space to maintain the correct stance from either side of the board. No more need for turning the work piece. It stays in the vise and gets approached equally well from both sides. Now, it’s much easier to change directions frequently, as frequently as 25-30 saw strokes at a time. The only need to open the vise now is to raise the work piece as the cut progresses.

holding the sawHolding the saw: How to hold the saw is almost as important as stance. The operative word is “loose!” I hold the saw loosely enough that only the webs of my thumbs push forward and the inner parts of my fingers pull back. The saw handle is free to move within my grip. Why? That method provides the least “guidance” to the saw. It let’s those kerfs do their work. Holding the saw too tightly leads one to “manhandling” the saw and diverting it’s path. Holding the saw loosely also makes it easier to feel friction increasing, to know about an oncoming bowed path before it’s too late. Over time, I’ve found a comfortable grip with only 2 fingers of each hand in the handle’s hole. Index fingers and pinkie fingers point toward the blade: same on each side. It is a grip that is very balanced, one that prevents favoring one side over the other and keeps the blade nicely centered in the kerf.

Changing directions: Cutting in “sets” of about 30 strokes from one side and then a set of about 30 from the other side has given me the most accuracy.

Cutting angles: I’ve tried many different approaches. The “cut toward the center from all corners” approach works well for pieces that are almost square. For long pieces, I cut with the saw’s tooth line running at 90° across the board … mostly. The majority of the strokes are straight across the board. But for 10 strokes of each “set,” I drop the handle stroke by stroke until the tooth line is at 45°, then another 10 to 12 at 30°. This deepens the kerf line gradually and accurately.

Keep the cut line high: By keeping the cut line about chest high, the arms are less inclined to do the hard work, and thereby less likely to push the cut astray. Keeping the cut high almost forces using the legs, and when done this way the arms can be kept even and the saw centered on the kerf more easily.

oil-canOil the saw: That’s a small tomato sauce can with a cloth rolled up inside it. It’s soaked with light synthetic oil (3-in-one). A couple of quick swipes on each side of the saw after every few direction changes keeps the saw smoothly gliding along.

Take a break: Sawing too long makes one tired. Tiredness leads to impatience. Impatience leads to manhandling. … and so on. Sawing for the length of an Oscar Peterson album, a Travis Tritt album, or a Beethoven piano concerto is about right. Then, take a break and come back refreshed.

…and what to do when it goes wrong? The easiest answer is to stop as soon as you detect the bowing and go saw from the other end of the board. ~carefully~ You’ll have to saw from the other end at some point anyway. Make it good.


  1. Make sure your heart is healthy enough for resawing.
  2. Work all the way around the board with a kerfing saw.
  3. Mount the board in a vise in the manner that enables the same stance from both sides of the cut.
  4. Develop and maintain the same stance from both sides of the cut.
  5. Hold the saw loosely enough to allow the kerf to guide the saw, not your arms guiding the saw.
  6. Switch directions frequently. Work in small “sets:” 10 straight across strokes. followed by 10 strokes of increasing angle (about 45°), then 10 strokes at a more acute angle (about 30°).
  7. Let the kerfs guide the saw, not your arms.
  8. Switch directions frequently. (90°, 45°, 30°)
  9. Let the kerfs guide the saw, not your arms.
  10. Switch directions frequently.
  11. Raise the work piece in the vise often enough to keep the cut line about chest high.
  12. Oil the saw every few changes of direction.
  13. Take a break BEFORE you get tired, grumpy, or impatient.
  14. For resawing that lasts longer than 4 hours, seek immediate medical advice.


“Words… ” box

closeup of lid inscriptionWords are our most inexhaustible source of magic.

My wife, a linguist, lifelong student of many languages and an English pronunciation teacher was immediately enchanted when she first heard these words.

The box is for her, with two inscriptions making it a very special box. The second inscription is the pair of Chinese characters on the front of the box, her Chinese name. closeup of Chinese nameNo, she’s not Chinese. She’s as Western as I am Hoosier. Chinese people sometimes offer non-Chinese friends an honorary Chinese name. This name is a gift from one of her language partners who lives near Beijing. He bestowed this name because it is the pseudonym of a premier Chinese poet he admires, Yi’an Jushi. A reasonable translation is “Amiable Calm.”

The box is intended as a desk box, something of convenient size for everyday use on her desk. It measures 9 inches long by 5 and 5/8 inches wide by 2 inches high. The box is made of mostly cherry. All of the cherry parts are 5/16 inch thick. The floor is 1/8 inch thin walnut. The finish is wax over shellac, several coats of each, with a lot of rubbing and buffing.

box with thilt lid openThis box uses my current favorite box construction. I like dovetailed corners, but I don’t like butt joints showing at the edges. I also like the floors set in grooves, but I don’t want any through grooves showing. Plugging exposed grooves is ugly to my eye. So, I use joinery that features dovetails in the middles of the joins and miters at the tops and bottoms. The technique eliminates butt joins, leaving beautiful miters and by strategically placing the groove, hides the grooves. Miter tip later…

Lastly, the tilt lid, from Peter Lloyd’s “Making Heirloom Boxes,” makes for easy use. The lid opens to just a bit beyond 90° which let’s it stand open nicely. The hinge pins are walnut. The lift tab is shaped to echo the bottom loop of the “g” just above it. The notch is a simple scoop.

Lettering layout

Which brings me back to the lid inscription, the part that took the longest. The cherry parts were prepped almost a year ago, as was the walnut. It wasn’t until last fall that I got serious about the inscription.

I started with a lettering layout that used all Roman capitals, the norm for so many inscriptions. It was too “flat” for my tastes. I wanted something more flowing and more cursive. My lettering design work went through about a dozen iterations, all hand drawn.

Hand drawn lettering is making a come back on the web, as are hand painted signs in the brick and mortar world. After years of computer drawn fonts and plastic lettering, many designers are looking for something different and more human to polish their designs. So, there’s a lot of hand drawn lettering showing up. Some of it is really good. A lot is terrible! In an effort to draw attention to “hand drawn,” many of these designers go to extremes to make “hand drawn” obvious by making the work wildly imperfect. Too often, the result is hand drawn letters that look childish and amateurish.

photo of carving in progressMany decades ago, I watched my father do nearly perfect hand painted lettering. That’s the quality level I wanted, not childish dreck. A dozen or so iterations later, I landed on the design I like, … and she liked it too.

Now, to carve it.  This lettering differs from most of my previous experience in scale. The lower case cursive letters are only about 1/2 inch high. The Roman caps in “Inexhaustible” are about 3/4 inch high. All are very much smaller than I’ve carved before and I’ve learned that difficulty increases as the size shrinks. Those 41 characters were preceded by well over 200 practice characters. I carved some of them over and over and was repeatedly disappointed. It turns out that “the secret” to success is in how the pattern is transferred to the wood. Most of my practice cuts were done by using carbon paper to transfer the design to the wood and then cutting. It was too easy to be inaccurate. Being off by the width of a half-millimeter pencil line was enough to throw off the look of a letter. Over and over, the results were unsatisfactory.

The answer was to scan the design, make it a computer hosted image, print it out and glue it to the wood with rubber cement. Cutting through the paper eliminated the inaccuracy that was based in tracing and immediately led to good results.

Smaller gouges were in order for this smaller work. For the most part, I used full length gouges, but in narrower widths, #1 1/4 in fishtail, #1 3/8 in., #3 1/8 in., #3 3/16 in. fishtail,  #6 1/4 in. and a set of 6 #8 micro gouges that ranged in width from 1/16 ” to 1/4″.  The #3 fishtail did most of the work.

For those interested in lettercarving, Mary May has several lettercarving lessons at her online school. Albeit, they’re larger, easier to manage letters.

For readers interested in learning really high quality hand learning, take a look at Sean McCabe’s online lettering course.

If your interest is hand painted signs, I’ve found these two links interesting.

Perfecting the mitered corners

Now for the mitered corners. I mark the miters with a standard layout square and cut them by hand with the same fine back-saw that I use for dovetails. I don’t use a miter box for these; just cut freehand, only to the depth needed. I cut just outside the line, leaving about half a kerf-width room to trim. As the dovetail joints come together these miters fail to join because they are “fat.”

Making them fit perfectly is simple. I learned this technique from Doug Stowe’s book, “Simply Beautiful Boxes.” It works like this: When the dovetails are about one saw kerf width from being completely joined, press the miters together (holding square) and then use a very fine Japenese pull saw to cut a simple kerf through the middle of the joint. That effectively trims both pieces. Repeat to narrow the gap. Voila, perfect joint!

Inscription source

Lastly, the quotation for the lid is from Prof. Albus Dumbledore in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows.”

mitered dovetail joints: Fine Woodworking – Matt Kenney – “Two Ways to Build a Box
fitting the miters: from Doug Stowe’s Simply Beautiful Boxes
tilt lid design: from Peter Lloyd’s Making Heirloom Boxes


Carving Sampler – early work

The shop is still too cold for what I want to do next; finish the “words box.”

So, do something else!  There’s been a pile of little practice carvings stacked on a window sill for a few years. All were carved in February to April 2012. The stack made a nice home for spiders, but even they fled the cold. I could toss those carvings, but holding on to them has won out so far.

Let’s see…, if I rearrange them just right, maybe they can be put together as a “sampler,” a lot like cross-stitch samplers.

photo of wood carving sampler; a collage of 15 pieces

Getting them to similar sizes and nesting together was an exercise of time and precision, but work that could be done in a warmer part of the house. A piece of 1/4 inch plywood forms the backing. A rough dab of hide glue holds each. If there is any movement, they might be free to dance around a bit. And Ralph; no mitered corners.  :)  Overall size about 18″ square.

Design sources:

1 “Complete” is completely inaccurate in the title of Koch’s book. It is a collection of 7 carving exercises. Good, but not “complete” in any sense.
2 One of 3 similar books, Wilbur covers a much broader range of architectural carvings than Koch. Very highly recommended.