Basic Relief Carving

Basic Relief Carving

This article describes relief carving in the medium of wood, although relief carving is also done in stone and other materials. Relief carving, when done in stone, is usually referred to as relief sculpture.

Relief carving is a type of wood carving in which figures are carved in a flat panel of wood. The figures project only slightly from the background rather than standing freely. Depending on the degree of projection, reliefs may also be classified as high or medium relief.

Relief carving can be described as “carving pictures in wood”. The process of relief carving involves removing wood from a flat wood panel in such a way that an object appears to rise out of the wood. Relief carving begins with a design idea, usually put to paper in the form of a master pattern which is then transferred to the wood surface. Most relief carving is done with hand tools chisels and gouges which often require a mallet to drive them through the wood.

As wood is removed from the panel around the objects traced onto it from the pattern, the objects themselves stand up from the background wood. Modeling of the objects can take place as soon as enough background has been removed and the object edges are trimmed to the pattern lines.

In order to secure the work, a workbench with fixtures like bench-dogs, carver’s screws or clamps, is necessary. Carving tools come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, some aimed strictly at the hobbyist, but others directed at professional carvers. Some carving tools are held with one hand while the carving is held in the other. But most relief carving requires that the wood panel be secured so that both hands may be on the carving tool.

Much of the skill required for relief carving lies in learning to grip and manipulate tools to get the desired effect. Tool sharpening is also a necessary skill to learn, and dull tools are a severe obstacle and safety hazard to effective carving.

Relief Carving Tools

Stages of relief carving

  1. Create a pattern, drawn on paper.
  2. Prepare a wood panel for carving. This may be a single piece of wood or a laminated panel.
  3. Transfer the pattern to the panel, using carbon paper as the transfer medium.
  4. Remove wood around the objects that comprise the pattern.
  5. Model the objects
  6. Detail the objects
  7. Tidy the background behind the objects
  8. Apply a suitable finish to the panel

Styles of relief carving

  1. High relief, usually between 1/2″ and 2″ in depth.
  2. Bas relief, or Low relief usually under 1/2″ in depth.
  3. Deep relief, usually over 2″ in depth.
  4. Pierced relief, where holes are carved clear through the wood

Some carvers prefer to finish their carving with a clear finish. But others incorporate color and pyrography into their relief carvings.

Source: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Reader’s Comments

A few weeks ago, when I posted my story of how I got into woodcarving I invited all of you to send in your stories as well.  Well Dick Bonewitz from Carmel, Indiana took me up on my offer and sent in his story this week, and it goes like this:

“Bob, I thought I would share a little bit of my story.    I took up carving about 35 years ago, but didn’t do anything serious until about 12 years ago.   I joined our local carving club, Circle City Carvers in Indianapolis.    During a visit to Branson Mo. I heard about the Ozark Woodcarving Seminar held each year in Springfield Mo.    That seminar has changed my entire carving experience and introduced me to so many instructors and types of carving.  I encourage all to check it out.

After carving numerous Santa’s, animals, western men and Indian busts, I wanted to try something different.  I love watching birds and seeing the variety and vibrant colors God put on them.    Thus my new venture into bird carving.  I have purchased a Ram micro  power carving unit and a table top dust collector.   With a ceramic model of a Cardinal, and a Tupelo roughout both purchased from Josh Guge, I am embarking on a new adventure and challenge.   I am getting a couple of days of instruction from Josh, prior to taking his 5 day class in Springfield next March.

I have also found some great books on power and bird carving as well as good resources on Google and Utube. 

My first bird may not be blue ribbon winner (yet to be seen), but my first two Santa’s were really bad and I kept trying.  We all start somewhere, so I’m enjoying this new challenge.

Dick Bonewitz

Carmel, In”

A very interesting story, Dick!  Thank you for sending it in.  As you found out, joining a woodcarving club and taking carving seminars are two of the best ways to improve your wood carving skills because they take you down so many new avenues and open so many opportunities.

Bird carving is a whole different way of carving in unto itself but I think you will enjoy your new venture, and it seems you are on the right track there by getting some lessons, taking a class and watching videos.  I’m sure you will do well and hope you will send us some photos.

My good friend Tracy Czajkoski also sent in the story of her journey into woodcarving and writes:

“It really started when I first admired a wood carved Indian head woggle (neckerchief slide) that my Dad carved in boy scouts. He was 13 years old at the time. He gave it to his grandson (my nephew) when he became an eagle scout. He wore it in his court of honor ceremony I attended. It’s really cool and really good!

Not long after the eagle scout ceremony, I was kicking around in my parents’ attic and came across a box that had another wood carved woggle of a lumberjack head (I think he’s Paul Bunyan). Part of his hat or something was broken off, but again, I thought it was so cool that Dad carved that as a kid. I wished I would have asked him for it and taken it home then. It’s still up there and I can’t wait to climb back up there again and find it. (My Dad is now 87 years old). This lumberjack carving is what made me come back home to western North Carolina and buy a whittling book.

Not sure how I thought to research local woodcarving clubs, but I did and found a club just outside Charlotte, NC roughly 1 hour 45 minutes from my remote location in Lake Lure, NC. However, I read that they held meetings right around the corner from a facility that I’ve had to visit frequently for work! Serendipity!

The Charlotte woodcarvers couldn’t have been more welcoming, giving of their knowledge and helpful with tips & techniques. Right away, I bought the beginners kit (knife, gloves, block of basswood and pattern to carve a comfort bird). I signed up for membership to the club and bought a cool wood carver patch and started receiving newsletters.

I subscribed to Woodcarving Illustrated and started watching YouTube videos about woodcarving. I wanted to absorb everything I could about wood carving. I love it and the friendly fellowship of woodcarvers.

I’ve entered a few of the Charlotte Annual Showcase of Woodcarvings shows. I first entered the novice division in a few different categories but the “miscellaneous, painted” category was my focus. There were about 10 competitors. I entered a carving of a cupcake with sprinkles and a birthday candle. The night before during registration, I spotted two snowmen in my division that I thought would defeat everyone. They were beautifully painted, triple the size of my little cupcake. I was floored the next day when I was awarded a 1st place blue ribbon and the snowmen were 2nd and 3rd. It dawned on me that the judges were looking at how it was carved. It was a “wood carving” competition after all. They looked past the beautiful painting technique on the snowmen as they were very simply carved. While my carving was a lot smaller, my carving was clearly more detailed. I’ll never forget how that felt. This reward for my first entry propelled me to keep carving.

  • Tracy Czajkoski”

What a delightful story, Tracy!  It’s clear to see that woodcarving talent runs in the family and you made all the right decisions to improve your skills along your journey. I apologize, the photo you sent of your nephew along with your story would not transfer to the blog post.

Carver’s Corner

“Carver’s Corner” is the section where you can send in photos of your carvings to have them critiqued by me and get my truthful opinions on what you did right and where you might improve next time.  It’s an excellent opportunity to improve your carving skills!  Send your photos to

My friend Tami Wass sent in a few photos of an outstanding fisherman scene she recently carved and would like to have it critiqued here in the “Carver’s Corner”.  Tami writes:

“Hi Bob ~ I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoy receiving your emails. I always find them very informative. I also enjoy seeing the pictures sent in by your subscribers. I know it’s a very time consuming task putting this all together, and I appreciate you doing it. Hope for continue for a long time.

I am including a few pictures of a little fisherman that I carved. I am hoping you will critique it for me. Thank you in advance.

Tami Wass” 

Hi Tami…Thank you for writing and thank you especially for your kind and thoughtful words.  They are very encouraging and much appreciated.

I love your fisherman!  It’s a magnificent carving and I will be happy to critique it in my “Carver’s Corner”.

Honestly, I don’t have much to say about it.  It’s excellent in every way.  Although the fisherman itself is a rather average caricature, however well done, you’ve paid exceptional attention to all of the details of the carving scene.  I’m particularly blown away by the dock and all the detail you put into the carving and painting of the planking and pilings.  I would love to know how you did them.  The seagull, bucket and fish are nice additions, and the seagull is well painted.

Perhaps on your next one you might want to try carving more detail into the seagull…like carve in the wings and some of the feathers, particularly on the tail.  Eyes are always hard to do and although your fisherman’s eyes look good the eye lids don’t match.  They should both be the same size and cover more of the eyes, from side to side.

Overall you’ve done a spectacular job and one you should be very proud of.   And always feel free to send in more photos anytime you like.  I can always use them.

Photo Shop

“Photo Shop” is the section of Wood Chip Chatter where carvers can send in photos of their wood carvings for display. It’s your chance to show off your work…sort of a show and tell. The photos will only be displayed and no comments or critiques will be made.  For critiques on your carvings send them in to the “Carver’s Corner.”  Send your photos to 

My friend, Jim Shay sent in a few photos of the carvings he’s recently done and a little humor to go along with them.  Here’s what he had to say:

“Hi Bob, Thanks for your amazing job with your Blog. I read every issue with pleasure. This weeks is particularly great because I have been able to find a couple carving clubs that are not too far from me and will be attending their upcoming shows.  Due to the recent passing of my wife of 57 years I have not been able to concentrate enough on carving. I have just these last couple weeks been able to dust off the carving bench and do a few easy pieces which I’m including a couple photos of them and also sending a humorous photo I recently found on FB.  Have a great week and know I am a fan and follower of your blog.”

First, let me say that I’m sorry to hear of the passing of your beloved wife.  Second, I want to thank you for your nice words about Wood Chip Chatter.  I so happy you’re a big fan and loyal follower, and that you’re enjoying reading it.

Those are some really cool carving you’ve done and I particularly like the books you carved.  I’ve been meaning to carve a stack of those but like everything else, I haven’t been able to find the time to do it.  And I love the joke!  It’s hilarious!  Thank you so much for the photos.  They are always appreciated.

Free Pattern

Here is a rooster pattern for a relief carving:

News & Announcements

The International Association of Woodcarvers has upcoming Zoom meetings on the following Saturdays at 3PM EST with special guest presenters.  Check them out…

Zoom:  310-460-3575


9/24 – Carvin’ The Rockies (Live broadcast)

10/1 – Chris Gardea

10/15 – Nikki Reece

10/22 – Bob Hershey

10/29 – Rod Gatlin

11/19 – Ryan Olsen



Stay sharp, and keep on carvin’!

Funny Bone

Published by carverbobk

I’m a self taught award winning wood carver who has been carving since I was a teenager. I enjoy instructing other carvers, especially beginners.

2 thoughts on “Basic Relief Carving

  1. Hi Jessi!

    Thanks for the suggestion. I’m not much of a flat plane carver myself. Just could never master it, but I know several carvers who are really good at it.

    It’s a great suggestion and I’ll be happy to do some research on it, and see if I can post some information for you on flat plane carving down the road.

    Thanks again for writing and have a great weekend!

    Bob K.


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