Carving Letters,

A little bit ago I posted a picture of a sign I carved and the experience that went with making a big mistake in the spelling. In the comments area I got into a little discussion about how I go about carving my letters. I thought I'd go into a little more depth about it, seeing as how I had to re-carve the sign anyway.

The finished sign, Spelling corrected. 
 Here's the biggest issue I have with sign carving. I'm just not smart enough to do the letter layout on my own without a series of crutches. The judgmental feelings I have about this are directed at myself not at anyone else. Yes it gets the job done, no that isn't always the most important thing to me. In my shop, on the wall above my workbench, I've taken a Sharpie marker and written the words. "The things I make may be for others but the way I make them is for me."

This is a quote from Tony Konovaloff's book "Chisel, Mallet, Plane, and Saw" and it's become one of the defining mantras of my shop time. It keeps me from getting lost.

I use a technique for signs that I dislike because it feels like drawing a portrait by laying a piece of tracing paper over a photograph. I've never liked that style of doing things. It just doesn't feel honest to me. Until I found Peter Follansbee and the 17th C. style of carving I wanted to learn how, but I just couldn't get over the concept of gluing a piece of paper to a block of wood, then carving through the paper. I get how it works to get the work done, and I'm not judging those who do that, but it's not the way I want to work.

My letter carving technique is not ideal for me, but here it is.

The original "flawed" sign, ready to carve with it's carbon paper imprint. 

I use my computer and a word processing program. (Carvetech anyone?) I type in the words I want to carve and play with the fonts until I find one that seems fitting. Then I print them out in a couple of BIG sizes. This time I printed them at 125, 150, and 200 pt. Longer words print off on multiple lines but that's immaterial because I cut them from the paper and arrange them on the board over a sheet of carbon paper, (sometimes called transfer paper.) I print the multiple sizes so I can decide what will fit best on the stock I select.

A while back I bought a smaller set of five carving chisels on eBay, they are fine, detail chisels that really don't see much use, but they work perfect for lettering.

I use two from the set, a small gouge and a swept "V" chisel.

I carve the letters first with the gouge then I go back into them with the "V" chisel and add a line that helps define them and make them easier to read. I will say carving letters is an excellent practice in paying attention to the grain of the stock and the direction of your cuts.

After I carve the letters I take a couple passes with a smoothing plane to remove the left over transfer marks from the board and move forward with any outlining and designs

Ratione et Passionis


  1. I really need to get a set of detail chisels. I keep doing these designs where I have one or two small spots that I can't do a good job on with my 1/8" chisels.

  2. There's no shame in laying out your work, whatever tools you use. Cabinetmakers use squares and a variety of gauges. Peter Follansbee lays out his carvings with dividers. And so on.

    The skill comes in following the lines you lay out, however you get em laid out.

    The line of crutches goes on... Depth stops and fences on planes and power tools, trammel points and cutting gauges, referencing a chisel off of a gauged line... All of these are assistive devices we use to get quicky to the LAST PASS. Because that's the only one that people will see.


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