How to Do Relief Wood Carving

Updated July 20, 2017

Relief wood carvers create carvings that seem to be raised, or are in relief, on a flat panel of wood. These carvings can be intricate geometric chip carvings, landscapes or even portraits. In addition to being displayed as wall plaques, they are made to decorate any number of articles, such as wooden chests, jewellery boxes and gun stocks. Instructors recommend relief carving as a first step in wood carving because it requires a minimum of tools and supplies to begin and can be very satisfying to the carver.

Get a wood panel 3/4 to one inch thick and is large enough for the carving you have planned. Basswood, aspen or butternut is recommended for beginners because these types of wood are softer and easier to carve.

Create a full-sized pattern of the relief carving and use carbon paper to carefully transfer the pattern to the wood panel. Place the wood panel on the bench and secure it with clamps.

Draw the bench knife or skew chisel along the outline of the pattern repeatedly until you reach the maximum depth of the carving. It should be no deeper than half the thickness of your panel.

Cut outward, with a gouge, from the outline cut you just made, to rough out the background. Then use the gouge to extend the background into the wood for an inch or two.

Use a small ruler or depth gauge to check that the depth of the background is the same all around the pattern. Correct any areas that are too high and use a shallow gouge to smooth the background out.

Carve the outlines of individual parts of the pattern with the bench knife or skew chisel. Then use the v-gouge and bent gouge to remove areas that are lower. Round off the raised parts of the pattern with the bench knife or skew chisel.

Obtain a wood panel one inch thick and the size of your planned carving.

Draw a full-sized pattern of the carving on paper. Carefully view your paper pattern to determine the foreground, middle ground, background and sky areas. This will determine the level or depth to which each area is cut. The sky area will be the deepest with the background, middle ground and foreground being successively more shallow.

Outline each area with a different coloured pencil. Then transfer the outlines to the wood and colour them. Make a cut that defines the outside edges of each area, with the bench knife or skew chisel, to a depth of no more than one half inch. Rough out the outlines to the appropriate depth with the skew chisel and gouge.

Place the pattern over the blank and copy the details of the foreground level on to the wood. Carve out the details with v-gouge, bent gouge, chip knife or bench knife. Do the same for each level.

Use the skew chisel and bench knife to clean up the carving. Use fine sandpaper to smooth the carving and finish with a stain or just a clear varnish.


Knives and chisels are dangerous instruments. Handle them with extreme care. Wear protective glasses and wear a glove on your weaker hand.

Things You'll Need

  • One inch thick wood panel
  • Paper
  • Pencil
  • Coloured pencils (optional)
  • Small ruler
  • Depth gauge (optional)
  • Carbon paper
  • Bench knife
  • Chip knife (optional)
  • Straight gouge
  • Bent gouge
  • V-gouge
  • Skew chisel
  • Sandpaper
  • Varnish
  • Stain (optional)
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About the Author

Working from Winnipeg, Canada, Len Harris has been writing online since 2005. He writes on many subjects, from adult attention deficit disorder to photography. Harris holds a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Education from the University of Manitoba.