Layout and Design considerations for Wood Carvings #1: Grain direction

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Blog entry by mpounders posted 02-27-2012 10:59 PM 2920 reads 1 time favorited 6 comments Add to Favorites Watch
no previous part Part 1 of Layout and Design considerations for Wood Carvings series Part 2: Glue-ups for large carvings »

A lot of tutorials seem to start with the mechanical parts of the project, rather than some of the planning or layout stages. Stefang asked about information for gluing up blocks for carving so I thought I would do a few blogs about this stage of carving, the preparation of materials before you carve.

Wood is a moving, changing material, and certain aspects such as density, moisture content, grain, and size can affect the design of a project. I am no expert, so feel free to disagree with anything that you feel you have a different slant on; I am not too old to learn new tricks! This entry will be primarily about smaller 3-dimensional carvings, “in-the-round” carvings and I’ll talk about larger carvings and glue-ups in other etries..

For smaller carvings like this, you want to take advantage of how the grain runs in a particular piece of wood. If you look a small blocks of kiln dried wood you will be able to see the growth rings. For most carvings, you want to have the end grain (3) at the top and bottom of the blanks. The end grain is more difficult to carve into, it doesn’t hold details as well, and it absorbs stains, paints, and finishes like a sponge. It can absorb so much and turn so dark that you can no longer see the details you so laboriously carved. You want the grain to run up and down (1). You are working with a section of a tree, so the growth rings may show up as almost a straight line, a slight arc, or shallow C shaped lines when viewed from the end.

The color number and size all depends on the size of the tree and the type of wood it was cut from. If you are carving a face, you can orient those lines to run from the front of the piece to the back, which is essentially placing the outside (where the bark grew) to one side (2) and the inner heartwood side to the other. This puts the “shorter” grain on the sides of the face, where sturdier, thicker elements like ears and hair are carved. If you put the short grain on the front of the face, it makes it easier to accidently split off the end of a nose or an eye lid or other delicate features, because of how the grain runs. This doesn’t mean you can’t do it another way and have it turn out great! It is just something to be aware of with an organic material like wood. The growth rings are very pronounced in the basswood below and you can easily see the lines running verically from the front. But you can see in a slight profile view how you have sections like the ends of the hair and edge of the cheek and eye socket where the grain is very short

…it is quite easy to remove large chunks of wood when carving up and down in those areas. Imagine the grain turned 90 degrees and you can see how easy it would be to slice the end of the nose off! Think of it like the layers of a sheet of plywood, and keep the edge going in the direction where you need the strength most. More tomorrow!

-- Mike P., Arkansas,

6 comments so far

View Roger's profile


20928 posts in 2802 days

#1 posted 02-28-2012 12:17 AM

oh yes, Mike. the garden won’t grow till you plant the seed, and the seed can’t be planted till the soil is ready… very good. I’ll be followin

-- Roger from KY. Work/Play/Travel Safe. Keep your dust collector fed.

View Jimthecarver's profile


1124 posts in 3784 days

#2 posted 02-28-2012 12:31 PM

Great blog, experience and plenty of mistakes is how I learned that lesson. I would have loved to have had Ljs when I first learned how to carve. Being self taught has its disadvantages.

-- Can't never could do anything, to try is to advance.

View Eli Adamit's profile

Eli Adamit

724 posts in 3288 days

#3 posted 02-28-2012 06:16 PM

Hey Mike, I enjoyed to read that you are bothering by the same questions that I ask my self when I start a new project. I would like to share with you one point and ask about another conflict:
A. We are short with wide trunks, so I try to plan the sculpture as big as possible and to stay within the grain without using the margins but you can’t be sure what are the measurments of the grain and it is important especially when you work with a trunk like Rosewood which the grain is dark brown to black and the margins are white to yellow. Some times you may get a dark head with a white spot on the nose :)
B. usually, I plan the sculpture when the trunk is standing in the direction of the growth which means the base will be close to what was the roots and the top head close to what was the branches, but today I have at this moment a conflict: I need to escape from appearing of “eyes” in critical places on the head and the best way to use this specific trunk is to work on it up side down, which means the base will be close to what was the branches. I assume there will not be any problem but I never did it. What is your opinion?

-- Eli Adamit, Israel

View stefang's profile


15881 posts in 3333 days

#4 posted 02-28-2012 10:42 PM

Hi Mike. All good info and thanks for enlightening us, but a little different problem than I was thinking about. I was actually thinking about gluing up work pieces using plane sawn wood. I remember reading a carving book where the author said that when gluing up that type of wood, it is best to glue the two outside faces of the wood together in order to have the inside or heart of the tree towards the outside for carving. This was because the inner wood is more stable and better to carve on and also to limit any tendencies to warp, which is usually caused by the outer wood drying faster than the inner wood.

I loved your carving in the pics. It looks so lifelike. Wonderful work.

-- Mike, an American living in Norway.

View mpounders's profile


875 posts in 2894 days

#5 posted 02-28-2012 10:53 PM

I wouldn’t think it would be a problem to have the base area as the head. You would not have the branches appearing as eyes and knots might not be as frequent either. Carving from a trunk or a branch does present some different challenges like you say…. I carved a few faces and used a branch jutting out for the nose. That can work really well, but it is easy to have a large brown spot on the end of the nose, from the pith in the center of the branch! And I had to learn to carve past the layers of bark, and sometimes sap wood to get to a section that would present a consistent color for the entire face or whatever I would be carving. If possible, I like to have a piece long enough to cut in half and experiment a bit and see if it looks like what I envisioned. I did a cane from some aspen. It started out as a green trunk about 3” in diameter and ended up about an inch thick and I had to take extra pains in drying it and shaping it, to keep it from cracking, but it turned out nice. The internet is really a wonderful reference tool. Us old guys grew up learning from books and encyclopedias, and the access to videos, and patterns, and artists from around the owrld is really quite amazing!

-- Mike P., Arkansas,

View mpounders's profile


875 posts in 2894 days

#6 posted 02-28-2012 11:18 PM

Hey Mike! I’m trying to work my way up to your original glue-up topic! I have a whole blog coming up in a day or two, if work doesn’t keep interfering! Are you talking about gluing several pieces together for an “in-the-round” carving or as a panel for a relief carving? In other words, would it be carved on all sides, or just carved on one side?

-- Mike P., Arkansas,

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