Authentic Medieval Gothic Openwork Panel

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Authentic Medieval Gothic Openwork Panel:
Steve Bisco shows you how to carve this openwork panel in oak.

Steve Bisco shows you how to carve this openwork panel in oak

This attractive pierced tracery panel is a fairly straightforward project, which relies for its effect on neatness and accuracy rather than technical complexity. It is a thin, flat oak (Quercus robur) panel measuring 305mm square × 18mm thick, which, after cutting out the voids of the ‘openwork’, allows you to get straight into
the detail carving.
This Gothic design from the late Middle Ages comes from a door panel illustrated in the Manual of Traditional Woodcarving – first published in 1911 and still available from Dover Publications – which is described as ‘a fragment of a buffet door in oak, carved partly in openwork’. It is said to be English and to date from around 1500 when Henry VII was king, which puts it in the transition from late-medieval to Tudor Gothic.
If we look at the geometry of the panel, the ‘pierced’ or ‘openwork’ parts are formed by four intersecting semi-circles centred on the halfway point of each side of the square, passing from corner to corner through the centre of the panel. The resulting almond shape from each corner to the centre is called a mandala. The curvilinear tracery in the mandala features the ‘tadpole’ or ‘ghostie’ shaped voids, which are known as mouchettes. Normally a mouchette would have cusps – pointed projections near the widest end to divide a round foil from the rest of the void – but our late-medieval carver decided to leave these out, possibly as a touch of Tudor modernity or perhaps because they would overcrowd the small space.
The triangular space between each mandala and the sides of the square is called a spandrel. Each spandrel is filled with a stylised spiky leaf, carved in a form of incised low relief – similar to chip carving. This is where you need to be really neat to get the best effect.
You have the option to darken the oak to a 500-year-old dark brown by ‘fuming’ with ammonia but I decided to leave this panel in its new oak colour. The shadow lines in the shallow carving show up better on a light background, and this is how our medieval carver saw it and intended it to look.

Things you will need
Tools:
20mm, No.3 fishtail gouge
10mm, No.3 fishtail gouge
10mm, No.3 gouge
7mm, No.5 gouge
3mm, No.9 gouge
16mm, No.9 curved gouge
V-tool
10mm skew chisel
6.5mm flat chisel
2mm veiner
Wood:
Oak (Quercus robur) measuring 305mm square × 18mm thick 

Using the pattern
This is a square pattern, which can be made any size big enough to work with, but I have made it for a 305mm square panel. The easiest way to make a full-size copy is to transfer the pattern into a computer using either a scanner or a digital camera. Crop the drawing in half down the centre and crop off part of the top and bottom border. Print it out on a full A4 sheet so the pattern area, excluding the border, is 279mm top to bottom. This will fit the 305mm square panel. The pattern is symmetrical so you can use one half twice.

Drawings and how to resize them
To enlarge or reduce the size of drawings right click on the image to download it and then go HERE to watch a video on how to use paper with a grid to do exactly that.

1. Take your piece of oak and make a full-size copy of the drawing. ‘Green’ oak is easier to carve than fully dried oak but the thin panel may warp as it dries, so aim for a piece that has been air-dried for about three years

2. Trace the pattern onto the wood with carbon paper. It is a complex pattern and you will miss some bits, so keep the drawing taped at one edge while you check and re-fix it to fill in the missing bits

3. Mark the cutting lines in red and carefully cut out the voids of the tracery. Use a 4mm jigsaw blade to turn round the tight curves – keep it moving as much as possible

4. Mark a line around the edges of the panel 13mm below the top edge and plane a 45° chamfer from this line to the edge of the pattern. On the end grain sides, plane inwards from each end so you don’t break out the corner

Optional fuming
If you want to darken this carving to an ancient dark brown, you can ‘fume’ it with ammonia. This replicates the natural ageing process of oak at a rate of about a century an hour. To do this, make up an airtight ‘tent’ or use a plastic tub and place the carving in it, raised on supports, such as nails. Put in about 50–80ml of household ammonia in a shallow dish – wear goggles to protect your eyes – and seal the tent or tub. Leave until the oak darkens to a pleasing dark brown, about 6–12 hours depending on the temperature,
the concentration of ammonia and the amount of tannin in the oak.

5. To hold the work for carving, fix strips of wood to the bench around the edges of the panel

Carving the tracery

6. Starting with one of the small mouchettes in the outer corners, use a 16mm, No.9 curved gouge or similar to carve a cove around the inside of it up to the pattern line. The cove should be as deep as it is wide and the bottom edges of all the coves should be at the same level. Take care to carve ‘downstream’ with the grain

7. Where the grain changes direction in the curves, carve downwards across the grain with a shallow gouge to get a clean cut

8. Shape the coves into a neat mitre in the corner, using a shallow gouge such as a 10mm, No.3

9. Move on to one of the bigger mouchettes and carve the cove as before. Where the two mouchettes meet, take great care to make them touch with a neat sharp ridge

Top tips
1. The key to neat carving is to approach every cut from the right direction. I use a sturdy freestanding bench 530mm square, which I can walk around so I don’t have to keep moving the work.

2. When cutting out tight curves with a jigsaw, it is best  to use a 4mm blade. You’ll find that it will get very hot, so keep it moving to reduce the amount of scorching on the wood.

3. Avoid using abrasives on oak; they give it a dull opaque finish and blur the detail. A good tooled finish will give you a naturally shiny surface and crisp edges that will look more lively. Practise working the carving to its final finish by making slicing cuts with sharp tools of the right size and profile.

4. Use a skew chisel for making clean cuts across short grain. Its angled cutting edge slices through the wood fibres instead of pushing against them and tearing them out.

10. The larger mouchettes have a long thin tail and a slight ogee (backward) curve on one side. Using a skew chisel here will allow you to make a sharp mitre where the coves meet in the tail

11. Complete the neighbouring mouchettes and carve the ‘eyes’ in the triangles between the curves. Eyes are a key feature of tracery and need to be neat. Cut an incised ‘V’ in the eye with the sides following the curve of each adjoining mouchette, with sharp mitres where the sides meet. Remove the carbon paper pattern lines by slicing very carefully and finely along each ridge

12. Repeat the whole process to complete the tracery in all four of the openwork sections. Tidy up the vertical edges inside the openwork to remove all scorch marks and make sure the voids are perfectly shaped

13. You can now turn the carving over and put a small chamfer around the bottom edge of each void to give it a neater appearance from the front

Carving the spandrels

14. Start the spandrels by carefully carving a chamfer along the ridges beside the mandalas and the edges of the panel. Slope this into the leaf. The ridge on the end-grain side of the panel is liable to crumble, so use a slicing cut from a skew chisel to avoid this

15. Cut the scallops around the edges of the leaf and shape the chamfer into them

16. Isolate the roundel in the middle of the leaf by cutting a groove round it, then cut a ‘V’ along each main
vein line, starting shallow at the corners and getting deeper towards the middle

17. Use a broad shallow gouge to carve a smooth hollow in the leaf down to a depth of about 4mm in the middle

18. Re-cut the main vein lines with a skew chisel; this will allow you to achieve a clean edge. Round over the roundel and put a hollow in the middle of it. Use the skew chisel again to cut the deep ‘V’ midway in each side of the leaf

19. You can now begin to cut fine secondary veins all along the leaf by making ‘chip’ cuts with a gouge of the right size and profile – preferably a No.3, 20mm

20. Tidy up the scallops at the edges with a sloping cut into the chamfer. Finish the leaf with rows of tiny holes made with a 2mm veiner – push it in vertically and rotate it

21. Repeat the process with the rest of the spandrels. Check the carving with the light at different angles and tidy up any rough bits, which will ensure that you get a good sharp glossy finish straight from the tools. Don’t use abrasives on oak as it kills the finish

Finishing

22. Polish the oak to a soft satin sheen with a good wax polish. Use a stiff brush to work the wax into the crevices, then buff it up several times with a dry cloth

23. Hang it in a place where the light strikes it sideways to show up the shallow details on the leaves. The completed Gothic panel should look something like this

 

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