Fruit and Flower Drop
Steve Bisco shows how to design and make your own limewood foliage carvings
Steve Bisco shows how to design and make your own limewood foliage carvings
When we discuss limewood (Tilia europea) foliage carving we are automatically drawn in to invoking the name of Grinling Gibbons (1648–1721) – the great master of the style. His magnificent festoons of fruit, flowers, fish and fowl, which adorn many palaces and grand houses of Britain are among the greatest works ever produced in woodcarving. For the last 300 years generations of carvers have set the target of their ambitions at ‘doing a Grinling’.
Assuming you don’t live in a grand palace with vast rooms, you will probably want to try a smaller and more manageable version of the festoon – just a ‘drop’ of a few flowers and some fruit. In this article I have set out a design for a limewood drop carved from a single block, which you can copy directly if you choose, but I will also show you how to create your own naturalistic designs for your own carvings if you want to exercise your creative skills further.
Things you will need
• No.3, 20mm fishtail gouge
• No.3, 10mm fishtail gouge
• No.4, 6mm fishtail gouge
• No.3, 10mm gouge
• No.8, 8mm gouge
• No.5, 7mm gouge
• No.5, 5mm gouge
• No.9, 3mm gouge
• No.9, 16mm curved gouge
• No.5, 13mm curved gouge
• No.8, 8mm curved gouge
• 10mm short bent gouge
• 6mm short bent gouge
• No.3, 5mm bent gouge
• 12mm back-bent gouge
• 6mm back-bent gouge
• 5mm bent chisel
• Straight ‘V’-tool
• Curved ‘V’-tool
• 2mm veiner
• 16mm hooked skew chisel
• 10mm skew chisel
• 10mm skewed spoon gouge
• 3mm chisel
• 2mm chisel
• Lime – 580 x 130 x 80mm
Did you know?
The lime or linden tree is the best wood for fine foliage carving. Its American cousin basswood is the next
best thing. Lime can be difficult to source from ordinary timber merchants, but is generally stocked by specialist craftwood suppliers. See the adverts in this magazine and search the internet. In countries where the tree is not native, you may need to order from overseas.
Designing a limewood foliage carving
Limewood foliage carvings are based on natural objects portrayed life-size and grouped into an artistically pleasing arrangement, so the best place to start for an arrangement of fruit and flowers is at the supermarket or in your garden. Gather some real fruit and flowers and set up a ‘still-life’ model. If the season limits your choice of materials you can use substitutes such as silk flowers.
A good reason for making your own designs is to fit them to a particular piece of wood that you already have so mark up a board with the dimensions of your wood. Every item should appear to hang naturally under the influence of gravity so place the board almost upright to get an idea of the fall. Use nails, string and wire to position things without them falling off. Fix a branch, ribbon, rope, or anything that can be made to look plausible as a point of suspension, then wire on the bulkier items such as the fruit. You also need a bit of background foliage, such as the ivy leaves I have used here
Arrange the flowers and foliage into clusters with open parts between and around them. The positioning must appear random and asymmetrical, but there must also be a degree of balance. A large item on one side should be balanced by an item of similar bulk on the other side. The whole drop must appear to tumble down in bunches, finally tapering away at the bottom. You must also establish an apparent attachment between the items, usually by stems that emerge from under a leaf, a fruit or a flower above them
When the arrangement is complete, take a careful ‘face on’ photo that you can blow up to full size, as a basis for your drawing. Also take photos from both sides and all angles to use for reference when carving
Print out your ‘face on’ photo to the full size of your wood. If it needs more than one sheet of paper, crop the picture into pages that are all at the same scale and join them together. Now draw around the edges of each feature with a marker pen. As you draw it, think about how you will carve it, and make adjustments as necessary to create a viable carving pattern. It is then best to make a working tracing of your drawing, but you can, if you wish, trace directly from your drawing onto the wood
Now you can proceed to carve a pattern of your own design, or follow my limewood drop design, just as you wish. Either way, the following project will guide you through the process.
1. Get a piece of lime of suitable size – in this case 580 x 130 x 80mm. Make a full-size copy of the drawing and trace the pattern onto the wood using carbon paper. Mark the cutting lines in red, then cut round the pattern with a bandsaw or whatever saws you have
Roughing out the elements
2. Fix the wood to a backing board, screwing from the back into the larger fruits. Separate the individual elements with a ‘V’-tool and some vertical ‘bosting’ cuts so you can see what is what
3. Rough out the levels and outline shape for each element, referring to the finished photos in step 15 or your reference photos of your own design. Don’t remove wood you may need later
4. Work your way along to the other end, then go over it again to make sure each element fits in comfortably with the others. Repeatedly throughout the carving process place the carving upright at the height at which it will be seen to check that everything ‘hangs’ naturally
Carving the detail
5. Start at the top with the most prominent flowers. Look at the key features of each type of flower and try to represent those features in the carving. These gerbera and chrysanthemum flowers have fine thin petals, which can slightly overlap each other for structural support and the middle of the gerbera can be textured to create the inner ring of tiny petals
6. Once you are sure the flowers are finished and in the right position, you can excavate under and around them to model the fruits and leaves beneath them. Note how the apples and pears have a ‘blossom end’ at the bottom which determines how the fruit appears to hang. Leaves can form an ‘under-storey’ of foliage. I have converted the ivy leaves in my model to grape leaves by giving them ‘eyes’ and serrated edges
7. Continue down to the next group. Primroses and other bunched flowers should be formed into overlapping levels so each flower has some petals projecting under its neighbour, but try to give each flower some separation so it doesn’t look like a solid mass, and create some gaps in and around the bunch
8. A rose can be made a key feature of a flower carving, so try to arrange each petal convincingly and carve it very thinly. The central petals can be layered inwards towards the middle, and the outer petals can be layered away from the centre
Top tip: If you break a piece off a thin element while carving, don’t despair. You can either amend the design or you can glue it back together and recarve the join.
9. Grapes need to be carved individually, appearing barely to touch each other, with some larger gaps so they don’t look like a lumpy mass. Thin stems give a visible structure, and show outlines of more grapes inside the bunch
10. As the carving tapers away towards the bottom, a lot of excavation is needed to create a sub-structure of stems and leaves that will help support the structure
11. Continue down until you get to the bottom. Note how this chrysanthemum has its back to us and its thin stem on show. Carve the stem as thin as you can, making sure the real support is transmitted through the leaves and flower petals touching at the tips
Excavating and undercutting
13. Remove the backing board and place the carving face down on a soft surface, with timbers to form a ‘cradle’. Carefully undercut from behind using small sharp tools to minimise pressure on the fragile flowers. A No.8, 8mm curved gouge gives leverage without exerting much pressure, and a hooked skew chisel allows you to shave the leaves and petals to a thin edge
14. Excavate through to let light in the gaps. When the carving is finished and hung up you shouldn’t be able to see any wood that is not part of a fruit, flower, leaf or stem
Use 120–400 grit abrasives to create a smooth finish on the round fruits and larger petals, with a lighter touch on the textured surfaces. Limewood foliage carvings traditionally have a barewood finish, but can also look good gilded or painted in matte white.