Steve Bisco carves an oak panel in the style of Charles Rennie Mackintosh
Steve Bisco carves an oak panel in the style of Charles Rennie Mackintosh
Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868–1928) was known to his friends as CRM and was one of the most influential architects and designers at the turn of the 19th/20th century. His reputation spread far beyond his native Scotland to have a pan-European and even worldwide influence on the Art Nouveau style, although his unique style was not part of mainstream Art Nouveau.
His most famous public building is the Glasgow School of Art, which sadly experienced a devastating fire in 2014. Most of his original work was destroyed, but restoration of his work is under way to recreate them to the original designs. His most famous commercial interior is the Willow Tea Rooms in Glasgow, featuring his trademark black lattice grids and tall-backed chairs. Although closed in 1919, the tea rooms were restored and reopened in 1983 and are still operating today.
His domestic interiors were altogether lighter and more colourful, which he created with his wife, the artist, Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh (1865–1933), known as MMM. Charles and Margaret together produced several very beautiful, distinctive, modern decorative schemes and furniture for his clients and their own home.
I have put together this oak (Quercus robur) panel combining several elements featured in Mackintosh’s work – long vertical lines, open and closed lattice squares, black surfaces with panels of light, colour and, most importantly, the ‘Mackintosh rose’ that features prominently in the work of both Charles and Margaret. This is an unusual carving project as most of the low-relief detail is only 6mm deep, reflecting the stained-glass panels from which most of it is derived with decoration combining black ebonising lacquer, metallic silver enamel and acrylic paint.
Things you will need
• No.3, 20mm fishtail gouge
• No.3, 10mm fishtail gouge
• No.3, 10mm gouge
• No.8, 8mm gouge
• No.5, 7mm gouge
• No.5, 5mm gouge
• No.9, 16mm curved gouge
• No.8, 8mm curved gouge
• Straight V-tool
• 20mm flat chisel
• 15mm flat chisel
• 10mm skew chisel
• 6.5mm flat chisel
• 3mm chisel
• 2mm chisel
• Oak – 700 x 260 x 25mm
• Chestnut ebonising lacquer
• One-shot silver signwriting enamel
• Pink and mauve acrylic paint
The Mackintosh style
With the Mackintosh style we get two Mackintoshs for the price of one. Charles and his wife Margaret collaborated in many of his interior design projects and the Mackintosh rose is probably as much her invention as it was his. While Charles’ architecture tended towards a fairly stark Scottish vernacular Arts and Crafts style, Margaret’s art was closer to the Art Nouveau style prevalent at the time. Both had a profound impact on the Vienna Secessionist exhibition of 1900 that was so influential in the spread of Art Nouveau. Charles in particular was strongly influenced by Japanese design and this is reflected in his black lattice panels and long elegant lines. There is a pronounced vertical exaggeration in his designs, notably in his tall-backed chairs. His designs were executed in wood, metal and stained glass by various makers – a process, which luckily is repeatable in modern restorations of his work. He eventually gave up architecture and took to painting – and drink – and died at the age of 60. In recent decades his reputation has soared almost to a cult and most of us today are familiar with his style.
Preparing the panel
1. Get a piece of oak at 700 x 260 x 25mm. Oak that has been air-dried for approximately three years should be quite easy to carve and be reasonably stable if you select a piece fairly straight-grained and free of knots. Kiln dried oak is more stable, but more brittle. Make a full size copy of the pattern and get some office carbon paper
2. Cover the whole panel with carbon paper and fix the drawing firmly in place with tape. Trace the pattern carefully onto the oak using a long ruler to draw the straight lines
3. Use a jigsaw to cut out the curve on the bottom edge and the nine open squares. Drill entry holes in the squares, turn the jigsaw blade along the sides into the corners and then work back the other way until you have straight edges. You may need to tidy up the holes from the front and back, and use a flat chisel to make their edges neat, square and vertical
4. Mark a depth line all around the sides of the panel 6mm from the front edge
5. Fix edge strips to a backing board to hold the panel in place while you work. Clamp the backing board to the bench and move it around to get the best cutting direction. A freestanding bench that you can walk around is even better
Carving the lattice pattern
6. Start the carving phase by bringing the area outside the grid pattern down to the 6mm ‘ground level’. First of all, go round the edges of the grid lines with a V-tool
7. Now remove the bulk of the surplus wood using a deep gouge. With oak being so hard and brittle, be careful not to split off pieces that go too deep or run into the pattern areas. Work down gradually to see how the sub-surface grain runs before you get to full depth. Use the depth line drawn on the sides as your guide
8. Straighten up the vertical edges of the raised grid, first with the V-tool then ‘bost’ vertically with a flat chisel. Smooth off the ridges left by the deep gouge with a shallow gouge, then use a broad flat chisel to shave off the surface down to the 6mm level
• Art Noveau was a movement in the decorative arts and architecture in the late 19th and early 20th century.
• Although it’s known as Art Nouveau, other countries translated it into different titles such as Germany refers to Art Nouveau as Jugendstil, whereas in Vienna it was known as Sezessionsstil and Modernismo in Spain.
• Floral and other plant-inspired designs were very popular Art Noveau designs, but female silhouettes were also very popular.
9. Make a simple depth gauge by inserting a screw through a flat piece of wood so the tip protrudes 6mm. Place the wood flat on the grid area and slide it around over the 6mm surface area. The screw will make scratches on the parts of the surface that are not yet down to 6mm. Continue shaving and checking until the gauge no longer leaves any scratch marks
10. To get a smooth surface on the cut-down areas, place a flat chisel in an almost vertical position and draw it towards you. This will scrape fine shavings off the surface to create a smooth even finish
11. Use the same process described in steps 6 to 10 to cut the channels between the grid lines of the pattern. Define the edges with the V-tool. Rough out the bulk with the deep gouge and straighten up the vertical edges with a broad flat chisel. Cut it down to the 6mm level with a 15mm flat chisel, scrape it smooth and check the levels. Redraw the small squares and ‘teardrops’ that will later be cut below the ground level
12. Take great care with the horizontal grid bars that run across the grain as these can easily be chipped out. Start by cutting a 45° angle then gradually cut back at steeper angles until you get to a neat vertical edge. Make sure the horizontal bars are the same thickness as the vertical bars
13. The grid is supplemented by some squares and oblongs that are cut a further 2mm into the background so set the depth gauge to 8mm for these. Also cut three ‘teardrops’ to the same depth running down two of the verticals
14. Finish the grid detail by carving the four buckle-shaped objects. Carve the vertical bars to dip slightly as they pass under the buckle. Slightly curve the flat surface of the buckle toward the corners. Now, lower the central bar in the oval loop at the bottom left of the grid
15. Finish the grid pattern by carving the bars and channels at the very top of the panel. Chamfer the ends of the bars at 45°
Carving the rose panel
16. Ground out the rose panel in the same way as the rest of the carving, but take the ground down to 8mm to allow extra depth for carving the rose. Take great care in the narrow gap between the top of the rose and the top of the circle as you can easily break out the cross-grain
You will be using the mallet for nearly all of this carving so learn a good mallet technique. Keep a fairly relaxed grip on the chisel and mallet handles. Hit with a steady rhythm that you can keep up without straining your wrists, elbows and shoulders.
17. The petals of the stylised rose are like a series of escarpments with one steep face sloping towards the centre and one shallow slightly-convex face sloping outwards. Start from the outside and work inwards using a broad shallow gouge upside-down for the outward slope and a small sharp chisel for the inward edge
18. The centre of the rose is shaped into a grid of 6mm squares; each one should be sloped at an angle towards the top right
19. The smaller rose is carved in the same way as the larger one. Reduce the level of the stems so they are about 4mm deep where they join the roses. The group of stems at the edge of the circle needs to be partially separated sloping down into the adjoining stems to give them more definition. Beware of the cross-grain!
20. The carving is now finished and the panel should look something like this
You could leave it with a natural oak finish and wax-polish if you like, but for the full Mackintosh style we need to decorate it.
21. Give the whole panel, both sides, a coat of sand-sealer. When it is dry, sand all surfaces smooth without losing the sharpness of the carving. Spray the whole panel with black ebonising lacquer, making sure it covers all surfaces. It will take several coats using a whole 400ml can
22. Paint the background of the rose panel in a good quality metallic silver paint leaving the black stems standing clear. Try to get neat edges. Also use the silver on the oval ‘teardrops’ lower down the carving
23. Use pink and mauve acrylic paint on the rose and the other areas. Tidy up any ragged edges where the paint meets the black, which you can do with a black permanent marker pen
24. The job is now finished. Hang it where the light strikes it sideways to enhance the shadows
Did you know?
Charles Rennie Mackintosh was only 27 when, in 1897, he was given the job of designing a new building, including interiors, for the Glasgow School of Art. When it was completed in 1909 its combination of Scottish Baronial architecture and Art Nouveau decoration with Japanese elements was totally unique and starkly modern. It was not appreciated by everyone and, with changing fashions, demolition was considered in 1946. Thankfully it was reprieved and came to be considered as a work of art in itself. The devastating fire in 2014 destroyed the iconic library and damaged much of the building, but the decision was taken to restore everything using Mackintoshes original designs.