Letter Carving onto Turned Work:
This month, Richard Findley turns his hand to letter carving on turned work for the first time.
Before I discovered woodturning I dabbled with carving for a while. My grandad left me some carving tools, so I have a selection of good quality gouges and chisels, to which I added when I felt the need. I was pretty good at carving and I made a number of decorative relief patterns and I even attempted a face study in the round, but found it frustrating how long larger items took to make. Turning was naturally a revelation, being able to make things in a fraction of the time it had taken me to carve them. I got hooked on turning and the rest, as they say, is history.
Today, carved decoration or textures on turned work is quite common, often mixed with colour, and some of the effects that can be achieved are quite amazing. My main interest in turning lies in furniture and likewise my carving was often to add a small decorative detail or pattern to furniture-type work. One thing I have never done is letter carving and yet it lends itself to being combined with turned work really well. So what should I make?
Carved lettering is often seen on signage, but that doesn’t lend itself well to turning. An inscription on the edge of a bowl makes a lovely gift for weddings, christenings and the like, but I have no such events coming up so can’t think of a suitable project in this style. I like to keep things simple for these articles, particularly as it is the first time I’ll be doing lettering, so a simple project with minimal carving would suit best. It occured to me that a chopping board, or more precisely a bread board with the word ‘bread’ carved into it would make a perfect first letter carving project, and for once I get to make something that can be used at home. That sounds like a win-win situation if ever there was one!
Turning a board will be simple enough, I’ve made plenty of these before. As far as the carving goes I will need to sort some text, transfer it to the timber in an orderly fashion, then carve out the letters. While I haven’t ever done letter carving, I have several carving books that look at the techniques involved, so I can research it and, using my grandad’s old tools and my previous carving experience, I will carve out the letters. It seems fairly straightforward but things like this often have a habit of being more complex than they first appear. We shall see!
Turning the board
My ‘canvas’ will be a piece of European steamed beech (Fagus sylvatica) which I have managed to source in an ideal width for this job. Steamed beech tends to be a slightly pink colour, rather than the much more pale ‘white’ beech, but is generally easier to work and more stable in use due to the steaming process. Withthe disc marked out, I roughly sketch on the word ‘BREAD’ to see the kind of scale I want for my lettering. Around 30mm tall feels about right, so that’s roughly what I shall aim for. I cut the disc on the bandsaw and mount it between my chuck and live centre to true up the base and form a chucking spigot. With the board held in the chuck I true it up and round over the edge, then flatten off the show face onto which I will carve my lettering. Importantly, I don’t want to sand it at this stage as grit left in the timber from sanding does the razor-sharp edge of carving tools no good at all, so I flatten the face with a skew used as a negative rake scraper, checking for flatness with a steel ruler and leave it at that for now. Where the curve of the edge meets the flat face I mark a pencil line to show where the bottom of the letters will sit, then another line for the top of the lettering.
I call a friend of mine for a brief chat, he has considerably more letter carving experience than myself and he suggested using a Roman font such as the standard ‘Times New Roman’ found on most word processors. Ideally I would be able to lay the text out in a curve on the computer to suit the board but unfortunately I can’t do that on the program I use, so print the word out in outline, trying out a few different font sizes to find something around the 30mm height I am thinking about. I find that a font size of 130 produces a 32mm tall letter, so print it and to work out a good way to lay it out. The two books I have both go into detail about the spacing of the letters. Some letters naturally stand closer together while others leave wider gaps. This is difficult enough to space out in a straight line, although using the computer does simplify this a lot, but on a curve this could potentially cause me a headache. I decide the best thing to do is cut out the letters and place them on the board and see what it looks like. With ‘bread’ being a five letter word it is obvious that the ‘E’ should sit centrally and that I should space the letters from there.
Another consideration, which I will touch on again later, is grain direction. Like any turning I want to present the grain running either directly up and down, or straight across the board, but which would look best for the lettering? Slightly unsure, I decide to take my lead from carved lettering that I have seen before, which is usually on a rectangular sign with the grain running across the board, acting like lined paper to the text. So I will have the grain running across the board with the lettering curving around the bottom.
I set the ‘E’ in the centre and place the ‘R’ and the ‘A’, followed by the ‘B’ and the ‘D’. All I can really go on is the look and feel of the lettering, so cut small strips of masking tape and fix the letters in place between the marked lines and position so they look right. Without prior experience with letter carving, I can’t say for certain that what I think looks right here is going to look right on the end result, the only thing I can do is to give it a go and see how it looks.
Transferring the text
My friend suggested I use carbon paper under the text to easily transfer the lettering to the wood, but despite searching high and low, I can’t find the packet of carbon paper I had from my carving days, so I will have to be creative! I first just try drawing over the lines with a Biro, pressing hard to create an impression on the wood. In a softer wood this would have worked but beech is known for being tough, so unsurprisingly this doesn’t work. Instead I make ‘home-made carbon paper’ by colouring in the back of each letter with pencil and then drawing over the text again. This time it works and transfers a faint line to the board. It is an easy job to darken this with a pencil once the paper letters are removed. I keep the letters stuck to a clear part of the board for reference during the carving.
Holding the work
When I first started carving I made a simple box with removable trays to store my tools. The box also doubles as a work bench, raising the working level to a more comfortable height from that of a standard woodworking bench. The top, being hinged, can also be used to hold work at an angle. For this project I decide that working flat would be fine, so I screw some battens to the surface and cut some wedges to hold the board fast, while still being easy to reposition as I work around the curve of the board. The breadboard still has its chucking spigot on the back at this stage so I cut four pieces of 6mm MDF to pack out the underside and ensure it sits flat and level while I’m working on it.
There are two main cuts used in carving: ‘stab’ cuts and ‘slicing’ cuts. Stab sounds more aggressive than it actually is, but does describe the action pretty well, simply pushing down into the wood, either to define a shape, to finish a cut or to work down from the top to the bottom of a detail. Stab cuts can be done with a mallet or just by driving the tool with the hand. It is important to realise that smaller tools might not be suitable for driving with a mallet.
Slicing cuts shape around curves and often run up to a stab cut. The slicing cuts can be made by pushing the tool straight through the wood or by rolling the gouge to create curved shapes. I am fairly familiar with these cuts, if a little rusty, but it will be interesting to see how exactly they are used to form the lettering.
My books suggest the place to start is on the straight legs of the letters, by using a stab cut in the centre of the line with a chisel. I begin with my standard 25mm bevel edged chisel and use a mallet to make the mark. From this point I use a straight carving chisel in a stabbing cut, to form a V-shaped cut, gradually working from the initial stab cut from the chisel, back to the pencil lines at the edges. The first is a little untidy but I soon get to grips with it as I progress through the letters.
With Roman fonts there is a lovely detail at the ends of each letter, known as the serif. The serif adds real character to the lettering and looks quite complex, but actually, having done one, I soon get used to the series of cuts required and find myself enjoying cutting them. I use a Pfeil number 3F gouge which I added to my grandad’s kit and has become one of my favourite carving tools, to slice the curve into the serif, then a small straight carving chisel to slice up to it and then emphasise the curve.
On several occasions during the carving process I struggle to visualise how different parts of the lettering intersect with each other, but am pleasantly surprised to find that, as I work, these details just seem to work themselves out. As I make each cut it becomes clear how details, like how the line across the ‘A’ sits and how the leg of the ‘R’, meets the body of the letter.
‘E’ is mostly straight cuts but with six serif details which makes it a joy to carve using just two sizes of straight chisel and the Pfeil number 3F. According to different sources, some will tell you that for lettering you need a huge array of tools, others say you will need just a carefully selected few. I am pleasantly surprised how few I need. There are clearly a few gaps in my carving tool kit but I find that I can use the tools I have to produce the necessary curves.
Carving gouge numbering systems
UK-made tools use what is known as the London Pattern to number the different sweeps of each gouge. On Continental Europe, Pfeil use a similar but slightly different numbering system. The beauty of thesepatterns is that a No.5 gouge will have the same curve, whether it is 5mm wide or 25mm wide. The problem is the
slight differences in the two systems can be confusing, for example a No.3 from the London pattern is a straight chisel, but a No.3 by Pfeil is a slightly curved tool. Charts of both patterns are available.
Tools I used
• Pfeil – No.3, 6mm European pattern
• Straight carving chisels – No.3, 4mm and 12mm London pattern
• Straight fishtail chisel – No.54, 12mm
• Carving gouge – No.4, 12mm
Cutting the curves
I hesitate to say I have the straight sections and serifs ‘mastered’, but they are certainly beginning to flow somewhat better now, which makes them perfect preparation for cutting the curves of the ‘B’, ‘R’ and the ‘D’. As with the straight cuts I make a stab cut in the centre. I find it interesting how a curve is formed, starting straight and gradually increasing in curve to the centre. The pictures show how two differently curved tools used at different parts of a letter, match the curve perfectly.
As with the straight cuts I work toward the central stab cut to form the V shape. I mostly use the Pfeil number 3F, but also another more curved gouge in places. The beauty of a carving gouge is that it can
be used the ‘right’ way up to produce concave shapes, or ‘upside down’ to form convex curves, which is perfect for the curves in the ‘B’, ‘R’ and ‘D’. It is interesting and challenging in equal measure, how the curves on each of these letters means that they are wider on the curve than where they meet the rest of the letter, but by following my marking out this poses no more issue to me than making sure I cut to my lines and form a pleasant and even V shape.
When carving you have to work in curves and straight lines that travel with and across the grain. Sharp tools make this possible but you still need to be aware of the grain direction because even with razor-sharp tools, it is possible to pull and tear the grain if you work against the grain. Woodworking in any form requires you to pay attention to the grain direction, carving is no different. You can see how working around the curve of a letter requires close attention to grain and cuts in several directions to successfully make clean cuts.
It is because of this grain issue that ‘V’-tools aren’t recommended for letter carving. I have often heard people say that they use them, which seems to make sense as they naturally create the desired V-shaped profile. The problem is that when working on a curve, one side of the blade will be working with the grain, but the other against it, which is a bad combination and will generally lead to tear out. Working down and around each side with stabbing and slicing cuts gives the cleanest result.
Woodturners are always going on about keeping tools sharp, but the sharp we use in turning is nothing compared to the sharp required in carving. The two can’t really be compared as turners usually work straight from the grinder. Carvers will use fine stones and then highly polish their edges on strops. I made my strops from chamois leather, which was the only leather I could get my hands on at the time, and fixed it to pieces of board and dowels of different sizes to polish both the bevel and the inside of the flutes. On the leather I use a mix of Autosol polishing paste and Vaseline, which keeps the Autosol from drying out. Strictly speaking the chamois is too soft for this and risks rounding over the edges of the tools, but I have never had a problem and find the strops are still working well today, several years after making them.
Checking my work
After I have gone over the lettering a few times and feel relatively happy with the result I take it over to the workshop door and take a look under natural light, which is quite unforgiving of poor tool work. This highlights a few areas that need a little more attention with sharp tools before I can return the board to the lathe, tidy it up and sand to a finish.
With the board remounted in the lathe I can sand. I want to maintain the crispness of the lettering so sand using a cork block to ensure I don’t inadvertently round over the edges. I am really pleased with how sanding actually makes the whole thing look so much neater. During the carving the pencil marks become smudged and the area does tend to look a little dirty but sanding on the lathe brings it back to a clean surface. It isn’t possible to sand the actual lettering, hence the importance of cutting cleanly with very sharp tools.
The final step is to oil the board with food safe oil. This will just seal and protect the board but also has the effect of highlighting the lettering, which I like a lot. It would be possible to paint the lettering or even gild it to add emphasis but as this is an item which will be used and washed there seems little point.
Considering it is my first attempt at letter carving and how rusty I am at the associated techniques, I am very pleased with the end result. There is plenty of room for improvement but overall I am happy. I realised that the lettering is quite bold, which I like, but next time I might try a more slender style of lettering. Of course it would be possible to really go to town with the carved decoration, adding various patterns of wheat sheaves or whatever, but I wanted to focus on the lettering. I really enjoyed carving again and while I am probably not up to professional standards yet, it is something I would like to do more of.