Classical Shell Dish


Classical Shell Dish:
Steve Bisco carves a scallop shell dish in the Classical style.

Steve Bisco carves a scallop shell dish in the Classical style

Living on the coast, I’ve always had a fondness for seashells, and in my youth I used to earn pocket money by walking far out on the mudflats at low tide to pick up wild native oysters. This fascination seems universal to mankind, and seashells are among the most commonly used decorative motifs throughout history. The scallop shell, in particular, appears widely in the Classical styles among niches, cornices, pediments and fountains. Botticelli’s Venus famously emerges from a giant scallop shell. The scallop naturally provides a suitable form for a dish or shallow bowl and was fully exploited by 18th-century silversmiths such as Paul Storr (1771-1844) and ceramicists like Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795).
In woodworking, bowls are generally seen as the province of the woodturner, and we carvers don’t use them as much as we could. A richly-carved bowl makes a beautiful ornament to grace a table or sideboard, whether or not you put anything in it. Although this dish is circular, its form is dominated by the elaborate Classical volutes and seaweed-like acanthus swirls at the ‘hinge’ end of the shell. To keep these features light and delicate within the fairly small scale of this dish, I have used limewood (Tilia vulgaris), which can be deeply undercut and carved very thinly. This can be left as bare wood, painted, gilded in silver or gold leaf, limewaxed or finished in verdigris wax. If you prefer to use a more decorative but harder wood such as walnut (Junglans spp), cherry (Prunus spp) or mahogany (Swietenia spp), you will need to compromise on the amount of undercutting on the acanthus swirls and make them a bit thicker.   

Things you will need
• No.3, 20mm fishtail gouge
• No.3, 10mm fishtail gouge
• No4, 6mm fishtail gouge
• No.3, 10mm
• No.8, 8mm
• No.5, 7mm
• No.9, 16mm curved gouge
• No.5, 13mm curved gouge
• 10mm short bent gouge
• 8mm short bent gouge
• No.8, 8mm curved gouge
• No.3, 5mm bent gouge
• No.39, 6 or 10mm V tool
• 20 & 6mm flat chisel
• 16mm hooked skew chisel
• 10mm skew chisel
• Lime (Tilia vulgaris). 180 x 180 x 75 mm
• Liberon verdigris wax

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. Get a piece of lime (Tilia vulgaris) 180 x 180 x 75 mm. Make a full-size copy of the drawing and trace the pattern on to the wood, using carbon paper, with the grain aligned from the ‘hinge’ end to the front edge

2. Cut around the 180mm diameter circle with a bandsaw or whatever saws you have. Mark a horizontal line all around the side of the cylinder, 50mm up from the base, then mark vertical lines around the outside to show where the ridges of the shell pattern meet the edge. Also mark the centre of the circle on the underside. You’ll need these marks later

3. Mark a line across the bowl where the acanthus leaves end, and saw out the surplus wood in front of the acanthus down to the 50mm line

4. Work holding can be tricky on a bowl, so it is best to paste it on to a piece of card, then on to a backing board, using glue or sanding sealer. Screw or clamp the backing board to the bench and you are ready to carve


5. Start carving by ‘bosting’ around the inner edges of the volute and the acanthus leaves, then use a large curved gouge to hollow out the middle into a rough bowl shape. Take care to leave at least 13mm thickness in the bottom at this stage

6. To ensure you don’t go too deep at the base of the bowl, make up this simple depth gauge using thin plywood. Make a ‘sandwich’ of 3 thicknesses of the board, wide enough to straddle the bowl, leaving a gap in the middle that you can slide another piece of board through. Cut the central ‘slider’ to a point and mark a red calibration line when the point is touching the bench (zero thickness)

7. With the bowl roughly hollowed, rough out the shape of the acanthus swirls so they flow out of the sides of the volute, then curl along the sides, ending with an upward flick. Refer to the drawing and the finished photos for this

8. Now rough out the area of the ‘hinge’ volute flowing right over from the back of the bowl to the centre

Did you know?
The Classical style has its origins in ancient Greece and Rome 2000 years ago. It disappeared in the Dark Ages after the collapse of the Roman Empire, but re-emerged in the Renaissance when the ancient ruins were excavated, reaching its peak with the Neo-Classical style of the 18th and 19th centuries. Roman artifacts were often made in bronze and found coated with verdigris – a green coating of copper chloride salts resulting from corrosion by air, soil and salt water over many centuries. Instead of using verdigris wax, you can buy metal patina finishes from Modern Masters and Sculpt Nouveau to create a metal patina effect.

9. Carve the ridges and hollows that flow over the top, front and back of the volute. Make the lines nice and sharp with a hooked skew chisel, then make the ridges slightly concave with a shallow gouge. Keep a smooth flow to all the curves

10. Shape the acanthus leaves and carve the veins that flow from the volute to the ends. The unfurled frond at the end has to be shaped first into a ball and then scooped out to form the flick

11. Undercut the acanthus leaves right back to where the inner face of the bowl will be, and open the gap through to the outside. Merge the leaves smoothly into the volute. How well you do this will have a great impact on the finished piece

12. Now return to the inner bowl surface. Redraw the shell ‘flutes’ as shown on the drawing. Use large and small curved gouges to scoop out each concave ‘flute’, leaving a sharp ridge in between each one. Always work downhill, and take care as the grain changes in the bottom. Leave at least 6mm thickness in the base

13. When you have to carve away your pattern lines in the roughing out stage, it is useful to trace the pattern on to a piece of glass or clear plastic so you can place it over the carving to check the pattern as you progress

14. You will need some spoon-bit gouges to achieve the downhill direction from under the acanthus leaves. You will also be working across the grain in the rear flutes so take care not to crumble the ridges. Short-bent gouges, also called spoon-bit or spoon-bent gouges, are a useful addition to your toolkit for getting into awkward places where an obstruction prevents you getting a low enough cutting angle with a normal gouge. As well as new ones, it is worth looking out for old ones as they often have a much shorter ‘spoon’ that gives you more options

15. Refine the ‘scalloped’ shape at the outer ends. Check that all the carving on the upper surface is complete and well finished. Saw away some of the surplus wood from the underside then detach the carving from the backing board. The design of this bowl is dominated by curves.  Every line must flow in a smooth and graceful curve from end to end and top to bottom.  Any kinks or straight bits will stick out like a sore thumb and annoy you every time you look at it, so always keep your eye on the curves


16. For work holding, use some scrap wood to make a raised section that you can lay the bowl on upside down without damaging the volute and acanthus leaves. Lay some soft material on top of this to protect the carved surfaces

17. Clean up the base surface, mark a point 13mm back from the centre of the disc towards the volute end, and draw a circle 90mm in diameter for the base. Shape the outer surface of the bowl back to this circle, and check the wall thickness is about 8-10mm using double-ended calipers. Heavy mallet work could now split the thin bowl, so use a sharp flat chisel with gentle hand pressure and a sideways sweeping motion to shave away the wood

18. Now carve the underside of the bowl into convex ridges to reflect the flutes on the inside. Carve the sides of the bowl to a thickness of about 8mm, taking care not to misalign the upper and lower ridges and hollows. Stop at the base circle to retain a flat base

19. The ridges and hollows over and under the ‘hinge’ volute need to flow seamlessly into one another. Hold the piece in a bench vice with plenty of soft packing and make sideways sweeping cuts to gently shave away the hard end grain


20. Finally, check over all the carving and refine any uneven surfaces. Use fine abrasives carefully to create a smooth finish to the carved surfaces without dulling the detail. Photo below shows the finished carving used for reference when carving

21. You can now apply the finish of your choice. I used Liberon verdigris wax, which gives a pale green finish like corroded copper. Apply the wax with a fairly stiff brush, and leave it several hours to thicken

22. Use a dry cloth to buff the wax to a soft sheen, with the wood showing through on the edges. The classical shell dish now has a look of antique Roman copper


Leave A Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.