Water Lily Dish


Water Lily Dish:
Steve Bisco carves a jewellery dish in the Arts & Crafts style.

Steve Bisco carves a jewellery dish in the Arts & Crafts style

The craftsmen and craftswomen of the Arts & Crafts movement liked to produce objects that were both beautiful and useful, and they took their inspiration mainly from the flora and fauna of the countryside around them. Some of the plants, birds and animals they depicted were in a stylised form closely related to Art Nouveau, and others were portrayed in their natural form.
This dish is a depiction of a water lily leaf and flower in a stylised form, but with a nod and a wink to the natural plant. In nature, the lily leaf and the lily flower grow on separate stems and are only seen united when the flower drifts into the deep ‘inlet’ at the back of the leaf, which does occur often enough for us to use it as a decorative motif. The flower therefore sits to the rear of the leaf and not in the centre. This helps the design by providing a larger area of dish at the front of the leaf.
The lily leaf, carved in oak, is basically flat with curled-up edges, much like the natural leaf which lays flat on the surface of the water and often curls at the edges. The flower, carved in lime, is a small and hollow bowl shape with multiple rows of petals, similar to the real flower. The six lower ‘sepals’ of the flower, which in nature are green like the lily leaf, I have carved as part of the oak dish. Oak was the favourite timber of the Arts & Crafts woodworkers, worked to a tooled finish with a natural wax polish, as I have done here.
The inner petals, which in nature are usually white, pink, or yellow, I have finished in copper leaf to enhance the Arts & Crafts period effect. Metalworking in copper, pewter, and wrought iron figured highly in the Arts & Crafts movement and metal smiths and woodcarvers would often have worked alongside each other. If you don’t want to try copper gilding, you could use a good copper lacquer.
In the spirit of William Morris I have sought to make this dish useful as well as decorative. It can be used for holding necklaces, rings and earrings – the larger items on the broader surface of the leaf, and the smaller items inside the lily flower.   

Things you will need
• No.3 10mm & 20mm fishtail
• No.4, 6mm fishtail
• No.5, 7mm
• No.5 13mm curved
• No.8, 8mm
• No.8, 8mm curved
• No.9, 16mm curved
• 18mm spoon gouge,
• 8mm short bent gouge
• 10mm skewed spoon gouges L&R
• 12mm back-bent gouge
• Straight V-tool,
• Curved V-tool
• 16mm hooked skew chisel
• 10mm skew chisel
• 6.5mm flat chisel
• Cabinet scrapers
• Jigsaw/bandsaw or scrollsaw
• Oak (Quercus Robur) 225 x 225 x 25mm
• Lime (Tilia europea) 80 x 80 x 35mm
• Clear wax polish
• Copper leaf
• Gilding paste
• French polish

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 oak 225 x 225 x 25mm and a small piece of lime 80 x 80 x 35mm. Make a full-size copy of the drawing, with the lily leaf 220-225mm across, and trace the pattern on to the wood using carbon paper

2. Cut around the outer edge of the lily leaf with a jigsaw, bandsaw, scrollsaw or whatever hand saws you have. Take care not to break the stem when cutting. Fix wooden strips on the bench to hold it in place and put a couple of nails each side of the stem to stop the dish rotating. You are now ready to start carving

Carving the lily dish

3. Start by isolating the outer edges and the six-pointed flower base with a V-tool. The V-trench will act as a stop line to prevent splinters running off into the bits we want to keep as we excavate the inner part of the dish. Use a No.9 gouge to cut deeper stop lines across the grain to protect the narrow cross-grain sections of the outer wall

4. With the aid of the stop lines, you can use the gouge to excavate along the grain. Try to work to an even depth so the base is 10mm thick, and keep checking it with a depth gauge or double-ended callipers

5. When the excavation is complete, carefully pare down the edges of the flower sepals to vertical with a sharp chisel to avoid breaking the tips. Now level out the ‘floor’ to an even 9mm thickness with a broad shallow gouge

6. Re-draw the vein lines with a wax pencil while their ends are still marked on the outer rim. Now go round the outer rim and lower the sections at the front and sides as they are shown in the finished photos. The lowest parts should still have a lip of about 3mm above the floor of the dish. Mould the outer edges of the dish into the sides and round over the highest parts so they curl over on themselves

7. Slightly undercut around the underside of the dish and round over the sides so they blend in with the top curls. This is best done in a bench vice with some padding to protect the carving

8. To get a smooth finish on the curved surface of the curls it is best to use a curved cabinet scraper. Use the curves on the scrapers that best suit each part of the carved shape

Top tip: Cabinet scrapers are a useful addition to the woodcarver’s toolbox for creating a smooth glossy finish on oak and other hardwoods. They usually come in sets of three with various flat and curved profiles. By holding them in a near-vertical position on the wood and drawing them towards you, the burr on the scraping edge will scrape off thin shavings leaving a shiny finish that enhances the grain and medullary rays of the oak, unlike abrasives which dull the grain. Cabinet scrapers can be sharpened by pushing a fine metal file or hardened steel rod squarely across the scraping edge to create a small burr.

9. Before carving the leaf veins it is best to check that all your lines and outer edges are in the right place. Trace the pattern from the drawing on to a piece of clear plastic or acetate film and hold it in place over the carving so you can see how your lines are placed in relation to the pattern

10. Carefully carve in the leaf veins with a V-tool, then use a shallow back-bent gouge to blend each section of leaf into the veins. Use cabinet scrapers to get a smooth and shiny finish in each leaf segment

11. Now carve the sepals of the flower. Dish them inwards towards the middle and create a hollow in the centre for the lime section to sit in. Carve a shallow V in each sepal. Finish by slightly undercutting the sepals and creating a sharp edge against the leaf base

12. Finally, carve the stem coming out of the back of the leaf with the traditional ‘scooped’ end as though it has been cut from the plant. The thin stem should be aligned along the grain, but you still need to take care not to break it

13. The lily leaf is now complete. Give it two or three coats of a good wax polish to bring out the colour in the oak, but leave the middle of the flower sepals untouched so you can glue in the flower later

Limewood flowers
Carving flowers in limewood is delicate work and can seem a bit daunting if you haven’t tried it before.  The benefit of lime (Tilia europea) is that it can be carved very thinly without breaking, provided your tools are sharp. By shaving away the wood in fine slices you can create thin overlapping petals with sharp edges. A 16mm hooked skew chisel is the most versatile tool for this type of carving.  

Carving the lily flower

14. Cut the lime block into an 80mm diameter circle. Then cut the 16 indentations between the outer petals, looking rather like the cogs on a gear wheel, that will form the two outer layers of petals. The best work-holding method for such a small piece is to glue it to a piece of card which is glued to a backing board, and then screw this to the bench

15. Use a spoon gouge to hollow out a bowl shape in the middle of the flower. It should be 45mm diameter at the top and about 27mm deep at this stage, leaving about 6mm thickness in the bottom

16. Cut down the level of the outer petals so they alternate at 25mm and 18mm in height from the baseboard. Use a V-tool to divide the inner petals on the inside of the bowl, then slightly lower the level of each alternate petal

17. Shape the eight highest inner petals so they curve slightly inwards at the top. The alternate eight petals are just small points forming an inside layer. Hollow out the bowl shape some more to make the petals look thin and delicate, but not too fragile

18. Shape the outer petals to form two layers. Each layer must emerge at a natural angle from the base and sides of the flower so they all appear to wrap around and overlap each other. Undercut each layer until you can detach the flower from the card and backing board

19. Fix a small block of wood to the bench that will fit inside the flower to hold it still. Place the flower over it upside down with some padding in between. Now shave away the underside of the flower and the outer petals until you get a natural flower shape that will fit neatly inside the oak sepals on the lily leaf

20. Give the flower a coat of acrylic sander-sealer to seal and strengthen the wood. Unlike oak, lime wood tends to have a ‘woolly’ finish and usually needs abrasives. Give it a light sanding so the petals and the bowl are smooth and clean. Adjust the fit in the sepals of the oak lily leaf until it fits perfectly, but don’t glue it yet

Copper gilding

21. Get some copper leaf and some gilding paste, available from most art stores or online. Give the flower an undercoat of a dark red non-gloss paint as a base for the copper leaf – acrylic paint is fine if you sand it smooth. When the paint is dry, give the flower a thin coat of gilding paste. Cut up some sheets of copper leaf into 25mm squares. You can do this with scissors while it’s in its backing papers

22. When the gilding paste has become dry but slightly tacky to the touch, about 10 minutes, pick up a piece of copper leaf in a folded piece of paper and lay it over a section of the flower. Press it down with a soft brush, and brush away any loose pieces of leaf. Continue over the whole flower (except the gluing area on the base) and go over any bare sections again with more copper leaf

23. When the gilding is finished, give it a coat of French polish to seal and antique the bright copper leaf. Work swiftly and smoothly with a soft brush as the French polish dries very quickly and will form muddy patches if you go over it too many times. French polish is shellac dissolved in alcohol, so clean your brushes in methylated spirit

24. With the flower glued in place, the water lily dish is finished. Here it is being used for jewellery, with small items in the flower bowl and larger items in the lily leaf dish

Did you know
Although the Arts & Crafts style originated in Britain, it also became popular in many other countries. America developed its own version of Arts & Crafts based around the ‘homespun’ plain furniture of the Shaker style and the folk crafts of the pioneer settlers. Whereas British Arts & Crafts tended towards the ‘Tudorbethan’ thatched cottage, America followed its own vernacular of the ‘prairie-house’ style. One of America’s best-known architects, Frank Lloyd Wright (1869-1959), was a leader in the American version of the Arts & Crafts style. 


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