Chip-Carving Letters


Chip-Carving Letters:
Murray Taylor gives you a brief history of letter carving and describes the tools and equipment you will need to carve small letters.

Murray Taylor gives you a brief history of letter carving and describes the tools and equipment you will need to carve small letters

Letter carving is a vast subject and if you are thinking of carving large letters as shown, using a mallet and full-size gouges, I would recommend you study Lettercarving in Wood by Chris Pye, which I consider to be the bible on the subject.
When I am teaching or visiting clubs I am frequently asked about carving small letters as many people seem to have a problem with this. I must start by saying that, as my background was as a professional jeweller and silversmith, for me it is a matter of the smaller the better as fine detail was my stock in trade.
Have a look at churches and churchyards – you will be surprised at the wonderful array of different fonts and styles of carving you can find. When I am walking around such places I find myself thinking about the craftsmen in the past who carved these letters so neatly and, of course, the tools they would have used.

Carving a house name on a chestnut beam

The beam in situ

A motto for a college in oak

A brief history
It is generally believed that the lettering on Trajan’s Column in Rome is the finest example of lettering known to this day. Its beauty lives on and is an inspiration to us all. The column was built in marble around 115AD. The panel is approximately 3 mby 1m in size, but unfortunately we do not know the name of the master craftsman who carved it.
The letters H, J, K and U do not appear on the tablet as we know them today, nor W, Y and Z, but by careful study it has been possible to come up with satisfactory shapes to complete the modern Roman alphabet. There are many photographs of the column that can be seen on line.
Students of calligraphy will discuss at length the minutiae of the elements involved with individual letters, the base of the ‘A’ being slightly inclined from the baseline, the apex of the ‘A’ projects slightly above the cap line etc, etc, but these weighty matters need not concern us in this article.
The reason for the need to do small lettering is, of course, to put names, dates and inscriptions on to carvings such as lovespoons, badges, plaques and the like. It can also be used on small items such as boxes or plates.

Roman gravestones at Grosvenor Museum, Chester

Grosvenor Museum, part of West Cheshire Museums, Cheshire West and Chester Council

A lovespoon with ‘Wales’ in English, Welsh and Japanese

The Daffodils, by William Wordsworth

Wedding plaque

Cutting letters
When I started carving I thought small lettering would be very easy in wood – after all I could do it in precious metals. How wrong I was. I had not considered the all-important grain in the wood. In most of the books I read the emphasis was on the spacing of the letters, how this added to the aesthetic appeal etc, and I remember thinking ‘never mind the spacing, I’ll worry about that when I can carve the letters’. And so it was that I began to carve sample board after sample board of different fonts.
In this article I am going to take you through the Roman alphabet style. It does have variations but is more or less a standard form. In order to carve these letters, you will need chip-carving knives and a selection of small gouges, depending upon the size of the letters you are carving. You will also need a mechanical pencil, an eraser, a T-square, suitable sharpening tools, some tracing and carbon paper. I usually prefer graphite paper as this is easier to erase.

Many examples of Roman fonts can be easily found on your computer or in the many books available on calligraphy. You can see many examples of fonts all around you – a walk around any city will give you ideas if you keep your eyes open or you could try churches and churchyards.

The tools required

A typical Roman font 1) computer generated 2) hand drawn

Relief carving on Mr Simms Olde Sweet Shop, Chester

Order of cutting
When considering the Roman alphabet for carving we can divide it into five groups, or series.

Series 1: Letters with straight elements joined at obtuse or right angles. The numbers indicated with a Δ are cut as three-cut chips

Series 2: Letters formed mostly with straight lines and curves

Series 3: Letters formed mainly with curves. Numbers indicated with a Δ are cut as three-cut chips

Series 4: Letters with straight elements joined at acute angles

Series 5: Completely circular letters

The series 1 letters
Cut a practice board approximately 200 x 100mm and draw a set of parallel lines 20mm apart. Now draw a series of perpendicular lines between them 3mm apart as shown. Then draw in the serifs freehand.
Now cut the three-cut triangular chip number 1, followed by triangular cut number 2. Now cut the perpendicular lines numbers 3 and 4, then round your knife into the serifs and generally clean up your cuts. What you are aiming for is a neat letter like the one on the practice board.
It is unlikely that this will happen first time, that will only come with practice, so draw a line of the letter ‘I’ and keep practising. Remember to regularly strop your knife. When cutting the perpendicular lines and be careful not to cut into the cap or baselines.

The letter L
Draw another set of parallel lines 20mm apart and draw the letter ‘L’ as shown. Now follow the series of cuts as shown in the photograph and you should end up with a neatly carved letter ‘L’.
The secret of successful letter carving is to understand and memorise the sequence of the stop-cuts – they will become second nature after a while. Your knife should enter the wood at an angle of between 60 – 65°. Be careful not to cut in too deeply and leave ugly over-cuts at the root of the letter. The rest of the letters in the series 1 group are cut in a similar manner. It is important to become really competent with this series as it is the easiest to master and your ability to master it will influence your ability to go on to the next four series.
The rest of the letters in series 1 are very similar to carve but a little more care needs to be taken when carving the letter ‘K’, where the two arms meet at an obtuse angle.
It is easier to carve the upper arm coming in to meet the lower and not have them converging on the perpendicular section of the letter. In either case it just takes a little practice not to get a chip-out at the junction, so remember practise, practise, practise, for as we well know, practice makes perfect.

Drawing ‘straight line’ letters, the first practice board. A) The basic letter ‘I’. B) 1st triangular chip. C) 2nd triangular chip. D) Two vertical cuts. E) Round off the serifs. F) The final cleaning up

The letter ‘L’ showing the sequence of cuts

The series 2 letters
When carving these letters, it should be noted that the cut for the outer curve forms the stop cut for the triangular chips. A stop cut is made to stop a cut running on with the grain. Following the order of cuts shown in the diagram you should, with a little practice, be able to get reasonable results. When cutting the tighter curves of the B, P and R you will find it easier to use a knife with a narrow blade, a standard chip-carving knife would be difficult to use on a very tight curve and cause a jagged cut.
The tight curves are hard to master but you can clean up the curves with small gouges, you will find the narrow gauges of 6, 7 and 8 sweeps being the most useful.

The series 3 letters
The open curve letters in this series should be relatively easier to carve now that you have had some practice. Follow the order of cuts and clean up with a gauge.

The series 4 letters
This series of letters poses a new problem, that is the acute angle at which the arms join as the sharp points are liable to crumble, so it takes a lot of care with a very sharp knife to keep these points intact. Because we are looking at small letters, it is possible to work very carefully and maintain the integrity of the sharp points. Only practice will produce the precision you no doubt strive for, along with the use of a good light source or even a magnifier.

The series 5 letters
This comprises the circular letters O and Q and seems to cause a disproportionate level of difficulty. It is important to note they are not truly round and that the width of the letters is narrower at the top and bottom. It is vital, therefore, that you draw them accurately using a 0.5mm pencil and not letting your knife wander inside or outside the lines. Once again you can tidy up with small gouges.

Top tip: Time spent on accurate drawing of the letters is time well spent. Do not think that ‘near enough’ will do. You will never correct a badly drawn letter with your knife.

On the left is a  standard chip-carving knife with diminishing-sized blades going to the right

Cleaning up a tight curve

The project
As with most of my projects it is somewhat open-ended. The idea is to carve a sampler – the size of the board and the letters is up to you. I would suggest that the letters should be somewhere between 15-20mm high. You can trace the letters on to the board very lightly and then go over them with a 0.5mm pencil. Alternatively, you can print out the alphabet from your computer and stick the paper on to the wood with a rubberised spray-on glue, then carve through the paper.
You could chip-carve a decorative border or simply shape and chamfer the board as I have done. The final embellishment in this case was to sign and date it. The sampler was finished with sanding sealer and a clear wax.

The computer-generated letters carved through the paper

The marked-out sampler

The carving in progress

The completed sampler


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