Tudor Gothic Panel:
Steve Bisco carves and fumes an oak panel in Tudor style
Steve Bisco carves and fumes an oak panel in Tudor style
The Gothic style that was dominant from the 12th-16th centuries, and again in the great Victorian Gothic Revival of the 19th century, is one of the high points in the history of carved ornament. It is perennially popular with wood and stone carvers.
This authentic Gothic pattern dates from Tudor times in the 16th century, when late-medieval Gothic was starting to feel the influence of the Renaissance. It has a noble provenance – it comes from an illustration in Pugin’s Gothic Ornament, with the description ‘from the monument of Sir Nicholas Carew’ in St Mary’s Church, Beddington, Surrey. This would be Sir Nicholas Carew (1496-1539), Knight of the Garter, Master of the Horse, courtier and close friend of King Henry VIII. He was a second cousin of Anne Boleyn but was sympathetic to Henry’s first queen, Catherine of Aragon, and their daughter, Princess Mary (later Queen ‘Bloody’ Mary). Carew connived and plotted to bring about Anne’s downfall and execution but, in true Tudor fashion, he was later himself beheaded on charges of treason. Life in the court of Henry VIII was short and dangerous.
The pattern is a lozenge with ‘cusps’ radiating from the centre, placed over an oblong with its corners forming four more cusps on the sides of the lozenge. It is symmetrical on the horizontal and vertical axes, so each quarter is a mirror image of its neighbours. It is carved in low-relief at a depth of 15mm above the background.
You can if you wish leave the carving in its new oak colour, but I have taken it back to a Tudor dark brown by ‘fuming’ it with ammonia. This is a traditional way of ageing oak that is very easy to do and looks more natural than using woodstains.
DID YOU KNOW?
The fates of Henry VIII’s six queens are summarised in the rhyme ‘Divorced, Beheaded, Died, – Divorced, Beheaded, Survived’. In order of succession they were Catherine of Aragon (divorced), Anne Boleyn (beheaded), Jane Seymour (died), Anne of Cleves (divorced), Catherine Howard (beheaded), Catherine Parr (survived). It would take a much longer rhyme to list the fates of the courtiers involved in the intrigues.
Things you will need
• 20mm No.3 fishtail gouge
• 10mm No.3 fishtail gouge
• 20mm No.9 gouge
• 10mm No.3 gouge
• 8mm No.8 gouge
• 7mm No.5 gouge
• 5mm No.5 gouge
• 16mm No.9 curved gouge
• 10mm skewed spoon gouge
• Straight V-tool
• 20mm flat chisel
• 10mm skew chisel
• 6.5mm flat chisel
• 3mm chisel
• Oak (Quercus robur) 250 x 310 x 38mm
• Household ammonia
• Dark wax 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.
Good mallet technique helps when carving oak
Top tip: When carving in oak you will need to use a mallet most of the time, so learn good mallet technique to avoid straining your wrist and elbow. Tapping gently with a mallet held near the top of the handle gives you more control over your tools when making fine cuts. When ‘roughing out’ surplus wood you will need to hit a bit harder, so hold the mallet lower down the handle and use the momentum of the swing to provide the power rather than the force of your muscles.
1. Get a piece of oak 250 x 310 x 38mm. If you are using ‘green’ oak, select a piece that is fairly straight-grained and free of knots to reduce the risk of warping. Make a full-size copy of the pattern and get some carbon paper
2. Some carvers like to paste a print of the drawing directly on to the wood and carve through it, but I prefer to trace the pattern using carbon paper so I can see the grain when carving. Make sure your drawing is securely taped to the wood to avoid it wandering while tracing
3. Mark a line around the sides of the block 15mm from the front. This will be the ‘ground’ level’ for the carving
REMOVING THE BACKGROUND
4. Fix strips of wood to the bench to secure the panel. Cut around the edges of the pattern with a V-tool, taking care to work with the grain. Avoid the temptation to ‘bost’ down vertically at this stage as you may crush the wood along the edges
5. Use deep gouges, such as a 16mm no.9, to cut away the bulk of the waste wood outside the pattern. Always keep the ‘wings’ of the cutting edge above the surface so a split doesn’t run off into the pattern. Be aware not only of the surface grain direction but also how it rises or falls below the surface, and take care you don’t cut into the background
6. With the bulk of the waste wood removed you can safely square up the vertical edges with careful ‘bosting’ cuts using shallow gouges that fit the outlines of the pattern. The wood you pare off can now break out into the open without crushing the grain. Try not to make stab marks in the ‘ground’ surface
7. Now work the ground surface down to the final level with a shallow gouge and a broad flat chisel. Cut a clean angle where the flat background meets the vertical pattern edges
8. To make sure the ground is all at the right level, make a simple depth gauge. Insert a screw through a flat piece of wood so the tip projects to the required depth. Place the wood on top of the pattern surface so the screw projects down to the ground surface. If the screw scratches the surface as you move it around, carve down a bit further and try again until no more scratches are produced
Top tip: Where parts of the original top surface of the board will remain in the finished carving, use sharp tools and take great care not to damage or lift out those parts while grounding out the background and carving the detail. Work round the edges of the pattern with a V-tool first, taking care with grain direction, to create a gap between the pattern and the surrounding area. This ‘stop line’ helps prevent a splinter in the outer area running into the pattern.
9. To get a smooth surface on the flat background, 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
10. Finally, finish the background by planning a chamfer around the edges
CARVING THE DETAIL
11. Start the detail carving by making a narrow hole with a spike in the central point of the pattern so you don’t lose the centre as you carve down. It is important to distinguish the valleys from the ridges in the central area. If you get them wrong it will be hard to correct. Refer to the drawing and finished photos and mark the valley centre lines with a red crayon before cutting them with a V-tool
12. Work the valleys down to a V shape, starting with the long axis of the lozenge where the V runs along the grain, then move on to the more difficult short axis that runs across the grain. As the pattern is symmetrical it is best to work the opposite pairs together. Take great care not to chip out the curlicues of the cusps
13. Continue to the four diagonal sections that are broader and more curvy
14. Reduce the levels of the ridges and valleys as they dip into the central point, taking them down to the background level in the centre. Take great care with the narrow ridges that run across the grain near the centre
15. Now turn your attention to the ‘cusps’ around the edges of the lozenge. Carefully incise the ‘eyes’ inside them. Use a skew chisel to get a sharp finish where the V incisions meet in the bottom of the eye
16. Shape the curlicues at the ends of each cusp by cutting a small incision around the tiny volute with a small gouge. Take great care not to chip out the centre of the curl. Tidy up the shape of each cusp and take a shaving off the top surface with a flat chisel to remove any tracing carbon marks
DID YOU KNOW?
Oak panelling, known as ‘wainscot’, was the most popular type of wall covering in Tudor times. After Henry Tudor defeated Richard III at Bosworth Field in 1485 and became King Henry VII, there was peace after 30 years of war and the gentry became wealthy by farming and commerce. They no longer wanted to live in draughty medieval castles and started to build grand houses with warmer and more comfortable rooms. Much of the panelling was plain, but those with money paid carvers to create interesting patterns on the panels. The most popular style was the ‘linenfold’ pattern, resembling folded cloth, but more complex patterns were also carved. Because they were mainly in low relief and were usually unpainted, carvers made the patterns stand out by creating light and shade with sharp ridges and V-shaped valleys.
17. Repeat the process to carve the four cusps that project from the sides of the lozenge. Carve the ridge that joins the outer cusp to the lozenge area
18. Finally, go over the carving to tidy it up and make sure it has a good, crisp, ‘tooled’ finish. It should then look like this. If you want to leave it in its new oak colour, just give it a coat of a good wax polish. But if you want to go for the ‘full Tudor’ don’t polish it yet – get ready to start fuming
19. SAFETY: Work in a well-ventilated space and lean away from the fumes as they may irritate your throat and eyes. Get an airtight plastic tub and pour about 50-80ml of household ammonia (obtainable from hardware stores) into a shallow dish. Wear eye protection and rubber gloves when pouring the ammonia. Place the carving in the tub, raised above the dish on wooden supports, and seal the tub. Leave it until the oak ‘ages’ to a pleasing ‘dark roast’ – about six to 12 hours depending on the temperature, the concentration of ammonia and the amount of tannin in the oak. When you open the tub, stand back and let the fumes disperse a little before you lift out the carving. The carving will smell a bit ‘whiffy’ at first but that will go off after a few hours
20. The finished panel now looks like a relic from Tudor times. Go over it with a dark wax polish, buff it up to a soft sheen, then hang it where the light strikes it sideways to enhance the shadows
Oak is a pale beige colour when newly cut but it darkens to a deep brown after many years of exposure to the air. People noticed that oak beams in stables and pigsties tended to darken much quicker than oak inside houses. They figured out that the ammonia in the animals’ urine was the cause, and found they could speed up the effect with refined ammonia. The Victorians loved to recreate past times, so they used this method to make new oak look ancient. Fuming with ammonia can ‘age’ oak at the rate of about a century an hour. But, as fuming works on the tannins found in the heartwood, make sure your oak is ‘all heart’ if you want to fume it. Sapwood – the young outer layer of wood under the bark – has no tannins and will stay pale.
Oak heartwood (left) and sapwood (right) before fuming
Oak heartwood (left) and sapwood (right) after fuming