The Blue View - Carved Name Boards

Part 2: Hand Carved Lettering

I have a basic set of woodcarving tools: a set of wood chisels ranging from 1/4” to 1” and a starter set of short-handled carving tools, which do the job nicely and don't cost all that much. I also have a set of small files and rasps to remove cutting marks. Marcie made a nice roll up pouch to keep them all in. Photo 1 shows my complete set of woodcarving tools, and a few sources are listed at the end of this blog.

davids handcarving tools

To keep them sharp, I use a small sharpening stone for the chisels and some sharpening compound applied to a small felt disc mounted in my Dremel rotary tool for the spoons and gouges.

All basic letter carving can be done using four basic techniques – carving vertical line segments, horizontal line segments, diagonal line segments and lastly, curved line segments. Wood reacts to the carving tools differently depending on whether you are carving with the grain or across the grain, and each individual piece of wood will be slightly different than another seemingly identical piece  depending on its age, tightness and direction of grain, dryness, and other factors.

To practice the different techniques, first draw the four symbols shown in Photo 2 on a piece of wood. Each symbol is about 2-1/2” high by 1/2” wide. I used a straightedge for the first three symbols, and a compass to draw the fourth symbol with an outer circle of 2-1/2” in diameter and an inner circle of about 2”.

the four symbols

Next draw the lines in the center of each symbol as shown in the lower view of Photo 2. These are called split stop lines, because they will prevent the wood from splitting beyond them. In the first symbol, draw a line from each corner until they intersect. Then draw a vertical line between the intersection points. The third symbol is done in the same fashion.  In the second symbol, draw lines from each corner that bisect the angle. They will be different lengths. Connect the intersection point with a line along the center of the symbol as shown. Finally, the split stop line for the fourth symbol is another circle with a diameter of 2-1/4”.

defining the split stop

Begin carving the first symbol by defining the split stops. Place your 1” chisel at its intersection with the upper diagonal split stop lines. Holding it at 90 degrees, hit it with the mallet until you have a groove about 1/16” deep. Move the chisel down and repeat until you reach the lower intersection point. For the diagonal lines, use a smaller chisel, and place it along one of the lines. You want to make a cut that just breaks the surface of the wood at the corners and is about 1/16” deep at the intersection points. Repeat for each of the remaining diagonal lines.

begin carving

Next, place your 1” chisel on the left line of the first symbol at a 45 degree angle. The chisel should be about even with the top intersection point. Lightly tap it with the mallet 2 or 3 times. Now move the chisel to the next part of this line and again tap it with the mallet, and repeat until the chisel is even with the lower intersection point. Now rotate the board 180 degrees and do the same on the other vertical line. You are going to repeat this process on each vertical line until they form a V-shaped valley with a clean, straight line at the bottom.

Next, carve the triangular sections at the top and bottom of the symbol. Using your small angled chisel, carve out the small triangle remaining on each vertical line. Then gently...very gently...slice along the top horizontal line. If it resists you and begins to split, try working from the other direction. Continue carving the wood away until the small triangle at the top of the symbol descends to the intersection point.


Use the angled chisel and small files until the symbol has smooth straight sides and straight clean lines. As a final step, use 80-100 grit sandpaper to remove any imperfections.

Carving the diagonal symbol is done in the same manner, except the wood will have more of a tendency to split outside the lines and the sides of the cut will not be as smooth. You will have a bit more control if you carve towards you rather than away.

Carving the horizontal symbol is the next level in complexity and requires a different approach. As you carve the long horizontal lines with the grain, the wood will want to start splitting away from the line. Make sure you have freshly sharpened chisels. Start as before by defining the split stop lines with the chisel and mallet for the center line and the small angled chisel for the diagonal lines. Next use the angled chisel to carve the two triangle shapes at the ends of the symbol. Carve from the outside vertical line to the intersection point, maintaining the 45 degree angle.

Continuing with the angled chisel, place it at a 45 degree angle about 1/4” from the intersection at the right and about 1/16” from the center line, and slice parallel to the center line towards the left intersection. Do not get closer than 1/4” from either intersection. Rotate the board 180 degrees and do the same on the other side of the center line. Continue making passes on each side as you slowly back away from the center line towards the outside lines. Be careful, as you near the outside lines, to avoid splitting the wood outside the lines. Keep the angle consistent and eventually you will have the V-shaped trough. Clean the sides and lines with a chisel, then file and sand as before.

the harder parts

To carve the last symbol, yet another technique is used. Begin with your smallest chisel and mallet, and maintaining a 90 degree angle, score the center line about 1/16” deep all the way around the circle. As before, the wood is most likely to split as you carve closer to the grain, so to control this tendency as much as possible, begin your cuts at these points. Using the small angled chisel, start at the most southerly point of the of the inside circle and slice at a 45 degree angle towards the center, working in clockwise direction, stopping at due west. Then returning to the south , slice in a counter clockwise direction stopping at due east. Next go to the most northerly point of the inside circle, slice the northeast quadrant first, then the northwest quadrant until the first pass is completed. Do the same for the outside circle, in the same order, and slicing towards the center line. Be very careful. It is easy to tear or split the wood outside the line.

Once the inner and outer lines have been defined, work away from the center line towards the smallest circle. Make several passes, working gradually outward until the inner circle is reached. Now carve from the outside radius towards the center line. Make several passes, working slowly and patiently, carving a little each pass. Alternate with the angled chisel and a gouge, working towards the center line until the V-shaped trough begins to form. Clean the sides and center line with the various shaped chisels, then file and sand until it is perfect.

nicely done

Photo 7 shows the completed practice carving. Allow yourself a few minutes to admire your fine work, then flip the board over and repeat the entire process on the other side. This not only gives you a bit more practice to hone your skills, it also gives you a chance to practice with a grain that runs differently than the first side.

Carving Script Letters and Graphics

Script letters and graphics are often easier than carving block letters because the eye will catch every flaw in a block style letter whereas in script and graphics, the eye is more forgiving of minor flaws and discrepancies.

For carving script letters, the process is almost the same as for block letters. Each line segment should have a split stop line. The straight-line segments will have split stops just as in a block letter. The curved segments will have split stop lines that follow the center of the curve. Use the same techniques as for the exercises, paying close attention to the direction of the grain.

Carving the graphics has a somewhat different approach. Practice making the logo or graphic on a scrap piece of wood before carving it on the name board. I only used split stop lines on line segments that are wide and for which the 45 degree V-shaped trough is desired. Otherwise, I used the various carving tools, especially the spoon shaped gouges, to carve out the image. I worked from the higher parts to the lower or deeper parts, rotating the board frequently as the angle to the grain changed.

Carving the lettering on the name boards are an extension of carving the basic shapes - vertical lines, diagonal lines, horizontal lines, curves and graphics. Use the same techniques for each line segment.

Stay tuned for Part 3 – Gilding the Lily

If you can't find the wood carving tools locally, the following are good sources:

Lastly, a really good reference book on the subject...