How to Carve A Wood Relief

Ma Wen Jie

Wood relief carving has been an art form since ancient times. In relief carving, figures or objects are carved into a flat piece of wood. The general process for relief carving involves removing wood so that the carved object appears to rise out of the wood itself.

Carve A Wood Relief
  1. Sketch the overall design on a piece of paper the same size as the wood. When doing relief carving, it is sometimes necessary to carve away part of the drawing that is sketched directly on the wood. Having a paper copy to refer to allows you to easily redraw those portions during the carving process.

  2. With a pencil, carefully sketch out the design onto the wood. Using pencil instead of pen allows you to change the design and fix sketching mistakes more easily.

  3. Rough out the relief carving by using a larger hand chisel to carve out the main lines and shapes of the piece.

  4. Resketch the detail lines and forms that may have been removed during the rough carving.

  5. Using a medium or fine chisel, carve the details into the rough carving.

  6. Finish the wood by sanding and then applying the desired wood finish. Some people stain reliefs; others prefer a more natural tung oil or olive oil finish. Lacquer or polyurethane also make good finishes for relief carvings.

  7. Tip

    Remember that the portions of your carving that are higher will appear closer to the viewer. Always practice with wood carving chisels on a similar piece of wood before starting your relief carving. If you want fine details, you may need to redraw the design several times as the carving progresses. Experiment with different directions of strokes to create different feels and textures; for example, use horizontal carving strokes for the wall of a building carved in relief, with vertical strokes for the background. If you are new to relief carving, start with a soft wood, like pine.


    Carving chisels are very sharp. They are designed to remove wood with nothing more than hand pressure. Make sure that you keep your chisels very sharp; dull chisels are harder to use, and they have a tendency to slip, which could injure you. The exact method of sharpening will vary depending on the tool and the carver, but the chisel should cut the wood with minimal resistance. Don't try to remove too much wood in one stroke; this could cause the chisel to jam and create unsightly torn areas in the wood. Repeated long, shallow cuts are generally better than a single failed deep cut. Patience is the key. Be sure to wear eye protection while carving.