Relief Carving: Definition, Tools & Techniques

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Can you create a sculpture from a solid plank of wood? How would you do it? In this lesson, explore relief carving and learn about some tools and techniques used in the process.

What is Relief Carving?

Sculptors are artists who create three-dimensional objects. They can work in many methods, including using clay to model sculptures, as well as processes to cast large figures in bronze. Some sculptors carve materials like stone or wood. Those who carve works might make relief carvings.

A relief carving is a sculpture with figures that protrude from a background while still being attached to it. Relief carvings create an illusion of space and depth on a shallow surface. It's a very old way of making art, and examples of relief carvings date back to ancient Greece and Rome. Relief carvings are categorized according to their depth. A low relief, sometimes also called bas relief, has figures that project only slightly from the surface. On the other hand, a high relief has figures that stand out prominently from the surface with a greater sense of depth.

Ancient relief carving. This work is an example of a bas relief.
Ancient relief carving

Now that you know what a relief carving is, let's explore how they are made. We can't discuss the whole process in detail, but we can cover some of the most important tools and steps.

Tools and Techniques Used in Relief Carving

Sculptors make relief carvings from many materials, including stone, ivory, and wood. We're going to focus on relief carving using wood. So, the first basic requirement is a solid thick plank of wood. Hardwoods like basswood, oak, or walnut are good choices.

Example of a relief carving with more of a sense of depth
Tropical relief carving


The next step is assembling the right tools. Wood is carved with sharp knives made specifically for that purpose. There are two primary kinds. Chisels have a flat blade that might be straight or angled. They're used to cut lines into a surface. Gouges have a curved concave blade, and are used to scoop out wider shallow areas or remove material from a surface. Some blades are specialized, like corner chisels, which have a V-shaped blade and are used to shape corners. Some chisels and blades are small and used for detail work done by hand, while others are large and meant to be hit with a mallet. Whatever their size, it's a good idea to use quality blades made of strong material like carbon steel. It's also important to make sure the blades are very sharp to ensure precise, accurate cuts.

Technique Basics

To begin a relief carving, use a pencil to trace your design onto the wood. At this point, it's helpful to think about your scene in reverse. The areas furthest away from you (i.e. the background) will be the deepest in the carving and they're where you have to start. To begin the actual carving process, define your pattern outlines with stop cuts, V-shaped incisions made with two chisel strokes that create a clean clear lines to follow in your design. Then, use a gouge to carefully remove excess wood and establish the deepest part of the background.

Man in the process of carving a relief sculpture in wood
Man carving a relief sculpture

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