October 23rd meeting - Expert Carving!


Well-known member
Ian Agrell, master carver, will present a program to the SF bay area SAPFM chapter on  October 23, 1-3 PM

A good display of the fine craftsmanship that comes out of Ian's shop can be seen by visiting his website:


If you live near the Bay Area and are interested in learning about your local SAPFM chapter, please send an Email to [email protected].

A photographic trip tic of the meeting is available by following this link: http://picasaweb.google.com/SFBayAreaSAPFM/Oct23rd2010MeetingAtIanAgrellSCarvingStudio#5531643730578614066

On Saturday, October 23rd, the San Francisco Bay Area SAPFM chapter held its quarterly  meeting at the studio of master carver Ian Agrell of Agrell Architectural Carving (www.agrellcarving.com).  Eleven members and one guest were in attendance.

Ian is a classically trained master carver from England who focuses exclusively on commissions and teaching.  Ian offers students programs for carving varying from weekend to five day events.

Ian states there's still a demand for this type of work, and the Web has proven helpful for people to find him.  Ian showed the membership the execution of a very impressive commission his shop has executed.  Ian concentrates his efforts exclusively on the carving. A separate cabinet shop is hired for the commission, which sends him the cut parts for carving. Sometimes the carving arrives roughed out on a CNC machine. He relays these to the talented crew he assembled in India which does most of the carving execution. He owns the shop in India and has 15 full time, long term  employees.

Ian went over some of the details of executing a good carving:
- The 3d aspect is important
- The negative spaces are just as important as the structure.
- Drawing the carving first, and make a big drawing so you "have some space to get your elbows in there".
-Ian showed us an Acanthus leaf drawing that shows "flourish". Sepia paint, and paintbrush, and a felt tip pen are all that is needed.
- It?s traditional to show the light coming from the top left. It?s the way they did it in the old days, and he prefers to follow the tradition.
- The light indicates how deep each part is. ?It helps you ahead of time to get the three  dimensionality in your ahead. You?ve  got to know where you are going ahead of time".
- Ian recommends  you do some drawing before attempting the carving to get it "in your bones".
- It has to be fluid, so that you get the feel of it.
- There has to be a tension between the element exploding out in all directions, and being held into the center by some opposing force. Ian says that it's the tension between those two forces that animates a carving. Like the tension between "anarchy" and "discipline".

Ian showed the membership the setup for a flat screen TV. The set is behind a two-way mirror wrapped in a beautifully carved frame. The carvings were inspired by a little known French carver named AA Rateau . The frame was about 6 weeks work for a master carver.

At this point, Ian explained to us some of the details of how a carving is executed:
- A photocopy of the design is glued onto the wood using a very watered down glue.
- The carver begins by cutting along the edges of the elements w/ a chisel, and then the area between the elements is cleaned out.  Sometimes a router is used to hog out the waste wood between the elements if the carving is big, but a large #11 chisel is used most of the time.
- The edges formed by the chisel before hollowing out the ground protects the edges from splintering while routing.

Sometimes you have to modify the design to fit the chisels you have and your skill level.  So it?s not uncommon to rough out the drawing for an element, and then refine the outlines using the gouges you have on hand.

Ian explained that by 1760 applied carving began to take hold. There was a big debate about whether this was an acceptable practice or not, and practicality won out in the end. It was easier to scroll saw the elements and  then apply them to a board for carving than it was to carve in the solid. When done this way the ground doesn?t appear quite the same as when the carving is rendered from solid wood. Ian showed the group examples of both, and indicated that he discuses these trade offs with the clients before hand.

When asked if it?s harder to do low relief carving, Ian replied that it?s not harder - it?s the same-  just less wood gets removed. He explained with an example; ?Suppose you are carving a panel w/ a human head on it in low relief. You have to make all the facets on the carving reflect the light in the same way as they would on the full size object. ?

Another aspect Ian discussed was the importance of carving what you see;  ?Be honest with yourself, and don?t  let your brain fool your eye. Your brain will not listen to the eye ? it?s very clever.  Look at the negative spaces?.  Ian states that he has to teach this over and over again ? a basic lesson in draw what you see, not what you think you see. He says that seeing the truth and believing can be very difficult.

Standard carving bids are done as if Mahogany will be used. If the customer requests Oak it costs 20% more.  If the customer requests Walnut, then an additional 20% (from the Oak bid) is added. Ian states that Walnut is difficult to carve because of its ?waxiness? and how it splinters off easily .

For most carving situations the labor costs dominate the overall costs, so the wood is for all practical purposes ?free?.

Ian also indicated that they sometimes employ wax models to get a better feel for the finished product. These help with the visualization, since the 3D aspect of a flat drawing can easily be misinterpreted.

Ian states that a good carving is not necessarily highly detailed, or complex. A good carving is something the carver can execute well given their skill level and time available. He states that you shouldn?t try to do something complex if you don't have the ability to do it. A carver should select a project they can execute well.

Ian provided some guidance on sharpening chisels:
- The main thing about sharpening is the angle of attack.
- When you buy a chisel, it has a very high angle of attack. It?s necessary to regrind the chisel to lower this angle. You want to keep the chisel on the wood as long as possible, to keep it flowing. That is about 10 degrees., it means it actually cuts at about 17 degrees.  But the angle in practice is a function of the carver?s personal preference.
- A double bevel is good way to deal with the weakening of the chisel that happens when the grind angle is too shallow. This also allows you to use the chisel upside down, but he doesn't recommend the double bevel for all your chisels.
- Generally, bull nosing (the rounding of the chisel edges), is not useful in carving unless you have a special case such as carving the webbing in a ball and claw.

The senior carvers in his shop do the roughing out of the carving. He considers the finishing up as not as skilled an operation. Ian explained that there is no recovery for the carving if the main roughing out is done incorrectly.
Ian spent a fair amount of time going over the list of his favorite carving books. This includes both ?how to? as well as pattern books. Ian explained how publishers are often under economic pressures to produce a book, so that they choices they make for authors and projects selected are not that good.

SAPFM member Jim Shapiro who is also one of Ian's students, showed the group am impeccably  carved mirror frame he is working on. It was recently gessoed and will be gold leafed using the traditional water gilding technique.

Newly minted Fine Woodworking author Tim Killen showed off his new eBook "Sketch-Up Guide for Woodworkers" w/ is available for download from the Taunton Press: 

Joe Jerkins showed the group some carved leg samples for a reproduction ancient Egyptian chair he is working on.

JB Alegiani showed the group the period drawer construction details from two drawers of his recently completed kneehole desk project.

A meeting to remember!