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African Mask Low Relief Carving

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  • African Mask Low Relief Carving

    The African Mask tutorial here on the message board was begun in April 2009. Because of several small situations in my personal life I had to put it on hold until November. I so very much appreciate everyone's patience during the long delay!

    Through this thread we will work together on a low relief carving of an African sytlized mask. We will look at pattern preparation, pattern tracing, tools and the primary stages of carving - rough out, smoothing, detailing, painting and the final finishing steps.

    As a member of this board I have enjoyed the priviledge (sp) of posting several tutorials as this one.

    Relief Carving Wood Spirit Grape Man WIP
    Winter Birdhouse Woodburning Tutorial
    Acorn WIP

    Please join in the conversation .... ask questions, add your comments, post your photos if you are working along with me. Please do not hesitate to join in this thread. As you read through the posting just imagine yourself sitting at my teaching table - knives, tools and lots of wood chips with, of course, a big cup of coffee. I right next to you ready to answer anything you might want to know.

    I hope you will join me with this one.


    (This conversation began because I had a new camera and wanted to give it a good work out.

    I have the camera about 32" off the table top so that I can see the entire board surface through the view finder. Which means to look through that view finder I need a chair next to the table to climb up on to see down through the camera. For me this tutorial looks to be a step arobics exercise into wood carving. And, yes I was doing something very very stupid by carving with my shoes off!)

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  • #2
    Re: African Mask Low Relief Carving

    Step 1: Tools and supplies


    I want this design to be a low relief carving. This means that I will not be doing any undercuts or hiding the joint lines between the elements or shapes in the pattern. Instead the joint lines will show where they meet the next element. The shapes inside the design will be gently rounded over with minimal shaping.

    I do not have a finished sample of this carving ... because I haven't finished carving this one yet. And I can not give you a finishing date - a date when this tutorial will be done ... because I really have no idea how my next two weeks will go to be able to plan too far ahead.

    But, when I do get time I will be carving, editing photos and posting. So please check back often.

    There are two pattern images attached. One is the tracing pattern and the second is the levels pattern with the highest point of the carving marked as 1 and the lowest as 6.

    After the carving has been shaped I want to work inside the different areas of the mask's face adding different textures and patterns in the style of an African mask.

    Tools and Supplies:

    bark edged basswood blank 12" wide, 16" long, 2" deep with an 8" carving surface purchased from Heinecke Wood Products

    beginner's carving tool set - I am using a Flex Cut set. This one is an interchangeable blade set with 10 blades and one palm styled handle. This set includes 2 fish tail rounds, 2 wide sweep rounds, 2 narrow or tight rounds, 2 u-gouges, 1 v-gouge and 1 straight chisel

    beginner's whittling tool set - I am using a Warren's "Razor Edge" set. It also is an interchangealbe blade set with 10 blades. This set includes 3 convex curves, 3 concave curves, 3 straight edges and 1 medium round gouge. I have not used Warren's before and though I would try them out.

    Moor's large chip carving knife - I often use this instead of a bench knife

    ceramic sharpening stones, strop and rouge


    red ink pen

    transparent tape

    dusting brush

    I'll let you know if I pick up something else not listed.

    These are the tools that I will be using however that does not mean you must use the exact same tools. Most beginner's sets that include 1-2 round gouges, 1-2 chisels and a v-gouge plus a bench knife or chip knife will easily complete this project. Use the tools you already own and
    simply pick up a comparitable profile ... if I am using my largest fish tail round you will want the largest round gouge that you have.


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    • #3
      Re: African Mask Low Relief Carving

      Step 2: Tracing the pattern


      I have sized my pattern so that the face is approx. 6.75" at the widest point. This allows me about 1" of excess on each side of the design.

      I held the pattern up to a sunny window so that the light shone through the paper. Fold the pattern side to side so that the outer most lines match, crease the paper at the fold line. This gives me a vertical line through the pattern at the center point of the design. Cut a notch in the edge of the paper at the line to create a "v".

      Now fold the pattern top to bottom so that the top edge of his head dress lines up with the bottom edge of necklace. Crease along the fold. Cut a notch in the edge of the paper at the line to create a "v". This gives me the horizontal center of the design.

      Next, I turned the pattern face down on the table and rub a soft pencil across the back until the entire back surface is black with graphite.

      On the basswood blank I marked with a ruler and pencil the center line of the carving surface both vertically and horizontally. I can now lay the pattern over the basswood and line up the pattern folds and notches with the
      penciled center lines of the board. This way I know my design is perfectly centered to the board - no guess work.

      Tape the pattern at the corners to secure it to the wood then use an ink pen to trace along all of the pattern lines. When you are done lift the tape on one or two sides to check that you have caught all of the lines. If you have remove the pattern.

      With a pencil I next marked my level numbers onto the board following the numbering on the levels pattern.


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      • #4
        Re: African Mask Low Relief Carving

        Step 3: Marking my outer borders


        I took a moment and retraced my pattern lines with a sharpie so that you can clearly see the design. You do not need to do this! This is for your viewing convience only.

        I want to leave some of the carving surface surrounding the mask uncarved. This way the bark will move into an uncarved area then into the bowl background drop with the design in the center.

        I have marked two points off the center vertical line on each side at 3.75". Then I pulled a line with my pencil and ruler on both sides. These are my guides for the sides.

        I have marked two points off the center horizontal line on each side at 6". Again I pulled a line with my pencil and ruler on both sides. These are my guides for the top and bottom.

        At this point I have a rectangle surrounding the design. To curve the corners of my rectangle I used the "bean can radius" method that comes from sign painting. Which means I simply went to the kitchen and found a nice sized spice jar cap to use as my guide. I can lay the cap on the wood, slide it until it touch both lines that make up the corner of the rectangle. Then I hold the cap in place as I run a pencil along it's edge. Fast, easy and I didn't need to go find my compass.


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        • #5
          Re: African Mask Low Relief Carving

          Step 4: Creating a depth gauge


          I use a depth gauge for my relief carvings and I usually make one up specific for that carving.

          In this sample I have taken a 2" x 4" rectangle from the chipboard back of a paper pad. I place one narrow edge of the cardboard onto the table surface with the chipboard against the wood. I can now place a pencil down onto the wood and pull a line of the gauge. This marks the total depth of my wood.

          I have measured down from the wood depth line I just made 3/4" and marked a line. This is the deepest that I would or could go into the carving. I moved in from the edge of the chipboard about 1/4" along the 3/4" line then drew a diagonal line down to the bottom edge of the chipboard. I cut this marked section off the gauge. I also narrowed my gauge for this project since the design areas are not the wide.

          Usually I do not work any further than one half the thickness into the wood for a relief carving. This helps deter cupping or warping of the finished carving. But this particular board is wider on the back surface than it is on the front surface. It has a larger back foot print than front foot print. This allows me just a little more carving room before I begin to worry about distortion.

          I now have a notched area that when I drop it into the carved areas I know how deep I am into the wood and how much deeper I can go. When the notched edge rests on the wood I have 3/4" of wood below the depth gauge!

          Making the gauge out of chipboard lets me make pencil marks on it as I work. If I have worked one eye area to a certain depth into the wood I can mark that on my gauge. When I go to work the second eye I can use that eye mark to insure that the second eye is at the same depth as the first.

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          • #6
            Re: African Mask Low Relief Carving

            Step 5: Wide stop cut


            The first carving stroke I am using is the wide stop cut. This is a two cut stroke that lifts a wide triangle shaped sliver of wood along the outer edge of an element. I use a stop cut along an elements edge to create the edge line and to create an open, carved area where I can glide a round gouge or chisel into when lowering or rouging out the background areas.

            I am using a Warren knife for this cut. You can also use a bench knife or chip knife.

            I am working a wide stop cut along the outer edges of the pattern so that I can drop the background area first before I begin carving the face. I work the first cut from the traced line out into the background or lower element.

            Place the knife so that you will be cutting just outside the line instead of right on the line. This leaves you a touch of extra wood for shaping later.The knife is held at a slight angle to the board so that the point tips into the background area. Pull the cut following the pattern line.

            The second cut is made from the outer element or background into the pattern line. As with the first cut the blade is angled away from the pattern line. Place your knife point at the starting point of your first cut. As you pull the cut slowly drop the angle of your blade to widen the sliver of wood.

            When you reach your ending point of the first cut pull the point to mean the end. A triangle or wedge shaped slice of wood will lift out of the cut.

            As you repeat this wide stop cut to lower the depth of your background the side walls of the high element will slowly angle outward. This leaves you a nice beveled edge for later work.

            Tips to making wide stop cuts:

            You do not need to go deeply into the wood as the wide stop cuts can be repeated to drop your depth. This lets you slowly drop the background area until you reach your desired depth.

            In Irish_010.jpg notice that my hand is up and off of the table surface. I have contact with the work surface in only three places - the first two knuckles of my tool holding hand and my thumb tip. When I make this cut I am using my entire arm working the pull motion through my elbow.

            I am NOT using my wrist to pull or move the knife. If you place the side of your hand onto the table and use your wrist you will be able to cut a stop cut that is about 2-3" long. That's because you have grounded your arm and hand so you can only rotate the knife from the wrist point.

            If your hand is balanced with the knuckles and thumb tip and the cut is made using the elbow you can cut a stop cut that is from the length of your arm fully extended to where you are about to cut into your belly button


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            • #7
              Re: African Mask Low Relief Carving

              Step 6: Chip cut triangle


              I like to use a simple chip cut triangle to stop cut the corners or angles along the edges of my pattern elements. This is a three cut stroke that pops out a nead little triange.

              The first cut is made by placing the point of the knife at the corner point of the pattern line angle. The blade is angled so that the cut will slope away from the pattern lines. Push the point of the knife into the wood. The knife point will naturally go a bit deeper than the part of the cut made farther along the blade. About a 1/4" to 3/8" cut usually works well for me.

              The second cut is made along the second pattern line that makes up the pattern angle. This is made exactly as the first cut. I have turned the board so that I am still working my knife is a comfortable position.

              The third cut is made, as the other two, but worked from the ending point of the first cut to the ending point of the second cut. You can see in Irish_018.jpg the angle I use to hold the knife and the neat little triangle that this chip cut lifts.

              In this photo I have finished one chip and am doing the third cut of another chip just above the first. In this second chip I can use the cut wall of the lower chip as one of my sides. I am using one of my Warren blades for this cut but a chip knife or bench knife works very well also.


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              • #8
                Re: African Mask Low Relief Carving

                Step 7: Roughing into the wide stop cut


                I have grabbed one of my large wide round gouges to begin rouging out the background wood. I can glide that gouge into the stop cut without damaging the wall of the element. I usually will make several gouge cuts along an edge then free the ends of those gouge chips with a bench knife. The side or metal of the bench knife lies against the wall of the element made by the stop cut. This keeps the proud angle of the element walls. Proud = woodworkingterm meaning a little large than necessary or needed

                As I work this background area I am always starting the cut from the background area and working the cut into the design. This naturally forms a shallow bowl shape to the background area. I can increase the width of the background by adding gouge cuts that start closer to the border pencil line and gliding them into the cuts already made.

                By walking the starting point of the gouge cuts away from the design towards the background I achieve an even flowing curve from the highest point in the work - the border edge - to the deepest point where the design and background meet.


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                • #9
                  Re: African Mask Low Relief Carving

                  Step 8: Working the background around the outer edge of the design


                  I have worked the head dress edge of the background using the wide stop cut and gliding in from the background with a wide round gouge. I am off to wide stop cut the lower portion of the design and start the round gouge work for this area of the background.

                  You can see from my depth gauge that I am not very deep yet. I can develop the depth later, right now I want to focus on establishing the freeing of the outer edge of the design.


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                  • #10
                    Re: African Mask Low Relief Carving

                    Hey fellow carvers! Add your comments and questions to this discussion! (I have deleted some of my earlier posts because they didn't pertain to the actually carving.)
                    I have some masks from Central America that started with a built-up blank angled to give a lot of depth - perhaps to fit the face. This project is easier, especially for beginners.


                    • #11
                      Re: African Mask Low Relief Carving

                      Susan, PLEASE continue this thread. I am very much interested in making a mask. Your tutorial and photos are excellent. Can we save your design for future reference?


                      • #12
                        Re: African Mask Low Relief Carving

                        I have decided to accent the finished carving with a variety of tectures:

                        Using a hard wire brush to create distressed wood grain
                        Using a blunted nail to make an indented pebble look
                        How about an old screw driver to make a zig zag design
                        Got to have some chip carved checkering and tattoo patterns

                        I might add a few natural accents as bark, twigs, hard straws from my Pampus grass, maybe some raffia to the head dress area.

                        Then while browsing the web for mask ideas I can't help but notice the bright milk paint effects many real African masks have.


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                        • #13
                          Re: African Mask Low Relief Carving

                          Susan, this is a great thread and I'm learning much! Glad you didn't become a secretary, because then we probably wouldn't have you to teach us! Being a secretary must have been a common dream for dads for their daughters for women around our age.That's what dad wanted for me!I didn't go there! Anyway, thanks for the tutorial.
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                          • #14
                            Re: African Mask Low Relief Carving

                            I should have included this area at the very beginning.
                            Securing your carving wood:

                            (These are using my Kodac as I learn to charge the battery to the Nikon)

                            Any carving blank that you will working on for relief carving needs to secured to the table or to a carving bench. The pressure that you exert with your tools is enough to move an unsecure piece of wood. This can lead to misdirected cutting strokes and injury.

                            There are several ways to secure a relief blank. My favorite for smaller carvings, 10" x 12" or less, is to use a simple bench hook. This is a plywood frame that has one deep corner, a floor and an overhang. The overhang catches the edge of the table to keep the bench hook from moving. The deep corner catches the wood blank.

                            It can be dropped over any table for quick, easy use then stored away with your carving tools.

                            If you visit the Tips and Tricks section of the message board there are several excellent threads with links to larger full table sized carving benches as well as clamping systems for securing your wood.

                            Since this carving blank is a little large for my bench hook I am using a non-skid rubber matt. You can purchase these through most woodworking supply stores or you can find them in the kitchen section of stores as KMart, WalMart, Sears ....

                            Usually I will have a large sheet of non-skid matt on my table. To the same work table I can c-clamp a 2"x4" across the middle of the table. I usually allow about 4-5" of space beyond my board size.

                            Which simply means if my board is 16" at it's longest length I clamp the 2"x4" about 20" from the table edge. I can now use the non-skid to keep the wood from moving left to right and use the 2"x4" to stop the board from moving away from me as I push my tools into the wood.

                            For this project I cut my non-skid matt smaller than the foot print of the board, taped it to the back where it would not show and then promptly FORGOT IT WAS THERE ... sigh!

                            Since I am in the office working on this project, not in the studio, I am carving this one on my lap. I have a heavy terry cloth towel that is folded in half that lays on my lap. I can use my thighs and knees for extra bracing.

                            When I am done for the carving session I can take the towel outside and gently shack the chips off ... I always check my chip pile for carving tools. Just as spoons and forks accidentally get cleared off the dinner dishes with the left over meat loaf carving tools can easily get lost with the thrown out chips.

                            I know that terry cloth towel lap carvings is about as low tech as you can get but it is still me favorite way to carve. Not all of us have fully dedicated shops, corners of the basement or even craft tables. Being able to carve in the family room, watching TV, enjoying the evening with my family is my favorite way to enjoy my hobby while being with my hubby.


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                            • #15
                              Re: African Mask Low Relief Carving

                              Step 9: Background rough out


                              I have continued working the first drop of the background area. On my table I have a Moor chip knife and Warren whittling knife to use for my stop cuts.

                              For the Flex Cut tools I have my wide sweep and the large round gouge for the rough out work.

                              After I have worked once around the outer area of the background I take a moment to check how deeply I have already worked. I have one corner, the lower left, down to the deepest point that I can take this carving. You can see the edge of the depth gauge catching the uncarved area of the face.

                              The space above that catch edge to the original pencil mark I made on the
                              depth gauge to show the total width of the board is how much wood I have underneath the gauge, unworked - in this carving that is 3/4".

                              As I was working the stop cuts I used both the Moor chip knife and the Warren whittling blade.

                              Notice with the Moor knife that the handle area of the knife caused the blade to angle away from the wood because of the depth that I was cutting. The Moor blade is one inch long and since I am working deeper than one inch the handle is effecting how the blade reaches the wood.

                              I really enjoy my Moor chip knife but for this particular area and depth it's time to set it aside.

                              Compare that to the Warren that has a long, 1 1/2" blade. The long blade means that I can hug the wall of the face and keep the original angle of that wall.

                              I have also changed my rough out tool from the wide sweep to a narrower, tighter large round gouge. I still want the round profile to remove my background quickly but the tighter round is leaving a more desirable texturing than the wide sweep did. I kept working the background area until all four corners had been dropped to the deepest point according to the depth gauge.

                              Now ... the background areas next to the ears in not nearly as deep at this point. There simple is not enough room right now to really drop them down. I have used my chip knife and whittling knife to stop cut this area as deeply as possible. Now I am at a place where I can lower than area later after the level work on the face begins.


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